Will they vote?

It’s close quarters at the Jack Nicklaus Grill in the Fort Lauderdale airport.

Good “working” conditions for me, according to Christina.

“You’re going to want to listen to these two,” she whispers when I return from the restroom.

But the women go silent. They pay their check and leave.

When Christina returns, I ask her to fill me in.

“The first woman was saying how she didn’t know about Trump, but that it would be interesting to have a female president.”

“What did the second woman say?”

“She just nodded.”

“Oh.”

“But then the first woman said she didn’t know if she could vote for Hillary.”

“Something about her character or trustworthiness?”

“No. She said she hadn’t voted in decades and didn’t know if she was still registered.”

“Yikes!”

“Her friend said she wasn’t sure if she was registered either, but that she’d just wait and see if she got something in the mail. If not…”

Christina holds out her hands, palms up, suggesting that the second woman will leave her vote to chance.

“That makes me sick,” Christina continues. “People in other countries are literally dying for that right.”

“Do you think they’re from Florida?”

“Probably,” Christina says. “There’s a large jackass population here.”

Questions from a long layover

Our layover is long, and so I have ample time to ponder some questions.

Does the woman yelling at her husband about their “cheap ass” travel plans know that he has tuned out?

Is this the first time this dude has posted up in the men’s room to eat a bag of baby carrots, or is this his usual travel routine?

Why is that there’s always one automatic faucet that doesn’t work?

How is that I always manage to find that inoperable faucet?

Where does the woman wearing the “not today” shirt shop?

Why does the gate agent think the passengers going to Raleigh are gullible enough to believe her when she says checking a bag at the gate is a “wonderful” experience?

Does the man traveling with his granddaughter know that he is Joe Biden’s doppelgänger?

How stupid do you have to be to leave your iPhone unattended at the charging station?

How many more missed calls before I answer said phone?

Power breakfast

Their salad days are behind them, so Josh and Tony sit down to breakfast to discuss career options.

Tony is a salesman, but he “sucks at it” because he’s “too honest.” His plan is to go back to school to become a nurse.

“I might not like it,” he admits. “But at least I can save a life if the shit gets real.”

Josh wishes he had that kind of passion. He drives for Uber/Lyft, which is “ok.”

“Have you thought about teaching?” Tony asks. “I guess you’d need to go back to school, right?”

“No,” says Josh. “Check this out: when I dropped out I was only short a few credits, but I called them and they lowered the standards, so I found out that I actually graduated!”

“Wow! That’s great!”

“Yeah, but I can’t teach for LAUSD because my GPA is too low.”

“Fuck,” Tony says. “I guess that’s good news, bad news.”

“Whatever, it’s not like I want to teach. I just wish I had the option to teach.”

They both agree that you have to keep your options open.

“Well, what do you want to do?” Tony asks.

“I don’t know, I just want a good job like my sister.”

“What does she do?”

“I don’t really know what she does, but I know she has a good job downtown.”

“Kickass.”

“Right.”

Tony wants to help. He throws out career ideas rapid-fire, but Josh shoots each one down with a shrug.

“There’s got to be something,” Tony insists.

Josh just shakes his head.

“Honestly, it’s not like it really matters,” Josh says. “I mean, it’s all just bullshit, dude.”

Josh explains how the universe is random, how there is no meaning to life, and how he saw on Reddit that we are all probably living in a computer simulation that’s like the Matrix, “but not as cool as the Matrix.”

“That’s bullshit,” Tony says. “You don’t believe that crap.”

“Yes I do.”

“Really? If it’s all just bullshit, then why did you order the fitness plate? Why not live it up and have pancakes and bacon?”

Josh doesn’t have an answer, not about food or the meaning of life anyway. But he does have an idea for his career.

“Maybe something with the Internet,” he suggests.

“There you go,” Tony says. “The Internet is big these days.”

The Drop

From the book jacket:

Three days after Christmas, a lonely bartender looking for a reason to live rescues an abused puppy from a trash can and meets a damaged woman looking for something to believe in. As their relationship grows, they cross paths with the Chechen mafia; a man grown dangerous with age and thwarted hopes; two hapless stick-up artists; a very curious cop; and the original owner of the puppy, who wants his dog back. . . .

The Drop is one of those crime novels that elevates above the genre, both in terms of prose and themes. At its center, however, it’s really a love story and meditation on morality. Bob loves his deceased parents and his decaying Church, but through the course of the novel he grows to love the dog and the damaged woman he meets after rescuing the puppy from a dumpster. And there’s the problem: love means having something to lose, which is why the moment Bob opens up his heart, just a little, the evil in this world comes knocking at his door.

What I loved about this novel is that you spend the entire story with a sense of dread for Bob. Day by day, the inevitable evils of daily life in a rough Boston neighborhood close in on Bob like a noose around his neck. But it’s morality that saves Bob. It’s not the kind of morality one might expect from a character who spends so much time agonizing over the sins of the Catholic Church child abuse scandal, but it is a kind of morality nonetheless.

The Short Drop

From the book jacket:

A decade ago, fourteen-year-old Suzanne Lombard, the daughter of Benjamin Lombard—then a senator, now a powerful vice president running for the presidency—disappeared in the most sensational missing-person case in the nation’s history. Still unsolved, the mystery remains a national obsession.

For legendary hacker and marine Gibson Vaughn, the case is personal—Suzanne Lombard had been like a sister to him. On the tenth anniversary of her disappearance, the former head of Benjamin Lombard’s security asks for Gibson’s help in a covert investigation of the case, with new evidence in hand.

Haunted by tragic memories, he jumps at the chance to uncover what happened all those years ago. Using his military and technical prowess, he soon discovers multiple conspiracies surrounding the Lombard family—and he encounters powerful, ruthless political players who will do anything to silence him and his team. With new information surfacing that could threaten Lombard’s bid for the presidency, Gibson must stay one step ahead as he navigates a dangerous web to get to the truth.

I finished this book three or four days ago. It was hard to put down. The sign of a good thriller. But in less than a week, it’s hard to recall what I liked about it. A sign, perhaps, that a good thriller won’t be remembered as a great thriller. To be fair, it’s a debut novel. And the author, Matthew FitzSimmons, certainly has a handle on the page-turner thing. I’ll read him again. But aside from some interesting plot turns, a compelling hero, and relentless killer, I’m not sure what else this book has to offer. Maybe it’s just entertainment, and that’s fine. Still, I wanted it to be about something more than just the obvious trope that power corrupts. I wanted some of that writerly firepower to be applied to the theme in such a way that the text would linger with me, and perhaps, I would see the world in a different light after reading. I try not to ask that of books that are happily marketed as beach reads, but when a beach read rises above the pack, I guess I want more.

Hot Start

There’s a recurring gag from the movie Heathers that comes to mind when I think about Hot Start, the fifth book in David Freed’s Cordell Logan series. The gag goes something like this:

Veronica’s Dad: Will someone tell me why I keep reading these damn detective novels?

Veronica: Because you’re an idiot, dad.

Veronica’s Dad: Oh yeah…

Ok, so maybe that reference says more about the reader than the author, but here’s the thing: I like this series. I like detective novels, even if they deal in predictable tropes and well-worn cliches. And I especially like my detective novels with a side of hardboiled wise-cracking. So I should’ve like Hot Start. From the book jacket:

The fifth volume in the Cordell Logan series, is a fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled thrill ride filled with plenty of unexpected twists and full-throttle action.

A notorious, international big-game hunter and his beautiful, former flight attendant wife are gunned down at long range late one sweltering summer night, while swimming naked on their seaside estate in opulent Rancho Bonita, California. Police investigators are convinced that the killer is a strident, outspoken animal-rights activist with both military experience and a criminal record. The evidence against him would appear overwhelming — until rumors begin to surface that others may have had their own reasons for committing murder.

The last thing flight instructor, aspiring Buddhist, and ex-government assassin Cordell Logan wants to do is become involved in the investigation. He and the accused, however, have mutual friends. Reluctant at first, Logan finds himself caught up in an increasingly confounding enigma, one that swirls around a popular congressman with close ties to the White House, a European call girl ring, and a ruthless Czech crime boss who’ll stop at nothing to protect his interests. Pursuing the truth will take Logan to places few others would dare go, exposing him to dangers that even he may not survive.

So what went wrong?

  1. Emotional stakes – Even Logan keeps asking himself why he’s working the case. In a word, I suppose it comes down to guilt. Savannah, the love of Logan’s life, died as a result of his actions in a previous novel. But in this story, Savannah’s cousin is being held for a crime he says he didn’t commit, and Logan feels a debt to Savannah’s father, a man he’s never really liked. And just for good measure, Logan didn’t even know Savannah had a cousin, and her father isn’t even sure he wants to pony up any money for the guy’s defense.
  2. Obvious – All readers of the genre like to see if they can outsmart the author and guess the identity of the killer. That’s part of the fun. But I picked it up when the killer is first introduced in what we’re led to believe is a throwaway scene a few chapters in. Here’s a hint: Logan notes the fact that the guy is living large, even though his most lucrative client just died. It doesn’t help that the victim is a big-game hunter and the killer’s name is Ivory.

Will I keep reading this series? Probably. For one thing, I liked the first four books. And hey, everyone is entitled to a flop now and then. Or maybe I’m just an idiot, like Veronica’s dad.

Dairy-free ugliness

The little girl says she doesn’t like almond milk.

Mom removes two cartons from the shelf and places them in the shopping cart.

“If you don’t drink it, you’ll grow up to be ugly,” mom warns.

“No, that’s stupid,” the little girl insists.

They argue. To be ugly is the worst sin of all, she tells her daughter. So mom sticks to her almond milk prevents ugliness position. But each time, daughter shoots that argument down with the same line of attack: stupid.

There is no resolution, at least none that I witness. But I hope the little girl stays stubborn; she is beautiful in a way her mom cannot fathom.

Will sleep around for place to sleep

A man at a nearby table has an announcement.

“I need a place to crash in Palm Springs,” he tells his friends. “It’s for my birthday, and I’ve already budgeted $1,000 for the fun, because that’s what I’m worth, so the place needs to be cheap – $100 or less. I’m taking suggestions.”

“Gas, grass, or ass,” one friend suggests.

“What’s that mean?” Birthday Boy asks.

“Barter,” another friend explains. “In the old days, if you didn’t have gas money, you either chipped in some grass, or you gave it up.”

“I’ll give it up for a place to crash,” Birthday says. “But I’m not doing any toe stuff. Never again.”

His friends take note and promise to keep their ears to the ground for a lodging-for-sex barter that does not include toes.

Talk turns to an orgy that was just “so-so” and a “slut bottom” they all know who’s posting on Craigslist, which is a “total red flag.” But that part of the conversation is lost to me. My thoughts are stuck on an app that combines Tinder/Grindr with AirBnB.

Advice for a young Lyft driver

A Nissan cuts us off.

“C’mon you’re better than that, man!” the Lyft driver shouts. His tone is friendly, like a coach urging you on after a busted play.

I show him a short cut to Laurel. He explains his philosophy: ask everyone to do just a little better.

He likes the short cut. “Pretty scenery, no traffic.”

Near Mulholland, he asks what I do for a living. After the usual follow ups, he asks if I’m happy.

“Yes. Most days. And on the worst days I can’t imagine doing something else.”

Here’s his dilemma: he’s a teacher’s aid for developmentally disabled children. He likes his job, but he doesn’t know if that’s what he wants to do forever. He’s 22.

“Two cents from a guy pushing 40?”

“Please!”

“You can’t predict the future,” I say. “Most of my friends have reinvented their careers at least once.”

“But they figured it out?”

“No. Not all of them. Some people need two or three things before they figure it out, and some people are still figuring it out.”

“Oh my god, that’s what’s totally freaking me out. What do you do about it?”

“Nothing. I mean, you try and find a job you like and you just keep checking in with yourself to make sure you’re not becoming a miserable asshole. But basically you live your life and you learn to get comfortable knowing that most things are beyond your control.”

“Wow, I’d love to be able to get to that place with everything I worry about.”

“Me too.”

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis came to my attention as the book that would explain Donald Trump’s appeal. The author certainly sheds light on that topic, although the book isn’t really about politics and it doesn’t mention Trump at all. This is J.D Vance’s memoir, and by telling his family story, he broadened my understanding of a part of my own family.

My first clue that this book would hit close to home came when Vance introduced us to Mamaw and Papaw. As Vance puts it, these synonyms for grandma and grandpa are unique to hillbilly culture. But I knew these terms. My nephews use Mamaw and Papaw to describe their grandparents; my wife, who grew up in what Vance affectionally calls Hillbilly culture, was quick to translate for me. As Vance told his story, I began to see significant parallels with what I knew about my wife.

  • Both are Scotch-Irish.
  • Both come from working class backgrounds.
  • Both come from families where the concept of kin counts for everything, and friendship doesn’t count for much.
  • Both struggled to escape the gravitational pull of multigenerational poverty.
  • Both achieved academic and career success that they could not have fathomed as kids, largely because they lacked access to social networks where accomplishments like a four-year degree and a six-figure income are viewed as normal, or at the very least, attainable.
  • Both endured difficult, and at times, traumatic relationships with their mothers.
  • Both have been told that their stories are a testament to their exceptionalism, and yet both would tell you that their abilities aren’t all that extraordinary.
  • Both benefited in incalculable ways from the steady hands of loving grandparents, and while they were never perfect, they made all the difference in the world.
  • Both look at social programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance with a mix of compassion and skepticism, thanks in part, to firsthand experience that tells them that some people will always take advantage of government aid, and that the cultural and social forces that normalize and reward that kind of behavior run much deeper than policymakers realize.
  • Both married outside of their hillbilly culture.

Of course, these are biographical details without the benefit of narrative. Vance uses data and inserts academic studies to ground his story in a larger social, cultural, and at times, political context. But the real takeaway, for me anyway, is empathy. Above all, Vance writes about the people in his life with love and compassion, even when it’s hard to see why some of those people deserve any  kindness at all. Too often, I realized in reading this book, I have cast my wife’s story in black & white. I’ve seen villains where my wife saw family doing the best they could. I’ve looked for social science to explain the stubborn challenges that some of my in-laws just can’t seem to overcome. I’ve chalked up irrational anger and incomprehensible political positions to the propaganda of Fox News.

Not that I take pleasure in reducing my in-laws to stereotypes. I don’t. My wife loves her family, and I want to show them the same love. But as you read Vance’s book, one key aspect of hillbilly culture continues to surface in his life story – a deep distrust of outsiders. I am family, but I am not exactly an insider, at least not yet, not after only five years of marriage. Christina and I live in Los Angeles, which might as well be the moon for people like her Papaw, who grew up in Alabama and told me the family moved to Clearwater, Florida “after the boondoggle ended.” That’s the sum total of what I know about the family’s decision to move away from its extended kin network and seek out opportunity in a Florida. Our conversations, usually at a Perkins restaurant near his home, illicit few additional details on the family or the relationships, good and bad, that dominant life for my in-laws. For me, the hillbilly part of Christina’s family has always been impenetrable. But after reading Hillbilly Elegy, I’ve come to see many of the dynamics that shape the lives of my in-laws with fresh eyes. I don’t pretend to understand their world completely, but I hope I understand them just a little better. Hopefully, I am a better husband and family member for having read this book.