What I’m Reading (April 2016)

An annotated list of books I read this month. It felt like I read more than I’m noting here, since I was traveling so much, but perhaps age is playing a trick on my memory.

  • The Widow by Fiona Barton- A page turner of a mystery.
  • The Violet Hour by Katie Roiphe- An interesting look at the last days of a select group of persons and how they and those around them coped with death.
  • Alligator Candy by David Kushner- Kushner investigates the disappearance of his older brother when they were both kids.
  • Flannery by Brad Gooch- At least the second time, I’ve read this biography of Flannery O’Connor and possibly my third. She still ranks as one of the best. I’m slowly working through her mammoth collection of letters.
  • Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon
  • God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
  • Bill Walton: Back From the Dead by Bill Walton
  • The View From The Cheap Seats by Neal Gaiman
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The Conversation That Wasn’t

The diagnosis is given. Nothing can be done. The end is near. The family gathers. The final conversations occur. Unresolved issues and unanswered questions take place.

This is what we think happens, or at least I do, when the end of life approaches. But in my experience, it seems to be a fallacy.

In some cases, as we know, the end comes suddenly without a chance to engage in those conversations. My Dad passed away of a heart attack in his sleep in 2011. I’d spoken to him the week before as we did every week. The conversation was no different than before. How was his grandson? His daughter-in-law? Had I talked to my Mom and my brothers? What had he been doing? Who had he talked to? And then he might go on about the cost of insurance and prescriptions.

Despite these weekly conversations, there were conversations we never had. I had questions about why he had done things or what had happened that caused him to act in a certain way. He wasn’t one to explain himself as he went, but I figured over time he might help me understand. After he passed, I wrote a book, One Last Word, about my desire to have one last conversation with him, and in writing that book to try to have those last words with him.

Eleven months later, doctors diagnosed my diagnosed my Mom with Stage 4 stomach cancer and gave her one to three months to live. This time would be different. I might have missed out on those conversations with Dad, but Mom and I would have them.

That proved not to be the case.

Why? Was it a failure on my part? I had questions and I wanted answers. I tried to tactfully raise them, but she wasn’t interested in addressing the matter. She either ignored me or changed the subject.

A few weeks back I read an article by Katie Roiphe about dying and last words. The article was an excerpt from her recently published book, The Violet Hour: Great Writers At The End. Roiphe spent years researching and interviewing people about what happened in the days, weeks, and months before a person passed. Did those last conversations, as we imagine them, occur? She concludes,

“I found in the research for this book that while nearly everyone has a fantasy of a ‘last conversation,’ very few people actually have it. It is the fantasy of resolution, of a final cathartic communication that rarely materializes, because prickliness or reserve or anger that was there all along is still there, because the urgency of death does not clarify muddiness, or lift obstacles, or defuse conflicts, or force us to talk about what matters, however much we wish it would.”

In other words, the relationship carries on as it had before. Everything has changed and nothing has changed.

Mom lived four weeks and one day following her diagnosis, passing away on April 14th. In those four weeks, we talked more than we had in the previous four years, even though she lived less than five minutes from me.

She talked about our infamous trip to the Grand Canyon. We lived in Phoenix for a brief time and before we moved away, she felt it important for my brothers and I to see the Grand Canyon. On a Saturday, we drove to the Grand Canyon and spent ten minutes peering over the ridge before we drove back to Phoenix. On the way back, my brothers and I argued so much, she pulled the truck over to the side of the road and forced us to get out. Although she drove off, she did come back for us.

On occasion, she talked about the marriage to my Dad. I knew the marriage hadn’t been happy. The level ten decibel of yelling was an indicator, but I never knew that in the early years she used to bake cookies, brownies, and pies for Dad because he had a ‘sweet tooth.’ I knew about the ‘sweet tooth,’ but I didn’t know about her baking for him. I figured she’d always worked at a bank.

When it came to life and the decisions she’d made, good and bad, she wasn’t interested in revisiting them or explaining her rationale. “I’ve lived a good life. You boys turned out fine.” That’s all she had to say on the matter.

There were two things she kept telling me: one, what she wanted me to say at her funeral, and two, that she wanted no part of dealing with the doctors. I was to speak with them. She didn’t want to be burdened with it, which was in line with how she’d lived her life. Minimize the distractions. Focus on what she wanted to do and say. Let others handle the details.

One evening, she must have had a sharp pain or something in her back. She said it reminded her of the pain she felt when giving birth to me.

“How so?” I asked.

She’d experienced almost unbearable back pain and went to the doctor. The nurse told her it was normal. After all, she was nineteen and pregnant with her first child. Mom insisted on seeing the doctor, who after examining her rushed her to the hospital. I was born that day. Six weeks early.

If she hadn’t insisted on seeing the doctor…

Wait? What? I almost wasn’t born? I was born six weeks early?

Forty-two years and I’d never heard this story.

How could she have never told me about my premature birth? How had it never come up on any of my birthdays? Why?

And before I could get a question in, she was off and onto the next topic, no longer interested in addressing the matter.

Always looking forward.

She never wanted to discuss the death of her Mom, who passed away a year after being in a horrific car accident. Or her second marriage. Or the boyfriends after that. Or the multiple jobs she worked, or why. Or the time she was robbed when working one of her night jobs. The thief made her kneel down and pointed a gun at her forehead while he robbed the store. (I heard the story a few years later from Dad.)

No, instead of resolving the past, we continued on as usual. The relationship between us, with its stops and starts, it uneasiness and tensions, was the relationship we had. For better or worse.

Despite the unanswered questions, I have no regrets about that last month. In her last days, I was able to be there for her and to allow her to exit this life in the manner and place she desired.

When the end comes, the relationship is what it is and was. So, if there is a lesson in all of this, instead of waiting until the end, instead of hoping that the specter of death will somehow transform the relationship, make the relationship what you want now instead of being disappointed later.

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Documentary: Best of Enemies

Republican versus Democrat. Conservative versus Liberal. William F. Buckley, Jr. versus Gore Vidal.

During the 1968 political conventions, ABC News had, at the time, the ingenious idea, of pitting two people against one another in a debate as part of their coverage. Their news ratings in the cellar, the ploy was born of desperation and was a desperate grab at attention.

ABC news knew who they wanted to portray the conservative Republican point of view: William F. Buckley, Jr. He agreed to participate on one condition. He would debate anyone except Gore Vidal.

So ABC news got Gore Vidal.

Not only were these men polar opposites in terms of their political views, but they detested one another. Not only was the debate ideological, it was personal. Each considered the other as dangerous to the future of America.

The documentary includes snippets from the debates, which are entertaining to watch, as two men at the height of their intellectual and verbal capabilities dual one another. The debate climaxed when Vidal pushed Buckley buttons and Buckley responded by slandering Vidal on live TV, which later spawned multiple lawsuits between the two.

Best of Enemies, the documentary about these debates, is an entertaining and informative look back at one of the most unique political debates.

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The Podcast Listening Family

Podcasts. Somewhere around 2007, I discovered podcasts and found them to be a drastic improvement over talk radio. Back then, they weren’t a thing and weren’t as easy as downloading to your phone. The landscape wasn’t littered with podcasts as they are today, so at times, I ran the risk of listening to everything in my queue and having to wait for another one to release. Not the case anymore. These days, it seems everybody is discovering podcasts, particularly with the success of Serial Season 1. Even my family.

(Note: Said family did not listen to Serial season 1.)

I’ve turned countless people onto podcasts and we’re periodically emailing one another links to new podcasts that we’ve found. As for my family, they have tolerated my podcast habit, although never engaged themselves, despite my suggestion and prodding. For example, on a long trip, we listen to podcasts. My car. My stereo.

In the same way, my own Dad forced me to listen to WOAI-1200 and Paul Harvey.

Everything changed when the Mystery Show came on the scene. Specifically, episode 3, “Belt Buckle.” It might be the single best podcast I’ve ever heard. I listened to it one morning on the way to work and when I arrived, I sat in the car and listened to the last fifteen minutes. It is greatness.

I told my wife and son about the podcast, the incredible story, and told them that had to listen to it. I even went so far as to download it onto their devices.

A few days later, “You’re right, that was good.”

And then I said words I might now regret, “You know, there are podcasts on everything.”



Did I have any evidence to back up my outlandish claim? No, but when has that ever stopped anyone, much less me, from making such a claim?

Dutifully, they grabbed their tablets and phones and began searching for podcasts on their favorite topics. Are there podcasts on scrapbooking and organizing? Oh yes, and not just one. How about toy reviews, Pokemon, Legos, and a guy breaking down each Star Wars movie as a piece of literature? Yes, there are.

These days, when I descend the stairs of my home, I hear a podcast on scrapbooking coming from one side of the house and a podcast about toys or movies coming from the other.

What have I done?


As for that episode from Mystery Show about the Belt Buckle, I assure you I have heard bits and pieces of it at least ten times. My eleven year old son has listened to it again and again and again.

When I went to Phoenix on business recently, I thought about that Belt Buckle. It is stuck in my mind. Again, that’s a good thing.


So, at the risk of alienating those around, let me tell you that whatever your interests or passions or hobbies, a podcasts exists for you.

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What I’m Reading (March 2016)

A snapshot of this month’s reading. In no particular order.

  • What Remains of Me by Alyson Gaylin is LA noir at its best. Sleeze, deceit, murder, coverups, and corruption in the brights lights of Los Angeles.
  • Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes, and The Blue Room by Georges Simenon. Three great books of noir.
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. Still a masterpiece.
  • Blessed by Kate Bowler. Somebody tweeted Bowler’s article about her diagnosis of Stage IV cancer. In it, she noted the irony of having written a book about the history of the health and wealth gospel. Blessed is that book. It’s an interesting read, albeit more academic in tone.
  • Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens by Steve Olson. A history of the volcanic explosion of Mount St. Helens.
  • Movie Freak: My Life Watching Movies by Owen Bleiberman
  • How to Be Here by Rob Bell
  • Hotel California by Barney Hoskyns, a history of the California country rock movement.
  • Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch is a series of essays on the benefits of meditation.
  • Alpe D’Huez: Cycling’s Greatest Climb by Peter Cossins. A cycling book about the most iconic mountain in the Tour de France.
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith. A memoir of sorts of her coming of age and relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe.
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March Madness Memories: 1983 Championship Game

“The University of Houston Cougars, aka Phi Slamma Jamma, will will the championship. With ease,” I declared to a group of friends as we played basketball. The two teams, Houston and NC State, were set to play that night for 1983 NCAA Championship. Houston had been a dominant team all season, whereas NC State had earned the nickname, Cardiac Kids, for coming back at the last minute to win games.

A year earlier, I’d been hooked by the game-winning jump shot of Michael Jordan. I couldn’t get enough college basketball. I bought the magazines, watched as many college games as I could, and quite possibly filled out my first March Madness bracket.

Personally, so much had changed in a year. I was living with Mom instead of Dad and in Phoenix instead of San Antonio. Rather than watching the game on Dad’s big color TV, I was relegated to watching the game in my bedroom on a 13 inch black and white TV. I’d propped the TV on a dresser and sat on a folding chair in front of the TV, practically nose to screen.

I anticipated a blowout. Houston had Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, and a host of incredible players. I’d watched many of their games and they were dominant. As for NC State, I didn’t know much about them.

Even though the game would be a blowout, nowhere near as good as the previous year, at least I’d get to see the athletic display and prowess of Houston as they decimated their opponent. Then I could go to school and boast of Texas’ greatness.

Instead of a blowout, the game remained close, with neither team getting much of a lead. I inched forward on my seat. My face getting closer and closer to the screen.

With a minute left in the game, a Houston player missed a free throw and the game remained tied. I figured NC State had no way to score, so the game would go to overtime. NC State brought the ball down the court, passed it around and around. They couldn’t get an open shot. The clock ticked down. A NC State player made a bad pass and a Houston player deflected it. Derek Whittenburg, a guard for NC State, saved the ball, turned, and heaved an improbable shot towards the basket. Lorenzo Charles, also from NC State, and standing under the basket, jumped up, caught the ball, and dropped it in the basket as time expired.

My jaw dropped. What had just happened? NC State won? There had to be a mistake. There had to be a penalty or something. NC State was not supposed to win. I stood up and watched the replay again and again. It was the most amazing play I’d ever seen. The game had been tremendous, even better than the game the year before.

Could college basketball get any better?


Every day at lunch, I skipped eating and headed straight to the basketball court. The school had the greatest court. One full length basketball court surrounded by a fifteen foot chain link fence. You never had to chase a ball.

While everyone ate their lunch, I reenacted the game winning attempt. The ball is deflected, then saved. Turn, shoot from forty feet.

The only difference, a few of mine went in. Not many, but a few.


The following Saturday, my brother and I walked to the mall. I went into Foot Locker or some such place and bought a red North Carolina State Wolfpack baseball cap, which I wore proudly from that day forward. One day, probably when I went off to college, I lost track of it.


ESPN produced a 30 for 30 documentary about that NC State season. It’s called Survive and Advance, and it’s worth the watch.

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March Madness Memories: 1982 Championship Game

Prior to 1982, the San Antonio Spurs and the NBA held all of my basketball attention. College basketball existed on the periphery, something to watch on Saturday afternoons if it were raining outside. All that changed with the 1982 NCAA Championship game between the University of North Carolina and Georgetown.

I cannot recall how or why I became interested in the game. Were people talking about the game at school? I don’t know. I have no recollection of watching the tournament itself or even the Final Four games on the preceding Saturday. All I know is that at tipoff on Monday night, I was watching.

The UNC Tar Heels lineup contained Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, and James Worthy, while Georgetown started Patrick Ewing and Eric ‘Sleepy’ Floyd. Their names meant nothing to me.

I was in the seventh grade and lived with my Dad in a two bedroom house on Oxford Drive in San Antonio. We had one TV, a monstrous (at least in those days) set that resided on the floor. Dad, probably wishing he could watch something else, allowed me to watch the game and stay up past my bedtime. He was never much for adhering to the rules, even the rules he made up.

Dad sat on the couch. I sat on the floor in front of the TV.

From the game’s beginning, this seven foot freshman center for Georgetown, Patrick Ewing did his best to intimidate the Carolina team. He goaltended several of Carolina’s first shots. The UNC players might not have been intimidated, but I was. There’s no way we could win if he kept blocking shots like that.

Yeah, I was on the UNC bandwagon. Not sure how I’d chosen to root for the Tar Heels, but I had.

The entire broadcast is now Youtube and recently I pulled it up and watched bits and pieces of the game. This sentence by one of the broadcasters halfway through the game made me laugh, “The guy who seems a little shaky is Michael Jordan.”

The score went back and forth with 16 different lead changes. Georgetown took the lead with 52 seconds left. I inched closer and closer to the screen. UNC brought the ball down the court and called timeout. After the timeout, they passed the ball around and around and around, looking for an open shot.

And then…

Michael Jordan, that freshman who looked shaky, hit a jump shot from the left corner to take the lead. I threw my hands up in the air and cheered. Georgetown turned the ball over on the final possession and UNC won the game.

With that shot and that game, college basketball had hooked me. I made plans to pay closer attention to the collegiate game the following year.

And after school the next day, I reenacted that moment, a jump shot from the left corner, at least a hundred times.

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Re-reading Slaughterhouse Five

Re-reading a book is a rarity for me. Why go back and read something when there are so many good books waiting to be read? For me to read a book a second time, it has to be off the charts good. In the last twenty years, as someone who has read 10-12 books a month, I might have read 5 books a second time.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut has now joined that list.

I first encountered Slaughterhouse Five twenty-two years ago. As a young newlywed, Friday nights consisted of going out to eat and then stopping at Hastings to see if we could find a movie to rent and maybe a book to buy.

I’d been through a Kerouac phase, having read all of his books, and was looking for something else. Nothing caught my attention until I reached the end of the fiction section and saw a series of paperback books by Kurt Vonnegut.

The name sounded familiar, but I couldn’t recall where or why or how I’d heard of the author. I thumbed through a couple of different books. Slaughterhouse Five was identified as his best-selling and most popular book, so I decided to start with it.

I’m guessing it took me no more than a couple of days to read the book. How can you describe this very unique book? It’s about time travel, WW 2, the bombing of Dresden, love, children, philosophy, religion, man, existence, and everything else. It can be funny, sad, thought-provoking, and moving.

In short, Slaughterhouse Five is a masterpiece decrying the vanity of war and violence, the seriousness with which people take themselves, and the seeming vanity of existence.

The following Friday night, after another dinner out, I headed back to the fiction aisle where the Vonnegut books were displayed and bought a couple of more. I kept going back every Friday night until I’d purchased everything they had.

A couple of years ago, I went through a phase where I sold off eighty percent of my library, only keeping the books that mattered to me most. That stack of Vonnegut books made the cut.


Years have passed since I’ve picked up a book by Vonnegut. A month or two ago, I received an advance copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five: Bookmarked by Curtis Smith. The Bookmarked series is intended as a set of books where one writer writes about another book that has left an inedible impression. Reading Smith’s account brought back memories of the joy I’d found in reading Vonnegut’s work. I decided to pick up Slaughterhouse Five again.


Some things were familiar. Kilgore Trout, the infamous science fiction writer. The Tralfamadorians, who are outer space creatures who capture Billy Pilgrim. WW2. Concentration camps. The bombing of Dresden. The flitting back and forth in time.

But other parts were like reading the story for the first time.

This time, I paced myself through the book, restricting myself to a few pages at a time, making sure to enjoy and appreciate the writing. Vonnegut is a writer like no other. He possessed a unmatched voice and writing style along with a unique perspective on life and living. I enjoyed Slaughterhouse Five so much, I’ve begun to delve into some of those other Vonnegut books in my possession.

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Book Notes: The Blue Room by Georges Simenon

The Blue Room by Georges Simenon is a meticulously plotted, gripping story about the psychological descent of a man.

At the beginning of The Blue Room, a man and a woman, each married to another, are engaged in an affair. The woman’s husband arrives and nearly catches the two lovers. The man escapes and resolves to end the affair.

We next learn the man has been arrested. We don’t know why, but the charge is serious. He is interrogated by investigators and quizzed by psychiatrists. When questioned, the man lies, but we do not know why. Is it to coverup for the crime? To protect himself? To protect another?

The investigators punch holes in his lies and when confronted with the truth, his mental and emotional state deteriorates even further, culminating in a confrontation with his former lover and then his trial.

The Blue Room is another masterpiece from Simenon.


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Snapshot Memories of The Eagles

Not until I reached the age of ten or so, somewhere around 1979, did I become aware of music. My Mom and stepdad operated a skating rink so there was lots of music, but I paid little attention to it. In 1979-80, The Eagles reached the zenith of their success before disbanding with no promise of ever getting back together again. Despite the band having gone their separate way, their music remained popular and it was nearly impossible for someone like me, who came of age afterwards, to not know their music.

I knew all of their songs (Desperado, Hotel California, Tequila Sunrise, Life in the Fast Lane, New Kid in Town, Take It Easy, Take It To The Limit, and a dozen others), but to me, The Eagles were two guys, Don Henley and Glenn Frey. In the mid to late 80’s, they achieved success as individual artists, which to me, incorrectly, reinforced the idea that the bad was these two guys. And then, in 1994, after swearing off ever getting together again, The Eagles reunited.

A few weeks back, Glenn Frey, passed away, which brought back certain memories of the band and their music.


1987-1989. The Eagles haven’t been a performing group in years, but their music remains popular. I don’t know how I know their music, but I do. Neither of my parents ever told me about them. You just knew The Eagles and their music. It had a certain sound, that California country rock sound with the perfect melodies.

As a senior in high school and those first couple of years after, Friday and Saturday nights were spent hanging out with friends, going to eat, catching a movie, and sitting around talking. On occasion, I’d meet a few friends at a place called Mama’s Cafe (I think that’s the name of it) located on San Pedro in San Antonio. Across the street was the old Alamo Cafe and a Wendy’s. What I remember about Mama’s Cafe: There always seemed to be an Eagles cover band playing. Always. And the song I remember them playing, Take It Easy, which seemed to be the perfect song for an eighteen year old kid on a Friday night who hadn’t figured out life.

Also during those years, my friends and I debated Hotel California and what it meant. I don’t think the song contains any hidden meaning, but if they came out and said it did, I wouldn’t be surprised either. It’s one of the best and yet strangest songs ever.


1994. From high school graduate to college graduate to married and in graduate school. The Eagles announce they are reuniting. New album (sort of) and a tour. I bought my first CD ever and my first Eagles album, Hell Freezes Over. Kind of amazing that I hadn’t purchased any Eagles music prior to that point. If I had, I don’t remember doing so.

The image stuck in my mind: CD player perched on a chair next to the kitchen in the little two bedroom house my wife and I have rented. A cloudy November day with a slight chill in the air. We are having friends over for dinner that night. I have Hell Freezes Over on repeat while I cook.


2014. A friend mentions this documentary about The Eagles, History of The Eagles. They rave about it. Bill Simmons write an opus article about it. The documentary is showing on paid cable, which I don’t have, so I have to wait to see this masterpiece.

New Year’s Day. I come down with pneumonia. I’m laying in bed, completely miserable, alternating between fever and chills, sweaty, racked with pain, and flat out miserable. I can’t remember ever feeling this bad. I need something to take my attention off my misery and I remember this documentary. A little Google search and I found where someone has uploaded an illegal copy.

Everything I’ve heard about the documentary fails to do it justice. It might be one of the best music documentaries ever. Hours pass and it only seems like minutes. (Of course, that could also be the pneumonia as well. Still, it’s a great documentary.)


2016. Glenn Frey passes. I didn’t even know he was sick. Like I needed to know. I’m not a rabid fan who keeps up with every move the band makes.

I watch the Eagles documentary again. Just as good the second and third time.

I check Amazon to see if there are any books about the Eagles. I find one: Hotel California: True Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstandt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends. Although not only about The Eagles, the book describes how the entire country rock scene came together in the late sixties and early seventies.

I buy the Eagles greatest hits and play them in the car when my son is with me. Because he needs to know.


Art, music, books, film, tv. The artist creates it and unleashes it on the world. If the artist is lucky, the creation resonates with someone. It makes a mark in their heart and mind, hopefully a good one, and creates a memory and a feeling that never goes away. To be that lucky as an artist, how awesome is that.

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