Movies

#61 – Let’s Give Credit Where Credit Is Due: How Parenting Taught Me Not to Totally Hate Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1997)

Somewhere between generations, parenting became a verb. My dad was my parent. I parent. I do it because I have to, and that’s what “we” do now, but it is not entirely self-fulfilling. I often think I should get some sort of credit for my efforts. Recognition of some sort. You know those people who make self-deprecating comments about how they should get an award for being “parent of the year”? I kind of want one.

Case in point: one night a few weeks ago I came home late to find my wife Gigi, a huge (some might say giant) Giants fan, watching her team clinch the NLDS over the Washington Nationals. It was late and I didn’t need any more to drink, but hey, I like a significant sports win as much as the next guy, so I poured a (completely unnecessary) drink and watched post-game highlights with her and we reveled in the win for far too long.

As the clock approached midnight, we agreed that we needed to go to sleep because it was a school night, and Gigi says: “Hey, can you set your alarm for 4 a.m. and wake up Sam?” I stare at her blankly. “He wants to see the blood moon. It’s happening at 4 a.m. and he’s worried he won’t hear his alarm.” I continue to stare. If I were a computer, a window would’ve popped up that said File not found.

Undeterred, she continues. “Actually, why don’t you get up at 3:55. That way you can check to see if it’s cloudy outside and if you can’t see the moon you can turn off his alarm.” That was the last straw. “That sounds horrible. I don’t want to do that.” I reply. “Sam doesn’t want you to do it either. But it’s not about you. You should help him,” she says. Oh great. He doesn’t even WANT me to wake him up. But good parenting dictates that’s what I’m supposed to do.

Don Draper would have poured another scotch and given her that “get out of town” look and refused. Me? I set my alarm for 3:55 a.m.

“Get out of town. And make me a chicken pot pie.”

Secretly I hoped that I would be the one who didn’t hear the alarm. Unfortunately, my alarm is in fine working condition, which meant that at 3:55 a.m., I awoke to the sounds of waves crashing and sea gulls making their sea gull noise. Yes, that is actually the sound of my alarm. I think it’s supposed to wake me gently, but in reality, it evokes a terror something only Hitchcock could understand.

Once convinced I was on land and not being attacked by birds, I dragged myself out of bed and dutifully made my way outside to look for cloud cover. Unfortunately for me, the closest view of the outside was from the balcony of my 12-year-old-daughter Lily’s bedroom. Lily values her sleep, so I made my way through her room as stealth as Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. This was no easy task, given the landscape of her room, which included old issues of People magazines in various states of disassembly, scissors (for aforementioned magazine disassembly), a rainbow assortment of nail polish bottles, grapes, empty bags of goldfish and Tostitos, several fallen soldiers of soda consumption, laundry, an old lunch box, and at least one soccer ball. I was like Private Ryan navigating the land mines of Normandy, and quietly made my way outside. There, I saw it: the blood moon. And, admittedly, it was kind of cool.

I paused for a few moments to look at the moon before realizing I was FREEZING because it was four in the morning and I tiptoed my way back through Lily’s room quiet as a mouse to wake up Sam. Because, remember, it wasn’t about me.

Me: (shaking Sam) Hey. Wake up.

Sam: (snoring)

Me: (still shaking) Seriously dude, wake up.

Sam: (eyes opening). Huh?

Me: Mom told me to wake you up so you could see the moon.

Sam: OK

Me: You good? It’s kinda cool.

Sam: Yeah.

Me: It’s kinda cool.

Sam: What?

Me: The moon. I’m going back to bed.

So I went back to bed and tried to achieve instant narcolepsy, but as we all know, sleeping is not my strong suit. I remember looking at my clock at 4:30 and then drifting off to peaceful slumber …only to be woken up at 5 a.m. by the screams of Macy, my 4 year old. As is my standard practice when any of my children wake up in the middle of the night – I immediately turned to Gigi. She’s the mother. She instinctively hears every noise our children make. Or so I thought. Apparently that skill only lasts through two children. By the third kid, she can sleep through it all. And she was happily doing just that. Macy was screaming and my wife was completely unaware. So, it was up to me. The parent who heard her, ready to comfort her. I dutifully got up and made my way into her room where Macy was lying on her bed…

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: (whispering) What’s wrong?

Macy: I HURT MYSELF!!!!!

Me: Ok. How?

Macy: I FELL OFF THE BED!!!!

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

Macy: I HURT MYSELF!!!

Me: Yeah, I got that. We need to stop yelling. (rubbing her back) Shhhh.

Macy: (eyes closing) I fell off the bed…

Me: I know. That sucks. Go to sleep.

And because she isn’t old like me, in about 30 seconds, Macy was sound asleep again. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing. If I’m up at 5 a.m. and have an actual conversation and interpersonal exchange, there is no way I’m falling back asleep. So I tossed and turned until it was time to get up. I was tired, but at least I could take solace in the fact that my family knew I was there for them. I was like the father of the year! Or so I thought.

I ran in to Sam in the kitchen eating breakfast.

Me: How was the Blood Moon?

Sam: I missed it.

Me: What?

Sam: I woke up at 4:30 and it was already over.

Me: But I woke you up at 4.

Sam: You did?

Me: Yes.

Sam: Why?

Me: Because Mom told me to.

Sam: (super annoyed) I told her not to do that! (leaving room in a huff)

Huh. Not exactly the heartfelt outpouring of gratitude I had anticipated. Luckily, the little one was now up and came downstairs rubbing her eyes.

Me: Hey Macy. How are you feeling?

Macy: (Says nothing. Not good in the morning.)

Me: You know. You fell off the bed last night.

Macy: (Staring blankly as if I’m insane person.)

Me: Remember I got you back in bed and rubbed your back until you fell asleep again?

Macy: (Still staring) Where’s momma?

If there can be less gratitude than none, I had now achieved it. By now, not only am I not getting the love I so rightly deserve, but I’m also beginning to think that I imagined the whole experience. That is, until Lily arrived.

Me: Hey Lil. Hope I didn’t wake you up last night.

Lily: You totally woke me up. What were you doing in my room in the middle of the night? You were stomping around. Stomp stomp stomp.

Me: I had to wake up Sam. Did you fall back asleep?

Lily: No. (With some sort of annoying face expression that probably involved an eye roll.)

So there you go. Not only did I not get credit for my outstanding acts of parenting, I actually achieved a trifecta of disappointment in my kids.

So I decided then and there that it is important to give credit where credit is due and I’m not sure if Pultizer Schmulitzer! has lived up to that. Until now. Part of the problem is the format I have chosen. Because I’ve set this up as a worst-to-best list, by definition, I’m going to spend a chunk of time talking about books that I didn’t like or at least like less than the others.

But it is also important to note that all of these books are legitimate works of literature. It’s like ranking your favorite Martin Scorsese movies. Eyeballing the list goes something like this:

  • The “Are You Looking at Me” Division (Taxi Driver, King of Comedy, Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Goodfellas): 30% of the Pulitzer winners are undisputed classics that we all love. Enough said.
  • The “Bob the Butcher” Division (Wolf of Wall Street, The Departed, Gangs of New York, Aviator): The next rung down is still pretty awesome. There are no slouches here …but, and this is a big but, you can also see the flaws. Roughly 20% of our books can be found here.
  • The “So in Other Words – I’m F**ked” Division (The Last Temptation of Christ, Cape Fear, Age of Innocence, Casino): This category houses the 40% of the books from the list that range from somewhat boring to slightly painful but on the whole I still consider reading them a worthwhile endeavor or at least a net positive.
  • The “Tom Cruise” Division (The Color of Money, Boxcar Bertha, Shine A Light): The last 10% of books I don’t like. At all, really. My time would have been better spent re-watching the Joe Peshi “you think I’m funny” scene 87 consecutive times.

But just as the Martin Scorsese movies that I didn’t like are better than vast majority of the movies out there, even the worst Pulitzer winners deserve a little respect. So from here on out, Pulitzer Schmulitzer! will attempt to do a better job accentuating the positive and toning down the snarkiness. Lets give it a go.

And so we (finally) get to Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Milhauser (1997), a cautionary tale for ambitious people. It’s kind of like Atlas Shrugged, but the complete opposite. And it’s short. Which is for sure opposite. So if you hated Atlas Shrugged, you might like this one. Positivity? Check.

So what’s it about? Work. And not even glamorous work. Our hero Martin Dressler begins the book as a clerk in a cigar store in New York at the dawn of the 20th century. He’s got intelligence and ambition and a little luck and as he watches the city spring up around him, he’s filled with his own entrepreneurial ideas. He starts with a restaurant, which becomes a chain, then moves to hotels. He builds a hotel called the Dressler, follows it with the New Dressler and, lastly, the Grand Cosmo. Each version becomes more and more absurd in its design and extravagances. The Grand Cosmo, for example, has thirteen underground levels full of parks, a theatre district, replicas of famous people, mechanical birds, fake caves, and real streams brought over from other lands. As with many dreamers whose dreams get to big, it ends badly.

So what landed Martin Dressler so low on our list? Boredom. I was so bored with this book. I was so bored that I didn’t even want to go back to it to see why it was so boring for this review. But I’ve got a job to do so here goes. First, there is a lot of talking about the mundane in a mundane way. I’m not kidding. The author included pages of lists in this book. Like to-do lists. They are boring.

Moreover, in the midst of all of this, there is a love story. Of sorts. Martin ends up meeting two sisters. Emmeline is dark, intelligent, plain. Caroline is pale, beautiful, boring, barely says a word. He marries Caroline (of course) and she (of course) ends up being completely uninterested in his dreams. But before then (and after then), I could never figure out why any of the characters were acting the way they were acting. To say they were one-dimensional is insulting to dimensions. And the constant description of Emmeline’s hair pulled back tight against her head was beyond annoying.

Bottom line, the story, despite being boring, was at least constantly moving along, toward (I assumed) something, but nothing ever happened. Kind of disappointing. But let’s remember our new found perspective and keep in mind that disappointing is not worthless. Or devoid of any redeeming features. It’s just disappointing. Maybe a little more disappointing that most of the novels on our countdown. But it still deserves credit. I may not have gotten mine, but I still saw a blood moon. Maybe it really is about me.

#64 – On Bedside Notebooks, Ambien and Not Being An Asshole

I’m a terrible sleeper. Truly horrible. And I’m not talking about the occasional night when life is stressing you out because you’re thinking about what you need to do tomorrow or crap you screwed up at work or stupid things you said to your fill in the blank (spouse, boss, mom, dentist, Uber driver, etc). Those nights I get. But with me, it is not an occasional night; it is almost every night.

Is my life that stressful? Nope. But my brain has decided (I speak of my brain in the third person when it’s being unreasonable) that even if I don’t have anything to actually stress about it, it will make things up. And the best part is it will make up things that will NEVER EVER happen such as what if I get the ebola virus or what if one of my kids gets attacked by a shark. I’ll wonder if rattlesnakes can swim. I’ll think about Kayser Sose or if I know anyone who might be either (a) in the Illuminati or (b) legitimately crazy and mad at me that they’d go on a Left Eye burn the house down rampage.

But it’s not just totally improbable stressful thoughts that keep me up. I’ll also ruminate over fantasy football line ups, whether the “In the Air Tonight”/Miami Vice intro was the best intro to a television series ever (it was), and if I could sit cross-legged on the floor and try and stand up without using my hands or the walls or any furniture because I read that if you can then you’re six times less likely to die prematurely than if you can’t. In fact, last night I woke up because I had the idea that I should write a blog post about waking up so outlined the idea in the notebook by my bed.

Why is there a notebook by my bed you ask? Well, in the old days (prior to 2013) I would have just dealt with my lack of sleep and been, well, tired. But now we are inundated with articles on how insomnia makes you fat or sleep cures depression. We learn about exercising for better sleep and napping for success, and an array of new sleep devices and products, including dozens of sleep-monitoring smartphone apps, alarm clocks that won’t wake you during REM stages, sleep-inducing chocolates, candles that crackle like fireplaces, technologically enhanced sleep masks that “switch off your mind,” fitness bracelets that give you a sleep score and a $12,000 sleep-enhancing mattress containing soothing seaweed and coconut husks.

So after being bombarded by this, I decided this sleeping thing might be worthwhile and went to my doctor to see if he could help. This particular doc is a little on the homeopathic bent, so after hearing about my sleeping issues he suggested counting sheep (seriously), spraying my bed with lavender, taking melatonin or valerian root (or both), practicing meditation (I’m the worst meditator that ever lived but that is a story for another day), or flexing and unflexing every muscle in my body starting with my feet. None of this worked. (As an aside, he also suggested drinking less coffee and alcohol. Not a huge fan.)

But he did suggest two things that weren’t totally useless. First, he suggested keeping a notebook by the side of my bed so that if I woke up thinking about ideas for work or things I needed to do the next day (such as write a blog post on not sleeping), I could simply write them down. Brilliant. Totally helped. Second, he said that if none of the other things worked (including said notebook), it was important that I at least sleep well every third day so I should take an Ambien. Also brilliant.

But the uber brilliant part of this advice that he failed to mention was the magic that would happen when I would take an Ambien, have a brilliant thought, fight through the haze and write this pearl of wisdom my bedside notebook. Saul Bellow, author of Pulitzer winner Humbolt’s Gift (1976) once said: “You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” Saul clearly never took Ambien. Or read my notebook.

Exhibit A: The other night I had an epiphany in my dream that was so life-changing that I emerged from my fake Ambien sleep to jot it down and fell immediately back asleep. I woke up to a note that says:

“It isn’t the dinner that is important. It is the cook.”

And I think what I meant there was that life is not about the accomplishment and is really much more about the company you keep while getting there.  Which sort of makes sense.

Except that it also sort of also implies that I think life is less about reaching your goals and more about sitting around while other people make you food. Which is kind of shitty.  Ambien-me is kind of an asshole, I think. Never make Ambien-me a chicken pot pie.  He’s sort of a dick.  Sorry about that.

And speaking of assholes, the last position on the Pulitzer Schmulitzer! countdown doesn’t go to a book or author. Nope, last place is reserved for the Pulitzer Prize Board itself for the 7 times in the last 65 years that they didn’t pick a winner. That’s right. Seven times they looked at every book published in a given year and passed. Total assholes.

To be fair, if you look at the list, you’ll notice that six of these seven non-decisions were made prior to 1977 so although I was aware of these non-choices, I believed that this was an anomaly of times gone by that we wouldn’t see again. Until 2012 happened.  That year, three books were nominated by the committee: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, and The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. But instead of picking one, for the first time in more than three decades, the Pulitzer Board refused to give an award for fiction.

Admittedly, I didn’t read any of them (because I was too busy reading all the other Pulitzer winners), but they must have been pretty good, right?!?! According to the Washington Post, these three books were “unanimous” selections of the committee. But even if they weren’t the “best” books of the year, the statement made by refusing to award any of the books forwarded to them by the committee is that no novel published in 2011 was up to the standard set by the Pulitzer Prize in over 60 years of arbitrary award giving. And that’s bullshit.

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize, or any other award, is not the “best novel ever” or even necessarily the “best novel of the year.” There were no doubt a hundrednovels published in 2011 that were good enough to win the Pulitzer. In fact, NPR said that 2011 was “a terrific year for fiction.” And those NPR guys are really smart. Or at least they sound really smart on my radio. In addition to the ones officially nominated, they could have chosen Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, the winner of the National Book Award, Kevin Wilson’s beautifully weird The Family Fang, or The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (the last two I did actually read).

To not pick one, for whatever reason, is not only arrogant, but also dumb. It is arrogant because you’re saying that there was not a single book published that year worthy of the award. Even if true (which it isn’t), you should still pick. The Downtown Athletic Club doesn’t decide to cancel the Heisman Trophy Award when the best they can do is Gino Torretta or Eric Crouch. And it’s dumb because this isn’t something that you need to even be right about. Look at the Oscars. They picked Driving Miss Daisy, Out of Africa, Forrest Gump, The English Patient, and Titanic as the Best Picture winners. Horrible movies, but no one cares. Imagine, however, if they’d come out on stage and told the audience that they decided they weren’t going to pick a winner that year. There would be blood.

There is an old Latin saying that I’ve been using recently (that is a whole other story), “provehito in altum,” which is an idiom that means both “reach for the heights” and “launch forth into the deep.” I love it because it means two possibly opposite things, but both are equally awesome. Not picking a Pulitzer Prize winner is like the opposite of provehito in altum. Totally un-provehito in altumy.

So my message to you Pulitzer Prize Board people is don’t ever do that again. Make a decision. And don’t be an asshole.