January 28, 2023

You Have Been in Grand Rapids, I Perceive?

Grand Rapids

One of my favorite pictures from 2012 came late in the year, with this one in downtown Grand Rapids. The picture reminds me of a setting for novels and movies before the storyteller’s utensils went high tech, or even the theme of 2012 and the decade- the fight between the bulls and the bears. There’s a contrast between the office buildings of the future and the rust and decay of yesterday’s commerce. Winners and losers. Around the time I took this picture, the Gallup blog was forecasting that the future of America will be decided in its cities. The Grand Rapids skyline and cloud cover in the picture provide a murky forecast.

You have been in Grand Rapids, I perceive?

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, very keen on the power of observation, makes the famous declaration about Afghanistan. I can only claim Grand Rapids, not Afghanistan. But as Flannery O’Connor would say, the human race all comes out of the same slop. To appreciate the great mind of a Flannery O’Connor, try writing in longhand a passage from some of her best stories and then type it on the computer. Then do it from some other great ones. The genius is in their clarity and hardness of thought, like a hard fastball, or in Hemingway’s case, a hard punch. Imitation and pretense are interference.

Tiny Grand Valley State is nearby in downtown Grand Rapids. NFL personnel officials would come here to scout an occasional prospect and came away more impressed with the school’s coach. The administration and marketing departments at the big football programs were reluctant to hire a coach from a school like Grand Valley. The schools’ fear of hiring a coach with small credentials forced him to keep persisting one step up at a time until Notre Dame, failing with every big name coach, finally felt it politically okay to hire Brian Kelly.

One of boxing’s greats, Floyd Mayweather Jr. came from nearby and learned to box at the Grand Rapids gym around the corner from his home. From a May 2012 interview with the Los Angeles Times : “The last time I checked, this is what the American dream is,” Mayweather said. “Who doesn’t want to be rich, and make this kind of money? They told me when I was growing up that dreams come true. I dreamed it, and made it happen.

His boyhood friend and assistant trainer from Grand Rapids said, “This is a person who understands you can have anything or nothing in life, that anything can happen to you. You can make millions. Be broke. Or be in jail.”

Or become President of the United States like Gerald Ford. His presidential museum is nearby. Ford is considered by historians to be the greatest athlete among the presidents. He was also a veteran of World War Two with heroics in the Pacific, particularly during Halsey’s Typhoon. A friend’s father served alongside Bush 41 in the Pacific and had good stories about him. These stories are fading with the rust of time but will live on digitally at the museums and archives.

Sally Field edited the prize winning 1979 Letters of Flannery O’Connor, writing O’Connor accepted and embraced her destiny with strong habits of art that grew to become habit of being. While in the middle of an interview with a reporter from the New York Times, Mayweather Jr. punched the heavy bag 1,000 times in 90 seconds. Your habits become your being. In a letter, O’Connor scolds a friend: “What I hate to think of is you with your talent wasting your energy fighting with idiots and crooks and such trifling people as you appear to have to grabble with to get anything done in the theatre.” She warns of a “lack of learning that would put you in a larger framework than just your personal problems.”

Another boxer from Grand Rapids, Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin, just became a world champion. He was raised in terrible poverty, drugs, crime, the familiar story. Kids ridiculed him for his ragged clothing and he learned to fight them off until he became such a good fighter, the kids used him as the enforcer for their gang fights. A friend finally scolded and warned him that the “idiots and crooks” he was fighting would one day kill him if he didn’t stop. His story is told in a fantastic video on the Grantland Network. He fights because his “whole life has been a fight.” Everyone is a fighter, regardless if they box in the ring. After winning the title, Kid Chocolate thanks Grand Rapids for making him a fighter, and New York for making him a man.

Flannery O’Connor has strong criticism for Ayn Rand in another letter to the same friend, Maryat Lee. “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can go re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.” She knew many of her own critics would compare her stories to a ride on the “glass bottom boat” and miss the message.

Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has a master’s in English from Duke. Failing Sherlock Holmes, I can’t say I knew it. But if he knows his Flannery O’Connor, he’ll appreciate the fact that everyone comes from the same slop.


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