Zen Natalie Woolfolk quote

"There are a lot of girls who are a lot stronger than I am. But - and that's the thing that is awesome about Olympic style weightlifting - that with technique and speed you can really maneuver the bar in a certain way and it just kind of lifts itself up there."

- Natalie Woolfolk, in an interview with VOA News

Photo from The Examiner

Jerry Boyd, F.X. Toole

Jerry Boyd has died. He died in September 2006, but for me, he only just flared up into life and then died just as suddenly, and I grieve.

I'd seen Million Dollar Baby, the movie based on one of his short stories, when it came out in 2004. It was a dream project to me, combining my loves of boxing, female boxing, Hilary Swank and Lucia Rijker. I enjoyed it, not overwhelmingly, but reasonably enough. I was particularly struck by the bits of narration. This arrested me:

''Boxing is an unnatural act. Everything in boxing is backwards to life. You want to move to the left, you don't step left, you push on the right toe. To move right, you use the left toe. Instead of running from pain, which is the natural thing in life, in boxing you step to it."
It wasn't until now, 2009, that I read these passages in their real context - the book Rope Burns.

Normally, I'd finish a book and review it, but reading Rope Burns and discovering its author has been such a profound experience that the thought of that is beyond me at this point. Rope Burns is so good, I don't even know whether I can review it. So I'll write about this sad miracle instead.

This may be the only book that has made me tear up. It's certainly the only book that has made me tear up twice. Once it was for the plot, when street violence laid down characters I rooted for. Once it was with appreciation of the sheer beauty of the writing, and the rare experience of deep connection with another human being. I teared up when his semi-autobiographical cutman sped to an art museum to view works of the masters just before a fight. The museum was closing, and he was only able to get in because of the kindness of a security guard. The art made his head swim, and the scene ended with the security guard refusing his money. At that moment, I knew Jerry was like me, as a person and a writer. It didn't strike me as surprising at all that his tough-as-nails cutman would make a pit stop for a transcendental communion through art just moments before going into the eye of the pugilistic storm. It didn't because I understand. It didn't because I've done the same kind of thing in my writing. It resonated in me how he elevated the act of kindness. But explaining this is inadequate, oversimplifies, and I'm not sure I should even try.

F.X. Toole - Jerry's writing pseudonym - is one of America's great writers. A giant. Toole's critics frequently mention Hemmingway, Falkner and Mailer in the same breath. Take it from me, with my master's degree in professional writing: when I say he's a master, you can believe it.

So to learn that he weathered rejection slips for 40 years before getting a story published at age 70, it's tragic. To find that he wrote in obscurity, never revealing his writing to his boxing community, it's tragic. To read that his last words, going into heart surgery, were “Doc, get me just a little more time, I gotta finish my book,” it's tragic. To know that he didn't live to see Million Dollar Baby become a major film that won a mountain of awards including best picture, didn't live to see the paperback Rope Burns attached to the DVD, it's tragic. To know that his star was just rising when his light was extinguished, it's tragic. It's such a perfect tragedy it's almost absurd. And he'd appreciate that.

The more I learn about Jerry, the more I admire him, relate to him, and the more I want to know. The articles on Jerry I've found draw ironies and paradoxes, but I understand him as the sum of his parts. I'm a writer and boxing devotee who grew up Catholic, studied acting, has held colorful jobs and clocked countless hours inside gyms, who too has learned to "enjoy the merry-go-round" of the varied parts of my soul.

I've found a few photos of his face. I've read outlines of his life. But I want so much more. I want the chance to hang out with him, to watch him work a corner, to see him hit a bag... to talk about writing. About the cruelty of life and the beauty of life. About handwraps, felons, Martin Luther King, Peter O'Toole, Scotch and dark chocolate. I want to crack jokes with him, because I just know he had a large sense of humor that's a lot like mine.

But there's just nothing. There's his opus to read, Pound for Pound. Perhaps there will be more of his work that gets published or otherwise produced - he left boxes of writing. I hope so. I fervently hope so.

Meanwhile, I'm left with this tragedy of timing, of life and death. He's gone, just short years and miles away. And I grieve.

Part II: Pound for Pound

I finished Pound for Pound last night. I tried to pace myself and stretch it over the summer, but it was too good. Brilliant. I'm sure Jerry has spoiled me for anyone else's boxing writing. His stuff should be taught in high schools and beyond: this is pure Americana material, the blue-collar working class world, the boxing world; the ethnics and ethics so rich, exactly what the Academics want; the gritty realism, the truth of life's unpredictable tragedy and triumph; the sheer writing skill; it all amounts to brilliance.

Reading the final pages was emotional. My tears flowed for the story, the beauty of the writing, and for my final, fleeting moments in the sanctuary of Jerry's world. I want to know how much of the book was written by him and how much finished by his editors and son, whether Jerry left an outline with the conclusion of the plot. I liked the ending, but it's a dishonest experience, because I don't know whether it's what he intended. I did detect a change toward the end of the book - the pace suddenly accelerated, and I kept stumbling over wording that didn't jive, but no matter - it was lovingly and well done, and I'm tremendously grateful to the folks who completed it and saw to it the book could be in my hands. I hope they're hard at work on producing more of his work.

Two nights ago, I dreamt I met Jerry. He didn't look like himself; he had dark skin and dreadlocks (Who knows?). We connected. He wanted to tell me something, but there were other people around, and we never got the chance. I've been scouring the dream, trying to retrieve any shred, but it quickly faded, except for the feeling of looking into his eyes and him looking into mine, recognition through the windows to the soul.

Related links
  • NPR All Things Considered: Final Word from F.X. Toole: Pound for Pound audio
  • NPR Fresh Air: F.X. Toole's Tales from the Ring audio
  • The Sweet Science: "Pound for Pound," A Great Piece of Boxing Fiction
  • USA Today: 'Pound for Pound' punches above its weight
  • NY Times sports: Jerry Boyd, 72, a Writer Who Lived the Boxing Life
  • NY Times books: A Writer Rolls With the Punches; For Trainer Turned Author, a Life as Tumultuous as the Ring
  • San Francisco Chronicle: Fighting Tooth and Nail; Cut man F.X. Toole, author of ``Rope Burns,'' struggled for years to become a writer
  • Los Angeles Times: Jerry Boyd, 72; Boxing Trainer Wrote Gritty, Lauded Fiction
  • Katherine Dunn for the Oregonian: 'Million Dollar Baby' author left behind a novel of caring and fighting in the boxing world
  • Research Channel: Watch 2005 USC Scripter Awards, speeches by Jerry's daughter and a Million Dollar Baby screenwriter
Related links on the Mighty Mix

Photo is a SF Chronicle photo by John O'Hara

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Juli Crockett - a real Maggie Fitzgerald

I'm reading the phenomenally good book Million Dollar Baby, the book formerly known as Rope Burns, by F.X. Toole, the writer actually named Jerry Boyd.

His short story Million Dollar Baby has apparently a psychic connection with former boxer Juli Crockett. Although Jerry met her after he'd written it, he was convinced she was the incarnation of his character Maggie Fitzgerald, and she considers Maggie a simplified version of herself.

I've run across an article on Crockett that ran in Nation and World shortly after the movie came out. There are many things to take away from learning about Juli - she seems like an amazing person and a kindred spirit. For the moment, I want to point out these eloquent insights she shared about boxing.

Was Fitzgerald the real thing?

Not really. She never got tired or sore. She never had to struggle to "make weight" --one of the greatest problems for boxers. In the story you tell yourself about being a boxer, you're tough and strong. But in doing it, you're tired, you're scared, it hurts, you're lonely and deprived.

What it is about boxing that drives fighters?

There's this great simplicity. Once you get into the ring, there's only one thing to worry about and that's the other person. Boxing is so powerful that way. It's like a drug. There are few moments in life when you get to have that experience of complete victory.

Related links

Jerry Boyd, F.X. Toole
Million Dollar Backlash
Fisticuff Lit for bruisers and non-dainty ladies

Virtual weightlifting meet released

The June meet has been released. It was small but had lots of heart. U.K., Canada, U.S. represented. No one bombed out. I made PRs in both lifts. Watch the meet, read the stats here.

St. Paul Rodeo

Fourth of July

Portland maritime museum