memory

#50 How My Dad’s Mattress Ended Up on Our Front Lawn: Lessons Learned from A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor (1987)

[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.]

We’re about a month removed from the closing ceremonies and I’m sad the Olympics are over, but not necessarily because I want to watch more events. Honestly, it was killing my productivity. And my ability to catch up on other television shows. Or both. Hello Mr. Robot my old friend.

No, the reason I’m sad is that these Olympics will hold a special place in my heart because it was really the first Olympics that we shared with Sam and Lily. They must have watched the 2012 games in London, but at that point Sam was 11 and Lily had just turned 10 and they were still going to bed early enough that they wouldn’t have seen NBC’s ridiculously late night coverage (a topic for another day). But now they’re four years older. Sam is learning to drive, Lily is in high school and they now stay up ridiculously late which is super handy if you want to watch the Olympics.

So this year we spent a lot of time between 8 p.m. and midnight sitting around our bedroom watching Simone Biles, Kerri Walsh Jennings, and Usain Bolt. We discussed green pools, the Zika virus, and the sexism imbedded in this headline.

olympics-article

We lamented the US Women’s Nation Soccer team losing way too early. We laughed at Michael Phelps giving Chad le Clos a pre-race death stare, the diving scores that covered the athlete’s groins so it made them look like porn stars, and Ryan Lochte dying his hair brown again after saying “my bad” for lying about being held up at gunpoint. (That helped for one second.) And we marveled at the athleticism and sportsmanship on display such as Katie Ledeky beating the the silver medalist by nearly 12 seconds in the 800m final, and New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino of the USA helping each other out after colliding in their heat of the women’s 5000m. In hindsight, it was two weeks of together time that was wonderful.

And although I love that I have my nights back, I’m a little melancholy due to the fact that the Olympics only happen every four years, and that time we just spent together may not be replicated with the older two kids (Macy, I realize, is another story). When the Olympics descend on Tokyo in 2020, Sam will be nearly 20 years old and in college (hopefully). Lily will have just turned 18 and be a full-fledged adult and getting ready to go off to college (again, hopefully). Who knows if either will be in the house and even if they are, will we all sit around our bedroom for four hours every night watching synchronized diving? Doubtful.

Am I being overly pessimistic? I don’t think so. I’m dating myself, but the first Olympics I clearly remember were the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games. It was the Olympics of Nadia Comaneci and the first perfect 10. It was Sugar Ray Leonard and Spinks brothers, Michael and Leon, taking gold medals when boxing still mattered. It was the US men’s basketball team winning after the controversial loss four years earlier. It was Caitlin Jenner, then known as Bruce, winning the decathlon, soon to have (at that time) his face all over boxes of Wheaties. Germany was still divided between East and West and everyone thought the East German women’s swim team was doping when they nearly swept all the swimming events. Probably because they were.

And even now, I remember watching with my parents and loving it and being so excited for it to happen again. Except it didn’t. In 1980, the US boycotted the Moscow games for reasons I don’t recall. By the time the 1984 Olympics rolled around in LA, the Russians and most of the Eastern Bloc boycotted in retaliation for the US boycott, and I was entering my senior year of high school. As such, neither the USSR nor I participated. And then I was gone.

But, and this is a big but, having that one Olympics with my parents made a difference. Not only do I still remember much of it to this day, but it also led to one of my top five favorite Dad stories. I was so obsessed with the Olympics that when my birthday came around I wanted to have an Olympics themed party. Most of the events were fairly straightforward. Lots of races (both running and swimming), we had a roughly round-shaped rock that we used as a shot put. There was a diving (read: cannonball) competition. But my favorite event was high jump, but not because I love that event or because I did especially well. No. That event was my favorite because my Dad dragged his mattress from his master bedroom on to our front lawn so that we would have padding when we landed. And he told me not to tell my Mom.

I remember thinking it was so out of character. The whole thing. I’ve spoken at length about my Dad and he had many, many fabulous qualities, but a secretive rule breaker he wasn’t. He was very practical and honest and had I been a betting man at that tender age, I would have said there is a snowball’s chance in hell that he’d drag a mattress – his own mattress – on to our front yard in support of fake Olympic glory. And then I would have double-downed that he would have run this plan by Mom first. Being wrong about your parents, however, is just part of growing up.

And I’m 99% sure that if I could tell him that story today, he would have no recollection of ever doing that and certainly wouldn’t think that it had any impression on me. In fact, there were all sorts of other “lessons” I inadvertently learned from my Dad that I’m sure he never intended. For example, to teach my new puppy, Toby, how to swim, he threw him in the pool. Lesson learned: sink or swim. Literally. When we came across a gruesome car crash in Mexico with a bloody dead guy impaled on the steering wheel, I looked at him and he didn’t flinch. Lesson learned: don’t freak out. When my grades dipped during my sophomore year of high school, he told me not to show him my report card. Lesson learned: when the lesson is learned, the lesson is learned. (Alternate lesson: give ‘em enough rope).

Lessons learned, or scar tissue developed, during childhood is a great intro to Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, the 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner. Summons tells the story of Phillip, a New York City book editor and the 49-year-old son of imposing Memphis lawyer George Carver. Phillip, who is unmarried, returns home when George, an octogenarian, decides to remarry, a development that Phillip’s two older and also unmarried sisters, Betsy and Josephine, intend to prevent. With gusto.

But it turns out that the crux of the story isn’t the kids’ obsession with thwarting their father’s new love. Instead, it is the family’s history and the kids’ belief that their father totally ruined their lives. Unlike the father in A Thousand Acres, however, whose transgressions were objectively unforgivable, George is guilty of the much more pardonable sin of moving the family from Nashville to Memphis. In their minds, that decision 40 years earlier blighted all of their lives. Seriously, it can’t be fixed.

A little background is in order. Other than George who was born in rural Tennessee, the Carvers are natives of Nashville. And George, despite his upbringings, pulled himself up by his proverbial bootstraps, attended the prestigious Vanderbilt University and became a respected Nashville lawyer. In Nashville, the family leads an ideal life blessed with meaning until George is compelled to uproot the family and move to Memphis in order to protect his reputation due to his association with a former friend, the unsavory Mr. Lewis Shakleford. Tragedy ensues.

One sister had to give up an engagement; Philip was forever torn from an adolescent love; and the children’s mother, who has been dead for a few years before the book begins, had to leave all that she knew behind and start anew. And in Memphis the hardships continue. The teenage daughters are not allowed to be presented in Memphis and are thus denied the opportunity to find acceptable suitors; the other brother Georgie eventually runs off to fight in the war; the mother declines physically and mentally; and Philip moves to New York City to get away from it all. On the surface that is pretty much it to the story (I’ll leave you in suspense as to the success or failure of their thwarting attempts).

But really, A Summons to Memphis is about whether we ever get over the pain and betrayals – or what we remember as the pain and betrayals – from childhood. Granted, it is hard to get too worked up over the kids’ pain and betrayals in this story. It seems silly to blame a move of 200 miles as the determining factor for the rest of your life. But in retrospect, maybe the seeming triviality of the father’s actions in this book force us to take a closer look at the question. In other words, some people experience such horrible childhoods that the fact those experiences affect them throughout life seems a foregone conclusion. For most, however, those supposed wrongs might appear innocuous when viewed through the eyes of an objective outsider. In any case, A Summons to Memphis is a fine reminder that forgetting the injustices and seeming injustices which one suffered from one’s parents during childhood and youth must be the major part of any maturing process. The Carver children haven’t done so well on that front.

Bottom line, A Summons to Memphis is a finely written novel — as most of the books on the countdown from here on out will be — that tells a semi-interesting story. And for parents such as myself, it is a somewhat troubling reminder that all of your actions, intentional or not, will make an impression on your children, but a select few will change who they are as adults. And the kicker is you won’t know which actions those are until it is too late. (So maybe the really important lesson that we should teach our kids is that if you’re dropped into a swimming pool, you should swim.) All you can do is try your best, and drag your own mattress onto the front lawn once in a while. And by all means, spend time with your kids, even if it means nobody goes to bed before midnight. It might just be the thing they remember decades later. Lesson learned.

#livelikefrank

Photo by Sam Seldon

Photo by Sam Seldon

If you’ve ever read Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, you know that I usually begin by telling a story and then connecting that story – albeit very tenuously and with many contortions – to the book I’m reviewing. Well, today I’m throwing out that formula and I’m going to tell you a story that has absolutely nothing to do any book because the story I’m going to tell is a unique one.

This is a story about Franklin James Clary. I met Frank four or five years ago because we both took the same lunchtime yoga class on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I have no recollection what spurred our first conversation, but it probably had something to do simply with the fact that we more often than not placed our mats in the same area of the room and had thus gained some level of familiarity. Or that we’re both kind of chatty.

Whatever the impetus, once we started talking, we quickly made multiple connections. Frank was a foodie and I worked at OpenTable. Frank worked at ToyTalk and the company’s CEO was my neighbor. We both loved music and tattoos and, of course, yoga. You get the point. As you get older and life gets busier, you tend to make fewer and fewer new friends, but this friendship seemed pre-ordained.

As our friendship developed, I quickly learned that Frank was great at everything. Seriously, it was almost annoying. He was way better than me at yoga (granted, a low bar). He could surf and ride a skateboard through SF’s busy streets like a champ. He was an amazing cook, knew a ridiculous amount about wine, and had great hair. He could even dance. And although his day job was a Creative Director of Toy Talk, he also somehow made time to write and photograph for Nopalize, the food blog sponsored by Nopa and Nopalito restaurants.

But I say it was “almost annoying” because when you were with Frank, you didn’t notice that he was good at everything, you noticed that he simply tackled life with a passion rarely rivaled. He got a job at Lucas Film because as a teenager he loved Star Wars and thought it would be “rad” to work there. And it was that same passion and focus that he brought to yoga, photography, writing, surfing, cooking, and whatever else he decided to take on. He would simply will himself to succeed.

But perhaps Frank’s greatest trait, however, wasn’t his ability to improve himself, but instead was his ability to connect with people – and connect people with each other – better than any person I have ever met. A lot of this, I think, had to do with the fact that when Frank added you to his orbit, you were there to stay. One perfect example of this talent occurred last year when I mentioned off-handedly that I was going to Japan for work. Frank asked if I’d be interested in meeting some friends of his while I was there, and I said, “Sure,” not really expecting much to come of it. A few days later this was in my inbox.

From: Frank Clary 


Sent: Thursday, April 24, 2014 4:31 PM

To: John Orta; Tatsuya

Subject: Friend meet Friend 


John, 


Allow me to introduce you to my dear friend and colleague Tatsuya. Though we met as professionals in film, it quickly became clear that we also shared a passion for food and lifestyle. When you’d mentioned you were heading to Japan, Tatsuya was the first person that came to mind as he’s someone whose character and tastes I can trust with anyone in any scenario. 
I’ve passed along your schedule including your more specific plans to visit Kyoto and Tatsuya believes he can help accommodate your visit in both Tokyo and Kyoto. He lives in Tokyo himself and mentioned knowing a good person for you to meet in Kyoto if you care to. 


Tatsuya,

Thanks so much for being so gracious and responsive. I look forward to the opportunity to pay the courtesies back upon your next visit, or for anyone you know who might be visiting the states. 
John is a great person who carries with him a wonderful spirit whenever we cross paths and I’m excited for him to share that with Japan on his journeys. It’s a great fit. I’ll let you both take it from here.

Cheers!

どうもありがとうございます Franklin

Who does that? In this day and age when we live such busy lives, not only did Frank follow up and make the introduction, he made the greatest email introduction in the history of email introductions. Only Frank could describe me as one who “carries with him a wonderful spirit” with a straight face or be genuinely excited for me to share that with Japan. Only Frank could so easily bridge the gap between two strangers who shared neither continent nor language. I have saved this email because it makes me happy every time I read it.

I’m telling you this story because over the 4th of July weekend, Frank was killed in a car accident at the age of 36. I’m still a little in shock but I’m not alone. Tatsuya, the guy Frank introduced me to and who I absolutely met and bonded with in Japan (just as Frank knew would happen) reached out across the globe to share his sadness. And the outpouring of stories on Frank’s Facebook page clearly demonstrate the impact that he made on the Lucas Film community, the Toy Talk community, the Nopalize community, the Yoga community, the CrossFit community, and probably a ton more communities that I don’t even know are communities.

A quick scan of the words and phrases contained in the various posts reveal everything you need to know about Frank: passion, energy, awesome, indelible, friend, love, curiosity, charismatic, energetic, warm, lived life to the fullest, never without a smile, and he made me a better person. Nopalize reposted this interview from last year that is wonderful. But my favorite tribute was a simple hashtag that one of his surfer friends came up with: #livelikefrank.

When tragedies like these happen, people tend to stop and take a moment to hold those close to them a little closer and say things like “remember to live every day like it’s your last.” And, don’t get me wrong, we should definitely all do that. Frank certainly lived life to the fullest. But Frank also took it one step further because he wanted everyone else to live their lives to the fullest as well. He focused on the good in people and nurtured that goodness. Moreover, he then fostered connections between people that he knew should meet but without him probably never would. He created the Community of Frank.

It’s been a tough week. I haven’t been to yoga class since the news and I’m sure when I go and his mat isn’t next to mine it will be even tougher. But I was lucky to know him and for that I’m thankful and because of him I will try to #livelikefrank.

On a Nopalize Seasons field trip.

On a Nopalize Seasons field trip.

#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.