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Pluck

April 8, 2015

GeorgePlimpton

George Plimpton came onto my radar in 1983, when he famously volunteered to help plan a fireworks display to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Bridge. My son Bo was born on that same night in May, in a hospital room within sight and sound of the spectacular celebration. Afterward, Plimpton, who was already prominent in social and literary circles in New York, was named New York City Fireworks Commissioner; his book about the experience, called “Fireworks,” was published a year later.

During that time, I learned more about his previous work, which seesawed between editing high-brow contemporary fiction at the Paris Review, the literary journal he co-founded and edited (impressive, but not what interested me most about him), and (what did) experiencing and writing about a series of madcap fish-out-of-water adventures. While not limited to participating in professional contact sports for which he was completely untrained, many of his self-effacing, sometimes doomed to failure, always fun, exploits were exactly that.

Plimpton’s obituary from 2003 says, “As a boxer, he had his nose bloodied by Archie Moore at Stillman’s Gym in 1959. As a pitcher he became utterly exhausted and couldn’t finish an exhibition against 16 stars from the National and American Leagues (though he managed to get Willie Mays to pop up). And as a ‘professional’ third-string quarterback, he lost roughly 30 yards during a scrimmage with the Detroit Lions in 1963. He also tried his hand at tennis (Pancho Gonzalez beat him easily), bridge (Oswald Jacoby outmaneuvered him) and golf. With his handicap of 18, he lost badly to Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. In a brief stint as a goaltender for the Boston Bruins, he made the mistake of catching a puck in his gloved hand, and it caused a nasty gash in his pinkie.”

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And from these adventurous experiences, he invented a new point of view for writers to communicate human experience. He called it participatory journalism. One of his books, “Paper Lion” (1966), about his time in the NFL, eventually inspired me to quit my job as a television producer and to discover physically demanding adventures for myself, and to write about them. But, unlike Plimpton, I was not willing to show up green and hope for the best. The interest, for me, was (and still is) to analyze the process, discover the wonders, and endure the (sometimes painful) struggle to achieve mastery.

In 1996, after I’d summited Mount Everest, I was introduced to George Plimpton by a mutual acquaintance as I was leaving a restaurant where they were still seated. I was flattered when he said, “I know who you are,” and invited me to visit him at his home office several days later. His wife, Sarah, greeted me at the door, carrying one of their two-year old twins in her arms. She led me through a narrow hallway, past a warren of rooms, into the famously cluttered library overlooking the East River. Plimpton sat at his desk, a manual typewriter within his reach, among papers, books, awards, and mementos layered upon every surface, including the floor. He asked me to recount details about the weather, acclimatization, my team, and the food. His questions would have struck me as childlike and naive, were it not for his well-known worldliness, highly refined demeanor, and patrician lockjaw accent. At the end of the hour we spent together, he summarized his thoughts. “I have greaat-ly enjoyed my liiiifetime of pursuits as an ama-tee-ur. But I really admiii-yah your spirit of aaahd-VEN-ture and com-MIT-ment. That takes pluck. Keep aaaaht it, girl. It will bring you greaaat pleasure.”

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Photo by Mel Blanchard

 

This week, I am summoning all my pluck to take the long view—toward finishing the Master’s Qualifier and the possibility of earning scores which will take me to the Games—and to treat sore muscles, bloody hands, a collarbone bruise, and exhaustion rather than dwell on them. I will share some of my recovery practices in a future post. And I hope you will post some of yours with me here in comments.

 

Fish Food

April 4, 2015
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Lee Miller, Hand on Lips, 1929. Photographer Man Ray

About 30,000 people accidentally lose a finger every year, mostly while using power tools or knives. Because I’ve been a mountain climber and a rodeo rider, I have known a disproportionately large number of people who have lost fingers to frostbite and ropes. I have never heard of anyone who amputated a finger while surfing. But that’s what happened to me two and a half years ago.

I was out with my friend Sarah on Venice Beach, where I live, on a chilly fall day. The waves were small, but the undertow was especially strong. We had been in the water for about an hour when it happened, enough time for my hands to become numbed by the cold. I rode a wave into the shore, jumped off, and turned the nose around, in position to paddle back out for another wave. Standing on sand in hip deep water, with my hands grasping the rails, I steadied myself to hop on the deck. But at the moment when I unweighted to make the jump, the undertow suddenly tugged the board from my deadened grip. At risk of losing control of it, and knowing the likelihood that the next wave would toss the 10-foot plank back on top of me if I did, I attempted to catch the slippery board by its leash, at the point where it is fixed to the deck with a little piece of thin, strong, nylon cord.

I remember thinking that sticking my finger in that little loop was not a great idea, but it seemed like a better option than getting hit in the face by a loose board. And maybe it was. But in a heartbeat, the distal phalanx of my left index finger had been severed clean. Fish food.

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Hand Study (waxed paper negative), 1850. Photographer Charles Nègre

The good news is that my hands were so cold, the amputation neither bled or hurt. Even better news was that Sarah was an orthopedic surgeon doing her residency at the nearest hospital. We ditched the surfboards with the nearest lifeguard, and within an hour, in bathing suits still dripping wet, she and the doctor on duty had the little stub sewn closed. Within two hours, we had invited enough friends-with-tequila to drop by my house that the onset of pain in my finger was delayed by several days.

It took about a year before the swelling went down. But I started looking for prosthetics within a week. Most finger prostheses are cosmetic: latex false tips that are affixed to the stub and totally convincing to everyone but the person wearing it. And there are some amazing robotics made for people missing more of their fingers and hand than I lost. But, after scouring the Internet, I found a bio-mechanical device which was originally made out of small spare bicycle parts by a handy guy who lost a finger tip to a hedge trimmer.

Mine is rendered in military grade Kevlar and has an external tendon which allows it to open and close with a high degree of control and nuance. With it, I can do just about anything I could do with a real finger, from picking up a potato chip (which I don’t do) to grasping a kettle bell (which I do, a lot).

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My Hand on a Kettle Bell, 2015. Photographer Charlie Mason