The pleasure of smart company

Posted: December 27, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

Seeking to punish myself for past and future sins, I headed out into the city on Saturday afternoon for some last-minute Christmas shopping and was pleased to see at least half of my fellow New Yorkers had come up with the same idea.

During my expedition I unexpectedly bumped into my friend Greg Downs, almost literally, as I walked with my head down, hoping that when I looked up again the street would be a lot less crowded. Greg is an acclaimed historian, award-winning fiction writer, college professor and, perhaps most impressively, a former guest contributor to TVFury. I also play against him in old man basketball.

We chatted for a few minutes and then decided to get a beer and some lunch. The discussion eventually evolved into what it almost always does whenever I meet up with Greg: Me asking question after question about history.

In the three years I’ve known Greg, it’s been fascinating to learn about the world of academic historians, which is an entirely different world than the one represented by popular history writers like Stephen Ambrose, David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s fun learning about the methods of historians, the jealousies, the in-fighting, the debates, what they think of Ken Burns and so much more. But it’s been even more fun just picking Greg’s brain about actual history. Imagine having access to Phil Jackson anytime you wanted to talk about the Triangle offense. That’s how I feel whenever I want to talk history with Greg. A few weeks ago, after seeing a show on TV, I asked him to recommend a book about former Louisiana governor/Senator Huey Long. He responded in 30 minutes with several recommendations, all of which came with pointed reviews.

On Saturday, talk turned to Lincoln — the man and the movie. Greg is a Civil War expert. An expert, not a buff. Last year he wrote a book called Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908. Among the exuberant reviews:

“Downs tackles important questions and his book is a rare achievement — well-written, deeply researched and thought-provoking.”

On Saturday Greg said, somewhat surprisingly, I thought, that he actually thought the history wasn’t bad in Lincoln but he didn’t think the movie was much better than average. I asked him the what-if questions historians probably dislike — what if Lincoln had lived? — and about Lincoln’s heirs. I asked about the minor characters in the movies and he had major information on them. It was the perfect way to spend an hour on a Saturday afternoon. And pretty much any hour with Greg is like that.

But this isn’t just about my unofficial work as Greg’s publicist. It’s about the joy of being around — and interacting with — people who are supremely gifted in their field or simply knowledgeable about some aspect of life, whether it’s the arts, business, electronics, or athletics. Having the chance to talk to people has always been one of my favorite things about being a journalist. But it doesn’t always have to be for work or even in-person.

Rich Jensen, a frequent contributor to TVFury, lives in South Dakota. We’ve never met. He likes the Celtics, meaning everything in his life should be questioned. Still, I recently took a look at a project he’s working on that focuses on photographer Walker Evans. I had actually never heard of Evans, but loved reading Rich’s work about the man who made his name during the Depression. In emails with Rich it was fun digging a bit deeper, because I knew the guy responding had devoted so much time and thought into Evans’ work.

The whole point of the Q&As I’ve done with various writers and media personalities is that I love talking to masters of their craft. I get to ask writers like Chris Jones, Kevin Van Valkenburg and Chris Ballard about writing, about profiles, about interviews. They’re willing to share what they’ve learned and if it was socially acceptable I’d include 50 questions in all of those pieces instead of just 15.

Family members are fair game. My wife’s a literary agent and the woman who runs the agency, Lori Perkins, is also a pioneer in e-publishing. Instead of having to pay to hear these two talk about the book world, I actually get to do it over home-cooked meals or at Yankee games. When I’m back home, I might get the chance to listen to my uncle Steve talk about farming and even though he’s retired, my dad still knows as much as anyone about mobile meter readers. I love engaging with people who know what they’re talking about, no matter the subject.

When I was working on my book Keeping the Faith, I stayed with a local pastor and his family. We shared little in the way of common beliefs, but some of the nights I remember most from my time in North Dakota were the ones spent at a table or in the living room with pastor Brady, where we dissected issues big and small, knowable and unknowable.

My pickup basketball league has helped meet others, besides Greg, who impress me with their smarts and talents, whether it’s Yulun Wang, who left his job and now runs a thriving jazz record label or Dan Havlik, who’s a journalist and expert in photography and has even appeared on the local news. If TV can learn something from him in a 20-second soundbite, surely I can too.

The reason I so look forward to the annual New Yorker Festival is that I get to see two or three events where the best in their business talk for an hour to 90 minutes about their craft. I do pay for those opportunities, but I’d fork over double what they ask. This year I heard Parks & Rec creator Michael Schur talk comedy. Last year it was Paul Giamatti on acting. Two years ago? Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith on fiction.

No real lesson here. I certainly hope other people take advantage of situations like this, that they appreciate knowledge and those who possess it. I know I’ll continue to cherish these types of opportunities. Everyone wants to be the smartest person in the room, but sometimes it’s also fun to be the dumbest — provided you’re also the most curious.

  1. Monica says:

    Shawn: This is a fabulous piece. Reminds me that I want you sitting in my living room again, talking while I listen…..Monica

    • shawnfury says:

      Thanks, Monica. Yes, the living room — and porch! More places where I love sitting back and soaking in the conversation with you guys. And next time we’ll have an expert who can explain the best way for South Africans to avoid injuries while walking down hills.

  2. Lisa says:

    That wasn’t exactly a “hill” she was walking down.

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