#58 – “Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler (1989): Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, but nothing says the 80s like Journey, Anne Tyler, and bad marriages

[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.]

Nothing’s changed
I still love you, oh, I still love you
Only slightly, only slightly less
Than I used to, my love

-The Smiths, “Stop Me if You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”

There was article a few weeks back in the “Modern Love” column of the Sunday New York Times called “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This” that seems to have struck a chord with many readers. In the piece, the author talks about going to a bar with a man who would later become her boyfriend and asking each other 36 questions, followed by four minutes of uninterrupted eye contact. According to the Times (and these stats are now a little dated), the article generated more than 5.2 million visits to the website, and over 365,000 shares of Facebook and has even spawned some parodies. Clearly, Tinder hasn’t solved all of our love problems.

The questions, proposed by Dr. Arthur Aron, were originally designed to measure closeness in strangers, but have since been used to try to form romantic bonds between people. They are divided into three sets, with each set intended to be more probing than the previous one. The theory is that mutual vulnerability fosters closeness, and because people have trouble allowing themselves to show vulnerability, this exercise forces the issue.

For example, you start off sharing who you would want as a dinner guest, whether you would like to be famous (and in what way), and when was the last time you sang to yourself or someone else. Then it moves into in more personal territory such as what is you most treasured memory? Your most terrible? It forces you to talk about what roles love and affection play in your life, and your feelings about your relationship with your mother. And woven throughout are maybe the most difficult questions that force you to say things about the other person such as this one: “Tell your partner something that you like about them already.”

What would I have said if I could go back in time and do this with Gigi? I find all 36 questions interesting, and I’m sure I would’ve been fascinated and smitten with Gigi’s childhood memories and simultaneously mortified by her relationship with her mother, but all of that fades away to leave the spotlight on the one question that really matters: What do I like about you? Would I have said I like that she’s obsessed with the Giants or that she can line dance or that she’s really good at word games? And how can I answer that now, knowing that she actually watches or listens to all 162 Giants games every single season, or that she can beat me 47 straight times in Scramble? Maybe we would have connected over music but I would have been disappointed that she hates Tom Waits. How could I have known that despite her hatred, she is open-minded enough to one day add “I Hope that I Don’t Fall in Love with You” to her not-yet-existing Spotify favorites playlist because she decided that one was pretty good, and that I would love that about her. As we stared into each other’s eyes for four minutes, would I have realized that she would become a successful lawyer, would be an even better mother, or that we’ll argue for years over whether Jimi Hendrix was overrated? I have no idea but I wish I had the chance to find out.

And regardless of whether you think asking each other these 36 questions would actually work, you have to agree with me that it certainly isn’t a horrible idea. What percentage of now-divorced couples would have never made it past question 4 (“What would constitute a ‘perfect’ day for you?”) before realizing their nascent relationship was doomed and went their separate ways? Again, I have no idea but I know the percentage is greater than zero.

Speaking of separate ways, immediately after writing that sentence I looked up the video for Journey’s “Separate Ways” and watched it three consecutive times. How could you not? Take arguably the biggest band of 1983 and throw them in an empty shipyard, have them play invisible instruments and lip sync while a hot girl with bad hair in a leather mini-skirt walks around for no reason whatsoever and what do you have? Pure gold (or Solid Gold for those of us that remember the decade). We just had an 80s party for work and the cover band – albeit awesome – inexplicably failed to play this gem. We should have just looped a video of this song all night long.

So while we’re on the subject of couples who could have benefited from asking each other at least 4 of the 36 questions, and the 1980s, we might as well tackle Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, the 1989 Pulitzer winner. Breathing Lessons tells the story of Maggie and Ira, a middle-aged couple who both believe that their lives have failed to live up to their expectations. Maggie, who gave up going to college because she got pregnant, is someone who now doesn’t hesitate to reach across from the passenger seat and honk while her husband is driving. She’s buggy, for sure, but at least she does shit. Or at least tries to.

Ira is the opposite. Uncommunicative to start with, he has reached the point where Maggie can divine his moods only from the pop songs of the 1950’s that he whistles. Besides whistling, his pleasure is playing solitaire. He had dreamed of working on the frontiers of medicine, but after he graduated from high school his father, complaining of a heart problem, dumped the family business on him, as well as the duty of supporting two unmarriageable, unemployable sisters. As Ms. Tyler writes: ”Ira had been noticing the human race’s wastefulness. People were squandering their lives, it seemed to him. They were splurging their energies on petty jealousies or vain ambitions or long-standing, bitter grudges…He was fifty years old and had never accomplished one single act of consequence.” You totally want to hang with this guy.

Their son, Jesse, is a high school dropout that wants to be a rock star to escape the drudging anonymity he sees as his father’s fate. ”I refuse to believe that I will die unknown,” he tells Ira. But like many budding rock stars Jesse made his fair share of mistakes, including knocking up Fiona, a fellow dropout, when she was 17. Those relationships rarely turn out well, and after the inevitable blow up, Fiona moved away to her mother’s and neither Ira nor Maggie have seen her for 7 years.

In contrast to Jesse, their daughter, Daisy, is actually an overachiever. At 13 months she had undertaken her own toilet training and by first grade was setting her alarm an hour early in order to iron and color-coordinate her outfit for school. At this point, Ira and Maggie can only watch as she grows away from them and heads off for college knowing there is nothing they can do to stop it. Not long ago Daisy had said to Maggie, “Mom? Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?”

The book’s principal event is a 90-mile trip that Maggie and Ira make to attend a funeral for the husband of a high school classmate. Serena, the widow, wants the funeral service to be a reenactment of their wedding, which included Maggie and Ira singing ”Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” For whatever reason, this messed-up situation works Maggie into such a state that she convinces Ira to have sex with her in Serena’s bedroom during the reception, until Serena catches them and kicks them out.

So on the way home, Maggie decides that this would be a good time to go visit Fiona and the granddaughter they haven’t seen in 7 years. Convincing herself that she can get Jesse and Fiona to reconcile, Maggie then persuades Fiona to come back to Baltimore with them. It seems that everyone except Maggie is both indifferent and skeptical about this plan, but, nonetheless, everyone goes along with her suggestions. And, of course, it all goes nowhere.

Ms. Tyler loves writing about marriages and families. But not happy marriages or families or even super unhappy marriages or families. She’s not that interested in divorce or infidelity. Instead, she focuses on people whose dreams and ambitions have vanished to the point where they’ve lost hope but aren’t actually self-aware enough to realize it. Clinging to a low rung of the middle class, these folks have long given up on promotions or success and instead simply try not to slide into bankruptcy, booze or prison. All anyone ever does is react, and then usually wrongly. But mostly they remain totally bewildered by most major ”decisions” in their own lives, particularly by how they came to marry their spouse. They never grasp how a month or two of headlong, blind activity can lead to years and years of inertia. They are desperately in need of the 36 question test.

As a general rule, I like these types of stories and I like Anne Tyler. But Breathing Lessons sits at #55 for two reasons: One, like Fay in The Optimist’s Daughter, Maggie is just not that believable. She’s constantly meddling in everyone else’s problems but is singularly unable to organize her own existence. She’s full of self-justification, but seems to have developed absolutely no powers of self-analysis or reflection. And her horribly inept driving skills border on slapstick.

Two, I liked Breathing Lessons. I just didn’t love it. It’s hard not to like Anne Tyler. Like Journey, she ruled the 80s, with three novels in a row nominated for the Pulitzer Prize: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1983) and The Accidental Tourist (1985) in addition to Breathing Lessons. And If you’ve read any other Anne Tyler books, I can safely say that Breathing Lessons is a super Anne Tyler-ly Anne Tyler book, but not the best one. If I’d never read any of her other works, I might have rated this one higher. But alas, it wasn’t my first and for me, this book had that “been there done that” feel to it. Giving her the Pulitzer for Breathing Lessons was, to me, a little like giving Martin Scorsese the Best Director nod for The Departed after not giving it to him for Raging Bull or Goodfellas. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before, but although I love Anne Tyler’s works, I love this one only slightly less than her others. We probably would’ve discovered that by question 4.

The Cuteness Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Cuteness Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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