The nominees are...

Now and then, a big theater chain does something that isn't altogether terrible. Beginning last weekend, Regal Cinemas offered a Best Picture Nominee Film Festival—$35 granted you access to watch all nine Oscar-nominated movies, as often as you wanted. (I mean, come on, they're making that money back through the concessions, of course, so they're fine.) 

Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and Sunday afternoon were almost like holy days for me. I've said before, I think, that I'm not a religious person. I have no church affiliation. But there are places that, for me, are fairly close to church, places where I go to disappear: diners, or bookshops, or ballparks. And movie theaters. 

I'd already seen two of the Best Picture nominees (Arrival and Hell or High Water) but I'd missed all of the others during their original theatrical runs, mostly because I've been in edit mode on my latest project. It was nice to make up some ground here, and see the remaining few movies in a short marathon. Friday started things off with Manchester by the Sea and Hacksaw Ridge; Saturday was Lion and Moonlight (for which Felicia joined me); Sunday was Fences and Hidden Figures. The only movie I failed to watch was La La Land. I was so rocked by Lion that I couldn't bring myself to move straight into a lighthearted musical so soon. 

There were several deserving films here, along with a few that I thought didn't quite rise to "Best Picture" level, whatever that level is. Almost every last one of them seemed to scrape me from the inside out, some in unexpected ways.

I know there's lots of talk about who's going to win, but I don't care that much. I'm happy to have seen all of these movies for myself. My personal favorite was Lion, which I knew a little about. Perhaps it's because my child is not far from the age of the little boy who has lost his way. It was beautifully acted, and I'm fairly certain I watched the entire film through blurred eyes. Of the remaining films, Moonlight stands out as something exceptional and beautiful. 

Monday was a federal holiday, so I spent it with Squish. We saw The Lego Batman Movie. She laughed. At one critical point, she loudly demanded, "What. Just. Happened." It was everything the previous three days of movies had not been. It won't be a Best Picture nominee, but I couldn't care less, because I got to share it with her. I'm looking forward to the day I can share movies like Lion and Moonlight with her, too. 


This will be long. I can't help it. 

For the first few years of his life, Oscar didn't like me very much. 

He became a part of my world when he was a tiny kitten: rescued from a cardboard box of kittens in front of the Anchorage, Alaska, Wal-Mart by a friend of my ex-wife's; delivered into our home already saddled with the name Hoya. He was a pepper-colored gray shorthair, with too-big eyes and a serious face, with a chest emblazoned with a white flourish of soft fur, and four paws socked in pure white. Whoever named him Hoya thought they were clever; boxers wear gloves, this cat's feet look like gloves, let's name him for a boxer. 

The best thing I did for him was change his name, at least in the beginning. 

In the early years he played with newspapers and sat beside the fish tank, watching studiously as its occupants flitted past. He never seemed interest in eating them, but he liked to watch. If he encountered a closed door in the apartment, he inserted his paw beneath, and fumbled around as if looking for some nonexistent latch. When he encountered a Christmas tree, it became his singular goal to take it down. He succeeded once in sending a tree down half a flight of stairs.

But he did most of this without collaboration. He had no interest in my lap, or in head-scratches. He clawed me a few times when I tried to befriend him. When we relocated from Alaska to Nevada, he rode in the cab of an overstuffed pickup truck—perched high upon stacked boxes, near the ceiling of the cab, in the furthest corner from where I sat behind the wheel. In Reno, he found an unfinished wall in the basement which led into a dirt crawlspace beneath the house, and when he wanted to escape me, that's where he went. 

Which made it a little difficult to retrieve him when the marriage failed, and it was time to leave. In that house, there were two cats: Oscar, who had resolved to hate me; and Foley, named for an Elmore Leonard character, who had resolved to piss anywhere but his litter box. Each participant in the marriage decided to take one cat and go their separate ways. Confronted with two hard-to-love choices, I opted for the one who wouldn't urinate on my belongings. 

I once described Oscar and myself as survivors of a disaster, flung from sizzling wreckage, and that's sort of what we were. And like two living things trapped together in an unpleasant scenario, we forged a different kind of relationship to one another. No longer were we adversaries trapped in the same house; we were adrift together now, with only a U-Haul and a few scattered belongings to our name. As we traveled, Oscar began by hiding in the back of the rental truck's small cab, as far from me as possible, but never quite out of reach. And by the time we'd driven for a day, he'd ventured closer, and eventually fallen asleep on the floorboard, just behind my legs, as I drove. 

When he entered my life, I was twenty years old. With the exception of my very first novel and my current project, every book I've ever worked on has been written, to some extent, with Oscar snuggled up by my side, or obstructing progress as he reclaims my lap from my computer. He became my constant companion, the one who was still there with me when other people left my life, or when I asked them to leave, or when I chose to leave. He traveled with me wherever I went—from Alaska to Nevada, from Nevada to Washington, from Washington to California, from California to Oregon. And after those first couple of rocky years, we became inseparable. When I read a book, he head-butted it away, as if trying to suggest my hands existed for one other purpose, and one purpose only: to provide scritches and scratches. The faintest whisper of his name—or even just the sound of its first two consonants colliding together, a tiny click of the S and C—prompted a flurry of sound from deep inside his throat, and brought him trotting over for snuggles. 

Some of our best years together began in 2004, when I moved us to California. We settled into a cute little space, the bottom floor of a house, in Morro Bay (where, if I stood on tiptoes, I could see over a back fence, past some shrubs, through a tangle of eucalyptus trees, and between neighboring houses, to catch a sliver of a glimpse of the ocean). On rainy days, Oscar sprawled on the tile floor of the kitchen, writhing shadows of raindrops thrown down on him by dim light shining through the windows. On sunny days, he sat in the window—like in the photograph at the top of this post—and chittered at strays who darted along the fence rail, or at birds and squirrels. I recall one particular moment when he leapt onto the windowsill—at three or four in the morning—not realizing I'd drawn the venetian blinds, and managed to entangle himself in the them, then fight them, yowling loudly. Or the time the power went out, and he flipped out over my flashlight beam, chasing it in circles until he lost his bearings and collided with the wall.

I blogged mercilessly in those days, and I found so many little anecdotes about him in the archives of my long-dead web site, Deeplyshallow:

2004: Today I sat on the patio in the backyard and watched Oscar stalk the perimeter. He's nervous about the grass, and he stops dead at the perimeter of the patio, always backing down from that wall of green. So I picked him up, and walked around the yard with him. He was nervous, but after a while he relaxed—and I put him down in the middle of the grass. He lifted his paws, one at a time, recoiling as if being tickled, and hopped frantically sideways, searching for a non-vegetative surface to land on. But then he saw a butterfly, and the hunt was on. He'd chased the thing halfway around the yard before he looked up and realized he'd put a good fifteen yards of green between us, and his tail went straight up. For a good two minutes, he stared at me, frozen, utterly at a loss for what to do next.
2005: Migraine today. It's bothering me. It's bothering Oscar, too. Earlier this evening, prone on my bed, I started to cough. Oscar, who had been sleeping on my chest, woke up—and place his paw neatly over my mouth, then flexed ever so slightly, showing his claws, just to make his point absolutely clear.
2005: Yesterday I returned home from a day away to discover the front door open. Nothing was missing; there was no evidence that someone had broken in, only that I'd probably failed to close it securely. Inside, Oscar was curled up on my bed, looking only a little shaken. He regarded me briefly with a Don't you ever fucking do that again look, then went back to sleep.
2005: Today I woke to small puffs of air on my face—which freaked me out a little, since I'd recently read about all of the things which can bite you in your bed as you sleep—and opened my eyes to see Oscar, mere centimeters away, eyes shut tightly, half-snoring. Apparently, as I'd slept, he'd squirmed his way beneath my left arm, and tucked himself in close to my neck, and was puffing little bursts of cat-breath contentedly on my cheek.  

He was eight years old when I met Felicia; nine when Felicia brought another cat, Gabby, into his life; eleven when I married her; twelve when our daughter was born. He stuck with me through the awkward twenties, managed to hang in there while I figured out the challenges of being a responsible adult, and lasted well into a period of satisfaction and warmth and contentment. His first home was an apartment in Anchorage, and his last was Hill House, which Felicia and I bought just five months ago. Last year, a visit to the veterinarian revealed the onset of chronic kidney failure, and brought changes to Oscar's diet, and we realized that our good friend had somehow gotten old without us noticing. Felicia told me that our other cat, Gabby—now nine years old—qualifies as a 'senior' cat, by veterinary standards. Oscar, at eighteen years old, was well into the territory of the elderly. 

When I called his name, he didn't hear it as often. Two nights ago, he struggled to drink from his water dish. He wavered unsteadily on his feet, struggled to walk. I lifted him into my arms and he felt less...substantial. As if beneath his beautiful gray coat he had been slowly disappearing. We scheduled a visit to the veterinarian for the following morning, but Felicia and I both had an ominous feeling, even without knowing the doctor's verdict. That night felt like the last night before the worst day. 

That night I lifted Oscar into bed, onto my chest, to the place where he used to sleep for hours. He purred, but he was visibly uncomfortable, uneasy. He didn't push his face forward, tipping his head against my chin, as he so often had done. He didn't settle into place, and I realized that he just couldn't. His hips were hurting him; his body was betraying him. After a few moments, he needed help climbing down, and then he moved—with heartbreaking difficulty—through the door. 

When morning came, Oscar and I climbed into my Jeep, and we drove forty minutes to the veterinarian's office. Oscar was quiet during the ride, watching me. He'd been my passenger on so many journeys before, traveling down the Alaska-Canada highway with me, or sailing down the 5 to a new life. I didn't know that this trip would be the last time he accompanied me anywhere, not for sure. But it was. 

Yesterday afternoon, we made the very difficult decision to relieve Oscar of his pain. Each of us said our goodbyes, and the only one of us who wasn't a teary wreck was Squish. She petted Oscar and said farewell. At five years old, we've talked about death, and its finality, and what it means when someone passes away. She asked if she could give something to Oscar for when he was buried. When the time came, everyone left the room except for me and the doctor, and I held my friend, and didn't even attempt to hold onto my composure. 

When we arrived home afterward, fog had settled in on the hill, and it was nearly dusk. We picked a quiet spot beneath a tree, near the small orchard on the property we bought last fall. We've talked about building a small writing shed out there for me someday; the idea of quietly writing while our beautiful friend rests nearby comforts me. Squish drew something to bury with Oscar, and then, in the house, she made a little sculpture from large blocks. "I made Oscar for you both," she said to Felicia and to me, "so you will feel better and not be sad." 

I buried my friend beside the orchard, under a tree, as it grew dark. I am grateful, my family is grateful, to have had so many years with him, grateful that all those years ago, I chose Oscar, grump that he was, to come along with me. Perhaps then he was just the better of two disagreeable choices, but after all these years together, it's clear that he wasn't simply a cat to me. He was a part of me, and so a part of me is gone now. 

Eleanor arrives in German

On January 9, Heyne Verlag published the German-language edition of Eleanor, translated by Sabine Thiele. Ten days later, I've received copies of my own.

This is a lovely book! I don't speak German, so I can't read a word of it, but boy, is it gorgeous. It's quite exciting to see the novel enjoy new life around the world, and this is the first translated edition I've seen. (There are two more in the works — Portuguese and Turkish — but I don't have publication dates for either yet.) 

Photos below!

The church of baseball

My childhood was divided between two enormous states, Texas and Alaska. Of the two, my heart lingers most in the north, among the snowy slopes and slick roads, where it was not uncommon to peer from the window to watch a moose, bedded down beneath the backyard deck, chewing its cud and waiting out the falling snow.

But without those years spent in the humid, long Texas summers, I suspect I wouldn't have found a love for the game of baseball. Sure, Alaska had its own incarnations of the sport—Mark McGwire honed his skill as a member of the Glacier Pilots; citywide, there were adult baseball and softball games that spun out beneath the midnight sun—but in Texas, I found my home in the orange-and-gold outfield seats of the Astrodome, pulled on my own baseball cleats for YMCA ball during the summer break, threw endless games of catch with my father and friends and cousins. 

That love took greater flight in 1990, when I first encountered baseball cards. I'm surprised, in retrospect, that it took me so long to discover them. When I finally did, it seemed everyone around me had been collecting them in secret, conspiring to obscure their stuffed binders and shoeboxes from me, lest I catch some rotten virus from them. I caught it, though. I began my collection with some rather humdrum cards—the 1990 Donruss series, I seem to recall—which seemed as magical as gold to me. I studied the player photos and stats religiously, memorizing Keith Hernandez's batting average, filing away Nolan Ryan's strikeout counts. I tied cards to a string and dangled them from the Astrodome’s outfield wall, hoping a player would turn around and notice them, and grace them with a quick signature. 

The cards taught me a surprising amount about things I still think about today, like backstory, or visual design. A player's stats were a narrative; you could trace their journey over the years, watch the numbers rise as they were healthy and strong, watch them tumble and know there was an injury, or that someone close to them had died, or that they'd been traded between three different teams that year, that they were sliding to the bottom of the hill on their career's arc. A card was a designed thing, communicating information that was necessary and completely frivolous; it carried a sense of reverence or frivolity, elevated the player or marginalized him. Even in those days, I knew that the '87 Topps series, with its faux wood grain and chalky typeface, was a design mistake. 

Baseball cards weren't often in the household budget, so I slowly built my collection from the odd pack here and there, or from discards that my friends knew, from careful study of each month's Beckett price guide, were patently worthless. But a determined child will always find a way to indulge his or her passions, and I discovered mine quickly: I began pocketing my daily lunch money, subsisting on whatever food I could scavenge from friends, or sneak out of the house in my backpack. With friends, I would raid the card selection at the convenience store nearest our junior high school, salivating over the foil-wrapped Upper Deck packs, decorating my school books and notebooks with the little holographic team logo stickers that were stuffed among the cards in each pack.

I don't recall when my gambit was found out, but it eventually was, and I could no longer get away with skimming lunch money for such frivolous things. By then, however, I'd amassed a few hundred baseball cards, had even begun buying plastic sheets of card sleeves, hiding the cards between the contents of my three-ring school binders. 

A long and careful discussion with a good friend led me to identifying my favorite baseball player. He selected his own, and from then on, we scanned the sports page daily, searching for each player's performance the night before. When his player hit well, he held it over my head all day long. I did the same when my player outplayed his. Of course, in the long run, my friend's choice proved laudable, and his player, Ken Griffey, Jr., slid effortlessly into the Baseball Hall of Fame. My choice, Darryl Strawberry, who I admired for his gazelle-like batting stance, his graceful swing, never made it to Cooperstown—though he did pick up several World Series rings over the course of his career, some more earned than others.

I watched my friends' collections grow impressively while mine slowly expanded. Before long I saw that their collections weren't built solely from wax packs, but strategically. My friends were attending baseball card conventions, dropping ridiculous amounts of money on single cards—rookie cards, or signed cards, or rare cards—which they would subsequently display in their bedrooms, locked away in airtight, hard plastic shells. I went to a few shows, but with very limited amounts of cash in my pockets. There was never enough money for me to add my most-desired cards to my collection: any of Darryl Strawberry's 1983 (and 1984) rookie cards.

But I was determined, and I was also a bit duplicitous, willing to gamble that classmates and neighborhood kids weren't familiar with the autographs of their favorite players. The Internet wasn't around in those days; there were no easy ways for your average thirteen-year-old to verify that a signed card had truly been signed by a ballplayer. 

So I broke out my Sharpies—several different colors, for purposes of authenticity—and began scrawling autographs on a few dozen cards...which I then sold to unsuspecting marks for terrific amounts. (Usually these sales netted me five or ten bucks, though I recall one particularly well-funded boy dropping thirty dollars on a signed David Justice rookie card and seventy-five on a Frank Thomas rookie.)

I'd begun my life of crime. 

There were goals, back in those days. I dreamed of purchasing an entire, unopened box of Upper Deck baseball card packs. I dreamed of owning a Darryl Strawberry rookie card, or all of them. But even with my ill-gotten gains and profits, building my collection was still a slow crawl. Meanwhile, a great-uncle saw my card-collecting ways, and took interest—not in furthering my collection, but in creating his own. Within a week of deciding to collect, he had a closetful of baseball cards—the entire 1989 Upper Deck series, for example; hundreds of unopened packs of cards; a prized binder stuffed to bursting with valuable cards from his era and my own. Each time I saw him—which wasn't often—he showed off the new cards he'd acquired since our previous visit. I always left his house feeling deflated. I couldn't catch up. I'd never achieve in a lifetime of collecting what he'd achieved in his first week. No matter how many forged cards I sold, I couldn't match his full-grown-adult's disposable income. 

In 1994, our family pulled up stakes and moved back to Alaska. Before we did, I sold off my entire collection. My heart wasn't in it any longer. A collector who lived a few streets away bought my entire archive for a couple hundred bucks, and that was it. I didn't purchase another pack of baseball cards.

Since those days, the baseball card industry has changed dramatically. Major League Baseball ended its partnerships with all baseball card companies except for Topps. The value of individual cards has plummeted. Topps still pursues collectors with money, albeit in ridiculous new ways—as a collector, you can buy the common man's baseball card series, which is reasonably priced, or you can buy the Super Duper Ridiculous Crazy Elite Series (not the actual name) for $25,000, which includes signed cards, fragments of bats, snippets of game-worn jerseys, and probably the nuclear launch codes as well.  

I said before that I never bought another pack of cards, but that was a lie. This year, it suddenly occurred to me that I'm a grownup, with a modest amount of disposable income myself. I'm not a retired grownup with more money than I know what to do with, as my great-uncle appeared to me twenty-five years ago, but I could afford to indulge a bit of nostalgia, purely for the sake of nostalgia. So I indulged, and fulfilled two of those old collectors' dreams of mine. 

I found an unopened box of 1989 Upper Deck cards, and one evening, Felicia and I tore through them, searching like kids for the infamous Ken Griffey, Jr., rookie card. We didn't find one. But Felicia turned up a Darryl Strawberry card, which thrilled me. I'd owned that one as a kid, and hadn't seen it in all the years since. Every pack included holographic team stickers, which Squish collected and used as decorations on a cardboard box she'd converted into her own personal automobile. 

And a couple of days later, a package arrived, and I opened it slowly to reveal three hardshell plastic cases—each containing a different Darryl Strawberry rookie card. 

None of these things are worth much at all, and yet the trip down memory lane was invaluable. 
My love for baseball persists. My first date with my wife was at a collegiate ballgame in San Luis Obispo. My daughter's first ballgame was in the same park. We listened to the World Series this year, rooting for Felicia's hometown Cubs; Squish cheered alongside us when they won. I still hear the voices of Ray Kinsella and Terence Mann echo in my skull, still hear Annie Savoy rhapsodize about the church of baseball. I don't pray at night—except to the baseball and Hollywood gods, who I hope will permit Kevin Costner to make more baseball movies.

Also, I still have a Sharpie. And a whole box full of Upper Deck cards just begging to be signed.