Mid-Life

#48. Foreign Affairs by Alison Lurie (1985): You Never Know What’s Going to Happen – Notes from My 7-Year-Old

[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.]

“Forty is the old age of youth; fifty is the youth of old age.”

-Victor Hugo

“The face you have at age twenty-five is the face God gave you, but the face you have after fifty is the face you earned.”

-Cindy Crawford

Sometimes I find it tough to read my 7-year-old daughter Macy. She’s mostly happy to see me and I know she loves me, but as I often tell people when describing her, she skews happy. She loves everything. For example, she recently found a note pad where you could list five things that you love. Macy’s list, in order (and spell corrected):

  1. Hugs!
  2. Kisses!
  3. Soccer!
  4. Musicals!
  5. Dinner!
Note - List of Loves

Macy’s list of things she loves. “Dad” did not make the cut.

It is interesting to note that like us here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, Macy is a big fan of the exclamation point. And it is also interesting, maybe more so, to note that although “Dinner!” made the list, “Dad!” did not.

So I was very excited Sunday morning when Macy, after working very diligently on a drawing at the dining room table while I read the paper, handed said drawing to me and said, “I made you a card.” I was even more excited when I read it because it said: “Thank you for being a rock ★ parent! I’m going to miss you so so so so so so so so so much. Love Macy.”

Pride in my own parenting skills swelled within me. I looked at my youngest lovingly and we had the following interaction:

Me: That is so nice Macy. Thank you. (Quick hug ensued leading to more pride swelling). But why are you going to miss me?

Macy: What?

Me: (Showing her the note) You said you were going to miss me so so so so so much, but I’m not going anywhere.

Macy: (Taking a closer look at the card.) Oh, I forgot something.

At this point, Macy took the note back, grabbed a pen, and quickly started writing. It took only a few seconds before she handed me the now augmented note that read as follows: “Thank you for being a rock ★ parent! I’m going to miss you so so so so so so so so so much … when you die! Love Macy.”

note-rock-star.jpeg

Although I was still happy that she was going to miss me, I was understandably a tiny bit conflicted about the prerequisite. It was a little morbid. But in her defense, Macy has been a little preoccupied with death these last few months and I think I know why. First, she recently asked if she could have a fish tank. So, over my objections, we took her to a fish store and brought home a five-gallon fish tank, a miniature castle, some foliage, and three little guppies – Fire, Joey and Sparkle.

All was good with the world for about 16 hours until she woke up the next morning and found Joey lying dead behind the castle. Tears flew from her eyes immediately and she decided that Fire had killed him. I’m not totally sure what Sparkle’s alibi was, but Macy was convinced that Fire was a bad apple. She was inconsolable.

Actually, I take that back. She was somewhat consolable and started to pull it together until I retrieved Joey from the tank and headed to the bathroom to flush him down the toilet at which point we had the following interaction:

Macy: What are you doing with Joey?

Me: I’m going to flush him down the toilet.

Macy: NOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!! (Tears flying out of eyes once again. Now actually inconsolable.)

Me: What would you like to do with Joey?

Macy: BURY HIM!!!!!!

So shortly thereafter, Macy and I were standing outside in the yard holding a fish funeral for Joey. We buried Joey in a small Kleenex box, his little guppy body laying on a bed of tissues. We said a few words, which was hard given the limited time we knew each other, but it was sweet. And as the last spoonful of dirt covered Joey’s casket, Macy said: “Can we get another fish?”

The second reason Macy has been fascinated with death recently is that I turned 50 this summer. I can barely believe I’m that old, but to my seven-year-old, it is inconceivable. (And you just thought of The Princess Bride). She’s just learning to count that high. In her mind, the difference between 50 and the age of the universe is not that much. Like 20 years.

So because we had many celebrations around my birthday, she was acutely aware that I’m the oldest one in the family that means, of course, that I am going to be the first one to die. And my death will be followed by, in order, Gigi, Sam and Lily thereby leaving Macy the last one standing. The first time she told me this, I was trying to get a sense of whether this chain of events bothered her or comforted her. I’m still not totally sure. But what I was sure of was that I didn’t want her to think that was necessarily how things were going to turn out, so I said something to the effect of, “you never know what’s going to happen.”

I’ll get back to that story in a minute, but first we must detour to Foreign Affairs by Allison Lurie, the 1985 Pulitzer winner that comes in at #48 on our countdown. Foreign Affairs tells the story of Virginia Miner (Vinnie), a fifty-four-year-old spinsterish professor at Corinth University who specializes in children’s literature. She loves travel and is off to London (which she also loves) for a six-month research trip with plans to write a book about playground rhymes. Her mood, however, is a little soured because a critic named L. D. Zimmern recently trashed her work in a nationally circulated magazine.

Also bringing her down is Chuck Mumpson, a sanitary engineer from Tulsa, Oklahoma and her seatmate on what would otherwise be a pleasant flight, who proceeds to accost her conversationally. Although currently unmarried, Vinnie couldn’t be less interested. She’s had her share of affairs and even a brief marriage, but at this point in her life, Vinnie has stopped believing that falling or being in love is a good thing. So to silence Chuck, she gives him a copy of Little Lord Fauntleroy. Unfortunately, this plan ultimately backfires when the smoking, drinking and generally loudly American Chuck contacts her in London. It turns out he has been inspired by Little Lord Fauntleroy to want to trace his own family history. Vinnie slowly becomes involved with his project, and then with him.

Meanwhile, in a parallel story, one of Vinnie’s young colleagues, Fred Turner, has left his wife, Roo, at home for his own sabbatical in London, where he is researching John Gay. In chapters that alternate with those recounting Vinnie’s triumphs and tribulations, we learn that Fred and Roo have quarreled and he fears the marriage is over. He consoles himself with the affections of a beautiful and aristocratic television actress, Lady Rosemary Radley, who gives him the entree into London high life. The exquisite but not so young Rosemary has never managed to have a really successful love relationship—though she is not resigned to this, as Vinnie is. Ultimately, these two stories come together when, quite by accident and with the encouragement of Chuck, Vinnie becomes an emissary for Fred’s estranged wife. What makes this favor more challenging for Vinnie is that Roo’s father is none other than the nefarious critic L. D. Zimmern.

I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Vinnie’s relationship with Chuck opens her eyes to the fact that she has many years to live and a lot to experience, including love. Literate by nature, Vinnie comes to the realization that literature may have unintentionally betrayed her. “In the world of classic British fiction,” she reflects, ”almost the entire population is under fifty, or even under forty – as was true of the real world when the novel was invented.” Even today, in most novels ”it is taken for granted that people over fifty are as set in their ways as elderly apple trees, and as permanently shaped and scarred by the years they have weathered. The literary convention is that nothing major can happen to them except through subtraction.”

But in real life – or the “real” life of Vinnie – she has many years to live and much to experience. Why, therefore, she concludes, should she ”become a minor character in her own life? Why shouldn’t she imagine herself as an explorer standing on the edge of some landscape as yet unmapped by literature: interested, even excited – ready to be surprised?”

As one who is now near Vinnie’s age in the novel, I absolutely love this and appreciate what Alison Lurie as to say about getting older. Foreign Affairs offers a wry commentary on who we perceive ourselves as being and the sometimes jarring reality of who we are and how much we are constructed by other people’s perceptions of us. The book is witty, truthful (sometimes painfully so), intelligent, warm, humorous, and ultimately inspiring. Fast forward 30 years and I’ll probably suggest Macy read it.

However, it is currently above her reading level, so when Macy handed me back the updated note she had written, I did my best to translate the message. I told her that 50 isn’t that old and (fingers crossed) I have many years of life and living left to do. She didn’t need to miss me quite yet.

As an aside, what I really wanted to do but can’t because she is only seven, was go one level deeper and add that she shouldn’t be anti-death (although again I’m not sure she is). Death is in some ways in underrated. To be clear, I’m not talking about senseless death, or early death, or painful death; not the death of war, terror, cruelty, poverty, abuse, neglect, suicide, disease. But normal death is our admission fee for the privilege of life. It gives life urgency. It makes life worth living. And yes, graying hair and creaky joints are part of that fee. Our lives are finite — so, as we’ve discussed many times here at Pulitzer Schmulitzer!, we should live them with gusto.

But in the end that conversation didn’t happen and Macy’s takeaway focused on the uncertainly because “you never know what’s going to happen.” So I shouldn’t have been that surprised to find the following message scribbled a few days later on a pineapple note pad:

Note - Pineapple

“Can we please get another dog. We only have two fish and who knows if there gonna die? Love Macy

#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.