#61 – Let’s Give Credit Where Credit Is Due: How Parenting Taught Me Not to Totally Hate Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1997)

Somewhere between generations, parenting became a verb. My dad was my parent. I parent. I do it because I have to, and that’s what “we” do now, but it is not entirely self-fulfilling. I often think I should get some sort of credit for my efforts. Recognition of some sort. You know those people who make self-deprecating comments about how they should get an award for being “parent of the year”? I kind of want one.

Case in point: one night a few weeks ago I came home late to find my wife Gigi, a huge (some might say giant) Giants fan, watching her team clinch the NLDS over the Washington Nationals. It was late and I didn’t need any more to drink, but hey, I like a significant sports win as much as the next guy, so I poured a (completely unnecessary) drink and watched post-game highlights with her and we reveled in the win for far too long.

As the clock approached midnight, we agreed that we needed to go to sleep because it was a school night, and Gigi says: “Hey, can you set your alarm for 4 a.m. and wake up Sam?” I stare at her blankly. “He wants to see the blood moon. It’s happening at 4 a.m. and he’s worried he won’t hear his alarm.” I continue to stare. If I were a computer, a window would’ve popped up that said File not found.

Undeterred, she continues. “Actually, why don’t you get up at 3:55. That way you can check to see if it’s cloudy outside and if you can’t see the moon you can turn off his alarm.” That was the last straw. “That sounds horrible. I don’t want to do that.” I reply. “Sam doesn’t want you to do it either. But it’s not about you. You should help him,” she says. Oh great. He doesn’t even WANT me to wake him up. But good parenting dictates that’s what I’m supposed to do.

Don Draper would have poured another scotch and given her that “get out of town” look and refused. Me? I set my alarm for 3:55 a.m.

“Get out of town. And make me a chicken pot pie.”

Secretly I hoped that I would be the one who didn’t hear the alarm. Unfortunately, my alarm is in fine working condition, which meant that at 3:55 a.m., I awoke to the sounds of waves crashing and sea gulls making their sea gull noise. Yes, that is actually the sound of my alarm. I think it’s supposed to wake me gently, but in reality, it evokes a terror something only Hitchcock could understand.

Once convinced I was on land and not being attacked by birds, I dragged myself out of bed and dutifully made my way outside to look for cloud cover. Unfortunately for me, the closest view of the outside was from the balcony of my 12-year-old-daughter Lily’s bedroom. Lily values her sleep, so I made my way through her room as stealth as Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. This was no easy task, given the landscape of her room, which included old issues of People magazines in various states of disassembly, scissors (for aforementioned magazine disassembly), a rainbow assortment of nail polish bottles, grapes, empty bags of goldfish and Tostitos, several fallen soldiers of soda consumption, laundry, an old lunch box, and at least one soccer ball. I was like Private Ryan navigating the land mines of Normandy, and quietly made my way outside. There, I saw it: the blood moon. And, admittedly, it was kind of cool.

I paused for a few moments to look at the moon before realizing I was FREEZING because it was four in the morning and I tiptoed my way back through Lily’s room quiet as a mouse to wake up Sam. Because, remember, it wasn’t about me.

Me: (shaking Sam) Hey. Wake up.

Sam: (snoring)

Me: (still shaking) Seriously dude, wake up.

Sam: (eyes opening). Huh?

Me: Mom told me to wake you up so you could see the moon.

Sam: OK

Me: You good? It’s kinda cool.

Sam: Yeah.

Me: It’s kinda cool.

Sam: What?

Me: The moon. I’m going back to bed.

So I went back to bed and tried to achieve instant narcolepsy, but as we all know, sleeping is not my strong suit. I remember looking at my clock at 4:30 and then drifting off to peaceful slumber …only to be woken up at 5 a.m. by the screams of Macy, my 4 year old. As is my standard practice when any of my children wake up in the middle of the night – I immediately turned to Gigi. She’s the mother. She instinctively hears every noise our children make. Or so I thought. Apparently that skill only lasts through two children. By the third kid, she can sleep through it all. And she was happily doing just that. Macy was screaming and my wife was completely unaware. So, it was up to me. The parent who heard her, ready to comfort her. I dutifully got up and made my way into her room where Macy was lying on her bed…

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: (whispering) What’s wrong?

Macy: I HURT MYSELF!!!!!

Me: Ok. How?

Macy: I FELL OFF THE BED!!!!

Me: Ok. Lets take it down a notch. Are you ok?

Macy: I HURT MYSELF!!!

Me: Yeah, I got that. We need to stop yelling. (rubbing her back) Shhhh.

Macy: (eyes closing) I fell off the bed…

Me: I know. That sucks. Go to sleep.

And because she isn’t old like me, in about 30 seconds, Macy was sound asleep again. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing. If I’m up at 5 a.m. and have an actual conversation and interpersonal exchange, there is no way I’m falling back asleep. So I tossed and turned until it was time to get up. I was tired, but at least I could take solace in the fact that my family knew I was there for them. I was like the father of the year! Or so I thought.

I ran in to Sam in the kitchen eating breakfast.

Me: How was the Blood Moon?

Sam: I missed it.

Me: What?

Sam: I woke up at 4:30 and it was already over.

Me: But I woke you up at 4.

Sam: You did?

Me: Yes.

Sam: Why?

Me: Because Mom told me to.

Sam: (super annoyed) I told her not to do that! (leaving room in a huff)

Huh. Not exactly the heartfelt outpouring of gratitude I had anticipated. Luckily, the little one was now up and came downstairs rubbing her eyes.

Me: Hey Macy. How are you feeling?

Macy: (Says nothing. Not good in the morning.)

Me: You know. You fell off the bed last night.

Macy: (Staring blankly as if I’m insane person.)

Me: Remember I got you back in bed and rubbed your back until you fell asleep again?

Macy: (Still staring) Where’s momma?

If there can be less gratitude than none, I had now achieved it. By now, not only am I not getting the love I so rightly deserve, but I’m also beginning to think that I imagined the whole experience. That is, until Lily arrived.

Me: Hey Lil. Hope I didn’t wake you up last night.

Lily: You totally woke me up. What were you doing in my room in the middle of the night? You were stomping around. Stomp stomp stomp.

Me: I had to wake up Sam. Did you fall back asleep?

Lily: No. (With some sort of annoying face expression that probably involved an eye roll.)

So there you go. Not only did I not get credit for my outstanding acts of parenting, I actually achieved a trifecta of disappointment in my kids.

So I decided then and there that it is important to give credit where credit is due and I’m not sure if Pultizer Schmulitzer! has lived up to that. Until now. Part of the problem is the format I have chosen. Because I’ve set this up as a worst-to-best list, by definition, I’m going to spend a chunk of time talking about books that I didn’t like or at least like less than the others.

But it is also important to note that all of these books are legitimate works of literature. It’s like ranking your favorite Martin Scorsese movies. Eyeballing the list goes something like this:

  • The “Are You Looking at Me” Division (Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Goodfellas): 30% of the Pulitzer winners are undisputed classics that we all love. Enough said.
  • The “Bob the Butcher” Division (Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed, Gangs of New York, Aviator): The next rung down is still pretty awesome. There are no slouches here …but, and this is a big but, you can also see the flaws. Roughly 20% of our books can be found here.
  • The “So in Other Words – I’m F**ked” Division (The Last Temptation of Christ, Cape Fear, Age of Innocence, Casino): This category houses the 40% of the books from the list that range from somewhat boring to slightly painful but on the whole I still consider reading them a worthwhile endeavor or at least a net positive.
  • The “Tom Cruise” Division (The Color of Money, Boxcar Bertha, Shine A Light): The last 10% of books I don’t like. At all, really. My time would have been better spent re-watching the Joe Peshi “you think I’m funny” scene 87 consecutive times.

But just as the Martin Scorsese movies that I didn’t like are better than vast majority of the movies out there, even the worst Pulitzer winners deserve a little respect. So from here on out, Pulitzer Schmulitzer! will attempt to do a better job accentuating the positive and toning down the snarkiness. Lets give it a go.

And so we (finally) get to Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Milhauser (1997), a cautionary tale for ambitious people. It’s kind of like Atlas Shrugged, but the complete opposite. And it’s short. Which is for sure opposite. So if you hated Atlas Shrugged, you might like this one. Positivity? Check.

So what’s it about? Work. And not even glamorous work. Our hero Martin Dressler begins the book as a clerk in a cigar store in New York at the dawn of the 20th century. He’s got intelligence and ambition and a little luck and as he watches the city spring up around him, he’s filled with his own entrepreneurial ideas. He starts with a restaurant, which becomes a chain, then moves to hotels. He builds a hotel called the Dressler, follows it with the New Dressler and, lastly, the Grand Cosmo. Each version becomes more and more absurd in its design and extravagances. The Grand Cosmo, for example, has thirteen underground levels full of parks, a theatre district, replicas of famous people, mechanical birds, fake caves, and real streams brought over from other lands. As with many dreamers whose dreams get to big, it ends badly.

So what landed Martin Dressler so low on our list? Boredom. I was so bored with this book. I was so bored that I didn’t even want to go back to it to see why it was so boring for this review. But I’ve got a job to do so here goes. First, there is a lot of talking about the mundane in a mundane way. I’m not kidding. The author included pages of lists in this book. Like to-do lists. They are boring.

Moreover, in the midst of all of this, there is a love story. Of sorts. Martin ends up meeting two sisters. Emmeline is dark, intelligent, plain. Caroline is pale, beautiful, boring, barely says a word. He marries Caroline (of course) and she (of course) ends up being completely uninterested in his dreams. But before then (and after then), I could never figure out why any of the characters were acting the way they were acting. To say they were one-dimensional is insulting to dimensions. And the constant description of Emmeline’s hair pulled back tight against her head was beyond annoying.

Bottom line, the story, despite being boring, was at least constantly moving along, toward (I assumed) something, but nothing ever happened. Kind of disappointing. But let’s remember our new found perspective and keep in mind that disappointing is not worthless. Or devoid of any redeeming features. It’s just disappointing. Maybe a little more disappointing that most of the novels on our countdown. But it still deserves credit. I may not have gotten mine, but I still saw a blood moon. Maybe it really is about me.

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