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