Thursday, October 29, 2009

Looking for the Bright Lights

Many books I’ve read lately pulse with the desire to be Bright Lights, Big City. Read between the violence, sex, drugs, dubious friendships and hollow disaffection smeared across their pages and you’ll see the writer’s thought process. I’ll look around at what my friends and their friends are doing and put the most fucked-up things I see and hear to paper; I will be the Jay Mcinerney of my generation.

I recognize it because I’m guilty of it. Every group has an observer more comfortable alone, the person dragged along on adventures who is not of them. The purpose of those people, people like me, is to record what we see, to keep alive the manic and tragic antics of people who belong in stories more than life.
Bright Lights, Big City became a touchstone because its themes extended beyond the characters’ lives. Honestly, the writers trying this tactic have nothing to be embarrassed about. I’ve enjoyed their work. The people I’ve recommended their work to haven’t complained. Maybe I should just take their stories at face value and stop imprinting my desires on them. Maybe they just want to craft simple stories of how drugs, violence, or heartless sex - or drugs and violence and heartless sex - corrode people.


The confident, slimy douchebag who somehow parlays his six-pack abs, fuck you slouch, and slutty friends into a prostitution ring. Unless you can also make the story about how America prostitutes its youth, or a condemnation of a culture which has forgotten moderation, then you’ve got nothing but a prurient exercise. If you can’t take a group of friends sucked into drugs and make it about the rest of us trapped in the limits of our lives, then all you have is a lurid tale of tweaked idiots in search of the next fix.

While we’re on the subject of reality into fiction, I know someone who would be an excellent character. As a young girl, she fell and damaged her face on a piece of public works equipment. She got years of reconstructive surgery, the constant ridicule of her classmates, and a settlement that pays a monthly stipend until she dies. It is not a huge monthly payment, but it would cover rent on a two or three bedroom in most cities. Also, her uncle is a wealthy, independent businessman. He molested her. Out of guilt and family obligation, he also sends her a monthly check. Coupled with the settlement, this uncle’s check ensures she never needs to work. He has no children, and he’s made it clear this girl will inherit everything when he dies (his wife is no fan of the plan, but let’s forget the tension there and focus on our character; I’m not crafting a story, I’m making a point). This inheritance will be the life-changing kind, and not in the yay, I can finally buy that camp / boat / classic car I’ve always wanted sense. This inheritance is glitterati money.

That’s her backstory. She carries the abused girl inside her, right alongside the disfigured girl. The taunts of her classmates still ring in her ears. Not until college did she realize she isn’t Frankenstein. The accident happened at a young enough age that the work of skillful doctors have erased all traces of it. Not only that, her body has developed into the stuff of pin-up dreams. Money has been collecting in the bank since elementary school. She works when she feels like it. She wants for nothing. Constant attention and flattery coupled with a painful past has led to a sense of entitlement. Because she doesn’t need to work for her wants, she has no chance to develop character. She is beautiful, promiscuous, easily bored, and essentially biding her time to become very wealthy. She is shallow and bitchy, attracting friends with her money and men with her body, but she has little to offer the world.

All of this is true.

Now, put her on the page. What life lessons can she learn? What could take her on a journey worth our time? She can flit from place to place and be interesting, but we need more. When trying to build a story around her, I keep bumping against who she actually is. I’m stymied by her refusal to grow.

These are the limits of reality. Characters have arcs. They struggle to overcome obstacles and learn profound life lessons which change them forever. People move from foible to foible.

Also, most friends are alive. If you use too much of them for a character, you risk alienating them. Even if they’re a bright, burning butterfly of a person, they may take issue with how you present them.

According to Kate Christensen, all you need to do is change their physicality. If the character is taller or fatter, a different race or a different gender, no one ever recognizes him or herself. She’s six books in, so she must know what she’s talking about.

To introduce a friend or acquaintance to the rest of the world through prose, a writer should see the world through two different lenses. The first lens is terrible. Part of you catalogs every experience, sizes every new face and conversation for the page. In this first lens, the blessing and the curse, you must keep life at a distance so you can record it.

The second lens is imagination. If you’re too bogged down in reality, the way I am in trying to write about the girl I mention above, you will never get a decent story. She’s not even my favorite character, or my most interesting, or the one who has thwarted me most often in trying to make her fictional, she’s simply the first person who came to mind. But every time I’ve struggled with creating a story from someone I know or from a real event, it’s because I’ve stuck too close to reality. Reality is shimmering and wonderful and terrible, but if you want to tell a story which engages people, best to leave What Actually Happened out of it.

Take that first draft of craziness surrounding you. You might have a compelling glimpse into a secret world only you have access to, a story only you can tell. The reader will be engrossed. But your story won’t be Bright Lights, talked about a quarter century after the fact, unless it finds a larger significance.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Date / A Mistake I Won't Make Again

I wrote this two months ago about the one we’re calling Anastasia. I didn’t post it because she reads my blog. Or did. Not sure if she still does.

I’m going on a date. It’s more of a vetting process, an innocuous coffee date, our first time alone to see if there’s anything behind the eyes we’ve made at each-other in crowds, but it’s still a date.

My emotional state through this separation reminds me of my recovery from an automobile accident I had two-and-a-half years ago. The recovery process was not a gradual upward slope but a series of jagged edges. Two feet pulled forward, then jerked four feet back. Leaping five feet, then sprawling for twelve. I knew I’d make a full recovery, so even though I knew a fall was waiting, I managed to push myself on those days I felt better.

I’m okay most days, but my emotional state is not improving gradually. It’s brimming with excitement over what’s to come, followed by crying jags in the shower over what I’ve lost. It’s living each moment and letting the stupid frustrations of modern life slide, followed by meltdowns over a rude remark from a stranger or a botched purchase order. It’s enthusiasm for change and fear of same.

I will not plunge into drinking and drugs, wandering the streets at night, muttering to myself, railing at the world (at least, I don’t think so) but will I ever again be so happy for so long? The odds against it are mind-boggling. In this case, I don’t even know what a full recovery would look like.

So how about focusing on the positives?

The Treehouse is morphing from a dank, grimy writer’s retreat to a home entirely of my choosing. My friendships and family ties have become richer. I’ve met more people in the last month than I’ve met in the previous two years. I no longer have nightmares about driving a car with no brakes. I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s nutrition when I eat Ben & Jerry’s for dinner. My life is in perspective (again; let’s see how long it lasts this time). If I want to see a movie with a friend or read a book or have a drink with a friend or sit and listen to music, I see a movie or have a drink, I sit and read or listen to music.

This innocuous-coffee-date-but-still-a-date is with someone I’ve been attracted to for some time. It’s never felt like the right moment (“I’m not sure when I’ll be over the breakup of my marriage, but why don’t you dive in while the water’s warm?” “My wife and I dissolved our joint account; let’s say you and I break in my bank card.” “Hey, I’m moving into my new place this week. How about I take a pause from packing and we get some sushi?”), but I eventually realized if I saw her on the arm of some skinny jeans wearing, bass guitar playing, weirdly facial haired hipster doofus without at least giving it a shot, a little bit of me would whimper and die.

The wanting to vs. the probably shouldn’t, the heart vs. the head, has been going on for weeks. Yet once we decided to have an innocuous coffee date, it took two days for the excitement to fade. I’m still excited, don’t get me wrong, but it’s tinged with melancholy. “I’m going on a DATE!” has become “I’m going on a … date?”

I’ve wanted this for so long, and now it’s depressing me.

Dates feel arbitrary and forced, like mating pandas in captivity, or talking in a basement with the other kids while your parents all party upstairs. What are the odds of dropping my defenses long enough to be myself? If by some miracle we do relax and enjoy ourselves, what are odds we’ll enjoy each-other’s company?

The promise of good things in my future has gotten me through the lowest points. If this innocuous-coffee-date-which-is-still-a-date is a disaster, what will see me through the bad moments then?

I planned on posting this after Anastasia and I met for coffee, thinking things would go swimmingly and we’d have a laugh over my insecurities. Well, let’s all laugh at my insecurities, because the date never materialized. I won’t bore you with the back and forth of it all. Let’s just say she’s tough to read and clearly not as into me as I would have liked. And frankly, as I need during this vulnerable junction in my life.

So what did this experience teach me? Not to censor Sweet with Fall and Fish based on who reads it. I’m not out to hurt people or share things which aren’t mine to share, but this is therapy for me on some level. I’ve written volumes I don’t intend anyone other than me to read, so when I write something with the express purpose of posting it, I can’t hold it back.

Things I write here are true. There are also parts exaggerated or skewed by my perception, and things which were true when I wrote them but I can’t fathom now (“single and happy,” September 24th version of Aaron? Really?). There’s little point in a blog full of lies, but anyone’s personal truth needs to be taken with a measure of skepticism. People have a million thoughts a day, they’re born in the strange meat of our minds and they dance for a while and usually die. Writers take those thoughts and dip them in amber. We can’t help it. Non-writers are lucky enough to have your darkest moments and regrettable words hidden behind your skulls.

So take my amber, hold it up to the light, and see what’s inside. Examine it from any angle you’d like, just remember to consider the source.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Large Chunk of Years Which Passed in a Blink

Maybe I put too much pressure on my wife to be everything to me.

Maybe it takes a crowd of people to equal one of her.

The other night, a friend told me she hated my breakup, but was enjoying all the time we got to spend together. I couldn’t agree more. I always enjoyed my friends’ company, but a solid marriage leads to the creation of a bubble. You on the inside, the rest of the world outside. It’s hard not to let smugness taint that bubble. I’ve been humbled by heartbreak. When Leonard Cohen sang that it was the cracks which let the light inside, tears rolled down my face in the dark. I was thinking of my heart, and thinking of my friends.

When I tell people my sixteen-year marriage just ended, some react with skepticism, condescension, or admiration. The skeptic wonders if I’m having them on; “When did you get married, junior high?” I must spend a lot of time in low light; I look young for some thirty-seven-year olds, but not that young. We met at nineteen, okay? Yes, the relationship lasted sixteen years.

Condescension usually comes from acquaintances ten and fifteen years older, folks jaded by the many crumbled marriages they’ve seen (on the plus side, these people also have the best advice). Some in Camp Condescension think the break-up won’t take. Others dismiss it with, “You’re young; you’ll bounce back.”

One, I loved without doubt. Maybe it’s cold the way that turned, but I broke without doubt as well. Not that it wasn’t – and doesn’t continue to be – the most difficult decision I’ve ever made, but I know myself. The wrong would creep back in, of course, but that’s secondary. Beneath the cosmetic fix of getting back together, my hurt and anger would erode our souls. Second, well . . . maybe I am young enough to bounce back. But the bounce is more a measure of personality than age. Some people just adapt better than others.

Folks my age and younger react with admiration. These people loved us together. We were the couple to emulate. Sixteen years is unfathomable to them as a span of time with one person, let alone for all we’d been through.

Today I realized sixteen years is nothing when you expected a lifetime.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Flirty Boy

There are more beautiful women in Miami than anywhere else in the world. Women in LA are taller, which makes visiting there like a Disney World of dating (women below 5’8” tend to drop off my radar). Trouble is, they’re hopelessly, relentlessly blonde. Miami is a sea of dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes, like the women in my family, my first examples of beauty. Most Miami women aren’t exactly statuesque, but they make up for it by enthusiastically donning outfits better left in music videos with heavy drum beats. Not my type, but bless them for going eye-candy full throttle.

I’m finding it easier to flirt with these women. Because who cares, really? I’m just trying on my single shoes. To make someone blush, lighten their mood, make them smile, it’s a powerful ego boost. That’s good enough for me, but my friends want me to take it further. You know that scene in Little Miss Sunshine, when Alan Arkin tells his grandson, “Fuck a lot of women. Not just one. A loooooooot of women.” This is the advice my friends give me.

Trouble is, I’m not built for Miami sport-fucking. I’ve been with the same woman for sixteen years (and if you need to ask if I’ve ever cheated, stop reading this blog now; you don’t know me and never will) and the number of people I’ve slept with is correspondingly low.

“What about men?” a friend of mine asked when our sex numbers came up.

Oh, yeah. College. So I added one, but I’m still counting with a single hand.

Do I listen to my friends (some in long relationships who I suspect are trying to live vicariously) and fuck a loooooot of women to fluff my numbers? Or do I wait for someone special?

My character may not give me a choice. I don’t think of myself as charming, but I’ve been known to be charming when the need arises. Why oh why, with someone to whom I’m actually attracted, does my flirt go on the fritz? When faced with Anastasia, for instance, I have all the suave of a teenage virgin trying to get laid. Anastasia is ice cream, catnip, and bedroom eyes, and my charm flees before her. I get it, God. I’m doomed to compel affection from people I find only marginally attractive. Very funny.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m shallow. I flirt with good-looking people. But good-looking is such a tiny part of attraction. Twinkies might be delicious, but why waste calories on them when there’s Chocolate Mousse afoot?

Friends have advice for this, too. Be yourself, they say. Which I have been, unfortunately. You know how horses look when they’re born, stumbling around, shivering, knees knocking together? That’s me. It’s hard forcing myself to imitate a normal human being when I want to grab Anastasia like that sailor coming back from World War II.

“What you need to do,” my helpful friends say, “is pretend she’s someone you’re not attracted to.” Oh, it’s just that easy? I failed my Core acting class at Syracuse University, not to mention getting kicked out of their musical theater program. My performance skills are suspect.

Two of my closest friends have different, very specific advice. These are two of the three women I invited to Cheesecake Factory to help me forget the milestone of my ex’s birthday (or at least pretend to forget it for a while), the Aaron equivalent of telling my bros to take me to a strip club. Not fuck a looot of women; just one. “Put a dick between you and your ex,” is how they put it with each-other. To protect you from women’s filthy minds, I won’t tell you what they told me. But it was filthy.

Basically, I need to stop looking at everyone as a potential relationship and think of them as potential fun. I might be able to do that. But part of me is only happy loving someone from my hair to my toes, and that part of me isn’t cool with this plan. At all. That’s the part of me wishing I’d met Anastasia two years from now, when I have a little more distance from my marriage and might actually pull off pretending to be datable.

Oh, well. God likes seeing me tremble.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Bottega Challege 2: The Biltmore Hotel

In nightmares, I’m back in the kitchen. Five cooks on the line. Twenty five thousand dollars worth of twenty-dollar entrees on an average weekend night, at least forty thousand on game nights and holidays. Tickets filling the window, printer endlessly spitting more, ribbons of orders pooled on the floor. Pouring sweat instead of taking bathroom breaks. No drinks unless the servers think of it, which they don’t until we curse ourselves hoarse. No end except the three a.m. close, the hour or two of clean up, the gathering at an all-night diner or bar because caffeine (and other substances, depending on the chef) make sleep impossible. Four jobs and more than twelve years ago, but I can be right back there when I close my eyes. If hell is waiting for me when I die, it’s the broiler station in the busiest Bennigan’s in the country.

Part of me misses it.

I work at a desk know. If you have a similar job, you know the work never really ends. In the kitchen, every night we survived a battle. We kept the food coming without losing our minds. With the kitchen restocked and spotless, we left everything we had on the line and went to after-hours, watching the sunrise with the satisfaction of a job well done.

I learned the most important thing about cooking: fearlessness.

Cooking for a crowd from Frank Stitt's Bottega Favoritta is a reminder that cooking for a crowd offers gratification that cooking for an intimate dinner party doesn’t.

Books & Books has some clout in the community. More specifically, our amazing Marketing and Events Coordinator Cristina Nosti has vital connections. I approached her with Algonquin’s Bottega Challenge just after she’d met with the Biltmore Hotel about their newly built Culinary Academy. Cristina marks it up to timing; I credit her ability to look beyond what most of us see and into the possibilities. Either way, I’m back in a professional kitchen.

Besides me, the cooks are Jeffrey Slone, Becky Quiroga, Cristina Nosti, and Andi Rome. Linda Carver is making drinks and taking pictures. The Biltmore Hotel’s Chef Rolando “Roly” Cruz-Taura supervises the action. Mostly, he answers a lot of “where’s the large mixing bowl” questions and makes sure we don’t burn ourselves on the ovens.

We welcome our friends, family, and fellow Books & Books employees with the bitters and Campari of a Dry Vodka Negroni (pg 13), a lusty kick right to the back of the tongue.

The food comes in waves. The hearty, yet light simmer of the Spring Minestrone (pg 55), a perfect blend of new potato, button mushroom, zucchini, peas, asparagus, and fava beans, flavored with onion, leek, garlic, parsley, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The creamy tang of crumbled feta melted into fresh marinara, served with oven-fresh focaccia (Baked Feta with Focaccia, pg 37). Roasted Peppers Stuffed with Goat Cheese (pg 32), the combination of goat cheese, basil, pine nuts, and golden raisins wrapped in roasted bell peppers and dusted with cayenne pepper might sound odd, but they’re nothing short of a revelatory taste explosion.

We’ve overwhelmed our guests’ senses with three powerful appetizers, any one of which would be hard to forget. Taken together, our guests are reeling, smiling, happy. It’s time for the main courses, Puttanesca with Shrimp and Linguine (pg 102) and Chicken Saltimbocca (pg 155) with mashed potatoes. The pescetarians in the crowd dive into the pasta, the racy anchovy, garlic, red chile, olives, and capers cooled by white wine. The savory Saltimbocca – bone-in chicken layered with sage, mozzarella, and prosciutto di Parma, flavored with shallots, lemon, and vermouth – is as lovely to look at as it is to eat.

There’s no real end to a meal so grand. It lives on in eyes rolled upward, lips pressed into a murmur of pleasure, lids closed to better remember every scent and flavor. But there was a literal end, Starbucks Italian Roast coffee, Biscotti (pg 233) with Panna Cotta (pg 215) in champagne glasses, and the Aurora Tart (pg 223). Caramel, bittersweet chocolate, and pecan, the Aurora Tart is life-altering, proof there is a God and she loves anyone with taste buds and a spring-form pan.

I can’t recommend the recipes in Frank Stitt’s Bottega Favorita highly enough. I can’t praise the staff of the Biltmore Hotel or the facilities of their Culinary Academy more than they deserve. I have to thank Craig Poplears and the good folks at Algonquin for the excuse to gather folks to the table. Thanks to all our guests for bringing your appetites. And to my fellow chefs, what can I say? Sharing the kitchens at the Biltmore might not have been Heaven, but it was right around the corner.

Rumor has it we’re going back to cook recipes from Thomas Keller's upcoming Ad Hoc At Home.

It’s an exclusive guest list, but bribes are welcome.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Best Concert I've Ever Seen

Leonard Cohen was amazing Saturday night.

“I don’t know when we’ll be back through this way, so we’re going to give you everything we’ve got tonight.”

And they did, from 8:10 to 11:30, with one 10 or 15-minute break. Moody, atmospheric, sexy, sprightly, and 75 years old. He performed "If It Be Your Will" as a poem, before Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters took over and gave us some gorgeous harmonies. It was his third encore. The extremely moving movement was marred by a group of women at the top of the seating area who were used to the hockey games at Bank Atlantic Center. They were shushed, hushed, screamed at, and heckled on numerous occasions, but they could not stop blathering drunkenly on about nothing. They could not shut up long enough to allow beauty in. They will miss all the lovely things life has to offer and die confused, fearful, and angry.

Leonard Cohen did another poem, A Thousand Kisses Deep. He is a world-class writer. I have a blog. Still, the stab of jealously over that refrain, repeated in his trademark rumble, a thousand kisses deep… I want to have written that line. It perfectly describes being consumed by love, and in only three words.

His music is so complete, so fully-formed, it’s like it’s being drawn from the air. It was odd seeing a man on stage. I was glad for the distance, so he could still remain more force than person. He is also undeniably a man. “You handled me like meat,” he said, “you’d have to be a man to know how good that feels, how sweet.” He is vulnerable and sensitive without being weak, he is weak without being cowed, he is lustful without being vulgar, he is funny without being glib. Seeing him live has long been a dream. That concert fed my soul. I wanted to waltz into the night.

I would be remiss if I didn’t thank JC and Laura Moya for bringing me with them. Laura’s brother-in-law gave them seven passes to the ADT VIP lounge. Rather than inviting me and three other friends, the Moyas gave me four tickets to invite whoever I wanted for my birthday. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve friends like them, but I’m grateful. The Moyas have been supportive and loving, as everyone has been during this difficult time in my life.

I survive, and thrive, by the grace of those close to me. Daily, their generosity of time, spirit, and warmth humbles me.

It’s the cracks which let the light inside.

Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm a Terrible Christian

I went to see Lumo at the Riveria theater on Thursday. It’s a documentary film about rape as a weapon of terrorism in the Congo, focused mostly on a single girl who needs several operations to repair the damage to her vagina. All proceeds went to HEAL Africa. The founders of HEAL Africa, Dr. Kasereka (“Jo”) Lusi, MD, and Lyn Lusi, sat for a Q & A afterwards.

My friend Steve Sorkin invited me. His daughter Naomi had some peripheral involvement with the filming, or maybe she’d just invited him to a screening, I’m fuzzy on the specifics. But Steve saw the film and the turnout and decided he could do better in Miami. According to Dr. Lusi, Steve did. We were the largest turnout they’d had in America.

What these women go through is sadistic and torturous. The Congolese government’s complicity is criminal. People’s lack of awareness of how our buying habits directly contribute to chaos in the region (they are rich with two minerals vital to cell phone production) is tragic.

But let’s talk about me.

I was worried when I finished moving, I'd fall back a few steps in my emotional recovery. When the Treehouse was no longer a project, that just left me in my new home. I expected a difficult emotional period, but I hoped it wouldn’t happen. My hope was not met. It’s been days of miserable loneliness, not productive solitude. The harrowing documentary took me outside myself long enough for me to remember there’s a larger world outside my misery.

I am selfish. Solipsistic. Using Lumo to cheer myself up.

In my defense, it’s not like I left with a bounce in my step and a song in my heart, just without self-pity. For the first time in days, I slipped off to sleep the second my head hit the pillow.

My ten dollar donation buys a mosquito net. I hope there were other folks there with deeper pockets.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reality Bites

A few days back, I decried being mired in non-fiction. Well, guess what? It continues. As I promised myself I’d do when I finally finished moving in, I sat down with Stephen King's Under the Dome and a cup of strong, black coffee. I’d pictured a weekend day, easing into this five pound chunk of fiction with a nice, post-breakfast caffeine buzz. Because it was Tuesday after work, I brewed Starbucks Decaf House Blend (I’ve secretly been craving the light body and clean, acidic finish of the South American coffees lately; don’t tell nobody). I lounged in the window as the sun went down.

The first few chapters were everything I’d hoped. Mysterious, tantalizing, violent, and ominous, filled with the archetypal and offbeat characters we’ve come to love. When I got in bed to read before dropping off, I switched to Rhoda Janzen’s Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. Memoir is speaking to me the way fiction once did. For now, I’ll accept that. Mostly because it can’t be helped.

Continuing the theme of garnering attention for my non-fiction over my fiction, I received an email from Harper Collins’ mighty Carl Lennertz. He loved the Florida essay I wrote for the bookseller’s version of State by State. A couple days later, I received a package in the mail with a finished copy of The Great Lakes Reader and my five-pages covered with Carl’s chicken scratches. It’s the first time someone like Lennertz has taken that much time with my words. It’s flattering, to say the least.

All profits from the books’ sales will benefit the ABFFE.

The video of my Lip Service performance is up on their website. I was able to watch the entire thing, which tells me I’m more comfortable with myself. It’s better than I thought it would be.

My non-fiction efforts have given me enough attention to know I haven’t been wasting time at my laptop. But I have stories to tell unlimited by anything as dull as What Actually Happenened (or even, This Could Actually Happen).

So today’s question is whether I’d rather write a hit song I secretly hate, or a beautiful song no one ever hears?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Week in Review

The job has been terrible. Mitchell dumped a large project on top of my already large workload and every day has been a struggle not to drown. That it was nothing either of us had planned doesn’t give me more hours in my day. Fortunately, I’ve been adhering to a strict regimen of Warsteiner Dunkel at Fritz & Franz’s Oktoberfest to keep me sane. Infant cow rendered into bratwurst, sauerkraut, beer pretzels, blondes in short skirts and low-cut shirts with puffy sleeves, bearing the gifts of cleavage and refills – what’s not to love?

Before I started drinking five years ago, I didn’t realize different alcohol could have different effects. Red wine hits me like a mild ecstasy pill (warning and advice, ladies). Martinis go right to my head, without affecting my speech or coordination. I’m buzzing but still able to make pithy, witty, Oscar Wilde-type observations. Beer is all aboard the drunk train. “Boisterous” is the term we’ve come to use for my loud, childish behavior under the influence of beer.

I took Hilldawg out on Tuesday to get her beered up, help her forget she just got laid off. A few more friends showed up and we left feeling good. Then I biked home and cried hysterically for no discernable reason. The separation really is like a death, hitting me at the oddest moments, when I’m so sure I’m done mourning.

Wednesday, same deal at Fritz & Franz, only more so. It took a few hours of farting around online before I was sober enough to bike home and watch Superbad.

Nights like those are bittersweet. Within all the fun, I know there’s no way I’ll be writing in the morning. After drinking, a five a.m. alarm is a joke. My whole day will feel off because I didn’t work for myself in the morning before the job, and the job will be awful because I slept in and the work didn’t do itself while I was slacking off.

Thursday night, some friends and I attended a fundraiser for Lauren’s Light at the Miami Improv called Lighten Up. I paid $20 for raffle tickets and won a $25 gift certificate for Guadalajara. We ate, drank, and watched some very funny stand-up comics. They kept thanking us for our contributions, but it didn’t feel like charity at all. There were beautiful women there and I flirted copiously, but I only had eyes for Anastasia (not her real name). Unfortunately, I had no flirts for her. Letting this whole man-woman square dance happen naturally can be poetic, but I get around her and become a mannequin.

Friday was a dark day. Work was terrible for everyone. None of us felt like a third day of Oktoberfest, knowing it would be more crowded. I forced myself to go, and forced myself to force others to follow. The crowd was thick and loud. Two friends left after one beer. I wasn’t supposed to drink with the friend who remained. Keeping pace with a problem drinker is no way to start a weekend, but I did it. The horror, the horror.

It’s exciting, not knowing where my day will end, agreeing to whatever anyone wants to do. Now I wonder about my motivations. I tell myself I’m taking the move slowly, but come on. Getting drunk or staying out late, ensuring I’ll do nothing responsible when I get home - have I been delaying and denying my new life?

Friday night, I had a dream. The Treehouse was finished. Everything stored, hung, cleaned, etc. etc. I woke enflamed to activity.

Hanging picture rails, drilling holes, assembling lamps, these things take more time than I thought. Also, I went out to a movie and drinks with Hilldawg on Saturday night. Then Sunday, I rescued my artwork from going into storage by giving it to friends. They used the word honored, as in, “I’d be honored to display your artwork in my home.” The honor is mine. That someone would like my paintings enough to want to look at them all day, in their homes? Wow.

Sunday night, Hillary had a barbeque. I got to grill, drink, and talk shit with friends until the wee hours. When I got home at four a.m., my column lamp was still only one third assembled. I finished putting it together and drifted off around five. After work Monday, I finished the rest, sometime after midnight. There are still purchases to be made and projects to be done, but I am home at last.

I’m still discovering how that feels.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Calling from the Diner

I love diners for a lot of reasons, coffee being one of them. It’s cheap, generally a buck at your classic dives, in the $1.25 to $1.65 range at breakfast chains or what have you. It’s hot, and at the right time of day (or with the right waitress) it’s fresh. Best of all, it’s bottomless. You can drink as much as you like and the cup will always be forthcoming, as the waitress comes forth and offers more. You might limit yourself to a single cup at home, concerned about blood pressure and jitters and everything in between. At a diner you keep refilling the cup until it’s time to leave.

Occasions bring you to diners. Whether you’re on the road, on vacation, or your cupboards are bare and making breakfast is just too much responsibility to bear, diners are a great way to kill some time.

Diners make for great company. Interpersonal dynamics are tricky, chemical, ethereal. The boisterous drunk at a crowded party may be the perfect person for that time and place, but at an intimate dinner, the same person may be simply obnoxious. You probably have preferences on who you invite to a dinner party in your home vs. who you take out to dinner. You have movie friends (both rental and cinematic), SNL groupies, bowling buddies, reading groups, etc. - any number of social circles that are delicately balanced and carefully segregated.

At a diner, these circles can mix. A quick breakfast, lunch, or coffee and pie & coffee with someone you wouldn’t invite shopping or to dinner or a movie (well, maybe going out to a movie; you don’t need to talk, you just need to sit there) can offer unique bonding experiences. Almost everyone is interesting over pigs-in-a-blanket. The conversations can be business, philosophy, politics, TV, mindless blather, neurotic attention paid to minute detail, obsessive discourse on shared pop culture enjoyments, sex, love, the future, the past, the present. The picnic-style wood table, the white surface of indeterminate origin flecked with patterns of gold and silver, the wood veneer, the checkered tablecloth, the plastic gingham - all become blank canvases on which we paint any number of social interactions.

I like diners for the same reason I like breakfast: potential. Your day has just begun, and any number of wonderful things might happen because you haven’t had a chance to fuck it up. When you pull out a chair or slide onto a bench, the same potential is there. Jokes and odd phrases become shorthand and running commentary long after the last person leaves the table. Shared grief can open new friendships, whether it’s something as profound as a death or panic-inducing as losing a job or the realization that you’ll never read a new Harry Potter. The life stories that tend to come up in the dead period between ordering and eating. It’s all on the table before you even sit down.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Proof I Need to Read More Dickens

I didn't enjoy many classics I was assigned in school, but I did enjoy A Christmas Carol. I've been meaning to read Charles Dickens for a time, but this quote from the Pickwick Papers pushed him closer to the front:
"The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists, as the mother can love the unborn child. In creative art the essence of a book exists before the book or before even the details or main features of the book; the author enjoys it and lives in it with a kind of prophetic rapture."

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Silver Lining. Right.

My mother started going grey in junior high, was salt and pepper by thirty, and completely silver by forty. This is mitigated by the fact that time hasn’t touched her face in forty years, except for a few wrinkles just beginning to show around her eyes. My father’s genes have watered down this process in me, but I still found my first solo greys around the same age my mother did.

When you start finding grey hair shortly after puberty, it takes something special to shock you. Finding my first grey pubic hair at twenty-three was a shock. I couldn’t pluck that damn thing fast enough; ditto the two which popped up after. Every five years, my body marking off the passage of time like an odd flower that only blooms when the planets are aligned exactly right.

The last two years, it’s been nose hair. What fun that is. At six foot three, I need to trim vigilantly to ensure people aren’t looking up my nostrils and wondering what that white thing is hanging there.

The sides of my head are salt-and-pepper. Not Clooney salt-and-pepper, but give it time. If my brother is any indication, I’ll have a set of Reed Richards' wings in about five years. It’s never bothered me. It didn’t bother my mother until she found her first grey eyebrow hair. The last streaks of black clung to a silver mane on her head, but a single hair in her brow made her panic about getting old. She ran out of the bathroom screaming, “My hair is grey!” Well, duh.

This week, I found the first grey hair growing right out of my fucking hairline. Not away from my face, looking distinguished or manly or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be, but right from the top of my forehead. Old man hair, no way around it. The urge to pluck it is surpassed only by the urge to run screaming through the streets that God is not making an exception in my case.

I will not pluck; I will not dye.

It’s not the physical signs of aging which worry me. The admonition to be careful with your thoughts, for they become your words, be careful with your words, etc. etc; that worries me. In my short story, “A Beautiful Son,” I compare the young mind to fresh clay. As you age, the mind hardens, and eventually becomes set. Mindset, get it? Gosh, I’m clever. It worked in the story, I swear!

I want to be open, evolving, and learning as long as I’m wandering the earth. I’m amazed at how annoying I find children, when with each breath they personify that perfect, in-the-moment wonderment I break my brains trying to achieve. Probably I’m just jealous. You can only read your favorite book for the first time once, and children are going through everything in their lives anew.

Off the rails a bit there, but let’s get back to aging as personified by my first grey scalp-line strand. I hate it. I wish it ill. But it’s here to teach me something.

Looking from my eyes, I still feel like me. Every day, I discover new things to humble myself before, facts I had no idea about, and people I didn’t know existed. Life was that way pre-hair, and it’s like that post-hair as well. Maybe it’s telling me aging won’t dull my zest for life.

Or maybe it’s reminding me of my mortality, that I have limited time to make an impact with my life. Thanks, hair. Like the arthritis in my broken bones weren’t doing that daily. If that’s the case, you’re redundant, hair. Redundant, and years late to the party.

Maybe it’s asking one of those how many angels can dance on the head of pin questions, like how many greys before I’m old? More than one, anyway.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reality Ain't Always the Truth

If you don’t count photography and cookbooks, the ratio of fiction to nonfiction on my shelves is about 3.5:1. My fiction stories outnumber my essays, the two books I’ve written (and all the ideas backed up behind them) are fiction, and I’ve only started writing a biography because one of my best friends likes to read them (working title? For Kim).

Something shifted as my marriage ended. I began devouring memoirs. I started writing non-fiction pieces. I’ve poured my misery and triumphs and self-loathing and anger and hurt and desires into long entries in my . . .what do you call an MS Word document that’s your journal? Not a journal. Not a diary. An E-journal? Ew. It’s a file called Mind Pissings, so let’s go with that.

My self-esteem is low. I need outside validation to pump myself up, so I’ve put my efforts into things which have gotten me attention. Sweet with Fall and Fish, for one. It’s great when friends tell me they’ve read and enjoyed my blog. It’s also amazing when complete strangers (two, now!) visit and find something worthwhile for themselves. The third pass at my first book, Scratch the Dead Places, has stalled at 319KB while I whine about my life in Mind Pissings, or gussy those whinings up and put them on my blog.

To put that in perspective, the second draft of Scratch was 1,000KB, 210 single-spaced pages with no chapter breaks. If I want to get back to what I’ve always considered my real work, I need to ease up on the nonfiction.

Before Sweet with Fall and Fish, there was Lip Service. I decided to pony up after their last showing at Books & Books some months back. Of the ten shorts I wrote, some were new, but most were edits of older pieces I’d written as palate cleansers between fiction. I submitted four, and Andrea Askowitz and Esther Martinez picked “Kelly Cook” (what I called “We Are More Than These Pale Shells” on the night of the reading). To get four good pages, you start with ten to twenty. You pare the excess and leave the image. You pass those four pages so often you have them near to memorized. A lot of effort went into sixteen pages, four stories I felt were worth sharing, effort that part of me wishes I’d spent on Scratch.

But the result! Reducing total strangers to tears! Total strangers touching my arm as I walked by, wanting to speak with me! Oh, sweet, anonymous admiration, filling the void leftover from childhood. Full disclosure, I had the benefit of two humorous performers before me, a laughing audience vulnerable for my poignant piece. I doubt my reading will hold up to the scrutiny of being on Andrea’s website. That’s part of what makes a live performance special: the magic is on the night. But I’m glad I worked toward it, I’m glad I was chosen, I’m glad it was successful, and I’m especially glad to have been given the opportunity to workshop with people who respect the craft.

Before Lip Service, there was Book Junky, my column in Moxxi Magazine. Another nonfiction avenue which garnered more attention, even on the scale limited by its short run, than all of my fiction combined.

I guess if I really wanted attention, I’d submit a story for publication. But that’s a topic for a different day.

I’ve retreated into fantasy my whole life. Books, art, and stories are much better than a family dynamic built on abuse and alcoholism, or being ostracized by my peers, or working ten hours in the steam of a dishwasher, elbows deep in people’s leftovers. Marriage done, living alone for the first time in my life, what better time to escape into the odd corners of my head, where people I’ve never met lurk and ask me to talk about them?

It hasn’t happened. Instead of losing myself in stories, I’ve held the mirror to myself and my life. I’ve found it embarrassingly self-centered and unbelievably helpful. But I am honestly afraid. I’m afraid my imagination has gone on permanent vacation.

Reality can be beautiful, but it’s a lot more fun when rules don’t apply.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Poem by Marge Piercy

For the Young Who Want To

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Genius is what they know you
had after the third volume
of remarkable poems. Earlier
they accuse you of withdrawing,
ask why you don’t have a baby,
call you a bum.

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,
take workshops with fancy names
when all you can really
learn is a few techniques,
typing instructions and some-
body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks
a license to hang on the wall
like your optician, your vet
proving you may be a clumsy sadist
whose fillings fall into the stew
but you’re certified a dentist.

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

Marge Piercy, a poet, novelist, and social activist, lives on Cape Cod. This poem is from her collection The Moon is Always Female (1980).

Friday, October 2, 2009

Why We Can't Be Friends

The question I get most is what it feels like to break with someone after so many years. Some people flat-out ask. Others say, “I can’t imagine what it must feel like…” with arched brows and a sideways glance, leaving me to fill the ellipsis. If there’s a perfect answer I haven’t found it yet, but this metaphor is close enough for government work.

It’s like I used to be a world-class athlete, but now I’m paralyzed. Looking at Andi is like looking at all of those amazing things I used to be able to do.

Oddly enough, I’ve barely seen her in months. Now that I’ve finally moved out, she’s calling and texting every day. If there’s a path to ensuring we’ll never be friends again, asking for a lunch date every week is a good way to begin. I’d rather hear from a bill collector. Not because I hate her, as she seems to think, but because it’s just too painful.

Adaptability is one of my strengths. I’m enjoying my new life, but I don’t want my face rubbed in the old.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Series of Firsts

The first meal was takeout some weeks ago, sitting on the Ikea shelving unit / bench in the window, looking at the trees and the kittens frolicking in the yard, eating Asian chicken salad from Salad Creations with plasticware.

The first brewed coffee was Starbucks’ Anniversary Blend in a French press, nothing less than the finest bean on the planet brewed with the best method. I drank it black, in a mug from Starbucks Mexico City, a gift from some friends.

The first dump was over an issue of PEN America. You might not think a bowel movement is significant in a lifetime of bowel movements, but it is when it’s a step toward making your new apartment feel familiar.

This move has been a series of firsts. First items in the fridge, first nap, first guest (when a visit stops being “help me get this place clean” or “help me move some stuff” and becomes “take a load off, use my wireless, and keep me company while I get this place clean,” that’s a guest), the first tooth-brushing, first time naked, the first shower. More firsts will follow. House Warming? First party! All the boxes gone, all the pictures hung, everything clean and organized? First time I can relax! First date? I finally get to use the line, “Hey, wanna come up and watch some TV?” Then once we’re upstairs, “Oh, I forgot. I don’t have a TV.” Dim the lights, cue the funky-cheese bass guitar riff and the smoke machine and the disco ball.

When I made up the day bed (for the first time!), turned off the ceiling fan lights (the first time I did that and stayed!), and got under the covers, I realized I have never lived alone. I grew up with my parents and an older brother and sister. I even shared a room with my brother until Junior High. When I left my childhood home, it was to live off-campus with my girlfriend. Then back home for several weeks which felt like a few years, then off-campus with Andi.

Sometimes we had roommates – Marcus in Syracuse, Thor in Virginia, Kim in Miami – but mostly it was the two of us. I have never lived under a roof I haven’t shared with someone. I guess I share this one, too, if you count the dude renting the converted garage beneath me and the couple renting the main house, but behind the door carved with flowers and free-form designs, I am alone for the first time in my life.

I used a blanket I didn’t need for the comforting weight. I sent a few no-need-to-answer-text messages which were really disguised pleas for companionship, messages in a bottle. I watched Seinfeld on my portable DVD player. Exhaustion made slipping off easy.

Once I have the place just so, I’ll aslo have a dilemma. I will reward myself with Stephen King's Under the Dome over strong, black coffee. Few things are better in life than taking time to enjoy a good book, and my co-workers assure me it’s a beaut, so this is the fun part. But the work of moving will be done, a routine will be established, and it will just be me and my thoughts. I hope my work ethic will kick into high gear, and that my friends will keep me from becoming a hermit. I fear that I’ll sink back into depression. The virtue of solitude vs. the despair of loneliness.

Of course, the only way to find out is to keep moving forward.

I had another first this morning. For the first time, I thought of the Treehouse as home.