Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmas Miracle

The house we're renting was built in 1928, impressively old by Miami standards.  Some months back, Becky and I decided we should remove the decades of accumulated paint before we chose our own pallet.

Okay, it was my brilliant idea.  Blame me 100%.  But the windowsills are flaking without our help, and previous peeling has obviously been painted over.  None of the doors close because of the accumulated layers.  The crown molding has no detail, and the corners sag with frozen drips.  Apart from the floors - oak in the front rooms, pine in the bedrooms - the house's wood energy is suffocating beneath years of latex and lead.

Little did I know how difficult it would be to remove.  

Five days of work spread over several months later...
Work is nothing without a deadline, so we invited Becky's family for Christmas brunch at our place.  Dylan stayed with his Abuelo and Abuela.  Becky and I could work all night if we wanted.

"So we'll be tired," I said, "so what?"

Well paint-scraping tired is not writing tired, or internet-surfing tired, or drinks-with-friends tired.  It is where-did-that-cut-come-from, aches-in-muscles-and-tendons-you-never-knew-you-had, making-a-fist-hurts-like-hell strung out exhausted, especially after a few hellish weeks of holiday retail.

This hurts.
We worked until three AM Thursday night then popped up at eight Friday morning.  We scraped until we physically and emotionally could scrape no more, until no amount of willpower would force our muscles to obey.  One cabinet is better than nothing.

We hit one cabinet with chalkboard in a can and painted the walls Chianti (Behr S-H-150).  The other cabinet, baseboards, and trim will wait for another day.

Through dividing and conquering, we managed to get the dining room not just presentable but lovely, while picking up paychecks, cleaning, and grocery shopping for the brunch.  We also learned that even exhausted at three am, we're a great team.
Oddly enough, the red is so rich that it makes the last few layers of paint to be scraped look like a deliberate attempt to be distressed and antique-looking.  We were praised to heaven for the look.  It's a nice thought but I doubt we'll go with it, particularly when only one more day of work will give us a finished room.  Well, maybe two days.

Either way, we can't let the paint win.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Noche Buena II: The Quickening

Now I know how Becky felt going up north for Thanksgiving.  There's one picture of me which survives from my first Noche Buena last year, a group shot of the whole Quiroga clan.   Since I tower over everyone else, there's no mistaking the terrified look on my face.

Meeting someone's family for the first time is always nerve-wracking, especially when there's a whole bunch of them presented to you at once.
Terrifying individuals.
Even though there were a slew of folks I didn't know or had only met once, this year I stopped freaking out and felt like part of the family.  

I think Jose's Coquito was only partly responsible.
Pictured: Jose.   Also, Becky's sister in Coquito haze.
We ate delicious food, laughed, and welcomed family from as far away as California.  We enjoyed live music around a fire outside on a night which can only be described as perfect.  No one got too handsy when in his cups.  No one puked or passed out.  Every dish tasted sublime.  Tia New One's homemade pies were like little slices of heaven.  Ninety-something Dora grabbed my face and unleashed a slew of Spanish (I caught "fine gentleman" and figured it all had to be good).  I have no idea why I was so nervous last year.
Not so terrifying individuals
It's tough being away from my family for the holidays, but the Quiroga clan made me feel right at home.  The love of a good woman helps, too.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Holidays + Retail Job = Internet Silence

Since returning from Thanksgiving vacation, I've put in more hours at Books & Books than a Malaysian eight-year-old in a sneaker factory.  I took last Sunday off to watch Dylan, and this weekend off to scrape paint in the dining room.  These are not days off in the sense of coffee in one hand, Just Kids in the other, lounging in pajamas while Friends on DVD plays quietly in the background (just writing that sentence made me drool).  I worked like an ox before the goad, I just didn't get a paycheck for my efforts.

Between sixty-hour work weeks, interminable renovations, and Christmas shopping, I've barely been able to get out of bed.  I sleep, dream, and then Dylan rousts Becky and I out of bed.  I set my alarm for five as always, but I was so sleepy I'd turn it off and have no recollection of doing so.

Christmas fever has made Dylan a handful.  The other buyer, Z, has been on his honeymoon, leaving me solo during our busiest time of the year.  I've been sleeping through the time alloted for the one activity which keeps me sane.  We're still living hand to mouth, barely.  The walls of our dining room look like the set of Silent Hill.  MiniMe has fleas. So why am I so happy?  Christmas?  Becky?  All the lights and carols?  Coming home to presents form up north?  Maybe a cocktail of all of those thing, with a fresh pine tree thrown in to stir it.

I'm sorry SwF&F has gotten anemic.  I promise more words in the future.

In the meantime, I'm fine.  Busy, exhausted, and fine.

Love and happy holidays!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

My Love / Hate Relationship with Nicholas Sparks

Man unknown, books unread, I’ve hated Nicholas Sparks ever since I read his contribution to a book called The Making of a Bestseller.  I grabbed an Advanced Readers Copy off the freebie shelf because one chapter featured our owner, Mitchell Kaplan.  I was new to Books & Books, and unfamiliar with his cache in the bookselling world.
Anyway, Sparks didn’t set out to be a writer; he set out to be a bestseller.  He researched bestselling novels and determined that there are only three household name authors in any subcategory of fiction.  You might have dozens of mystery authors, but when you’re searching for Medical Thrillers, you’ve got Robin Cook, Tess Gerritsen, Michael Crichton, and a bunch of talented midlist folks nipping at their heels.
Sparks wasn’t inspired to write The Notebook, he saw that the sub-genre of romantic fiction was “wide open” and crafted a book whose sole purpose was to make him a bestselling author.
Do I hate him because his formula worked?  For being so unabashedly commercial about an artistic enterprise?  Probably a bit of both, but I also hate him because I work from inspiration, and I labor under the delusion that if I love what I’m writing, enough other people will so that I’ll make a living one day.

Cut to Nicholas Sparks’ signing at Books & Books.   We have bestselling authors all the time, but celebrity authors are rare.   Books-into-box office aside, he'd just made the Forbes list of top ten highest-paid authors.  I suggested we order two thousand copies of Safe Haven.  I was given the irksome directive to "wait and see," as in wait and see how everyone in Miami procrastinates until the last minute so it looks like there's no interest, wait and see if the publisher runs out of books by the time we’re ready to order, wait and see until only ungodly rush charges will get us the books in time.
Mitchell choose a number much lower than my suggestion.  The Marketing and Events Coordinator and I yessir’d him, then we decided on a quantity somewhere in the middle.  
Mitchell was worried about turnout.  To hear Sparks tell it, he’d had a signing at Books & Books in 1996 and spoke to five people.  One of them was Mitchell Kaplan, who stayed the whole night.  Sparks said it was Mitchell’s hospitality which brought him back. 
Hundreds and hundreds of screaming fans lined up around the block later, Becky and I used her Barnes & Noble Club Member discount card to empty their shelves (another Books & Books secret: for successful events we’ve underestimated, B&N becomes our fourth wholesaler!).  Running through the alleys of Coral Gables to avoid the crowds, madly ripping B&N stickers off, Becky toppled to the pavement, losing skin, four bags of books, and the toe off a pair of five-inch heels.  Mitchell drove me to Borders (the fifth wholesaler!) to empty their shelves and come back to the store for more back-alley, sticker-ripping fun. 
We made it by the skin of our teeth - seven copies to spare.  

When I heard he'd left without signing some stock, I ran out and stopped the car Sparks was leaving in to get them signed.  It was a gross intrusion I only had the gall to perform because I’d run all over Miami to get the damned things, and he was going to sign every last one of them.  He handled my intrusion graciously, so I can't hate him any longer.  
I love Nicholas Sparks for the same reason I love Ricky Martin, Tori Spelling, Hillary Duff, and most recently (and especially) George W. Bush.  Whatever I think about their celebrity or their books, they sell.  They sell tons, and we all get to eat that week.
Just don’t ask me to read any of their books.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Job Aint Nothin' But Work, or A Bright and Shining Lie

The other night I was at an upscale Indian restaurant, celebrating the birthday of a close friend.  It was one of those potentially awkward social situations where everyone involved knows one person but not each-other.  Sitting there, merely one beer into it, I pulled out a lie I haven’t used in years.  I loved this lie for many years but I assumed it died with all the idiocy I committed in my twenties.  
Not so much.  I told this table of old friends and new acquaintances I had been accepted to Yale.  

Let me explain, I’m not a liar.  I don’t do it comfortably, often, or well, except in print.  But when I choose a lie, it usually involves my past, and I tell it over and over until I need to remind myself it's a lie.  The truth is I didn’t want to go to college.  I was an artist.  What lame-ass artist needs college?  My guidance counselor pointed to my SAT score, my ACT score, and my academic record.  She told me I could go anywhere I wanted.
“You could get into Yale with these scores,” she said.

Somehow, this led to me telling people I was offered a full scholarship to Yale and turned it down.  The only college that offered me a free ride was the Rochester Institute of Technology.  I turned it down.  Artist, remember?  Plus, I was young enough to believe that free rides lurked around every corner.  

Throughout my twenties, I painted, I wrote, I dabbled in theater.  I worked a series of jobs which were beneath my intellectual capacity, if not my station in life.  I didn’t drink.  I dabbled in pot and mushrooms, tried coke a couple of times, and dropped a lot of acid.  And I told people I turned my back on Yale.  The lie proved that I once had potential and a fine mind, that someone important had looked at me and said, “Yes.”  

Looking back, it's obvious I wasn’t proud of how I chose to live.  Dusting the lie off after so many years must mean that again, I’m not proud of my life.  I want more than just putting a roof over my head.  I turned away from all the stupid things I’ve done, but it’s time to do something, to stop defining myself by what I’ve overcome and become.  

Because I toiled well in lowly positions, I was rewarded with toil in management positions.  I gave more hours to Starbucks and Borders than anyone should give to any job and didn't get much back besides money (and not much of that).  So I dropped out.  I quit being a manager.  I decided to toil on writing until the time my art was recognized.
Unfortunately, in the weeks leading up to the birthday dinner, I was working sixty and seventy-hour weeks.  This doesn’t make me that unusual in the working world, but I’m not some financal wizard or medical guru or any other job which might have a monitorial or altruistic payoff.  I work in a bookstore.  An independent bookstore, so good on me, but I'm two missed paychecks away from homelessness.  

That’s all business is - busy-ness.  It puts a roof over your head and food on your table, but it probably has little to do with the work God put you here to do.  I’ve been so busy lately I’ve lost that perspective.

Looking around the dinner table at the Guidance Counselor, the teachers, the independent film producer, and the musician, I saw people who are doing what they want to do... and I brought up SAT scores.  I can’t blame the beer and I can’t say it flowed naturally from the conversation; I engineered a topic so I could plant my favorite lie.    

It came from feelings of inadequacy, from letting myself drift rather than taking the oars, from letting my life live me.  

Despite what you hear, people can change.  It’s just more work beyond that first choice than most can face.  I need to choose not to be a workaholic and a perfectionist on a daily basis.  Any financial analyst will tell you two things; make your money work for you and pay yourself first.  My art isn’t working for me yet, unless it’s the satisfaction I feel in crafting something new, but I can certainly pay myself first.  I can take the time to work for myself before I work for anyone else, to be my best and brightest self at home rather than sparkling for strangers.

Someday instead of my job, my work will pay the bills.  

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stop Trying to Make Quirk Happen

I read an Advanced Readers Copy of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story.  In one scene the protagonist is insulting her future husband.  He smiled at first but as she really lays into him, his drunken mirth fades.  According to page 112 of the ARC, “The grin on his face was still there but it was getting smaller, fading until it was little more than a quirk and one shallow dimple.”  

As an ARC, it’s uncorrected.  I assumed Stephen King really meant to write “smirk.”  If not, more power to him.  "Frumious" didn't exist until Lewis Carroll used it to describe a Bandersnatch.  Quirk, for an odd grin, a knowing smirk, or a small, weird smile , is brilliant nonsense that still gets the point across.  The guy in King's scene is dying emotionally so maybe quirk doesn't work for this particular sentence, but it should be filed for later use. 

Then again, on page 350 of the ARC of Lauren Oliver’s Delirium, (and be on the lookout for this distopyan young adult novel in February; it will be big, and deservedly so), we have: “One side of Alex’s mouth quirks up into a smile, but the rest of his face remains stony.”

On page 98 of the Vintage edition of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, there’s: “His eyes strayed a second from mine, and his mouth quirked a little.  I knew his secretary had winked at him.”  

I keep reading that word; I do not think it means what I think it means.  

Searching online for a definition of quirk reveals "oddity, a strange attitude or habit," "an unpredictable act or event," or (and here's the one that's news to me) "twist or curve abruptly."  

I should have looked it up after seeing it used a second time, but I couldn't let go of the idea of making quirk happen the way I wanted it to, as in, "You wipe that quirk off your face young man, or you're going to get it."  

I never quite trusted him, because he always wore a quirk.

Blake thought his quirk was charming so he used it often - upon meeting new people, trying to chat up women in crowded bars, passing through a crowd of unsavory types - but he didn't realize the expression creeped people out.

It seems quirk as a twist is always used to describe lips, and I have to guess that's because of its proximity to smirk.  I'd put dollars to Voodoo Donuts that the reason floundering became a synonym for foundering is because people unfamiliar with the right word heard others using it and thought, fish?  I guess if you pulled a flounder out of the water, it would flop around a lot.  Yeah, floundering.  That makes sense.  Eventually it just kind of caught on, the way chomping at the bit is becoming acceptable for champing at the bit.

Conversate on that for a minute.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving, how I love you, and how sad when it all comes to an end.  This year my nephew Jason couldn't make it, but my brother and sister-in-law did.  

We had nineteen kinds of dessert. 

Aunt Val's neighbor had the night off from his job as a prison guard and brought his wife over to Thursday's bonfire.   

My cousin Margaret brought her significant other, Justin. 

My nephew Steven brought his significant other, Reina.

And of course, Clan Curtis / DeSocio / Jacobs finally met Becky, AKA Cleopatra, AKA the Girl with the Pigeon Tattoo.

We drove, and despite car games, awesome sing-alongs, and a two-hour side swipe at Savannah, it's not an experience I care to repeat any time soon.  Particularly the part where we couldn't find a cheap hotel.

We started pulling over in Virginia, going into hotels and seeing what a night cost.  We took turns to stay awake, all the way to Pennsylvania.  Past two am, unable to drive another foot, we reclined the seats and proceeded to sleep in the car.  It was 30-degrees outside.  Those $50 nights at the Loews Becky's sister hooks us up with have us spoiled.  

We're already saving our pennies so we can fly up next year with Dylan, so imagine him photoshopped into these photos.

My sister Cass, her son Johnny, and my sister-in-law Kim

My cousin Shannon and his wife Christina, with my Mom

The group, minus Kim (behind the camera) and Aunt Val (in the kitchen)

My brother AJ, Me, Becky, and my sister Cass

Me, Becky, and Shannon & Christina's daughter Sophia, pre-snowball fight

In the meantime, I'm hoping my family will visit us so they can get to know her better. 

The Turkey Bowl was two-hand touch with just a few guys.  I lost most of Friday to a Labatt Blue hangover, so we missed driving to the Rez.  Becky didn't get to eat any apple pie the whole time.  On the way back, route 95 was choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic from Pennsylvania to Virginia.  I kept saving it for later, so my one serving of corn chowder went bad on the drive back home.  Heartbreaking.

The beauty of being with family is not that the good outweighs the bad, it's that the bad is a mild afterthought.  

Here's to another great year.