My Son, the Nonreader

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A few days after the funeral, my older son, Josh, now 30, went on a shopping trip with my wife. He brought back a liter of Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon. I thought about it for a few seconds and said, “You know, I think that’s the first bottle of hard liquor we’ve ever had in our house.”

He looked up and replied, “You do realize that’s not normal,” the implication being that our example had, at some earlier juncture in his life, led him into thinking the occasional drink was some sort of moral failure.

He’d probably also discovered that living among four thousand or so books wasn’t exactly the American norm, either. That’s the way it is among families. Children absorb the culture of their homes and only later in life gain the distance to question it. Parents, either consciously or unconsciously, inculcate their values and loves. For much of my younger son’s 26 years, I tried to pass to him my love of reading literature.

Zachary, four years younger than Josh, wasn’t averse to giving a book a try. He read the opening of my copy of Jonathan Lethem’s backgammon-hustler novel, A Gambler’s Anatomy, and enriched my understanding of it by explaining the backgammon meaning of the term “blot.” He wasn’t a contrary sort, in general. If we asked him to join us on a family trip, he was always game. He’d pack a bag minutes before leaving, often with odd choices (no shorts for Florida, a shortage of socks for California). We always reminded him to take a toothbrush, which is why, when I recently looked through his backpack, I found five of them. When we told him to grab something to read, he’d toss a book into his pack. But he’d spend the entire airplane ride playing games on his phone or, when he could find it, his old Game Boy. The exceptions were puzzle books. For instance, he would take a break from his phone to rip through five or 10 word jumbles. I just checked the bookshelf of his room and found a Teach Yourself Sudoku book my wife had given him some years ago. It’s not exactly dog-eared, but six of the novice puzzles are complete in his clumsy handwriting, before he must have jumped to the final section labeled “expert,” where he had solved five before, I presume, heading back to his electronic diversions.

Like the bulk of his generation, Zach spent endless hours reading and watching video clips online, eclectically, but he was particularly intent on the strategy of the games he most loved: Magic: The Gathering, backgammon and poker. He taught himself to count cards in blackjack and dabbled with it at area casinos.

Not that the absence of extended reads was ever a source of conflict. It wasn’t even a consideration in our constellation of common interests: once or twice a week, tennis; avidly following University of Wisconsin Badger and professional sports; binge-watching recorded Jeopardy, TV serials and action movies; playing trivia at our favorite local sports bar. Still, in the way fathers have with sons, he apprehended the gap between us in this particular area and must have rued it. Perhaps I should have addressed it directly and tried to make sure it didn’t end up on that inevitable list we sons compose of our shortcomings in our father’s eyes. But there was time aplenty for that.

I remember the only time he got excited about going to a bookstore. Poker pro Phil Hellmuth, a native of our hometown, Madison, Wisconsin, was on a book tour for his memoir, Bad Beats and Lucky Draws. I took Zach, who was 13, and his older brother, then 17. We waited in a long line with our copy, and Zach was delighted when Hellmuth scrawled, “To Josh and Zach, good luck, do it.” But I don’t think he ever got around to reading it. He would spend time with the daily paper (mostly for sports and the puzzles), but I never saw him, not once, curled up in a corner reading a novel. In this he had plenty of company. An NEA survey found that only 36 percent of American males read literature even occasionally.

When Zach was in grade school, we had concerns about his progress. He was fantastic in some things, particularly mathematics. But he seemed to have some troubling problems. He often failed to understand directions, especially when they were multi-step. Testing at school showed he had verbal processing issues—he wasn’t able to absorb and remember the narrative lines of extended stories. He seemed adept at compensating. I suspect he got by in his high school and college literature courses through a reliance on watching the movies and SparkNotes.

The bookcase in his bedroom is stuffed with our rebuffed attempts and partial successes. My wife discovered that he would spend time with highly visual, episodic books. Hence the Guinness Book of World Records, A Year in Sports (2005) and Top Ten of Everything 2009. Less successful were the door-stopping Harry Potter books (which he, at best, dipped into) and young adult novels whose movies he would later enjoy, including The Hunger Games and The Spectacular Now. I can’t find a copy of the one novel he would occasionally and proudly note as his reading triumph, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I suspect I slipped that one into the donation pile for the local library sale.

My own sense was that his verbal comprehension problem prevented him from absorbing and retaining enough information to make a novel understandable. A bookmarked page from the previous day would be like another reader starting a book in the middle—baffling and frustrating. He once told me that he had never ever been able to translate a descriptive passage into a mental picture, no matter how simple or vivid the language. I remember feeling sad about this, but helpless, too, like discovering your child is uncoordinated or has no ear for music. Movies were never such a problem—not only because of the visual elements but because they could be absorbed in a sitting. He was an avid film fan and would often slip quotes from them into conversation, assuming you’d recognize them instantly. Once in a team meeting at his insurance company, someone made the mistake of uttering the question asked of the Gary Oldman villain in Leon the Professional: “What do you mean everyone?” And Zach screamed, “EVERYONE!”—a response which was naturally met with some puzzlement.

When he was in middle school, my wife and I imposed what in retrospect must have struck him as a draconian rule. Henceforth he would need to balance his computer time with reading time. After a frustrating couple of days, he finally erupted with a protestation that there was “nothing to read.” I asked if he’d be interested in a book centered on a boy with similar interests, which at the time were primarily computer games. He gave me what for him was a resounding affirmation: “I guess so.”

Our first stop, our neighborhood Barnes & Noble, was a whiff. The Borders (this was 2005) suggested Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, in which a young gamer finds himself defending mankind against an alien invasion. We tried, but it didn’t stick. What we needed, I felt, was a realistic novel in which the protagonist aspires to be a great computer gamer—in other words, a sports novel with gaming as its activity. We found stacks of novels about soccer kids, football kids, basketball kids, but not one in which the main character played computer games, in spite of the fact that there were thousands of gaming kids for every quarterback or point guard.

Fine, I told Zach. I’ll write it. The end result was In Real Life, a novel about a gifted math student who aspires to join the lucrative world of professional esports, then centered in South Korea. I started drafting it in 2005, finished a version in 2007, and got a terrific agent in 2008. It steadily collected rejections over the next few years (although many were kind and indicated serious attention). In 2012, after my agent had given up and I’d run out of hope, the book was picked out of the slush pile by an editor at Tuttle Books in Vermont, a midsize publisher with a special interest in East/West topics, as part of their launching a young adult line. By then, Zach was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, where he would graduate with a degree in economics in 2014.

Sometime before his graduation, I had given Zach a manuscript copy and later, during his senior year, an uncorrected proof. To his credit, he spent time with these despite his reading challenges, although it was a running joke between us for years afterward, when he was at loose ends, that “maybe I should go ahead and read the ending of your book.” Instead, he continued to spend his time online, honing his gaming skills. He became a nationally ranked backgammon player and a successful poker player, joining his brother in Las Vegas in the summer of 2017 to fulfill a longtime dream of playing an event at the World Series of Poker.

By then, much of his non-computing time was spent immersed in thick binders, the study guides to the first of the series of actuary tests required for certification. He had passed two, and in the early months of 2018 was beginning to work his way through the guide to the third four-hour test, studying topics such as “Put-Call Parity,” “The Binomial Model of Replicating Portfolios,” and “Modeling Stock Prices with the Lognormal Distribution.” He was also working full time for a local insurance company, gaining the industry experience needed to break into the actuary field.

He never had the chance to finish my book or take the third actuary test. Near midnight on Saturday, April 21, he was struck by a car in the parking lot of the local bowling alley which had hosted a poker tournament. The EMTs were there in minutes, but they never got a pulse. We buried him on Wednesday, April 25, in a cemetery just a few blocks from our home. His best friend rose to the occasion with a remarkable tribute. I wrote a eulogy for him, highlighting his many loves and wonderful traits, with some fancy literary devices, including an extended metaphor. It probably would have sailed over his head, although he would have never criticized it. He never criticized anyone, except himself, which he did regularly and profanely, particularly if he misplayed a move in an online game of backgammon or Magic. The absence of this voice, this presence, overwhelms our lives.

I’ve started to move a few of his books to our Little Free Library, even though each one opens my already riven heart. I think about the occasion of each gift and recall his expression, the same one he made as a youngster when we’d place a sample of some exotic food on his plate, say a few leaves of artichoke or a spear of asparagus. The look of sad accusation, of exposing ourselves to inevitable disappointment as his eagerness to please was overcome by an ask beyond his power to grant.

Image: Flickr/Dean Hochman

The Starting Six: On the Remarkable Glory Days of Iowa Girls Basketball

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Connie Yori, Ankeny’s prolific scorer, putting up a short-range jumper.

This past March I was sitting on a stool at my local sports bar, waiting for a sandwich and daydreaming about the local team and my son’s alma mater, the Wisconsin Badgers, playing their way into the NCAA finals. (It’s amazing how much loyalty writing four years of tuition bills can instill.) I wasn’t paying much attention to the women’s basketball game on the screen until I noticed the Nebraska coach. I looked closer, and sure enough, I realized I knew the woman in the business suit, standing on the sidelines, directing the Cornhuskers. Actually, I didn’t really know Connie Yori. But I remembered her well.

In 1981, I’d watched her throw down 49 points in the Iowa state tournament quarter-finals against Charles City, on the way to leading her Ankeny team into their second consecutive state tournament finals. Girls basketball back then was huge in Iowa. The girls state tournament routinely outsold the boys basketball tournament and the top players were legitimate state celebrities. Like Indiana back in Hoosiers (the movie) days, there was only one big tournament — none of this modern division stuff.

Connie Yori was the best girls basketball player I’d ever seen live. Five-ten, with an honest-to-god, NBA-style jump shot. She seemed to get along famously with her teammates and middle-aged coach, although at the end of practice she’d regularly ask him the same question.

“How about letting us play some five-on-five?”

He never, to my experience, relented. Because in Iowa, the game that the state was wild about was six-on-six. It was illegal for players to cross the center line. Not like “over-and-back.” Ever. Three girls played all-time defense, three played offense. Dribble three times, and it was a travel. Hold the ball for more than three seconds, turnover. They’d been playing these rules since the ’40s, and it created a major uproar when they finally switched to standard rules in 1994.

I’d started following the Ankeny girls team in the fall of 1980, introducing myself to the coach, getting permission to visit the occasional practice and scrimmage. I took a lot of pictures.

That summer, I’d called the editor of The Iowan magazine, proposing a feature story giving an inside look into this sporting phenomenon by doing a “season on the brink” — following a girls basketball team from first practice to last game.

“Okay,” the editor said, unenthusiastically. “Just don’t spend too much time on it.”

I knew what he meant. I was writing regularly for The Iowan and I knew to expect the normal payment, in the low three figures. An extra hundred if I provided the photos, which I certainly planned on doing. I wasn’t discouraged. For me, it would be an adventure, and surely a stepping stone to my dream job on the staff of Sports Illustrated.

I began looking for the right team, one within reach of my home base in Ames, Iowa, where the large city high school had no tradition of girls basketball. Girls basketball in Iowa had been the province of small-town Iowa, all the way back to its earliest days, when the basket was a peach basket and, on the rare occasion when a player managed to throw the lop-sided ball inside, a broomstick was required to knock it free.

Growing up in Iowa, even in Dubuque, where the only girls high school sports were tennis and golf, girls basketball was part of the culture. Each spring the TV broadcasts from the capacity crowds at the state’s largest arena in Des Moines took over one of the three stations our antenna received, and it was largely from these games that I learned the names of small town Iowa: Grundy Center, Montezuma, What Cheer.

I can’t recall a single boys high school player from my childhood outside my hometown, but remember watching in awe as Denise Long of Union-Whitten knocked down 111 points against Daws in the 1968 state tournament. The Des Moines Register, a paper that everyone in state seemed to get, joined in the fun when she was later drafted in the 13th round in 1969 by the NBA’s San Francisco Warriors in a publicity stunt. Women’s college basketball wasn’t even in the picture and wouldn’t be for another decade.

The starting Ankeny Iowa six, 1981.

After considering Story City, to the north of Ames, I decided on Ankeny, a city of 15,000 south of Ames, north of Des Moines. The first time I introduced myself to coach Dick Rasmussen, he seemed a bit leery of the idea of a young reporter following his team all year, but as we chatted he came around.

“You ought to see them play softball,” he said. It was only years later than I checked the record book. The basketball girls all played on his softball team as well, winning the previous three state championships.

I had stumbled onto an unusually talented group of athletic girls, under the direction of one of Iowa’s legendary coaches. He would later say that Connie Yori, the star of that 1981 team, was the best basketball player he’d ever coached. I would be surprised if she wasn’t.

It was a bit odd, at first, watching the three-on-three girls format, especially the somewhat awkward exchanges over the center line from the defensive team to the offensive one. The two dribble rule also made the game pass-centric, if somewhat stuttering. When a team made a basket, a referee hustled the ball to mid-court to a waiting colleague where it was snapped to the offensive player stationed inside the center circle. The result was a fast-paced game, with the number of offensive possessions close to double typical in standard rules and some prodigious offensive statistics. The six-on-six rules were wildly popular in Iowa and Oklahoma. For most of the rest of the country, organized interscholastic girls basketball just didn’t exist and wouldn’t take hold until Title IX’s impact in the mid-’70s, which in 1981 was still just beginning to reshape girls and women’s sports.

The history of six-on-six rules is a bit obscure. It’s hard, with basketball such a huge business these days, to imagine the days when it a casual gymnasium PE activity with a wide variety of fluid rules, like the odd game of capture the flag or kickball. At one time, the court was divided into three areas — one for offense, one for defense, and a center area where two players did a jump ball after every score. That form of basketball was not destined for prime time. Whatever the exact details, it’s clear that the intent of six-on-six was to limit full-court running, which was felt to be too taxing for members of the fairer sex. In fact, this same sentiment was behind the demise of girls basketball in larger Iowa cities, where the belief that sports would damage young women gathered more support than in the smaller farming communities, where it was probably pretty self-evident that hard work was not the cause of widespread female health problems.

In her history of Iowa girls basketball, From Six-on-Six to Full Court Press (Iowa State University Press, 1993), Janice Beran cites anti-basketball advocates stating that competitive basketball fostered “aggressive…unladylike” characteristics. They apparently found plentiful medical experts who believed athletics affected menstrual cycles and the capacity to have children. She quotes a Scientific America article from 1926 which stated, “It may be a good thing that women are not as interested in athletics for feminine muscular development interferes with motherhood.”

But despite its dodgy conceptual roots, I grew to enjoy the frequent passing, the ability of a single player to dominate the offensive game, the frustration of teams trying to double-team Yori, only to have her slip passes to her teammates, one of whom would go on to be a Division 1 collegiate basketball guard for Drake. You might say it was the original triangle offense. Yori, unlike the stars of just a decade earlier, had the opportunity for athletic scholarships and inter-collegiate play. She ended up in Omaha, at Creighton, where she became a mainstay among the top scorers in collegiate basketball.

The girls state high school tournament regularly filled the largest auditorium in Iowa, Veterans Memorial in Des Moines. On the floor, the three offensive players wait at half-court for a rebound or a scored goal.

The 1981 team dominated the regular season and played into the state finals for the second year in a row. The Iowan got me a press pass and it was my first, and only, visit to the tournament. The scene at Veteran’s Auditorium for the state tournament was, pardon the cliché, electric. The place was sold out and raucous. The boys from these small schools seemed to be unabashed fans, the younger kids, face painted in school colors, gave it a carnival atmosphere. I remember chatting with a young Congressman courtside, Chuck Grassley, who was wearing a shiny suit with a wide tie displaying a gigantic knot. He seemed to be having a grand time, meeting and greeting folks in preparation for the launch of his 30-plus-year career in the U.S. Senate.

Sports Illustrated was covering the event and had installed flashes in the rafters of the gym, so that its photographers could get perfectly lit photos of the action. I pushed my black and white film setting and shot with a blurry, wide-open aperture, sitting on the floor courtside with all the pro shooters with larger, faster lenses. It was a close contest, with Ankeny losing the game on a final-second basket by Norwalk, reversing the two-point win over Norwalk Ankeny had scored in the finals the previous year. I still have a roll of film shot from the basketball floor after the buzzer, where I, only somewhat shamefully, roamed, capturing the hugs and tears.

Four years later, the tournament was broken into two divisions as larger schools joined the Title IX sports revolution. The larger schools played five-on-five, while the smaller schools continued with the old format. These two styles co-existed uncomfortably until 1993, when Atlantic beat Montezuma. The following year, the tournament was split into four divisions, based on enrollment, and they all played by standard modern rules.

As for my career as a sports writer, I did, that winter, cover a professional tennis tournament in Chicago for World Tennis Magazine. I watched the Chicago press corps grumble about the free sandwiches they were fighting for, two old rivals, who seemed like grandpas to me, almost coming to blows. They asked the players ridiculous questions in the press conference, including one reporter wondering if John McEnroe feared being shot by a fan. Another reporter went on a tirade because the tournament changed the order of an evening’s program, after he’d gone to press, turning him “into a liar.”

That was end of my short, happy life as a sports reporter, and close to the end of my days in Iowa. I never covered another basketball event as a writer, and soon moved away, never to return. That’s made my season on the brink all the more memorable and special. When I think fondly of my home state, in my mind, the three girls on the offensive team are still out there on the hardwood, in their black kneepads, waiting at center court for a defensive rebound and a chance to move the ball, two steps at a time, towards the goal.

Goodbye Old Friends: On Selling My Books

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As I write this sentence, I’m surrounded by old friends. About 1,500 of them. The bulk of my books, stacked on seven tightly packed bookshelves. I see yellowed paperbacks of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Donald Barthelme’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. All purchased at the Northwestern University bookstore in 1970 by a disoriented, overwhelmed freshman from Dubuque, Iowa. From Ethan Frome to metaficton in a matter of months. It was like a non-swimmer being tossed into arctic waters.

Or the green, stained hardcover edition of Marion French’s Myths and Legends of the Ages (1956), with its (to me at least) iconic illustrations by, I swear, Bette Davis. I had left it in my classroom on my last day at Bryant Elementary School, but it had my name in it and a kind teacher sent word to me at junior high to stop by and pick it up. I must have. I just looked up its market price for the first time. I could only find one copy for sale: $156.00.

Oh, I go on periodic weanings, but a lot remains. Take the row of Ace paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, purchased for 40 cents each at the Book Nook on Main Street when I was 11 and 12. These were being reissued contemporaneously with fantastic Frank Frazetta covers: a barely clothed woman with sculpted hair, a six-foot spear, flanked by snarling, but clearly domesticated, saber-toothed tigers. I can pick one up today and still feel a touch of that old excitement, the delicious anticipation of going on yet another adventure to Pellucidar, the stone-age world under the north pole, populated by a fantastic race of dimorphic humanoids whose males look like Neanderthals, while the women are clones of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Who could resist? My well-used copies would be lucky to fetch $10.00 today.

I’m putting them all up for sale. Well, not all. I’m not willing, like the minions of part-time booksellers on, to list thousands of titles priced between $0.01 and $2.00 (my guess, hoping to make a dollar or two on handling and shipping). And there are a few I can’t part with. Yet. So I’ve decided to list the ones that, after painstaking research, appear to be worth at least $10.00, while not so dear to my heart that it would haunt me to see them go.

My idea is to whittle the shelves down. Who else would want the burden? Some 15 years ago, the last time we relocated, the burly, but middle-aged mover looked me up and down suspiciously as he climbed down from his van.

“You’re not a professor?” he asked. I shook my head, guiltily, wondering if I actually smelled like a library. Over half of the household weight was in books back then, and I’ve bought more shelves since.

I imagine the groan in the room as my will is read when they come to the sentence “And I leave my books to…”

My idea when I opened an online bookstore at was to not only reduce the burden on my heirs, but to monetize my impeccable selections, most bought at used book sales for pittances. For instance, I was happy last year to pack off to Canada my copy of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (Yale, 1961) by Sir Charles Sherrington for $39. I’d bought it at an Iowa State University library sale for 25 cents in 1978. I’d studied his work in a graduate-level neurophysiology course at the University of Iowa and thought it might be worth something. No real emotional attachment there.

But what about the five books that Arthur Ashe took off my desk at the U.S. Tennis Association back in 1988 with a sly smile, saying he had to think a bit about the inscriptions? He hadn’t yet revealed his AIDS diagnosis, but would be dead of complications from it within five years. Included in the books he signed were his just-published, three-volume history of the Black American athlete, which he had written with the fury of the condemned, often in hotel rooms, carting a computer with him everywhere, long before the days of laptops.

One of the joys of scanning my library is spying the discoveries, the first or early books of authors acquired when they were far from subsequent fame. Each was like discovering an amazing new restaurant before the reviews start hitting and the crowds ruin the fun. I recall the wall of rejection letters T.C. Boyle used to decorate his office when a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I read his MFA thesis one afternoon in the library and recognized many of these darkly comic stories when his first, thin-selling collection, Descent of Man appeared. Years later, when I asked him to sign it at a Barnes & Noble in Kansas City, he looked at me leerily and said, “You know, these are getting to be worth a lot of money.” I told him I didn’t intend to sell it, and so far that’s been true.

I’m not sure how I was tipped to Carl Hiaasen, who remains one of my great reading pleasures to this day. But I bought a copy of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, back in 1986 and told everyone I knew to read it too. Or the pristine copy of Bill Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, purchased and read long before it was turned into Field of Dreams. Or knowing John Irving for his pre-Garp, hilarious Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man and his Esquire profile of wrestling great Dan Gable, in which he bravely took to the mat with him.

But I must come clean. As fun as it is to get a sale, my currently listed volumes are moving at a pace which would take some 70 years to empty my e-store. Of course, that’s assuming people will continue to prize certain books: great out-of-print novels, first editions, volumes signed by the author. As e-books continue to take market share, paper books may be destined to become decorative objects, like cupboards built to hold commodes or vinyl album covers. I’ve seen a number of designer rooms in magazines where the books are shelved with titles to the wall (what?) or sorted by color. Maybe the next generation will fill shelves with books the way Gatsby did — real ones, but uncut (i.e. unread). Perhaps our progeny will shop for books the way the latecomers to the book sale do: $2 per shopping bag, or carrying a tape measure.

In any case, my shelves are already packed with wonderful books of no particular cash value. What will become of these? Who would want a battered paperback of Joyce’s Ulysses, even if it was used in classes taught by both the critic Alfred Kazin and the novelist Anthony Burgess, filled (perhaps ruined further) with my annotations? Who could possible care about my complete collection of paperback Best American Essays, starting with the inaugural 1986 edition? How could I find anyone else who would take equal delight in the first sequential tennis stroke photos ever published, in my battered Volume Two of the American Lawn Tennis Library, Mechanics of the Game (1926)?

And to tell the truth, I’m still acquiring about 10 books for every one I sell. But, honestly, each is indispensible. True, the shelves are already full, but it’s always possible to cram a few more in. And when the neighborhood library has its next book sale (hardcovers $2), can I really leave those possible gems to the illiterates with scanners? Even if I don’t find another autographed copy of Tim O’Brien’s first novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone (sold for $120 to an English professor at the Naval Academy), how can I possibly lose?

Image Credit: Pexels/Stanislav Kondratiev.