Heroes

#51 Beloved by Toni Morrison (1988): As Yoda Would Say, Love or Hate. There is No Like. Hmm. (alternate title: I Did Not Love It. Controversy?)

Hamilton

The cast of Hamilton

[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.]

There was a busy and sad news week in April – led by the death of Prince – where you might have missed the fact that the US Treasury Department decided your wallet has too much testosterone so they’re booting Andrew Jackson off the $20 bill and replacing him with Harriet Tubman. If your third grade history class is a little fuzzy, Tubman was one of the most important figures in the movement to end slavery. Now, not only is she the first woman to appear on US currency in more than a century, but she is also the first African-American ever to appear. And Andrew Jackson, the man she is replacing, owned slaves. Karma’s a bitch.

What you might have also missed if you were endlessly looping every Prince album from 1980’s Dirty Mind through 1987’s Sign o’ the Times (which, if you haven’t done, then you should right now), was that the original plan wasn’t to replace Jackson, but rather to replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. That’s not happening anymore because, well, Hamilton. Controversy? Not really.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Hamilton is the Lin-Manuel Miranda written Broadway phenomenon; an unlikely sounding hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, one of the lesser-known founding fathers of America. The numbers are staggering. After a successful off-Broadway run, it took in over $60 million before it opened on Broadway in August 2015; it’s sold out through January 2017; the album, which reached number three in the rap charts, is the highest selling cast recording for 50 years; tickets for even Monday evening shows can fetch up to $2000 for the best seats; and it just collected a record-breaking 16 Tony Award nominations.

But Hamilton is more than just numbers. It has been called historic and game-changing and, honestly, everyone seems to agree. Hollywood stars, hip-hop royalty and politicians of every persuasion have turned out in droves to see it. President Obama took his daughters, Bill Clinton has seen it, as has Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Madonna (though she, according to cast members, spent most of her time glued to her phone). Jay-Z and Beyoncé posed with the cast after the show. One night JJ Abrams, the director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, came and asked Manuel to write music for a scene in the film.

But its not just famous people that love Hamilton. Little kids love Hamilton and make cute little kid YouTube videos. Finicky critics love Hamilton. Ben Brantley, the New York Times critic, wrote, “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit musical. But Hamilton… might just be about worth it.” And even more finicky (finickier?) and sometimes hard to please teens love the show. How do I know? Because I’ve got one.

My daughter Lily started listening to the Hamilton soundtrack right before Christmas. I’m not entirely sure what the impetus was to make her queue it up on Spotify, but I am sure that once she started listening to it she couldn’t stop. Within a fairly short period of time, she knew every word to every song. She knew every cast member, including ensemble cast members and backups. She even enlisted her little sister to accompany her in a cute little video.

Which brings me to Beloved from Toni Morrison, the 1988 Pulitzer Prize winner and probably the most controversial novel on the countdown. Just as Frank Bascombe from Independence Day was the anti-Lemmy KilmisterBeloved is the anti-Hamilton. People love or hate this book in equal numbers.

Set in Ohio in 1873 after the end of the Civil War, Beloved tells a lot of stories with a lot of voices, but the central one belongs to Sethe who is living in a farmhouse with her youngest daughter Denver, and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs. There is almost no way to explain this book without giving away the plot (ergo, SPOILER ALERT), but their house is also home to a sad but very angry ghost, who everyone believes is the spirit of Sethe’s baby daughter, who, at the age of 2, had her throat cut under appalling circumstances. We never know this child’s full name, but we – and Sethe – think of her as Beloved, because that is what is on her tombstone. Sethe wanted ”Dearly Beloved,” from the funeral service, but had only enough strength to pay for one word. Payment was 10 minutes of sex with the tombstone engraver.

Not surprisingly, a haunted house doesn’t make for the greatest home environment. Sethe’s two young sons have run away from home by the age of 13, and Denver, the only child remaining, is shy, friendless, and housebound. To add insult to injury, not long into the book and with the ghost in full possession of the house, Baby Suggs dies in her bed. Insert sad emoji.

But characters – and stories – such as these don’t exist without some significant trauma in their past, and Sethe’s past comes front and center when Paul D – one of the slaves from Sweet Home, the Kentucky plantation where Baby Suggs, Sethe, Halle (Sethe’s ex), and several other slaves once worked – arrives at their home. They fled Sweet Home 18 years before the novel opens, and when we begin the flashbacks, we see why. If there is such a thing as a good slave owner, then Mr. Garner, the original owner of Sweet Home, might qualify. He treated the slaves well, allowed them some say in running the plantation, and called them ”men” in defiance of the neighbors, who want all male blacks to be called ”boys.” But when he dies, his wife brings in her handiest male relative, who is known as ”the schoolteacher,” and, as is often the case with people whose nickname is “the schoolteacher,” he is a total asshole.

Throw in the schoolteacher’s two sadistic and repulsive nephews, and from there it’s all downhill at Sweet Home as the slaves try to escape, go crazy or are murdered. Sethe, in a trek that makes the Snake’s journey in Escape from New York look like a stroll around the block, gets out, just barely; her husband, Halle, doesn’t. Paul D. does, but has some very unpleasant adventures along the way, including a literally nauseating sojourn in a 19th-century Georgia chain gang.

So Paul D. and a shit ton of baggage arrive at Sethe’s home, and surprisingly, he appears to make things a little better. He forces out the ghost, and even gets Denver out of the house for the first time in years. But never forget, this is a Pulitzer winner which means that, chances are, this isn’t a story where things are going to work out for everyone in the end. And sure enough, on the way back home with Denver, they come across a young woman sitting in front of the house, calling herself, of all things, Beloved. Paul D is suspicious (duh) and warns Sethe, but she is charmed by the young woman and ignores him.

Not surprisingly, inviting a random 20 year-old who shows up out of nowhere calling herself the same name as your baby daughter who died tragically turns out to be a poor decision. Beloved gets in everyone’s head and sooner or later has sex with Paul D in a shed. He feels horrible and is racked with guilt, but when he tries to tell Sethe about it he instead tells her that he wants her pregnant. Lesson: just no.

Albeit, Sethe is initially elated so, to be fair, Paul D’s ad lib does put the breakup playlist on hold for a few. But when Paul D tells his friends at work about his plan to start a new family, they tell him the real story of how Sethe’s two year old died. I’ve given away too much already (and honestly would rather not discuss it), but suffice it to say that the news is too much for Paul D and he leaves. Without him around, Beloved consumes more and more of Sethe’s life until it reaches the point where it is clear that both cannot survive.

As I mentioned at the outset, people’s opinions on this novel vary widely. But regardless of where you think this book should sit in our literary countdown, there is little disputing that both the story and the writing are somewhat painful to get through, although I have a much harder time with the latter than the former.

Stories about slavery, especially good stories, are hard to read. On purpose. It was a brutal and lamentable part of our nation’s history, when very specific (and horrific) things happened to actual human beings. And being a book about that period, Beloved describes all of the beatings, whippings, rapes, killings, all of the families torn apart, individuals humiliated and lives wasted. As it should. And that may make the novel hard to read for some, but that isn’t a valid critique of the book.

For me, what made this book difficult to read wasn’t the story, it was the presentation. I’ll give you one example:

“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.”

Look, Toni Morrison is a much much much (I could go on for a while) more talented writer than I am, so I’m sure many people will completely disagree with me, but I find passages like the above hard to read. And not in a good way. It is a little over the top. A little Faulkner-esqe (and we see where that got him on the countdown). A little too, well, much. As I read this book, I kept feeling that she was trying too hard to impress and that the story therefore suffered a teeny bit because of it (IMHO).

But regardless of the prose, I admire Beloved for what it aims to achieve: to make us remember a terrible part of American history. And by remember, I don’t mean in a generic “there was slavery in the United States” way, but instead that there were very specific (and horrific) things that happened to actual people. With many wide scale events such as war, racism, or the holocaust, it is easy to get lost in the numbers, to forget that individual people were affected or perished.  Beloved personalizes slavery, which makes it easier for people-in-general to identify with the subject. It elevates a terrible part of history beyond mere statistics.

And maybe that’s where Beloved and Hamilton share a common bond. We all learn about the War for Independence in school but in our heart of hearts, we don’t care. We aren’t really moved by it. Hamilton changes that because it shows us a period in history through the story of a single, albeit sometimes unsympathetic, man. Just as we really feel the horrors of slavery because of how we see it affected Sethe, we understand the sacrifices people made when establishing this country.

But, and this is a big but, delivery matters. Beloved will never be universally beloved because Morrison loses the reader (or at least some readers) with her challenging writing. There are no little kids making videos recreating scenes from Beloved. Miranda, in contrast, engages a whole new generation of people with his never-before-heard all-rap Broadway musical. Its accessibility enables the story. Hence that’s why Alexander Hamilton will remain on the ten-dollar bill while slave owner Andrew Jackson gets the boot.

Oddly enough, the very same week that equally universally beloved Prince died, I found myself at the Richard Rogers Theater in New York with Lily watching Lin-Manuel Miranda do his stuff. To tell the truth, I was a little concerned that there was no way the play could live up to the hype. I shouldn’t have been. I loved it. No controversy there.

Lily and Daveed

Lily’s selfie with Lafayette/Jefferson actor Daveed Diggs after the show.

#52 Independence Day by Richard Ford (1996): Mid-life, Motorcycles & Motorhead (but no aliens)

[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.]

You know I’m born to lose and gambling’s for fools
But that’s the way I like it, baby
I don’t wanna live forever
And don’t forget the joker

– “Ace of Spades” by Motörhead

I know, I know. It’s been months since my last Pulitzer Schmultizer! column. I feel bad about that. And, honestly, I have no excuses. In fact, I have less than no excuses because I actually left my last job in October and didn’t start my new one until January. I had grand visions of knocking out a bunch of Pulitzer reviews during my break. I was going to knock out so many that I’d have them backed up just waiting for the perfect time to post them. But alas, I filled up my time with other activities and before you know it three months passed and I’m already in a new year. Viva la 2016.

But although unintentional, regret over things unfinished is a very apropos theme given the story I’m about to tell that I started to write back in the fall. You see, there was a Saturday in October when I found myself in a deserted parking lot, slightly hung over at 6:30am, next to the aircraft carrier USS Hornet with 20 total strangers. And again, although I have no excuses, I do slightly blame Lemmy Kilmister.

There is a good chance you don’t know Lemmy. He was the front man for Motörhead, a metal band that played music most people don’t listen to, and played it long enough ago that many more people have either forgotten or are too young to remember. But when I was 12, my friend Drew went to London with his parents on vacation and came back with Motörhead’s Ace of Spades album. When he put in on, I stared at the album cover, half of me wanting to be in the band and the other half wanting to get into a fetal position and hug my Snoopy doll.

On stage, Lemmy was all bronchial rasp, singing into a microphone stand that towered above him, tilting down to his weather beaten face with his mutton chops and oh so present warts. And off stage, he was exactly the same. Lemmy didn’t have a stage persona. As Dave Grohl once said: “Fuck Elvis and Keith Richards, Lemmy’s the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Lemmy’s a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend.” And like with many things in life, Dave was right. A kid once asked him if he got hangovers, to which he answered: “To get hangovers you have to stop drinking.”

It seems silly now, but to a 12 year-old in suburban Phoenix, Lemmy was the coolest guy that ever lived. Lemmy drank a bottle of Jack Daniels per day and slept with 2,000 women. And I was convinced – even though now I’m not sure where I got the idea – that Lemmy rode a motorcycle. Hence, someday I would ride a motorcycle. Key word: “someday.”

But life is life and a thousand other things happened. I grew up, went to college and then law school, got a job, fell in love, got married, went to more school, had two kids and adopted a third, and got five more jobs (not necessarily in that order). And that’s just the big stuff. I also (not necessarily in this order) visited 23 countries, bungee jumped, scuba dived, took salsa, guitar and swing dance lessons (twice), got stranded in Tijuana (once), lived with at least 7 pets (not including fish), climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, ate rotting shark in Iceland, did a triathlon, threw up in at least three public restrooms (and at least one of which was a women’s room), earned a brown belt in a Vietnamese martial art called Cuong Nhu, and was nearly arrested at least 5 times. To be clear, I was innocent in each instance. In my free time, I also read every single Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. And that still isn’t even scratching the surface. The good news is that I didn’t drink a bottle of Jack Daniels per day OR sleep with 2,000 women. The bad news is that is also never learned to ride a motorcycle. And then, snap, I was middle-aged.

A few posts ago I discussed my mid-life crisis and how it has spurred me to try new things. Turns out, it also spurs you to try old things. Go figure.

I guess that isn’t that surprising, as mid-life brings about the discomfiting realization that your remaining time on earth is less than what you’ve already lived. Sounds a little morbid, but you realize that death is now clearly on this side of one’s narrative rather than some faraway, remote, abstract endpoint. And so it makes perfect sense that it is during this time that people pause and reflect on where they have been and where they are going. Or, put another way, it triggers two related but distinct realizations: “I’m not young anymore” and “I won’t live forever.”

For the most part, “I won’t live forever” is motivating. Granted, it is motivation by the fear you aren’t going to live forever, but taking stock of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’d like to go is helpful in making thoughtful decisions about your future. This thinking, as I’ve mentioned, leads to saying “yes” more often, as well as some unfortunate yet inspirational coffee mugs and posters of soaring seagulls that say things like “this is the first day of the rest of your life.” That’s growth. Sort of.

The “I’m not young anymore” can be a little trickier. Despite all of the things that you absolutely can do when you hit mid-life, you realize there are absolutely things that would aren’t going to do. Like win Wimbledon, fly a fighter plane, or be President. When you focus on what you haven’t done, you tend to make impulsive decisions designed to make one last mad dash to recapture youth. Like learning to ride a motorcycle.

So somewhere in my middle-aged brain remained the acorn of an idea planted all those years ago while listening to Motörhead and looking at a picture of Lemmy: I needed to know how to ride a motorcycle. I’m the first to admit, it makes little sense for a middle-aged man with three kids. Regardless, the desire was there and it continued to gnaw at me until I found myself, hungover, in the deserted parking lot at 6:30 am next to an aircraft carrier with 20 total strangers (the hangover part was pure coincidence). Believe me, people have had worse ideas in their mid-life crises.

Which leads us to Independence Day by Richard Ford, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, and a tale of mid-life crisis poster child Frank Bascombe. Sadly, this is not the book the movie Independence Day was based on. If you’re expecting aliens, explosions and rousing speeches, you won’t get them here. Instead, you get Frank. Like John Updike’s Rabbit, this is not Frank’s first appearance in print as he debuted as the angst-ridden antihero of Ford’s highly praised 1986 novel, “The Sportswriter.” Frank, who was 38 when we first met him, is now 44 years old and has abandoned sports-writing and returned to conservative Haddam, New Jersey, to live in the home of his ex-wife, Ann, and work as a realtor.

Frank is not in a good space and is exhibiting some textbook mid-life crisis thinking: he believes that life’s choices are limited, that getting old is humiliating, and that the nearness of death is downright terrifying. He has entered what he calls his “Existence Period,” “the part that comes after the big struggle which led to the big blowup,” a sort of holding pattern characterized by “the condition of honest independence.” He’s drifting through his forties, and throw in a few non-trivial bumps in the road — a deceased child, the divorce he hasn’t been able to recover from, and a brutally murdered ex-girlfriend – and Frank is the definition of a hot mess.

But despite his hot-messness, Frank has some goals. First off, he’d like his son Paul to come live with him so he can straighten some things out. Much, much easier said than done. To say Paul’s got some issues is an insult to issues. Paul has never recovered from the death of his brother; occasionally barks like a dog; and has been labeled by a team of therapists as intellectually beyond his years yet emotionally underdeveloped. He has recently been arrested for shoplifting three boxes of Magnum XL condoms (so he’s also either set in that department or delusional) and is being taken to court by the female security guard who captured him, who is accusing him of assault and battery.

His two other goals seem somewhat mutually exclusive. On one hand, he wants a second chance with his ex-wife Ann, which seems highly unlikely since she feels that he “may be the most cynical man in the world.” And there’s also the small matter of her remarriage. On the other hand, Frank also wants to form a “more serious attachment” to his girlfriend, Sally, but here too there are problems as evidenced by Sally’s confession: “Something’s crying out to be noticed, I just don’t know what it is. But it must have to do with you and I. Don’t you agree?”

Amidst all this, Frank is also tackling two more minor problems. First, he’s trying to collect rent from Larry McLeod, a black former Green Beret, and his white wife, Betty, who live in one of two houses Frank owns in Haddam’s solitary black neighborhood. At the same time, he’s been shepherding two “donkeyish clients,” Joe and Phyllis Markham, through 45 houses and is urging them to close on a place located next to a minimum-security prison. These story lines are so boring I almost fell asleep writing the summary.

So with all this going on, you would expect more to be going on. But there is only the thinnest of story lines in the 451 pages of Independence Day. As we’ve seen with some of the other Pulitzer winners toward the bottom of the countdown, the novel often bogs down in the repetitive description of place and setting. The majority of the book is Frank driving around the Northeast in his Crown Vic and having conversations with various characters, with whom he generally tries to share moments of meaningful human connection, with varying degrees of failure. Some events, such as Frank’s effort to collect rent from the McLeods, or the mysterious murder of his realtor/girlfriend, lead oddly nowhere. Others, such as Frank’s meeting with Sally, are at best inconclusive (Sally hopes someday he’ll “get around to doing something memorable”), or at worst, depressing in their inconclusiveness (the Markhams lose the house they were looking at to a Korean family and Frank’s effort to help his troubled son veers toward tragedy and irreparable loss).

But maybe that’s the point. A good plot as we traditionally think of it will take us for a ride through a series of events. But this would violate Frank’s basic belief that “you can rave, break furniture, get drunk, crack up your Nova and beat your knuckles bloody on the glass bricks of the exterior wall of whatever dismal room you’re temporarily housed in, but in the end you won’t have changed the basic situation and you’ll still have to make the decision you didn’t want to make before, and probably you’ll make it in the very way you’d resented and that brought on all the raving and psychic fireworks.”

This isn’t a novel about conflict or rupture or surprising and unexpected turns of events. It’s certainly not about the invasion of aliens on the 4th of July. It’s really just about living inside someone else’s mind while he goes about a fairly dull weekend, and Ford somehow does a surprisingly entertaining job of capturing the banality and desperation of mid-life suburban self-creation. Moreover, it isn’t entirely depressing. By they novel’s final scenes, Frank has managed to take his first tentative steps from the Existence Period toward a sense of community and the possibilities of the “Permanent Period,” which he defines as “that long, stretching-out time when my dreams would have mystery like any ordinary person’s; when whatever I do or say, who I marry, how my kids turn out, becomes what the world — if it makes note at all — knows of me.”

Frank Bascombe is like the anti-Lemmy Kilmister. Lemmy, for better or for worse, was a living, breathing, drinking and snorting fucking legend until the day he died, which anecdotally happened in December, while I was on my work break, not writing my blog posts. Such self-realization is rare, but it is hard to imagine that Lemmy had any self-doubts as he made his way through middle age. In contrast, Frank was full of self-doubt, and spent his days wanting life to mean just a little something more than existence. Maybe he should have tried motorcycle lessons.

Speaking of which, I loved my motorcycle lessons. As the day wore on and my hangover wore off, I couldn’t help but smile as I wove through cones or learned how to shift. It was fun. But maybe more importantly, I put Lemmy’s ghost to rest and realized that I’m not going to buy a motorcycle. I just wanted to know that I could ride one. In case aliens invade us. On Independence Day.

#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.

Thanks for everything, Dad. Especially listening to AC/DC.

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[NOTE: The Pulitzer Schmulitzer! countdown is taking a pause to honor a man who was better than me in many ways. OK, all ways.]

Joe Horton, my dad, passed away early Saturday morning in his sleep. It was expected and it was peaceful and it was painless and I was there. In other words, he died in the easiest way possible for everyone else, which was certainly consistent with the rest of his life. (If you want to know why he’s a “Horton” and I’m an “Orta,” buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story. I promise it will be worth your while.)

A little bit about my dad. He was selfless. Certainly more selfless than I am, albeit a low bar. I’m sure part of this had to do with the fact that he grew up poor in Los Angeles during the Depression, which is like being really super über poor during any other time during the last century. He once told me a story about how he and his twin brother Sam cried one Christmas morning when they didn’t get a new bicycle they were expecting. His father, my grandfather, went out and sold the one piece of jewelry he owned of any value, his watch, and bought the bicycle. My dad never stopped feeling bad about that, and never asked for much after that. I, on the other hand, once pouted because I had to share a birthday cake on my birthday. I was 35, and the other person on my cake was my 1-year-old daughter. Selflessness counter: +1 to Joe; -1 to John.

But it wasn’t just that he didn’t need at lot. It was that he also gave a lot. My mother died when I was 12 and my brother was 10. A single father, he got us to school, doctor appointments, sports practices, piano lessons, play dates and birthday parties, all the while somehow feeding us and working full-time. But it was more than his ability to complete parental mechanics. On top of the driving/cleaning/cooking/everything-else-kids-need, he always made time to pay attention to us whenever we asked.

For example, when I was 12 or 13, I loved music and felt that certain songs were SO BRILLIANT that I needed to share these wise words with my dad. So nearly every day, I would make him come to my room to listen to Zeppelin, Hendrix, Floyd, the Stones, Bowie, Queen, or whatever else I happened to think was SO BRILLIANT at that very second. And he would. He’d stop what he was doing, come and stand in the doorway of my room, nodding his head to the beat. He’d stay until the end of the song, say “that’s great,” and go back to whatever task was at hand (which in all likelihood was something for my brother or me). Knowing his musical tastes now, and knowing how hard it is to get everything done in a day, I’m pretty sure he didn’t love the songs I played for him, and I’m positive he didn’t have the time to stop what he was doing to listen to them. And yet, I remember hearing him, on Sunday mornings in particular, while making French toast, singing AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds (Done Dirt Cheap).” I can’t even make French toast. Selflessness counter: +1 to Joe.

It wasn’t just selflessness that he bested me at. He was also nicer, braver, and more handsome. He fought in a war. Listening to his stories about going out in LA in the mid-1940s, I’m pretty sure he was also a better dancer. And I’m absolutely sure he was a better athlete. Despite throwing me endless grounders and tight spirals, there was no way I could match his natural ability. My dad played football for UCLA under Harry “Red” Saunders. I regularly smoked cigarettes while playing rec basketball in high school. Like during the games. Another +1 to Joe.

Although playing football was his passion, my dad was a true fan of all sports so even though I never excelled at sports, I do excel at watching sports on TV. He let me, at 7-years-old, stay up to watch Gar Heard in the famous triple OT Suns-Celtics game in the NBA finals. We watched Nadia Comanici get a perfect 10 at the Montreal Olympics. We witnessed the Immaculate Reception, Reggie Jackson hit three home runs in three swings in the ’77 World Series, Leon Spinks upset Ali for the heavyweight crown, Bird’s Indiana State v. Magic’s Michigan State NCAA Championship Game, the Miracle on Ice, Borg-McEnroe, The Catch and the last two Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed. I’d give Joe a point for this, but allowing me to watch this much television, mostly past my bedtime, was questionable parenting.

As kids are prone to do, I grew up, moved to San Francisco, became a lawyer and started a family. We spoke less, not because anything came between us, but because life is busy. Then, a few years ago, he was diagnosed with colon cancer.

He battled the cancer – and battled it well – for a long time. True to form, he didn’t talk about it much, didn’t ask for much, choosing to battle it on his own. But cancer plays the long con and last summer, I got a call in the middle of the night from my brother. “Dad’s not doing well. You should come home.” I told him I was in London. “Am I going to make it?” “Not sure,” was his response.

So I got on the first flight I could get the next day and flew from London to San Francisco, took a cab home, unpacked and repacked (there isn’t a ton of overlap in summer UK and summer Phoenix wardrobes), went back to the airport and flew to Phoenix, the entire time wondering if I was going to make it on time and trying to figure out the last conversation we had and whether I told him I loved him. I needed to tell him what a great dad he was. When I arrived in Phoenix, I grabbed my rental car and drove straight to the hospital, raced up to his room and found….

…him sitting in a chair watching the Diamondbacks game and having lunch. “What the fuck?” That may have either been thought or spoken but in either case my brother gave me the “dude-sorry-but-seriously-he-was-on-his-death-bed-last-night” look. It wasn’t his fault. Turns out the cancer had shut down one of his kidneys and was wreaking havoc on the other. The doctors said that despite his recovery from the brink, the end was near and sent us home with hospice and a hospital bed.

Now I had the chance to give something back to him: I could be with him at the end. I flew my wife and kids in to say goodbye. We told stories and went through photo albums and laughed a lot (most significantly about my apparently very poor grades in Religious Studies, which my kids discovered in reading my old report cards that my dad had saved). At the end of the weekend, my wife and the kids said goodbye and headed back home. I stayed to wait for the end. Selflessness counter: +1 to John.

But it turns out the end wasn’t near. After about a week of watching my dad watch the Diamondbacks and eat lunch, I finally had to address the elephant in the room. “Dad,” I said. “I don’t think you’re going to die anytime soon.” “How long is this going to take do you think?” he asked. “I have no idea. How do you feel?” “I feel pretty good.” I said, “Pops, I love you, but I need to get back home. Call me if you think you’re dying and I’ll come back.” Selflessness counter: -1 to John

But THAT call never came. Instead, I got a call that they kicked him out of hospice, which is like getting kicked out of the Hotel California. And we took advantage of it. We met in San Luis Obispo for a weekend. He threw himself an 86th birthday party, and we went to it. My daughter Lily and I met him in LA when he went to his UCLA football reunion in November. My son Sam and I flew to Phoenix over MLK weekend. Six weeks ago my dad went to Barcelona because he had never been. I’m not kidding. +1 to Joe.

But the doctors had said that at some point he would begin to feel bad. And eventually they were right. About a week after coming back from Barcelona he went to the hospital and the doctors told him that the cancer had spread. It was a matter of weeks, not months.

So for the last five weeks I’ve been flying back and forth to Phoenix on the weekends and we did what we’ve always done best: watch sports. I rooted for the Warriors and he rooted for the Clippers (he won). I rooted for the Diamondbacks and he rooted for the Dodgers (I won). We watched Seung-yul Noh win the Zurich Classic, J.B. Holmes win the Wells Fargo, and Brendan Todd win the Byron Nelson. We even watched old guys play tennis on the ATP Champions Tour.

But by far the most fun the last few weeks has been watching California Chrome win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. My dad loved this horse. He loved him because he cost $8,000. He loved him because his owners were first time horse owners and called themselves Dumb Ass Partners. He loved him because his 77-year-old trainer had never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. And he loved him most of all because he was from California, and a California horse hadn’t won the Derby since 1962.

Thursday night I got a call from my brother that was very similar to the one I received 10 months before when I was in London. “You need to come home.” So I took the first flight home in the morning, again wondering if I had told my dad I loved him when I left the weekend before.

My brother had warned me that he really wasn’t responding, but when I arrived early the next morning, he recognized me immediately. We hugged and I quickly told him that I loved him and that he was a great father. He told me I was a great son. I told him he was a better dad than I was a son and thanked him for listening to all the songs I made him listen to.

Then I asked, “Dad, do you remember the AC/DC song you used to sing when making French toast?” And without missing a beat, he busted into his best Bon Scott imitation and started singing the chorus: “Dirty deeds and they’re done dirt cheap.” “Yes!” I said, and together we sang a few verses. +1 to Joe.

It turned out to be his final point. When our singing stopped, he closed his eyes and fell asleep. That was really the last actual conversation we had. By the end of day, I’m not sure he recognized me anymore and he passed that night.

And if I was looking for some sort of sign, which I wasn’t, I was given one by 97.9 KUPD, the classic rock station that existed when I was a boy and continues to this day. On my way to the airport as I left Phoenix, they played, back to back, “Hey Joe” by Jimi Hendrix and “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. The only thing weirder would have been if they’d played “Stairway to Heaven” next, and although tempted, I didn’t wait for the commercial break to end and gave the keys back to Thrifty Rental Cars. I had a year to say goodbye to the most selfless man I’ll ever know, and I think I did it well. And if you’re still keeping score (and I am, but remember I’m not that selfless), I’ll take this as my final +1.

Saying goodbye was a dirty deed, but it was done dirt cheap. So don’t fear the reaper, Joe. Climb the stairway to heaven. And if California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes, I’ll know you made it.