Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Life Is Like a Box of...

Meredith Broussard, editor of the inconsistently wonderful and occasionally amazing Encyclopedia of Exes, says she shouldn’t have been surprised that when she asked a bunch of men to write about love, they wrote about sex. I wonder how true that is. Did she ask them to write about love? Or, as the subtitle says, was it a history of failed relationships?

When I think of my exes, sex looms large. Sifting through those memories is like sifting through a litter box. You scoop and you get the nuggets, everything else falls through for use the next time around.

Maybe that’s cynical. At least it’s disgusting.

How many people do you meet who mean very little to you? They come and they go but rarely do they touch you. To delve into failures with people who actually meant something to us is to confront our own shortcomings. This can be a tough undertaking, but necessary if we hope to better next time.

But in the meantime, before the next time, you’re just wallowing. It’s a lot easier (and fun) to concentrate on the fucking.

Scrutinizing a past relationship - not one that just devastated you, that you had to spend weeks or months deconstructing in order to move on - but a relationship long past, do people actually think about what a relationship meant in the larger fabric of their life?

Maybe it happens like Rob in High Fidelity. You realize nothing ever works right so you analyze everything all at once.

I don’t know. I just wrote this for the litter metaphor.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Another Confession

I was doing fine. I could sit at a keyboard and just push the cursor, exploring my thoughts and saving worry for later (you know worry, right? Worry about plot, structure, and syntax, worry over whether I’m any good, worry if I’ll ever be paid to do what I love). The worlds in my head proved fine places to spend hours of morning frolic.

Nine AM was like a doomsday bell so I decided to move to part-time. Instead of two or three hours of writing, I would do four or five. I'd wander into Books & Books around eleven, then I’d leave early, ensuring Andi and I had a healthy dinner. She’d been lax with her diet (I mean diet in an end-stage-renal-failure, dialysis, waiting-on-the-transplant-list way, not an her-ass-was-big way) and it had cost her.

I didn’t mention to Mitchell that I felt my marriage was coming loose from its railings, but he went for it. When I moved out a few months later and money became paramount, he was just as happy to keep me at full-time. He also offered stellar advice. There’s something good about working for a man, vs. The Man.

I’ve covered how the separation has affected my writing in some detail (like here and here), as well as the tentative steps to recovery. I had a string of days when I’d gotten up to write, and I believed the worst was behind me. Then I agreed to meet Andi for coffee.

I’ve looked back through my journal. Do you know how many times I’ve used the word “divorce?” Three. First was the hopeful and pathetic, “We’re not divorced yet.” Second was in a book title, File for Divorce in Florida Without Children. Finally, I was speaking of how I agreed to have coffee with Andi because I thought it would be odd otherwise. “Haven’t spoken in a while, how have you been? Great, sign these divorce papers.”

How many times have I used the word divorce in this blog? I can’t do a “find” search like it's a Word document, but I’m going out on a limb and claiming a big, fat goose egg. I’ll bet a week of dinners that I've talked separation, dissolution of marriage, failure, etc. the same as in my journal, but have never used the word divorce.

Weird, how you can anticipate a thing, even actively work toward it for months, yet shy from naming it.

Naming something doesn’t help get your mind around it. If there was a word describing how it feels to sit across from someone you’ve been in love with for years and seeing her as a closed door instead of a sanctuary, feeling a bubble of hurt and hate and resentment in your gut and wishing it outweighed the love and knowing it never will, would having a word which encompassed all that help me feel it? Let’s try calling it flarg.

“I sat there, holding my latte, feeling flarg as we discussed our divorce.”

“I looked at her for the first time in months, surprised how her hair had continued to grow despite my absence from her life. Flarg pounded through my veins as she sat down.”

“Our body language makes it obvious to everyone. I see them trying not to stare, pretending to read and talk about other things while they watch us share flarg.”

Nah, doesn’t help at all.

The morning after coffee, the snooze button was once again my best friend. Not a coincidence.

I wouldn’t call this writer’s block. When I think of writer’s block, I imagine staring at a blinking cursor wishing your brain could talk your fingers into moving it, or someone sitting at an old-school typewriter, pulling page after page from the roller and crumpling them in frustration; I’ve just been sleeping.

Whether I go to bed at nine PM or two in the morning, I’ll still hit the snooze button for hours. Soon I realize I’ve squandered my writing time and need to get to my job. Getting out of bed for my job is too depressing to contemplate, so I just lay there, staring at the ceiling, purring cat on my belly, trying to cajole myself out of bed.

I watched South Park on DVD last night until exhaustion took me some time past midnight, but my eyes popped open just before my alarm rang at five. I hit snooze. I lay there, remembering when every morning felt like a reward, a fresh page, a new chance to get it right. I asked myself what I wanted to do with my life. I stopped snoozing.

The few paragraphs of fiction I pecked this morning took an hour and fifteen minutes. I couldn’t believe how much time had passed, how little I’d done, but I know when it’s time to move on to other things… like whiny blogs.

Not much, but it’s a start. Again.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A New Face at Books & Books

When independent booksellers rant about Amazon, non-bookseller’s eyes tend to glaze over. Blah-blah-blah, the money you spend at the A-word doesn’t go back to your community, yada-yada-yada, the A-word uses bullying buying and pricing tactics, loddy-la, doddy-da, when’s the last time the A-word helped raise money for your daughter’s school?

Well then, let’s not dwell on how the A-word devalues books. Instead, let’s focus on the wrongs Amazon has done to me.

If you’re unfamiliar with how schools, churches, synagogues, and businesses approach Books & Books, it takes one of two forms. They’ll give us a list (often riddled with misspelled, incorrectly pluralized, or just plain wrong titles; misspelled, mismatched, or plain old wrong authors; out of print books, and a whole host of other fun quirks which amount to a time-consuming research project) of titles they’d like to order. We return these (corrected) lists with the prices we offer.

Take a look at the last book you bought. See the price on the corner, inside the dustjacket? How about above the barcode? The publisher set that price, not us.

Do cars come with prices painted inside the doors? Clothes with prices sewn into the seams? Electronics with prices etched into the corners? No. I’ve worked women’s retail. The mark up on jewelry, handbags, shoes, and dresses would make you sick. If you buy last season’s Donna Karen at 85% off, here’s the kicker: the store still makes a tidy profit off your purchase. Imagine how much the store made off those dresses at full retail.

Making so much money on other items is also why the A-Word can afford to sell books at a loss. But let me stop myself before I go into the other reasons Amazon has lower margins than bricks-and-mortar businesses and just say that our margins are razor thin. If someone balks at purchasing the titles on the list I’ve returned to them, the best I can do is discount them 20% (assuming we've gotten our full discount from the publisher; if the list is chock full of DVDs or technical books... ah, skip it).

Then, silence. When I follow up, I hear, “We got them cheaper on Amazon.” Thanks for your support.

Books & Books loses money paying me for the time I spent researching, without a sale to show for it. The multitude of other concerns on my plate suffer while I work for the possibility of sale. In five years, this has happened more than I care to admit. I even started a file on it, in case I ever waver in my hatred of Amazon.

Sometimes, hours of research isn’t necessary. Four hundred copies of a single title? Here’s our price. Oh, Amazon’s is better? Thanks for playing.

I’m called the Quartermaster. Used to be, if you ordered a book at Books & Books, I was the one who got it. Whether the order came through the internet, a school, a bookfair, an event, an author appearance, a customer in the store, a reading group, or a gap on the shelves created by a sale – the Quartermaster took care of it. As you can imagine, this kind of sweeping responsibility only allows for so much attention to detail. We have another buyer now for backlist and individual customer orders, but I still don’t have time to chase down sales.

Enter our newly-hired Corporate and Educational Sales Director. Don’t like my 20% discount? Why don’t you talk to LD; maybe she can help.

While it’s still a team effort, LD’s purpose is to schmooze clients and negotiate rates with publishers. In a few short months, she’s stopped several customers I’ve lost in the past from going with the dreaded A-Word. The margins are still thin as threads, but as she educates customers on the value of buying locally, we’ve begun re-capturing sales.

Talk about support all you want; the only real support is where your wallet goes.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The List

“If you have the ability to really open yourself to love and dig down in it, maybe you are in for some trouble if you are not lucky enough to pick the right person. Is it random? I think you just have to make these great big mistakes to learn. And then I think the key is to think hard about what you want to have and want to avoid before you fall in love again. Once you are in love I don’t think you have a lot of choices. You just have to ride it out.”
Isabel Gillies, Happens Every Day

I’ve heard you should get married three times, once in your twenties, once in your thirties, and once in your forties when you finally know what you really want. Perhaps that’s where “third time’s the charm” comes from.

Isabel Gillies’s quote has been crawling around inside my skull like a monkey since I read it (the skull is a cage and the mind is a monkey; believe it). It terrified me. Am I making a mistake throwing myself into a new relationship because I didn’t take the time to think about what I wanted? It doesn’t matter. I’m in love, and now it’s too late to do anything but ride it out.

Except I did think about what I wanted.

Months ago, I thought of what I loved most about Andi and made a detailed list of fifty-five deal breakers my next love needed to win my heart, as brief as number ten (“Playfulness”) and as detailed as number five (“She won’t need to fill the air with stupid bullshit; we will share silence, peace, and stillness, and I will enjoy that sharing more than I enjoy being alone”). If you knew how I enjoy my alone time – I’m a writer, after all, in love with my own thoughts in many ways – you’d know how tough number five is to fill.

Some parts of the list are shallow (“A kick-ass body”) but parts of me are shallow, too. You’ll also find: “There will be some broken things inside her because someone too well-adjusted will not reflect me, but she will not be a broken person.”

I thought the list set the bar impossibly high, insuring I’d be alone long enough to get my head straight. From time to time I’d return to the list, imagining who she would be. I had to remove one requirement: “in some ways, her parents will be as responsible for raising me as my own were.” I met Stacy and Jim at nineteen, and I doubt fifty-year-old Aaron will be as different from forty-year-old Aaron as thirty-year-old Aaron was from twenty-year-old Aaron (God bless you for following that). I had coffee with Stacy last week. When friends ask how it went, I answer “bittersweet.” She’s an amazing woman, but no longer my mother-in-law. Jim and I resolved some father-and-son issues we should have resolved in our biological families, but he is no longer my father-in-law. It’s a big loss, maybe as big as losing Andi.

In-laws aside, reading the list now makes me feel like Sally in the movie version of Practical Magic, creating an impossible list of qualities for a husband so she'll never be cursed with love, then having him show up on her doorstep . . . Becky scored a fifty out of fifty-four.

I suppose you’re wondering what she missed. Well, she can’t taste a dish I’ve made and tell me the exact ingredient it lacks, she doesn’t have a variegated palate (although she’s tried a bunch of new foods and loved them, so we’ll see), and she’s not five-seven or taller. The fourth is between me and God, but let’s say she’s added bonuses I didn’t dare hope for which make up for these, and then some.

It’s like I drew a rough sketch of my idealized mate, never knowing I was drawing Becky. She stepped in and provided the colors. She has the qualities I need in a person I never would have envisioned for myself. This is so different than I remember falling the first time. Instead of seeing a perfect woman, I see Becky’s faults and weaknesses. I see her.

And I love it all.

I’m ready to ride it out. I just hope it’s the ride of my life.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


My best Saturday mornings are spent outside with coffee and a book. I keep meaning to pack a thermos and bike to a certain stretch of park a few blocks away so I can read underneath the shade of huge banyans, but so far the small porch outside the Treehouse door has suited me just fine. As I sit on the low stucco walls, eye level with the Gables' thick foliage, the sun makes even the coldest mornings tolerable.

A stray joined me this past Saturday. A female calico, skinny and fearless, a frequent visitor before Minime moved in. Something’s happened to one of her eyes. I’ve seen plenty of one-eyed cats before, but none coping with a recent injury. The way she canted her head at everything, so tentative in her steps and leaps, it broke my heart.

Her awkward jump to the wall beside me toppled a low table outside my door and sent my Zephyr Holdings, Inc mug tumbling down the slanted roof (I have an affinity for fictional propaganda: Dunder - Mifflin mugs, Vandalay Industries t-shirts, Stewart / Colbert bumper stickers). The noise startled the poor thing. She dug her claws into the roof, neck cocked at that odd angle as she tried to sweep her head in every direction at once.

I spoke to her in soothing tones as I set the table right. I told her she was fine and hadn’t done anything wrong as I stretched over the roof to retrieve my mug, which thankfully stopped short of rolling off.

I realized that for knocking over a plant and a nearly full cup of water (even though it was sitting out overnight and her water was fresh, she just had to stick her face in my cup…), Minime won herself a stamped foot and a sharp, accusatory call of her name. Not only that, she had to endure some withering admonishments while I mopped up water or cleaned up spilled dirt.

Some people treat what belongs to them negligibly, taking care only with things loaned or borrowed. Some prize their possessions but abuse things which aren’t theirs. I try to care for both equally, but I tend to treat that which doesn’t belong to me more delicately.

There’s got to be a metaphor for relationships in there somewhere.

When it comes to Becky’s son, have I discovered a well of patience I didn’t suspect simply because he isn’t mine? Or am I channeling those few moments when my own father took the time to teach me something?

What happens when I stop wooing Becky, when I start feeling entitled to her company?

To me part of being in love is looking with new eyes, making her feel special every day. My point is more about civility and respect, treating someone as an important new addition to your life instead of the other half of your self. I love that Becky and I have yet to exchange a harsh word (apart from an incident at work with a price gun which I won’t get into). I know I can’t expect that to last forever, but I think I’ve learned something about relationships which will prolong the honeymoon.

No one belongs to you. Even if they give their heart and soul, they are still an individual. Any time you win from them is grace, to be respected, cherished, and, if you’re lucky, nurtured into future moments.

Everything in this life is on loan.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Cube

The Cube is a game. To optimize the effect of these next few sentences, I ask that you please take your time with them. When you see the “* * *” close your eyes. Take a moment to visualize what you’ve been asked to picture in your mind.

Start by picturing a desert. Be specific but don’t think it to death; just go with what comes to your mind when you hear the word desert and make note of its features.

* * *

Picture a cube. How big is the cube? What is it made of? Place the cube in your desert.

* * *

Add a ladder to your landscape. Where is it in relation to the cube? From what is it fashioned? How many rungs does it have?

* * *

Picture a horse in your landscape.

* * *

Picture a storm in your landscape.

* * *

Picture flowers in your landscape.

* * *

You’ve just been cubed. Even though much of what I learn about the world comes through the written word, this probably works better as a verbal exercise. If you’ve never been cubed before, I’m sorry. It can only be done once.

The cube is you. The landscape is how you see the world. The ladder is your friends. The horse is your lover (although "partner" seems to be what people want to use, I'd rather bring lover back into vogue; doesn't matter if you have one right now - that's part of your interpretation). The storm is difficulty, drama, struggle.

I was cubed many years ago. My cube was large, taller than a grown man, directly in the center of my landscape. It was clear, glass, impervious to the surrounding world, yet a direct blow would shatter it.

My desert was endless, something like the ones my uncle used to paint and which I imitate; mountains in the distance, no water, no trees, no scrub, just odd colors of earth. I see the world as magical, I suppose. Was your landscape barren or filled with brush? Solid or ever-shifting?

A single rose grew inside my cube. In the cube landscape, flowers represent children. They can be literal or metaphorical.

My ladder was solid wood, tucked into the sand and leaning against the cube, a sturdy tool without many rungs.

My horse was white, powerful, wild, hooves kicking up dirt from the desert floor as it pounded a path toward the cube, the storm nipping at its tail. When the horse reached the cube, the cube would open, offering shelter from the storm.

Although a direct blow cracking me may be more accurate, I believe my cube and my ladder were and remain decent descriptions of myself and my friends. I have a big ego and I feel like I'm running my life, which account for the size of the cube and its central location. It’s also clear, like my emotions. My ladder is carved from one large piece of my power element. Not a lot of rungs, but each of them able to take my weight.

The cube landscape is like dreams- there are a lot of theories out there, but only you can interpret your own. For instance, if flowers ran wild across your landscape, maybe you want a large family. Maybe you love children but don’t want to raise your own. Maybe you don’t know what you want. What do you think?

My single rose, inside the cube; either I wanted one child to keep sheltered and safe, I wished I could get pregnant, or it was my inner child. At the time, it made me realize I'd been repressing my desire to be a father because I thought that was what my relationship with Andi needed. We never could decide 100% whether we wanted to raise children. Seeing that beautiful rose, the brightest color in the landscape, it made me see my paternal side.

My lover, coming to warn me of the storm. Me, offering my lover shelter from same. I’ve always loved that. I remember her, a blinding white coat, no saddle or bridle, foam-flecked lips. Not just wild, but untamable. True enough, in the end.

Did your storm pass you by, or was it approaching? Did seeing it in the distance fill you with a sense of adventure or foreboding? Maybe you were in it. Was it frightening or refreshing?

I want to be cubed again because my life is so different now. It would be nice to trick my mind into easy self-examination, like I did all those years ago. There are probably different versions out there. A scene in Ann Packer's excellent Dive From Clausen’s Pier has a similar exercise. Picture a river, and birds, and a boat, something like that. I guess it’s not important.

Since I can’t cube myself again (re-cube myself?), I have to be content with this blog.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

My First Publication

I was first published in Junior High. My family was going through counseling for problems associated with alcohol abuse – my parents in Alcoholics Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics, my siblings in Ala-Teen, myself in Children of Alcoholics. Families rarely undergo real change; this period as much as any explains my adaptability.

The poetry I wrote at this time was a few degrees removed from stream-of-consciousness emotive rants, but one or two of them inspired others in the program. COA’s empathized. Their parents understood what they were putting their children through, sometimes for the first time.

The lead counselor was Paul Curtin. The new Phaidon rep I met this week, I couldn’t remember his name for love or money, but Paul? I haven’t seen him for twenty years, and I didn’t even have to think.

I wonder when I became so anti-therapy.

Paul wrote a book and used two of my poems, crediting me as an anonymous child of an alcoholic. As part of the publishing business, I now understand that no one would mistake Paul for John Gray, but I still think of this as my first published work.

All the attention felt good, but I couldn’t see what the fuss was about. I just wrote what I felt and prettied it up a little.

My second publishing experience was an opinion piece on racism that I wrote for the Herald-Journal in High School. This was also my first experience with the editing process outside of a classroom. The man who ran the teen section of the paper, I can’t remember his name but his fingerprints are on Sweet with Fall and Fish. To this day, part of my editing process involves taking out all of the “I thinks” and “to mes” and “I feels” to strengthen my voice and streamline my message.

I was proud of all the work I put in, proud that a photographer came to my house to take a byline photo, proud of having an entire third of the front page of the section.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a pass before the column was published.

My final paragraph began, “When people look scared passing me on the street, I try to believe it’s my age group or because I’m so tall rather than my features.” As part of strengthening my voice, the Herald Journal removed “I try to believe.” Give that line another read without “I try to believe” and you’ll see the whole meaning is changed. It made the struggle to ignore racism that I’d outlined in the preceding paragraphs into childish puling.

Take a look at my photo. I have no idea how you perceive my race, but as a man moving from central New York to Miami I’m qualified to tell you that you’re only as ethnic as the people around you. I may seamlessly blend into the cultural mash that is Miami, but in East Syracuse I was once mistaken for black.

But my point is not whether or not I was subjected to racism as a child, or that you should have final approval on everything you publish; I wrote this blog because the Herald reporter told me that if I ever had something else close to my heart which I felt like writing about, I should give him a call. I thought contacts and opportunities like this would be available my whole life. I figured any time I wanted to express myself, someone would be there to bring my words to a larger audience. Charmingly naïve, or just naïve?

Beyond these two early brushes with writing success, there were awards and recognition for my art and backstage work, IQ tests, my SAT and ACT scores, a scholarship to a school I didn’t want to attend. Daily, I heard that I would do amazing things with my life. What I want to know is, when does an individual’s promise become promise unfulfilled?

Cassandra Wilson didn’t put her first album out until she was forty-two.

When do people stop encouraging you to follow your dreams and tell you to be realistic?

Julia Glass was forty-six when she published her first novel, the best-selling, National Book Award-winning Three Junes.

When does limitless potential become limited choices?

Ben Fountain was forty-eight when his first book Brief Encounters with Che Geuvara stormed the literary world, the mighty Charles Bukowski's first book wasn’t published until he was forty-nine, Alfred Hitchcock didn’t change cinematic history until an amazing string of films beginning at age fifty-four, pieces Cezanne painted in his mid-sixties are worth five times the art he painted in his twenties.

Artists who don’t have children are judged less harshly. If I decide to live in a Treehouse with few amenities and a fiscally tenuous position in the hope that I’ll someday work at something better, it affects no one but me. Meanwhile, parents are admonished to think about how their decisions affect their children. This is valid, but only part of the story.

I’d rather teach my child to work for his or her dreams than for a paycheck.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Happens Every Day

I’ve just finished reading Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies. Check this out:

“Josiah made me feel badly about our fights. And I did feel badly that we fought, but I also thought it was explainable.”

Gillies didn’t feel bad; she felt badly, indicating not negative emotions but that the mechanism which allows her to feel is broken. Including this “and,” she also began three sentences with conjunctions in one paragraph. I know, I know - writers bend this rule for emphasis and style. But come on.

“Professors may get paid well under a hundred grand a year,” Gillies writes, “but if you take advantage of the little perks here and there you start not to feel so bad about that number.” She had referenced salaries in the sixties and seventies a few times earlier in the book, but this line stuck in my craw. She also puffs herself and her Oberlin, Ohio neighbors up for not having “help” in the form of nannies, cooks, and cleaning women (which she admits they would if they’d stayed in New York City) as though they deserve medals.

“As we passed the airport in Cleveland…the DVD player that was built into the car went dead. Lots of people, parents of young children especially, when they read this might call out aloud, ‘Go to the nearest Wal-Mart and buy a $120 DVD player!!!’”

Actually, those of us who grew up sleeping six to a bed on holidays and tumbling around in vinyl backseats on five-hour drives to our nearest relatives on a regular basis thought, “Wow, your car has a built-in DVD player?” Followed quickly by, “Don’t you know any freaking car games? Because my parents sure did!!!”

According to John Dufresne, you get “maybe three” exclamation points in your career; Isabel Gillies used all of them in that one sentence. I used my three to illustrate how annoying I found her sentence.

But Gillies also has an endearing, self-deprecating wit. She gives her husband a long speech trying to reconcile things, a series of choppy sentences expressing her feelings, then she writes, “I wish sometimes I could just say one or two knockout sentences instead of twenty mediocre ones, but it’s how God made me.”

I picked up a memoir about a dissolving marriage knowing it would call up emotions I’d have a hard time facing, so why was I focusing so much on our class differences? Why did I pick her grammatical choices to pieces? It was easier to ridicule and distance myself from this woman than to admit that she’d written some of the most painful, intimate details of my heart.

I don’t have children, so I can’t know how it feels when the other half of your child rips away. But I know how it feels to love someone until it overflows from your pores, to be so toppled by someone’s brilliance that their thoughts and opinions shape everything in your life, to be so deeply happy that you can’t believe your luck. I know how it feels when that leaves.

Izzle wrote about the panic. She explored the helplessness. The dizzying speed with which it happens and the indifference of the turning world. She talked about life losing its context, about trying to find happiness and beauty in the tiniest things, about throwing herself on the mercy of her friends.


You think you’re done with the pain, that you’ve gone through it and come out stronger. Then you realize you are still going through it.

Losing context; that’s stuck with me the most.

I recently talked with Becky about the five things which most define me. A year ago, I had my list ready. Writer. Male. Mixed-Race. Lover. I felt the thing which most defined me was “Husband.” Without that, I’ve floundered to find who I am. I'm still Mixed-Race, but does it come before Writer or after? I’m not sure. I’m still a man, too. After those three… American? Divorcee? Survivor? Chronic Masturbator? Avid flosser?

Becky worries about the rekindling of something between my ex and me. I worry whether this new version of me will share my values and beliefs. It's a very odd feeling, realizing you don't trust yourself.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Then again, South Beach Wine and Food Festival isn’t all bad.

Bobby Flay usually demos and signs later in the weekend, but he opened this year. He’s been nothing but nice to me, and I’ve never heard him be anything but agreeable, outgoing, and professional to his fans, but in four years working next to him I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that he’s kind of an asshole. I think it’s the set of his brows; he always looks like he’s judging.

Well as long his books keep selling, he can judge all he wants. Books & Books needs the Bobby Flays and Paula Deens and Emeril Lagasses to be as successful as they are to make these events worthwhile.

One woman drunkenly bypassed everyone waiting in the rain to meet the Neelys. When security told her she needed to buy a book at Books & Books and wait in line, she mocked him. “Buy a book! Buy a book!” she screamed, like oh, it’s all about the money. “I’m not buying any fucking book.”

One of the security guys politely asked her to take her drunken mess down the road.

The celebrity chefs don’t need book money; they’ve been paid advances for their efforts. Books & Books needs the money. I’m sure chefs aren’t thrilled when folks put a poster or apron in front of them for signing, but my vision goes red and my teeth grind down.

Buy. A. Book. You. Cheap. Mamma. Jamma.

Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be the happy post?

Your toes are in the sand and people bring chocolate and alcohol to you on trays. There’s live entertainment in the form of drunken antics, odd characters, and barely-covered skin. Call it dinner theater of the sweaty elite.

And oh, what food. Fresh-baked cornbread cracker with a sweet potato spread and roasted duck on top. Stone Crab. Hot and sour soup with shrimp. Angus steak with a sprig of rosemary. Battered shrimp on a stick with mango salsa. Roast beef with horseradish sauce. Cupcakes. Every chi-chi hotel restaurant and SOBE eatery brings their “wow” dish.

Thankfully, I’m not a reporter. I sucked down prosecco, breakfast stout (!), rum, vodka, lemon-infused bourbon with ginger ale (far more delicious than it sounds), absinthe (seriously), and several delicious wines, so no one expects me to remember any of the eateries for later explanation. The Jello shots, for instance. I remember the guy naming four ingredients. Some signature item at their hotel bar on SOBE. I remember the crowd made jokes about the year, or college, or whatever. I remember they tasted delicious. But if you want to find out where to go on SOBE for a gourmet Jello shot, you’ll have to Google it.

The best part is, all of this is bite-sized. You can be a glutton without getting full. You can be a lush without getting drunk.

Well, that’s true for those of us working the festival. Some festival-goers were stumbling over the sand by noon, falling over themselves by three, and belligerent by five. But they’re the minority. Most people are just boisterous and looking for a fun time.

Anthony Bourdain hasn’t been to the festival since his child was born, but he came back this year to close the festival with Eric Ripert. The two of them had crowds at the demo and folks in line cracking up. They had people at the Books & Books tent smiling, trying to keep the tables stocked with books.

I ate delicious food, talked books with some folks, got a nice buzz, saw a full double-rainbow spanning the horizon, and was escorted home by the Queen of the Nile.

Taken as a whole, I’ve got nothing to complain about.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


You haven’t heard from me in a while because of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. Books & Books has been the sole bookseller for this event for nine years. With so much going on at work, virtual (online) me has disappeared.

The South Beach Wine and Food Festival is also the reason I was in the accident three years ago. Well, God is the reason (or capital F Fate, if God makes you uncomfortable) but SOBEW&FF is all I was thinking about as I drove to work. Instead of focusing on the treacherous roads, I’d set my mental cruise control. The bulk of my mind was in the receiving room at Books & Books, ensuring Conway Freight dropped off the pallet of Chronicle cookbooks they’d been holding, receiving Chronicle and some other stragglers and turning them around to bring with me to the sand.

As Yoda said, “Never his mind on where he was, on what he was doing.”

The accident put a hex on SOBEW&FF for me. As fun as it is working barefoot in the sands of South Beach, with the breathtaking views of rolling turquoise waves and cleavage all over the place, I couldn’t bring myself to work there.

In 2009, I decided to brave the sands again. I had been tracking SOBEW&FF book sales for five years with three detailed spreadsheets and had everything figured perfectly. Come Sunday, we could have fit our returns in Mitchell’s truck. Gone were the days when our rented U-Haul was so heavy with returns it got stuck in the sand, gone were the eleven PM pack-ups. Half hour after the festival ended, it was Miller time.

When I moved from bookselling at the store level to a desk in the buying office, I lost something in the way of job satisfaction. I have a row of smoldering disasters waiting to burst into flame. While I’m tending the worst of them, three more flare out of control. Keeping everything crackling but not critical is a neverending task. In addition, Books & Books is not a place for people who need a lot of positive feedback. Or even feedback.

SOBEW&FF, there is planning, ordering, receiving, making a bookstore in the sand, selling, packing up, and returns. Clear steps, clear goals, and a conclusion. Because the ordering was so precise last year, my co-workers drowned me in praise. I loved it. The hard work I do in the shadows on a daily basis was brought to light.

I’ve been looking forward to SOBE 2010 for a year, anticipating another moment in the sun.


Some festival goers say that at $215 bucks a ticket, they should get their books for free. Sorry, no. Books & Books is a for-profit business. I say, since you shelled out $215 for fourteen hours of entertainment (and at least $30 for parking) over two days, why not add another $30-$40 for a collection of recipes from your favorite chef, a cookbook which will be around long after you're buried? You’ll wait an hour-and-a-half in line at Disney for a two-minute ride, why not wait a few minutes to get a cookbook signed?

We didn’t sell as much as we usually do. Festival-goers packed the two big tasting tents at the opposite end of the sand. It looked like a huge block party. Buying cookbooks was not on their agenda, which probably looked like this:

1 – Get the largest pour possible of whatever will make me tipsy.
2 – Eat some delicious morsels.
3 – Get hammered and / or shitfaced, whichever comes first.
People’s lives are strained right now. SOBEW&FF was an excuse to blow off steam, with a price point which insured rubbing elbows only with other well-to-do individuals.

Maybe I’m weathering the recession better because my lifestyle has pared down from minimally indulgent to borderline monastic; how do I know they haven’t scratched and scrimped for their tickets and their parking . . . and their Gucci sunglasses and fake breasts and spray tans and sand-filled Prada loafers and Fendi handbags and rhinoplasties and collagen lips and facelifts and who am I trying to kid I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU, I HATE YOU ALL there’s nothing real about you except your money, so use it to support your local independent bookstore, you drunk fucks!

I should have said that. Clearly, missed my calling. I should have been in marketing.

Here’s looking at 2011.