SEARCHING FOR THE CHAMP: Me, We, Ali

Late last Friday night it came to my attention that I’d lost Muhammad Ali.  Not that he’d died.  I’d learned that along with the rest of the world hours earlier, a newsflash that sent me in search of an Ali drawing I’d done years before.  It was a pencil sketch comprised of two elements:  a close-up of the fighter as modeled after the photo on the cover of David Remnick’s outstanding Ali biography King of the World, combined with a speech bubble that in graphic title fashion melded the two-word poem “Me. We.”, which Ali once delivered at a Harvard graduation.

As keepsakes go, this picture lived in the same space that much stuff does:  so precious there’s no way I’d have ever thrown it out, so irrelevant to my daily life I wasn’t sure where it was, so singular that there was only a few places it could possibly be.  Yet it wasn’t there, there, or there:  not still attached to any one of the old sketch pads on my shelf ; not in a pile of old clips and copies and print-outs-of-note dating back decades ; not even unceremoniously folded and stuffed into the binding of the Remnick book.

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GOOD, BUT NOT THE GREATEST — Among the items I laid hands on during the search for my “Me, We, Ali” drawing: the David Remnick book whose cover photo helped inspire the missing design ; a pencil-mimic of a Walter Iooss, Jr. portrait of Paul “Bear” Bryant ; and two Vince Lombardi holiday season sketches that never made it onto one of my annual Christmas Cards.  Maybe this will be the year St. Vince meets St. Nick? 

I had expected to locate the image without much thought or effort, but when more of the latter was needed more of the former came along.  My mind went back to an evening in the spring of 2002, the only time I stood in the same room as the Greatest of All-Time.  It was in the Joyce Athletic & Convocation Center at the University of Notre Dame during the school’s annual amateur boxing tournament, known as Bengal Bouts. Notre Dame is in South Bend, Indiana, just 25 miles from Berrien Springs, Michigan where Ali had a home.  He’d made previous appearances at Bengal Bouts,  but that didn’t take any luster from the moment: when he entered, the building buzzed like the bee whose sting Ali had so famously claimed he could replicate.

What happened next lives in my mind’s eye like a stop-action sequence of still photos.  Not because the years have made the motion fade from the memory, but because that’s how it actually felt as the moment unfolded.

First, I could see his entourage far on the other side of the floor level on which I was standing.  Next, the small group in which the Greatest was at the center was halfway around the arena.  Then suddenly, it was in front of me.  The next two instants I recall with perfect clarity:  I made blink-long eye contact with Muhammad Ali ; he noticed the female spectator beside me wearing a Notre Dame Women’s Boxing sweatshirt, and he began charmingly, playfully shadow-boxing with her.

I have no idea how well he could speak back then, or even if he had the desire to in such a crowded, fluid setting where the main objective was simply to get to his seat.  But clearly, the old Champ could still kid, still joke, still float like the butterfly he’d so often promised he would resemble — and became again right then: fluttering out of the space in front of us as instantly and magically as he’d appeared.

Being delusional, selfish perhaps, I’d always felt that my Ali experience was a unique one — the way I’d seen him appear to defy physics as he moved through physical space ; by simply walking, somehow performing the unforgettable in a way that even the witnesses of it would later describe as unbelievable.  But I was way off thinking there was anything unique about the stirring presence Ali had had that night in northern Indiana, and it took only the first few bits of reaction and reflection that followed his death to illustrate it.  So many authors used the same language as I had to describe completely different interactions with Ali, and so striking was the shared quality of the collective memory of “meeting” him, that even if you believe just a fraction of what seeped into the world simply on the day of his death, the only comparison that feels apt for the Greatest is not to another person but to a heavenly body.  Because like the Sun, Ali seems to have touched everyone on Earth.

Long after midnight the day Ali died, my Artwork Search Party of One continued.  Perhaps I was clumsy enough to leave it buried inside the frame of my boxing-centric collage that it wasn’t part of ; or alongside the Bear Bryant drawing I’d certainly done around the same time, and ultimately that night found in the basement.  No.  It must be somewhere in the inches thick, Usual Suspects-style sedimentary formation I called a bulletin board in my office at work.  Certainly, after passing the weekend, I would poke around that paper-relief sculpture on Monday morning and find my sketch faster than I could say Keyser Soze.

On Monday, no dice.

Just as he was in the ring, Ali is proving elusive rendered in pencil.  I refuse to believe the picture got tossed ; searching for it has turned up far too many other pieces of less important creative driftwood for it to be plausible that THAT of all pieces is gone.  I imagine someday it will appear suddenly and remarkably, just like Ali did both to the world at large and to the individuals who for even an instant were in his physical presence.  I am one of those lucky ones.  So even if my hand-drawing of him never surfaces, the greatest image I have of Ali will never fade.

 

 

 

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New Look at a Classic: “I HEART NY”

New to me are these regional spins on the iconic I HEART NY logo.  I saw them for the first time just recently, alongside even more takes in which the red image between the I and NY represented other aspects of the Empire State.

Though they obviously don’t use the words BUFFALO

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or SARATOGA,

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to my mind these two renditions can’t help but explicitly represent those cities, and as such, they had me dreaming of an “explicitly” Albany version that would feature the profile of the Capital City’s most iconic building, The Egg.

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Apologies to the New York State Tourism Bureau if this was already present somewhere on the very billboard where I saw the official buffalo and horse images above. And if it wasn’t: get cracking on production of the “I Egg NY” merch! FOOTNOTE to THE EGG: I can’t put a number on how many times I saw this building in my life before the day I stood before it on assignment to direct a short film about a football player from Albany. That day, for the first time ever to me, The Egg looked like a football:  virtually the top of the Lombardi Trophy itself, tipped slightly and blown up a lot.

In all that I-Hearting I came across this fabulous story of the original logo, the remarkable designer who created it, and the interesting life that both man and art have led.  Definitely worth a read and/or listen, via the podcast 99% Invisible.

STROLLING THE $1 MILLION STAIRCASE: A Steller Story from Albany, NY

Due to the boundaries of conventional photography, it’s necessary to see the Grand Canyon in person if you want to have any real sense of it.  Even then, the limitations of the human eyeball and depth perception make it challenging to compute what exactly it is that’s before you.  The scale. The structure.  The origin story.  They combine to form something like nothing else, and so by definition, laying eyes on it is a moment for which you cannot be prepared.  Even as you’re looking at the Canyon, it’s hard to know where to direct your eyes first, next, or last.  The result can be a sort of dizzying rush of astonishment and adrenaline.

As man made things go, the $1 Million Staircase — located in the New York State Capitol Building in Albany, NY — sent my head into similar spaces.  Capturing a photograph that could successfully illustrate both the massiveness and nuance of the Stairs seemed impossible.  In an effort to instead take a series of mental snapshots, every neck contortion and eye swivel I could muster felt insufficient.  There was simply too much to the space, also referred to in Capitol parlance as The Great Western Staircase, to feel like I’d seen or digested it all.  To try and add it up as I walked it was to be transported into a real-life composite of MC Escher artwork, someplace at once concrete and impossible.

The Staircase is a singular sight with a remarkable story ; for someone interested in art, architecture, or history, it’s an absolute must-see.  And believe it or not, the tour is free ; not a bad deal for a look at something priceless that may just leave you speechless.

For a sneak peek and more on how the $1 Million Staircase came to be, read my Steller Story on it by clicking the photo below.

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To see The $1 Million Staircase inside the historic New York State Capitol Building via @StellerStories, click on the image above.

MY DEREK JETER SIGNATURE MOMENT

With no other knowledge of Derek Jeter at your disposal than the soundtrack of his farewell tour, you could easily discern that this man the whole world seems to be feting has done something right.  “The Right Way,” in fact, may be the most frequently used phrase to describe Jeter, the Yankee captain who yesterday in Boston played the final game of his Major League career.  It was a moment to which he arrived after a summer of having standards like My Way, Respect, and the theme from The Natural all played with complete sincerity in his honor, often in stadiums where he habitually led the dashing of hometown hopes and dreams.

Sounds as singular as Aretha Franklin, as classic as Frank Sinatra, and as stirring as the crack of Roy Hobbs’ ‘Wonder Boy’ make it easy to recognize “The Right Way” when you hear it.  But what does it look like?  Could you tell it if walked up and shook your hand?

In the summer of 2010 I interviewed Derek Jeter for NFL Films.  By that point in my career I had directed crews on interviews and film shoots with Super Bowl winning players and coaches, famous writers, musicians, photographers, even a swimsuit cover model.  During the course of the commute, arrival, and set-up in an auxiliary locker room at Yankee Stadium, it struck me that our crew on this day seemed to grow quieter than usual.  We were all accustomed to working around football players ; many of our camera operators are on a first name basis with the NFL’s biggest stars.  But none of us had spent much time in the baseball world, let alone met The Yankee Captain.

When he entered the locker room, each member of our four person crew shot up, and from our spots on the set began to wave hello.  Before we could finish, Jeter had made his way around the room, shook each person’s hand, and introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Derek.”  Such a start told me this would be a painless experience ; what made it memorable, though, was how the whole thing ended.

We’d come to talk to Jeter about his views on what made Tom Brady one of the NFL’s all-time greatest players.  When the conversation was over, with the commitment he’d made to us fulfilled, Jeter did something I’ve never seen another superstar do: he stood up, walked around the room to where each of our crew members was standing, shook all our hands a second time, and thanked us for coming.

In my professional life perhaps no smaller an act has made a bigger impression on me than Number 2’s distribution of two hand shakes-plus two greetings-times four people that afternoon.  If we’re the only crew he ever did that for (which I doubt) then I applaud his approaching an atypical audience – the football people – with a fresh perspective ; if we’re one in the long line of crews he greeted that way, than I marvel at his diligence – especially in such an advanced stage of his iconic career — in treating newcomers to his house with courtesy and respect.  Or rather, in treating us the right way.

Over time, doing the right thing the right way yields far more than it costs.  For proof of that, look no further than the record of the last summer Derek Jeter played baseball.  Some people did the job as well as he did, a few people even did it better.  But the right way is the reason that perhaps no one in history exited the game as Jeter did.  Through a promenade of praise piled higher than the famous facade at Yankee Stadium, to which he responded as he had after all the big hits and post-season heroics: by humbly tipping a cap to all those whose hearts he’d filled with song.

MR. NOVEMBER COMES TO PHILADELPHIA: Derek Jeter bats against the Phillies in Game 4 of the 2009 World Series ; Philadelphia, PA - Nov. 1, 2009 (Photo: PaC)

MR. NOVEMBER COMES TO PHILADELPHIA: Derek Jeter bats against the Phillies in Game 4 of the 2009 World Series, Philadelphia, PA – Nov. 1, 2009.  That night members of the hometown crowd seated near me attempted to distract The Yankee Captain by chanting the name of his lady friend: “MIN-KA KEL-LY!”  Jeter didn’t seem to mind. (Photo: PaC)

 

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FOURTH OF MEMORIES

Fireworks and chocolate ice cream don’t look alike, don’t sound alike.  My best guess is they don’t taste the same.  But for the way they both possess the ability to delight even on those rare occasions that they’re underwhelming, these smile-inspiring fraternal twins of summer simply must be made of some of the same stuff.

Among all the stunning pyrotechnic displays made in the American skies each 4th of July, there is none better than the show over the waters of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Give it a look some time, especially if you can do so from a boat anchored in the Chesapeake.  For the full effect, pack your own Stars and Stripes to help set a mood like the one pictured below.

OL' GLORY and the OLD LINE STATE - Fourth of July fireworks over Chesapeake Bay, as seen from the middle of Chesapeake Bay. (Photo: PaC)

OL’ GLORY in the OL’ LINE STATE – Fourth of July fireworks over Chesapeake Bay, as seen from the middle of Chesapeake Bay. (Photo: PaC)

America’s Birthday, 2014 is now in the rear view, but here’s the best flag-centric reading this weekend had to offer:  a story from The Atlantic on The O.S.S.B, aka, The Original Star Spangled Banner, and via FastCompanyDesign, an illustrated biography of the American flag.

THE BRIEFS HAVE IT

In the Great Big Bucket of Tips for Better Writing, perhaps no advice occupies more space than that stuffed under the heading of “Brevity.”  Take your pick: Shakespeare, Pascal, Emerson, Twain, Strunk & White.  They’ve all rung in on the value of staying succinct.

The most memorable thoughts on this topic I ever received with my own ears came from award winning sports and film writer Ray Didinger.  Quoting one of his former editors in the newspaper business, Ray advised, “Keep it light, keep it tight, keep it bright, and get it right.”  Simple, concise, and comprehensive, the suggestion has remained with me — even when my work has not reflected it.

Though 140-character limits and the spread of text-ese continue to truncate our communication, when they surface, new good words on the topic of keeping it brief will always be worth a look. Here’s some from Danny Heitman in this week’s New York Times Opinionator.  Enjoy.

 

Mark Twain - shown here in Bermuda Bronze - is one of several authors credited with saying in some way, "I'm sorry for sending such a long letter, but I didn't have time to write a short one."  Click above on Ol' Samuel L. Statue for a history of that famous Short Thought. (Photo: PaC)

Mark Twain – shown here in Bermuda Bronze – is one of several authors credited with saying, “If I’d had more time I would have written a shorter letter.”  Click above on Ol’ Samuel L. Statue for a history of the line, including the position that Twain did not in fact author that famous Short Thought. (Photo: PaC)

 

HAROLD RAMIS MADE COMEDY LOOK EASY

If after co-writing and directing Caddyshack, Harold Ramis had donned a hair shirt, moved to the desert, and never cracked wise again, he could still be considered a monumental contributor to comedic cinema.  Of course even without trying, Ramis would probably end up churning some chuckles out of an ascetic life.  The man was plain funny, his films quoted almost as much as Scripture, and certainly for much greater laughs.  Given how much Ramis’s lines are dropped seamlessly into everyday conversation, it’s impossible to imagine any film writer who has achieved greater immortality through his work.  As the world celebrates Ramis this week, here’s a standout piece I’ve seen circulated, a 2006 interview full of insight, rumination, and of course, humor. Three cheers, for the late, great Harold Ramis.

HAROLD RAMIS (1944-2014), here as Russell Ziskey in "Stripes".

HAROLD RAMIS (1944-2014), here as Russell Ziskey in “Stripes”