Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2.23.2010 - The Three Year Anniversary

A friend of mine was mildly disfigured about the face in a car accident some years back. I say “mildly” because I think the scar is sexy, but I’m not a young, gorgeous woman, so what could I know about wearing it? And missing teeth are never sexy, except on hockey players. Anyway, she wrote her obituary afterwards as a cathartic exercise. After my own accident, she suggested I do the same.

Resisting the powerful urge to edit, I present the obituary as I wrote it forty-eight days after the fact:

On February 23rd, 2007, Aaron John Curtis of Miami, Florida lost his life in a traffic accident at the age of 34. Paramedics airlifted him to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s famed Ryder Trauma Center, but he died on route due to injuries sustained at the scene. While Aaron eventually settled in Miami, he also lived in Richmond, Virginia, Syracuse, New York, and Akwesasne (the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation). Had Harper Collins published the book he finished but never quite liked, or had he finished the two books he liked very much and published them, or had he started the two potential Fantasy and Mystery series and had them published, any one of these places may have fought for the right to bury him rather than forgetting he had been there at all. In addition to these unseen works, he also never produced four scripts and never published 29 essays and 30 short stories of varying quality. Aaron is survived by everyone in his family he had known since he was born (except Uncle Fran and Grandma and Grandpa on his father’s side - and what a crazy fucking thought that is, considering all the white trash and filthy Injuns out there who are related to him), each relationship also of varying quality. He met his wife of eight years in 1992 and they never stopped loving each-other, so at least he did something right. Maybe the important thing.

Three years ago today, I knew I was going to die. The car came at me and color bled from the day as God took me out of the equation for a few moments. I didn’t know I’d be back. I didn’t see my life pass before my eyes, I felt my entire emotional life happening all at once, every friend and family member I’ve ever loved and who ever loved me. It was a moment that seemed to last forever, but I didn’t even have time to finish a single thought before the world went white.

If only- I thought, then nothing but white.

Given decades instead of milliseconds, I don’t know how I would have ended that sentence. Maybe the rest of my life is the end of that sentence.

I’ve rewritten my obituary a few times. Once, when I lost some time around an MTBI while biking (that’s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury, which is what they’re calling a mild concussion nowadays), I made that the inciting accident, but usually I just edit the emotional truth.

Let me make clear, I’ve never lived on Akwesasne. I’m a halfbreed, and we often have chips on our shoulders about not being Indian enough. I was up there a lot as a child and I’m closer with my mother’s side of the family, but I never lived there. I find it odd I’d want to die on a lie. Let’s call it dying on a wish.

I mentioned Harper Collins because they were looking at Scratch the Dead Places. At the time, it was still called Skritch Skratch Man. My cover letter was a chatty invitation for coffee with every cover letter cliché and mistake an aspiring writer is supposed to avoid. I even asked Stacy for some craptastic cover art. Of course they didn’t publish this unpalatable, unpublishable mess. Brimming with excitement at meeting my personal goal of writing a book, wildly optimistic when our Harper Collins sales rep offered to bring it back to the New York offices with him, I subjected an industry shaker with the insult of a first draft.

It was a difficult time for friends and family. To know me was to be subjected to three hundred pages of what amounted to a writing exercise.

“All the white trash and filthy Injuns.” From the litany of unpublished works listed in the obit, it’s clear I was worried no one would see and appreciate my work. My resentment at not having the right publishing pedigree manifested itself in this lame attempt at self-deprecating humor.

There was a question written on the back wall of my seventh grade English teacher’s classroom; “Will it matter that I was?” I think Mr. Genarro wanted to inspire us to greatness, not haunt us for life, but what are you gonna do? Since I almost ended, I was worried about my legacy.

Yes, getting outside notice feels good. Yes, I could use the validation and the money. Yes, it’s largely luck and who you know. But opportunity is luck plus preparation. I’m fortunate enough to love a profession which, all trumpeting over wunderkinds like Zadie Smith or Dave Eggers aside, embraces late-bloomers. Right now, I’m happy enough preparing.

The obit ends with the one thing which made me know I’d lived my life right; my marriage. Well, I still think I did the important thing right, warts and all. Love with your whole heart in this life, or get busy dying by slow degrees.

I suppose the only satisfying ending, the only fitting ending, is a three-year anniversary obituary.

Maybe later. Sorry to be a blog tease, but that sounds pretty fucking morbid.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Buy Our Books

A few weeks back at Books & Books, we hosted Ann Louise Bardach for her most recent book, Without Fidel. Nearly eighty people showed up to hear this expert on Cuba speak. The Q&A session lasted two hours.

We sold four copies of the book.

Before I get into the reasons why this frustrates me to the growling point, let me explain that what I’ve just done is a no-no. I’m sure we reported a crowd of one hundred plus and dozens of sales to the publisher; telling an author, publisher, or publicist the truth is a no-no.

On one level, we want everyone to be happy.  It’s disappointing for everyone – the buyers, the events and marketing folks, the booksellers, the author, the publisher – when only a handful of people show up. Padding the numbers is sometimes a way of spreading cheer.

On another level, events keep Books & Books in business. We need these events to be successful.

I remember reporting sales to our Penguin rep a few weeks back. He’d sent a list of several key titles in their winter catalog to see how they’re doing.  Right down the line, it was one to three copies sold on titles we’d ordered for the shelf and dozens of sales (or hundreds, in the cases of some more well-known authors) on titles associated with a signing.

“Hmmm,” the rep dead-panned. “I think having author appearances positively impacts sales.”

Publishers know not every event can be a home run, so I don’t understand this need to be so secretive about the numbers.  And if you’re going to inflate, why not be consistent?  If Elizabeth Gilbert sells eight hundred copies of Committed when she comes to the store, why not say she sold two thousand?

We need these events to be successful.  If they’re not, publishers will stop sending authors our way.  Miami is gorgeous, but the authors are here to push copies, not get a tan.

Let me also say, Ann Louise Bardach is one of our bestselling authors, and has been for years.  Her consistent sales performance is strong enough to be immune to lackluster sales at one event.

When it comes to packing a house and loving an event but keeping your wallet closed, I know times are tight, but think of the consequences. How long do you think you’ll be able to treat Books & Books as your free meeting place to get together and discuss hot topics of the day, then move on without buying anything, often taking a parking stamp on your way out?

Side Note to Books & Books customers: WE PAY FOR THOSE PARKING STAMPS.  The City of Coral Gables doesn’t give them to us out of the kindness of their hearts.  We buy them.  We’re paying for your parking.  Show some appreciation.

Side Note on “Appreciation”: I mean money.

If the doors close people will say, “Wow, I supported them for so many years.”

Did you?  Really?  Or did you come in, sit down, watch an event, walk out with a smile, and leave us holding unsold copies of the book?  No one’s asking you to buy a book for each of our seventy events a month, but how about half of the events you come to?   How about buying a latte or a glass of wine? How about not showing up at our store with fucking Barnes & Nobles bags and Starbucks cups?

When one of our booksellers spends her time with you, making recommendations, walking you through the sections, then you smile and say you’ll probably pick it up on Amazon because it’s cheaper, how do expect not to get slapped?

Does Amazon employ native Miamians?  Does Amazon do anything at all for this community?  Do you want to shit on your neighbors in the long run to save some pennies in the short term?

Deep breath.

Our reliance on events also bothers me because of our booksellers.  There are far fewer booksellers working at Books & Books now than when I started five years ago, and I don’t just mean fewer employees.  With all the events going on, and the pressure for them to be successful, who has time to talk books anymore?  Who remembers folks by name and says, “Hey, Mr. Valdez, Out of Sheer Rage just came back in print.  I set a copy aside when it came in, because I thought of you.”

I’m a firm believer that it takes a penny to make a dollar. I think the nuts and bolts of bookselling – organization, displays, and matching book to reader – are more important than what best-selling author is on the bill that night.  Of course, I haven’t been in the game for twenty-seven years.

I just think there can be a middle ground between hardcore bookselling and being clowns in a three-ring circus.

Especially when no one’s buying a ticket.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My First Edit

My seventh grade advanced English class studied the descriptive paragraph. We read one aloud, then picked one to memorize and perform in front of the class, and finally we had to write one of our own.

The example we read aloud was of a t-rex coming through the trees in the most re-published short story of all time, Ray Bradbury's A Sound of Thunder. We underlined adverbs and circled adjectives, then looked up definitions and synonyms. We learned about the Butterfly Effect.

I was reading Frank Herbert's Dune, so I pulled a paragraph from there which starts, “A pre-dawn hush had fallen over the desert basin.” I don’t remember the rest.

The last part of the assignment is trickier to recall. I wrote a paragraph about a guy who visits his dead wife’s grave. Our teacher, Mrs. Temple, ripped it to pieces. When I applied her notes, the man became much older. He needed help getting out of his car. Before placing flowers on his dead wife’s grave, he he’d wrapped them in a wedding vale that had yellowed with age (“swathed in a yellowing wedding vale” was the line, God help us; what do you want, I was thirteen), and he leaned heavily on a cane for support.

Mrs. Temple read both drafts in front of the class, one after the other, and critiqued both. I remember getting odds looks from people after she read the second draft. They weighed me with their eyes, discovering me for the first time.

I think there was a paragraph we had to edit to make descriptive. The elements were there; the man, the car, the grave, the cane. Actually, all I remember for certain was the cane. In my first draft, the cane “kept rhythm with his spry step” as the man walked away, which doesn’t sound much like visiting a grave (unless you’re glad this person died, an entirely different kind of descriptive paragraph). In the second draft the man “leaned heavily on his cane” as he shuffled away. Did the cane bow with the weight of his aged body, with the weight of grief in his heart? I’m sure it would if I wrote it now...and I'll probably look back on that with disdain in years to come, too.

I remember how much I liked the image of the cane, tapping rhythm with the man’s shiny black shoes. Maybe that was one of the problems Mrs. Temple addressed in her notes, how out of place it seemed at a gravesite. Maybe there was no grave at all, and the only image I had was of the cane so I changed the destination. Who knows?

Memory is a strange thing. I’m wise enough now to know that my memory and facts are not the same things. However it happened, seventh grade English was my first lesson in the importance of the editing process, of taking work I’d done to entertain myself and changing it to communicate something with a reader. There is nothing a like a fresh, objective, keen set of eyes on a piece to make it sing.

I’ve been in Lip Service twice now. My favorite part of the process both times has been those rehearsals at Andrea's house the Wednesday before, a bunch of writers fueled by wine and snacks, eager to view each-other’s work and make it better.

It’s what brought me back. Reading in front of a crowd was mostly an afterthought.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Back at the Bottom of the Pyramid

When you meet someone at nineteen and manage to keep them until you’re thirty-six, people look at you a certain way. You must know some trick of love or life that they’re missing. You’re happy in a way they’ll never be . . . if you’re speaking of your love in a certain way, of course.

Something I missed in this post which is important to clarify because people who didn’t know us as a couple are starting to read this blog, Andi and I were that couple. We genuinely enjoyed each-other’s company, made our decisions as a team, always had each-other’s backs, and spoke in glowing terms about our partner and our relationship. People admired what we had and, I flatter myself to think, wanted it in their own relationships.

I remember a few years back, three of us men were in the stockroom at Books & Books. Guy talk, you know? My friend (who we’re calling) Graham is about twelve years older than me, married for twenty years. My other friend JC is a bit younger, and had married only recently.

Even though he’s a house-husband, Graham belongs in a sitcom from the fifties. He was bitching about his wife using the most clichéd clichés. Because I’d been with Andi for thirteen years at that point, Graham tried using me as an example to back up a point he was making with JC.

Graham wanted to know I felt about my wife.

“I love her more with each passing day.”

JC and Graham braced themselves, waiting for the punchline. I looked back and forth between them.

“That’s it,” I said.

Graham shrugged off this minor hiccup and continued to say how he’d rather masturbate than have sex with his wife, or whatever the story was at the moment. Then he paused, returning to me.

“Wait, do you have kids?”

“No,” I said.

“That explains it,” he said. Like, have kids and then talk to me about married life.

If you believe Graham (and Bill Cosby), married people without children can’t talk about married life, the same way people with one child can’t talk about parenting to people with multiple children.

Maybe that’s true, but the Smug Relationship Pyramid topped by wrinkled oldsters celebrating fifty years together, surrounded by gaggles of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, that pyramid was built by sad sack singletons who think anything beyond a few years is worth memorializing in a power ballad.

It’s important to distinguish Power Singles from Sad Sack Singletons. Most Power Singles I know are women in their forties and fifties. Some of them have been married, but not all. The thing which unifies them is they’ve had their men and it didn’t impress them all that much. They’d rather have their own space than share it with someone sub-par.

To Sad Sack Singletons, there is no greater glory than marriage. To anyone.

When I became a member of the recently-separated, people handled me like an egg. Little did I know, that was only a stop on my way to becoming another statistic, another story, another failed marriage. Yeah, you’re marriage busted up. Score one for you, now get over it.
I refuse to categorize my marriage as a failure because it ended. Everything living dies, which is the tragic beauty of life. I’d rather drop dead of a massive stroke when I’m biking at eighty-five than linger until a hundred and five and be unable to remember my own name.

Scratch that; I’d rather have a massive stroke in my sleep at a mentally vibrant hundred and five than linger to a doddering hundred and ten.

Since I won’t be part of a wrinkled couple celebrating fifty years, I’ll never know whether our marriage would have been a tree forever sprouting new growth, felled only by one of our deaths, or if it would have looked healthy to an outsider, yet have been riddled with years of rot inside. Either way, I’ve got to let it go.

What’s bothering me lately is how my world view has been rocked. The loss of Andi as a person is incidental to the loss of my marriage as the defining thing in my life, and to realizing that love doesn’t conquer all.

I've heard I could ruin the present worrying about the future. Too true. Ditto, mooning over the past.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Happiest Place on Earth

Today the plan is for Becky and Cleo Jr to pick me up at the Treehouse. The three of us will go to Books & Books so Becky and I can take care of the “have to’s” and pick up our paychecks, then we’ll hit the road.

They arrive early, and we end up eating breakfast at the Treehouse. When I ask Cleo Jr. how many times he’s been to Disney World, he runs into the kitchen where Becky is making coffee. He beckons her close, then loses the thread.

“A lot,” he blurts, running back to the table to finish his toast.

It’s Cleo Jr’s second time in the Treehouse, and it’s better because he knows me. The first time we met, that scared little look on his face broke my heart. I put my blocky glasses on and he broke into a smile. This guy’s alright, the smile said.

Becky’s family - two sisters and her parents - traveled to Disney World at least twice a year while she was growing up. It’s only natural she’d pass this legacy on, and understandable that Cleo Jr. would lose count.

Becky isn’t sure herself how many time he’s been. Nine? Ten? More than me, anyway.


A side note before we leave the Treehouse – Ikea’s DOCKSTA table is ideal for a bachelor in cramped quarters, solid and borderline sleek. To a toddler, this round piece of poured plastic and wood laminate looks like a giant toy.

On our way to the bank, hunger made Cleo Jr a bit whiny. Keeping Cleo Jr entertained on the job made Becky a bit exhausted. Waiting for the light to change, standing on the sidewalk, I held Cleo Jr in my left arm while Becky leaned into me on the right. Holding them both, I felt like I’d been wandering the dessert my entire life and finally found an oasis. I felt like a peg snug in a board. I felt . . . home.

Just in case, I waited until after the weekend was over to say anything.

It was a lot more exhausting than I thought it would be. Parenting, I mean. Any selfish chucklehead can have a baby, but to try and make sure you’re not raising another selfish chucklehead is a lot of work. I won’t get into maneuvering around his moods or reigning in his exuberance or trying to turn whining into cheer. Suffice to say, people who go to Magic Kingdom without children are, in some sense, kidding themselves.

The vacation in Orlando done, my biceps ache from the weight of carrying a five-year-old. My mind whirls with fear over what kind of influence I’ll have. My heart swells, thinking of this opportunity I’ve been given, this life I wouldn’t have if not for Becky. I imagine I’ll overcome my fear and hesitancy, gain confidence and take a more active role. We’ll see how it goes.

Just over a year ago, my friend Mark told me that I’d never be the perfect father. He said our fathers weren’t perfect, and we’ll never be. You just need to love your children and apologize when you make mistakes.

That’s the kind of dadly advice I’d expect from a great father. I wish I’d thought of it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

This is Life, Happening

Laundry night came right on time so I only had two small loads, one light, one dark. Really, separating them isn’t necessary. I use cold water so my clothes won’t shrink and I don’t use bleach, but habits like dividing lights from darks die hard. But who cares?

Should I talk about feeling superior to my brethren who drive because I can dip in and out quickly while they have let the laundry pile up into a project which will last for hours? Maybe other people’s smug is slightly better word fodder than the specifics of laundering clothes, but not by much. And it’s still not relevant to this post.

I'm just giving you what I was doing last night, walking the five-ish blocks from the Treehouse to the coin laundry, when life happened.

Andi spent New Year’s Eve in the hospital. Allegedly the peritonitis was related to an infected appendix and not to her dialysis, but I could tell you stories of hospital visits over the years which would amuse, astound, and disgust you. I imagine her rattling off the symptoms as well as she could, the staff dragging their heels with tests while her pain intensified. Hospitals are very cautious about abdominal pain. The staff never listens, event if peritoneal dialysis requires you to be your own doctor, even if the symptoms are as familiar as your face.

They removed Andi’s appendix. At least next time she presents with peritoneal infection, they can rule out appendicitis immediately and get her one step closer to antibiotics and pain medication. Or maybe this was a perfect diagnosis. I wouldn’t know because for the first time since she was diagnosed with a kidney disease, I wasn’t in the hospital with her. I wasn’t there to fight for her, or to comfort her.

It’s a choice we’ve made. More accurately, a consequence of earlier choices which we should have seen coming.

What’s the etiquette, when someone you’ve loved most of your life but to whom you’re not currently speaking is hospitalized? If this was a movie or a TV show, it would have been time for a tearful reunion. Regrets would have been expressed, truths uttered, wrongs forgiven. Whether the scene leads to reconciliation of friendship or reparation of a relationship depends largely on whether the show is a comedy or a drama, or how long the writers want to extend the storyline.

Maybe Andi would have asked me for a switchblade, telling me it was time to get even with the Socs. “For Johnny, man. We’ll do it for Johnny.”

I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t there. I sent her a text message.

Walking to the coin laundry, I wondered how she was doing. I’d gotten secondhand reports, the same way I learned she was in the hospital, but I wanted to find out from her. One street from my goal, I saw a silver Aveo blocking the sidewalk. I slowed down as I approached. Andi’s car always looked like every other, which was the big joke at malls and movies. This couldn’t be her car because she doesn’t know anyone who lives in my neighborhood. Then I saw the faded Micky Mouse antennae ball. I saw the sea turtle hanging from the rearview. I saw scratches on the rear fender from where I’d leaned my bike.

Seeing her car completely out of context to the life we shared felt like a dream, when you think of a place and you’re there, or a person and they appear.

Her car was parked at a house that looked like a house in Coral Gables close to Eighth Street. A good size, homey, well-landscaped, pretty. Nothing to distinguish it from the others, nothing special about the other cars in the driveway.

I couldn’t really see inside her tinted windows, but every shape and reflection and shadow seemed filled with secret life. It’s not that she doesn’t know anyone who lives in my neighborhood, it’s that she didn’t know anyone who lives in my neighborhood. Now, who knows who she knows? It’s all fun and games when you picture her sitting at home, pining for you, face carved in lugubrious lines while she brews bitter tea with the tears of her regret.

Or, you know… sad.

It’s a different game when the fact of her moving on is in your face.

I got to Laundromat and texted some friends to calm myself. With the laundry going, I realized I want both Andi and myself to be happy. Ultimately, it would be good if we could be friends again. Becky is proving to be something of a miracle in my life; could I begrudge Andi the same happiness, in this too short time on Earth? Once the weirdness of seeing her car subsided, I realized I couldn’t.

I still took the next block up on the way home.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Rude Awakening

I lived in a cockroach infestation during my freshman year of college at Syracuse University, in a large four-bedroom home just off campus. A different student rented each room. The kitchen cupboards crawled with roaches, too many to concern themselves with hiding regardless of light or human presence. The only person I saw eating in that house was the Italian grad student, who brewed espresso and milk and poured it into a coffee mug filled with cornflakes. In his heavy accent, he said, “This is how Italians call espresso.” He kept the coffee and cereal right next to the milk, in the fridge, the only place the roaches didn’t go.

These were tiny northern roaches. Disgusting, and I can’t get some of the images out of my mind, but seeing layers of them squirming over the trash and sinks didn’t instill the spine-crawling revulsion I feel looking at a single Florida cockroach.

This morning, I hit snooze a few times but stumbled out of bed at 5:30. For those of you playing the “What Time Will Aaron Wake” home game, yes, I’ve been better about rising early to write. A combination of Minime’s hunger, getting to bed earlier, and not being so hard on myself about what I choose to write has made this easier.

After the accident, it took a year for my energy level to return one hundred percent. I can’t expect my mental state to be balanced and my heart to be harmonized right away. If I need to write blogs and whine in my journal at five in the morning instead of pursuing murdered children on an Indian reservation or an adopted Chinese girl with a dragon living in her basement or Barbie fighting in a tournament of toys, I’ll do it. I just need to get back into the habit again. Alarm goes off, cat gets fed, coffee gets made, and work gets done.

Anyway, a forcible reminder of the reason I started pouring bags of cat food into a large, airtight container for storage came home this morning, in the form of a medium-sized cockroach. You’ll be able to skip your morning coffee when you see one of these bad boys scrambling around inside a bag into which you’re reaching.

Heart pounding, wide awake, I snatched the bag closed. Minime was freaking out. The food is out of the cupboard, yet my dish remains empty. What gives, Man?

The cardinal rule of cockroach control – and by “control” I don’t mean getting rid of them, I mean maintaining the delusion of cleanliness which allows Floridians to inhabit these great old Gables homes Palmetto bugs seem to love – is not letting one get away once you’ve spotted it. When that happens, it’s like the dealer who lets people accrue debt. Word gets out that you’re soft, and then you’ve got problems.

I turned on every light in the place. I sprayed a circle of lemon-scented death in the living room and set the bag inside it. I let the bag open, prepared for anything.

There it was, crawling around on top of the cat food, freaked out by the light and the sense of two predators in the area. The small, furry predator’s threat was nullified by the stench of lemon-scented death. Moo Cat sat at some distance, ears flat, glaring at me. The large “predator” fairly cowered nearby, wearing hastily donned rubber dishwashing gloves and sneakers, spray can in one hand, waiting for his nemesis to emerge.

Its hairy little legs couldn’t gain purchase on the slick insides of the bag, so I got the chance for a nice, long look. To survive, cockroaches either freeze or run. You never get a chance to see them move in a leisurely fashion, because you’re too busy trying to stamp them into oblivion.

Devoid of the scrambling frenzy to find a crack in which to disappear, antennae blending into the brown of the cat food, the roach looked like a large beetle. I wondered why this insect made my skin crawl more than the spiders of my youth. Spiders bite, after all, and cockroaches don’t (well they do, but only when you’re sleeping). Is it the size? The heavy buzz when they fly across a darkened room, reminiscent of a Biblical plague of locusts? The way they startle me when they come from hiding, a survival instinct which feels like intelligent sneakiness?

I thought of what would happen if it got away. Would I be forced to break my lease?

I wondered what vital purpose cockroaches serve in the Circle of Life, whether the world would be better off if they all just disappeared.

I contemplated the absurdity of a six foot three man over two hundred pounds scared of a weightless, inch-and-a-half insect.

Most importantly, what good is Minime if she isn’t going to kill roaches for me?

With a mighty barbarian yell, I snatched the cockroach from the bag, opened my front door, and smeared it above the frame as a warning to any of its brethren who would dare to enter. Afraid the remains – food now, after all – would attract more of its brethren, I sprayed it for good measure. This wouldn’t kill them of course, but it ensures the next generation spawned will be that much more immune to lemon-scented death.

When I got back inside, I finally fed Minime. I’m sure the feline judgment I imagined coming from her was just the shame I felt at my squeamishness.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Looking Back

For a long time, I tried to pretend Andi didn’t exist. How could I go on living knowing there was this perfect person out there for me, but we couldn’t be together? As best as I could manage it, she had to disappear.

This was self-preservation. As resolute as my actions have been on the surface, denial still swam in the depths. As much as loneliness, denial goaded me to find another woman - more specifically, another relationship - to read desire into every waitress’ flirting, to pine like I haven’t pined since middle school, to make mere mortals into Anastasias and Cleopatras.

It can’t be luck alone that Becky was waiting behind Cleopatra. There have been times over these last three months that I’ve felt mad, when my skin has crawled and my thoughts have been like flakes in a shaken snow globe when Becky and I couldn’t be together. Being with her barely helped. Scant minutes, hours, days; however long we had, it was never enough.

I still can’t get enough but the craze that comes with newness has subsided. The love remains, but what’s replaced the madness is a deep affection like nothing I’ve felt. Friends want to know if it’s like it was with Andi. The simple, confounding answer is: yes and no.

Settling into a new relationship has given me the comfort to look back a lot lately.

Andi and I didn’t come together well. She fought hard to win me, then grew ambivalent when I quit the (admittedly awful) relationship I was in to be with her. We lived together in Syracuse after seven months. We fought, including one memorable night when her screams and fists flurried around me and I slapped her, once, in a moment I’ll take to my grave. The fact that I pulled the slap and Andi doesn't even remember it make it easier to take.

She treated me terribly for a time, culminating in a couple horrific weeks in Miami when she told me she had never loved me, and never would.

I asked if she was testing me. She told me no, but with tears in her eyes. I told her not to test me too hard, because I could fail. She broke down sobbing and admitted she didn’t know how to be with a good man. I held her, and things got better.

We moved back and forth between Syracuse and Virginia. She was diagnosed with IGA Nephropathy, an incurable kidney disease. She broke her neck in a car accident in Buffalo, a C2 fracture, what they call a Hangman’s Fracture. When she got out of the halo, we decided to open our relationship to outside dating. This lasted years. We moved to Miami and closed our relationship again. She had a kidney transplant. We got married. She confessed she’d been seeing a man for some months. I said it was a symptom of a problem with our relationship and not the problem itself. I cut back my hours at work. She rejected the transplant. Things got better. She started dialysis. I told her not to put her life on hold waiting tables, waiting for another kidney. She went back to school. She got her degree. She told me not to put my life on hold, waiting for her to get a kidney. I spit out the bitter medicine of my own advice and went back to school. I didn’t get a degree but I learned what I wanted to do with my life. She had a horrific first year in the classroom. She let me take a large pay cut moving from salaried to hourly to have more time to write. Our summers off were the stuff of romance novels. We fought over reality as our relationship matured. We stopped needing to share one mind to be happy. Things were great. I fractured my pelvis, sacrum, and ribs in a car accident. Instead of saying hurtful things, I spoke to the destructive emotions beneath. I learned to put a name to my fears and concerns to diffuse them. She got more schooling and became an Itinerant Vision Teacher. Things became amazing.

And then.

How much of what went wrong last year had to do with mishandling the infidelity ten years ago? I gave her a pass, told her it was my fault for being a workaholic. It’s true you can’t have much of a marriage with one of you working seventy to eighty hours a week, but she could have just have easily said that to me instead of fitting me with horns.

My grandfather used to beat my grandmother. My father promised himself he would never. He kept his promise and became passive-aggressive instead. How did I lose everything my junior high therapist taught me about breaking this legacy? I forgot I could get angry and the world wouldn’t fall apart. I couldn’t rail, I couldn’t tell her how badly she’d hurt me. I got the details thinking they would help (they didn’t; at all), glossed over the hurt, and jumped right into rebuilding.

I told people the separation would be easier if there had been a precipitating event (“What happened?” was the question; “Beats me,” was my answer). I thought our relationship had a shelf-life, that it had fallen apart so quickly because it was a living thing, and living things die. It turns out my precipitating event happened a decade before. Last year, I saw all the signs. We talked everything to death. I suppose I could have done more, although I can’t imagine what. Some grand, romantic gesture.

She wanted ultimatums. She wanted me to impose limits on her behavior. I knew doing that would be the death of us. It’s easy to ignore your conscience when it comes in the form of a spouse wagging a disapproving finger. I wanted her to realize for herself all she was turning her back on.

Don’t test too hard, I warned Andi all those years ago. I might fail.
My own words, my bitter medicine. In my refusal to act as her parent instead of her lover, I was finally testing her back.

It didn’t turn out like I had hoped. But I suppose it turned out as it had to.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

You Should Read Elmore Leonard

“You asking me,” Catlett said, “do I know how to write down words on a piece of paper? That’s what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. You already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas and shit where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important. You come to the last page you write in 'Fade out' and that’s the end, and you’re done.”
- Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty

My preferred method of recommendation is quoting an author’s work. As you can see from the paragraph above, Elmore Leonard is funny, real, and spare. He’ll never come up with a line so poetic that hipsters want it tattooed across their shoulders, but if there’s another writer as masterful at revealing character through dialog, I’m taking nominations. Whoever you want to bring forward, it would still be called the Elmore Leonard Dialog Award.

He’s created some of pop culture’s most memorable characters, folks who populate his fiction and film. Chili Palmer. Karen Sisco. Ordell Robbie. Of course, for every Out of Sight and Jackie Brown, there’s a Big Bounce or a Stick.

As is so often the case, you’re better off with his books.

More than providing hours of page-turning entertainment, I have Elmore Leonard to thank (or blame) for buckling down as a writer.

When Andi and I first moved to Miami, I was a mess. Looking for the job with the least amount of responsibility long before Lester Burnham, I’d gotten a job as a dishwasher at Bennigan’s some years before. Why go to school to teach yourself to be an artist? What did it matter what you did to keep food in your mouth and roof over your head? The work mattered, not the job.

Of course, this was before I knew what the work would be. That fundamental weakness in my pursuit of art led to a lot of late nights, LSD, and – most shamefully – to my spinelessness when presented with a dollar raise. I forgot my job was a necessary evil and not a calling

Airbrushing supplies gathered dust. T-squares collected cobwebs in corners. Paints dried up. The writing was dump and flush, amateur hour, the drivel of a dabbling dilettante (yes, I know that “dabbling dilettante” is redundant, but who can resist the alliterative pull? Say it five times fast, drivel of a dabbling dilettante, drivel of a dabbling dilettante… might make a better blog tagline than that if I care how others perceive my passions stuff. I’ll change it after I change the About Me section of my profile to “twat with a Tank Girl tattoo.”).

When Elmore Leonard pushed me into the writing life, I had the day off from my management job at Borders. I was watching a DVD of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, which is based on Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch. I’d seen it so many times, just watching the movie wasn’t enough of a distraction. I decided to watch it with the text commentary.

During the scene when Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell Robbie shows Robert DeNiro's Louis Gara a video called “Chicks Who Love Guns,” these words flashed across the bottom of the screen:

Elmore Leonard’s Rules of Remaining Invisible:

1) Never open a book with weather.
2) Avoid Prologues.
3) Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
4) Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”
5) Keep your exclamation points under control.
6) Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7) Use regional dialect sparingly.
8) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9) Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
10) Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

All these rules have exceptions but the most important thing is- if it sounds like writing, rewrite it.

I hit the pause button on the DVD remote, sat up on the couch. The first draft of my first book opened with a prologue in which a person with a thick northeastern / reservation dialect talks about the weather (and how I heartily wish that was a joke). Clearly I had a lot of work to do. I ejected Jackie Brown from the DVD player and got to it.

I printed Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Remaining Invisible above my desk, imagining them posted above typewriters and computers across America. I started a program called “Mind Pissings” with the words what to write when you have no idea? Mind Pissings became my journal, my drawing board, the place where I wrote every morning at five am before my judgment bone woke up and stopped the circulation of my imagination.

At a Books & Books appearance some years later, Augusten Burroughs told aspiring writers to write every day, and on the days when they had nothing to write about and no ideas, they should write about having nothing to write about and no ideas.

It’s the habit. Like pushups and sit ups before bed. Switching fried food for salads. Thinking before speaking. The tiny, healthy steps which, in the fullness of time, will get you where you see yourself. It takes build up to make big leaps.

Thanks, Mr. Leonard. I build my room in the Tower of Babble by your grace.