Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Good Grief of the Paper Lion

This morning I would like to talk about one of my heroes (as much as I have them or believe in that kind of thing); a person from whom I learned something about virtue, character, and the importance of good humor in all human endeavors, especially sports.  He taught me everything that I needed to know about the importance of failure, and how it should be embraced, not avoided.  Who is this person?  The sportswriter and sometime athlete George Plimpton demonstrated, again and again, that success and failure are not so far apart, and you can’t have one without the other.  George Plimpton, once a fixture of elegant and eclectic Manhattan society, died eleven years ago, but his famous—or perhaps infamous—deeds still live on.  First, he was famous for his amazing Manhattan parties, where you could bump into a former president and his security detail, meet the Secretary of State, discuss opera with Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, or sports with Hunter S. Thompson.  If you don’t know who Hunter S. Thompson is, you should definitely look him up.  The S. stands for Stockton, by the way, which is a closely guarded secret.  My wife once got an invite to one of Plimpton’s Manhattan parties, and I’m still jealous.  It really should have been me, not her.   

Despite his relative fame, George Plimpton could always be seen riding his bicycle along the streets of Manhattan, waving at friends and strangers alike.  George Plimpton was the Blue Blood who sought out adventure through failure, rather than standing back and just enjoying his wealth and privilege.  He had a strange kind of faith in life, and its Creator.  Few people have willfully, intentionally subjected themselves to more experiences of failure and disgrace than the genial, witty, and always courtly George Plimpton. 

So what did he do exactly? 

It is difficult to classify Plimpton simply as a sportswriter, though he wrote for Sports Illustrated for many years.  He was a strange surveyor of grief and failure--through his participatory exercises, mostly in the realm of athletics.  These exercises, participations he called them, put him on the inside of the action.  He was a sportswriter who put himself into the actual game as a participant, and then wrote about the awful results of the inside experience.  It was Plimpton who taught me that it is far better to fail out in the open with everyone watching you than it is to be safe and secure, never knowing what you might have achieved in the open arena.  It is far better to lose than to never play. 

So what did these participations look like? 
One of his most famous exercises in futility was his preseason stint with the Detroit Lions, which was made into the movie Paper Lion, with actor Alan Alda playing Plimpton.  This participation included going to training camp with the Lions.  Keep in mind you have a sportswriter from Harvard, and not even a real Ivy League athlete (if there is such a thing), attempting to actually play football with professional players.  Plimpton played in one series at quarterback for the Detroit Lions in an NFL preseason game.  In the series, he managed to lose 30 yards in three plays for the Lions.  None of the opposing players took it easy on him; they even made a point of roughing him up.  And Plimpton always tried gamely.  For those of you who are holding something back just in case you fail, academically or athletically, in Plimpton’s world you are only living half a life.  Or rather, you are living a kind of lie.  Give everything your best shot, whether it is the art course you’ve never taken before or the theology course that baffles you now, or the English paper you are putting off because you feel you have nothing to say.  No matter what happens, you will always get a story out of it, sometimes a good one, and sometimes a great story.  Plimpton was after the great story, and you only get that by being on the inside of life.     

George Plimpton didn’t stop with football; he tried all the sports that he could in his participations.  He even got in the ring with a champion boxer.  Plimpton was bloodied sparring three rounds with the then light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, who was actually a very nice guy in real life.  Plimpton played goalie for the Boston Bruins (falling down many times on his skates during the exhibition), and he even pitched to National League All Stars in a baseball exhibition game.  He actually got Willy Mays to pop up for his only recorded out as a baseball pitcher.  In all of these participations, Plimpton was almost always roundly embarrassed, even though he tried his best.  He always tried.   

In the words of the late writer:
“I am often asked which of the participatory exercises I have been involved in was the most frightening.  People are always startled when I say that the one that frightened me the most was not playing football with the professionals, or basketball, or boxing, but when I played with the New York Philharmonic.

I played the triangle.  And some of the other percussion instruments.
One reason it was terrifying is that in music you cannot make a mistake.  Almost all sports are predicated on the concept of an error being the determinant in the outcome; in tennis you put a twist on the ball in the hope your opponent will make an error; in boxing you feint and hope the other fellow is going to drop his guard…; football is an immense exercise in trying to get the other people to make mistakes—not to be where they should be.

But in music you cannot make a mistake.  It is not part of the zeitgeist.  In music if you make a mistake, a big one, you destroy a work of art.”

It was his experience with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, that scarred him the most of his zany stories and madcap adventures.  Leonard Bernstein screamed at Plimpton on the triangle; the conductor mocked him daily in rehearsal, swore at him, and even fired him after a performance in Ontario.  He was able to rejoin the Philharmonic the next day.  Conductors can be so temperamental.  Yet Plimpton both cared and took it in stride.  He gave it his best shot, but was able to smile and write his story when he failed.  George Plimpton’s life was a complete success because he was willing to be a complete failure in public, and to keep trying no matter the score. 

In an odd way, but a real one, George Plimpton reminds me of what I actually like about Holy Week, which begins this Sunday on Palm Sunday.  On Palm Sunday, Jesus enters Jerusalem, just like a king.  But by the end of the week, the journey to Jerusalem leads to the cross.  Holy Week is a moment in the year when we embrace seeming failure, and certainly suffering and death.  We reverse the tendency in human society to only talk about the good and pleasant things.  We put the death of an innocent man—and the death of all people--in the middle of our busy lives, and we slow down in the moment.  In doing so, we may just glimpse the transitory nature of both joy and sorrow, and perhaps brush up against the reality of God. 

George Plimpton practiced failure, like a religion.  This is like being a Boston Red Sox fan before 2004; or being a Chicago Cubs fan at any time in human history.  Plimpton embraced suffering, however humorously.  The self-deprecation, courage, and whimsical fortitude of George Plimpton are for me an icon of the human spirit in response to adversity, and dignity in response to defeat, even humiliation.  Plimpton’s public embrace of folly and self-mockery is a spiritual statement, a cosmic victory through his many defeats.  Getting over your fear of failure—or stranger yet, your fear of success, can be the moment where you start to live life more fully than ever before.

The ultimate Participation is in life itself, and in knowledge of its Creator.  George Plimpton, writer, gentleman, and sportsman knew defeat, but he also knew great joy.  I would ask you all not to be afraid of sorrow or joy, tears or laughter, when they come to you in the coming days and weeks and years.  Let them lift you up and take you further than you have ever gone before, into the full participation of your life with God.  Choose life in its fullness.  And accept no substitutes.

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