#60 – Lighting the corners of my mind: Mem’ries of Led Zeppelin III and The Tinkers by Paul Harding (2010)

I am certain I have forgotten way more things than I actually remember. I just finished listening to Serial, the NPR podcast phenomenon that asks whether Adnan Syed was wrongly convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. The main problem with Adnan’s defense is that he can’t remember what he did after school on the Friday afternoon that she was killed. Several hours of his life are missing from his memory. I feel bad for Adnan because I can’t remember a lot of things. Huge chunks of my life, like the winter of 1994 or a single woman I dated before Gigi (go with me on this one), let alone 3:00-5:00 p.m. on a day 15 years ago.

Case in point: Just a few days ago, Gigi was trying to remind me of the place in San Francisco where we used to eat Sunday brunch. Not only did she remember the name, location, décor, and what she ate, but she also remembered what I ate. And whether I liked it. In contrast, not only did I not remember the restaurant (or what I ate) when she was describing it to me, I have now already forgotten what it was that she reminded me of. And I also can’t remember what I had for breakfast today. Honestly, it’s one of the benefits of documenting my life in Facebook and Instagram, and I actually order the Facebook book so that I can remember what I posted on Facebook. None of this existed 15 years ago, when Adnan allegedly killed his girlfriend.

I should probably be concerned, but then I remember that I can recall every lyric of every song on Led Zeppelin III. In order, both sides. I can also recite every defensive player on the Pittsburgh Steelers 1976 Super Bowl Championship team, play The Sting from memory although I learned it when I was eight, and tell you the last 44 Best Picture winners at the Oscars.

Which begs the question: why do we remember what we remember? I have no idea but my guess is that we don’t necessarily remember things we did, instead we remember things that we did, plus something. The “plus something” is the key, but it can be anything. It can be contextual (where I was when I heard about 9/11), personal relevance (where I was when I first kissed Gigi) or simply repetition (Led Zeppelin III). Brunch in San Francisco, while I’m sure fantastic and enjoyable, is not a plus something for me. And so, all memory of it is gone. (As an aside, Gigi jokes that I eat “fud” and not “food” and this may be true. Meals have significance to her but not to me, unless Mohammed Ali or Heidi Klum is eating next to me. And then I’ll only remember what they said to me, and not what I ordered.)

I was in Japan this past October and saw some incredible things. I looked over Tokyo from Roppongi Hills, walked through Happoen Garden, visited a LOT of temples that involved me lighting a lot of incense. I did a lot of bowing. I rode a bullet train past Mount Fuji and saw a Geisha in the Gion Kobu area of Kyoto (on the street, not as a customer). Will I remember them in 20 years? Questionable. It’s already a little hazy. But what I will remember is an intersection.

You see, there is an intersection in the Shibuya area of Tokyo that is considered the busiest in the world. There also happens to be a Starbucks on one corner where you can watch this intersection from the second floor. It is mesmerizing. I must have spent 20 minutes drinking a Venti coffee (yes, still called that in Tokyo) watching the light change and the pedestrians stream across the street only to somehow make it back to the sidewalk by the time the walk sign turned red and the light turned green and the cars came. It was Tokyo in a nutshell.

But why I really remember this intersection while the other memories already begin to fade is that I took a video that I can’t stop watching.

At the 15 second mark of this video, when the walk light turns green, there is a man in a white shirt that darts from the bottom of the screen toward the top on the right hand side of the cross walk. As he gets to about the halfway point, three men – one from the top, left and right of the screen – meet him in the middle of the street and knock him down. There is a flurry of activity, and then they all get up and exit stage left.

What happened? Was it a robbery? Or was I just watching a group of kids playing around? If the latter, what was it they were trying to do? It certainly didn’t look like fun. Especially for the guy who landed on his ass. Whatever the setup, I’m also fascinated that the mass of people around them seem nonplussed by the whole event and don’t take a second look. Was I the only one watching this? I’m obsessed with my video. The event itself is now significant to me because I have watched my video at least 300 times, and this minute will be my Tokyo memory that stays with me most clearly because of the repetition. Did I even eat in Tokyo? No clue.

Which is a fine intro to The Tinkers by Paul Harding, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner. The Tinkers tells the story of a New England patriarch named George Washing Crosby as he lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room, “right where they put the dining room table, fitted with its two extra leaves for holiday dinners.” The book recounts Crosby’s difficult childhood in Maine where his father was a tinker and travelling salesman who also suffered from epileptic seizures, and (small spoiler alert), the most traumatic event in Crosby’s life centers on his father’s abandonment of the family on learning that his wife was planning to have him institutionalized. But really, the book is less about what happened in his life than what Crosby remembers happening. It’s the story of the journey we will all go through at the end, and Crosby’s life, seen from its final moments, becomes a collection of memories that make sense only to that one person.

It’s a sad story, which isn’t at all surprising because most of the Pulitzer Prize winners are. But this one hit a little closer to home than most as I just went through something similar with my dad. For about six weeks beginning in mid-April of this year, we knew my dad was going to die. As such, I spent a fair of amount of time with him during those weeks, and I often thought that odds are that this is how we will go out. It won’t be an aneurism, a plane crash, or an underwater poisonous snake. Most of us will die slowly. We will die in a bed in a hospital, hospice, or at home.

Death, as they say, is one of life’s certainties (along with taxes and the Giants winning the World Series every other year), but that doesn’t make it any easier. And I wondered what my dad thought of the whole thing. I wondered if he thought about the fact that he wasn’t going to see another birthday, or presidential election or, for that matter, another World Series. He won’t see his grandchildren get married or the end of House of Cards. Everything he did he was doing it for the last time. And this gets only more acute when you think about what the very last days will be like, assuming our pain has been managed, when we are laying on our bed, no longer able to communicate in a meaningful fashion with whoever is sitting – reading or knitting or texting – in the chair beside us. What will we think about then?

That’s the place where The Tinkers lives. In the eight days before his dies, Crosby will think very little of the traditional narrative of life. Crosby’s life is summarized early and quickly: “[He] got a master’s degree in education, counseled guidance in high school, went back north every summer to fly-fish with his poker buddies – doctors, cops, music teachers – bought a broken clock at a tag sale and a reprint of an eighteenth-century manual on how to fix it, retired, went on group tours to Asia, to Europe, to Africa, fixed clocks for thirty years, spoiled his grandkids, got Parkinson’s, got diabetes, got cancer, and was laid out in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room.”

Instead, Crosby fixates almost equally between his father’s epilepsy and the floorboards below the hospital bed that has been set up in his house. He spends far more time thinking about the night long ago when his father bit his hand in the midst of a fit than he will spend thinking about the years that he spent teaching at the local high school. He recalls the passion for antique clocks that marked his retirement and how he would meticulously repair them. He focuses on the moments that made him. He focuses on the “plus somethings.”

So why doesn’t it rate higher on the countdown? First, Harding has some Faulkner-esque moments where sentences either stretch nearly the length of a page or border on self-loving: “Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October breeze.” Ugh. Second, George’s death is too free of pain and terror and doubt. Or maybe just for my taste. But he just seems so calm and normal about the fact that he is dying that it doesn’t seem realistic. But lastly (and most importantly), although the story meant a lot to me personally because of my own dad’s death, I didn’t really care about the story. I wasn’t invested in George or his memories beyond what they told me about myself.

There was an article in the New York Times about six months ago written by a hospice nurse who spoke about the regrets of the dying. They regretted working too much, not being true to themselves, not having the courage to express their feelings, not keeping in touch with friends and not letting themselves be happier. I get that. But we all know what we’re going to regret. I mean, duh. But what will we remember? Regret is what we’ll think about when we can still choose what to think about. When that time is passed and we are at the point where we can no longer control our thoughts, we’ll think about those moments in our lives that are plus something. Those moments that defined us. The good shit. Like every word of every song on Led Zeppelin III.

The Cuteness Factor

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So I’m going to cheat a little with this entry of Pulitzer Schmulitzer! and share with you something that I wrote that doesn’t have anything to do with the countdown. It does, however, actually contain the words “Pulitzer Prize” in that order, so I’m going to use that very thin connection to justify its inclusion here. And if that doesn’t sit well with you, I’d like to remind you that the only rule here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is that there are no rules at Pulitzer Schmulitzer!

Why would I choose to do this you ask? Well, I might possibly tend to hold grudges. For a long time. And I hold them deep deep down inside. Which, people say, isn’t great. So this is like therapy and you get to come along for the ride. You’re welcome.

You see, about a year and a half ago there was an essay contest associated with a charity event that will henceforth go nameless because I love the charity and the event despite whatever I might say that follows. The topic of the essay contest was “Transitions” and the description said they’d expect to see “stories ranging from starting a family, recoveries, graduations, aging, career changes/promotions, marriage and divorce.” I could totally do this.

I could totally do this because, as you may or may not know, I have a 14 year old named Sam, a 12 year old named Lily, and a 4 year old named Macy. That is a long break between #2 and #3. But as you may or may not also know, we adopted Macy from Korea back in 2011, and I could think of no better transition to write about than that one. It’s a story about jumping back in to the proverbial parental pool after many years with an international travel angle to it. #Winner.

But there was something about the contest – namely the name of the co-sponsor that will also heretofore remain nameless – that made me think that it was aimed primarily at women. So before I spent any time writing, I lobbed in an email and asked if that was the case. Happily, I was told the contest was open to all genders, and I equally happily put pen to paper.

According to the rules, they were going to name 30 semi-finalists and post their essays on Facebook for the public to vote on. Although I had absolutely no idea how many people would enter this contest, I figured I had to be in the top 30 (in addition to holding grudges, I also tend to think highly of myself) and then I figured that I could rally some significant Facebook support to win this thing. I was in the driver seat.

So when the day approached for the announcement of the semi-finalists, I quickly scrolled down the list of names to find mine. Instead, this is what I found (last names excluded): Christhal, Judy, Vanessa, Rose, Kat, Generation X Girl, Tonja, Kim, Vicki, Dolores, Tanya, Kelley, Mihee, Heather, Ashley, Stephanie, Abigail, Terry, Kim, Shannon, Marsha, Christie, Leslie, Nancy, Lisen, Laurel, Kerri and Sierra.

Huh. I don’t want to make too many assumptions, but that sounds like a lot of women. Admittedly, there is a Kim (Coates) on one of my favorite TV shows Sons of Anarchy who is a man, and a Terry (Bradshaw) who is one of my favorite quarterbacks of all time and also a man. And I guess Generation X Girl could be a man as well and just trying to throw the judges. But let’s be honest, that is a list of women.

So, bottom line, my essay, The Cuteness Factor, never got its fair shake on Facebook so I’m going to rectify that right now. Even though there are no prizes, it will just be one less thing to hold a grudge about. We’re all winners. And that, people say, is a good thing.


The Cuteness Factor

I have a Korean toddler living in my house. I am not Korean. She calls me daddy.

Three years ago, our family was firing on all cylinders. My wife and I had two fantastic kids who were in the sweet spot of ages. My son was 9. My daughter was 7. They weren’t old, but they were old enough. Old enough to put on their own socks. Old enough to walk themselves to school. Old enough to enjoy movies that were not only non-animated, but also questionably inappropriate for their ages. Old enough to travel overseas and let me watch wholly inappropriate movies. Old enough to wipe their own butts. Life was great. Finally.

It’s not that life wasn’t great when they were younger. It’s just that parenting little kids blows. If you have parented little kids, you know it’s true. And if you haven’t yet parented little kids, don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Yes, it has its moments. And yes, it is rewarding. But on the whole, it blows. Diapers blow (no pun intended). Bubbles blow (pun intended). Bath time blows. Reading Hop on Pop blows. Spending your days at the playground or the zoo or play dates with other little kids? All blow.

Moreover, little kids aren’t “old enough” and therefore can’t do anything they NEED to do by themselves like eat or pee or use the remote control. But at the same time, they ARE perfectly capable of jabbing themselves with scissors, drowning in a pool, climbing up and falling off objects of all sizes, and eating Legos. Until kids turn four, it’s exhausting. And boring. And there’s the added stress of knowing it is your job to keep these children alive and apparently their job to try to kill themselves.

So in my mind, we were done. So done. Not only was I physically done (a pregnancy scare three months after baby #2 will send any sane man to the urologist), but I was mentally done as well. I often calculated how old I would be when my youngest went to college. Fifty-two. That was still young, right? At fifty-two, I could still snowboard and drink Redbull & vodka. Maybe even at the same time. I could summit the world’s seven highest mountains and learn to spear fish. I could join the Peace Corps.

And then, my younger one turned four and it started to be fun. My wife and I remembered who we were and started listening to music that wasn’t sung by grown men in colorful shirts, reading books with words that didn’t rhyme, and traveling to places that didn’t have princesses. And we were sharing all of it with our quickly growing kids. As they inched toward tween-dom, we began to enjoy our lives again, having made it through the not old enough years and not missing it one bit. Or so I thought.

Apparently, the joy of raising older kids is accompanied by a proportionately inverse emotion experienced only by women: loss of babyhood syndrome (LOBS). In those very same years that my joy was compounding, my wife’s LOBS also compounded. Then a friend of ours got pregnant in her 40s, and I casually commented that if that happened to us (mind you, a physical impossibility), we would have another baby. My wife heard only one thing: we should have another baby.

But life is busy and it wasn’t until shortly after my 43rd birthday that my wife’s LOBS hit capacity, and she made a call to an adoption agency. It turns out, Korea thinks old people make crappy parents, and won’t let you adopt if either adoptive parent is 45 years old at the time of the adoption. That gave us two years, and the predicted wait time to adopt from Korea was running approximately 24 months. So I did what any other supportive husband would do: I agreed to submit the application figuring that by the time it happened, I’d either be too old or they would find a cure for LOBS.

My wife and I were each given our own application consisting of at least ten pages of essay questions covering our finances, education, ethnic background, religious beliefs, and parenting theories. I knocked mine out in seventeen minutes before work one day. Unfortunately, it turns out that they actually read them.

So when the social worker came to our house to review our application, my wife got a gold star for her Pulitzer Prize-worthy answers. I (deservedly) did not. For the question that asked how we were going to pay for the child, a question intended to elicit information about our financial situation, I answered: “Money.” Another question, designed to determine if your Korean baby-to-be is going to feel out of place, asked “if you have children, describe their physical characteristics and if they have any special needs.” In response, I wrote: “My kids look like normal kids. No special needs.” It went on. No one was amused.

Moreover, the older kids were unsure of what another kid in the family would mean. My son already had a little sister. He wasn’t all that interested in another one, and wasn’t all that afraid to tell that to anyone who would listen.

But despite my worst efforts, we were approved, which meant I now had 24 months to make this go away. Except I didn’t. They lied. Three months later, that’s right, THREE months later, my wife received a call: “We have a baby for you.” She actually said: “I think you called the wrong family.”

Upon hearing the news, I was in total disbelief that they could overestimate the time it would take by 800%. How is that possible? It was against the rules. The rule was 24 months. My wife explained that they “matched” us with a baby. What? This wasn’t eHarmony. How exactly did they match me to a six-month old Korean baby? We both like Japanese whiskey and Ozzy-era Black Sabbath?

A few months later we were all on a plane to Seoul to meet the newest member of our clan. And that newest member, a little girl we named Macy, is amazing. Yes, I have to deal with diapers, playgrounds, zoos, and swallowed Legos. And yes, they all still blow. But Macy will be three in a few months and could not be cuter, nicer, funnier or smarter and I’m reminded that they have to be not old enough to get to the coveted old enough age.

The other kids are smitten. In fact, our son, now 12, routinely gets Macy out of bed in the morning, gets her some milk, plops her on the couch next to him, and turns on the TV (she is the third kid, after all). He gets upset if he misses her bed time group hug. One recent evening, I was driving him home and he asked if Macy was still up. I couldn’t help but tease him a little about his love for his sister given his initial reluctance. He turned to me, and with all sincerity, said, “I didn’t take into account the cuteness factor.” Neither did I.