#59 – The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (1973). More meh than boo-yah! But there’s something to be learned from meh.

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

Sunday was a little sadder for me because it saw the passing of Stuart Scott. He was 49. For 21 years, Scott was one of ESPN’s and ABC Sports’ most recognizable and quotable personalities and one of the most popular sportscasters around the world. He bridged the world between sports and hip-hop. He reportedly coined the phrase “Boo-yah!” And I really liked him.

Granted, I didn’t actually know Stuart Scott. Never met him. Can’t call him a friend. Playing six degrees of separation, the closest connection I have is that my friend Mike met him once when he was working at Epic Records. I’ll let Mike tell the story because Mike tells stories like no other:

Had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Scott in Dave McPherson’s office at Epic. Five of us quoted him to himself. “Call him butter, cos he’s on a roll.” “Cool as the other side of the pillow.” Dropping two entire Pras lines from “Fugee-La” before a homer landed in the bleachers. And he sat there like it didn’t prolly happen to him ten times a day, with other groups of clowns like us, loving it. He just wanted to talk about music. He was as original as he was genuine. Huge loss for lovers of sports and the vernacular. RIP.

And so although I never met him, it is stories like these and the many others that have been shared this week that make me think I knew him. At least a little. At least enough to convince me that I liked him.

I’m old enough and savvy enough to know that sometimes the face people show the world– especially those in the public eye – doesn’t match who they really are. But Scott had been fighting a very hard and very public battle with cancer since he was first diagnosed in 2007. In this fight, he displayed determination, spirit and a positive attitude that inspired countless others. I don’t think you can fake that.

In July, Scott accepted the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPYs. During his speech, Scott shared his approach to fighting cancer. “I also realized something else recently,” he said. “I said, I’m not losing. I’m still here. I’m fighting. I’m not losing. But I’ve got to amend that. When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like hell.” If you haven’t seen it, take a moment.

The idea of living even in the face of adversity lies at the center of The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. The Optimist’s Daughter tells the story of Laurel McKelva, a middle-aged widower living in Chicago, called to New Orleans to support her father, Judge McKelva, during a minor surgery to correct a torn retina in his eye. Laurel has had some bad breaks. Her mother has passed away and her father is now married to the self-centered Fay who is not only her new stepmom, but also younger than Laurel. Moreover, Laurel’s husband, Phil, has also met an early demise when he was killed by a Kamikaze pilot in World War II leaving Laurel a widow.

So if that wasn’t bad enough, her father’s supposedly minor surgery goes awry and the Judge unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse and then dies. I know, brutal. Laurel is now alone in the world, having lost her mother, her husband, and now her father. It’s not easy becoming an orphan at any age and she must come to terms with the loss and the fact that no one will ever call her “daughter” again. Welty writes: “But the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought. Outliving is something we do to them. The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living. Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.”

But if that wasn’t hard enough, Laurel now has to hang out with Fay and return to the family home in Mississippi to bury the Judge. Just how awful is Fay? I’ll give you an example. When the Judge is diagnosed with his retina problem, she declares, I don’t see why this had to happen to me.” She’s awful enough that you want Laurel to channel her inner Stuart Scott and shout: “You ain’t got to go home, but you got to get the heck up outta here.”

This is pretty much the extent of the plot. Nothing much happens beyond this, but through conversation, and Laurel’s silent observations, the book focuses on the two themes of memory and death (which, given our last review, appears to be a theme with these Pulitzer winners). Without giving everything away (which honestly, isn’t a ton), Laurel goes back to her parents’ house and spends three days rummaging nostalgically through her parents’ things. When she discovers that Fay has ruined a breadboard carved by Laurel’s husband as a gift to her mother, Fay and Laurel have a bitter confrontation, until moments away from hurling the breadboard at Fay, Laurel realizes that it’s not about the breadboard. It’s not about a thing at all. Her aha! moment is when she realizes her memories need not be attached to things, but instead with can remain within her always. Laurel puts the breadboard down, and with it, puts down her attachment to the past. Laurel finally realizes that she doesn’t need to hold on to the past to be happy and heads back to Chicago and the rest of her life. She realizes she is free to live.

The Optimist’s Daughter is a well-written book so why does it live at #56 and not higher? Two things mainly. First, Fay. She does not have one redeeming quality, and that, almost by definition, makes her character unbelievable. There isn’t even an attempt to provide some sort of backstory as to why she’s so selfish. She just is. She’s like the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. Which totally works if you’re writing a, say, fairy tale. But we’re talking Pulitzer Prize winning fiction here. So when the Judge dies and the doctor says sadly, “I couldn’t save him,” and Fay’s response is “You picked my birthday to do it on!”, it just loses credibility. And even if you thought this behavior believable, why would the Judge, who by all accounts is a smart and well-respected person, be attracted to her? I get that she’s 30 years younger, but that isn’t enough by itself to sway me (unless she was really really hot and that description wasn’t in the book).

Second, and I alluded to this above, it is not a very exciting story. I like a good moment of introspection as much as the next guy, but I also like something to happen. When the biggest moment in a book is a near fight over the condition of a breadboard, I can only get so excited.

All that said, a book whose fundamental message is to live – regardless of how (un)thrilling the message is delivered – deserves some kudos. And what I can take from it, because really, it’s all about me, is that even though Stuart Scott won’t be there every night to recap sports for me, he is still there. Like the breadboard, gone is not forgotten. I will never forget what Stuart Scott stood for, what he fought for, what he represented, or what he meant. So before you go to sleep tonight, shout out a “Boo-yah!” and flip your pillow over to the cool side. And remember. Remember to live. And fight like hell.

#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.

#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?


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


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.

#62 – Sometimes Things Work and Sometimes They Don’t: My Summer Vacation vs. “A Fable” by William Faulkner (1955)

Def: Serendipity: 1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident; 2. the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. See also: you can’t make this sh*t up.

Things can happen by accident or chance. Incredible things. Things that cannot be manufactured or created by will. I know this to be true, but it’s astounding that, at my age, I’m still surprised that these things happen and that they often work out OK. Or at least, much better than they should have. Sometimes by “work out” I mean “I didn’t die” (see, e.g., when I, at age 17, was left in Tijuana with $5 and no ride and decided my best option was to hitchhike to San Diego). But most of the time it is less about avoiding a tragic outcome, and more about stumbling across amazing moments that I would (and should) have never expected to happen. Serendipity. And that’s exactly what happened when we went to Europe this summer.

To set the stage, it is important to know that we give our older kids a lot of say in where we vacation. Possibly too much. Like when the kids chose…wait for it….Pennsylvania! for spring break, we were skeptical, but it worked out. Between Hershey Park, Gettysburg, and the cheesesteaks, we had a great time. One year wiser, this year we limited the options for our summer destination to Europe, and solicited suggestions.

Where did we end up? Start with my daughter Lily, who just turned 12 and whose favorite book in the whole wide world is The Fault in Our Stars, which, if you haven’t read it, really is the best (non-Pulitzer prize winning) book in the whole wide world. And in TFIOS (tweens love acronyms), a pivotal story arch has the two cancer-stricken teenage protagonists visit Amsterdam. Ergo, we have Lily’s choice and stop #1, and promptly purchased four tickets to Amsterdam. My son Sam is 13 and a legitimate World War II history buff. And he knows his stuff. We once met a WWII vet at a museum and Sam correctly answered every obscure question the guy asked about the war. So, we had our next stop, and promptly purchased four train tickets to Berlin. (As an aside, Sam’s other top travel ideas at the moment are (a) Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis and (b) Burning Man. Places Sam Takes Me could be my new blog.)

On the plane to Amsterdam I opened up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, and read the first sentence: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” While not itself serendipitous, it was certainly eerily coincidental, and foreshadowed the serendipity to follow. Because unless you live under a rock or really really really hate sports, then you have probably already figured out that our European adventure was about to collide with the World Cup.

I am by no means a die-hard soccer fan but I love the World Cup because the World Cup does one thing better than any other event that human beings organize –it focuses the attention of the world on one place at one moment. From the moment Brazil beat Croatia in the first match, a substantial portion of the living population of the Earth had its feelings altered simultaneously by the actions of 22 men chasing a ball around a field in Brazil. Only the Olympics brings people together like this, and hey, all due respect to the Olympics, but is it ever not the same thing.

And this World Cup pretty much had everything on the field and off. It started with an insane group stage full of upsets and ended with the coronation of Germany and the potential start of a dynasty. And along the way it had Robin van Persie’s header against Spain; Guillermo Ochoa blanking Brazil; Costa Rica leaving a trail of established European powers in its wake; James Rodrigues and the Giant Bug; the Netherlands’ equalizer against Mexico in the 88th minute; Tim Howard’s 16 saves and the series of nervous breakdowns that was US-Belgium; and Germany scoring four goals in six minutes against the most celebrated nation in soccer history, a team that hadn’t lost a competitive match on home soil since 1975. But I digress.

What will be really memorable about this year’s Cup, at least for me, is that it unfolded serendipitously to overlap perfectly with our kids very non-soccer focused vacation plans.

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We landed in Amsterdam with enough time to get our bearings, check in to our hotel, purchase bright orange Robben, van Persie and Sneijder jerseys and find ourselves a spot in a bar near the Vondelpark to watch the Netherlands-Argentina match. The teams played to a stalemate and, truth be told, it wasn’t even an exciting stalemate. Argentina won in a shoot out, so we bid adieu to the Dutch who left us with so many lasting memories from this World Cup like…, um, well… Arjen Robben falling down.

But we weren’t that upset. Our love of the Dutch was fleeting because, serendipitously, Germany let loose a historic and unanticipated 7-1 drubbing on Brazil in the other semi-final and, by chance, our itinerary had us landing in Berlin the day of the finals. So once again, we had just enough time to get our bearings, buy some appropriately allegiant clothing (this time the last of the German hats and flags in the stores), and make our way to the Brandenburg gate to watch the World Cup finals on the big screens with 100,000 of our closest German friends who were armed with a seemingly unending supply of beer and sausage.

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We all know how the story ends. Germany were crowned world champions for the fourth time thanks to a stunning extra-time winner from super sub Mario Gotze in the 113th minute. We hugged our drunk German brethren. We loudly sang German soccer songs without knowing a single word other than “Deutchland, Deutchland.” We drank giant beers. And we ruined our kids. Because now they want to know where we will celebrate the World Cup championship four years from now and I have to tell them that you can’t re-create what happened because it happened entirely by chance. It was serendipity. It was magical. And sometimes things just work out because working out feels awesome.

My 200,000 closest German friends as seen from the Ferris Wheel.
My 100,000 closest German friends as seen from the Ferris Wheel.

But sometimes it doesn’t, which brings me to William Faulkner’s A Fable. The plot itself is actually pretty straightforward: a French battalion in WWI lay down their arms and refuse to fight at the behest of a Christ-like corporal. Chaos ensues as the military powers-that-be realize that if all the soldiers realize peace is as simple as everybody agreeing to stop fighting, then what’s the point of being a power-that-be. The story chronicles the elaborate efforts of the French, British and American powers-that-be to investigate and cover up this absurdity, and to punish those responsible for daring to stop a war.

Faulkner, without a doubt, is a literary great and one of only two authors with two novels on the Pulitzer list. And evidence of his genius is abundant but the problem is it’s hidden amidst pages and pages of rambling paragraphs and speeches and descriptions that are circular and repetitive and overly-flowery to the point of being masturbatory. Moreover, as with James Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, most of the characters are seldom referred to by name, and there is a liberal use of pronouns with ambiguous antecedents, so it’s easy to lose track of who’s who and what they’re doing at any given moment. I love a dense and rambling novel as much as the next guy, but when you combine that with repetitive and opaque writing, the results are a far more challenging read than seems necessary.

It was painstaking to finish this one, but I was hoping that there would be that Faulkner pay-off where you just love the end of the book, where he brings everything together in a way that blows your mind. I was hoping it would all work out in the end. But sometimes it doesn’t. Faulkner was a brilliant writer, but by the time he wrote this, his fifteenth novel, he was less in need of talent than of an editor. This was not magical, and certainly not something that happened by chance. He manufactured this book, belaboring the language, writing intentionally and deliberately, and it did not work out OK. Except maybe for the whole winning the Pulitzer thing. Which, although good for him, didn’t help him rank any higher than last on my list with this novel.

P.S. If I was in need of any more serendipity on this trip I found it at the very last stop. After Berlin we headed to Prague and by chance, on our way home, in the Prague airport, there was a piano with a sign inviting people to play. And by chance, we had a few minutes to spare, and Lily embraced the opportunity, playing “Colors of the Wind” from the movie Pocahontas.

We weren’t home more than a week when, by chance, the following video appeared in my Facebook feed.

It turns out that the pianos have been placed around the city streets, public spaces and train stations as part of an unusual art project aimed at getting people together away from their typical routine. By chance the one piano that we came across was the exact same piano in the viral video. Serendipity? The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way? Absolutely. It was one last magical moment that we never could have imagined. At least until the next one.

#63 – Nostalgia Bites: Why KFC Is Way Better Than Guard of Honor (1949)

Nostalgia is a funny by-product of age. From time to time and more and more often as I get older, something will unexpectedly remind me of things – mostly nice things – from the past. Sometimes it’s a KFC. Image

I was in my hometown of Phoenix this past weekend and happened to go past this KFC, continued driving for a block or two, made a U-turn, pulled into the parking lot and shot this picture. Why? Nostalgia, of course. And not nostalgia for KFC in general – although I’ve been secretly craving the new Double Down and don’t understand why the twitterverse isn’t up in arms that it’s back for a limited time only – but nostalgia for this KFC in particular because when I was fifteen-ish, I spent a lot of time inside this KFC. Why? A girl, of course.

Nostalgia is fuzzier than memories and the details now elude me. Her name was Cathy although I can’t remember if it started with a “C” or a “K.” I for sure have no idea what her last name was. She could drive and I couldn’t, so she was older than me but not by much. I can’t remember how we met either. She was poor and didn’t go to my high school. We didn’t have any friends in common. I don’t recall ever meeting her parents or whether they were married or divorced. But she worked at the KFC so maybe I went in one day and ordered a three-piece meal, original recipe not extra crispy, and we hit it off. It doesn’t matter.

Whatever the impetus, for a year (or maybe it was just a summer) back in the ‘80s, we were inseparable although the particulars of what we did are as unclear as the details of how we met. She had a boyfriend who was senior at her high school, so we never dated although I’m sure we made out once or twice. I vaguely remember listening to a lot of Billy Squier and clearly remember sitting on the roof of my dad’s 1967 Buick late one summer night looking for shooting stars.  I know I loved that moment and I wish I had a recording of the conversation.

As with most relationships at that age, we drifted apart as high school rolled on. I think she dropped out and had her own apartment by the time she was 17. The last time I saw her was at her wedding when I was 19 or 20. I remember Italian food, getting to dance with her briefly and her looking very happy. I never saw her again.

Until I drove by the KFC the other day, I hadn’t really thought about Cathy (or Kathy) in over 20 years. Nonetheless, dipping my toe in the ’80s end of the pool was a happy trip down memory lane to visit fifteen year old me. One of the mixed blessings of being fifteen is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has every happened to anyone before. The passage of time may have changed my perspective, but at least in this case looking back was all good.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Guard of Honor by James Cozzens, the Pulitzer Prize winner from 1949.  When I originally went to Amazon to buy this book, it was out of print. I was more than a little puzzled as to how a once-critically-acclaimed novel, if not a popular one, could fall so out of disfavor that it wasn’t even worth printing. Then I read it.

If you’re a person that likes to skip to the chase, there were about 10 pages in this 600-plus page book that I didn’t hate. And I was probably in an Ambien haze when I read those. Skip Chasers (or Chase Skippers?) can stop reading.

For those looking for a little more snarkiness, I’m glad you’re still with me. The entire story is set on a fictional United States Army base in central Florida and takes place over a three-day period during World War II. There are no chapters. Instead, the novel is divided into three large sections aptly named: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Judging from the memorandums that appear throughout the story, the days in question are September 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of 1943. It doesn’t matter.

Despite its significant size, only three things happen in this book. The first involves a white officer punching an African-American pilot. This sets up event two, where other African-American pilots protest the use of segregated officer clubs, and the leadership debates appropriate action. Finally, during day three, there is a mass training exercise in which seven equipment-laden soldiers accidentally parachute into a lake, sink to the bottom, and drown. The last incident, incidentally, has nothing to do with anything, and the total pages used to actually tell those stories was less than ten percent of the book.

The other ninety percent was mindless description of life on the base using military terms that I was completely unfamiliar with and inane dialogue (e.g., “’Oh, Judge!’ General Beal said. ‘That boy is a honey! You can believe me. Because we have a few more like him we’re going to win the war.'”). But maybe the most annoying thing about the novel was Cozzens’ decision to further confuse the reader by introducing at least twenty characters, none of which could be considered the main character, and all of which were referred to only by rank and last name which made it virtually impossible to keep them straight. I spent most of this book trying to figure out which character committed suicide, an event that took place in the first forty pages. I never did figure it out.

I’m almost done. But if you need any more, it’s not only boring, it is hard to read. Cozzens’ writing is filled with rhetorical questions, double negatives, disorientating descriptions, esoteric words, and equivocal pronouns. I had to constantly re-read sentences to ascertain, for example, what part of which abstract idea the pronoun “this” referred to. I found myself constantly drifting, which required me to re-read paragraphs, if not pages.

In short, I’ve got two words for Guard of Honor. Pain. Ful. Sometimes, nostalgia gives you the warm fuzzies. But other times, you look back and realize you simply made a mistake and cringe a little. This book falls in the latter category.

Ok, now I’m done.

#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.