Box to the Right Rhythm

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“I was jiggling my shoulders as I shadowboxed, trying to get that rhythm flowing through my arms and legs… in the minutes before I would box, I was searching for that rhythm. In some of the bootleg shows there had been a band playing between the bouts, and that music would be blaring as I came into the ring. I always wished they had continued to play while I was boxing. I think I would’ve boxed better.

Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that’s in rhythm or you’re in trouble.

Your rhythm should set the pace of the fight. If it does, then you penetrate your opponent’s rhythm. You make him fight your fight, and that’s what boxing is all about. In the dressing room that night I could feel my rhythm beginning to move through me, and it assured me that everything would be alright.”

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Sugar Ray Robinson, reflecting in his autobiography Sugar Ray. Pictured above: Robinson walking on Ali’s right.

You’ll also find this quote in Robert O’Meally’s The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, which features the following observation from Max Roach stuck right in front of it.

Interviewer: Do you think boxing is comparable to music?

Max Roach: I think it is a definitive skill that’s been raised to the level of an art form by black fighters. It’s not just beating somebody, but is as highly-developed as fencing or tennis. Rhythm has something to do with timing.

Where, when, and how to slip punches is all rhythmic. Setting up somebody is done rhythmically. I know quite a few boxers who make a point of having something to do with a percussion instrument. Sugar Ray Robinson and Johnny Bratton both played the drums. Quite a few fighters got involved in music so they could develop the kind of coordination that was required. Dancing has a lot to do with good boxing too because it’s very rhythmic. The same is true of baseball, and you could see it in Jim Brown’s running when he was playing football. The way he could slip tacklers came from a keen rhythmic sense, as did the knowledge of when to take a breath and when to make a phrase, so to speak.

Photo credit: Neil Leifer

The Calling of an Artist

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“On Sunday 28 June, mid-afternoon, Jed accompanied Olga to Roissy airport. It was sad: something inside him understood that they were living a moment of mortal sadness. The fine, calm weather did not favor the expression of the appropriate feelings. He could have interrupted the process of breaking up, thrown himself at her feet, begged her not to take the plane; she probably would have listened to him. […]

Many years later, when he had become famous — extremely famous, truth be told — Jed would be asked numerous times what it meant, in his eyes, to be an artist. He would find nothing very interesting or original to say, except one thing, which he would consequently repeat in each interview: to be an artist, in his view, was above all to be someone submissive. Someone who submitted himself to mysterious, unpredictable messages… messages which nonetheless commanded you in an imperious and categorical manner, without leaving the slightest possibility of escape — except by losing any notion of integrity and self-respect. These messages could involve destroying a work, or even an entire body of work, to set off in a radically new direction, or even occasionally no direction at all, without having any project at all, or the slightest hope of continuing. It was thus, and only thus, that the artist’s condition could, sometimes, by described as difficult. It was also thus, and only thus, that it distinguished itself from other professions or trades…”

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Taken from about a quarter into Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel The Map and the Territory. Houellebecq’s next novel, the

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Ilium

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“Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilium but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew of nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact…”

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Pulled from midway into Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, about the book Alexander slept with under his pillow. Mark Van Doren: “Homer is a world; Virgil is a style.”

Da Vinci’s To-Do Lists

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“My favorite gems in his notebooks are his to-do lists, which sparkle with his curiosity. One of them, dating from the 1490s in Milan, is that day’s list of things he wants to learn. ‘The measurement of Milan and its suburbs,’ is the first entry. This has a practical purpose, as revealed by an item later in the list: ‘Draw Milan.’ Others show him relentlessly seeking out people whose brains he could pick: ‘Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle… Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled… Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders… Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner… Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.’ He is insatiable.

Over and over again, year after year, Leonardo lists things he must do and learn. Some involve the type of close observation most of us rarely pause to do. ‘Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.’ Others involve why-is-the-sky-blue questions about phenomena so commonplace that we rarely pause to wonder about them. ‘Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?’

Best of all are the questions that seem completely random. ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,’ he instructs himself. Who on earth would decide one day, for no apparent reason, that he wanted to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like? How would you even find out? It’s not information Leonardo needed to paint a picture or even to understand the flight of birds. But there it is, and, as we shall see, there are fascinating things to learn about the tongue of the woodpecker. The reason he wanted to know was because he was Leonardo: curious, passionate, and always filled with wonder.”

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Pulled from the intro to Walter Isaacson’s new biography, Leonardo da Vinci.

Some thirty chapters and five-hundred pages later, Isaacson has us at the book’s coda, “Describe the Tongue of the Woodpecker.” Here’s that coda, in full:

The tongue of a woodpecker can extend more than three times the length of its bill. When not in use, it retracts into the skull and its cartilage-like structure continues past the jaw to wrap around the bird’s head and then curve down to its nostril. In addition to digging out grubs from a tree, the long tongue protects the woodpecker’s brain. When the bird smashes its beak repeatedly into tree bark, the force exerted on its head is ten times what would kill a human. But its bizarre tongue and supporting structure act as a cushion, shielding the brain from shock.

There is no reason you actually need to know any of this. It is information that has no real utility for your life, just as it had none for Leonardo. But I thought maybe, after reading this book, that you, like Leonardo, who one day put ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker’ on one of his eclectic and oddly inspiring to-do lists, would want to know. Just out of curiosity. Pure curiosity.

Meet Oskar Schindler

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“In Poland’s deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it and — in the lapel of the dinner jacket — a large ornamental gold-on-black-enamel Hakenkreuz (swastika) emerged from a fashionable apartment building in Straszewskiego Street, on the edge of the ancient center of Cracow, and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an enormous and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine. ‘Watch the pavement, Herr Schindler,’ said the chauffeur. ‘It’s as icy as a widow’s heart.’ In observing this small winter scene, we are on safe ground. The tall young man would to the end of his days wear doublebreasted suits, would — being something of an engineer — always be gratified by large dazzling vehicles, would — though a German and at this point in history a German of some influence — always be the sort of man with whom a Polish chauffeur could safely crack a lame, comradely joke.

But it will not be possible to see the whole story under such easy character headings. For this is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms… Fatal human malice is the staple of narrators, original sin the mother-fluid of historians. But it is a risky enterprise to have to write of virtue.

‘Virtue’ in fact is such a dangerous word that we have to rush to explain; Herr Oskar Schindler, risking his glimmering shoes on the icy pavement in this old and elegant quarter of Cracow, was not a virtuous young man in the customary sense. In this city he kept house with his German mistress and maintained a long affair with his Polish secretary. His wife, Emilie, chose to live most of the time at home in Moravia, though she sometimes came to Poland to visit him. There’s this to be said for him: that to all his women he was a well-mannered and generous lover. But under the normal interpretation of ‘virtue,’ that’s no excuse.

Likewise, he was a drinker. Some of the time he drank for the pure glow of it, at other times with associates, bureaucrats, SS men for more palpable results. Like few others, he was capable of staying canny while drinking, of keeping his head. That again, though — under the narrow interpretation of morality — has never been an excuse for carousing. And although Herr Schindler’s merit is well documented, it is a feature of his ambiguity that he worked within or, at least, on the strength of a corrupt and savage scheme, one that filled Europe with camps of varying but consistent inhumanity and created a submerged, unspoken-of nation of prisoners.”

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Excerpted from the intro to Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark (later retitled to Schindler’s List). When asked, years later, why he’d acted the way he did during the holocaust, Schindler apparently replied, “I could never abuse something with a human face.”

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Odysseus’s Mind

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The Odyssey is a homecoming. It’s what the Greeks called a nostos, which means a return home, and that word is very close to the Greek word for mind, nous. Both come from an Indo-European root, nos, which means a return from darkness to light. And that’s what Odysseus does, in both senses.

He is hidden, for seven years, on the island of Calypso, who is really enchanted with him. She doesn’t want to let him go. It’s a marvelous scene when she finally tells him, ‘Alright you can go, but do you really want to? You can stay here with me and be immortal and ageless all your days.’ What would you say to Calypso at that point?

Odysseus, always thinking — this is one of his epithets, polymetis, many, many thoughts — he’s always ready for any occasion, and this might be a difficult situation for him. If you’ve ever left someone who didn’t want you to leave… well, you know what I’m talking about. So he says this to her:

‘Goddess and mistress, don’t be angry with me.
I know very well that Penelope,
For all her virtues, would pale beside you.
She’s only human, and you are a goddess,
Eternally young. Still, I want to go back.
My heart aches for the day I return to my home.
If fate hits me hard as I sail the deep purple,
I’ll weather it like the sea-bitten veteran I am.
God knows I’ve suffered and had my share of sorrows
In war and at sea. I can take more if I have to.’

They make love that night for the last time, then he’s off on a raft on his struggle to return home.

He faces many adversities. He meets them all with a mind that is flexible, ready for any twist of fate. He can get out of seemingly any situation, no matter how difficult. It is by virtue of his truly incredible mind that he finally arrives back at Ithaca.”

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Stanley Lombardo, introducing a reading from his translation of Homer’s Odyssey, for my money the best version of my favorite story. Watch S.L.’s superb reading below:

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Orwell Reflects on His School Days

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“It was about a year after I hit Johnny Hale in the face that I left St Cyprian’s for ever. It was the end of a winter term. With a sense of coming out from darkness into sunlight I put on my Old Boy’s tie as we dressed for the journey. I well remember the feeling of emancipation, as though the tie had been at once a badge of manhood and an amulet against Flip’s voice and Sambo’s cane. I was escaping from bondage. It was not that I expected, or even intended, to be any more successful at a public school than I had been at St Cyprian’s. But still, I was escaping. I knew that at a public school there would be more privacy, more neglect, more chance to be idle and self-indulgent and degenerate. For years I had been resolved — unconsciously at first, but consciously later on — that when once my scholarship was won I would ‘slack off’ and cram no longer. This resolve, by the way, was so fully carried out that between the ages of thirteen and twenty-two or three I hardly ever did a stroke of avoidable work…

I base these generalizations on what I can recall of my own childhood out look. Treacherous though memory is, it seems to me the chief means we have of discovering how a child’s mind works. Only by resurrecting our own memories can we realize how incredibly distorted is the child’s vision of the world. Consider this, for example. How would St Cyprian’s appear to me now, if I could go back, at my present age, and see it as it was in 1915? What should I think of Sambo and Flip, those terrible, all-powerful monsters? I should see them as a couple of silly, shallow, ineffectual people, eagerly clambering up a social ladder which any thinking person could see to be on the point of collapse. I would no more be frightened of them than I would be frightened of a dormouse. Moreover, in those days they seemed to me fantastically old, whereas — though of this I am not certain — I imagine they must have been somewhat younger than I am now…

I have never been back to St Cyprian’s. Reunions, old boys’ dinners and such-like leave me something more than cold, even when my memories are friendly. I have never even been down to Eton, where I was relatively happy, though I did once pass through it in 1933 and noted with interest that nothing seemed to have changed, except that the shops now sold radios. As for St Cyprian’s, for years I loathed its very name so deeply that I could not view it with enough detachment to see the significance of the things that happened to me there… And if I went inside and smelt again the inky, dusty smell of the big schoolroom, the rosiny smell of the chapel, the stagnant smell of the swimming bath and the cold reek of the lavatories, I think I should only feel what one invariably feels in revisiting any scene of childhood: How small everything has grown… Now, however, the place is out of my system for good. Its magic works no longer, and I have not even enough animosity left to make me hope that Flip and Sambo are dead or that the story of the school being burnt down was true.”

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Pulled from the ending of George Orwell’s essay “Such, Such Were the Joys,” first published in 1952 in the Partisan Review. It’s thought he wrote the essay a few years prior, sometime in early 1947, just before he started working on Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s a lot of gold in the essay, but I especially like that understated, forgiving note on which he ends.

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Teddy on How Private Secrets Cripple Leaders

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“Traps were set for more than one of us, and if we had walked into these traps our public careers would have ended… A man can of course hold public office, and many a man does hold public office, and lead a public career of a sort, even if there are other men who possess secrets about him which he cannot afford to have divulged. But no man can lead a public career really worth leading, no man can act with rugged independence in serious crises, nor strike at great abuses, nor afford to make powerful and unscrupulous foes, if he is himself vulnerable in his private character. Nor will clean conduct by itself enable a man to render good service. I have always been fond of Josh Billings’s remark that ‘it is much easier to be a harmless dove than a wise serpent.’ There are plenty of decent legislators, and plenty of able legislators; but the blamelessness and the fighting edge are not always combined. Both qualities are necessary for the man who is to wage active battle against the powers that prey. He must be clean of life, so that he can laugh when his public or his private record is searched; and yet being clean of life will not avail him if he is either foolish or timid. He must walk warily and fearlessly, and while he should never brawl if he can avoid it, he must be ready to hit hard if the need arises. Let him remember, by the way, that the unforgivable crime is soft hitting. Do not hit at all if it can be avoided; but never hit softly.”

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From Part III (“Practical Politics”) of Theodore Roosevelt’s Autobiography.

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Assume that Fortune Carries You

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“There is also a saying from Epicurus: ‘If you live according to nature, you will never be poor; if you live according to opinion, you will never be rich.’

Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless. Suppose that the property of many millionaires is heaped up in your possession. Assume that fortune carries you far beyond the limits of a private income, decks you with gold, clothes you in purple, and brings you to such a degree of luxury and wealth that you can bury the earth under your marble floors; that you may not only possess, but tread upon, riches. Add statues, paintings, and whatever any artist has devised for the luxury; you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.

Natural desires are limited; but those which spring from false opinion can have no stopping-point. The false has no limits. When you are traveling on a road, there must be an end; but when astray, your wanderings are limitless. Recall your steps, therefore, from idle things, and when you would know whether that which you seek is based upon a natural or upon a misleading desire, consider whether it can stop at any definite point. If you find, after having travelled far, that there is a more distant goal always in view, you may be sure that this condition is contrary to nature.”

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A section from the 16th of Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius. Buy the book, but you can also read the letters on WikiCommons.

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Photo credit: The Book of Life

The Modern World’s Foundation

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“[I]n the West, Christianity not only fulfilled the initial cognitive conditions for modern structures of consciousness… Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than a mere precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, of the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in the light of the current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.”

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Pulled from the tail of Jürgen Habermas’s book-length interview Time of Transitions. There’s been some controversy about this quote, but the above is the real thing. The word he uses in German is erbe — heritage or legacy.

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Diplomacy, Ben Franklin Style

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“In France, seventy-year-old Franklin began the third phase of his extraordinary life. His fame as a scientist and philosopher blended with the huge excitement he generated as the spokesman for the embattled new republic, the United States of America. With consummate shrewdness, Franklin wore the simple clothes of an American Quaker, an imaginary character created by savants such as Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The French wanted to believe that in the new world a new kind of man was emerging, free of the corruptions and infirmities of their decadent old world. Franklin was more than ready to encourage this illusion. One excited Parisian wrote: ‘€œEverything about him announces the simplicity of primitive morals€… The people clustered about him as he passed and asked: “Who is this old peasant who has such a noble air?”‘

The old peasant, whose primitive morals had enabled him to maintain wives on both sides of the Atlantic without a hint of scandal, was soon displaying his gift for backstairs diplomacy. He began by charming France’€™s foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes. With the help of several American victories on the battlefield, Franklin persuaded this cautious veteran of twenty-four years™ service in Europe’€™s capitals to back the United States, first with secret aid and then with a formal alliance in 1778. This was only the beginning of Franklin’€™s French accomplishments. He secured over $40 million in loans and gifts from the French treasury — €”the equivalent of perhaps $600 million today — €”money that kept the bankrupt American government functioning. He supervised the shipment of tons of supplies and weapons to America. He armed and equipped American sea captains, such as John Paul Jones, who preyed on British shipping in their home waters with spectacular success…

In a cheerful letter to a grandniece in America, Franklin had [an] explanation for his dalliances: ‘Somebody gave it out that I loved ladies; and then every body presented me their ladies (or the ladies presented themselves) to be embraced, that is to have their necks kissed. For as to kissing on the lips or cheeks it is not the mode here, the first is reckoned rude, and the other may rub off the paint. The French ladies have however 1000 other ways of rendering themselves agreeable; by their various attentions and civilities, & their sensible conversation. ‘Tis a delightful people to live with.’…

Occasionally, one madam or mademoiselle asked him if he cared for her more than the other pursuers. With a smile Franklin would reply in his limping French, ‘€˜Yes, when you are closest to me, because of the power of the attraction.’

The remark combined flirtation and a reminder of his fame as a scientist. He was comparing the lady’€™s impact on him to the way an electrified piece of metal drew iron filings to it. Behind these amorous games lay the goal Franklin never forgot — €”persuading the French to back the faltering American Revolution. He knew — €”and cheerfully approved — the passion for politics among upper-class French women. He hoped their enthusiasm for his amiable American ways would be transmitted to their influential husbands or lovers.”

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Pulled from Thomas Fleming’s The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.

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