Harry Stein gives us the conversations of a group of older men who meet every week for lunch to reflect on their lives and the state of the world.
What is a well-lived life? What is honour, and does it have a place in our society? A profound and poignant meditation on the meaning of honour, told through the words of men who lived life according to the forgotten rules of trust and responsibility. From these conversations, Stein shows us men who lived their lives according to values that have since been declared relative or obsolete: honour, responsibility, decency, and an uncynical commitment to being the best men they could be. Stein presents the stories of this remarkable group of men who lived through the difficult time of the mid-20th century and all its wars and social upheavals.
We meet Moe Turner, Stein's father-in-law, a mathematician involved in research on the H-bomb who is Stein's connection to the group. We meet Boyd Huff, a survivor of the Nazi prisoner camps, whose youngest son was killed in a gun accident and oldest is a hospitalized schizophrenic. We meet Gene Cooper, an electrical engineer and the emotional centre of the group. These three men, and the rest of the club, have had difficult lives and plenty of trying moments, yet all of them have survived with their sense of right and wrong, of honour and love, fully intact. Stein connects their background, stories and lives, to the valuable views and ideas they share with him now. What the reader comes away with is a renewed sense of purpose, a new confidence in the strength of courage and conviction in your beliefs—even as those of the world change around you.
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About the Author
Harry Stein is the author of eight previous books. The New York Times Book Review called his recent memoir, How I Joined the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy and Found Inner Peace, "a wickedly funny and moral book." He has also written for numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Playboy, GQ, and Esquire, for which he created the"Ethics" column. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.
Read an Excerpt
The Girl Watchers ClubLessons from the Battlefields of Life
By Stein, Harry
The Count of Monterey
First things first: there probably would be no Girl Watchers Club, at least not in its current form, were it not for my father-in-law. Though Moe wasn't among the handful of original members in the midsixties, for the past couple of decades he has been the one who has arranged the meetings, deciding which of the area restaurants they'll congregate at this week -- the Del Monte Golf Club coffee shop, the Thunderbird over in Carmel, the Sea Harvest near Cannery Row, or Chef Lee's on Freemont -- and more to the point, he is the one who keeps in closest touch with the other members in between.
Moe's devotion to his friends is a wondrous thing to behold. Generally given to a certain gruffness, in their presence he is perpetually on the verge of laughter; bored to distraction by most of what passes for popular entertainment, with them he'll sit for hours telling stories, sharing views, and generally figuring out how to cure the world's ills. They are everything to him.
This is why, the first time I called my father-in-law from New York with the idea for this book, his reaction was so guarded.
"I don't know," he said, with characteristic imprecision, "sounds pretty goofy to me."
"I really don't know if the fellows will be interested."
"Well, would you be willing to sound themout?" Over the years I had come to know some of his friends reasonably well, but others were virtual strangers.
"Why should I?"
I don't know -- maybe because his son-in-law was asking him.
"Maybe because they'll want to," I said. "Maybe because what they have to say might be of interest beyond the group."
"Never mind, Moe. I'll call them myself. Will you at least give me their numbers?"
"Oh, hell, I'll do it!"
But Moe is nothing if not an open book, and it took just a few minutes for the real reason behind his ambivalence to come out. I had told him that my hope was to focus on six men, sitting in when they got together as a group and coming to know them as individuals. But all told, between regulars and part-timers, as many as fifteen guys are liable to turn up at the Girl Watchers' regular Friday luncheons. He was worried about those who would not be prominently featured.
"What about Smitty?" he demanded now. "And Len? And how about Alex Grba? They're all neat guys."
"Look, I know, but there's no way to keep track of that many people in a book. A half dozen will be hard enough."
"That's the dumbest thing I ever heard; that makes no sense at all." He paused a few seconds, then did what men of his age and disposition often do when faced with emotionally fraught situations: he changed the subject. "So tell me," he said suddenly, "what's that granddaughter of mine up to?"
Moe's friends, for their part, return the feeling in kind -- though when they talk about him, even in his presence, it is often as one might discuss a naughty but very precocious child. Moe is not an easy man to understand and, as the other Girl Watchers know, an extremely easy one to misunderstand if certain allowances are not made for his distinctive quirks. As Gene Cooper, who has been closely observing my father-in-law for nearly half a century, at work and at play, said when I finally did approach him about this project. "All I can say is you've got your work cut out for you -- no one'll believe Moe is for real."
But that's the thing. Moe is entirely for real; a full-blown eccentric who (for this is the trait that fully confirms the fact) genuinely doesn't give a whit what others think of him. Sure, he knows he has some wires crossed -- or, at any rate, fully appreciates that a lot of other people think so. But when he bothers to reflect on it at all, it is only to wonder how so many of them manage to get so many things so consistently wrong.
To start where most people will, there is the matter of my father-in-law's appearance. His sartorial taste runs primarily to mismatched, thrift shop clothes, brilliantly colored socks (a nickel at the Navy School thrift store) and sneakers, though you can never tell when he'll throw in something odd even by his own standards -- including, once, a pair of pleated women's pants. (His explanation: "What does it matter?")
More than twenty years ago, nervous when I was about to meet my fiancée's father for the first time, Priscilla gave me a crash course in Moe. Studying his photograph, struck by the craggy figure staring back imperiously through deep-set eyes, his face topped by a mass of unkempt white hair, I thought I would please her by remarking on her father's resemblance to Andrew Jackson. For an instant she looked startled, then cracked up. "Jackson never had that bad a hair day." She laughed again. "And I don't want to think of what my father would do if he was even close to that kind of power. Because, believe me, he'd use it."
To put it simply, Moe, wholly unbound by traditional constraints on thought or behavior, has extremely strong opinions on almost every subject and has never been shy about expressing them, even if he is the one buried by the falling chips. One of the early stories Priscilla told me about her father was set just before the start of the June 1967 Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Growing up in Arkansas, Moe did not knowingly meet a Jew for the first twenty years of his life ... Continues...
Excerpted from The Girl Watchers Club by Stein, Harry Excerpted by permission.
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Reading Group Guide
For nearly four decades, the Girl Watchers, a group of World War II veterans living in Monterey, California, have gotten together every week to shoot the breeze, solving the world's problems and their own. Now in their late seventies and eighties, the Girl Watchers take nothing for granted, knowing that personal fulfilment, like success, is earned incrementally; there are principles worth dying for, and there are others without which life will always be empty. What these men have to teach us has never been more important: honor is not so much an abstraction as a life plan.
Questions for Discussion
- How does the Girl Watchers' generation differ from the Baby Boomers? Gen Xers? Forecasters predict Generation Y -- who are now in their teens and early twenties -- to be less focused on career, more family-oriented, and more socially-conscious than Gen Xers. Do you think that they will be the generation most like the Girl Watchers' generation?
- Why do the Girl Watchers share a deep, intuitive understanding of each other? Do you think subsequent generations will have a similar sense of understanding of their peers?
- Were you surprised at the amount of premarital sex the Girl Watchers admitted to? Do you think they were telling the truth or is this just "locker room" hyperbole? How would the story differ if it were their wives or a group of women from this generation telling it?
- The Girl Watchers admire and often adopted the "no-bullshit, full-speed ahead approach to completing the task at hand" quality that was necessary for surviving the war. How did this affect their lives -- personally and professionally -- when they returned from the war?
- Why are the Girl Watchers' marriages successful? How did living through wartime contribute to their success? Do you think most other marriages from this generation enjoyed the same success as the Girl Watchers, or is this particular to this group of men?
- When the Girl Watchers get into a discussion about the lack of ethics and morality in society, Cooper comments, "The fact that there is less thievery is just the tip of the iceberg. What we're really talking about is civility. In those days most people just seemed to treat each other with more courtesy than they do now." Do you agree with this statement? If so, do you think it was true for African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and other ethnic groups too?
- The Girl Watchers disagreed with the United States's participation in the Vietnam War, just as the Baby Boomers who actively demonstrated against it did. One of the Girl Watchers comments, "No question, there was perfectly good reason to dislike the Vietnam war. What I could never understand was how many young people could doubt the fundamental goodness of the country?" Why did the "young people" doubt the United States's "goodness?" Like the Baby Boomers, the Girl Watchers lived through the Civil Rights Movement, assassinations of political leaders, and Watergate. Why didn't the Girl Watchers question United States's "goodness?"
- The Girl Watchers on death: "Once you've encountered death on the battlefield, it definitely takes away the element of fear." "It just doesn't seem like that big a deal." "Some people today seem to have this idea that dying is just another problem that can be licked. They'll find out otherwise. What matters is feeling you've lived your life well. That makes dying a whole lot easier." How does the Girl Watchers's attitude toward dying differ from other people's? Is their ease with dying because of their wartime service or just because they are older and wiser?
About the Author
Harry Stein is the author of eight previous books. The New York Times Book Review called his recent memoir, How I Joined the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy and Found Inner Peace, "a wickedly funny and moral book." He has also written for numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Playboy, GQ, and Esquire, for which he created the "Ethics" column. He lives in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York.