Irish poet Seamus Heaney has died at 74. The Guardian has a brief account of his life; The Telegraph grapples more directly with the work There’s also his long, insightful interview with The Paris Review, from 1997.
“Heaney’s volumes make up two-thirds of the sales of living poets in Britain,” the BBC wrote in 2007, calling him “arguably, the English language’s greatest living bard.”
One of his best-known poems, “Digging,” compares his trade to that of his father and grandfather, who were farmers and cattle-raisers. These are its last two stanzas:
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
One of Heaney’s great later achievements was his translation of Beowulf, which I bought and read along with his Selected Poems when I was in college.
Heaney’s take on the Anglo-Saxon most reminds me of the first of Ezra Pound’s Cantos, a weird mix of old epic and contemporary free-verse imagery and meters, a translation of a translation of Homer that begins “And then” and ends “So that:”
When Swinburne died, W.B. Yeats is said to have told his sister, “Now I am King of the Cats.” When Robert Frost died, John Berryman asked, “who’s number one?”
I note this not to pose the question “who’s number one?” now that Heaney has died, but to observe that just as champion boxers and sprinters often have outsized competitive personalities that seem like caricatures compared to other athletes, even among writers, and even when they resist, as Heaney did, being drawn into literary feuds or political debate, great poets are often magnificent and terrible and troubling and glorious and weird.
I played football in high school, specifically offensive line, defensive line, and linebacker. So did my older and younger brothers, and my older brother coaches linemen and defense at a high school in Michigan. I started out first in middle school and high school as a defensive specialist, which makes sense given John Madden’s theory of linemen.
Madden used to say that offensive linemen were overwhelmingly big kids who grew up to be big men, who’d always been told not to pick on but to protect kids smaller than them. Defensive linemen, on the other hand, were little kids who grew up fighting with other little kids (and often bigger kids) but who grew up to be big men. That’s what I was: a skinny kid who became a fat adolescent who became a big, strong teenager. (Now I’m a strong, fat writer, so that’s how that turned out.)
Madden said the problem is that offensive linemen still need to be as tough and aggressive as defensive linemen, but they always hold something back. Some of this is part of the rules of football: offensive linemen literally can’t do everything a defensive lineman can do to them. So what Madden would do is take a tackling dummy and let his offensive linemen beat the hell out of it. Punch it, tear it, throw it across the room, it doesn’t matter. Help them get to a point where they’re no longer worried about being over-aggressive.
College football reporter Spencer Hall writes:
You should know this about offensive line coaches: they are large, demanding men with Falstaffian appetites, jutting jaws, and no governors on their speech engines. They eat titanic portions. They cram their lips full of dip in film study like they are loading a mortar. They drink bottled water like parched camels, and in their leisure time would consider a suitcase of beer to be a personal carry-on item for them, and them alone. They are terrifyingly disciplined in the moment, and nap like large breed dogs when allowed.
Now, even if Madden’s amateur psychobiography of linemen were true when he was coaching, it’s not true any more. In the 1990s, coaches got really good at taking tall but relatively slender athletes from every position, bulking them up, and sticking them at offensive line.
In high school, we played this guy named Jon Jansen, who ended up becoming a star offensive tackle for the Washington Redskins, then coming home to Detroit and playing one year for the Lions before becoming an announcer. In high school, he weighed almost 100 pounds less than he did as a pro. He was listed then at 6’8”, 230 lbs, and played tight end and middle linebacker. He was FAST. They moved him all over the field, catching touchdowns and uprooting people. It was chaos.
He went to Michigan, they redshirted him for his freshman year, and came back weighing 300 lbs and playing offensive line. Jansen told Bob Costas that he thought between 15 to 20 percent of NFL players were using illegal performance enhancing drugs, noting that the NFL didn’t then test for human growth hormone. I remember when I was still in high school reading a long profile of the University of Nebraska’s offensive linemen that attributed their huge gains in mass and strength to weightlifting and creatine. Draw your own conclusions about what was happening in pro and college football at the time.
This is all to say that what offensive linemen do in football is not well understood. When the NFL finally started to act on widespread concussions and the resultant uptick in chronic traumatic encephalopathy — if you never have, please read about the life and death of Dave Duerson — they focused on open-field helmet-to-helmet hits and defensive players targeting quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers (so-called “skill positions”). They ignored the constant battering that offensive linemen take, how repeated brain injury poses the greatest risk for long-term problems, how linemen are rewarded for staying on the field and playing through pain, and the ways in which they’re encouraged to both be more aggressive and prioritize someone else’s safety over their own.
Kurt Vonnegut said that his chief objection to life in general was that it was “too easy, when alive, to make horrible mistakes.” This is what offensive line coaches live with: the notion that for every five simple circles drawn on a board, there are a nearly infinite number of possible threats looming out in the theoretical white space. Offensive plays give skill players arrows. Those arrows point down the field toward an endzone, a stopping point, a celebration. Those five simple circles stay on the board in the same place, and are on duty forever.
They are rough men in the business of protection.
Today, Hall has one of the most beautiful, thoughtful, human pieces on offensive linemen I’ve ever read, and which I’ve been quoting here throughout. It’s called “The Business Of Protection,” and subtitled “It Is Never, Ever About You.” It’s a story about Vanderbilt University’s offensive line coach Herb Hand, who suffered a sudden and life-threatening brain hemorrhage waiting in line at a hotel breakfast bar on a recruiting trip. But Hand’s story manages to become equally about football, fatherhood, the brain, the heart, how we defend ourselves from what’s horrible in the things we love, and how we defend the people closest to us from ourselves.
When Hand had to have the impossible conversation — the one where you, with cellphone, stuck in a hospital far away from home, might have to say the last words you ever say to your children — he did what he was trained to do. He told them that he loved them, and that everything would be okay. The second part of that might not have been true at the time. The emergency room doctor certainly didn’t think so, and neither did Hand. But standing between harm and others is what linemen do, even if there’s little hope to be had in the face of numbers, size, and speed. There is a dot on the board, and a shield held against whatever slings and arrows lurk in the ether. It stands against harm until it cannot any longer.
Update: While I was writing this post, the NFL and 4500 former players (about one-third of the 12000 still living) reached a mediation agreement to settle a number of lawsuits over concussions for $765 million.
This figure includes legal fees, medical exams, the cost of noticing former players, and $10 million for research and education on the long-term effect of brain injuries, leaving $675 million to compensate former players who’ve suffered cognitive injuries (or, if dead, their families). The settlement applies only to players who’ve retired by the time court approves its terms. Current players will need a separate agreement to be compensated for existing and future injuries, and the NFL admits no liability.
As Buzzfeed sportswriter Erik Malinowski notes on Twitter: “Holy crap, what a bargain… ESPN pays $1.9 billion *every year* for Monday Night Football. 4,500 ex-players will get 40% of that (once) for decades of head trauma.”
Three years ago, I came across a post on the Sharpie blog — I don’t know how or why I was following Sharpie’s blog, but such were the mysteries of our universe in those long-ago days — announcing a new kind of pencil: a mechanical pencil with liquid graphite ink, with leads that could not break, whose writing was initially erasable but over time (about three days) would become semi-permanent.
Sharpie eventually had to back off some of its claims for the liquid pencil — the original promo material said pencil would become permanent like a Sharpie Marker, which isn’t quite true — but they brought them to market, and sell them for about $3 apiece. (Sadly, the reviews aren’t very good.)
People love pencils. They love them. It’s partly childhood nostalgia, partly how a craftsman comes to care for her tools, and partly the tactile experience. It’s also a blend of appreciation for both their aesthetic and functional qualities, and (especially these days, but not only these days), a soupçon of the disruptive passion that comes from willfully embracing what poses as the technologically obsolete.
Over at The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen has a story about Pencil Revolution, which she quite rightly calls “The World’s Best Website About Pencils.” She lists ten representative posts, from which I’ll select my favorite five:
I found these at Staples (in the US) a few weeks ago and bought a pack. At $10 for three dozen, it was a pretty good deal. Less than $3.50 for some quality pencils is something I’d find it difficult to pass up. But three dozen is…a commitment to make to the Pencil Gods, when the pencil might just be terrible. I mean, they are pencils. One can’t just throw them away if they turn out to be awful. Luckily, these pencils are not awful at all. Unluckily, having a Big Box means that I’ve given most of them away already.
I feel like there’s something powerful about pencils that I feel viscerally but don’t fully understand. There’s the manuscript part: as much as I love to type, there’s something super powerful in that alignment of the eye and the hand. But that’s pens and chalk and crayons and markers too, and I have completely different feelings about all of these things.
In “Why pencils?” Pencil Revolution’s founder Johnny Gamber tries to explain:
The first and best reason to use pencils is because you like them and enjoy writing/drawing with them. Because you feel better connected to the paper you’re writing on (or the wall, etc.) and the earth from which the clay, the graphite and the wood all came. Because they smell good. Because sharpening them can be a sort of meditative process. Because you can chew on them. Or for reasons we can’t explain.
The point is that it’s best to write with what we like best, no? I’ll admit to enjoying taking notes and writing papers and poems with pencils better than pens. That’s the biggest reason that I use pencils at all.
Maybe it’s that sense of work that’s best realized in sharpening: the continual, attentive maintenance to a thing that’s ultimately, necessarily, and even intentionally disposable. To adapt George Carlin’s observation, when you buy a pencil, you know it’s going to end badly. You’re buying a small tragedy. Caring for a pencil becomes like caring for a pet, or a person, in accelerated miniature, like in time-lapse photography.
Pencils are like love. Pencils are like us. They are free to love, free to squander, and free to give away.
I’m going to do something rare here at Kottke and open up the comments. I’ll close them down at the end of the day. Do you love pencils? Do you hate them? Why? What’s your favorite pencil? What’s your best pencil story? Did a pencil ever break your heart?
Today is a weird day for human-interest stories about bank robbers.
The New York Times highlights Shon R. Hopwood, a former bank robber who studied law in prison, successfully petitioned on behalf of another prisoner in a Supreme Court case his team won 9-0, and will soon be a clerk for the DC circuit federal appeals court, “generally considered the second most important court in the nation, after the Supreme Court”:
The judge Mr. Hopwood worked for last summer said he deserved his 147-month sentence. “He used a weapon in some of those robberies, and that justified a very heavy hit,” said Judge John C. Coughenour of Federal District Court in Seattle. “But everybody we sentence has the potential to turn their life around.”
Meanwhile, one state south in Oregon:
Authorities in Oregon say a homeless man who held up a bank for $1 was just looking for a way to go to jail so he could receive free health care.
According to Clackamas County sheriff’s deputies, 50-year-old Tim Alsip entered a Bank of America in Southeast Portland last Friday morning and handed the teller a note that read, “This is a holdup. Give me a dollar.”
I know he’s a busy man, but it would be remarkable if Mr. Hopwood could drive from Seattle to Portland and find a way to help Mr. Alsip be relegated to an appropriate facility.