Wednesday, April 28, 2010


One of my favorite parts of traveling is supporting independent bookstores. Whether as grand as Powell’s City of Books in Portland or as humble as Corner-Stone Bookshop in Plattsburgh, indies across the country have gotten my support. And I don’t mean I walked in, said, “Nice bookstore,” used the bathroom, and left.

Much of my shelf space is a record of my travels.

You buy Rebecca Hourwich Reyher's Zulu Woman and Paula Gunn Allen's Off the Reservation because they catch your eye at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia and they’re dirt cheap.

Buy The Complete Stories of Truman Capote at Voltaire Books in Key West because you know it will be amazing when you finally get around to reading it. Throw Kingsley Amis's Everyday Drinking on top because the beginning made you laugh and holding it makes you feel sophisticated. Pay full hardcover price for both because fuck it, there’s only one Indie left on Key West and you get plenty of free books back home.

On the way up from key west, stop in at Hooked on Books on Islamorada Key. Buy Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family because you’ve never read any Ondaatje and the first page about stopped your heart. Add Lydia Millet's Everyone’s Pretty because you read and loved Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and always meant to read more of her.

At Books & Memories in Syracuse, be sure to buy Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle because Hilldawg raved about it, buy Joshua Ferris's Then We Came to the End because Abe Froman raved about it, and add Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for good measure, because you know you’ll read it sooner or later.

In New Orleans, it was FAB on Frenchmen, Garden District Book Shop, both Maple Street Book Shops, stores which have stood for decades upon decades. After the first visit to Beckham’s Bookshop, I learned to limit myself to two books per stop, lest the weight of my pack break my back.

I purchased people I’ve enjoyed - Tom Perrotta's Joe College, Ethan Canin's Emperor of the Air, David Sedaris's Naked, Philip Roth's Portnoy’s Complaint – and authors I’ve been meaning to sample - Lester Goran's Bing Crosby’s Last Song and Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly. These were books I could have found and purchased anywhere; the point was to support the stores.

Two finds stick out. Barb Johnson and Justin Taylor both caught my eye because I’ve never heard of either of them. I selected Johnson’s More of This World or Maybe Another and Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever in my usual fashion; I picked them up, flipped to the first page, started reading, and liked their words. Turns out both of them are NOLA favorites with strong bookseller support. They are also both published by Harper Perennial. No publishing house rivals Algonquin for consistent quality, but it gladdened my heart to see a division of such a large publishing house choosing these two voices. If I hadn’t gone to New Orleans, I probably never would have heard of them.

Which is good and bad, I suppose. With thousands of books published worldwide each day, you've got to let many of them go.

When I got back to Miami, I had Advanced Readers Copies waiting for me. There are new titles from the masterful David Mitchell, the amazing Kevin Canty, the haunting Tom McCarthy, and the compelling Kristy Kiernan.

I may not be able to read everything published this year, but it’s shaping up to be a great one.

(The urge to write “one for the books” instead of "a great one" was nearly overwhelming; I resisted, for you.)

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Rude Awakening Part 2: The Startling

I greeted the cockroach I found toe up in my kitchen sink on Wednesday morning with surprising equanimity. I was feeding MiniMe and there it was, long back legs moving to and fro, antennae waving, tiny head cocked inquisitively.

Had it gotten tired of running and pushed itself over to contemplate its life before it died? Dead palmetto bugs have got to always be toe up for a reason. Or was this a cockroach in the prime of health, thwarted by the slick stainless steel, taking a breather from its struggles to get out of the sink?

As I sprayed it with Lemon Scented Death and watched it flail, I marveled at my inner calm. I hadn’t been prepared – and I’ve been bracing myself to see a palmetto bug when I enter a room since 1998 – when I flicked the light on, and yet I didn’t start. I didn’t feel a crawling sensation in my guts. Every hair on my head and arms didn’t feel like they were moving. I swept it into a paper towel and tossed it into the trash, wondering if I’d finally gotten over this irrational fear and revulsion.

Then this morning, it was time to make my morning coffee.

At home, I brew with a French press. You boil water, pour it over coarse, precisely measured coffee grounds, let it soak for four minutes, then press a plunger which pushes all the grounds to the bottom. It’s the truest method for brewing there is, allowing the flavorful coffee oils to be part of the cup and bringing out the true richness of the blend. If you have less than stellar coffee – like this chicory stuff I brought back from NOLO which is delicious in a drip coffeemaker – all the warts will show.

Once I’ve poured boiling water over the coffee, I leave the lid on my teapot ajar. This allows the water to evaporate so that steam doesn’t condense on the inside of the lid and drip back down inside, leaving a layer of stale water on the bottom which mixes with fresh water next time I make a cup. I’ve been leaving the lid ajar for twelve years. I won’t be doing it anymore.

Five am (okay, 5:45am; I snoozed, sue me), mug filled with water as a measurement, I remove the lid from my teapot, and...

It’s nine am. I’ve skipped breakfast and worked on two pieces, I’m wearing an extra-tight hat, and my skin still won’t stop crawling.

At this point, I feel like I’m living in one of those bad horror films. Actually, not even. I’m living in the mock version.

“I…am…so…startled,” Randy keeps telling his hand-held camera in South Park’s Blair Witch meets Cloverfield meets giant guinea pigs episode “Pandemic Two: The Startling.” In a Saturday Night Live digital short, Andy Samberg pops up in the bathroom mirror and behind the bathroom door and the shower curtain over and over, cue a screeching string instrument and sharp intake of breath each time.

The ultimate is “Don’t,” one of the fake previews created for the Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez double-feature Grindhouse. “If you...are thinking...of opening...this...door,” Will Arnett’s voiceover growls, “Don’t.”

For me it's, if you are thinking of opening this teapot … if you are thinking of reading this book, if you are thinking of taking a shower . . . don’t.

Welcome to the Treehouse.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Internet Scares Me

The internet is making me stupid. Used to be when someone asked me what year M*A*S*H went off the air, I would have to sit down and think about it. I’m pretty sure I was in high school. Then again I hadn’t had a date, so maybe junior high. 87? 88? (83, FYI; I was way off) If I couldn’t come up with what movie I’d first seen the bad cop from Strange Days, it would drive me crazy for a few hours until I gave up. Later, I’d wake from a sound sleep and realize he played Thor in Adventures in Babysitting.

Now instead of subconscious churning and shaking my memory, I have Google.

I must admit, I love being able to look up word definitions online. The fallacy of this comes when you read someone with a vocabulary like Lionel Shriver, who plays with tenses and usages in a way which confounds easy answers, or David Foster Wallace, whose use of antiquated terms turn “search engine” into “research project.” Still, I love it. I love reading articles online and being able to click on countries, people, and historical events I don’t know.

It’s the Information Superhighway, after all. Greeks could recite the Iliad from memory. Mohawks kept the whole history of their people alive in stories. Then we started writing stuff down, and we didn’t need to memorize everything. Memory will evolve even further. Centuries from now, it will be the same information, just stored somewhere else. Hopefully the extra room will increase our emotional capacity; our love, compassion, and empathy.

The internet is killing neighborhoods. We let our neighbors go jobless, starving our local businesses (and the suppliers those local businesses use) by sending our money thousands of miles away for a deep discount.

But that’s just an extension of the phenomenon described in James Howard Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere, a Saming of America. Do something about it or don’t.

My real concern is how the internet destroys connections. When Robert Putnam chronicled America’s growing culture of isolation in the excellent Bowling Alone, the internet was a glimmer of what it is today. The internet is gasoline on this fire.

Much has been made about how my generation is the first not to have it better than our parents. Is this really a mystery? Historically, the only benefits accrued by the working class resulted when a group of folks got together and forced a few concessions from the fat cats paying the bills. My generation has flabby fellowship muscles.

A friend recently sent a message on Facebook saying I wouldn’t be seeing him online for a while. He felt his virtual presence was eroding his real-life connections with people. I knew exactly what he meant. When we’re lonely, feeling like we’re missing intimacy with our friends, more and more of us turn to the internet.

Thinking about my friend’s decision, I realized I started Facebooking because all of my social engagements stemmed from my ex’s account. I knew my marriage was ending and didn’t want to miss anything fun.

I started Sweet with Fall and Fish and TweetwFallnFish because publishers consider your “platform” before they publish you. To get a stranger to purchase your book, virtual networking is a must.

It’s been shocking to watch this phenomenon work, by the way. When strangers tell me they enjoy my writing, I have to suppress my natural inclination to respond with, "But I'm not related to you."

It’s all intention, I suppose. You can use a bathtub filled with water to bathe or to drown a child. Neither scenario makes the water evil.

I just don't want the internet to drown me, is all.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New Orleans: Greatest City on the Planet

Okay, so I always want to move anywhere I vacation. At various times I’ve dreamed of calling New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Tampa, and Rockville, Maryland home.

Flings, all of them. I’ve begun a lifetime affair with New Orleans.

The breathless tone of my friends and co-workers when I told them I'd be visiting the Big Easy let me know I was in for something special, but I didn’t realize how special. Every stranger is a character, every corner filled with music, every coffee laced with chicory, every street rich with charm. And the food, the food, the food.

Bellhops can argue over whether to eat at The Camellia Grill or the Trolley Stop Cafe for breakfast in the Garden District, but they’re both right. The barista at Community Coffee with a special recipe for frozen espresso can recommend Johnny’s Po-Boys for breakfast, and he’s right, too. Of course, you can always settle for simple beignets at Café du Monde… which is like “settling” for Eva Mendes because you’re not in the mood for Angelina Jolie.

At The New Orleans School of Cooking, Big Kevin taught us how to make pecan pralines (pee-Cannes praw-lines, never pee-can pray-leans), red beans and rice, pecan pie, and corn bread (why did my last corn bread go bad the next day? I added extra milk to make it fluffy but didn’t use a shallow pan, so it didn’t cook all the way through). And what better accompaniment to a ten AM meal than Abita Amber from the local brewery? Hey, when a guy who goes six-foot-nine and four-hundred-and-five pounds gives you a beer, you drink the beer.

Sidewalk entertainment ranged from ragged street duos to a crowd of acrobats, hippy homeless wannabes with bloody knuckles and dreadlocks slurring for change to hugely loud addicts cursing for the cops because they got cheated on crack deals, full brass bands in baggy jeans and t-shirts to a single tuxedoed man talking to himself between sweet, mournful blows on a slide trombone, a bus full of middle-schoolers hurling insults at a down-at-heels drunk who egged them on and lapped up the abuse to nearly-homeless betting they could tell you where you got your shoes.

The first time someone came up to me, grinned broadly and said, “Hey, man, I bet I can tell you where you got those shoes,” I misunderstood him. There are dozens of accents in Miami and parceling them out is usually a matter of paying attention, but the New Orleans patois threw me. I thought the guy was complimenting my Doc Marten Oxblood boots (of which I’m absurdly proud). Effusive with vacation vibes, pacing sidewalks along the Mississippi in my walking boots, I returned his grin and gushed, “Thanks!”

His face fell. If you don’t know the proper response - locals and veterans toss “on my feet” over one shoulder without breaking stride - than a sincere thanks will also deflate potential hucksters.

I know we were supposed to move from bar to bar on Frenchman Street to experience a variety of music, but Monday is Open Mic Night at Café Negril. Sign your name to a sheet, bring your instrument, and play a song or two.

It sounds like it could go horribly wrong, but imagine karaoke night outside of Motown in the sixties. Everyone we judged harshly as they passed the bar ("Check out this tool in the three-quarter shorts..." "Nice soul patch, douchebag..." "What is this guy, an accountant?") could play. The coolest thing is how they’d get up, murmur a few cursory instructions to their fellow musicians, launch into it, and the songs ended up sounding like they’d played together for years. Sure a lot of them were regulars, but it’s not like they rehearsed. And there were first-timers who did the same trick. To a musical idiot like your blogger, it was magic. We were riveted to our stools.

My last day in New Orleans began with a Royal Sonesta Omelette at Oceana Grill, a gator sausage, shrimp, onion, and pepper omelet topped with crawfish and mushroom cream sauce. I had hot sauce at the ready, it being breakfast and all, but the sensational blend of flavors didn’t need to be touched.

Then we ate like locals at Becky’s cousins’: boiled crawfish, Abita Turbodog (the dark one) and Strawberry Harvest Lager. Apparently there’s a strawberry farm forty miles north of New Orleans where the strawberries can’t be shipped because they’re so fat with sugar they’d rot, so you can only enjoy them on site. Strawberry beer sounds disgusting, but the farm and the brewery work on a batch every year. I wish we’d bought more.

Becky’s cousin taught us how to pinch tail and suck head. I’d like to call them mini-lobsters, but I hear Rachael Ray's cloying voice in my head as she describes capers; “They’re like little pickles!” Boiled crawfish are unutterably delicious - spicy, briny, and vaguely sweet. The only way to get through it is to not look too closely at your meal. Beer also helps.

I can’t wait to go back.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

You Can't Serve Both God and Mammon

When I try to come up with how many years it’s been since I moved to Miami, or how many months I’ve lived in the Treehouse, I realize I’ve measured my days and years by my relationship with Andi. Those sixteen years are frozen in time, and I'm constantly surprised that life has gone on.

Tax-time. Married, filing jointly? Married, filing separately? The question carries an emotional weight it never has in the past.

Like good little troopers who will never see the kinds of salaries some take for granted, Andi and I planned for our retirement early. The money you save in your twenties is worth exponentially more than the money you save in your thirties, etc. etc.

What a scam.

We diversified, we took expert advice, and our retirement funds were only worth 64% of what we paid into them. Planning to retire at age 55, we lost 46% of what we could have saved just stuffing the money into a mattress.

Only we didn’t lose 46% percent. Because we dissolved our retirement funds early, we were penalized by losing almost half of what our account was worth. Andi and I were left just 38% of the money we gave our broker. We split it 50-50.

What else would you do in a divorce with money you’d been saving together for a mutual retirement? Say, let’s not touch that money and hope we can tighten our belts for the next few months getting set up on our own. See you in twenty years and we’ll split the proceeds. I’m sure financial advisors do the math on divorce rates and salivate rather than advise separate retirement accounts.

Ameriprise Financial made everything look so good on paper. Ultimately, we lost 62 cents of every dollar we gave them. This doesn’t include interest we would have made with the money in a plain old savings account.

If I’m less up in arms than perhaps I should be, there are two reasons. First of all, there’s a measure of guilt. We swam in deep waters, waters beyond our scope. We should have left investment portfolios to the six-figure folks who understand them.

Whether this is true or not doesn’t matter; the feeling of foolishness is real.

Secondly, I used percentages because the actual amounts involved are less than impressive. A percentage allows you to view my frustration with investments which didn’t pan out through the lens of your own financial strata. In truth, after first-and-last-month’s rent, a security deposit, and filling the Treehouse with Ikea, I had a thousand-dollar cushion in the bank.

I worked my way into middle-management, basically all you can get with on-the-job experience that doesn’t require a college degree. I stepped out of it to devote more time to writing, and I became much happier. Poorer, but much happier.

I just sometimes wish I had a little bit more greed in my makeup.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Books & Books vs. Sweet with Fall and Fish

Because of "the harsh realities" of the current economy, Books Inc., which has 11 stores in California, has restructured its main office and let go Barry Rossnick, senior trade buyer.

Books Inc. co-owner and CEO Michael Tucker called it "the hardest thing I've ever had to do running the company." He noted that since the beginning of the year wages were frozen and executives have taken weekly furloughs each quarter to avoid store-level layoffs. Books Inc. announced last week it is opening a 4,000-sq.-ft. store in Berkeley. Tucker said, "The last thing I thought I'd do this year is open another store, but the developer really wanted a bookstore and gave us what we needed to make it happen."

Rossnick may be reached at
- Shelf Awareness, 8-12-2009

Unfortunately, to make room for a Corporate and Educational Sales Director on the payroll, Books & Books made its first layoff since it opened its doors in 1982. The “room” happened to be vacated by one of my closest friends (we’ll call him “Bloom.”) Unlike Michael Tucker’s decision to publicize the event, our owner chose to keep the decision in-house.

I understand not making Bloom’s pain – and being laid off hurts more than you might imagine – public. Unfortunately, Shelf Awareness published Tucker’s announcement almost the same week. It made Bloom’s layoff feel like a dirty secret.

I also understand why the layoff needed to happen. Like Books Inc., Books & Books is expanding at a time when the entire industry struggles for breath. To make this happen, innovative partnership models with publishers and other businesses, putting on amazing events, and plain old good karma were not enough to move the bottom line. We need this position to thrive, and we needed space in our labor for the position.

But why Bloom? If I gathered the employees of Books & Books, filled a condom with yellow paint, and threw it in their midst, the splatter would strike a dozen people worthier of the chop. And this isn’t just my biased opinion. Ask anyone at Books & Books and they’ll toss you a handful of names they would have booted before Bloom.

For this reason, despite Borders' better health plan and bigger paycheck, Bloom still longs for his old job at Books & Books.

In Henry IV, Shakespeare wrote, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Perhaps if one day I own and operate a business which requires me to be equal parts adventurer, intellectual, innovator, reader, rebel, merchant, and figurehead, I will understand the logic of this decision.

There are beautiful things about working for Books & Books which go beyond free books. As long as I get the job done (and as Lionel Shriver points out via characters in So Much For That, shouldn’t that be the only measure of job performance?), I can come and go as I please.

When I missed two months of work after the car accident, paychecks for forty-hour weeks continued to show up in my mailbox.

I’ve met authors I’ve worshipped and admired. I’ve rubbed elbows with famous folks and politicians, people I certainly never would have otherwise met.

Yeah, it’s just retail. But since we’re trying to keep the fabric of Miami distinct and Miamians employed in the face of encroachment by online retailers and chains, it feels like I’m doing something important.

Books & Books wants me to blog for them once our website is updated. With tens of thousands of readers across the country who subscribe to our website and online newsletter, this should go a ways toward answering that most difficult of questions publishers ask potential authors: “What’s your platform?”

As corporations become more concerned about their online presence, the freedom to question what my employer does has become another wonderful thing about my job.

Still, I doubt you’ll see many posts like this one on Books & Books website.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


This morning I made an edit which changed “My girlfriend thinks a psychiatrist cured [my nightmares], so I can’t reach out for comfort.” to “My girlfriend thinks the psychiatrist she recommended cured [my nightmares], so I can’t reach out for comfort.”

Both sentences involve the conflict of keeping secrets from a significant other, but the second sentence gives the girlfriend more weight. She’s been with the narrator long enough to notice a problem, recommend a psychiatrist, and see the treatments (she believes) work. I had been struggling to impart the seriousness of the relationship without resorting to a clunky “live-in girlfriend” or “long-time girlfriend.”

Point one: I knew Laura had recommended Tom’s psychiatrist, but it wasn’t on the page. I’ve got to be careful about re-reading things with fresh eyes. Or get back in a writing group.

Point two: I communicated the conflict and the seriousness of the relationship simply, in a way that’s invisible to the reader.

I may remain unpublished but I’m getting better at this shit.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Disney: Still Racist

That last post was pretty heavy, so I thought I'd post pictures of my most recent trip to Disney.
Yes, that's a different Indian than last trip. Note the backgrounds.

Then there's this:Don't get all offended, it's just an Indian on a horse's ass.

Since I've got two more uses on my 4-day pass, we'll hopefully be able to feature more shots of me doing my best to look pissed next to Indian Kitsch here at Sweet.

Which will be sweet.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Give Yourself a Year

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could remove the unseemly parts of our personality as easily as we pluck an extra-thick hair from a mole? If refraining from taking our bad days out on our friends and loved ones (and even strangers) was as easy as brushing plaque from our teeth? Some bad breath is impossible to take care of with normal flossing and brushing, so offensive it requires a special visit to a dentist wielding a long tool for deep tongue cleaning. Some people are so unhappy with what God and / or genetics gave them - or what time is doing to them - that they visit plastic surgeons to make them more acceptable to themselves.

I’ve always hated my impatience. My divorce cured it from being my default setting. But real growth leaves scars, like the ones on my hips from gaining most of my height in one summer. There is no quick solution. I’m a better person for this experience and I will continue to improve, but lord how it hurts sometimes.

I looked back through my Mindpissings journal because I’ve been in a funk lately. I thought maybe my perspective has been skewed, that hindsight painted my love for Andi in rose-colored hues. I thought reading about past doubts, longings, and marital gripes would bring these negative emotions to the surface, that I could rid myself of them as easily as one might squeeze pus from a pimple.

Last spring, before I knew that openly discussing straying from our marriage was only cathartic for one of us, I was up to my elbows in South Beach Wine and Food Festival, and then the Bottega Challenge. Here are a few samples from my journal during this period:

2/10/09: “I wouldn’t trade my wife for anyone or anything. Maybe that’s a type of prison, but only if she doesn’t feel the same. If she does, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. If she doesn’t, it is beyond repellent, and a bit sad.”

2/21/09 – 3/12/09: “Easily one of the greatest weekends of my life…”

“Holy shit, I am the luckiest man ever…”

“Having to have a job sucks; we should get a Macarthur Genius Grant for fucking.”

“I thought of my ‘midlife puberty’ and realized I don’t need another woman, or other women, I just needed to rediscover Andi. And we have, again. 16 years after the fact. I can’t even explain how that happens.”

“Ten years of marriage. It’s been lovely. Great. Wonderful, even.”

Now I see I was the one feeling over-the-moon in love; she was trying her damnedest to be in love with me and failing. I looked back hoping to find doubt, not validation that my old life fell apart so quickly. Or gradually, then suddenly, as Hemingway's Mike Campbell says.

I also looked back to find the exact date of our split. A wise woman told me to wait a year after my accident for full recovery. I’m giving myself a year from hearing the phrase I think we should separate. If I’m still wallowing…well, I’ll jump off that bridge when I come to it.

Metaphorically, of course.

Friday, April 2, 2010

From Tat to Tat

At my high school graduation, a friend of my mother’s gave me a basket she’d woven out of sweet grass. The woman tried to tell me the story of how she’d done it by hand, and the significance of the gift, but I barely gave the basket a glance before running to the picnic table for more burgers and soda. Later, my mother took me aside. In a pained voice, she told me about the impolite, vain, narcissistic boy she’d seen dismiss her friend and the gift she’d put so much effort and thought into.

I still have that basket. It still smells sweet inside. And I still feel ashamed when I see it.

Just over a year ago, a few weeks before I realized my marriage was going south, I was leaving work in a hurry. Andi was waiting outside to drive us over to our book club. As I clocked out, a co-worker put her forearm under my nose. Eric Carle had visited Books & Books for a signing. This co-worker, who runs our children’s section, convinced Eric Carle to draw the Very Hungry Caterpillar on her forearm, then she went and got it tattooed.

“Hey, check it out,” she said, smiling broadly.

“I saw the picture on Facebook,” I said.

Her face fell. My tone said it all; who cares? I don’t have time for this nonsense with your stupid little tattoo. It didn’t help that a co-worker saw the exchange and burst into laughter.

“Fuck you,” our children’s manager said, and walked out.

I'm sorry, I called out. I love you, I called out. It’s out of jealousy, I called out. She didn’t turn around or even break stride. Our co-worker laughed the whole time. I’m just as dismissive as I was when I graduated high school, only I don’t have the excuse of being nineteen anymore.

Maybe dismissive is the wrong word. Try rushed. Never giving the present its due because I’m living five steps ahead. It’s how the accident happened. It’s how I hurt people, all unintentionally. It's my least favorite thing about myself.

You know that children’s manager was Becky, right? Otherwise known as Cleopatra.

A year later, and I’m not speaking with the wife who picked me up. A year later, and I’m going with Becky to Tattoos by Lou to watch Mo Willem's Pigeon become permanent.

My, how the world turns.