Fathers, Daughters, Football, and “Sympathetic Magic”


I’ve just watched the New York Giants’ thrilling playoff victory and want to share a piece by my late father, Richard Gilman, that was published in the New York Times on Super Bowl Sunday 1987.  In addition to being a wise and moving meditation on the significance of sports and what it means to be a fan, it’s one of the greatest gifts my father ever gave me.   The piece, “The Wounded Giant Regains his Dignity,” played a large role in the eulogy I gave for him at Symphony Space in March 2007.   I share it today with joy in our team’s triumph and with deep and abiding love for him.

VIEWS OF SPORTS: “THE WOUNDED GIANT REGAINS HIS DIGNITY” By RICHARD GILMAN: Richard Gilman’s latest book, ”Faith, Sex, Mystery: A Memoir,” has just been published by Simon and Schuster.

Published: January 25, 1987

On a darkening afternoon seven or eight years ago, I sat with my small daughter in Giants Stadium watching Roger Staubach drive the Cowboys 60 or 70 yards for a winning field goal in the last few seconds. As Rafael Septien’s kick went through the uprights, my daughter burst into tears. The next day, she saw a photo in The Times of Harry Carson sitting in dejection on the Giants’ bench and told me she wanted to write to him. I remember the words of the letter because we worked on it together hoping to relieve both our broken hearts. Or rather, I simply helped out with some editorial advice, for the sentiments, which I endorsed, came directly from her. ”You mustn’t be sad,” she told the Giant linebacker. ”You’re a great player and a wonderful man. We’ll all be happy again. I love you. Priscilla Gilman, age 9.”

Three or four weeks later a large photo arrived showing Carson zeroing in on a ball carrier. Across it was written in graceful calligraphy: ”To Priscilla. May God bless you always. Old 53. Harry.” She’s had it on her bedroom wall over her desk ever since.

And she’s remained a football fan, a Giants zealot (my younger daughter Claire, hasn’t been hooked yet, but I expect it to happen). She hasn’t been to another game, for I depend on the largesse of friends for my own very occasional ticket, but together we’ve watched more than a hundred Giants games on television. Two weeks ago, when the victory over the Redskins was assured, this lovely young woman, now nearly 17 and with a strong-intellectual bent, suddenly jumped up and shrieked: ”I don’t believe it! The Giants are in the Super Bowl! Can you believe it, Daddy?” I felt like quoting a line from her letter to Carson, the one about the eventual happiness of us all.

That being a fan can induce either euphoria or heartbreak is, of course, from a sober responsible point of view, nothing less than an absurdity. Why were my daughter and I so often depressed during the Giants losing years? (She came to football just past the middle of them, while I naturally go back very much farther, through periods of success and failure, all the way, in fact, to the days of Ed Danowski, Mel Hein and Morris (Red) Badgro.) And why are we so elated now? At an even greater extremity, why did delerious Mets fans rip up and carry home clumps of sod from Shea Stadium after their team clinched its division?

My former wife, an extremely rational person and a greatly competent businesswoman, was driven nearly wild by my, and our daughter’s, ritual Sundays in front of the TV set, and our living and dying with the Giants. Once she said to me: ”If I’d wanted to marry a Midwestern jock, I would have!” Well, to be sure, I wasn’t from the Midwest, having been born in mid-Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn. And I wasn’t a jock either. But I knew what she meant. I was a writer, so what was I doing wasting my time in such gross frivolity, so passive and undignified an activity?

I despaired of trying to explain to her that being a sports fan is a complex matter, in part irrational, I’ll admit, but not unworthy. For me – and I think I’m fairly representative – it’s an amalgam of many things, chiefly perhaps, a relief from the seriousness of the real world, with its unending pressures and often grave obligations. It’s also a playing out of the drama of fate, the roles in all our destinies of skill, chance, risk and will, with a saving grace that it has nonfatal consequences.

Being a fan means practicing a form of sympathetic magic, by which you suffer with, draw strength from and generally share in the vicissitudes and personas of modern day champions and heroes. For the Giants fans, there is a wide range of qualities to identify with or seek to emulate: Phil Simms, unappreciated, hooted at but then, in crises, triumphant; Mark Bavaro, phlegmatic, indominatable; Maurice Carthon, self-effacing, sacrificial and utterly dependable; Lawrence Taylor, the very figure of prowess; Phil McConkey, flamboyant, a transcender of physical limitations; and Harry Carson, wise, solid – a mensch.

And there’s an appreciation, not unlike that for dancers or tightrope walkers, of the body undergoing tests and coming through them by courage and technique; a desire for ”clean” results – there’s no ambiguity about winning or losing; and, finally, in the special case of the Giants or Mets fan (my daughter and I love them both), pride, restored now in this annus mirabilis,in those teams as incarnations of aspects of the spirit of New York.

The pride may be partly illogical; after all, few if any of the Giants come from New York and, as Mayor Koch so graciously said, the team doesn’t even play in the city. But the geography of rooting isn’t bound by such facts. The Giants will always represent New York, the part of our idea of the city, a component of its ongoing history. But surely one element of our present satisfaction is the sort of in-your-face move that being in the Super Bowl presents to the way the rest of the country mostly thinks of us: huge, cold, rich, conceited, unnatural, deserving therefore of all our misfortunes. Well, the wounded giant is on his feet now, the despised colossus has regained, in one small but resonant area, his strength and dignity.

We all know that like the World Series the Super Bowl has far more significance as a symbolic event than an actual one. Nothing will change in the real world if the Giants win or the Broncos do. We’ll still have our rent to pay, our children to guide and cope with, term papers to write; our egos will continue to be buffeted. But I think of a pertinent phrase that’s had much currency lately -quality of life. The quality of some of our lives will change if the Giants win, has already changed because they’re in Pasadena, Calif. It’s fragile, temporary and rather irrational. But it exists.

So this afternoon several of us will gather in my apartment to eat Mexican food and drink Carta Blanca. Among them will be my close friend, the painter Sherman Drexler, who’s at least as rabid a Giant fan as I am. We haven’t watched any game together this year since the winning streak began, because we’ve become superstitious about the eight or 10 phone calls we make to each other, before, during and after each game, the moments of apprehension, alarm, relief or, at the end, joy. But we’re more rational about today.

And Priscilla will of course be there, too. She’ll be on edge, agog, scared sometimes, but finally, I predict, ecstatic. Tomorrow she may even want to write another letter to Harry Carson, saying some such thing as this: Didn’t I tell you! I still love you. More than ever.”



“A poem . . . begins,” Robert Frost once wrote, “as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness . . . It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.”   Frost evokes the tensions between feeling and thinking, experiencing and knowing, loving and understanding that have been so central to my life as a student and professor of romantic poetry, a writer, and a mother.  This book began as a lump in the throat, as a homesickness for the magical world of my childhood and for the home life I was looking forward to with my child.  It began with a sickness of love for a child I adored but did not understand, a love searing in its intensity, overwhelming in its sense of longing and vulnerability, a love I feared would never be reciprocated, and worst of all would never make an impact.  It began with a pining for contact with the spirit or essence of my child, a wrenching fear that perhaps everything I did and said was in vain because he was unreachable and unimpressionable, a fierce devotion to a child I would do anything to save.

This is a story of the relationship between literature and life, the ideal and the real, of poetry vs science, magic vs measurement, honoring mystery vs unraveling it.  And at its heart this book is a love story: a story of two very different people learning to accept and affect and make space for each other in mysterious and powerful ways.

Welcome to my Blog!

2011 has been one of the most rich and intense years of my life: I published my first book, The Anti-Romantic Child: A Story of Unexpected Joy, appeared live on MSNBC, was on the cover of Newsweek, wrote blog and magazine pieces, did countless interviews and Q &As, left a job, spoke all over the country at bookstores, conferences, and schools, learned how to Tweet, sold an apartment, bought and renovated a new home, put “author” down as my occupation on a form for the first time.

Creating an author Facebook community (www.facebook.com/priscillagilmanauthor) has been one of the most meaningful and satisfying things I’ve done this past year.  On the page, I share quotations, provide links to news articles and excellent journalism, give reports on my life and our family, recommend movies, books, CDs, TV shows, websites, and other entertainment and cultural items, ask questions, share music, artwork, and photographs by and of my family, provide and solicit advice on a wide range of issues, and generally offer a place for people to find inspiration, understanding, enlightenment, support, pleasure, solace, & solidarity.

I’ve found the work of developing and maintaining my Facebook page both challenging and deeply fulfilling, and I’ve been repeatedly touched and nourished by the contributions, ideas, feedback, honesty, and graciousness of the members of my Facebook community.  It’s quite amazing how far we’ve come: the page was launched in March 2011 with 150 people following it, and by year’s end, the community has grown to over 30,000 members!

The many advantages and pleasures of my Facebook page notwithstanding, there are some disadvantages and limitations.   First, I sometimes feel inhibited by the space constraints of Facebook.  Second, many of my community members have asked me for more writing and more extended versions of some of my Facebook posts.  Last but not least, many of my friends and fans are not on Facebook!   So to begin 2012, I’ve created a place where I have more room to share my thoughts, recommendations, favorite poems and passages, reactions to news stories, updates about our family, and reflections.

Welcome to my blog, everyone, and Happy New Year!

“I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you’ll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you’ll make something that didn’t exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.”
Neil Gaiman