#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.

#57 – House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1969): When the Moon is in the Seventh House, Sometimes Peace Will Guide the Planets, but Sometimes You Just Need to Tone Down the Drug Use

[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.]

I see a lot of concerts. A lot a lot. Always have. I’ve seen some all time greats like Prince, The Rolling Stones, U2, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, David Bowie, Van Halen, Pearl Jam, Tom Petty, Journey (with Steve Perry), Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters and Neil Young. I’ve seen the current crop of great live acts like Green Day, Mumford & Sons, Arcade Fire, Kanye West, Kings of the Stone Age, The White Stripes, Bruno Mars, Adele, The National, Tame Impala, Florence and the Machine, My Morning Jacket, and the Black Keys. And because of my 12-year-old daughter Lily (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), I’ve seen Taylor Swift (twice), Katy Perry (twice), Pink, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus (the slutty one, not the Hannah Montana one), Selena Gomez and soon Arianna Grande. I’ve seen some mediocre bands too, like the one-hit wonders who end up playing their one hit more than one time. In the end, I have loved every one of them.

My favorite concert? Hard to say. But my favorite concert moment? No question. In the fall of 1997, Jane’s Addiction, who had been broken up since 1991, reunited for the Relapse Tour with Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers playing bass. The tour was overwhelmingly successful selling out shows from coast to coast, but the band took it up a notch when they came to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco and hosted the neo-pagan extravaganza, the ENIT Festival. With drum-and-bass artist Goldie and DJ collective Funky Tekno Tribe opening up, and Jane’s scheduled to go on at 1 a.m., the show was more rave than concert. Perry Farrell, Jane’s lead singer, called the event “a lavish celebration of the senses.” So given that backdrop, the audience was not surprisingly surprised when, late in the evening (early in the morning?), on the stage appeared, not Jane’s Addiction, but Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.

Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1962) and Sometimes a Great Nation (1964), neither a Pulitzer Prize winner, was a pivotal countercultural figure in the 1960s. But really he’s famous for taking a lot of drugs. A lot a lot. In his most well-known act, Kesey, Neal Cassady, and others in a group of friends they called the Merry Pranksters took a cross-country trip in a psychedelic painted school bus nicknamed “Further.” This trip, chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was the group’s attempt to create art out of everyday life, and to experience roadway America while high on LSD. A lot a lot of LSD.

Given that the Merry Pranksters were a generation removed from their heyday, their inclusion at the ENIT Festival seemed ill conceived. And when Kesey and the Pranksters – all dressed in black plastic trash bags — wandered onstage after Goldie and performed an extemporaneous spoken word exposition about JFK’s assassination (it happened to be the anniversary of his death) accompanied by video footage of the tragedy, it was no celebration of the senses. Given the festival atmosphere that preceded this performance, the crowd’s reaction, and my own, was no bueno. It was not making me happy. At all.

But that’s when the magic happened. It turns out that Kesey believed that the Kennedy assassination marked the point there the world turned from black and white to Technicolor. I didn’t know that. All I knew was that one by one the members of the Merry Pranksters started to remove their trash bags revealing fluorescent clown costumes underneath, and when they did, they also transitioned into singing “Let the Sun Shine In” from Hair. The crowd was peaking, singing along with the Pranksters, when at exactly the right moment, the lights dropped, Dave Navarro’s mellow guitar intro to “Ocean Size” filled the arena, and the crowd took a collective breath waiting for Perry Farrell to scream “Three, Four!” before all hell broke loose. I just got chills. And to this day, I believe that moment would have been wonderful on its own, but the inclusion of the Merry Pranksters beforehand made it better.

And lucky for me, and now you, the whole thing was captured on film for a movie called Three Days so that I can relive the moment at my whim. The clip below starts first with a crowd shot to set the stage (44:38), cuts to some dude explaining the Prankster’s bus outside Bill Graham (45:00), moves to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters on stage in their trash bags (45:30) and then culminates with Perry, wearing a Mardi Gras-inspired mask, jumping down on to the stage while Dave Navarro (in a black mini-skirt, hose, feather boa and silver cape) and Flea hit the first power chord of Ocean Size. Roughly 2 ½ minutes of bliss to me that I recognize will mean very little to most everyone else.

But my focus here isn’t on Jane’s (chills again) but instead on The Merry Pranksters because they remind me a lot of House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (1969). I’ll explain in a moment.

House Made of Dawn tells the story of Abel in four distinct parts. In Part I, we meet Abel, a Native American who returns to his reservation in New Mexico after fighting in World War II. Emotionally, he’s a wreck, and when he arrives he’s so drunk he doesn’t recognize his grandfather Francisco, a man who not only taught him Native American traditions, but also raised Abel after the death of his mother. Although he tries, he never quite fits in and things invariably go off the rails ending with Abel deciding some guy is a witch so he stabs him to death outside a bar. As with many murderers, Abel is sent to jail.

Parts II and III take place in Los Angeles 6 ½ years later, but tell the story from different points of view. In Part II, Abel has been released from prison and has begun hanging out with a local group of Native Americans led by Reverend John Big Bluff Tosamah. They aren’t good people. He’s also made a real friend named Ben and starts dating a social worker named Milly, but neither are enough to keep him out of trouble. Abel ends up drunk on the beach with his hands, head, and upper body beaten and broken, but eventually pulls himself together enough to walk to the apartment he shares with Ben.

In Part III, Ben puts Abel on a train back to the reservation and describes what has happened to Abel in Los Angeles. After being ridiculed by Reverend Tosamah during a poker game, Abel is too drunk to fight back, remains drunk for the next two days and, not surprisingly, misses work. When he returns to his job, the boss, not surprisingly, gives him shit and Abel quits. A downward spiral begins (or, depending on your definition of “downward spiral,” continues) and Abel continues to get drunk every day, borrow money from Ben and Milly, and laze around the apartment until Ben finally throws him out of the apartment. Abel then picks a fight with a corrupt cop that leads to him almost being beaten to death.

In the last part, Momaday brings the story full circle as Abel returns to the reservation to take care of his grandfather, who is dying. His grandfather retells him the stories from his youth and stresses the importance of staying connected to his people’s traditions. In the end, Abel participates in a traditional ritual and it feels as if he may be coming back to his people and his place in the world.

So what is the connection between the Merry Pranksters and House Made of Dawn other than they were both created in the 60s and involved a lot of drugs? In both cases the actual work is less important than what the work represented. If I painted a bus today and drove it across the US while simultaneously taking a lot of drugs, people would think it was silly. Maybe fun, but silly. But when the Merry Pranksters did this in 1964, it truly was revolutionary. It was the link between the Beat Generation of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s. The act itself doesn’t stand the test of time, but what it represented does.

Just as I feel that Ken Kesey and Merry Pranksters have more social importance than artistic, Momaday’s book has more social and political importance than literary. Specifically, Momaday’s novel is important less because it breaks new ground thematically (it doesn’t, really) and more because of its status as the first novel by a Native American author to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize (and because it is seen as paving the way for the Native American literary boom that would follow) and because of its structural/formal experimentation. And while both are undoubtedly significant, with the benefit of hindsight, the novel itself isn’t as strong as some of the other Pulitzer winners.

Momoday’s writing can be undeniably beautiful at times, but he took a fairly simple story and made it equally undeniably confusing by using a non-linear and stream of consciousness method of story-telling and then on top of that shifting perspectives of the characters without warning. Doing so may be interesting or even, dare we say, revolutionary for the time, but it also demands a lot from the reader. It is a hard book that requires close reading. Or a lot of LSD. A lot a lot.

But, to be clear, “hard books” are not “bad books” and I enjoyed this one. The literary tricks, however, seemed more contrived than necessary and ultimately subtracted from the story itself. The characters get lost in the process. I never gained any real perspective into Abel (or any of the other characters for that matter), which then, unfortunately, makes Abel’s journey–from alienated returning vet to ex-con in the big city and back to the reservation, where he finds a sort of healing and begins to return to his people and their way of life—seem like one seen from a distance, not one I actually cared about.

House Made of Dawn, while admittedly trailblazing in some respects, feels like a premature Pultizer. The Prize committee made this award on what the novel represented rather than the novel itself. Just as I applaud Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters for what they did but it doesn’t mean I thought it was good (other than opening up for Jane’s Addiction in fluorescent clown outfits), I similarly I applaud Momaday for giving us a glimpse into his world even though I though it could have been a lot better.  A lot a lot.

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

[Editor’s Note: Pulitzer Schmulitzer! is where we count down our favorite Pulitzer Prize winning novels for fiction according to the unpredictable and arbitrary whims of yours truly. To learn how Pulitzer Schmulitzer! started and read about the methodology or complete lack thereof behind the rankings, look no further than right here. If you want to see what we’ve covered so far, here you go. Now, on to the countdown.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#59 – The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (1973). More meh than boo-yah! But there’s something to be learned from meh.

[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.]

Sunday was a little sadder for me because it saw the passing of Stuart Scott. He was 49. For 21 years, Scott was one of ESPN’s and ABC Sports’ most recognizable and quotable personalities and one of the most popular sportscasters around the world. He bridged the world between sports and hip-hop. He reportedly coined the phrase “Boo-yah!” And I really liked him.

Granted, I didn’t actually know Stuart Scott. Never met him. Can’t call him a friend. Playing six degrees of separation, the closest connection I have is that my friend Mike met him once when he was working at Epic Records. I’ll let Mike tell the story because Mike tells stories like no other:

Had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Scott in Dave McPherson’s office at Epic. Five of us quoted him to himself. “Call him butter, cos he’s on a roll.” “Cool as the other side of the pillow.” Dropping two entire Pras lines from “Fugee-La” before a homer landed in the bleachers. And he sat there like it didn’t prolly happen to him ten times a day, with other groups of clowns like us, loving it. He just wanted to talk about music. He was as original as he was genuine. Huge loss for lovers of sports and the vernacular. RIP.

And so although I never met him, it is stories like these and the many others that have been shared this week that make me think I knew him. At least a little. At least enough to convince me that I liked him.

I’m old enough and savvy enough to know that sometimes the face people show the world– especially those in the public eye – doesn’t match who they really are. But Scott had been fighting a very hard and very public battle with cancer since he was first diagnosed in 2007. In this fight, he displayed determination, spirit and a positive attitude that inspired countless others. I don’t think you can fake that.

In July, Scott accepted the Jimmy V Perseverance Award at the ESPYs. During his speech, Scott shared his approach to fighting cancer. “I also realized something else recently,” he said. “I said, I’m not losing. I’m still here. I’m fighting. I’m not losing. But I’ve got to amend that. When you die, that does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and the manner in which you live. So live. Live. Fight like hell.” If you haven’t seen it, take a moment.

The idea of living even in the face of adversity lies at the center of The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty. The Optimist’s Daughter tells the story of Laurel McKelva, a middle-aged widower living in Chicago, called to New Orleans to support her father, Judge McKelva, during a minor surgery to correct a torn retina in his eye. Laurel has had some bad breaks. Her mother has passed away and her father is now married to the self-centered Fay who is not only her new stepmom, but also younger than Laurel. Moreover, Laurel’s husband, Phil, has also met an early demise when he was killed by a Kamikaze pilot in World War II leaving Laurel a widow.

So if that wasn’t bad enough, her father’s supposedly minor surgery goes awry and the Judge unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse and then dies. I know, brutal. Laurel is now alone in the world, having lost her mother, her husband, and now her father. It’s not easy becoming an orphan at any age and she must come to terms with the loss and the fact that no one will ever call her “daughter” again. Welty writes: “But the guilt of outliving those you love is justly to be borne, she thought. Outliving is something we do to them. The fantasies of dying could be no stranger than the fantasies of living. Surviving is perhaps the strangest fantasy of them all.”

But if that wasn’t hard enough, Laurel now has to hang out with Fay and return to the family home in Mississippi to bury the Judge. Just how awful is Fay? I’ll give you an example. When the Judge is diagnosed with his retina problem, she declares, I don’t see why this had to happen to me.” She’s awful enough that you want Laurel to channel her inner Stuart Scott and shout: “You ain’t got to go home, but you got to get the heck up outta here.”

This is pretty much the extent of the plot. Nothing much happens beyond this, but through conversation, and Laurel’s silent observations, the book focuses on the two themes of memory and death (which, given our last review, appears to be a theme with these Pulitzer winners). Without giving everything away (which honestly, isn’t a ton), Laurel goes back to her parents’ house and spends three days rummaging nostalgically through her parents’ things. When she discovers that Fay has ruined a breadboard carved by Laurel’s husband as a gift to her mother, Fay and Laurel have a bitter confrontation, until moments away from hurling the breadboard at Fay, Laurel realizes that it’s not about the breadboard. It’s not about a thing at all. Her aha! moment is when she realizes her memories need not be attached to things, but instead with can remain within her always. Laurel puts the breadboard down, and with it, puts down her attachment to the past. Laurel finally realizes that she doesn’t need to hold on to the past to be happy and heads back to Chicago and the rest of her life. She realizes she is free to live.

The Optimist’s Daughter is a well-written book so why does it live at #56 and not higher? Two things mainly. First, Fay. She does not have one redeeming quality, and that, almost by definition, makes her character unbelievable. There isn’t even an attempt to provide some sort of backstory as to why she’s so selfish. She just is. She’s like the wicked stepmother in Cinderella. Which totally works if you’re writing a, say, fairy tale. But we’re talking Pulitzer Prize winning fiction here. So when the Judge dies and the doctor says sadly, “I couldn’t save him,” and Fay’s response is “You picked my birthday to do it on!”, it just loses credibility. And even if you thought this behavior believable, why would the Judge, who by all accounts is a smart and well-respected person, be attracted to her? I get that she’s 30 years younger, but that isn’t enough by itself to sway me (unless she was really really hot and that description wasn’t in the book).

Second, and I alluded to this above, it is not a very exciting story. I like a good moment of introspection as much as the next guy, but I also like something to happen. When the biggest moment in a book is a near fight over the condition of a breadboard, I can only get so excited.

All that said, a book whose fundamental message is to live – regardless of how (un)thrilling the message is delivered – deserves some kudos. And what I can take from it, because really, it’s all about me, is that even though Stuart Scott won’t be there every night to recap sports for me, he is still there. Like the breadboard, gone is not forgotten. I will never forget what Stuart Scott stood for, what he fought for, what he represented, or what he meant. So before you go to sleep tonight, shout out a “Boo-yah!” and flip your pillow over to the cool side. And remember. Remember to live. And fight like hell.

#60 – Lighting the corners of my mind: Mem’ries of Led Zeppelin III and The Tinkers by Paul Harding (2010)

I am certain I have forgotten way more things than I actually remember. I just finished listening to Serial, the NPR podcast phenomenon that asks whether Adnan Syed was wrongly convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend. The main problem with Adnan’s defense is that he can’t remember what he did after school on the Friday afternoon that she was killed. Several hours of his life are missing from his memory. I feel bad for Adnan because I can’t remember a lot of things. Huge chunks of my life, like the winter of 1994 or a single woman I dated before Gigi (go with me on this one), let alone 3:00-5:00 p.m. on a day 15 years ago.

Case in point: Just a few days ago, Gigi was trying to remind me of the place in San Francisco where we used to eat Sunday brunch. Not only did she remember the name, location, décor, and what she ate, but she also remembered what I ate. And whether I liked it. In contrast, not only did I not remember the restaurant (or what I ate) when she was describing it to me, I have now already forgotten what it was that she reminded me of. And I also can’t remember what I had for breakfast today. Honestly, it’s one of the benefits of documenting my life in Facebook and Instagram, and I actually order the Facebook book so that I can remember what I posted on Facebook. None of this existed 15 years ago, when Adnan allegedly killed his girlfriend.

I should probably be concerned, but then I remember that I can recall every lyric of every song on Led Zeppelin III. In order, both sides. I can also recite every defensive player on the Pittsburgh Steelers 1976 Super Bowl Championship team, play The Sting from memory although I learned it when I was eight, and tell you the last 44 Best Picture winners at the Oscars.

Which begs the question: why do we remember what we remember? I have no idea but my guess is that we don’t necessarily remember things we did, instead we remember things that we did, plus something. The “plus something” is the key, but it can be anything. It can be contextual (where I was when I heard about 9/11), personal relevance (where I was when I first kissed Gigi) or simply repetition (Led Zeppelin III). Brunch in San Francisco, while I’m sure fantastic and enjoyable, is not a plus something for me. And so, all memory of it is gone. (As an aside, Gigi jokes that I eat “fud” and not “food” and this may be true. Meals have significance to her but not to me, unless Mohammed Ali or Heidi Klum is eating next to me. And then I’ll only remember what they said to me, and not what I ordered.)

I was in Japan this past October and saw some incredible things. I looked over Tokyo from Roppongi Hills, walked through Happoen Garden, visited a LOT of temples that involved me lighting a lot of incense. I did a lot of bowing. I rode a bullet train past Mount Fuji and saw a Geisha in the Gion Kobu area of Kyoto (on the street, not as a customer). Will I remember them in 20 years? Questionable. It’s already a little hazy. But what I will remember is an intersection.

You see, there is an intersection in the Shibuya area of Tokyo that is considered the busiest in the world. There also happens to be a Starbucks on one corner where you can watch this intersection from the second floor. It is mesmerizing. I must have spent 20 minutes drinking a Venti coffee (yes, still called that in Tokyo) watching the light change and the pedestrians stream across the street only to somehow make it back to the sidewalk by the time the walk sign turned red and the light turned green and the cars came. It was Tokyo in a nutshell.

But why I really remember this intersection while the other memories already begin to fade is that I took a video that I can’t stop watching.

At the 15 second mark of this video, when the walk light turns green, there is a man in a white shirt that darts from the bottom of the screen toward the top on the right hand side of the cross walk. As he gets to about the halfway point, three men – one from the top, left and right of the screen – meet him in the middle of the street and knock him down. There is a flurry of activity, and then they all get up and exit stage left.

What happened? Was it a robbery? Or was I just watching a group of kids playing around? If the latter, what was it they were trying to do? It certainly didn’t look like fun. Especially for the guy who landed on his ass. Whatever the setup, I’m also fascinated that the mass of people around them seem nonplussed by the whole event and don’t take a second look. Was I the only one watching this? I’m obsessed with my video. The event itself is now significant to me because I have watched my video at least 300 times, and this minute will be my Tokyo memory that stays with me most clearly because of the repetition. Did I even eat in Tokyo? No clue.

Which is a fine intro to The Tinkers by Paul Harding, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner. The Tinkers tells the story of a New England patriarch named George Washing Crosby as he lies dying on a hospital bed in his living room, “right where they put the dining room table, fitted with its two extra leaves for holiday dinners.” The book recounts Crosby’s difficult childhood in Maine where his father was a tinker and travelling salesman who also suffered from epileptic seizures, and (small spoiler alert), the most traumatic event in Crosby’s life centers on his father’s abandonment of the family on learning that his wife was planning to have him institutionalized. But really, the book is less about what happened in his life than what Crosby remembers happening. It’s the story of the journey we will all go through at the end, and Crosby’s life, seen from its final moments, becomes a collection of memories that make sense only to that one person.

It’s a sad story, which isn’t at all surprising because most of the Pulitzer Prize winners are. But this one hit a little closer to home than most as I just went through something similar with my dad. For about six weeks beginning in mid-April of this year, we knew my dad was going to die. As such, I spent a fair of amount of time with him during those weeks, and I often thought that odds are that this is how we will go out. It won’t be an aneurism, a plane crash, or an underwater poisonous snake. Most of us will die slowly. We will die in a bed in a hospital, hospice, or at home.

Death, as they say, is one of life’s certainties (along with taxes and the Giants winning the World Series every other year), but that doesn’t make it any easier. And I wondered what my dad thought of the whole thing. I wondered if he thought about the fact that he wasn’t going to see another birthday, or presidential election or, for that matter, another World Series. He won’t see his grandchildren get married or the end of House of Cards. Everything he did he was doing it for the last time. And this gets only more acute when you think about what the very last days will be like, assuming our pain has been managed, when we are laying on our bed, no longer able to communicate in a meaningful fashion with whoever is sitting – reading or knitting or texting – in the chair beside us. What will we think about then?

That’s the place where The Tinkers lives. In the eight days before his dies, Crosby will think very little of the traditional narrative of life. Crosby’s life is summarized early and quickly: “[He] got a master’s degree in education, counseled guidance in high school, went back north every summer to fly-fish with his poker buddies – doctors, cops, music teachers – bought a broken clock at a tag sale and a reprint of an eighteenth-century manual on how to fix it, retired, went on group tours to Asia, to Europe, to Africa, fixed clocks for thirty years, spoiled his grandkids, got Parkinson’s, got diabetes, got cancer, and was laid out in a hospital bed in the middle of his living room.”

Instead, Crosby fixates almost equally between his father’s epilepsy and the floorboards below the hospital bed that has been set up in his house. He spends far more time thinking about the night long ago when his father bit his hand in the midst of a fit than he will spend thinking about the years that he spent teaching at the local high school. He recalls the passion for antique clocks that marked his retirement and how he would meticulously repair them. He focuses on the moments that made him. He focuses on the “plus somethings.”

So why doesn’t it rate higher on the countdown? First, Harding has some Faulkner-esque moments where sentences either stretch nearly the length of a page or border on self-loving: “Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October breeze.” Ugh. Second, George’s death is too free of pain and terror and doubt. Or maybe just for my taste. But he just seems so calm and normal about the fact that he is dying that it doesn’t seem realistic. But lastly (and most importantly), although the story meant a lot to me personally because of my own dad’s death, I didn’t really care about the story. I wasn’t invested in George or his memories beyond what they told me about myself.

There was an article in the New York Times about six months ago written by a hospice nurse who spoke about the regrets of the dying. They regretted working too much, not being true to themselves, not having the courage to express their feelings, not keeping in touch with friends and not letting themselves be happier. I get that. But we all know what we’re going to regret. I mean, duh. But what will we remember? Regret is what we’ll think about when we can still choose what to think about. When that time is passed and we are at the point where we can no longer control our thoughts, we’ll think about those moments in our lives that are plus something. Those moments that defined us. The good shit. Like every word of every song on Led Zeppelin III.

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.

#63 – Nostalgia Bites: Why KFC Is Way Better Than Guard of Honor (1949)

Nostalgia is a funny by-product of age. From time to time and more and more often as I get older, something will unexpectedly remind me of things – mostly nice things – from the past. Sometimes it’s a KFC. Image

I was in my hometown of Phoenix this past weekend and happened to go past this KFC, continued driving for a block or two, made a U-turn, pulled into the parking lot and shot this picture. Why? Nostalgia, of course. And not nostalgia for KFC in general – although I’ve been secretly craving the new Double Down and don’t understand why the twitterverse isn’t up in arms that it’s back for a limited time only – but nostalgia for this KFC in particular because when I was fifteen-ish, I spent a lot of time inside this KFC. Why? A girl, of course.

Nostalgia is fuzzier than memories and the details now elude me. Her name was Cathy although I can’t remember if it started with a “C” or a “K.” I for sure have no idea what her last name was. She could drive and I couldn’t, so she was older than me but not by much. I can’t remember how we met either. She was poor and didn’t go to my high school. We didn’t have any friends in common. I don’t recall ever meeting her parents or whether they were married or divorced. But she worked at the KFC so maybe I went in one day and ordered a three-piece meal, original recipe not extra crispy, and we hit it off. It doesn’t matter.

Whatever the impetus, for a year (or maybe it was just a summer) back in the ‘80s, we were inseparable although the particulars of what we did are as unclear as the details of how we met. She had a boyfriend who was senior at her high school, so we never dated although I’m sure we made out once or twice. I vaguely remember listening to a lot of Billy Squier and clearly remember sitting on the roof of my dad’s 1967 Buick late one summer night looking for shooting stars.  I know I loved that moment and I wish I had a recording of the conversation.

As with most relationships at that age, we drifted apart as high school rolled on. I think she dropped out and had her own apartment by the time she was 17. The last time I saw her was at her wedding when I was 19 or 20. I remember Italian food, getting to dance with her briefly and her looking very happy. I never saw her again.

Until I drove by the KFC the other day, I hadn’t really thought about Cathy (or Kathy) in over 20 years. Nonetheless, dipping my toe in the ’80s end of the pool was a happy trip down memory lane to visit fifteen year old me. One of the mixed blessings of being fifteen is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has every happened to anyone before. The passage of time may have changed my perspective, but at least in this case looking back was all good.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Guard of Honor by James Cozzens, the Pulitzer Prize winner from 1949.  When I originally went to Amazon to buy this book, it was out of print. I was more than a little puzzled as to how a once-critically-acclaimed novel, if not a popular one, could fall so out of disfavor that it wasn’t even worth printing. Then I read it.

If you’re a person that likes to skip to the chase, there were about 10 pages in this 600-plus page book that I didn’t hate. And I was probably in an Ambien haze when I read those. Skip Chasers (or Chase Skippers?) can stop reading.

For those looking for a little more snarkiness, I’m glad you’re still with me. The entire story is set on a fictional United States Army base in central Florida and takes place over a three-day period during World War II. There are no chapters. Instead, the novel is divided into three large sections aptly named: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Judging from the memorandums that appear throughout the story, the days in question are September 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of 1943. It doesn’t matter.

Despite its significant size, only three things happen in this book. The first involves a white officer punching an African-American pilot. This sets up event two, where other African-American pilots protest the use of segregated officer clubs, and the leadership debates appropriate action. Finally, during day three, there is a mass training exercise in which seven equipment-laden soldiers accidentally parachute into a lake, sink to the bottom, and drown. The last incident, incidentally, has nothing to do with anything, and the total pages used to actually tell those stories was less than ten percent of the book.

The other ninety percent was mindless description of life on the base using military terms that I was completely unfamiliar with and inane dialogue (e.g., “’Oh, Judge!’ General Beal said. ‘That boy is a honey! You can believe me. Because we have a few more like him we’re going to win the war.'”). But maybe the most annoying thing about the novel was Cozzens’ decision to further confuse the reader by introducing at least twenty characters, none of which could be considered the main character, and all of which were referred to only by rank and last name which made it virtually impossible to keep them straight. I spent most of this book trying to figure out which character committed suicide, an event that took place in the first forty pages. I never did figure it out.

I’m almost done. But if you need any more, it’s not only boring, it is hard to read. Cozzens’ writing is filled with rhetorical questions, double negatives, disorientating descriptions, esoteric words, and equivocal pronouns. I had to constantly re-read sentences to ascertain, for example, what part of which abstract idea the pronoun “this” referred to. I found myself constantly drifting, which required me to re-read paragraphs, if not pages.

In short, I’ve got two words for Guard of Honor. Pain. Ful. Sometimes, nostalgia gives you the warm fuzzies. But other times, you look back and realize you simply made a mistake and cringe a little. This book falls in the latter category.

Ok, now I’m done.