Conversations at KCTS 9/Buzz Bissinger

Buzz Bissinger
  • CONVERSATIONS AT KCTS 9

Buzz Bissinger

We talk with Pulitzer-winning writer Buzz Bissinger about his book "Father's Day."

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About the Episode

We talk with Pulitzer-winning writer Buzz Bissinger, who is among the nation’s most honored and distinguished writers. In addition to the Pulitzer Prize, Bissinger is the winner of the Livingston Award, the American Bar Association Silver Gavel Award, and the National Headliners Award, among others. He is a longtime contributor to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as a sports columnist for The Daily Beast, and host of radio show The Buzz Bissinger Show with Steve Martorano. Bissinger is the author of the highly acclaimed nonfiction books "Friday Night Lights," "A Prayer for the City," "Three Nights in August," and "Shooting Stars." His new memoir "Father's Day" details his relationship with his son, who was brain-damaged at birth.

Enrique Cerna:
Buzz Bissinger, welcome to Conversations, good to have you here. You're a Philly guy right now, but actually, you have a little bit of a northwest connection.

Buzz Bissinger:
Well, you know, my wife Lisa, I think, spent about 20 to 25 years in Seattle and Oregon. She's an Oregon duck, no offense to husky fans. And we still own a little cottage on the long beach peninsula on the Washington side, you know, at the mouth of the Columbia and the Pacific, which we love. Of course, it takes longer to get there from Philadelphia than it does to go to Europe, but I fell in love with the northwest as well.

Enrique Cerna:
Well, we should mention that Lisa Smith, your wife, used to work here at KCTS. She's quite a character and we miss her very much.

Buzz Bissinger:
Yes, I understand she left a long trail.

Enrique Cerna:
Yeah, very much so. Yeah, left her swath here. Well, let's talk about this book "Father's Day," it's a memoir, something you haven't done before.

Buzz Bissinger:
It is a memoir or at least it's a very personal story. It's a tremendous departure from what I've done before. I've written two books about sports, Friday Night Lights, about Texas high school football is what I'm best known for, and then a book about baseball.

Enrique Cerna:
Friday Night Lights became a film.

Buzz Bissinger:
Became a film and a TV series and I'm waiting for the musical and the passion play and whatever. I wrote that book in 1990 and it just refuses to die. It's incredible. It still sells 30,000 to 40,000 copies a year. But I like doing different things, and this was a story that really had been inside me since the twin boys were born, which is now 28 years ago.

Buzz Bissinger:
How did you come about then writing a book about your relationship with your boys that really, especially Zach, who's the one that is mentally challenged.

Buzz Bissinger:
Right, right.

Enrique Cerna:
But has also these Savant traits, which are just incredible.

Buzz Bissinger:
Right. Well, I first thought about it because their births were so traumatic. They were born in 1983. Jerry was the first one out, he weighed 1 pound 14 ounces. Zach weighed 1 pound 11 ounces, they were 13 1/2 weeks premature. At that point in time, male twins that size, that early, invariably did not live. They survived, they lived. But Zach, because of oxygen deprivation at birth, had trace brain damage, whereas Jerry by some miracle had no side effects. So I always thought these twins would be mirrors, that's my dream. When my wife said we're having twins, I was so excited, but one mirror was unblemished, and tragically, Zach's mirror was cracked.

Enrique Cerna:
And Zach, in his condition, it was tough for you to take.

Buzz Bissinger:
You know, it bounced around. At times, it was very, very tough for me to take. And I want to point out he's very verbal, he works, he's certainly ambulatory, he has no physical side effects. But look, parents live, we live through our kids. You know, you may admit it, you may not, we have dreams, we have aspirations, we have expectations. I came from, you know, a very high powered family, where success was taken for granted. And you had to be successful and I bought into that and success became an addiction, and I did to some degree want it for my kids. And from the very beginning, I knew you had to throw that out in terms of Zach. But it was hard because there was always this feeling we're stuck, we're stuck. And still, I feel that I've never had a real heart to heart conversation with him. I haven't like I have with Jerry and my youngest son, Caleb.

Enrique Cerna:
But Zach, I think he brings something different to the table here, obviously, because he is different.

Buzz Bissinger:
Right.

Enrique Cerna:
But he also brings, and Jerry has got that success and the degrees, and you know, your younger son looks like he's headed in that direction as well.

Buzz Bissinger:
Yes, yes.

Enrique Cerna:
Zach is totally different because he's limited in what his life is going to be, but yet, he has this other stuff in him that kind of balances it out.

Buzz Bissinger:
Well, you know, he's an amazing kid. And the book "Father's Day" is framed around a cross country trip, which we took in 2007, and the reason we took it was, A, his mother's family was going to Spain, and he doesn't like to fly. And B, I wanted to do something special, like I've done with my other kids, and I wanted to do it in a way where we would be intimate, where I could really focus on him and maybe discover more things about him. And nothing is more intimate than a rented minivan, I can tell you that. [LAUGHTER] And I did discover a lot about him. He is special. His ability for empathy. You know, I was always the one falling apart, I was always the one getting mad, I was always the one that couldn't get out of the parking lot. He was very steady. And it was more than just empathy, he had this instinct that dad is upset, and I want to work as hard as I can to see if I can calm him down. He has the abilities of a Savant, a Savant is defined as having genius like skills in a landscape, he has the cognitive skills of 8 to 10. If you threw out a date, whatever, you know, October 23rd, 1992, he would pause two seconds and tell you the day. His recall of the date of events, meeting people, is phenomenal, and he would always say to see, he said, dad, do you remember? And I finally had to say, Zach, I don't remember what I did yesterday, so you've got to stop doing this. Because he goes back 20, 25 years. So there's that ability. He's also very funny unintentionally, no jealousy, really happy for the success of others, to the degree where I wonder if he's my child because I'm completely the opposite. And also, I learned in the course of the trip, observant, really independent. He's responsible. And coveting that independence is really, really important. He wants to be his own person. And also, and some of this was very painful, just have an awareness of his disabilities.

Enrique Cerna:
Let's step back and talk about this some more. Because you mentioned what he's able to do that's incredible. What he also has certain limits and challenges.

Buzz Bissinger:
Right.

Enrique Cerna:
And you talk about the fact that he works in a grocery store, he bags groceries, and that's going to be his life.

Buzz Bissinger:
Yeah. And that's hard for me. I mean I have never watched him bag groceries because I just can't bring myself to do it.

Enrique Cerna:
Why?

Buzz Bissinger:
You know, and this may sound awful. It's a menial job, it's not what I want my child to do. I think it's not what many parents want their children to do. And I just can't bring myself to do it.

Enrique Cerna:
But he does it well.

Buzz Bissinger:
He is doing well. But I also know he's going to be doing that job the rest, you know, of his life. He had a job at, you know, a pizza place for a while, and he was cleaning up, you know, the parking lot. And I couldn't, you know, watch for about a minute, and I had to leave. I mean it just was painful. He hated doing it and you could tell that the dumpster smelled and it was just awful. And I just sort of took off. And you know, this may reflect, certainly reflects on me, but it's been very, very hard for me to handle at times that I have a son who's going to be doing these kind of things all his life.

Enrique Cerna:
And in writing this book, really what you're doing, you're talking about that.

Buzz Bissinger:
Yeah, very openly, very openly.

Enrique Cerna:
And what you're feeling is probably what a lot of people in your place, in your situation, feel that maybe, they don't have the ability to write it and get a book published and spill it out.

Buzz Bissinger:
Well, you know, look, I think in a sense what I wanted to do, you want to do many things in a book, and this is actually a complex book with a lot going on, but I did want to give voice to the voiceless. Because I think many parents, you know, whether your child is different or disabled or not, you have to, it's hard to reconcile your expectations with what your child may be. It's not about love. You always love your kid. But there can be frustration, there can be rages, there can be pain, there can be anger, there can be the sense that I feel cheated, the sense that your son or daughter feels cheated. And I just felt, if I'm going to write a book like this, I don't want to hold back. And I understand why parents are reluctant to express those things because it immediately becomes misinterpreted as you don't really love your kid, you're selfish, it's not the kid's fault. And I love Zach to death, I'm not going to lie. There were these frustrations all the time, particularly when we were stuck, we were doing the same thing that we had done 20 years ago, and it began to drive me crazy, you know, because you want your kids to progress. And then I have a twin son who is progressing. So it's exacerbated. Here's Jerry who's going to become a full time teacher, he's going to get married, he owns his own house. And here's Zach who's not going to get married, who's not going to drive a car. And I face that all the time.

Enrique Cerna:
You talk about the fact that he's never kissed a girl, and he may never kiss a girl.

Buzz Bissinger:
Look, that's painful to me too. He's very happy, but I don't subscribe to this theory, some people say, well, he's happy, what else matters? It's sort of like ignorance is bliss. I don't think that's true. Life is about experience, it can be a great experience or a bad experience but that makes a life full. So if your child may not ever kiss, he won't ever marry. He's not going to have children. You're missing out on a tremendous part of life. I think through the trip and then watching him progress, I no longer mourn for myself, but there will always be a piece of me that will mourn for him.

Enrique Cerna:
Let's talk more about the trip. As you're doing this trip, now, did you record audio?

Buzz Bissinger:
Yes.

Enrique Cerna:
Because you wanted to make sure that you recorded that experience.

Buzz Bissinger:
Yeah. Because, you know, I didn't necessarily know, I had been taking notes on this since they were born. And I had done some tape recordings and, you know, just been taking notes. And when we went on the trip, I said maybe it's a book, maybe it's not, but if it's gonna be a book, I don't want to go through this silliness of acting like I can recall conversations. You know, these memoirs say they can recall conversations that happened 30 or 40 years ago, that's poppycock, so they can't or they pipe it or make it up or they do this or that. I wasn't going to do that. So 95% of the conversations roughly in this book were taped and are verbatim, there's a few where I did construct, but very, very few. Because at my base, I'm a journalist, that's what I am.

Enrique Cerna:
And as you are driving and having these experiences, he's your human GPS, because he knows, he actually loves maps, collects maps.

Buzz Bissinger:
That's right.

Enrique Cerna:
He can just figure this stuff out.

Buzz Bissinger:
Well, it's in line with his Savantism. I think where the brain damage occurred was in the left hemisphere, which is really abstract thought. Zach is all concrete. And obviously, in the fascinating theories, the right hemisphere enhanced, that explains the Savantism, which is all based in the concrete, really some form of memorization. And they have consistent lines and grids in maps, and he gravitates towards them. I get lost coming out of a holiday inn express parking lot, that's really hard to do, and I got angry. And Zach said, maybe go here, maybe go here. And a lot of the trip was like that, I was spazzing out and he was this sea of steadiness, which I didn't know about either.

Enrique Cerna:
As you're doing this, are you trying to talk to him. And in fact, are you trying to really understand what he knows about his life, and what has happened to him?

Buzz Bissinger:
Yes. I decided on this trip, not because I was writing a book, I felt I'm his father. That's a special relationship. I've had important heart to heart discussions with both of my other sons. And I felt Zach had a right to know what he was, what was wrong, and I wanted to tell him. Because depending on how aware he was, that then forms conversations in which he can participate, you know, do you want to be in a group home? What can you do? What should you concentrate on doing? And I did that, and I got to tell you, in a sense, it was gratifying. He was self aware. But in another sense, you know, it was absolutely crushing.

Enrique Cerna:
Why?

Buzz Bissinger:
Well, we were on the Indiana two-way, we stopped at a rest stop, and it was quiet, it was quiet in the car. And I was nervous. And I just felt this was the right time. And I remember asking Zach, do you know what brain damage is? And he said, well, I'm not sure. And I said, well, you know, it has to do with your brain. And he ultimately said something's wrong with my brain, my brain isn't right. Now, as I say, the fact that he knew that, and I knew he knew that because then he said there are things that Jerry, my brother, can do, that I can't, like going to school, like having a girlfriend. So I was gratified by his self awareness. But when your child says, you know, something's not right with my brain, you know, it hurts. It does hurt. The great thing about Zach is he moves on, he does not dwell, but I live inside my head. So those words will ring, you know, forever. I mean they just can't, you know, get them out, something's not right with my brain. It does hurt.

Enrique Cerna:
Other special moments like that that really stand out?

Buzz Bissinger:
Yeah. There were actually a lot of special moments. And I don't want to, like every author, I don't want to give away the whole book, but there was a magnificent moment at an amusement park outside of St. Louis, Six Flags, where we did a ride together, which was fantastic. In the bond between us. We even went, the structure of the trip was we went to places where we had lived before, because that's how Zach responds. Yosemite, Monument Valley, you know, Mount St. Helens. He doesn't care about that. So we did end up going to Odessa, Texas, which is ironic, because that's where I wrote Friday Night Lights, and they hate me. Now, this is true, he loves it there. There's a family that I wrote about there that he absolutely adores. And I don't know how this happened, Enrique, it is now our favorite vacation spot. He talks all the time about going back. So we are probably the only people in history who actually go to Odessa for vacation. There was a moment there where a bunch of guys that I knew were having a barbecue and smoking and drinking, and one of the guys, Brian Chavez, said to Zach, Zach, want a beer? Well, he never has expressed interest in drinking, but he said yeah. And he sips the beer, and he's not so crazy about the taste. And everyone pats him on the back and says, way to go, Zach, way to go. And he was happy because he was one of the boys. And I will always love Odessa for that. Because they weren't treating him differently. A lot of times they treat him differently, almost patronized, and there he was drinking that beer. And everyone is saying right on, chug it, chug it. And that was a great moment. And then there were other moments that were memorable was they weren't so great. And I was honest about that. There was a moment in Milwaukee where we were just going back to buildings that he had seen 20 years ago and we were just looking at them. And I got terribly frustrated, why are we doing this? What's the point? What do you see, what's the point? And we went to Las Vegas. I had a certain fantasy that this was going to be, you know, a Rain Man experience, a big prom date, and that was pretty disastrous and very painful. And I really realized, I think parents of kids who are different, you always sort of harbor the fantasy that you're going to wake up one day, and man, it's gonna be gone. And I think that's what I did. And I really realized that for all the progress Zach had made on the trip, for all the things that I had seen, he still has limitations.

Enrique Cerna:
Did you ever come to a moment on the trip or afterwards where you thought, we had to realize, hey, Buzz, get over it. My boy is the way my boy is, and he's got these special qualities, and he's got some challenges.

Buzz Bissinger:
I think I came, the trip certainly helped. I'm not going to say what most authors say, you know, there's the final chapter with, you know, the bombs exploding and everything comes together, because that's B.S. too. The trip helped because I was proud of him. I saw things in him I had never seen, little touches, big touches of kindness. Our bond certainly has strengthened and I think I am much closer to that point in accepting him for who he is and being truly proud of who he is. But I'm not gonna lie, you know, as I say, there are things about him that I mourn for his sake, not for mine, missing out on significant pieces of life. But he's funny unintentionally because he doesn't lie. He's delightful. He's a character. He brings joy into everybody's heart. The book has generally gotten great reviews. But the general consensus is Zach gets an A plus, and I'm about a C minus or D plus, whatever the hell it is, because look, I'm honest, I'm open. Some people respect that. And some people don't. They think that I was really cruel.

Enrique Cerna:
But isn't that Zach?

Buzz Bissinger:
In what way?

Enrique Cerna:
He's honest, he's open, he is who he is.

Buzz Bissinger:
Yeah. Now, he doesn't drop F bombs all the time like I do. But he is honest. And he's open. The difference is it just sort of comes to me. I internalize a lot and I think a lot, and I probably overthink. And I think, you know, I think too much. And I'm very, very hard on myself, I know I am. And maybe in some way subliminally I wanted to create an unflattering portrait, but I don't think that's the case. I wanted people to know not just about my son and my feelings about him because it's a complex book about what has formed me as a man and as a father, you know, my need for success, it became an addiction, still is. But what happens with addictions? You're never satisfied, you get a hit, feels good, and then you want another one. The price that I paid for ambition, you know, I'm a writer and I can be very self absorbed and narcissistic, and that resulted in certain career moves that I now regret. And part of it is my relationship with my own father because this is a father and son book. So there's a lot in it.

Enrique Cerna:
How was your relationship with your dad?

Buzz Bissinger:
My relationship with my dad was absolutely wonderful until he contracted leukemia in the summer of 2001. And he died in October. He basically died in four months. Really right after 9/11. He lived through that. And you know, leukemia, it's like your blood becomes poison and just runs down your veins. And he was in agony at the end, but he was angry and he was scared, and in those four months, a relationship really did deteriorate. I withdrew. I think, it's my dad, I couldn't handle his vulnerability. I remember him on the way to the hospital for the first time sobbing. I didn't know what to do. I had never seen him that way, he was traumatized. And I'll be honest, I mean he hated everybody at the end, including me, he just detached from his family, and it was really, really hard to get over, but believe it or not, Zach helped me get over it with something he did in Los Angeles.

Enrique Cerna:
What?

Buzz Bissinger:
We went to Los Angeles and we did purposely stay at the Beverly Hills Hilton hotel because that was the last time we were all together as a family. My parents were alive, my sister came with her family. I was working in Los Angeles at the time. We had a magnificent time, a great time. It was one of those perfect family outings, everyone was together and laughing and drinking. And it was the last time we ever spent together as a family. My parents were basically dead a year later because they died back to back. I'm in Zach's hotel room, which he's sharing with his brother Jerry, who has joined us, and I see propped against the TV set a wonderful photo of my parents with this inscription, "a good time was had by all." And I said, how did this get here? And what Zach had taken it from Philadelphia, had put it into his knapsack, had hid it there until Los Angeles, and then had at the perfect moment, had propped it against the TV set to both memorialize them, and for me, this rush of great memories. And that was astounding to me, that was so, it was beyond touching. It was eerie in his ability to do the right thing at the right time. And it was very, very deliberate. So his comprehension is 8 to 10 years old, what does it really mean? Because he has an interior, he does have an interior, and a lot of kids who are disabled, they have an interior if we give them a chance.

Enrique Cerna:
In writing this, I take it that that's one of the things that you're hoping people will understand.

Buzz Bissinger:
Yeah.

Enrique Cerna:
And others that are in the same situation.

Buzz Bissinger:
Sure. There's, you know, there's no question. I think other parents would identify when you have a kid who's disabled, and there are all levels of disability, I understand that, in some ways, I'm lucky, in some ways, I'm not. But with a child like Zach, they do have interior lives, they have character, they have presence. And all they want, I think, is to be treated normally. You don't have to patronize, you don't have to coddle, nor do you have to be scared. Zach talks to himself. If you saw him walking down the street, you might say, what's with that guy? But he does it because it's a way of self stimulation. But if you talk to these kids, if you see them in a grocery store where a lot of them work, just treat them regularly, give them high fives, what’s going on, man, and they will respond. And they're so down to earth and honest, you will respond as well, and you will feel good, and you'll say, you know, they are special, wonderful kids, not because they're disabled, but because they're wonderful.

Enrique Cerna:
Zach sounds like he's given you a lot.

Buzz Bissinger:
He has. And it took me a long time, I knew he was special, he was a fighter. He never, ever should have lived. He was in the Neo natal unit for 7 1/2 months. I never was able to hold him. So for 2 1/2 years, he always had some tube coming out of his mouth. He lived because of his sheer will. I was always proud of him. But certainly, because of the trip and afterwards as I say, he's funny, he's funky, he's fabulous, he's fantastic, he can be frustrating, but he's one of a kind, and I'm from Philadelphia, and I think if he ran for mayor, he would probably win. People adore him.

Enrique Cerna:
Sounds a lot like his father to me.

Buzz Bissinger:
Well, you know what? I have good intentions, I really do, I have good intentions but look, I'm a parent, I'm imperfect. I have flaws. But I've always loved my kids. And father's day, and that trip really helped me come much closer to the essence and the beauty of my son, Zach.

Enrique Cerna:
“Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of my Extraordinary Son,” Buzz Bissinger, who's a Pulitzer prize winning writer, author, and thank you for the story, it's really honest and open. And thank you for your time.

Buzz Bissinger:
Thank you.

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