#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.”


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

#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.


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.

#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?)

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.

#53 How Shakespeare, Baby Names, and the Tower of Terror Provided Proper Perspective on A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (1992)

[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.]

My daughter Lily was almost named Cordelia. Well, “almost” may be an exaggeration, but it was certainly in the consideration set. A little over thirteen years ago we were expecting the birth of our second child and going through typical baby-naming negotiations. We knew we were having a girl, so at least that narrowed the choices down a bit. Some names Gigi liked but I didn’t (Scout) and vice versa (Claire). And some we both liked but were summarily dismissed if it was determined I dated anyone with that name (Iris).

But one of my favorites was Cordelia. Honestly, given the passage of time I’m not entirely sure why I was fixated on Cordelia, but I was, and so it was on the list. To me, she was the youngest daughter – and most favorite daughter – of King Lear. Very much a Cinderella character in contrast to her two older evil sisters. To my wife Gigi, however, Cordelia was a truck stop on the way to Tahoe and there was really no getting around that.

So Lily it was. And Lily, and the whole naming thing, was top of mind recently as I watched my now 13 year-old scale a climbing structure affectionately known as the Tower of Terror. Actually, calling the Tower of Terror a climbing structure is like calling Stalin a bit of a grump. The Tower of Terror is the tallest climbing structure suspended between two trees in the United States. At the top – 100 feet above the ground – is a bench where you can enjoy amazing views, but to get there you need to navigate a series of supremely difficult climbing elements.

How do I know it is difficult? Because I’ve tried it. The Tower of Terror lives at Camp Augusta, a camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where my kids have gone for summer camp for years. And every so often we attend a “family camp” weekend where parents are allowed to join. So over the years I’ve attempted to tackle the Tower of Terror with little success. Some might say no success as I can’t even navigate up the first element called the Giant’s Ladder, which is a series of “rungs” made from logs that get progressively farther and farther apart.

So I was somewhat surprised (but pleasantly surprised to be sure) when my 13-year-old and her 13-year-old friend signed up to try their luck. As with any parent, you want your children to succeed, but the Tower of Terror was so hard that I was proud that they were even going to attempt to climb it. I either significantly underestimated both their ability and resolve or overestimated my own, or both.

I wouldn’t say Lily and her friend Kaelin raced up the Tower of Terror, but I would say that they handled it with relative ease. It is intended to be a team building activity, but the girls ignored that advice and each tackled it on their own, albeit at the same time. Friendship be damned. And although they approached each of the elements in a different way, they both ended their climbs victorious, sitting on the bench at the very top.

Lily and Kaelin attacking the Tower of Terror.
Lily and Kaelin attacking the Tower of Terror.

And as I stood on the ground far below trying to take pictures on my iPhone of Lily so very far away, I had one of those moments where I realized that my kids have and will continue to quickly surpass my skills in many different ways. And I’m not talking about the fact that they’re better than me at Minecraft, aerial silks, SnapChat or other things that they spend an inordinate amount of time on that I don’t. No, I’m talking about things that I can do. Maybe not well, but I can do them. Sam, for example, can beat me at both chess and tennis, and, embarrassingly, taught me how to make pancakes the other day. And now Lily can say without hesitation, that she is a far better climber than I am. Although these moments may bruise the ego a little, they provoke undoubtedly positive feelings of pride and joy.

So its on the back of that parental pride for my nearly King Lear-named daughter that we tackle A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, the 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner, and a fine example of how things can go incredibly wrong in a family dynamic. A Thousand Acres tells the story of Larry Cook, the aging patriarch of a rich, thriving farm in Iowa, and his three daughters: Ginny, Rose and Caroline. Larry decides, somewhat unexpectedly and hastily, to retire and turn the farm over to his three daughters. For Ginny and Rose, who live on the farm with their husbands, the gift makes sense–a reward for years of hard work, a challenge to make the farm even more successful. But the youngest, Caroline, a Des Moines lawyer, flatly rejects the idea, and in anger her father cuts her out–setting off an explosive series of events that will leave none of them unchanged.

Sound familiar? It should because coincidentally (or not), Smiley uses King Lear as her framework for the novel. We have the ailing patriarch, a kingdom in decline and his three contesting daughters. In fact, as I was reading the novel I was wondering how far Smiley is going to mirror the Shakespeare plot. It turns out, pretty far.

The novel is narrated by Ginny (Goneril in Lear), the eldest of the daughters. On the surface she is self-effacing, obedient, submissive to both her father and husband. She is childless, the victim of several miscarriages and thus jealous of her sister Rose (Regan) who has two girls. She is also jealous of her younger sister Caroline (Cordelia) who has escaped the farm and rural life to become a lawyer in the city.

But here is where the book starts to veer from its inspiration. What Smiley tries to do with A Thousand Acres is to re-tell Lear from the viewpoint of the daughters. In other words, why did Lear’s daughters act the way they acted? Was Lear less of a tragic character than a fallen one? And once armed with the backstory lacking in Lear, Ginny and Rose absolutely become more sympathetic (although you will still roll your eyes at some of their behavior), and Caroline becomes a little less sweet than her Shakespearean counterpart. They all become a little more real.

And like many of Shakespeare’s plays — and unlike many of the other Pulitzer Prize winners — A Thousand Acres has no shortage of plot twists. The story moves at a fairly rapid clip (one exception below) and should hold your interest. I won’t spoil the specifics of them for you here, but rest assured battles are engaged, abuse (both physical and sexual) is done, finances are ruined, plots are hatched (and tilled), backs are stabbed, poison is prepared, estrangements abound, truths are told, cars are crashed and lightening bolts flash. Plowshares are literally beaten into swords, and honestly no character ends up happy (which I guess may be somewhat of a spoiler except that it would be expected knowing that the story is based on Lear).

So why not a higher ranking? First off (and the exception noted above), the book did get a little overly descriptive and tedious at some points. Seriously, it is about a farm in Iowa. There are only so many descriptions of soil that I can handle. But it isn’t just soil. Smiley describes every covered dish at the social, every vegetable in the garden. I appreciate a detailed pot-luck casserole depiction as much as the next guy, but we could have lost a fifth of this book with no harm done.

Second, and more substantively, as Smiley makes the daughters more real by providing motivation, she subtracts from the realism of Larry (Lear) simply by overloading the father with culpability. You can tell fairly quickly that Larry is enough of a douche to engender adequate rage. But instead of leaving well enough alone, Smiley turns him into Satan incarnate by introducing multiple additional motives for the two oldest daughters to hate their father. Not only did this seem unnecessary, but it also actually took away from his daughters’ newfound depth because their behavior seems much less complex given the introduction of the additional bad deeds.

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, I simply did not feel good after closing the book. Obviously, there is an awful lot of misery in this tale. It was emotionally draining. It was dark. That being said, I’m not usually one to be that bothered by depressing stories. This one may have gotten to me because the bad stuff is never balanced out with any character redemption. Unlike Lear who at least gains a modicum of compassion and humility from his excesses, Larry learns nothing from his actions. Alternatively, and probably, I’m sure my reaction has a lot to do with being a father of three and reading a story that punctuates the power that parents have over their children — a power that can become lethal and suffocating when abused. But the fact that I recognize that rationalization doesn’t make the book any easier to read or take the stress out of parenting.

So how do you cope? Change the perspective. I recently read an article after Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Beau, died over the summer at the age of 46. In 2008, Beau, who was also a politician, had introduced Joe at the Democratic National Convention when Joe agreed to be Obama’s running mate. During his acceptance speech, Joe said: “A father knows he’s a success when he turns and looks at his son or daughter and knows that they turned out better than he did. I’m a success; I’m a hell of a success. Beau, I love you. I’m so proud of you.”

So next time I’m looking up at my kids (literally) as I did with Lily and the Tower of Terror, I’ll try to remember that even if there is a little ego bruising as they continue to surpass me, their successes are really my successes. Because really, it’s all about me.

#54 The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1990): Summer of Love II or The Summer of Acronyms – SCOTUS and USWNT Let Love (and Equality) Rule

[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.]

Could the summer of 2015 be the Summer of Love II?

There are a couple of indicators leading me to the conclusion that this might be the case. First, back during New York Fashion Week last fall, several top designers such as Tommy Hilfiger, Zimmerman and Vera Wang all paid homage to the 1960s and the Summer of Love. Turns out they may have been on to something more than just an affection of floral patterns, ruffles and maxi dresses.

Then, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, guaranteeing a right to same-sex marriage. I could try to summarize the majority opinion, but Justice Kennedy’s final paragraph is one of the most beautiful you will ever read in a court case so I’ll defer:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.

Or, as distilled into Haiku by McSweeney’s:

Hark! Love is love, and
love is love is love is love.
It is so ordered.

That day of elation was based on decades of awareness, activism and perseverance, and as soon as the decision was announced, Twitter, Facebook and other social media outlets quickly began to fill with rainbow-themed images. And one of those was a precursor to the third indicator that the summer of 2015 may indeed be the Summer of Love II.

Screen Shot 2015-07-27 at 8.13.54 PM

You see, on that very same June 26th in Ottawa, Canada, the U.S. Women’s National Team was preparing to face China in the quarterfinal matchup of the Women’s World Cup. This was already a special World Cup for me as I had taken my daughter Lily up to Vancouver a week prior to watch the U.S. play Nigeria in the group play round. When Lily was eight, we diligently watched the USWNT play in the 2011 World Cup in Germany, and were heartbroken when they lost in the final to Japan on penalty kicks. But Lily knew then that the next World Cup was going to be closer to home in Canada, and asked if we could go. I can think of few better role models for my daughter – and also I figured she’d forget over the next four years – so I said yes. She never forgot.

Women's World Cup

By June 26th, however, the women of the USWNT had become not only solid role models for girls, but also had become the most prominent sporting symbol of the United States during 2015. This, I might add, occurred without a ton of support. First, all the stadiums hosting World Cup games had artificial turf, a feature that many complained about loudly. Putting aside the arguments in favor of turf fields, there is no disputing that FIFA would have never ever in a million years forced the men to play on anything other than grass. Why? Maybe it’s because sometimes artificial turf gets so hot that it melts shoes. There’s that.

But it wasn’t just the turf issue. Sports Illustrated writer Andy Benoit tweeted that women’s sports in general – not just soccer – are not worth watching. It was such a stupid tweet that you would have thought he was being sarcastic if he tried to defend his statement by pointing at TV ratings.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 9.27.53 PM

The reaction to this tweet was fast and furious from both men and women with my favorite being Amy Poeler and Seth Meyers reuniting for a segment of Really.

Unfortunately, his opinion, although not usually expressed so publicly, is more widespread than is should be. For winning the World Cup, for example, the USWNT received $2 million. Seems like a fine sum until you realize that the US Men’s Team got $8 million just for reaching the round of 16. How much did the winning German team get? I’m glad you asked. That would be $35 million.

So it was great to watch the naysayers proved wrong as the World Cup progressed. The popularity of the team – of women – swelled in unison with their victories, culminating in a 5-2 victory over Japan in which we scored a ridiculous four goals in 16 minutes.

The final game averaged a stunning 25.4 million viewers, making it the most-viewed soccer game ever in the United States–men’s or women’s–by a giant margin. How does that compare to men’s sports Andy Benoit? Game 7 of the San Francisco Giants/Kansas City World Series game drew 23.5 million viewers. Game 6 of the Golden State Warriors/Cleveland Cavaliers NBA Finals – a Finals series that drew more viewers than any series since the Michael Jordan era – had only 13.9 million viewers. And don’t even try to compare to the Stanley Cup Final. That came in at 7.6 million.

Everyone watched the USWNT finals match! Everyone loves women’s soccer! Everyone can get married! Which made me wonder, can you have too much love? I assumed that since the Beatles said “All You Need Is Love” the answer was no, until I read The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, the 1990 winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

The first novel by a United-States born Hispanic to win, Mambo Kings is the story of two Cuban brothers and musicians, Cesar and Nestor Castillo, who immigrate to the United States from Cuba and settle in New York City in the early 1950s. Like The Tinkers and The Stone Diaries, the story takes place at the very end of the protagonist’s life. Told from the perspective of the older brother Cesar, it chronicles his last hours as he sits in a seedy hotel room, drinking and listening to recordings made by his band, the Mambo Kings.

Cesar, the Mambo King himself, is an old man, and the book describes his memories of his life (and loves) in Cuba and New York. Cesar and Nestor arrive in New York full of ambition and desire to be musicians. Other than their love of music and shared DNA, however, the brothers are complete opposites. Nestor is an incredibly talented trumpet player and songwriter, but he forever mourns the loss of his first love, a woman named Maria. His demeanor is sad, soulful and tormented. Cesar, on the other hand, is a handsome, macho, player. For Cesar, everything in his life is indulgence: playing music, dancing, eating, drinking, and having sex. In fact, as we’ll get to shortly, Cesar measures his life by his many sexual escapades.

The brothers are talented and willing to work hard, and with some luck put together an orchestra they call The Mambo Kings. The mambo craze of the late 1940s is still in full swing, and the band grows in popularity. They even get a guest appearance on I Love Lucy after Desi Arnaz catches their nightclub act one evening. This appearance gives them a measure of celebrity and helps them to sell some records, but true fame remains just beyond their reach.

As the mambo craze begins to fade, the fortunes of Cesar, Nestor, and the The Mambo Kings decline as well. Although Nestor marries a lovely woman and starts a family, he still pines for Maria and spends his life constantly re-writing one song about his lost love, “Beautiful Maria of My Soul.” His deep melancholy ends only when the car he is driving skids off the road in a snowstorm, killing him.

Cesar has always been the driving force for the Mambo Kings, and, as alluded to above, is a favorite with the ladies. He’s a handsome, suave, baritone who naturally charms the audience and spreads his love among many women. But not in a totally dickish way (there’s a pun here, but you’re not going to get it until later). He’s generous to a fault, freely bestowing gifts and money on those he befriends, as well as supporting his family members still in Cuba. But after Nestor dies, he simply cannot continue to be the leader he once was. He descends into a depression that begins slowly to eat at him, fueled by drinking and excess. Pretty much, the end.

For me, The Mambo Kings is a tale of two books. Sixty percent of this book is really great. It is a melancholy story for sure, but lyrically told and in a style that evokes the rhythms of Cuban music. Does that last sentence sound too pretentious? Lets just say I like the writing style. I also like the general theme of immigrants coming to the U.S. and how they see themselves in relation to their new culture in contrast to the culture of their birth. It’s like Scarface without the blow and chainsaws.

And compared to some of the other novels that sit in this area of the countdown because their stories are rather dull (e.g., The Stone Diaries and Breathing Lessons), the subject matter of The Mambo Kings is inherently interesting, at least for me. It’s an immigrant story set in 1950s and 60s New York with Spanish music, a Fidel Castro-led revolution, dancing, and unexpected cameos from real-life mambo dudes Desi Arnaz and Tito Puente. It also has a ton of sex. And that, I can’t believe I’m going to say this, may actually be the problem.

You see, the other 40% of this is really, really bad. Thirty percent of the book is comprised of sex scenes. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good soft-porn novel as much as the next guy, but these were more monotonous than provocative. But it was the final 10% that really got me because that part contains Hijuelos’ weird and disturbing fixation on Cesar’s penis. Seriously, if you’re the kind of reader who really likes to know how the protagonist’s dick is doing, this book will be great for you because there’s a dick status update on just about every page. If that isn’t your cup of tea, then this is a tough 10% to get through.

So it turns out you actually can have too much love. At least in Pulitzer Prize winning novels. But the good news is that won’t affect the summer of 2015 (possibly) going down in history as the Summer of Love II. My four year wait to attend a Women’s World Cup match with Lily seems insignificant when compared to length of time same-sex couples have waited for the right to get married, but on a personal level are both are hugely meaningful. Lily will always remember this as the summer the rainbows took over Instagram as she watched the USWNT advance in the World Cup. She turned 13 this summer, and her entire adult life will be in a world where love is love is love is love. And after watching the USWNT kick ass in the finals, her love for soccer is now cemented. You want proof, and another dick status update? Well here is what Lily re-tweeted the other morning while watching the opening weekend of the English Premier League:

Lily's Tweet

I love her.

#56 – March by Geraldine Brooks (2006): The Road Yes Travelled

[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.]

Crossing a river in Thorsmark. Seatbelts optional.
Crossing a river in Thorsmark. Seatbelts optional.

In the middle of February, I found myself in a snowstorm in Iceland with my son Sam. We were in a jeep preparing to cross what appeared to me to be a very large and uncrossable river, when we had the following conversation with our guide.

GUIDE: I think this should work.

ME: You think?

GUIDE: (ignoring me) We should take off our seatbelts though.

ME: Why?

GUIDE: In case we need to get out of the car it’s one less thing to worry about.

ME: Just so I’m clear, what we’re going to do is so dangerous that we’re actually better off taking our seatbelts off?

GUIDE: That’s fair. But if we need to get out, don’t panic.

So how did I end up in a jeep in Iceland, in winter, in a snowstorm, agreeing to cross a freezing river without a seatbelt without panicking? A fine question, but maybe we should just start with this.


This doesn’t make me happy. At all. And if you’ve been on the Internet in the past few weeks, you understand why. If you don’t know what those little yellow tags are, let me explain. Microsoft’s newest analysis tool – How-Old.net – has become the latest Internet craze. The tool allows you to upload a photo of yourself and wait for the program to detect your face. It will then guess your gender and age. I couldn’t wait to try it. I look good for my age, right?

Wrong. Whatever algorithm Microsoft is using hates me. And trust me, it wasn’t just the one picture above. As soon as I got one response, I began frantically flipping through my camera roll uploading shots that I assumed made me look if not young, at least younger. Although I succeeded in moving the needle a few years, it never ever said I looked younger than my actual age which, for the record Microsoft, IS NOWHERE NEAR 60! (And also for the record, I am yelling).

I’m sure I’m not alone and How-old.net has undoubtedly led to a spike in eye cream sales, but this is really torture for me. I have an acute sensitivity to the passage of time. Or more specifically, my passage of time. Some call this a mid-life crisis, but “crisis” seems both too short in duration and unnecessarily negative. My mid-life crisis and I have been together for years now, and for the most part, we co-exist rather well.

Sure, I’ve had some clichéd mid-life crisis-like moments – like my nonsensical yet very real desire to buy a motorcycle – but mostly my crisis and I have a very symbiotic relationship. Like a barnacle and a whale. Or the Internet and Kim Kardashian. In its simplest form, my fear of growing old has freed me (or prompted me) to do more stuff. I say “yes” to more things. And at the top of this list of stuff I say yes to is travel.

And in their relatively short lives, I’ve tried to pass this “just say yes, especially to travel” attitude down to Sam and Lily (and even, to a lesser extent due to her lesser years, Macy) and they have already seen a fair share of the world. We’ve been to New York, Washington D.C., London, Paris, Seoul, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague. We ventured to western Pennsylvania to see Hershey and Gettysburg. We’ve camped in the Grand Canyon and stayed at the Madonna Inn, and traveled by car, plane, train, subway, helicopter, boat and funicular. To continue to promote this attitude and foster a love of travel and exploration as the bigger kids move toward teendom, I’m always asking them where in the world they would most like to go next. They know that, chances are, I will say yes to whatever they come up with. So it wasn’t a total surprise that one day last summer my then 13-year-old Sam said to me while shooting hoops:

SAM: Dad, I’ve got two ideas for where to go.

ME: Excellent. Let’s hear.

SAM: First, I want to go see the Aurora Borealis.

ME: That sounds cool. But where actually do we go to see it?

SAM: You can go pretty much anywhere up by the Arctic Circle, but I think the best place is in Iceland.

Randomly enough, I spent two weeks on a backpacking trip in Iceland right before Sam was born so I’m about to sound knowledgeable and cool.

ME: Iceland is great. And super nice in the summer.

SAM: (looking at me like I’m a moron) “Uh, here’s the deal. You can’t go in the summer BECAUSE THE SUN’S OUT ALL THE TIME.”

He didn’t actually yell but I could tell that he was explaining this to me slowly BECAUSE I’M A MORON.

SAM: You need to go in mid to late winter.

ME: Just so I’ve got this straight, you want to go to Iceland in the middle of winter?

SAM: February would be best.

It sounded cold. And not in the Aspen or Chamonix sense. This was going to require a new wardrobe. But as a parent you need to walk the walk so I aimed to be supportive while also maximizing my optionality. I needed to say “yes.”

ME: Okay, what’s your second idea?

SAM: Have you ever heard of this thing called Burning Man?

ME: (Missing shot wildly). I have. Have you?

SAM: Yeah. I want to do that.

I’m not sure what bucket list he was “researching” on the Internet, but he was fully brushed up on the ins and outs of the Burn.

SAM: This year’s theme is the Silk Road. (They have a theme, I thought to myself.) I read the whole kids guide to Burning Man. You know though, we missed it by a year. Kids under 12 go for free.

My inner voice was saying “that’s because kids under 12 shouldn’t be going to Burning Man!! Kids under 12 should cost like $20,000!!” But all I said was…

ME: I guess we’re going to Iceland.

So that’s how Sam and I ended up visiting the Gullfoss Waterfall, driving a jeep through a river in Thorsmork, taking selfies with Icelandic horses, climbing on a glacier covered volcano, and yes, seeing the Aurora Borealis. And to anyone who asks how the trip was, I tell them Iceland in February isn’t for everyone. You’re not drinking margaritas on the beach or working on your golf game or getting a facial. But it was an adventure, and it was cool (literally and figuratively), and it was an experience we’ll never ever forget. It’s what happens when you say “yes.”

Gullfoss waterfall.
Gullfoss waterfall.

Which leads me (finally) to March by Geraldine Brooks, winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize. March tells the previously untold story of the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. For those of you that haven’t read Little Women (a group to which I belong), the reader only gets to know Peter March through his letters sent home to his family from the Civil War. Brooks uses March to tell not only of Mr. March’s time in the war that changed him both physically and mentally, but also of his early life as a traveling salesman, of his first kiss, of the meeting of his wife, of his connections to Waldo Emerson and Henry Thoreau (he’s like a Civil War era Forrest Gump), of his strong abolitionist sentiments, and of misunderstandings and wrongs that were never made right in his life.

In many ways, March stands apart from the other books we’ve ranked so far at Pulitzer Schulitzer! in that it is very readable. It isn’t poorly written (Guard of Honor), over-flowery and rambling (A Fable), drug-trippy weird (House Made of Dawn), or boring (Martin Dressler). It’s conceptually interesting, at least for those who read Little Women. Brooks is a fine writer and the story moves forward quickly and easily and I had no trouble finishing it. The two main issues I have with March are (a) it is somewhat clichéd like the middle-aged guy wanting to buy a motorcycle; and (b) I don’t love the protagonist.

Brooks paints Peter March as a vegetarian, Unitarian, abolitionist, transcendentalist, book-lover from the North. In other words, he’s one huge cliché that, frankly, probably did not exist during the Civil War. But clichés by themselves (and in moderation as we’ll see later) are not unlikeable and if that were the only issue I had with Mr. March, I’m sure we’d be ok. The bigger problem with March the character – and hence March the book – is that he isn’t a person who says “yes.”

The glacier at Eyjafjallajokull.
The glacier at Eyjafjallajokull.

He hates war and he hates slavery (not a unique opinion by any means) but his actions in opposition to both are more whiny than productive. March is constantly struggling with an overly simplistic inner battle: “War is bad! But slavery is also bad! So is war to stop slavery good?” I get it. But March makes little effort to affirmatively resolve this turmoil and instead of trying to change the world, lets the world change him. And most of the time, he does this in a negative way to both himself and those around him. March is a “no” guy.

In fact, March is not only a “no” guy, but he also tends to project that trait on others, even those he loves. For example, March is very jealous of his wife’s admiration for John Brown (one more famous person that they happen to know): ”I could see that Brown ignited the very part of my wife’s spirit I wished to quench; the lawless, gypsy elements of her nature.” People looking to quench other people’s spirits in any way make me mad. Like Microsoft.

I fear I’m piling on a little right now, but I’m on a roll. Not only is the book an oversimplification of war in general, but in telling the story it employs every cliché civil war plot twist: (1) interracial romance; (2) old urbane southern woman with power; (3) bloody field hospitals; (4) inverted moral systems; (5) corrupt preachers; (6) the use of the terms “rod” and “score” to measure distance and time; (7) a well-stocked plantation library; (8) gorgeous, educated slave women who turn out to be of mixed blood; (9) the senseless suffering of women and children at the home front; and (10) southern families torn apart by Visigothic Union soldiers who smash grand pianos.

Black sand beach on the south coast.
Black sand beach on the south coast.

Although I’m already feeling a little bad about critiquing this book possibly more harshly than I should, I must add that there are more than a couple cringe inducing sentences. I’ll give two quick examples. First, when March sleeps with Marmee for the first time in the woods with unwitting musical accompaniment from Thoreau: ”We married each other that night, there on a bed of fallen pine needles — even today, the scent of pitch pine stirs me — with Henry’s distant flute for a wedding march and the arching white birch boughs for our basilica.” I have two things to say. One, it sounds uncomfortable. Two, his pine needle fetish is just…ew.

The second example sums up March in a nutshell for me. Throughout the story, March’s path crosses several times with Grace, a beautiful, ”astonishingly eloquent” slave who March (not surprisingly) falls for. Their last meeting occurs in a Washington hospital after March has been sickened with fever and grazed by a rebel bullet, and Grace shows up talking like a double major in civics and psychology: ”He loves, perhaps, an idea of me: Africa, liberated. I represent certain things to him, a past he would reshape if he could, a hope of a future he yearns toward.”

In the end, although I’m harsh, you should take my words with a grain of salt. Others that I know really liked this book, and I was excited to read it as well so there is the possibility that I simply set the bar too high. Or possibly I just wrote this while I’m still pissed off at Microsoft. Maybe trying how-old.net was the one thing I should’ve said no to. But after reading March, I am even more likely to say yes to things. So pass me the eye cream. I’ve got places to go.

Icelandic horse selfies.
Icelandic horse selfies.

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.

#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?


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


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.

#62 – Sometimes Things Work and Sometimes They Don’t: My Summer Vacation vs. “A Fable” by William Faulkner (1955)

Def: Serendipity: 1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident; 2. the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. See also: you can’t make this sh*t up.

Things can happen by accident or chance. Incredible things. Things that cannot be manufactured or created by will. I know this to be true, but it’s astounding that, at my age, I’m still surprised that these things happen and that they often work out OK. Or at least, much better than they should have. Sometimes by “work out” I mean “I didn’t die” (see, e.g., when I, at age 17, was left in Tijuana with $5 and no ride and decided my best option was to hitchhike to San Diego). But most of the time it is less about avoiding a tragic outcome, and more about stumbling across amazing moments that I would (and should) have never expected to happen. Serendipity. And that’s exactly what happened when we went to Europe this summer.

To set the stage, it is important to know that we give our older kids a lot of say in where we vacation. Possibly too much. Like when the kids chose…wait for it….Pennsylvania! for spring break, we were skeptical, but it worked out. Between Hershey Park, Gettysburg, and the cheesesteaks, we had a great time. One year wiser, this year we limited the options for our summer destination to Europe, and solicited suggestions.

Where did we end up? Start with my daughter Lily, who just turned 12 and whose favorite book in the whole wide world is The Fault in Our Stars, which, if you haven’t read it, really is the best (non-Pulitzer prize winning) book in the whole wide world. And in TFIOS (tweens love acronyms), a pivotal story arch has the two cancer-stricken teenage protagonists visit Amsterdam. Ergo, we have Lily’s choice and stop #1, and promptly purchased four tickets to Amsterdam. My son Sam is 13 and a legitimate World War II history buff. And he knows his stuff. We once met a WWII vet at a museum and Sam correctly answered every obscure question the guy asked about the war. So, we had our next stop, and promptly purchased four train tickets to Berlin. (As an aside, Sam’s other top travel ideas at the moment are (a) Iceland to see the Aurora Borealis and (b) Burning Man. Places Sam Takes Me could be my new blog.)

On the plane to Amsterdam I opened up Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize, and read the first sentence: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.” While not itself serendipitous, it was certainly eerily coincidental, and foreshadowed the serendipity to follow. Because unless you live under a rock or really really really hate sports, then you have probably already figured out that our European adventure was about to collide with the World Cup.

I am by no means a die-hard soccer fan but I love the World Cup because the World Cup does one thing better than any other event that human beings organize –it focuses the attention of the world on one place at one moment. From the moment Brazil beat Croatia in the first match, a substantial portion of the living population of the Earth had its feelings altered simultaneously by the actions of 22 men chasing a ball around a field in Brazil. Only the Olympics brings people together like this, and hey, all due respect to the Olympics, but is it ever not the same thing.

And this World Cup pretty much had everything on the field and off. It started with an insane group stage full of upsets and ended with the coronation of Germany and the potential start of a dynasty. And along the way it had Robin van Persie’s header against Spain; Guillermo Ochoa blanking Brazil; Costa Rica leaving a trail of established European powers in its wake; James Rodrigues and the Giant Bug; the Netherlands’ equalizer against Mexico in the 88th minute; Tim Howard’s 16 saves and the series of nervous breakdowns that was US-Belgium; and Germany scoring four goals in six minutes against the most celebrated nation in soccer history, a team that hadn’t lost a competitive match on home soil since 1975. But I digress.

What will be really memorable about this year’s Cup, at least for me, is that it unfolded serendipitously to overlap perfectly with our kids very non-soccer focused vacation plans.

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We landed in Amsterdam with enough time to get our bearings, check in to our hotel, purchase bright orange Robben, van Persie and Sneijder jerseys and find ourselves a spot in a bar near the Vondelpark to watch the Netherlands-Argentina match. The teams played to a stalemate and, truth be told, it wasn’t even an exciting stalemate. Argentina won in a shoot out, so we bid adieu to the Dutch who left us with so many lasting memories from this World Cup like…, um, well… Arjen Robben falling down.

But we weren’t that upset. Our love of the Dutch was fleeting because, serendipitously, Germany let loose a historic and unanticipated 7-1 drubbing on Brazil in the other semi-final and, by chance, our itinerary had us landing in Berlin the day of the finals. So once again, we had just enough time to get our bearings, buy some appropriately allegiant clothing (this time the last of the German hats and flags in the stores), and make our way to the Brandenburg gate to watch the World Cup finals on the big screens with 100,000 of our closest German friends who were armed with a seemingly unending supply of beer and sausage.

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We all know how the story ends. Germany were crowned world champions for the fourth time thanks to a stunning extra-time winner from super sub Mario Gotze in the 113th minute. We hugged our drunk German brethren. We loudly sang German soccer songs without knowing a single word other than “Deutchland, Deutchland.” We drank giant beers. And we ruined our kids. Because now they want to know where we will celebrate the World Cup championship four years from now and I have to tell them that you can’t re-create what happened because it happened entirely by chance. It was serendipity. It was magical. And sometimes things just work out because working out feels awesome.

My 200,000 closest German friends as seen from the Ferris Wheel.
My 100,000 closest German friends as seen from the Ferris Wheel.

But sometimes it doesn’t, which brings me to William Faulkner’s A Fable. The plot itself is actually pretty straightforward: a French battalion in WWI lay down their arms and refuse to fight at the behest of a Christ-like corporal. Chaos ensues as the military powers-that-be realize that if all the soldiers realize peace is as simple as everybody agreeing to stop fighting, then what’s the point of being a power-that-be. The story chronicles the elaborate efforts of the French, British and American powers-that-be to investigate and cover up this absurdity, and to punish those responsible for daring to stop a war.

Faulkner, without a doubt, is a literary great and one of only two authors with two novels on the Pulitzer list. And evidence of his genius is abundant but the problem is it’s hidden amidst pages and pages of rambling paragraphs and speeches and descriptions that are circular and repetitive and overly-flowery to the point of being masturbatory. Moreover, as with James Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, most of the characters are seldom referred to by name, and there is a liberal use of pronouns with ambiguous antecedents, so it’s easy to lose track of who’s who and what they’re doing at any given moment. I love a dense and rambling novel as much as the next guy, but when you combine that with repetitive and opaque writing, the results are a far more challenging read than seems necessary.

It was painstaking to finish this one, but I was hoping that there would be that Faulkner pay-off where you just love the end of the book, where he brings everything together in a way that blows your mind. I was hoping it would all work out in the end. But sometimes it doesn’t. Faulkner was a brilliant writer, but by the time he wrote this, his fifteenth novel, he was less in need of talent than of an editor. This was not magical, and certainly not something that happened by chance. He manufactured this book, belaboring the language, writing intentionally and deliberately, and it did not work out OK. Except maybe for the whole winning the Pulitzer thing. Which, although good for him, didn’t help him rank any higher than last on my list with this novel.

P.S. If I was in need of any more serendipity on this trip I found it at the very last stop. After Berlin we headed to Prague and by chance, on our way home, in the Prague airport, there was a piano with a sign inviting people to play. And by chance, we had a few minutes to spare, and Lily embraced the opportunity, playing “Colors of the Wind” from the movie Pocahontas.

We weren’t home more than a week when, by chance, the following video appeared in my Facebook feed.

It turns out that the pianos have been placed around the city streets, public spaces and train stations as part of an unusual art project aimed at getting people together away from their typical routine. By chance the one piano that we came across was the exact same piano in the viral video. Serendipity? The occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way? Absolutely. It was one last magical moment that we never could have imagined. At least until the next one.

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


[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.