The fatherly side of Buzz Bissinger

Father and son at home in Chestnut Hill. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Father and son at home in Chestnut Hill. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 14, 2012

Buzz Bissinger has already called someone a moron on Twitter this day, but really, the virtuosic vitriol that has characterized his Twitter feed has been somewhat subdued lately.

Instead, Bissinger is sitting on a chair in a family room off the kitchen of his house in Chestnut Hill and talking about stuff so personal, so self-flagellating, that it would make you gasp if it weren’t comically shot through with F-bombs.

Next to him is his son, Zach Bissinger, 28, well known to anyone who ever worked with Buzz at The Inquirer or met Zach through work or at a party where Zach walked up to you, introduced himself, and wanted to know who you were, what’s your birthday, and whether you ever worked with Vernon Loeb or Steve Lopez or the other people known forever to him through his familial and personal connections in journalism. And then found an e-mail from Zach on your birthday wishing you a happy, happy birthday. Thanks, Zach.

Born 13 weeks premature on Aug. 20, 1983, weighing 1 pound 11 ounces, three minutes after his brother Gerry, Zach suffered trace brain damage that “settled like a patchy mist,” Bissinger writes in his new book, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26). It left Zach profoundly mentally disabled, but a savant in the areas of calendars, names, directions, maps, train schedules, getting from here to there, connecting places on a map, people at a party, contacts in his e-mail, places and people in his memory. Gerry suffered no brain damage and is a graduate student in education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Zach’s memory, as Buzz has come to realize, and writes in the book, which he will discuss at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Wednesday night, is more than just a parlor trick. It contributes to the heart of Zach, “where all good relationships persist regardless of time or distance, the truest beauty of his failure to forget.”

Bissinger, 57, the driven, maniacally conflicted, self-doubting Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Friday Night Lights,A Prayer for the City, and the book he hates and considers an epic failure, Shooting Stars, with LeBron James, a man who seems to invite people to dislike him — entire cities, even — who favors tight pants, leather or denim, one Springsteen-ish earring, who freely admits to a mild bipolarity treated with a morning four-part drug cocktail, a guy on his third marriage and in the midst of an Amazon-Apple feud over another book, who dips in and out of self-loathing, who is this month taking a national stand against college football, bringing on more haters, has finally written the book he always knew he had to write: the book on Zach.

In the book, which will be published Tuesday, Bissinger trains his fearless klieg light on himself and his relationship with Zach, confronting with humor and bluntness his own rage, embarrassment, pain, sense of being cheated, of his kid being cheated. He is not the hero of his own story. He said he was willing to write honestly of his feelings and “let the chips fall where they may.” “It has nothing to do with loving your child,” he says. “I always loved Zach madly, but there’s frustration. There’s rage.”

He takes Zach on a road trip across the country, ignoring Zach’s suggestion that they fly, or at least go in a Cadillac, but indulging his son’s interest in people he has known and not forcing the usual historic and natural sites on Zach. The closest they get to history is the Hoover Dam, which reminds Zach of the Lincoln Tunnel. Buzz hopes for an epic father-son night in Vegas, which he does not get. He probes to find out how much awareness Zach has of his own limitations, and is crushed by the answer.

Along the way, Buzz inflicts himself on Zach, meltdowns and all. (“The fun has been drained out of the minivan,” he writes early on. And you just want to get Zach out of there). This was probably predictable. And really, why protect Zach from the full complexity of his inimitable father? That’s part of the puzzle of who he is as well, Buzzy’s son.

Zach is the one who surprises his father, time and again.

“Even in those moments, I saw his ability for empathy,” Bissinger said last week, Zach dutifully sitting in. (Buzz is not taking him along on the book tour). “For constructively getting out of jams, for his endless optimism. It was this role reversal. He was always calming me down. I never really knew that about him, that he was steady. And a problem solver.”

Indeed, it is Zach, through e-mail, who takes care of the details of this interview, the travel arrangements, the change in time, which train to take for the next stop of the day. It is Zach who makes sure everyone gets home at the end of the day. On the trip, it was Zach who directed Buzz out of a confusing parking lot, provided support for Buzz’s fluctuating moods — “Buzz: I’ve been very depressed. I don’t know why. Zach: The zoo is only nine miles away, Dad.” — and finally draws a limit on how much probing Buzz could do, telling him, “The reason I don’t like when you ask the questions is that sometimes I don’t know how to really answer them.”

The book, which took about two years longer to write than Bissinger thought it would, covers a lot of territory: Buzz’s relationship with his parents, their deaths, parenting special-needs children, parenting any child, his divorce from Zach’s mother, custody arrangements, guilt, siblings, letting expectations and disappointments unfairly define your relationships. He says his experience with Zach holds lessons for any parent.

“Your kids are not there to make you look good and to certify you,” he says . “And trust me, a lot of my friends are that way. It did upset me when people would meet Zach and say, ‘He’s doing great, it’s great he’s bagging groceries.’ And that’s true, but I also said to myself, ‘You wouldn’t want your kid to do that in a thousand years, because that’s what he’s going to be doing the rest of his life.’ ”

Just like any child, it is Zach’s willingness to humor his dad in all his ridiculousness that may be his ultimate expression of love. Bissinger says that while his own definition of success has been hard to shake, his definition of character has changed. “I always thought it was intellect, or how much money you make or how successful you are,” he said. “But to me, character is the ability to take whatever you have, make the most of it, and create a life for yourself. Zach has really done that.”

Zach would much prefer to banter about people he knows at the newspapers — “Do you know Wendy Ruderman — yeah, she’s going to the New York Times.” Truly, The Inquirer and Daily News are his home team. He puts in eight hours a week as a clerk. But Zach will talk about the trip as well. He has only read parts of the book, the back cover, a few selected sections, and his two pages of acknowledgments, dictated to his father, which begin “Well I am thankful for all the people in the world who have done so much for me.”

Asked how his dad was on the trip, he replied, “Good. He did good.” Then he said, “He wanted to do it. He wanted me to learn something new.”

“Remember all the times you took care of me?” Buzz asked him.

“Yeah.”

“Like what times?”

“I took care of you when you were mad.”

It was the dialogue, which Buzz compares at times to Waiting for Godot absurdism, with Buzz going in one direction, Zach in another, that ultimately provided the key to the book’s narrative. Easy to dismiss for its rapid-fire questions and focus on names and dates, Buzz discovered that Zach had a lot more going on in those tropes.

“It’s not like he expounds upon things,” Buzz said. “He has this intuition about life. He would just say things that would crack me up. He was observant. It’s interesting that it takes someone with trace brain damage who has no jealousy, no sense of competition. He’s optimistic, wishes for the best in everyone, and tells the truth. You know, the rest of us, we’re just the opposite.”

While Buzz doesn’t get the epic Vegas night he hopes for, Zach does drink a beer with friends in Odessa, Texas, where Buzz lived while he was writing Friday Night Lights and where many in town still hold a grudge against him. It is Zach’s favorite place, the place he says he would return to. It was also the place he ditched Buzz for a night, to stay over with a family. Buzz sees that as evidence that his son, against all odds, is maturing. They are close to a decision Buzz calls wrenching: whether to let Zach live away from either his mom or dad, in a group home. Zach says he’s not sure.

It was a bungee ride at an amusement park that provided the turning point of the narrative, the two lassoed together for a terrifying ride (Zach loves rides). Bissinger says he achieved a monumental bond with Zach that transformed the trip and the relationship. Zach, of course, will never forget it because he forgets nothing. But neither will Buzz.

“It was beautiful,” Buzz recalled. “It was physically beautiful, it was spiritually beautiful. It was sort of the most intimate I’d ever felt with him. We were really clutching each other. I mean, we really needed each other. And that was a unique feeling for me.”

Contact Amy Rosenberg at 215-854-2681, arosenberg@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @amysrosenberg.

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