This past week, during my class session with my students I decided to play some Jonathan Coulton songs while my students were answering poll questions about the book that we’re reading, The Art of Possibility. “A Talk with George” popped up and it seemed so appropriate for a song about making the most of ones short life should show up when we were discussing how wondrous the world is when we let ourselves get outside of the limitations we put on ourselves or let others put on us. After the video, Coulton talks about the song (and links to other JoCo goodness). Enjoy
Chapter 23 in which you are visited by the ghost of George Plimpton and he relays to you an important message about life.
It was Jim Hanas who told about the song contest going on at The Plimpton Project, an organization dedicated to getting a statue of the man erected somewhere in the city. George was a hell of a guy, and he deserves about 10 or 15 statues, but I guess one would be a good start. I met him at a Paris Review party once, and he was pretty charming for a Harvard man.
PRESENT DAY JOCO SAYS: This might be my favorite from Thing a Week, and it was a real sneak attack. It started with Jim’s suggestion that I write a George Plimpton song, and my initial approach was to make it some kind of list song as sung by a guy who has done everything. I was tempted to go goofy (as always) with sort of a “isn’t it funny this song is about George Plimpton” vibe. But it wasn’t working – it wasn’t that funny for one thing, but it also just felt kind of pointless and off the mark. I met George once at a party he hosted to celebrate the latest issue of the Paris Review (which, not coincidentally, contained a short story written by John Hodgman – John is how I get to meet all the famous people), and he was a real treat. He was stork-tall, he was never far from his drink, his cheeks were flushed red, he was constantly grinning, and he wore a jacket and tie in the same way you and I might comfortably flounce about in our pajamas. I was a little star struck because I was a great admirer of his career – it seemed like the extent of his job was to be himself and do the things that were important and interesting to him. Nice work if you can get it.
So I kept messing with it, I tried going super serious about how awesome George was and then it just sounded all earnest and weird. And then somewhere in there I decided to switch it from “I did this…I did that” to “You should do this…you should do that” and it just clicked for me. Once I made it about George giving advice, it felt a lot more natural to me and it finished itself up pretty quickly. It became a warning that life is short, and an exhortation to go out and do the things you know you were meant to do. That has always seemed to me like a pretty good approach to living one’s life, but I had only just begun to really live that way, and it was just barely starting to seem like it might pay off. All that stuff that came out during the dark beginnings of Thing a Week when I was so terrified and lost turned out to be about this – about finding my way to a place where I could really try to be that person. Looking back I see this song as a kind of secret pep talk to myself. I needed it then, and I continue to remind myself of it often.
So: go out and do something, won’t you?