Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The gifts of Gene Wilson

Another book from Gene Wilson arrived this week. It’s the best mail I ever get at work.

This time it was an 1884 edition of Aesop’s Fables. The cover is peeling off, and the whole thing crackles when you open it up, but the illustrations are beautiful and you can still learn from the morals: Cure a boaster by putting his words to the test. In quarreling about the shadow, we often lose the substance.

Over the past year or so, Gene has sent me half a dozen books. The first couple were on grammar and composition. I thought he was trying to tell me something. But he followed up with an email saying he thought a writer would enjoy books on writing. (He was right.)

After that he sent me a cookbook from colonial Williamsburg – if you ever need to make sweetmeat pudding, I’ve got the recipe – and then a book on English usage, and a self-help book on word mastery, and now the fables. The newest book in the bunch dates to 1957. The rest are much older. James M. Hanna, an early owner of “Parker’s Progressive Exercises in English Composition,” penciled his name inside the front cover in 1878.

I’ve never met Gene. He’s a secret pen pal sending me treasures from the past. When I got the book this week, I spread out the whole collection on my desk. I figured it was time to call him.

Gene is 77. He and his wife, Marcia, live in a house they built 10 years ago out in Rutherford County, between Caroleen and Forest City. It’s old family property. He grew up in the area, spent a couple years in the Army, went off to college. He ended up spending more than 40 years as a professor of psychology, mostly in the university system of Pennsylvania.

He and Marcia have eight cats and five dogs. A sixth dog is living with a neighbor. It got ahold of some of the cats.

When he and his wife were living south of Pittsburgh, he started going to auctions. He found out you could sometimes get a whole cardboard box of books for five bucks. That’s a deal no matter what books are inside. He didn’t look for rare books or first editions. It didn’t matter if the binding was ragged. What mattered were the words.

“I have never written for publication,” Gene says. “I used to enjoy writing letters of recommendation for students. But I love reading good writing, economical writing. That’s one reason I enjoy cookbooks. You find very few adjectives in a cookbook.”

Now Gene haunts flea markets. There’s one in Danieltown, outside Forest City, and a big one in Chesnee, S.C., just over the border. Most times he can get a book for 50 cents. He never pays more than $2. He buys damaged paintings, too. He takes them back home and gets out his paints and fixes them up.

It has been a little grim around the Wilson house. Gene has diverticulitis and has been on a feeding tube; he’s not supposed to eat or drink anything, although he has sneaked in a couple servings of ice cream. Marcia found out last November that she has lung cancer. But they keep running around and talking and reading their books.

Gene knows he’ll never read all the ones he’s bought. He likes the idea of being surrounded by all those beautiful sentences.

Online, we pass good stuff around through links. But there are links in the real world, too – the kind of links you can hold in your hands, the ones that connect you with other people from long ago who burned to get their words out into the world.

There’s a guy over in Rutherford County who has a house full of links. And every so often, he sends one out.

Monday, June 13, 2011

LeBron's loss

I watched the Dallas-Miami game with my buddy Joe Posnanski last night. He, of course, was so elequent about it that I'm probably not going to add much to the discussion. And we both saw what everybody else saw: LeBron James, creator of the Miami dream team, focal point of the whole NBA season, on the floor in the fourth quarter with millions of people watching and a title up for grabs, desperately trying to hide.

He could not give up the ball fast enough. He could not have guarded more passively. (Dirk Nowitzki blew by him on a key basket late in the game and LeBron let him go like it was the lunchtime run at the Y.) In the biggest moments, the man with the tools to be the greatest player in history was the worst player on the court.

I'll admit, I was rooting against LeBron. He dumped Cleveland in a cruel way and started counting off trophies for his new team before they had won anything. The word "comeuppance" was meant for what happened to him in this series.

But it shouldn't have happened this way.

If you're going to lose, LOSE. Shoot 2-for-20. Foul out. There's no shame in failure built on effort. But to shrink from the moment, to so clearly deflate under pressure... that's a different kind of stain. It won't wash out.

Since LeBron was 16 years old, people have told him he was going to be the greatest basketball player on Earth. For the last four or five years, at least, a lot of people have said he already is. When he's great -- making outrageous jumpers, locking down the other team's best scorer, streaking down the court like a cross between a defensive end and a ballet dancer -- there's never been anyone better.

He is King James, the anointed. As he told the Miami fans before the season, the Heat would win "not one, not two, not three..." championships. They would have a roomful of trophies. And he would be the best player on the best team.

But where you truly discover yourself in life is when it goes off-script. The Mavericks were not ready to grant LeBron his destiny. Miami lost a game they should have won, then another and another.

I don't know what's in LeBron James' head. But I suspect he had already played out the movie in his mind. He had already seen the ending, where he held up the trophy in front of his adoring fans. And in the real world, where that was not happening, he simply could not understand.

Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Heat players kept trying. They knew that you can write your own script on the fly. LeBron acted as if the game were already over. He seemed to decide it was not his time.

And so, instead of playing like a king, he was just another witness.