(For  original post, please go here)

From all accounts, Varnedoe was a talker, a gifted one. Many attributed this skill to his Savannah upbringing and the Southern propensity to spin a good yarn. Verlyn Klinkenborg puts it well in this NY Times Opinion piece written just days after Kirk passed away:

Nearly everyone who met Kirk Varnedoe felt his volubility, the sometimes astonishing flow of words and ideas at his command. There were set pieces in his conversation, favorite stories, well-trod paths. But mostly there was the feeling that a newly begun sentence could wind up going almost anywhere, crossing the plains into an unknown country or doubling back on a settlement that suddenly looked different than it did the first time we passed it. The great talkers — and he was one — are great because they are always embarked on a voyage of discovery.

In today’s segment, we get a sense of Varnedoe’s way with words, as well as of the work ethic he claims was largely shaped by his involvement in sports. And for all those who have experienced the little sacrifices necessary to the success of a partnership, do not miss “Boston College-Miami”, in the last paragraph.¬†

The Last of the Metrozoids
by Adam Gopnik
Part III

When I say that I began working harder, I can barely begin to explain what his idea of working harder meant: It was Bear Bryant’s idea of hard work circa 1955, it was General Patton’s idea of of being driven, only more military. It was coupled with a complete openness and equality, a vulnerability to his students’ criticisms so great that it was almost alarming. Kirk was working that hard, and was as eager to have you spot his weights as he was to spot yours. In what now seems like the halcyon days of 1984, a Saturday morning in winter would begin with a phone call and a voice booming, breaking right through the diaphonous protection of the answering machine, “Hey, folks, it’s Kirk. I got up early to walk the pooch, and I think I got some progress made on this here problem. What say we meet at eleven and trade papers?” I would curse, get out of bed, get to work, and be ready three hours later with a new draft of whatever the hell I was supposed to be working on. We would meet at the little island that separates Soho, where we lived, and Tribeca, where he and his wife, the artist Elyn Zimmerman, had their loft, and standing there, he would turn the pages, and I would turn the pages, and he would show me all the ways in which I had missed the boat.

Above all, he would insist, break it down: Who were the artists? What were the pictures? Give me the dates. Compile lists, make them inclusive, walk through it. You break it down in order to build it back up. What does it mean, why does it matter, for this artist, for art history, for the development of human consciousness? I would go back to work, and the phone would ring again at three. “Hey, folks, it’s Kirk. What do you say we meet and go over this new draft I’ve done and then maybe get some dinner?” And we would meet, and all four – or six or eight or ten – people would come together around him, and have dinner, and drink a good bottle of white wine and a good bottle of red wine and finally, exhausted, I would get to bed.

And then the phone would ring again. “Hey, folks, it’s Kirk. I got to walk the pooch one last time, and I was just thinking that I may finally have sorted out the locomotive from the caboose in this thing. What do you say…” And I would put a coat on over my pajamas and go out one last time, in the whipping cold of midnight, and he would open the envelope right there and start reading, signaling to me to do the same, while his black Chow raced around, and we would try one more time to clarify exactly why Picasso looked at African art or why Gauguin went to Tahiti, while a generation walked by us in Astor Place haircuts and long vintage coats on their way to the Odeon.

He gave football all the credit. He had discovered himself playing football, first at his prep school, St. Andrew’s in Delaware, as an overweight and, by all reports, unimpressive adolescent, and then at Williams, where, improbably, he became a starting defensive end. The appeal of football wasn’t that it “built character” – he knew just how cruddy a character a football player could have. It was that it allowed you to make a self. You were one kind of person with one kind of body and one set of possibilities, and then you worked at it and you were another. This model was so simple and so powerful that you could apply it to anything. It was ordinary magic: You worked harder than the next guy, and you were better than the next guy. It put your fate in your own hands.

I had always loved football, too, and we watched it together on Saturday afternoons and Monday nights for years. We saw a lot of good games, but we missed the big one. In 1984 we went up to New England to celebrate Thanksgiving, and we were supposed to watch what promised to be the greatest college football game of all time, Boston College – Miami, Doug Flutie versus Bernie Kosar. But our wives wanted to do something else – go look at things at a Shaker fair, I think – and we came home to find that we’d skipped the greatest college football game of all time, which Flutie had won by a Hail Mary, a long desperation heave on the last play of the game. We stared at each other in disbelief – we missed that? – and for the next twenty years, “Boston College – Miami” was code between us for something you really, really wanted to do but couldn’t, because your wife wanted to do something else. “You want to try and grab a burger at six?” “Uh – Boston College – Miami.” It was code between us also for the ironies of life, our great, overlooked game, the one that got away.

(look for Part IV tomorrow)

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