#64 – On Bedside Notebooks, Ambien and Not Being An Asshole

I’m a terrible sleeper. Truly horrible. And I’m not talking about the occasional night when life is stressing you out because you’re thinking about what you need to do tomorrow or crap you screwed up at work or stupid things you said to your fill in the blank (spouse, boss, mom, dentist, Uber driver, etc). Those nights I get. But with me, it is not an occasional night; it is almost every night.

Is my life that stressful? Nope. But my brain has decided (I speak of my brain in the third person when it’s being unreasonable) that even if I don’t have anything to actually stress about it, it will make things up. And the best part is it will make up things that will NEVER EVER happen such as what if I get the ebola virus or what if one of my kids gets attacked by a shark. I’ll wonder if rattlesnakes can swim. I’ll think about Kayser Sose or if I know anyone who might be either (a) in the Illuminati or (b) legitimately crazy and mad at me that they’d go on a Left Eye burn the house down rampage.

But it’s not just totally improbable stressful thoughts that keep me up. I’ll also ruminate over fantasy football line ups, whether the “In the Air Tonight”/Miami Vice intro was the best intro to a television series ever (it was), and if I could sit cross-legged on the floor and try and stand up without using my hands or the walls or any furniture because I read that if you can then you’re six times less likely to die prematurely than if you can’t. In fact, last night I woke up because I had the idea that I should write a blog post about waking up so outlined the idea in the notebook by my bed.

Why is there a notebook by my bed you ask? Well, in the old days (prior to 2013) I would have just dealt with my lack of sleep and been, well, tired. But now we are inundated with articles on how insomnia makes you fat or sleep cures depression. We learn about exercising for better sleep and napping for success, and an array of new sleep devices and products, including dozens of sleep-monitoring smartphone apps, alarm clocks that won’t wake you during REM stages, sleep-inducing chocolates, candles that crackle like fireplaces, technologically enhanced sleep masks that “switch off your mind,” fitness bracelets that give you a sleep score and a $12,000 sleep-enhancing mattress containing soothing seaweed and coconut husks.

So after being bombarded by this, I decided this sleeping thing might be worthwhile and went to my doctor to see if he could help. This particular doc is a little on the homeopathic bent, so after hearing about my sleeping issues he suggested counting sheep (seriously), spraying my bed with lavender, taking melatonin or valerian root (or both), practicing meditation (I’m the worst meditator that ever lived but that is a story for another day), or flexing and unflexing every muscle in my body starting with my feet. None of this worked. (As an aside, he also suggested drinking less coffee and alcohol. Not a huge fan.)

But he did suggest two things that weren’t totally useless. First, he suggested keeping a notebook by the side of my bed so that if I woke up thinking about ideas for work or things I needed to do the next day (such as write a blog post on not sleeping), I could simply write them down. Brilliant. Totally helped. Second, he said that if none of the other things worked (including said notebook), it was important that I at least sleep well every third day so I should take an Ambien. Also brilliant.

But the uber brilliant part of this advice that he failed to mention was the magic that would happen when I would take an Ambien, have a brilliant thought, fight through the haze and write this pearl of wisdom my bedside notebook. Saul Bellow, author of Pulitzer winner Humbolt’s Gift (1976) once said: “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” Saul clearly never took Ambien. Or read my notebook.

Exhibit A: The other night I had an epiphany in my dream that was so life-changing that I emerged from my fake Ambien sleep to jot it down and fell immediately back asleep. I woke up to a note that says:

“It isn’t the dinner that is important. It is the cook.”

And I think what I meant there was that life is not about the accomplishment and is really much more about the company you keep while getting there.  Which sort of makes sense.

Except that it also sort of also implies that I think life is less about reaching your goals and more about sitting around while other people make you food. Which is kind of shitty.  Ambien-me is kind of an asshole, I think. Never make Ambien-me a chicken pot pie.  He’s sort of a dick.  Sorry about that.

And speaking of assholes, the last position on the Pulitzer Schmulitzer! countdown doesn’t go to a book or author. Nope, last place is reserved for the Pulitzer Prize Board itself for the 7 times in the last 65 years that they didn’t pick a winner. That’s right. Seven times they looked at every book published in a given year and passed. Total assholes.

To be fair, if you look at the list, you’ll notice that six of these seven non-decisions were made prior to 1977 so although I was aware of these non-choices, I believed that this was an anomaly of times gone by that we wouldn’t see again. Until 2012 happened.  That year, three books were nominated by the committee: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, and The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. But instead of picking one, for the first time in more than three decades, the Pulitzer Board refused to give an award for fiction.

Admittedly, I didn’t read any of them (because I was too busy reading all the other Pulitzer winners), but they must have been pretty good, right?!?! According to the Washington Post, these three books were “unanimous” selections of the committee. But even if they weren’t the “best” books of the year, the statement made by refusing to award any of the books forwarded to them by the committee is that no novel published in 2011 was up to the standard set by the Pulitzer Prize in over 60 years of arbitrary award giving. And that’s bullshit.

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize, or any other award, is not the “best novel ever” or even necessarily the “best novel of the year.” There were no doubt a hundrednovels published in 2011 that were good enough to win the Pulitzer. In fact, NPR said that 2011 was “a terrific year for fiction.” And those NPR guys are really smart. Or at least they sound really smart on my radio. In addition to the ones officially nominated, they could have chosen Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, the winner of the National Book Award, Kevin Wilson’s beautifully weird The Family Fang, or The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (the last two I did actually read).

To not pick one, for whatever reason, is not only arrogant, but also dumb. It is arrogant because you’re saying that there was not a single book published that year worthy of the award. Even if true (which it isn’t), you should still pick. The Downtown Athletic Club doesn’t decide to cancel the Heisman Trophy Award when the best they can do is Gino Torretta or Eric Crouch. And it’s dumb because this isn’t something that you need to even be right about. Look at the Oscars. They picked Driving Miss Daisy, Out of Africa, Forrest Gump, The English Patient, and Titanic as the Best Picture winners. Horrible movies, but no one cares. Imagine, however, if they’d come out on stage and told the audience that they decided they weren’t going to pick a winner that year. There would be blood.

There is an old Latin saying that I’ve been using recently (that is a whole other story), “provehito in altum,” which is an idiom that means both “reach for the heights” and “launch forth into the deep.” I love it because it means two possibly opposite things, but both are equally awesome. Not picking a Pulitzer Prize winner is like the opposite of provehito in altum. Totally un-provehito in altumy.

So my message to you Pulitzer Prize Board people is don’t ever do that again. Make a decision. And don’t be an asshole.

Welcome to Pulitzer Schmulitzer! The exclamation point is mandatory.

Pultizer Schmultizer! owes its existence, like many babies born today, to a chance encounter, a few quirky personality traits, timing and the internet. Here’s the short version.

A few years ago, I was in a used bookstore with my wife Gigi meandering aimlessly and trying to decide what book to read next when I noticed fairly weathered piece of paper taped to the wall. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a list of all the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction since 1948. I had read a few of the more recent ones such as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2001), Empire Falls (2003) and The Road (2007). Liked all three. And I’d read some of the older ones as well like The Old Man and the Sea (1953); To Kill a Mockingbird (1961); A Confederacy of Dunces (1981); and The Color Purple (1983). Liked those as well.

In hindsight, my interaction with the ratty paper list should have ended right there. Maybe with a small “huh” followed by “where should we eat?” But I was little intrigued. And, more importantly, I was more than a little lazy and thought that this could be a fine way to speed up the what-book-should-I-read-now process that, truth be told, can give me a headache if it requires me to spend too much time in second hand bookstores. So I declared there and then and out loud in that shitty little used bookstore that I would read the entire list. Gigi rolled her eyes. And I’m pretty sure guffawed.

You see, she knew what was coming. She knew that I would make that type of impulsive (and by definition not well thought out) declaration and then be stubborn enough to follow through with it despite the fact that it makes absolutely no sense. There were 56 books on this list at the time, with a new one added every year. I have a job, three kids, and other things to do like watch television. Best case, I’m reading a book a month. Best case. So on a whim, I just signed myself up for a multi-year project for no good reason and therefore, obviously, I was going to do it. Even if it was stupid. Maybe even because it was stupid. So I picked up Phillip Roth’s American Pastoral and the journey began.

Which is where the internet came in. I’d always wanted to write a blog because I love writing and I’m a little narcissistic but I’m also not that creative so could never figure out anything to write about. But about a year in to my Pulitzer reading, I realized two things: (a) my aging memory was already forgetting the books that I had read; and (b) although some books were great, some of the Pulitzer winners were total shit and people needed to know that. And so, an idea was born.

Here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer! we will rank the Pulitzer winners from worst to first. It’s a format that checks all the boxes. I get a structure for my blog (people love lists and I love the symmetry of creating a list from a list), I get a forum to document the books I have read so I don’t forget them, and I get to publicly rank these novels for the good of humanity. Everybody wins.

My original plan was to write as I read which would seem a logical process if you’re concerned about memory loss. But life is busy and as I mentioned I’m a little lazy so the whole thing stalled in a morass of lethargy and indifference. That was reality. What I have told myself, though, was that I actually needed to read the books first to provide the proper perspective for the rankings. And I’m convincing so that has become my truth. What seemed like laziness was really just veteran savvy. But now, the books have been read. And although I’m a firm believer that you should never force yourself to finish something important because of an artificially imposed deadline, if this is going to happen it needs to happen now.

So here we are on the cusp. How does it work? Well, the first rule of Pulitzer Schmultizer! is there are no rules with Pulitzer Schmulitzer! I couldn’t be less qualified to rank these novels. But that isn’t the point. We may not have qualifications. Or talent. But we do have a frayed list, impulsiveness, laziness, stubbornness, a lack of creativity, a pinch of narcissism, the internet and a series of questionable decisions that have brought us here. And I, for one, think that’s a very good thing. So without further ado, lets rock and roll.

Or at least talk about some books.