Friday, May 28, 2004

Smart Enough 

I have subscribed to the New Yorker magazine for perhaps 15 years now. In the beginning, my interest was as much for aspirational purposes as it was for enjoyment -- subscribing (and reading) made me feel some sense of sophistication and superiority compared to my peers. Although I've dropped the ridiculous need to feel sophisticated or superior, I still read the magazine each week. The magazine introduced me to the writing of Roger Angell, required reading for literary-minded baseball enthusiasts (his short "Talk of the Town" pieces are model blog entries). With time, I've come to understand most of the cartoons (either that, or Bob Mankoff's a much better cartoon editor than his predecessor). The fiction still doesn't move me, though. Whatever. It's a fine magazine, and I plan to subscribe for many years more.

My wife now gets first crack at the new copy when it arrives each Friday. It usually takes her about a week to read the magazine, and depending on what else I have on my nightstand, it can take me even longer to get to it. For example, I'm just now reading the May 10th issue, which includes an article on Kirk Varnedoe, who spent 13 years as the chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Reading the piece at the start of Memorial Day weekend, however, was fortuitous.

The article ("Last of the Metrozoids") is a remembrance of Varnedoe, by Adam Gopnik, who writes regularly for the magazine on a variety of cultural topics. Varnedoe, who died of cancer in the summer of 2003, was Gopnik's mentor, friend, and godfather to Gopnik's 8-year-old son. In alternating sections, Gopnik talks about Varnedoe's series of lectures on abstract art at the National Gallery of Art in DC and about Varnedoe's coaching of an impromptu football team (the "Metrozoids" of the title) of young boys, including Gopnik's son.

Varnedoe played football at Williams College in Massachusetts and spent a year as a defensive-backfield coach before starting his art career. He apparently had thought of going into the coaching profession full-time, but decided against it because, as he put it:

"If you're going to spend your life coaching football, you have to be smart enough to do it well and dumb enough to think it matters."

Now, it seems odd for an art historian to have uttered that sentence because of the unstated implication that art is more important in the cosmic scheme of life than sports. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy both, and I enjoy one art -- music -- more than sports, but I would never say that art is important and sports is not.

But I think Gopnik's piece, with its alternating sections, is intended to put the lie to that comment, in two ways. First, he gives equal weight to Varnedoe's lectures and coaching, both of which are met with enthusiasm. Second, and more importantly, it's clear, especially with the football team, his coaching does matter. Summing up Varnedoe's first practice with the team, in which all they basically do is learn how to take a three-point stance, Gopnik writes:

"He had, I realized on the way home, accomplished a lot of things. He had taught them how to stand and how to kneel -- not just how to do these things but that there was a right way to do these things. He had taught them that playing was a form of learning -- that a scrimmage was a step somewhere on the way toward a goal. And he had taught them that they were the Giant Metrozoids. It was actually a lot for one hour."

It is clear that Gopnik, if he didn't revere Varnedoe before his final illness, reveres him now and considers him a hero. Not for his art criticism but for his ability to teach and encourage his son and his friends to learn and participate.

And I now consider him a hero, too.

This is Memorial Day weekend where Americans are supposed to commemorate men who have died serving our country. Heroes, they are called. And by all means Americans should remember them, even if you opposed or oppose America's foreign policy. But I would also ask that you remember other heroes in your life -- parents, significant others, teachers, others who helped you learn something and got you to stretch yourself beyond what you thought possible, to be "smart enough to do it well." If you do that, it's not dumb at all.

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