Searching for the World's Strongest Man

I've been closing out a piece for the magazine the past couple weeks, and consequently gotten backed up on my own magazine reading. But on Monday and today I spent a good bit of time on the train and managed to get caught up.

In my bag of treats I found this piece on the Strongman competitions by Burkhard Bilger. Some smooth writing for your humpday:

The giant of Fort Lupton was born, like a cowbird's chick, to parents of ordinary size. His father, Jay Shaw, a lineman for a local power company, was six feet tall; his mother, Bonnie, was an inch or so shorter. At the age of three months, Brian weighed seventeen pounds. At two years, he could grab his Sit 'n Spin and toss it nearly across the room. In photographs of his grade-school classes, he always looked out of place, his grinning, elephant-eared face floating like a parade balloon above the other kids in line. They used to pile on his back during recess, his mother told me--not because they didn't like him but because they wanted to see how many of them he could carry. "I just think Brian has been blessed," she said. "He has been blessed with size." 

Fort Lupton is a city of eight thousand on the dry plains north of Denver. In a bigger place, Shaw might have been corralled into peewee football at eight or nine, and found his way among other oversized boys. But the local teams were lousy and, aside from a few Punt, Pass & Kick contests--which he won with discouraging ease--Shaw stuck to basketball. By seventh grade, he was six feet tall and weighed more than two hundred pounds. When he went in for a dunk on his hoop at home, he snapped off the pole, leaving a jagged stump in the driveway. By his late teens, his bulk had become a menace. One player knocked himself out running into Shaw's chest; another met with his elbow coming down with a rebound, and was carried off with a broken nose and shattered facial bones. "It was bad," Shaw told me. "One guy, we dove for a ball together, and I literally broke his back. It wasn't that I was a dirty player. I wasn't even trying to do it hard." 

Bilger is one of my favorite nonfiction writers. His piece on Dogfish Head is classic, of course. As is his piece on Frenchman Michel Fournier's effort to break the skydiving record by leaping from outer-space. Bilger is a great reporter of oddities and people, but he marries that to an imaginative style. It's not enough to simply say "Jay Shaw was born on XXXXX date in Denver." The visuals of this sentence--The giant of Fort Lupton was born, like a cowbird's chick, to parents of ordinary size.--are just sick. You see that and you feel like "I have to read this."

The crazy thing is I don't even know what a cowbird's chick looks like, but there is something in the rythm of the sentence, something in its deep structure, in its skeleton and under-skin, that carries meaning. I don't understand it. But I feel it.

This Fall, I've been lucky enough to be invited up to MIT to teach essay writing. I can't wait to dig in to my favorites. "They too need emancipation" and all that good stuff.