I can’t believe it… Just caught the headline. George Plimpton died today. He was one of my favorite writers. I met him twice: once in college when he signed a copy of his The Best of Plimpton collection and again a few months ago when he came by the book store to promote the new Paris Review collection. Both times he regailed everyone present with a vast array of stories that placed him as an observer or a bystander to some remarkable moments (for example he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel when Robert F. Kennedy was killed.) But he didn’t mind being the center of attention either, like when he stepped in the ring with Archie Moore or ran out on the field as quarterback of the Detroit Lions. He put himself in many situations like this because he knew that most folks had, at one time or another, wondered what it might be like to be a modern day gladiator. It wasn’t a stunt really; it felt more like a favor to his friends. And though he wrote a lot about sports, that was only one dimension of his life. He also founded the The Paris Review, perhaps the most significant literary magazine of the last fifty years. It is notable for having published early works by many great writers, and it is also well-known for the “Art of Fiction” (or Poetry, or Drama) interviews included in each issue. There is a wealth of knowledge in each interview; the worlds greatest writers talking about how they write. Most of all he simply seemed like someone who truly loved life. You could see it in his face when he spoke and you could see it in his writing. Whether he was ringside for the Thrilla in Manilla or running with bulls in Pamplona it was really about the joy of it all. Here’s the obit.
I met Iris Chang about a year and a half ago. She was passing through Los Angeles, and she stopped at the bookstore where I used to work to sign some copies of her book, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. The book hadn’t rewritten history and showered her with critical acclaim like The Rape of Nanking. But this time her book tour had taken her to Chinese-American cultural centers, which she seemed to appreciate. She was talkative in a quiet sort of way and lingered for a long time talking to the staff and browsing the shelves.The news that she committed suicide is a shock. As are the suggestions that she was driven to this by looking too long and too hard into the parts of human history that rest of the world works so hard to forget. We need historians and authors like Chang to remind us of what we are capable of. (More on Chang from the SF Chronicle.)
The wind was blowing as morning broke over Beirut. In the kitchen, I poured a glass of milk for our daughter. Firing up the iPhone, there it was: New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid had died on assignment in Syria. He was 43 years old.
“Kelly!” I hollered, running down the hall, into the bedroom, where my wife was entombed in warm sheets. “Anthony Shadid is dead.”
She shot out of bed, ran to her computer, and a few minutes later was filing a news spot for NPR. About the death of a man she’d sat on a panel with, a guy who’d met her parents, a neighbor of hers in Baghdad, a colleague in the Middle East, and one of the best reporters in the business. He was also a father of a kid our daughter’s age, and one of the main reasons we thought it was a good idea to move to Beirut.
In a daze, I put Loretta into fresh clothes and watched Kelly pace the room. Rain came down in sheets. We were late for school, and I loaded Loretta into the stroller.
“Daddy, I’m cold,” she said. “It’s bad out there.”
She was right: A new squall was rearing up, water slapping against the pavement, the storm drains overflowing. The kind of day you dread.
According to reports, Anthony was allergic to horses. He had asthma. He and photographer Tyler Hicks squeezed through barbed wire on the border with Syria and Turkey. They would be traveling with horses. Anthony had trouble breathing but recovered after resting. Days later, on the way back out of Syria, his lungs apparently gave out. Tyler says he tried for 30 minutes to revive him, but Anthony was dead. There would be an autopsy in Turkey.
At my daughter’s school, I held Loretta’s hand, walking in a daze. I was confused to find an administrator waiting for me with open arms. She smiled, clapping me on the back.
“Congratulations!” she said. “You should be so proud.” What? Of all the mornings, Loretta had just been accepted into the school’s exclusive kindergarten.
In a steady rain, I stood outside, holding the acceptance letter, suddenly bereft. Where did Anthony’s son go to school? The letter in my hand began to turn to mush, and my chest tightened with grief.
You could read any one of Anthony Shadid’s recent dispatches and see he was a man who told the story with heart, who did whatever it took to get it right. The Middle East isn’t an easy place to work, and everyone was in agreement: no hands were as deft as Anthony’s.
Siting there in my living room, my wife about to cry, I tried to picture his empty shoes, knowing it was just as hard to imagine them ever again being filled.
Then Kelly picked up the phone. It was a colleague. They had been in conversation the other day about crossing into Syria. Now what? I shuddered, for his family, for my family, and for everyone else, too.