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Tag: charlie pierce
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Being There

My grandmother on my mother’s side had dementia and spent the last years of her life in a home. I was told that she liked to bite people. I never saw her during that time–she was in Belgium, I was here in New York–but hers is the only experience I have with Alzheimer’s. I got to thinking about her as I read Charlie Pierce’s beautiful memoir about the disease, his family curse, which claimed his father and four uncles, and which may eventually claim  him, as well.

Here is an excerpt:

The waking dream is of a dead city.

There was a great fire and the city died in it. I am sure of that. I can see the smoldering skyline, smoke rising from faceless buildings, flattening into dark and lowering clouds. I can hear the sharp keening of the scavenger birds. I can smell fire on damp wood, far away. I can feel the gritty wind in my eyes. I can taste the sour rain.

The waking dream comes upon me when I forget where the car is parked, or when I buy milk but forget the bread, or when I call my son by my daughter’s name. Wide awake but dreaming still, I walk through the ruined city.

When it happens, I remember. I remember everything. I remember anything. For years, I have been a walking trove of random knowledge, but I’ve come not to believe in the concept of trivia. I do not believe that anything you remember can be truly useless because I have seen memory go cold and dead.

“Why do you know stuff like that? people ask.

I smile and shrug. I do not tell them about the relief I find in remembering that Leon Czolgosz shot President McKinley. Not to remember Leon Czolgosz is to realize that one day you may not remember your son.  Leon Czolgosz goes first, and then your children. Not to remember is to realize that the day will come when you cannot find your way back home, that the day will come when you cannot find the way back to yourself. Not to remember is to begin to die, piecemeal, one fact at a time. It is to drift, aimlessly, deep into the ruined city, and never return.

…There’s a game I play now, when the waking dream comes. I make a deal with the disease. All right, I say. I will allow you to have some of my memories. You can have my first polio shot, all the lyrics to “American Woman,” two votes for Bill Clinton, and both Reagan administrations.

Leave me my children’s names.

Let me know them, and you can have all four Marx Brothers.

This is not clinical. I know the disease does not work this way. But sometimes, when the waking dream comes and I can feel the wind all gritty on my skin, I play this game anyway, and I am very good at it. I was born to play it. I was raised to believe that truth is malleable, and that you can bend it so that even its darkest part can be shaped into the familiar and the commonplace. I can play this game. I can play it well.

Makes you appreciate the moment, this moment, for what we have.

You can order Hard to Forget: An Alzheimer’s Story, here.

[Photo Credit: Best of Rally Live and  Jason Langer]

The Professional

George Kimball, far right, with Mike Tyson and Marvin Hagler, mid-'80s

By John Schulian

George Kimball was blessed with the kind of voluble charm you find in an Irish bar, and, brother, let me tell you he’d been in a few. No amount of drink, however, could rein in his galloping intelligence. It was as pure a part of him as his love of the language and good company, and when he spoke, I did what I’ve always done best in the presence of gold-star raconteurs: I listened. Even when we were on the radio hustling our book of great boxing writing, I did little more than provide grace notes. At least that’s the way it worked in the beginning. And then George’s voice began to turn into a sandpapery whisper. It was the chemo, extracting its price for helping to keep him alive.

Now I was the talker, just me by myself, trying to score points with the strangers on the air at the other end of the line. Again and again, I gravitated to the idea that there is something noble about prizefighters in their willingness to accept the fact that every time they set foot in the ring, they may be carried out on their shield. But it was always George I thought of, the truest nobleman of my lifetime.

The cancer doctors gave him six months to live six years ago, and it was as if he said, with characteristic Anglo-Saxon aplomb, “Fuck you, I’m too busy to die.” He went on to write books, essays, poetry, songs, and even a play. He edited books, too, and worked on a documentary. Somehow he also found time to get out to the theater and concerts and dinners. When we were collaborating long-distance – George in New York, me in L.A. – he surprised me more than once with the news that he had just landed in France or Ireland. He wasn’t simply collecting stickers for his suitcase, either. He was savoring the world that was slipping away from him and looking up writers he had always wanted to meet, like J.P. Donleavy and Bill Barich. And he made a point of staying in touch with them, for once he wrapped his arms around someone, he never let go.

It will be that way even now that he has breathed his last, too soon, at 67. Those of us who knew him–probably even those who have only heard about him–will keep the Kimball legend alive with stories about his wild times and all the nights he dropped his glass eye in a drink someone asked him to keep an eye on. There was a look that George used to get when he was on the loose back then, a look that is probably best understood when I tell you I first saw it in the Lion’s Head as he was trying to set a friend’s sport coat on fire. His friend was wearing it.

I went a long time without seeing George, and when we reconnected, he had changed without sacrificing either his relentless view of the world or his ability to laugh at the hash that mankind has made of things. He was like the record producer in Jennifer Egan’s sublime novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” who tells a bewildered young man how he survived the self-destructiveness of the rock and roll business: “You grew up, Alex, just like the rest of us.” So it was that George put booze and drugs behind him and let his work take center stage. His unfiltered Lucky Strikes were the only remnant of his old life. “What are they going to do,” he said, “give me cancer?”

The transformation remained a mystery to me until Bill Nack, as treasured a friend as he is a writer, sent word a few years ago that George had esophageal cancer. I wrote George a note of support and got in return the most startling letter I expect I ever will from a sick man. There were no euphemisms, just pure, raw, unadorned honesty. George was going toe-to-toe with death, and he knew that death would win, but he was damned if he wasn’t going to take the fight the full 12 rounds. Never if my life have I seen a greater example of a fighter’s heart, and that includes Ali and Frazier.

George was fighting for the money he would leave his wife and children, and for a body of work that said he counted for something in the world of sportswriting. He wrote incisively, relentlessly, memorably, and he threw himself into the editing of our Library of America anthology, “At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing,” with the same fervor. Here was a book that would give him the spotlight he yearned for. On that March day in 2010 when the bosses at LoA told us it had passed muster, George was so happy it didn’t matter that he was too sick to swallow his soup. He was a champion.

He wasn’t finished, though. Space limitations–yes, even a 517-page book has them–had confined us to non-fiction, so he tracked down a small press and Lou DiBella, a boxing promoter with a literary bent. Voila! “The Fighter Still Remains: A Celebration of Boxing in Poetry and Song Lyrics from Ali to Zevon” was born.

And still George wasn’t done. We had an abundance of fiction we hadn’t been able to squeeze into “At the Fights,” either, unforgettable work by Hemingway, Nelson Algren and Leonard Gardner, to name but a few, and George wasn’t about to let them lie fallow. Back to work we went, each of us digging up new entries along the way, George zeroing in on Walter Mosley, me on Harry Crews. We didn’t have a publisher, of course, not even a nibble, but we had a title, “Sweet Scientists: A Treasury of American Boxing Fiction,” and that was enough to sustain us for the time being.

I mailed everything I found to George, who promised that he would overcome his Oscar Madison tendencies and send me the manuscript in good shape. I shouldn’t have doubted him, but I did. I read the e-mail he sent to the woman who watches over his web site, the one in which he gave specific instructions about what to do after he was gone, and I knew the final grains of sand were going through the hour glass. But on Wednesday, shortly before noon, Federal Express delivered a box to my door, and inside was the manuscript George had promised, looking neat, even pristine. A few hours later, on the other side of the country, he was dead.

[Editor’s Note: George is remembered by his friends Charlie Pierce and Michael Gee. Here is a lovely piece by Glenn Stout.]

Real Genius


The one and only Charles Pierce on the one and only Tony LaRussa:

I first became aware of this particular blight when he worked in Oakland a decade or two ago, back in the days before Beane turned the A’s into a mirror with which to show himself his true genius. First thing you heard was that La Russa had a law degree. This was meant to portray him as something of a baseball intellectual, which heretofore had been defined as someone who spit tobacco on his own shoes and not yours. I was fascinated by the fascination with this; I mean, the world is full of lawyers. (So, for that matter, are various low-security prisons, but that’s another story.) I wondered how many of his acolytes would hire Tony La Russa and his law degree to defend them on a capital-murder charge. Not many, I reckoned.

Then there was the ballet school T-shirt. La Russa used to wear this all the time in his post-game interviews. This was meant to portray him as something of a baseball aesthete, which heretofore had been defined as someone who put something larger than a $1 bill into the stripper’s G-string. This particular bluff worked until the night when, while wearing the ballet-school T-shirt, La Russa bum-rushed an elderly reporter from his clubhouse. This is not something Diaghilev would have done — not even to people throwing apples at his head.

But the truly remarkable thing about La Russa is his rather unspectacular record at winning anything that counts. Eugene McCarthy once said of Walter Mondale that the latter “had the soul of a vice-president.” Tony La Russa has the soul of a semifinalist.

For more LaRussa-related ugliness, check out this Deadspin post featuring Buzz Bissinger.

Thanks to Baseball Think Factory for the links.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver