Before I found myself humbled by the vagaries of my profession, I would joke to friends that my sole objective was to someday gain entry into the encyclopedia. I figured the folks who make it into those glossy pages had been rewarded for being universally impressive or constructive or, at the very least, memorable. They discovered chemical elements or trekked into lands unknown or churned out literary classics. They earned their immortality. So I aspired to join them. Was that too much to ask?
Be careful what you wish for.
Several years ago, at the peak of the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" phenomenon, I tried out for the show. By that I mean I phoned the 1-800 number they flashed on the screen and attempted to answer three trivia questions. I did it once a day for a couple of weeks. Why not? I am self-employed. There are worse ways to take a work break. It was a diversion, a lark—until I passed the initial round and received a fortunate random phone call telling me I had moved on to the next tryout hurdle.
So in rapid succession I answered five more questions, tougher ones, on subjects ranging from Mary Lou Retton to the Teapot Dome Scandal. Finally, there was this synapse-snapper: "Put the following ancient civilizations in the order in which they were established—Assyrian, Mayan, Sumerian, Classical Greek." Wise Athena must have been smiling down on me. More likely, it was Tyche, goddess of luck. Soon enough, I found myself in Manhattan, along with nine other contestants, hoping for an opportunity to sit across from diminutive Regis Philbin and his shiny teeth, each of us craving a chance to conquer trivia questions for gobs of money in front of an audience of millions.
Then I won the "fastest-finger" round—by thirteen-hundredths of a second. This meant I was headed for something called the "hot seat," which at the time was the epicenter of pop culture in America, a piece of furniture as iconic as Archie Bunker's chair. Surreal doesn't even begin to describe it, and, because I tend to be rather cynical and inhibited, it was as out of character as if I had joined the cast of A Chorus Line.
For the next forty minutes, I did my best not to humiliate myself in front of twenty-five million people. I am sure I didn't impress the ten-million-or-so folks who were screaming at the boob on the tube who wasn't quite sure about the name of Dil-bert's pet dog or the logo of Hallmark cards. But, using my life-lines early and often, I clawed my way through the murk of ignorance until suddenly this little television host was showing me a fake check for $64,000.
Then came a question for $125,000: Which of these American westerns was not a remake of a Japanese film? Possible answers: The Magnificent Seven, The Outrage, High Noon, A Fistful of Dollars.
I knew that the first one was a remake of Seven Samurai. I had no clue about the rest. If I wanted to hazard a guess, I had a one-in-three chance. However, if I guessed incorrectly, I would lose half my money. I kept focusing on High Noon, mumbling it over and over, whispering my suspicion that it was the answer.
Before jetting off to New York I had considered possible scenarios with my friends, and I actually had declared that if I were in that exact situation—with an inkling of an idea at that particular level of the game—I would go for it. You only live once, I announced. The name of the show isn't "Who Wants to Be Slightly Better Off."
But when the real moment arrived, I hemmed and hawed and squirmed. Then, rather suddenly, I decided to stop. I took the money and walked away.
The next question would have been for a quarter of a million dollars. I would give anything to know what the subject would have been. In my daydreams, it is a bit of trivia about baseball or U.S. geography, something very much in my cerebral wheelhouse. All I had to do was answer three more questions correctly, and I would have been an instant millionaire.
The answer, of course, was High Noon. The irony—that I didn't have the guts to choose a film about one man's gallantry in the face of long odds—is not lost on me. While I was overjoyed at my windfall, I reflect on that moment of decision and feel pangs of weakness. I know that it took a certain daring to get there in the first place. And I very much believe that we make our own breaks in life. But that decision nags at me. How many people are handed such a black-and-white litmus test of their nerve? Isn't boldness the one trait shared by most every encyclopedia-worthy historical figure? Did my fears win the day?
It was my Scylla-and-Charybdis moment. In Homer's mythological epics, this is brave Odysseus's most heart-wrenching dilemma, as he pilots his ships through what may have been the Straits of Messina, off the coast of Sicily. On one side is Charybdis, an unpredictable whirlpool that may—or may not—swallow entire ships. On the other side, in a gloomy, cliffside cave, dwells Scylla, a monster with "twelve flapping feet, and six necks enormously long, and at the end of each neck a horrible head with three rows of teeth set thick and close, full of black death." She is guaranteed to snatch a half-dozen crew members in her deadly jaws. So this is Odysseus's choice—if he steers clear of one, he falls prey to the other. It is the genesis of the rock-and-hard-place metaphor. Do you risk everything for success, or do you sacrifice for safety?
Like Odysseus, I chose conservatively—security over audacity. And I regret it, both fiscally and spiritually. But that isn't the end of the story.
After every commercial break, Regis would ask contestants a personal question or two, his note cards stocked with information gleaned from a producer's pre-interview. We chatted about how I met Amy and what magazines I write for. We discussed the onein-a-billion coincidence that the person in the hot seat right before me was a good friend of mine whose husband I have known since the age of nine. We even touched on the fact that I suffer from cremnophobia, the fear of precipices (which—let's face it—is really the fear of death). Finally, after I had won the $64,000, Regis said,
"So you've written a few books. What's the latest one?"
So for about thirty seconds I described a book I had written, an account of my life-altering year on the road with my wife. States of Mind was published to little fanfare by a small press in North Carolina. It had been sporadically, if kindly, reviewed, and only a few thousand copies had been sold. Before my moment of "Millionaire" glory aired, I had logged on to Amazon.com and discovered that it was the online bookseller's 122,040th bestselling book. That's humbling. But there were twenty-five million people watching—and paying attention. Within twenty-four hours, States of Mind was ranked Number 7.
USA Today ran a blurb revealing the book's meteoric rise. Entertainment Weekly called, followed by a parade of newspapers and national magazines. After I flew back to New York and chatted with Matt Lauer on NBC's "Today Show" for five minutes, States of Mind rose to Number 2, behind only an unpublished Harry Potter novel.
By the time People magazine and the "Oprah" show contacted me, my excitement had evolved into bemused fascination. It was thrilling, of course, but I also struggled with ambivalence. My book chronicled a search for virtue in America—a literal and figurative trip through places like Inspiration (Arizona), Honor (Michigan), and Wisdom (Montana)—yet I had promoted it on a mind-numbing television show predicated on greed. It was a bit like Harper Lee using "Let's Make a Deal" as a platform, if you will pardon the comparison. And while the ensuing publicity was a hoot, it focused almost entirely on the book's sales, but not necessarily the merits of the book itself. I feared that I had sold out and peaked at the same time. Other than quarterbacks and porn stars, who wants to max out at age thirty-one?
"Brad Herzog. Remember the name," began a USA Today story in the midst of my fleeting media maelstrom. "He just might be the next Stephen King or John Grisham." Surely, I am the only reader who recalls the words, but they now strike me as having a "Dewey Defeats Truman" quality to them. Acquaintances will refer to my "Millionaire" moment and joke that I somehow managed to double my fifteen minutes of fame. But I didn't seek fleeting tabloid renown, and I have no desire that my obituary someday begin with a reference to a TV quiz show. In the long run, I became neither rich nor famous—just a bit more professionally established and briefly celebrated for being momentarily well-known.
Now I am pushing forty. I seem to have aches where I didn't know I had muscles, rogue hairs where I didn't realize I had follicles, and frustration where I wasn't aware I had ambition. I have reached that psychochronological tipping point at which my life is no longer entirely a forward-looking phenomenon, and sporadic regrets have begun to creep in like cockroaches. And I am being beckoned to the place where my grandiose dreams took root.
It has been nearly two decades since I first arrived in Ithaca, unpacking my bags and my potential. What kind of existence have I crafted for myself? Are my contributions in any way heroic? And what constitutes a heroic life anyhow, and must that be the goal? Is it enough to aim for a life well-lived?
Funny thing is, I am wholly satisfied with my surroundings. How many people can say that? I lucked into an adorable and compassionate wife, two precious sons, loyal friends, and a fine house in a charming town. What I can't figure out is why, amid so much external contentment, I can harbor so much disillusionment. Lately, my angst has coalesced into a bit of a black cloud over my head, and it has begun to permeate the small world that means everything to me.
Odysseus is the prototype of not only the hero, but also of all flawed fictional heroes who followed. And for a guy like me— somewhat vertically challenged, battling a paunch, not always taking the high road— he is a template to which I can relate.I used to write from the heart—experimentally, enthusiastically. But in recent years my grand literary dreams have softened into moderate ambitions revolving around paying the mortgage. Whereas once I was inspired by a shifting view of the big picture, now I constantly find myself sweating the small stuff, micromanaging my family like a retired guy who hangs around the house and annoys everybody—only I may never be able to afford retirement. I have bouts of irritability, periods in which I have difficulty living in the moment, times where I notice my innate cynicism evolving into a sort of nihilistic grunt.
I don't want to be that guy. My wife doesn't want it either.
Amy is always the optimist, impossibly sunny—a Pooh to my Eeyore—and she has taken on the tiring responsibility of bolstering my sense of self-worth. But when I begin to cross the line—when my unreasonable expectations are thrust on my life partner and two little boys, who, after all, will be boys—her exhaustion turns to exasperation. The last thing I want is to unravel my near-perfect universe because I can't come to grips with my own imperfections.
"Go take a drive," Amy insisted. "I'll meet you in Ithaca."
I might have taken this to mean simply that I should light out after the kind of self-knowledge that only a journey can provide, that I should clear the existential cobwebs by crafting a unique itinerary through a nation's nooks and crannies, figuring it would take me to places I had not yet explored. But when she said it, she held my gaze for just a half-second longer than usual, a moment dripping with subtext.
Go away. Figure it out, she was saying. Don't come back until you do.
She looked at the calendar. "You have thirty-one days."