Friday, May 28, 2010

Last Word on New Orleans, I Swear

At least until my next visit.

You might find this hard to believe, but I found several instances of Wood Injuns on my visit to the Big Easy.

Seems no matter where I go, people want to put me in feathers.

Can't call these cigar store Indians, because they ain't. These are two tourist-trap gift shops and a bar. New Orleans, shame on you for these blatant acts of Native Kitsch.

When I go back, I'm going to flash my Tribal ID and demand royalties.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

I'm Back, Baby! (Sort of)

Now I remember what it felt like to be in the grip of a story.

To find my way back to writing fiction, I needed to give up the project I had on the front burner before my marriage fell apart - the third draft of Scratch the Dead Places, the final draft, which is really fucking good, if I say so myself. Unfortunately, parts of Scratch are a little too close to reality.

My second-burner, part two of the Ming trilogy, is in the safe terrain of almost pure imagination. It also hasn’t compelled me in the slightest. Even if they use different processes and have different views, most authors agree that when the story stops, it’s because you’ve taken a wrong turn. I know exactly what parts two and three entail. I have whole scenes just ready to type like dictation, but the main character – Levi – just isn’t speaking loudly enough.

Instead of either of these big projects, or beginning yet another short story (in keeping with the writing queue as kitchen metaphor), I dug way back in the freezer.

How long has The Block been there? I know sixty-four pages of a WordPerfect second draft were written in October 2006, that the original was written on a floppy disc then transferred to a hard disc, before CD-ROM, before jump drives.

Re-reading the eighty-seven pages of the third-draft in MS-Word (although since none of these versions were completed, calling them “drafts” pushes kindness into the realm of fabrication; let’s call the hundreds of pages devoted to The Block on floppy, hard disc, and CD-ROM false starts), I was surprised by how good it is. I never finished it because it felt too easy. It’s basically one story of hundreds I used to tell myself as a child to pass the lonely hours. When you live with a story for that long, you stop thinking it could have value for anyone except yourself.

The Block has been the perfect medicine because it is easy. I know exactly where it’s going and who the characters are (if not necessarily how they get there), and it’s all made up.

It’s also unpublishable. Even though books can get away with a lot of things movies and TV shows can’t because of the audience’s smaller scale, I can’t imagine a publisher tackling the legal hassles associated with having Barbie as the main character.

Supposedly one writes with an ideal first reader in mind. With this story, I’ve rediscovered myself as my first reader and it feels just fine. Whether anyone else ever reads it…

But the feeling I refer to in my opening sentence is not the joy of using imagination instead of reality to push the cursor, but the frustration involved in having a job. Short stories are one thing, but tackling a novel in the space between sleep and work is tough. If writing was sex, it’s interrupting foreplay to pay bills. If writing was food, it’s knowing how delicious the main course will be but trying to fill your stomach by nibbling appetizers because you’ll never be served. If writing was art, it’s penciling an outline, mixing the paints, dabbling a few colors, then cleaning your brushes because you know everything will dry before you find time to finish.

I wish there was a grant for authors who’ve written a Young Adult fantasy Bildungsroman with an adopted Chinese girl as the protagonist, which is the first of three, who need a few months off to hammer out the rest of the trilogy.

Maybe I should look for a sugar momma.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

So Much for Writing for Money

On Monday I spent a pleasant hour grocery shopping at the Publix in Coral Gables. I never realized having a car to load up with groceries was a privilege until I didn’t have a car to load. Maybe I went a little nuts – four kinds of apples instead of my usual two; twenty-pound litter instead of fourteen; 18-pack of eggs instead of a dozen; regular bacon and Canadian bacon; milk, Indian River orange juice, Bolthouse 100% Carrot, Bolthouse Green Goodness, and V8 – but I had a trunk to fill. Besides, my fridge was nearly empty. I promised Becky fruit smoothies for breakfast. It would be nice to have a few juices to choose from for blending, not to mention opening the fridge and seeing nothing but food instead of glass shelves and light.

“Nope,” the cashier says when I run my card. Her tone is curt, matter-of-fact, smug.

“Really? I just deposited my check on Friday.” I run my card again.

“Nope.” This time she shakes her head to emphasize her point, and she still comes off smug. I imagine as a cashier in Coral Gables, she eats shit from customers all day. If rich folks are good at one thing, it’s making people behind counters feel worthless. This is Yvvone’s chance to turn the tables. Derisive laughter courses just beneath the skin of her professional demeanor.

“It’s the only account I have…” I trail off, mortified. I don’t carry cash, and I cut up all my credit cards when I got into debt in the mid-nineties.

I’m no longer worth eye contact. Yvvonne suspends the transaction. She asks the bagger to put the cart in the freezer.

Watching the cart (my cart-my cart-my cart) being wheeled away, my heart sinks. Minime’s flea treatment isn’t working, but she won’t be getting spray or shampoo anytime soon. What else was in that cart? A Greenwise London Broil like proof we were meant to eat meat. A California Cabernet Sauvignon. Several ears of sweet Florida corn. The strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, quince (seriously), and banana which would have gone into the smoothies I promised Becky.

There are also little splurges I don’t usually allow myself because my backpack only has room for the necessities (and yes, the wine is a necessity because I opened a bottle last week and the empty space in my wine rack picks at the OCD part of my brain while I’m trying to sleep). Like chips and salsa. A pack of chocolate chocolate chip muffins. A tin of Smokehouse Almonds.

Not having the money to pay for groceries means I don’t deserve indulgences.

Public will close in fifteen minutes. I call Wachovia, like there’s something to be done at 9:45 at night. The cashier, the security guard, the people waiting in checkout lines, the people waiting at lotto and for cigarettes, they’re looking at me while I dial. I’d like to say it’s my imagination, but the groceries went in the wrong direction. I feel like I’ve been gut-punched. I can’t dummy up. Couple my longing stare with the departing cart, and you’ve got the whole story.

A deadbeat, here in the Gables? their eyes say. How did he get in?

I don’t want to imply that there’s accusation in their flat, curious eyes,. They aren’t filled with the cashier’s schadenfraude either. Mostly it’s a but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I satisfaction.

For their benefit, I try to appear indignant. What I really feel is humiliated and useless. A banking error is all it takes to put me back in school (if you can call a deposit slip marked “funds will be available on 5/24” which should say 5/25 because Wachovia doesn’t actually make the funds available until midnight an “error” rather than “a deliberate deception designed to maximize overdrafts”), being judged by my peers and found lacking.

The bank isn’t responsible for one truth in my life; I turn thirty-eight this year and I still live hand to mouth.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Need Machine

“I’m so bored,” Cleo Junior says, drawing the last word into a five-syllable whine.

It’s Becky’s birthday and we’re waiting for her mother so we can be seated at Benihana. It doesn’t matter that Becky’s father just took Cleo Junior behind the restaurant to look for fish in the Bay, and Becky and I just took him out back to look for fish, and I took him out to see the gardens, walk the railing, call Becky on my cell, and watch the diners through the floor-to-ceiling windows (although staring at people while they eat should not be encouraged, so we stopped); he takes every opportunity to let us know how profoundly bo-or-or-or-ored he is.

Really he’s upset that the world isn’t revolving around him, but around waiting for his abuela (we have reservations but they won’t seat an incomplete party). He also wants to break open the art kit which his bisabuela gave him earlier in the evening. We were expecting to be seated right away and for the “show” of the chef preparing our meal right in front of us to keep Cleo Junior entertained, so we didn’t bring anything to entertain him. The art kit is filled with tiny pieces, paints, glitter tubes - nothing we want opened in a busy restaurant.

Asking Cleo Junior to wait patiently for the chef show to begin is like asking a dog to meow.

I’ve heard children described as need machines. I’ve also heard it’s like having a tiny, cantankerous old man demanding constant attention. Waiting at Benihana, Cleo Junior is more like the latter, but with a severe case of Alzheimer’s thrown in. The second we stop doing, Cleo Jr. forgets everything that happened the prior second. His boredom is immediate, and total.

Driving with him to Orlando was a similar experience, but Becky and I managed to turn “are we there yet?” into a game. We made him realize how silly it was to keep asking, and a sly humor crept into his tone, making us all laugh. For a five-year-old, he’s got great comic timing. Waiting to be seated when Cleo Jr. is tired and hungry, there’s no way to bring him into the joke. You’re tired and hungry yourself. You want to laugh. You want to cry. You want to scream.

More to the point, you want to forget yourself, grab him hard, and shake him silly, yelling that he needs to stop whining before you give him something to whine about.

Finally being seated brings relief – something new! But although we take up six seats, they hold our meal until another party of two can fill the eight-top. When Benihana finds a couple, they have a problem with a coupon they've printed off the internet. Now we want to give the waitress, the manager, even the couple the old grab-n’-shake.

“We just entertained a five-year-old for an hour waiting for a table, screw the stupid coupon and give us alcohol, NOW.”

The look on Mini Cleo’s face when the chef arrives and starts dancing food over the flat-top? Priceless. He’s slaw-jawed, delighted beyond measure, wide-eyed with amazement. He’s laughing his face off. He’s got a toddler’s crush on chef Miguel.
These are the moments we love having him as the center of attention. He reminds us what it was like to discover everything for the first time. We remember the wonder of a volcano made from onions, of flipping shrimp tails and rice bowls.

Other tables smile at us, thinking to themselves, what a sweet boy. Looking at a five-year-old laugh over Benihana, it’s impossible to be cynical.

Cleo Junior barely touches the food, but at least he’s not bored.

Friday, May 21, 2010

God Is Dreaming Us Awake

That is to say, dreaming us into existence. When you're dreaming, your brain can’t selectively emote. Dreaming, you can’t tell the difference between stubbing your toe and losing your toe, or kissing and making love; it’s all agony and it’s all ecstasy. That’s why during our waking hours, we can’t understand why we found a dream so terrifying, or so funny, or so profound.

God dreams us awake and she can’t tell the difference between genocide in Rwanda and a teenager in Greensbarrow who just got dumped, the difference between a man locked up for twenty years for a crime he didn’t commit and a child never allowed from his own parents' basement for the same span, the difference between a drowning baby and a puppy run down in the street.

We think we can, of course. This causes misery. We suppress this misery most of the time, bury it in text messages and blogs, in opening weekend box offices and seasons premieres, in a new pair of shoes or the gourmet sandwich shop that just opened.

But our denial doesn't stop it. Tragedies quaint and Earth-rocking continue, and we turn a blind eye, just like God. She’s too overwhelmed, you see, when all we need is for her to wake up, so she can tell the difference.

In that respect, we are her image.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Relationships are Compromise

As romantic as it is to believe two people could be so made for each-other that they’ll have no adjustments to make in coming together, it just ain’t so. Whether as superficial as he-doesn’t-find-That 70’s Show-funny and she-finds-Seinfeld-characters-annoying, as silly as she-doesn’t-put-the-cap-back-on-the-toothpaste and he-leaves-his-towels-on-the-bathroom-floor, or as serious as what brand of peanut butter should be stocked and whether mushrooms are delicious or evil, you are going to have to give a little to get a little.

This is why people stay single. People happy with their lives often develop a vague notion that they want to share their happy lives, but that’s all they want to do: share their lives. As in, here, see how great my life is? Let’s both live my life together!

Sorry, you can’t expect a partner to be nothing but a reflection.

I’m not saying this is difficult or the process is contentious, I’m just stating a fact. You will change each-others lives, and some of those changes will challenge you.

Take, for instance… the first birthday in a new relationship. Let’s say your girlfriend wants to go see the Instruments of Torture Through the Ages exhibit at the Miami Freedom Tower. Let’s say you have had perhaps a dozen dreams over the years about torture, the images of which have not left you, the vividness of them making you wonder about past lives. Let’s say your new girlfriend, who while cute as a bug’s ear apparently harbors a heretofore unsuspected fascination with real live actual torture devices discovered in European antique stores and private collections, let’s say she really, really wants to go.

Do you tell yourself, confronting torture devices will exorcise these demons and I won’t have to worry about Medieval dungeons when I close my eyes again? Or do you say, have fun, Becky?

My decision to attend the torture exhibit is not without precedent. I took Andi to see Bodies: The Exhibition on her 34th birthday when I had no personal interest, and more than a little worry that I’d be creeped out. My imagination made it much more graphic than it turned out to be, and I found it fascinating. I hoped to have a similar experience with torture.

We found our first grammatical error – good ol’ your vs. you’re – on a poster before we even entered the exhibit. This same series of poster boards claimed that the desire to inflict pain, even humiliation, suffering, and torment on our fellows, is a part of being human. I don’t agree. I think better of us. I think certain cultures and circumstances might lend themselves to it, but I don’t think we’re born with torturous instincts.

Anyway, how was the exhibit? Rife with grammatical and spelling errors. They should be ashamed.

As far as seeing the devices goes, try NOT thinking about a blue-eyed polar bear for the next sixty seconds. You’ve heard that one, right? Well, once you’ve seen them, try not thinking about… the Saw. The Wheel. The Impaler. The Goat’s Tongue. The Breast Ripper, Thumb Screws, Pinchers, Scissors, the Pear, Flaying, The Judas Cradle. The posters out front promised the exhibit would provoke revulsion, and it did. But the exhibit failed in its promise to make me think about torture as it’s still used today. It’s grotesque. A walk through the valley of but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I.

Still, it caused a melancholy that’s been difficult to shake. I haven’t been thinking of water boarding, psychotropic drugs, or whatever I was supposed to think about, but the ills we allow to happen in the name of civilization. There are a lot. What they have in common is that I feel helpless to do anything about them.

How can I? I couldn’t even get Becky to go see Kick Ass instead of the guillotine.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

They Have the Best CVS There...

There are people who scan the radio and stop when they hear something they know, and people who scan the radio looking for something they’ve never heard before. The joy of vacations should be living in that second mind-set for a while. Yet more and more, a sameness is creeping across our country. As much as I love Starbucks, seeing one in New Orleans made me angry.

I guarantee when you get home from vacation, no one says, “I love Portland! Did you check out their Target?”

The axiom “no matter where you go, there you are” is starting to mean more than just a statement of the human condition. Now everywhere you go, you’ll find you can’t escape yourself, Payless Shoes, and Olive Garden. You can't escape strip malls. You can’t escape retail villages, huge feeding troughs of consumerism which look like children resulting from a corporate gang-rape of Norman Rockwell.

Working at an Indie bookstore, it's easy for me to get upset. I wonder what I’d do if a Café Du Monde opened across the street from Books & Books. Turn my nose up at it because it wasn’t in New Orleans, or gain five pounds the first week it opened from grubbing on those sweet beignets?

I often say your money is your message, as in, if you like Books & Books quit spending your money someplace else. But as incomes dwindle, our buying choices have little to do with what we like and everything to do with what we can afford.

Coral Gables, Bal Harbour, Grand Cayman Island, these places aren’t hurting for money. Miami Beach is a captive audience, since they’d have to leave the island to browse. We’re opening a Hampton store in July. Is Books & Books only standing because of the zip codes we choose?

If my money is my message, then I love me some Swedish modular furniture. I Ikea’d the hell out of the Treehouse when I moved in. It looks amazing in pictures, but none of this furniture will become heirlooms. It’s made to be disposable, as different from the weighty dresser I helped a friend pick up and move from Biltmore Way as Ke$ha is from Leonard Cohen.

I had a bed. Should I have lived from boxes while I slowly built up enough money to buy the right “pieces?” Maybe. It would have been tougher to bring myself back from being emotionally devastated by the break down of my marriage if I’d been surrounded by more mess in my home, but maybe the process would have built character.

That’s what America (and Americans) is losing (and lacking) – character.

Monday, May 10, 2010

You Are All Immigrants Now Get Over It

As an Indian / Native / American Indian / Indigenous American / descendent of the folks who were here first, a few Sweet Readers and some friends have asked me how I feel about Arizona’s immigration law.

Asking me to speak for all Indians is senseless, but I'm happy to offer my opinion as a mixed-race American whose mother is Indian.

The law sucks.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Land of Twilight: Racist

In my love of vampire frolic I refused to believe that Forks, Washington, setting of Stephenie Meyer's teen vampire romance Twilight series, could perpetrate an act of Native Kitsch.

Then Sweet Reader Gabriel from Seattle sent me this image of a recent trip he took to Forks.

Say it ain’t so, Bella.

But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Movies to Avoid

I watched two different movies this week which sucked in their own distinct ways.

First off, we’ve got David Lynch's Eraserhead.  No one can deny the appeal of The Straight Story or the artistry of The Elephant Man, and Lost Highway and Muholland Drive are two of my favorite movies. Wild at Heart?  Absolutely.  Blue Velvet?  Sure.  Dune?  Well, at least it was one the decade’s top three flops (the others being Heaven’s Gate and Howard the Duck).  If you’re going to fall flat on your face, do it with gusto.

I’ve had Eraserhead on my to-watch list for almost nineteen years, ever since a guy came dressed as Henry Spencer to a Halloween party my sophomore year of college and everyone went nuts.  They all seemed to know who and what Eraserhead was, and I felt like I was missing out. When I later learned the mind-bending Lost Highway that I loved was by the same director, I was psyched.

It may have taken another ten or so years for that excitement to wind its way through my consciousness and my Netflix queue and eventually to my DVD player, but I finally saw it.

In the special features, Lynch talks about dissecting a cat while attending film school and shooting Eraserhead.  The way the organs changed from vibrant colors to dull grays when the air hit them fascinated Lynch.  Eraserhead is like that.  It’s an exercise, nothing more.  It’s solipsistic (and no, I don’t think I’m using solipsistic too much since I’ve learned it, I’m just psyched to be able to use it correctly. And yes, that’s two uses of psyched; quit being so critical and write your own blog), it's gratuitously weird, and it's almost eye-wateringly boring.

But I forced myself to watch it.  It’s Lynch, after all.

The punchline?  When I brought it up at a party the next night to a bunch of pretentious film buffs, no one had seen it.  I wish I had given it my usual treatment, ejecting it when the first twenty minutes didn’t pull me in.

I have no idea how the other movie got in my queue. It’s called See This Movie and it stars Seth Myers and John Cho as hapless moviemakers (I’m laughing already) trying to get a non-existent film into a festival while simultaneously filming the whole experience to put in the festival.  It was so profoundly terrible I can’t help but wonder who these fools are rating it highly enough that IMDB gives it 5 out of 10 stars.

When it started, I couldn’t believe anything so horrible had become a completed film.  I know “horrible” is not specific criticism, so let’s say it had problems with pace, tone, performances, and writing.  I watched it because I didn’t believe it could be as bad as it was and still exist.  Then about twenty minutes in, there was a funny scene.  Seth Meyers gets hit on by Jim Piddick.  Normally a bit player, when given the chance to shine in a large role, Jim Piddick proves the old adage that it doesn’t hurt your career to be in a terrible movie as long as you’re the best thing in it.

This "dumb straight guy rattled by a pass from a man" scene has been mined for comedy countless times, but it was well written, Piddick rocked it, and it seemed like the only time Meyers acted instead of trying to be funny.  This scene fooled me into thinking the movie only started shitty and got better.  Not so.  I sat through an hour and a half of paint drying because of one funny scene.

I will never get these hours back, folks.  But if I can prevent just one person from wasting his or her time on these same cinematic failures, then it will have been worth it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Racism: Not Just for Northerners

Here’s what makes the racial tension in Miami different than the racial tension up north. Growing up in central New York, I knew I was enlightened because only southerners were racists.

Forget my seventh grade science teacher, who said there were no instances of absolute black hair in nature, then pointed to where I sat between a black girl and a Chinese boy and said, “Well, maybe that table, but that’s about it,” in a dismissive, let’s-get-back-to-the-point tone. Forget that for me diversity was the two black kids, one Eskimo, and the handful of Asians and Latinos I went to school with. Forget that we few dusky faces came to represent the entirety of our respective races as we were called upon to answer our classmates’ often confounding questions about what, where, when, and how. Forget that co-workers and I swapped “the first time I saw a black person” stories as part of our getting-to-know-you routine (apart from Liz Ramirez, who, when it was her turn, smiled and said, “The first time I saw a white person…”). Forget that our northern enlightenment depended on how effectively we kept our racial populations segregated. Forget reality and learn the “truth.” School taught me northerners like us ended the Civil War and conquered racism, that racism itself was a southern problem.

Then I moved to Virginia. Interracial couples walked hand-in-hand all over the place, and the only one staring was me. I saw a wedding between two white people where the best man and two bridesmaids were black - and it wasn’t a movie. Black people ate next to me at restaurants. They shopped with me and worked with me.

By the way, I don’t know how folks I’m calling black feel about being called black but it’s my shorthand for telling this story. I hate the term “Native American.” I’m not saying dislike; I’m saying hate. I wasn’t invited to the vote that determined when I was supposed to stop calling myself Indian, and I don’t give a damn that the name is based on faulty navigation. That whole wave of political correctness grates on my nerves because the default setting, the given, is American, and it’s meant to be synonymous with white. Therefore I can’t bring myself to use African American, sorry. If we need labels, I tend to prefer “people of color,” but it doesn’t really speak to my point because I’m taking about one particular color.

Anyway, back to seeing lots of black people every day of my life for the first time in my life. I realize I’d been fed bullshit for twenty some odd years. The enlightened, tolerant, wishy-washy lack of racism I grew up with relied on keeping all people of color invisible.

Moving to Miami blew the definitions I’d learned all to hell. Someone who could be identified as African American in a picture would really be South American or Caribbean or European. Ditto the white folks. You might think that girl’s Spanish, but guess what? She’s Greek. Or Indian. Or Middle Eastern. It’s all a mish mash and ultimately it won’t matter, if we keep loving on each-other until no one knows who’s what.

I’m not sure how to feel about this. Racism is a blight on society and it’s dehumanizing to individuals. The world will be better off when it’s gone. But is homogeneity the only solution?

I want my Eskimo families gathered around a seal and ripping its raw flesh to pieces for sustenance. I want my gentile southerners and upper-crust northerners taking cocktails at five and calling it Attitude Adjustment Hour. I want my Haitians speaking English, Spanish, French, and Creole, and I want theirs names to be an exotic confusion of genders and verbs not normally lending themselves to proper nouns. I love our differences, and would prefer we celebrate and not eliminate them.

Places like Miami, New Orleans, Richmond, places where different races lay cheek by jowl, we have to get along. We rely on a rainbow coalition of colors to get us through our days, regardless of if we like each-other, whether or not we want to need each-other.

My solution to end racism? Forced proximity for people of all races. It’s way too much effort to hate the people who live with you.

And if you make that kind of effort, you deserve to die alone.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Starbucks is Not the Evil You Think

It's a different kind of evil. Starbucks brews coffee I like, the way I like it. I’m not talking about cappuccino, latte, Frappuccino, mocha, caramel macchiato nonsense. It’s like vodka. Once you start mixing vodka with cranberry juice or orange juice or whatever, it doesn’t matter what you use as long as it’s not rotgut. If you drink martinis, you’ll know when it’s swill. You might not be able to distinguish Belvedere from Grey Goose from Diamond, but that’s another post.

I brew with a French press at home. I drink my coffee black. I know when I’m drinking swill.

At home in Miami, I’ll drink a cappuccino at Café Demetrio, espresso at the end of many an Italian meal (which can get dodgy), and cafécito or café con leche just about anywhere. No matter where I go, even the freshest black coffee doesn’t hold a candle to Starbucks. Yet I would never go to Starbucks when I travel. Where’s the fun in that?

Starbucks, answering complaints that their coffee is “too dark” or “tastes burned” started offering nothing but Pike’s Place throughout the day. They only have traditional offerings (now labeled “bold” because they're dark roast regardless of how hearty the blend is) before ten am. This made certain folks happy, but there’s a difference between fast-food coffee and gourmet coffee made quickly. Although it’s all I brew at home and the office, I’ve got little reason to walk into a Starbucks now.

Thanks, Dunkin’ Donut lovers. You fucked up my coffee ritual.

Or rather, Starbucks did, when they forgot the distinction which made them so successful. I don’t hate Starbucks for closing four coffee places within weeks of opening their first store on Miracle Mile, I hate Starbucks for succumbing to corporate think. Corporations became evil when they were awarded the same rights as individuals without the same personal responsibility, but they become stupid when they lose sight of what made them great. No one ever became great pursuing profit.

You used to care about educating baristas and redefining America’s palette, Starbucks. Now you care about building masses to suckle at your caffeine-filled teats.

Congratu-freakin-lations, Starbucks. You love money.