Thursday, September 27, 2012

Because I Said So: Grade-school lunchtime a real eye-opener for dad

While dropping G off this morning, I was called out by the principal of Richland Elementary School because of today's "Because I Said So" column. It seems she began the day with phone calls about it. I wrote about having lunch with G in their cafeteria last week - the smells, the food, the ominous silence.

Mrs. McNary took it all in the manner it was intended, laughing along with my desperate attempts at humor, but she also wanted to explain. Richland was built in 1957 by the progressive architect team of Bill Mann and Roy Harrover in a style that must have looked as futuristic then as TV dinners. Mann and Harrover were also responsible for the Memphis International Airport and Memphis College of Art among other well-known buildings. As contemporary and cutting edge as the school certainly was 55 years ago, things change. I don't know if the walls, floor and ceiling of the cafeteria became more acoustically cantankerous or if children have become louder since then, but Mrs. McNary told me this morning that a parent once took a decibel meter into a lunch and the needle was off the charts. They had an architect come in to study it for possible sound dampening measures and were told that it would cost close to $100,000. In lieu of spending that kind of cash, they opted for making half the lunch period silent.

This seems reasonable. I'm sure there is concern for the children's hearing long term and we've all been to too-noisy restaurants, that's never a pleasant dining option. G told me that day that they weren't allowed to talk while they eat because they might choke and I laughed out loud at the reasoning (I was shushed). A certain amount of control needs to be had at all times to prevent chaos and, I'm sure, once it gets beyond a certain point, there is no returning to normalcy.

The kids seemed happy and ate well in their antique/futuristic school, and that's what is ultimately important. I had a good time at lunch with G and her friends. Kids are funny in groups and for a limited amount of time. I hope you will find a quiet place to sit and enjoy today's column.

Grade-school lunchtime a real eye-opener for dad
I had a lunch date with my youngest child at her school last week. She was Star of the Week for her first-grade class, an exalted position that affords her, along with acting as emcee of her own daily show-and-tell, the honor of eating in front of me.

It's an interesting thing, sitting with a table full of 6-year-olds. I recommend you all try it at least once. One time should just about do it.
Walking into an elementary school lunchroom, for me, is like walking through a portal back to my youth, such is the power of the sense of smell to memory. It's that mixture of food smell with feet smell; that oddly comforting yet nauseating scent that is anything but appetizing. Lack of appetite was not a problem as it was only 10:15 a.m., lunchtime for Memphis City Schools.

Also not a problem because these kids were not sharing. The lunch box buffet laid out in front of me offered a tempting, yet off-limits feast of lunch meats, tubes of yogurt, grapes, cookies, cheese sticks, potato chips, mayonnaise, apple slices, crackers and juice boxes; I provided my own hand sanitizer.

The first-grade students were required to eat in total silence for the first half of the allotted lunch period, a policy I'm not on board with. Lunch should be the one place, after recess, when kids are allowed to socialize and laugh and cut up with each other. I understand the need for control of small children; I have four of my own. Without control there is chaos and possible mutiny, but I found the apron-clad wardens walking the line to be a bit much.

The kids I ate with last week were a chatty bunch, too. When, at the halfway point they were released from their shackles of shushes, we discussed summer vacation plans, loose teeth, tofurkey, big sisters, throwing up and middle names.
I asked the kids around me if they ever trade lunches the way I used to.

"We're not allowed to," my daughter said. "We'll get moved to another table."

What we have in the lunchrooms of local elementary schools is a failure to communicate, and solitary confinement is the preferred deterrent. It seems that a lunch spent in the box for these tiny Cool Hand Lukes is what keeps the room quiet.

"But only if we're caught," piped up one of her friends who shall remain nameless, but who will surely be at my table for our next lunch date.

Such hushed hegemony isn't exclusive to Richland Elementary, where I dined last week. It was the same scene when our kids were at Downtown Elementary several years ago. I'm not sure whether it's a Memphis City Schools policy or a practice the principals share at their regular district meetings. I picture them sitting around an enormous conference table, bottles of ibuprofen in front of them, popping them like Chiclets and sharing trade secrets for ways to infuse their schools with sweet, sweet silence.

Can we blame them? I just described the post-bedtime ritual at my house, and possibly yours, assuming you're also washing down the Advil with a glass of wine and soaking in a bath of antibacterial soap.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Because I Said So: Season of transition a fashion nightmare

My mother will take great pleasure in this week's "Because I Said So" column because I mention that my sons wear jackets to school regardless of the temperature. I did the same thing as a boy and it drove her crazy. I know it drove her crazy because it drives me crazy to see them leave the house with them on and then return home, when the mercury is hovering in the 90s, still wearing them. They say their schools are cold, but I've been in both of their schools in the past week and did just fine without an extra layer of fleece.

Today's column is about the transition from summer to fall, and the requisite lengthening of sleeves and pant legs that comes with cooler weather. For the smallest children, it's as though I'm asking them to hunt and kill a caribou, skin it, tan the hide and fashion their own winter wear.

I'm almost certain I've written a very similar column before, maybe last fall if not the fall prior, but that's what being a parent is, isn't it? It's that endless repetition of seasons and laundry and fits and tempers. For some reason, with each change of the season, I think it's going to improve. I really believe that this year I'll say, "You should wear long pants and a sweater" to whomever the youngest might be and they'll say, "Good thinking, sir, I'll go change into that right now." It's folly to think they'd ever call me "sir." And it's the blind optimism – or shortness of memory – that makes parenthood work. We have to think each year, each season, every day, will get better and easier because if we didn't we'd go mad; or madder.

So pull on your woolen socks, slip on your favorite cardigan, have a seat and enjoy this edition of "Because I Said So."

Season of transition a fashion nightmare

I just returned home from walking a few of my kids up to school, and there was something in the air this morning. It wasn't the apprehension of a looming quiz or the incomplete homework stuffed into backpacks, not this time. I walked on one side of my daughter, holding her hand, while the crispness of autumn touched the other. The sun was lower in the sky at that early hour, and we all remarked on the temperature difference from the previous day's walk.

It isn't cold, not by any stretch, but the thermometer does herald cooler days, days when we'll be donning coats and hats and gloves for the two-block walk each morning.

For now, though, it's simply cooler out, a refreshing respite. Perhaps a light jacket or sweater will suffice; a pair of long pants, certainly. Not for my daughter, though, not yet. For a 6-year-old, these are the days (weeks?) of transition. This is the end of the shorts and short sleeves, the end of sandals and skirts, but it's going to take some time to get used to such a sartorial shift.

Genevieve refused leggings worn beneath a skirt this morning, based solely on color. Navy blue? Not school sanctioned, according to her. The same jacket she wore every day last winter, in and out of school, is suddenly not a proper uniform cover-up. Not that sweater, no, not ever. "But they actually call it 'sweater weather,'" I pleaded.

Her parents, of course, don't know what they're talking about when they assure her that she can wear blue pants, that she can wear that very same jacket she wore only six months ago, that the sweater looks cute on her. But how could we possibly know anything?

This fight doesn't apply to the boys. To be fair, though, my sons have been wearing fleece jackets to school all school year — a year made up mostly of the month of August — as if their first class of the day is Intro to Igloos. It burns me up, literally, to see my son walk in at the end of a school day wearing an admittedly school-appropriate jacket, when the heat index is 103.

I've asked my sons not to wear jackets when it's still so hot outside, but they say their classrooms are cold. I tell my daughter she should wear one because it's cold in the morning, but she says it will be hot at dismissal. I stop talking. I need to have faith that somewhere, maybe in the pockets of that coat, they carry with them the common sense to stay warm or dry, to not succumb to heat stroke in the name of — or the profound lack of — fashion.

When we got to school this morning, we met up with Genevieve's friend, a little girl wearing navy blue pants who seemed comfortable in the morning air. I saw the opportunity to make a point. "See those pants, Genevieve? What color are those?"
The look she returned was chilling.

Richard J. Alley is the father of two boys and two girls. Read more from him at Become a fan of "Because I Said So" on Facebook:

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hidden Memphis: Lloyd T. Binford

For almost two years, every other month, I've written the series "Hidden Memphis" for The Commercial Appeal. It's a lot of work, which is probably why it hasn't become a monthly series. Coming up with story ideas, researching them, locating experts or descendants or anyone who might have a connection to a 60-year-old building or industry or individual takes a lot of time and research. Looking at it as a freelance writer, it probably takes too much time when you get down to dollars per hour. But I love it. I love learning about little-known characters and finding images from our city's prodigious, notorious, colorful, shameful, hopeful, ill and progressive past, and sharing what I learn with others. And, to be truthful, the amount of time spent on any one story is probably, in large part, my own fault. When I get into the Memphis & Shelby County Room at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and the helpful librarian brings me a stack (it's always a stack, if not a truckload) of newspaper clippings, scholarly papers, letters, photos or marginalia from early last century, I just can't help but read through it all. And when Wayne Dowdy, resident historian and manager of the room, happens by, I can't help but pick his own gray matter file for information and perspective.

Such was the case with the story that ran in yesterday's paper on Lloyd Tilgham Binford, the chairman of the Memphis Censor Board from 1928 until just before his death in 1956. I'd heard bits and pieces, anecdotes, about Binford over the years as I researched Film Row or the long-gone movie theaters of the past, but he was never a major subject in either of those stories so I just filed his name away for later. When my editor suggested Binford for a "Hidden Memphis" topic, I somewhat reluctantly agreed. It seemed to me that everyone already knew about him, how hidden could he be? And how much information could there possibly be on one man who wasn't a mayor or civil rights leader in this town? So I put out a call to all of the usual suspects, and some unusual suspects, that I look up for such stories, packed up my legal pad and pencils and headed to the Memphis Room. And, of course, they had everything I might need: pages and pages of stories and obituaries on Binford. He was quite notorious in his day, and quite often quoted. Perfect.

I pieced a story together through the voluminous wordage published on the commissioner, and talked with his great-granddaughter, Tamara Trexler, and grandson, Fred Trexler. I picked the brains of movie house historian Vincent Astor, University of Memphis professor Danny Linton, film directors Willy Bearden and Craig Brewer, film commissioner Linn Sitler, Malco magnates Michael Lightman and Nancy Tashie, Google and Dowdy. I sent the story in and, as I am wont to do, spent the rest of the week rewriting it in my head. The only problem with newspaper writing, I've found, is the limited space available; this story could have easily been twice as long.

I wanted to be fair to Binford, although being fair to someone when all evidence points to the fact that he banned films from the viewing public for racial reasons, or kept adults from seeing movies he felt to be too racy, both in image and language, is difficult to do. Government censorship doesn't deserve a fair shake. But Binford's background is interesting – a self-made businessman who grew his company from nothing, built an iconic home office that is a treasure in downtown Memphis today, and all with little more than a grade-school education. He also headed the Mid-South Fair from 1928-1931, and gave more than $10,000 to farm youth organizations. He was active in politics and acted as campaign manager for E.H. Crump. He was vice president of the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, a member of the board of trustees of the National Council and YMCA, on the board of Baptist Hospital; he was a Mason, Shriner and an Elk. And, according to newspaper accounts and Tamara Trexler, because of his charitable works here and in his hometown of Duck Hill, MS, there were over a hundred children throughout the south who had been named for him.

But then again, he banned movies from being seen because they deal " ... with social equality between whites and negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South." And in an attempt, seemingly, to reclaim - or dispute - his reputation, he was quoted in the Memphis Press-Scimitar on Sept. 26, 1947: " ... I'm one of the few white men in Memphis that got a six-pound fruit cake from negro friends last Christmas. I also received 18 Christmas cards from colored folks – and sent out the same number."

Does that help or hurt his case? Wayne Dowdy and I had discussions theorizing that Binford banned all-white or mixed-race audiences from seeing all-black or mixed-race casts for fear that the white audience members would riot and not for any danger from the black viewers. I looked for any evidence of this, for Binford simply mentioning it in one of the copious interviews he said he disliked to do, yet gave at the drop of a hat, apparently. I couldn't find anything concrete, so it remains a theory.

Regardless, it's the perceived fairness held in his own mind that makes Binford a complex and fascinating person; a real-life movie character himself who was, perhaps, stranger than fiction. The very fact that Memphis had a Board of Censors is strange enough until you place it in context, in a time when blacks and whites couldn't use the same water fountain or bathroom, when people were openly discriminated and physically assaulted for their beliefs. Strange times, indeed, and worthy of study so that they are never, ever repeated.

Banned or 'Binfordized

"Brazen." "Rowdy … unlawful … raw." "Salacious and risqué."

All adjectives that might be used to sell a movie to today's viewing audiences. You can just imagine such adjectives in big, bold letters plastered beneath the title or across the screen of a coming attraction. From 1928 until 1956, however, these were scathing words used by Lloyd Tilgham Binford as he edited films or banned them outright from being shown in Memphis.

Recently retired from the company he founded, Columbian Mutual Life Insurance Co., Binford wasn't looking for work in 1928 when he was appointed chairman of the Memphis Board of Censors. He awoke one morning to learn from the newspaper that he'd received the appointment from newly elected Mayor Watkins Overton. Binford accepted the position on a temporary basis for only 90 days "as a favor to the mayor," his obituary reads.

It was a title he would hold for 28 years, retiring at age 88 in 1956.

Born in Duck Hill, Miss., where he would eventually have a high school named after him, Binford had a simple, religious upbringing that would one day help to inform his decisions when it came to film censorship. He quit school at 16 and went to work as a railway mail clerk for the Illinois Central Railroad. As a clerk, his train was once held up by the famous train bandit Rube Burrow; as a film censor, he would outlaw films depicting train robberies and the like, including "The Outlaw," the serial "Jesse James Rides Again" and "Destry Rides Again." Though opposed to violence of any sort in films, he did allow that "if we stopped every movie with a murder in it, there wouldn't be any left."

Lloyd T. Binford
He went to work for various insurance companies, eventually starting his own in 1917. That company was moved over the course of a weekend from Atlanta to Memphis, where Binford would build a new headquarters, an iconic monument on the Downtown skyline, the Columbian Mutual Tower on the northern edge of Court Square. It was one of the first skyscrapers in Memphis; Binford ran his insurance and censorship empires from a top-floor office. The building would be sold years later and renamed the Lincoln American Tower, but the visages of Binford's children can still be found carved into the building's facade.

A millionaire when he retired from insurance, he accepted the chairman position for $200 a month. As a civil servant, he upheld the standards of the state, the city and the Hays Code, a set of guidelines used to govern studio film releases from 1930 to 1968, and named for Will Hays, a Presbyterian elder enlisted by Hollywood to improve the image of its studios. The Hays Code, also known as the Motion Picture Production Code, was used until 1968 when the Motion Picture Association of America adopted the rating code in use today.

As chairman of the Memphis Censor Board, Binford enjoyed free rein to edit films — known as having been "Binfordized" by Hollywood — or ban them outright. A moral gyroscope in the Crump political machine, he passed judgment on pictures that were "immoral or inimical to public safety, health, morals or welfare."

"The Little Tramp" did not pass muster with Binford. All Charlie Chaplin films were banned from Memphis theaters, Binford telling The Associated Press upon banning "Monsieur Verdoux" in 1947 that "we don't have to give our reasons" before adding that "(the film is) a comedy that makes murder a joke."

But the reasons weren't always found within the frame of a particular film; the character of the actor or actress mattered to Binford as well. He thought Chaplin a "London guttersnipe" and expounded to the Memphis Press-Scimitar in 1952 that "America has been good to Chaplin and has made him rich, but he has not been a good American … (Chaplin) is a traitor to the Christian American way of life, an enemy of decency, virtue and godliness in all its forms, a reputed endorser of the Communist Party."

Ingrid Bergman fell into his cross hairs as well with 1950s "Stromboli" being banned from cinemas. "It would be inimical to the public morals and welfare to permit the public exhibition of a motion picture starring a woman who is universally known to be living in open and notorious adultery," Binford told The Commercial Appeal in February of that year. Bergman was having a public affair with the film's director, and married man, Roberto Rossellini, at the time.

Binford's reach and notoriety stretched as far as Hollywood and New York, and screenwriters would send him scripts and scenarios ahead of time to get his approval and keep their product from being "Binfordized" after the fact.

In an era when movie theaters were segregated between the races with balconies reserved for African-Americans, if at all, or special days when they could attend movies, Binford sought to ban those movies with all-black or mixed race casts. Famously, Binford banned Hal Roach's "Curley" — a re-imagining of his "Our Gang" series — in 1947 for depicting white and black children in school together. United Artists would appeal and the case would ultimately make it to the Tennessee Supreme Court which, in 1949, stated that "the Memphis Board of Censors has no authority to disapprove a picture because there are Negro actors appearing in it."

"We'll just have to pass these pictures," Binford told The Commercial Appeal, though that same year he banned "Lost Boundaries," stating, "It deals with social equality between whites and Negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South. We banned it for that reason."

These are reasons that Binford's great-granddaughter, Tamara Trexler, wishes had not been. A film producer herself ("Charlie's War,"2003; "Dear Mr. Cash," 2005), she also was the Nashville Film Commissioner from 2000 to 2002, and would begin speeches in that capacity with anecdotes of her notorious ancestor. Her great-grandfather was an intelligent man who, though he left school as a teenager, wrote several volumes of his own encyclopedia with information on science, philosophy, religion and politics. And though she might agree with his notion that there is too much violence in films, on the racial issue, she says "that hurts that he did that."

Binford married Hattie Nelson of Memphis in 1895, and the couple had four children listed in his obituary as Mrs. Tom Thrash, Mrs. Fred Trexler, Mrs. Elizabeth Moon and Lloyd T. Binford Jr. Hattie died in 1927, and he married Jennie May McCallum in 1937, living at 1723 Peabody.

Trexler's father, Fred Trexler, is a Southern Baptist minister who recalls visiting Binford in his Midtown home. He remembers his grandfather as "very much an individualist with a very strong personality, that's why he did what he did." More exciting than those home visits, though, were the perks that went along with being Binford's grandson. "My mother and I would be invited on occasion to the Paramount where he previewed his movies."

Though movies might be banned from local theaters, it didn't mean they escaped the eyes of film buffs completely. "His iron thumb saw plenty of movies miss the Memphis market altogether," said Daniel Linton, a professor with the Communications Department at the University of Memphis. "Some of the 'scandalous' movies he banned were screened in West Memphis instead, and so a little booming film market was created in a place that doesn't even have a theater these days."

"It was the Joy Theatre in West Memphis, so I've been told, that showed the movies he wouldn't let play in Memphis," said local movie theater historian Vincent Astor. "It made lots of money."

Linton says: "Many major cities had similar boards, though they weren't always known as 'censor boards' per se ... This all sounds like ancient history, but actually the last one finally disbanded in Dallas in 1993."

Binford died on Aug. 27, 1956, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery. His legacy lives on in a city that has struggled with issues of equality and acceptance, and has, in recent years, seen a burgeoning film community take shape. From 1928 until 1956, however, Binford always had the last word on the town's big-screen culture.

"I have no regrets about the movies I've banned," he told the Press-Scimitar in 1947. "Take 'Duel in the Sun.' It was unquestionably the dirtiest movie I've ever seen. And I can't say anything too bad about that Charlie Chaplin."

Some Films or Stage Productions Banned or ‘Binfordized’

“Rope” (1948): Directed by Alfred Hitchcock; “brazen and immoral … revolting and repulsive.”

“Annie Get Your Gun” (1947): A Broadway stage musical with a mixed-race cast; the show “is not being allowed to play anywhere in the South, except Texas, and whatever those folks in Texas do doesn’t surprise me.” In addition to the cast’s ethnicity, “the musical score is suggestive, salacious and risqué.”

“Bamboo Prison” (1955): “Unpatriotic”; was to be exhibited by Malco, decision to ban later reversed after suit brought by Columbia Pictures.

“Forever Amber” (1947): “Entirely filthy.”

“Stromboli” (1950): On star Ingrid Bergman: “It would be inimical to the public morals and welfare to permit the public exhibition of a motion picture starring a woman who is universally known to be living in open and notorious adultery.”

“Lost Boundaries” (1949): “It deals with social equality between whites and Negroes in a way that is not practiced in the South.”

“The Wild One” (1954): “That was the worst, the most lawless bunch I ever saw and the most lawless picture I ever saw. There was nothing immoral in it, it was just rowdy and unlawful and raw.”

“French Line” (1954): Binford called police to keep the uninvited from entering a private preview of the movie at Malco Theatre.

“Miss Sadie Thompson” (1953): Banned for a dancing scene by Rita Hayworth; “The whole picture is a travesty on religion and everything in it is raw.”

“Tragic Ground” (1953): Play banned in Memphis that played at the Plantation Inn in West Memphis.

“Monsieur Verdoux” (1947): “a comedy that makes murder a joke.”

“A Song is Born” (1948): “inimical to the public welfare”; cast includes a “rough, rowdy bunch of musicians of both colors … there is no segregation”; “The musicians are raising the dickens … Jazz and the blues were actually born in Memphis anyway, down on Beale Street. There is too much French in New Orleans for jazz. It’s a rough, bawdy, noisy picture dealing with band musicians, in general a mixed-up jamboree.”

“Wedding Rings” (1930): “… the absolute violation of the sanctity of marital relationships …”; Shown at the Orpheum with a stretch of film bearing only the words “Cut out by board of censors.”

Others, banned unless otherwise stipulated:
“The Southerner”
“Brewster’s Millions”
“The Outlaw”
“Duel in the Sun”
“Jesse James Rides Again” (serial)
“Destry Rides Again”
“Jesse James”
“The Return of Frank James”
“The Daltons Ride Again”
“The Macomber Affair” (Hemingway novel, banned until deletions were made)
“Pursued” (censored)

This occasional series profiles people, places and things, past or present, that are quintessentially Memphis. Do you have an idea for someone or something for this series? E-mail Richard Alley at

© 2012 Memphis Commercial Appeal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Beautiful Ruins & One Last Thing Before I Go

So often I come across books by happy little accidents. While browsing through a used bookstore, a book with an interesting cover or with a synopsis on the back or flap will grab my attention. It is one of the most thrilling things to find a novel I've never heard of, even better if it's by a writer new to me. Many of my favorite books have come to me this way.

Occasionally, though, there are those novels that I know are coming out and I look forward to for months. Jonathan Tropper's One Last Thing Before I Go is one such book. I've read everything by Tropper and have been wildly entertained by all of them. Hearing that he had a new one on the way was like hearing that a favorite relative would be visiting for Thanksgiving. Conversely, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter was one of those I happened on in the bookstore. It was new at the time and the cover was so striking that it drew me in. Since its release and before my purchasing it, I'd read about it and seen some great reviews, so my interest was piqued. I haven't read anything else by Walter, but I look forward now to delving into his other work. And I'm sure I'll look forward to his forthcoming novels as well.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter (HarperCollins 2012) is a multi-generational story that takes us back and forth between 1962 and the present day. We are transported from the rocky coast of Italy to Hollywood, from Seattle to Idaho to London. Pasquale Tursi is the heir to a failing hotel in a failing fishing village called Porto Vergogna near Genoa. His dream for his hotel, which his father named The Adequate View after a conversation with the American war novelist Alvis Bender, is to attract Americans, and to that end he is building a beach on his rocky outcrop and planning a tennis court that will cantilever out over the water. His dream comes partially true when a young American actress, Dee Moray, shows up from Rome while on hiatus from the filming of Cleopatra. Her arrival sparks something within Pasquale and visits upon the poor Italian hotelier a host of characters including weaselly Hollywood publicist Michael Deane, a couple of thugs from nearby Portovenere and Richard Burton. But her arrival also brings something else to Pasquale: hope. He learns something of himself and his dreams in his conversations with her, and in the drama that unfolds.

Present day Hollywood shows us a Michael Deane who has become successful many times over, lost it all at times, and rebounded quite well. When Pasquale Tursi shows up, older now and searching for a lost love, he is given the chance to atone for sins from decades before. Whether he takes the opportunity is a matter of character and momentum built up from so many years in a shallow and crass business. The inclusion of Dee Moray's son, and the revelation of the identity of his father, is another turn in a novel full of intricate plot twists.

Where Beautiful Ruins spans 50 years and shows us how people's lives, hopes and dreams will change – or stay the same – within such time, One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper (Dutton 2012), spans one week in the life of Drew Silver. Silver, as he's known, is the one-time drummer from a one-hit-wonder band called the Bent Daisies. We meet him just before his ex-wife is to be remarried and just before he finds out he may die at any moment. Sound depressing? The talent of Tropper is that he can find the humor in the most mundane, and most frightening, occurrences in life. There is plenty of sadness and despair, some tears, and yet many moments of laughing out loud.

Silver lives in The Versailles, a long-term efficiency hotel populated by divorced, middle-aged men who see, or don't see, their kids intermittently, and who spend much of their time around the hotel's pool ogling young women visiting from the nearby college. Silver's own daughter is college-age, and long absent from Silver's life, yet determined to ease herself back in with the news of Silver's impending demise. His ex-wife's fiancee is the surgeon who diagnoses Silver's condition, and who ironically wants to save the life of the man who is a constant wedge in his relationship.

There are ruins in both books that are not man-made monoliths decaying from time and wear of the elements, but are the very lives and relationships of their characters. Pasquale Tursi's dreams are only partially realized, Drew Silver's were realized for a fleeing moment and may have cost him his family, if not his life. Dee Moray finds and loses love several times, while Michael Deane's life is merely a thin sheen of fame and fortune.

We all know pain, we all know loss and all of our dreams seem unreachable at different moments in our lives. It's in how we handle such adversity and longing, and even successes, that makes our lives into beautiful monuments or beautiful ruins. Both of these writers – Tropper and Walter – are adept at capturing the heartbreak and euphoria, and, even more difficult, they do so with a gentle, easy humor.