What I’m Reading (July 2016)

There are books and then there are BOOKS. Tales so captivating, written so well, drawing you in so that you don’t want to put them down. And if you find one of those books as you make your way through the monthly pile of books, then it is a very good month.

The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock is such a book. Sent in 1917, the book follows three brothers as they move from farm laborers to wanted outlaws and all the characters they meet along the way. It is violent, gritty, and written so very well. Five stars and more for The Heavenly Table.

Other books of note:

  • In the Plex by Steven Levy- a history of how Google came to be and some of their guiding principles.
  • Behind the Clouds by Marc Benioff- lessons learned in the creation of SalesForce.
  • TED Talks by Chris Anderson- a guide to effective public speaking.
  • The End of the Road by Alasdair Fotheringham- a look back at the Festina Affair that nearly wrecked the Tour de France. Interesting as some of the main character are now willing to go on the record about what they were doing.
  • Two Hours by Ed Caesar- the chase to run a marathon under two hours.
  • Underground Airlines by Ben Winters- an alt-history novel where slavery was never outlawed.
  • I Saw the Light by Colin Escott- a biography of Hank Williams, Sr.
  • Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Brag- a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis.
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What I’m Reading (June 2016)

Summer is here and it’s time to read. Lots of new releases for summer, some I’ve been waiting on for awhile.

  • The Far Empty by J. Todd Scott- a true Texas noir page-turner. The first book by J. Todd Scott and I look forward to his next one.
  • Before The Fall by Noah Hawley- another page turner with lots of positive reviews from the creator of the TV show, Fargo, also one of my favorites.
  • The Night The Rich Men Burned by Malcolm MacKay- MacKay might be one of my favorite writers.
  • The Great Bike Race by Geoffrey Nicholson- a book about the 1976 Tour De France. Reissued this year and noted as one of the first books about the race and a book that inspired many.
  • Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes- a great companion book to the 4 hour documentary on Netflix.
  • Dancing With Myself by Billy Idol- a raunchy tale about his upbringing and success, then breezes over the last twenty years.
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What I’m Reading (May 2016)

One would think with a number of flights this month, I would’ve read an increased number of books. At the very least, I would’ve read the same eight to ten number of books that I usually read. Instead, I read the fewest number of books in a month in a long time.

  • The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth- An account of a long-forgotten serial killer who tormented Austin in 1885. Interesting.
  • The Bradbury Chronicles by Sam Weller- A biography of sorts of Ray Bradbury, a prolific science fiction writer. One whom I can’t recall ever reading, so I might have to check out some of his work.
  • As They See ‘Em by Bruce Webber- The author follows a bunch of different umpires from minor leagues to the major leagues.

I started a couple of novels, but grew bored with each of them and stopped reading them. They’d both won awards and gotten some recent press, but I found them to be boring.

So what did I do on these flights? I watched Horace and Pete, the 10 episode series Louis C.K. posted on his website. It’s incredible. Dark, haunting, and very well done.

I also did a fair amount of writing. Usually I read to wind down or relax, but in May I’ve writing. Getting close to knocking out the first draft of another book. We’ll see if it’s anything worthwhile.

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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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