Joan Didion (and Company: on writing and encouragement)

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, in 1972. (from New Yorker magazine)

                       [3-minute read]

Here’s a foolish thing, a very 20th-century sort of stinkin’ thinkin’. But worry not, it ends with two great women (and one fine husband, not me) sending out a peculiar but quotable encouragement, and some of us might listen.

I love writing, or having written, or at least the romance of writing. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the dearly beloved Mother Corp of all Canucks leftish, artsy and true, has a long-running radio program called “Writers and Company”. It’s an hour-long conversation between the quietly enthusiastic, impeccably prepared Eleanor Wachtel and a superb range of authors: novelists, playwrights, essayists, poets, from Zadie Smith to George Saunders to Arundhati Roy. These are three of my recent listens, but I wouldn’t likely have heard them if I’d stayed in one particular mental rut.

For me, Writers ‘n’ Co was, for the longest and silliest time, mostly an occasional, accidental listen, often when I happened to be in the car and remembered what time it was: specifically, the Sunday 3 pm slot on CBC’s Radio 1, where Wachtel has been asking her terse but evocative questions since 1990. I’d catch part of a conversation, sometimes the whole thing if there was a writer known to me, and I’d regularly and fervently resolve to never miss another; I found each episode thrilling as a teacher of readin’ ‘n’ writin’, and began to connect it to my own spastic undertakings as a scribbler. (A gutsier, more daring me might have blustered, Wachtel’s gonna interview ME one day. Well. Maybe not. I finally did meet her, briefly, a year or so ago. She was plainer and funnier than she had always sounded to me, that sombre but voluptuous voice teaching me from tinny speakers.)

But I was never much of a planner, and the number of interviews I caught was small compared to the torrent of writer-talk that was available.

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Sports Justice Pioneer: I Meant to Tell You

Something in yesterday’s post about the guys from Concrete Hoops – young men who see sport as a chance to better their communities – reminded me of a story that I read last fall. Chances are excellent that you missed it, too, so let me introduce you to Peter Norman, today’s posthumous hero.

You may have heard of the Black Power salute given by 200 metre Olympic gold medallist Tommie Smith and his American compatriot, bronze medallist John Carlos. It was 1968, the year of the Mexico City Olympics. There were also bitter riots over Mexican poverty. Yes, and there were also the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and a level of social unrest that American culture had never seen before, or since. At least, not in the same way. During the medal ceremony, as the Star Spangled Banner played, Smith stood erect, bowed his head and raised a black-gloved right hand. Carlos raised his left.

Conservative America was outraged. Smith and Carlos were dismissed from the Olympic team for their perceived disrespect of country, and their athletic careers were over. I was too young to understand the implications of what happened then, but I was far from alone in missing entirely the significance of the silver medallist who shared the Black Power podium. He was a white Australian named Peter Norman. When he died last fall, Carlos and Smith were pallbearers. John Carlos said of Norman, “Peter was a piece of my life….I was his brother. He was my brother. That’s all you have to know.”

Norman, it turns out, was not an accidental bystander. He was a fellow activist, and though he did not raise a gloved fist, he stood beside his fellow athletes not only by athletic chance but by shared conviction. (The story goes that, when Carlos realized he’d forgotten his black gloves back at the hotel, Peter Norman suggested that each of them wear one.) In Australia, it was noticed that he showed no surprise at Smith’s and Carlos’s actions, that he wore the same badge on his Aussie warm-ups as they did: Olympic Project for Human Rights. He was vilified. He never ran for Australia again. He also never apologized for standing quietly for a principle that, to him, was a simple fact: that racism tainted the world of sport at many levels, and that it had no place.

There is a film on Norman coming out sometime this year. Meanwhile, it is once again thanks to American writer Dave Zirin that this significant passing, on the other side of the globe, did not pass me by. You can read his very fine tribute to Norman here. He called it “Brother of the Fist: The Passing of Peter Norman”.

Thanks for comin’ out, Miguel

Today is May Day. Pinkos everywhere still celebrate it, though it never became a big deal in the Excited States, where it began. (Where credit is due: “Excited States of America” is all Allan Fotheringham, booted from Maclean’s magazine but still kicking at .) It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out today, though, as the minds behind “A Day Without Immigrants” try to show Americans how their lives would be changed without the newcomers that so many former newcomers would love to deport.

There’s a very interesting article by Dave Zirin on on how this would really come home to Americans. What if fifteen big-league games happened today and no Latinos played? Some clubs wouldn’t be able to field a lineup without Triple A call-ups. Over 35% of today’s MLB players, including many of the greatest stars, are from Latin America, and the numbers are going to rise. The third world doesn’t only produce our cheap T-shirts and cool shoes; it also produces our favourite athletic entertainers, including the ones coming from the poverty of the black American underclass. (Hockey, for the most part, avoids this by “virtue” of its fantastically expensive nature. The game has luxury taxes right at the roots.)

Mr. Zirin, as usual, is caustic in his latest column. I can’t always get with his extremism – I like George Will on baseball, for example, though I confess that I haven’t read him otherwise – but Zirin jabs a finger directly on a blister that we don’t want to acknowledge: we will cheer ourselves hoarse for an athlete that many of us wouldn’t want living next door. And there’s the other side of idolatry, too; when we turn against black players (Terrell Owens, Barry Bonds) or Latin ones (is it just me, or did Sammy Sosa take a harder ride than Mark McGwire after the Congressional hearings on steroid use?), it tends to be vicious.

The same dynamic applies to white athletes, too, but to a lesser extent. In professional sports, the performers are idolized or demonized, two sides of the same dehumanized coin. We think little of what conditions they have come from or how many like them are on the scrapheap of thanks for comin’ out, now get lost; and we care little about where they go after their legs do. And we hate them for how much money they make, though we’ll cheer as long as they make us feel better about ourselves.