This sporting life – from football to (web) surfing

MARK G. BRENNAN remembers a strange but deeply significant job interview

My lacklustre grades, inflated ego, and halfhearted work ethic combined to make me unemployable when I graduated from college in 1986. But Price Waterhouse’s dire labour shortage during the economic rebound after the early ‘80s recession forced them to consider undesirables like me. Jack McKinnon, a stolid partner from Price Waterhouse’s Boston office, came to my school to rustle up prospective employees in the fall of 1985. For some baffling reason, Price Waterhouse had selected my mediocre resume from a pool of more qualified applicants for an on-campus interview. As I sat down in the cramped room to redress my (dis)qualifications, and beg for a job, McKinnon crumpled up my resume and exclaimed how excited he was to finally meet me. I sat there perplexed. Me?

McKinnon skipped the perfunctory quiz on accounting arcana and Price Waterhouse trivia. Instead, he grilled me on that weekend’s upcoming football game between my school, Holy Cross – where my athletic prowess on the field rivaled my academic incompetence in the classroom – and his, our archrival Boston College. A purebred BC Eagle despite his lack of feathers or a hooked beak, McKinnon proudly told me had attended almost every Boston College home game since his mid-1950s graduation. Desperate for a job, I kept trying to sell my paltry financial skills while deflecting his gaze from my Scarlet Letter grade point average and blank resume. Waving off my subterfuge, McKinnon kept bringing the conversation back to Holy Cross’s game plan for Saturday.

Rick Carter, celebrated 1980s coach of Holy Cross football team

Catastrophic visions of financial distress had loomed in my mind as graduation approached. I feared lifelong unemployment were I to blow this opportunity, my sole on-campus interview. I respectfully pled, “Jack, I’m happy to discuss the game. But I need a job and this is my only chance. Can we please discuss the possibility of me working at Price Waterhouse?” Our dwindling 30-minute time limit started to count against both our agendas. Every minute I subjected him to my meek supplications was a minute less for him to get the inside scoop on the upcoming clash of rivals. He impatiently snapped, “I will call the New York office right now to recommend they hire you. Now, back to Saturday’s game”. What was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me – employment at the most prestigious accounting firm despite my lack of qualifications – was an even rarer opportunity for him – discussing that weekend’s upcoming match with one of its participants, an aspiring accountant no less.

McKinnon eventually called Price Waterhouse’s New York office. I got the job. My first year there I earned $22,500, decent money for a recent college graduate in Bonfire of the Vanities New York. $22,500 went a lot farther in 1986, and not just because of inflation. With Communism’s collapse still a few years in the future, Russian plutocrats had yet to bid up Manhattan real estate and coarsen its already brusque culture. My post-collegiate expenses fell into two buckets, rent and “weekends”, the practical and the otiose. My weekend expense line contained several subcategories: draft beer, tequila shots, and pizza, as well as greasy food, Gatorade, and aspirin for hangovers. My fixed lease determined my rent payments. So I had to scrimp on my “weekends” to finance my escape hatch from Price Waterhouse, graduate school.

Skip ahead to 2020’s pandemic lockdown. I deleted the “weekends” category from my personal income statement about 20 years ago. When I turned 35 I had a welcome epiphany. Two hours of drunken bliss didn’t compensate for two days of hungover misery. Goodbye booze, hello books. Since March I have rarely left the house. But my expenses again fall into just two categories, the practical and the otiose: real estate taxes and books. I’m lucky. I don’t have a mortgage even though I still don’t own my house. If that last remark makes no sense to you then try this experiment: Stop paying your real estate taxes and then tell me who owns your house. So aside from forking over protection money to the village tax collector, my only other pandemic outlay has been for my avocation, reading.

When I’m not imitating a college professor as I teach online from my dining room table or writing articles that you mistakenly stumble upon like this one, I serve as Books Editor for the monthly magazine Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. My responsibilities include selecting books for review, identifying reviewers whose expertise will provide unique insight, and hounding those same experts when they miss their deadlines. Aside from that last task, no job could better sate my incurable bibliophilia. Unfortunately, my dream of daily book deliveries from publishers eager to market their latest imprints will never come true due to the financial exigencies of 21st century publishing.

Nevertheless, publishers eagerly ship me single copies upon request and my personal finances provide for shopping sprees on Amazon. My wife sees my spending priorities differently. Nary a day goes by without her remarking,

You’ve worn the same pair of pants for three months straight and your wallet has now worn a hole through the back pocket. Why don’t you spend money on a new pair of khakis instead of another shipment of books?

True, during the pandemic I have dressed like a Depression Era hobo. Zoom’s limited viewing frame has empowered this disturbing habit. Perhaps my wife should just be thankful I don’t ask her for spare change when we pass in the hallway. Nonetheless, her sartorial pleas have had as much effect on my insatiable book buying as my snide comments about her overstuffed closets have had on her ceaseless clothing purchases. Luckily for our marriage, she only buys electronic books now. She rules the closet. I rule the bookshelves. And we agreed to our separate realms without plagiarizing the 9th century’s Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum or consulting a matrimonial lawyer.

Book shopping sucks when you do it from your sofa. I only spend two days per week in New York City – and both those days locked in my apartment thanks to my immuno-compromised status. I no longer visit The Strand, the United States’ best bookstore. Hyperbole you say? Then I guess you didn’t know The Penn Book Center in Philadelphia closed. Besides: my essay, my opinion. Go whine in the comments section below. 

New York’s famous Strand Bookstore

Anyway, I have not had the pleasure of browsing The Strand’s dusty shelves for nine heartbreaking months. Late stage withdrawal has set in. I no longer serendipitously happen upon books lying among the store’s legendary “18 miles of books”. Instead, I now suffer with Amazon’s inane “You Might Also Like” function, the way a recovering heroin addict suffers with a lollipop in place of methadone.

Aside from giving me bad book selections, Amazon’s artificially intelligent (read: moronic) algorithm fosters bad scholarship and promotes historical fallacies. Test it yourself. Click on my doctoral advisor Jonathan Steinberg’s biography of Bismarck. Lo and behold, the Amazon computer program tells Bismarck fans “You Might Also Like” to learn about the discredited, ahistorical nonsense that links the Iron Chancellor inextricably to Hitler. No historian has drawn a straighter line from Imperial Germany to the Nazi horrors, in all its Sonderwegisch glory, than the STEM brain trust typing away like monkeys in Amazon’s IT department.

And if you like your incorrect history raw, right off the Amazon website, then “Add to Your Cart” Telford Taylor’s The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir. If not, then diehard Bismarck fans can toggle over one book to the right where Amazon has “In Stock” Flip the Script: Lessons Learned on the Road to the Championship by Louisiana State University’s head football coach Ed Orgeron. The great men of history: Bismarck and Orgeron, with a spicing of Telford. And if you still can’t make up your mind which book to buy, Amazon’s “FREE Shipping” might coax you to purchase all three.

Maybe I should send Orgeron’s tales of football success to Jack McKinnon as a 35 year-late thank you gift. Perhaps I should include Steinberg’s Bismarck since Alexa, Amazon’s ghoulish spokesputer, tells me these books are “Frequently bought together”. I never thought I would miss The Strand’s tattooed, condescending staff. I shuddered every time I asked an information desk worker to direct me to a book. He/she/zie would adjust his/her/hir nose rings and ear gauges before deigning to type my politically incorrect query into the store’s computer. So thank you Amazon. You have taught me that there are in fact punishments worse than a 26-year-old gender studies graduate student’s caustic sneer when I ask which shelf holds Charles Murray’s latest work.

While I can wait to reunite with The Strand’s woke staff, I fear the pandemic can’t. My accounting career never took off for various boring reasons. But I can read a balance sheet and an economic environment. And neither of them look good in The Strand’s case. New York City has lost its pre-pandemic zest. “To Let” signs paper the windows of every other retail space. Each day brings more restaurant closings. Cabs have become impossible to find. Drivers now figure they lose less money sitting at home than burning a tank of gas in pursuit of nonexistent fares. Depression swallows me as I imagine my book buying future. My laptop will take the place of New York’s best bookstore. Instead of The Strand’s in-house Antifa brigade hissing at me, Amazon’s saccharine-voiced Alexa will politely ask, “I’m sorry. Do you really want to read Charles Murray?” And my wife will remind me my pants have a huge hole in the rear that would otherwise embarrass a normal person.

What to do?  Maybe I should look up Jack McKinnon, who must now be in his mid-80s. As an alumnus of Holy Cross, I’m pretty sure Boston College graduates don’t qualify for entry through the Pearly Gates. But Saint Peter should make an exception for Jack and admit him to that eternal accounting firm in the sky. If I could reach Jack I imagine he might tell me he noticed my unhealthy obsession with the practical during our brief encounter in that stuffy room late in 1985. He might remind me that the best part of my life, the otiose part, was passing me by, just as I fixated on the practical.

I can picture Jack telling me over Zoom,

The last football game of your life, the last athletic event you would ever be part of, was just a few days away. And all you cared about was getting a job so you could sit in a fluorescently-lit office, 60 hours a week, and watch your muscles atrophy as you added up numbers no one would ever look at. I kept pushing you to enjoy the last fleeting moments of your youth. I bragged about reliving my college days through my near perfect attendance over three decades at BC games. But you kept pushing back. Well, I hope it all worked out for you. If nothing else, I pray you understand the otiose determines how well one lives his life, not the practical. You certainly didn’t understand that when I met you. Read great books. Worry less about where you buy them. And one last thing. You have a huge hole in your pants.

Leaving New York

Lake George, by John William Casilear, 1857

MARK BRENNAN’s move to the Hudson Valley helped him come to terms with Covid – and much else

My wife and I rounded up our two dogs on March 13th and, in a mild panic, abandoned Manhattan for our house in New York’s Hudson Valley. I shouted a quick goodbye to our cat Sofia, who was deep in sleep on the radiator. We then dashed out the door, certain we would be gone at most three weeks, once the corona virus had blown over. Sofia had only left the apartment twice in her ten years, both times for vaccinations at the veterinarian. I arranged for our trusted housekeeper Laura to feed her and clean her litter box daily. We saw no good reason to put Sofia through the stress of a one-hour car ride, let alone the adjustment to a new living space, since cats hate strange surroundings. Plus, who would keep the pigeons off the apartment’s window ledges and eat the scary, yet thankfully rare, water bugs lurking in our kitchen?

Two weeks later my wife and I jumped back in the car, with the same sense of urgency now in reverse, to rescue Sofia from New York City. In just 14 days, the city had become America’s Covid-19 epicentre. Laura had called us every morning to report on Sofia. But each day I became increasingly concerned as she fretted over her husband Daniel’s sleepless nights coughing up phlegm and gasping for air. Laura, her two daughters, and her brother Pablo, took Daniel to the hospital twice that first week. Both times he tested negative for Covid-19. Finally, after one especially rough night, Daniel returned to the hospital where he was immediately whisked into the intensive care unit. New York’s hastily enacted executive order to prevent the contagion’s spread now prohibited Laura, due to her exposure to Daniel, from entering my apartment building to care for Sofia. I worried that similar troubles might befall Sofia’s backup caretaker. So, despite my dogs’ protestations, we brought Sofia upstate to live out her remaining eight lives.

With two happy dogs, one disoriented cat, a preoccupied wife, three online-classes full of confused students, and a loyal housekeeper whose husband teetered on death, I locked down in quarantine for the pandemic’s duration. Even though the virus destroyed human lives all around us during March and April, my dogs kept me sane as they remained obliviously upbeat. Then one of them died.

Samantha’s demise was as sudden as it was saddening, and all the more dispiriting as it brought the reality of widespread death right into our home. Samantha’s brother Ivan sank into depression after losing his lifelong playmate. Sofia, on the other hand, luxuriated on her sunny country window perch. Instead of hissing at filthy pigeons through grimy urban windows, she now spent her few waking hours watching turkey vultures, red hawks, and bald eagles swoop through the pine trees enveloping our house. She stared, transfixed, not blinking once, when woodpeckers drilled into towering hemlocks. The mood reversals – a happy cat and a sad dog – added to the confusion about the efficacy of masks, the prospects for a vaccine, and the virulence of the virus blaring from my television.

My wife’s anxiety thankfully eased as the financial markets found new equilibrium levels. I adjusted to my new routine as my online classes plodded along. They provided a respite from my solitary habits of reading and writing, even though I felt guilty for shortchanging my students who pretended to learn while I pretended to teach. Laura’s husband spent seven harrowing weeks on a ventilator. Her daily calls in distress to update us on Daniel’s weeks-long ordeal showed me just how rough Covid-19’s unlucky victims had it during the pandemic. Sofia’s new Hudson Valley country life of watching the region’s most spectacular birds of prey energized her. By contrast, my lockdown life with my surviving dog, my harried wife, my disgruntled students, and my distraught housekeeper pretty much sucked, and all the more so after Samantha’s unexpected death.

A View of the Mountain Pass Called the Notch of the White Mountains (Crawford Notch), New Hampshire, by Thomas Cole, 1839

But then I called the cops on my pity party. Lockdown life didn’t suck. I just entered the second year of my battle against stage 4 throat cancer. Pandemic-induced boredom looks like fun compared to chemo’s paralyzing nausea and radiation’s second degree burns. Luckily, fentanyl eased my pain for those three agonizing months. But it also left me in a haze that prevented me from reading or writing, or even watching television. Students, friends, neighbours, and relatives visited as I stared into space unaware of their presence or the time of day. I don’t remember my conversations with any of them. Even worse, when they now remind me of our chats I have to confess that I have no recollection of our encounters. At the low point of my cancer treatments, I spent my conscious hours in search of empty barf bags when I wasn’t consumed by a fear of imminent death.

Then, as the lockdown dragged on, I oddly found it hard to suppress my glee. New Yorkers have had to force themselves to put on insincere happy faces during the pandemic’s worst moments lest they commit the most unforgivable American sin – pessimism. No fake smiles for me. Freed from the delirium produced by fentanyl, cisplatin, and gabapentin, I can now focus on a book or follow a movie plot for more than two minutes. So I attacked the unread texts that piled up during my year-long hiatus from thinking. I wrote more. And then I remembered my premonitions of death during my treatments. When my doctor told me I had a 50% chance of survival, my first thought was that I would never get to all the books in my unread pile. If pressed, I probably could have thought up some other regrets I might have had based on my premature coin flip of a death sentence. But I didn’t bother with such speculation. Now with Samantha’s death, Daniel’s near death, and the pandemic’s ever-present threat of death as my prod, I resolved to tackle important life goals before cancer tackles me, again.

My 1908 house and its 19 fireplaces, far too large for just two humans, a dog, and a cat, also came with 12 bucolic acres and an overgrown garden. Ivan would spend each morning fruitlessly searching the property for Samantha in the weeks since her death, while I followed him around, trying not to cry. He would sniff, run, sniff again, then jerk his head around toward me as if to say, “I give up. Please tell me where she is.” My outdoor security cameras capture coyotes, foxes, bears, opossums, raccoons, deer, and bobcats traipsing across my property at night along with Amazon and UPS trucks delivering essentials by day. The wild animals’ olfactory feast distracted Ivan temporarily from his sister’s mysterious disappearance. Squirrels and chipmunks tantalize him as they dash across the lawn at daybreak. Turkeys spread their fantails to scare him away. It works. It scares me too when accompanied by their guttural gobbles. And while Ivan asserted canine domain over our little fief, the unkempt garden screamed for my attention.

A fellow professor, Jeff, checked in with me in mid-May just before grades were due. When he mentioned he had been gardening during quarantine I immediately thought of my verdant mess. I asked Jeff if I had missed planting season and how much work it would require to resurrect my garden. Jeff’s thoroughness and attention to detail, his most admirable traits from my perspective as one whose career depends on his organizational skills, kicked into high gear. In addition to answering every one of my questions he even sent me links to the Department of Agriculture’s website so I could determine my village’s temporal growing region. He included pictures from his earliest harvest. With Jeff’s gentle prodding, I took the next step and asked my Portuguese groundskeeper Humberto when he could till my plot so I could start planting. Humberto answered,

I can do it whenever you want Mr. Brennan. But I’ve got to tell you, the groundhogs have eaten everything I planted this year and I’m losing my mind.

Despite Jeff’s enthusiasm, Humberto had provided my first out. I wanted to have a bounty of vegetables like those in Jeff’s photos. But thanks to Humberto’s complaint, I started to imagine excuses to drop the whole gardening idea. Getting dirty hasn’t been my thing since I hung up my football cleats in 1985. My dogs run around the property only to return with ticks and, weeks later, the inevitable Lyme disease diagnosis. My oncologists think my cancer probably came from the 9/11 World Trade Center dust, my preexisting skin cancers, or a combination of the two. With coyotes howling after dark, I didn’t think gardening at night would be safe even if the darkness protected me from the sun. I felt an urge to email Jeff to confess I was a quitter before I even started. Then I remembered how desperately I missed the outdoors when I was stuck indoors during my cancer treatments. So I didn’t email Jeff.

The next morning Ivan and I patrolled the property while my wife made our coffee. In addition to my usual morning duty of overseeing Ivan’s first daily romp, I now had a mission: I pretended to survey the garden’s prospects while in truth searching for more reasons to dismiss the idea. I checked the sprinkler system. The recent heat waves had turned my lawn into the world’s largest bolt of tan corduroy. But the garden looked like a plot of Brazilian rainforest had dropped from the sky right into my yard. I had originally figured I would tell Jeff that, in my reduced physical state, I would not be able to carry water buckets all the way from the house to the garden. My functioning irrigation system cut off that escape hatch. As I wondered which other feeble excuse I could fob off on Jeff, my wife came storming out of the house calling for Ivan. She yelled that the coffee was starting to get cold before demanding to know why I was rooting around the garden. Drawing on what little enthusiasm I had left, I told her of my rapidly faltering plans to provide us with unlimited vegetables for the next few months.

My wife grew up in Indiana. Her father became a gentleman farmer after he tired of the corporate rat race. According to my wife, the children of gentlemen farmers should be known as “involuntary labourers”. My father-in-law’s hobby became my wife and her brother’s childhood nightmare. While her teenage girlfriends hung out at the mall or chatted on the phone, my wife weeded asparagus patches and tied tomato plants to supports. Over the years she has had flashbacks that evidence her long-simmering resentment. If I praised her corn soufflé one night at dinner, she might snap back, “You ought to see how much fun I had when mosquitos ate me alive as I picked my father’s corn”. With each passing day I spent concocting feeble excuses for Jeff, I lost another day of seasonal growth. So I tried to sell my plan to my wife. She exploded:

Great. Don’t ask me to help. I did enough of that as a kid. And I don’t want Humberto out there working 40 hours per week so we can eat a $3,000 zucchini.

The next day I formally dropped the garden idea. I hired a Latin tutor to keep me busy instead. There will be no 2020 fall harvest chez Brennan. But I prefer to focus on the positive. Without gardening I won’t restart the sunburn to skin cancer to throat cancer cycle. Coyotes won’t attack me during my nocturnal weeding sessions. Cancer has provided me with enough laughs so the ticks will have to find someone else to infect with Lyme disease. Thanks to the sprinklers, my garden will still be the lushest 100 square metres on my property. Humberto will have to busy himself with my other 11.9 acres. My wife can sauté a $0.79 zucchini as she reminds me how much her back always hurt while bent over picking green beans. And Ivan has stopped looking for Samantha since his new brother, eight-week old Tony, arrived in September.

And I can now thank my Latin tutor for teaching me the English word “velleity,” which comes from the Latin infinitive velle, meaning to will, wish, desire, or intend. Jeff’s infectious passion, gardening, has become just my latest quarantine velleity: a wish or desire not strong enough to prompt one to action. Lucky for me and my personal dignity I won’t have to face Jeff in person this fall; we will both be teaching online. Our physical distance will minimize my red-faced shame. But my shame won’t go away. My newest velleity has prevented me from writing him an email to thank him for his suggestions and encouragement.