Monthly Archives: August 2012

The next step

The letter below fills me with pride. And makes me a little sad. And makes me excited for the kids. And me. And my free time. But also a little lonely.

Yes, I have mixed emotions about the twins finally heading off to preschool.

Dear Children and Parents,

First of all….WELCOME! I can’t tell you how excited Ms. M and I are about our 2012-2013 class!!

We have been working very hard all week getting your child’s room ready and planning for an (sic) great year of fun and learning.

With the first day of school fast approaching don’t forget that this Friday morning from 8:30AM-10:30AM is “Meet the Teacher”.

Ms. M & I will be on hand, eager to meet you and your child as well as answer any questions you might have in regards to the upcoming school year.

Also, I have set up this e mail especially for the class and will be checking it frequently so please feel free to send us an e mail with any questions or concerns throughout the school year.

Can’t wait to meet everyone and we hope to see you all at “Meet the Teacher” on Friday!

Again, WELCOME! 🙂

Best,
Ms. R

Tuesdays and Thursdays around the ol’ homestead now will be just a little lonelier.

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Sid Gillman and his love of jazz

When I first got into the book-writing game, I thought you could throw all your research, all your interviews, all your written words into your masterpiece of a tome. And there it would stick, all your thoughts (every single one) for all the book-reading public to consume.

I had all the space in the world, right? So, I figured, why not mash all the good stuff in there? Somebody gave me an excellent quote that didn’t really fit the context or the narrative? Shoehorn it in. I discovered a story that’s too good not to include somewhere? Make room for it. Or, in the case of my first book, I’d done too much reporting on a season not to include the whole freakin’ thing, no matter how irrelevant that slate of games was a half-decade later? Fold it up like origami and stuff it in. I was writing a book, dammit. Pile that sandwich high and shove it down the reader’s throat.

But here’s the thing: 300 pages or 100,000 words really isn’t all that much. Yes, it’s an enormous mountain to climb when you’re at the base and you haven’t conducted interviews or written a single word. But when you have dozens of folders stuffed with research and an entire flash drive filled with transcribed quotes – and you have hundreds of stories that need to be resurrected – those pages and words disappear faster than your oxygen at the mountain’s peak.

And with my latest book on Sid Gillman, I had too much good fodder. I couldn’t use it all, and then, after turning in my first draft, I was told I had to cut about 30,000 words from the manuscript. I had to lose most of an American Football League section. I had to cut out some good stories. I had to delete some fantastic quotes. Really, it wasn’t much different than editing down a 25-inch newspaper feature story into a 15-inch hole. I had to keep what was absolutely essential. A good quote or a strong story wasn’t enough. I had to be selective – and that’s what I learned going from Bearcats Rising to Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game.

Which brings me to Gillman’s love of jazz.

Gillman was an accomplished piano player. His mother started him on lessons when he was 7 years old and living on the north side of Minneapolis. He got good enough on that spinet to join a few bands in high school and college and keep himself well-styled.

“When I was in high school,” Gillman once said, “I was the best dressed man because of the extra money I made.”

Obviously, he didn’t make it a career (though he once held a summer job playing the keys at a honkeytonk during prohibition where he collected tips from a glass dish that sat on top of his piano). But it was an important facet of his life for quite a while. In fact, the first time he ever encountered his future wife, Esther, was when he was sitting behind a baby grand, providing the background music of a Sweet 16 party many decades ago.

I write about his piano-playing in the book, even if it became just a passing fancy once he grew to be a big-time football coach. But one of the concessions I had to make for the final draft of the book was to exclude Gillman’s love of jazz. It was intriguing and compelling – at the very least, it helped round out his character – but quite honestly, I couldn’t figure out where to place it in the book. Never could find a home for his obsession with jazz. Or, as one feature writer from the late 1960s penned, “To Sid, jazz is the elixir, the cure-all, the youth machine, even in defeat a precious ennobling balm to the spirit.”

Gillman loved jazz so much that one writer who penned an article entitled “The Old Man is the Hippest“ couldn’t stop himself from gushing about Gillman’s top-notch 33 rpm vinyl collection – which featured mostly jazz artists like McCoy Tyner, Nina Simone, Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubeck and Fatha Hines (with the exception of Simone, who died four months after Gillman in 2003, I know nothing about any of these musicians, though Brubeck is still apparently alive and well at 92 years old).

As for rock music, here’s what Gillman had to say in 1968: “No musicianship. The big trouble is that most rock n roll musicians are terrible. On the other hand, some of the Beatles songs are great, very pretty and they sound fine when good musicians play them*, like a Buddy Rich or Wes Montgomery or Quincy Jones. Rock n roll is still young, still groping and maybe something good will come out of it. But as yet they don’t have much of a game plan.** It just isn’t very interesting.”

*Is Gillman saying here that the Beatles weren’t good musicians? That’s kind of what it sounds like. But hey, at least none of them played the clarinet, am I right? (Don’t worry, you’ll get there in a minute.)

**Even when discussing one of the other loves of his life, Gillman just couldn’t stay away from the football analogies.***

***To further illustrate that point, here’s what Gillman once said about his idol in high school, a near-blind pianist named Art Tatum: “Tatum was the greatest of them all. He commanded that keyboard like a quarterback calling a perfect game. When Tatum improvised, he was Unitas, Starr, Van Brocklin rolled into one.”

In one of those feature stories from 1968, Gillman was asked to name his all-time all-star jazz team. Though I couldn’t figure out a way to shoehorn the results into the book, I present it to you here. Because it was a passion of Gillman’s, and because … why the hell not?

  • Piano: Oscar Peterson (“But I want some backup pianists in there – Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, Denny Zeitlin, Bobby Timmons, Red Garland and Billy Taylor.”)
  • Guitar: Wes Montgomery
  • Saxophone: Cannonball Adderley, Bud Shank, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan on baritone
  • Clarinet: None (“That’s a lost instrument. You just don’t hear much good clarinet anymore.”)
  • Trombone: J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, the whole Stan Kenton trombone section
  • Bass: Ray Brown (“Who else?”)
  • Trumpet: Dizzy Gillespie, plus Miles Davis, Nat Adderley, Clark Terry and Bobby Bryant
  • Drums: Buddy Rich
  • Vibraphone: Terry Gibbs
  • Singer: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Buddy Greco
  • Co-coaches: Quincy Jones for composing and Shorty Rogers for arranging
  • Team captain: Dizzy Gillespie
  • Consultant: Duke Ellington
  • As Gillman said at the end of that recitation: “There’s my team. Have tux, will travel.”

    In reality, the all-time all-star jazz team is a detail that’s probably only worth the 1,200 words I just dropped on it here (and it’s probably not even worth that). Which is why you won’t find it in the book. But that’s OK. This particular detail didn’t deserve to make the book. My only regret with the exclusion, though, is this: I just wish I could have figured out a way to write about Gillman’s disappointment with that era’s music – with the birth of rock n roll and the death of the clarinet.

    Please help my friend

    I posted this earlier today on my Twitter account, but if you’d like to donate $10 (or more) to my friend, Amy Swann, I’ll enter you in a drawing to win a free autographed copy of Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game. And if that’s not enough, I’ll throw in a hug from me (level of strength and duration to be determined) or, if you’re not down with that, a hearty handshake and a grateful pat on the back.

    From my fingers to your ears:

    Here’s Amy’s website. Please help if you can.

    Writing a biography on a lost soul

    Sid Gillman, in so many of the interviews I’ve read of him, wasn’t especially forthcoming. Well, that might not necessarily be true. When the interviewer wasn’t asking questions about Sid specifically – if the queries tilted toward his team or about football or about the famous coaches he knew and supported – he was fine. I don’t think he loved dealing with reporters* and I think he especially didn’t love talking about himself.

    I mean, good lord, look at some of the answers Sid gave to Todd Tobias in this interview a couple years before Sid died. Could he have said anything less when asked about himself?

    *There is a great story in my book about Sid swearing off reading the newspapers after getting into a spat with the media during his first season with the Los Angeles Rams in 1955. The legendary L.A. sports columnist Mel Durslag told me that Sid swore off reading the papers forever. Durslag asked Sid what he would do during breakfast instead of reading the local rags. “I’m going to eat my eggs and look out the goddamn window,” Sid smartly replied.

    Still, I really could have used Sid – who died in 2003 – during the time I wrote his biography.

    Especially when I had to write about how he grew up in Minneapolis. Or what he thought about leaving an African American player behind when Miami (Ohio) was invited to play in the 1947 Sun Bowl and the Sun Bowl officials forbid black players from competing. Or about his offensive philosophies or about if he knew forcing his 1963 Chargers team to take steroids could have long-term consequences on those individuals’ lives?

    Would he have answered my controversial questions? Probably not. Or he would have tap-danced around him. Or he would have gotten pissed at me and eaten his eggs while ignoring me and looking out the goddamn window. Still, like I wrote in the intro of my book — due out Aug. 29 Sept. 11 (apparently) — it’s tougher to write the story of a man when you can’t shake his hand and talk to him face to face.

    I had long and multiple interviews with each of his four kids, and all of them were great. All were forthcoming about their father, the good and the bad. Yet they couldn’t tell me stories about Sid growing up and they couldn’t get inside Sid’s head during the most meaningful moments of his life.

    But Sid’s not here, and so we must find a way to move past it.

    I just finished reading Richard Ben Cramer’s fantastic biography on Joe DiMaggio, and though the Yankee Clipper was alive when Cramer was researching and writing the book, DiMaggio refused to speak to him. But at least Cramer could observe some of DiMaggio’s actions (and there is a great scene at the beginning of the book with Cramer watching DiMaggio during his last appearance at Yankee Stadium). Me? I didn’t know anything about Gillman until five years after he died. Except for old film, there wasn’t much of anything for me to observe.

    So, how do you write a biography about a dead person? I didn’t know. Naturally, I googled it.**

    **To be clear, I used google for this exercise only. I did not use it to figure out how to write a biography of Sid Gillman. I do wonder, though, if this knowledge would have made the book better if I had actually thought to do this before I started.

    According to this site, writing on somebody who’s dead is easier because “Information about them can be easier to obtain, and they can’t complain when you mention their underwear, etc.” Yes, information about Sid’s personal life was MUCH easier to obtain from the newspapers that didn’t write about it. I mean, thank the lord I couldn’t ask Sid directly about that kind of stuff. Really dodged a bullet there. And the chances of me writing about anybody’s underwear – whether Sid was alive or dead – were pretty slim (though I do have a rather-innocent story in the book about Gillman buying a kimono for his wife that he thought made her look like a geisha girl).

    Let’s try eHow. “Follow a chronological order of the person’s life if possible. Include any noteworthy accomplishments, events, tragedies, successes, and more. If the person is still living, end with un (sic) uplifting conclusion about their path for the future. If they are dead, then conclude with one of their great accomplishments.” Well, crap. I concluded my book in a cemetery. That’s no good.

    All right, for the real analysis, I turned to New York Times’ best-selling author Jeff Pearlman, who released a fantastic book on Walter Payton last year called, “Sweetness.” Payton, who died in 1999, obviously wasn’t around to help Pearlman (or hinder him, I suppose), and since this was Pearlman’s first book on somebody who’s dead (previous bios include Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds), I asked about his approach to the Payton tome.

    “I guess, Josh, it’s not all that different from the Bonds and Clemens bios I wrote,” Pearlman wrote in an e-mail. “Neither man spoke with me, so – in a way – with Sweetness it felt normal. That said, the thing that I found interesting is how, for lack of a better word, haunted I felt. I would take these long runs at night and feel Payton next to me, running along and talking up his life. That sounds pretty insane – and it’s not like I actually believed he was there. But I just couldn’t shake that idea; that he was somehow reading over my shoulder.

    “Truth be told, it might be easier when someone isn’t around. A. He isn’t there to be annoyed at you; B. (Most important) he can’t tell people not to talk to you; C. People probably feel more at ease talking, knowing Walter wouldn’t get mad at them.

    “All that said, I wish he were alive …”

    I felt the same way about Sid. And I can understand where Pearlman was coming from when talking about going for runs with Payton in spirit. When I traveled to Los Angeles to interview two of Sid’s children in March 2011, I visited the graves of Sid and his wife, Esther. I told them both that I would do my best to present a fair assessment of his life and his life’s work. I would try my hardest to make sure people know who Sid Gillman was, what he did and what he meant to the game.

    But other than that, Sid never visited me during the writing of the book (UPDATE 1:00 a.m. CT: Swear to god, I was just adding the above photo of Sid, and I heard a single piano note go off in my house. Everybody else is asleep in their beds. I do not own a piano or a cat that would crawl across one. Freakin’ creepy, man). I never felt Sid reading over my shoulder. I never felt his presence. I don’t know, maybe I should have gone for more long runs late at night.

    The question of how to write a biography on someone who’s gone never really was answered, and therefore, I have little insight to give. I just wrote it. Which, I suppose, is the only way to go at it. You research, you interview, you dig, you double-check, you triple-check, and you start tapping.

    Anyway, I just hope I present a work that’s fair. I hope I did him right. I hope, like Pearlman said over and over again with his Payton book, that I gave the definitive story. And I hope somehow and in some way, Sid knows about it and would feel the same way.