Wednesday, March 30, 2011

All This Nostalgia is Clogging My Ears

  While listening to the “80’s Hits” station on Slacker radio at work the other day, I found myself singing along to Don Henley’s Boys of Summer.  You know the one, I can see you / your brown skin shining in the sun.  You got your hair combed back and your / sunglasses on, baby.
Oh God, how I hated that fucking song.  It came out in 1984.  I was 12, and radio stations played it to death.  Then MTV gave in an extended funeral, awarding Boys of Summer Video of the Year in 1985.  Three years later, some genius decided to resuscitate the song so they could play it to death all over.  The resurrection just missed the Top Ten.  From age 12 to age 16, I couldn't turn a radio dial without being served this sit sandwich at least once.  
Growing up, I watched my parents sing along with certain songs.  I always wondered if they really liked those songs or were just reminiscing.  No really, they explained in my imagination, I’m not so lame that I think this song is cool.  I just liked being eighteen and having the whole world in front of me, and they played this song a lot at the time.
Now I have my answer.  Here I am, singing along to a song I couldn’t turn off quickly enough when I was a teenager.  Maybe it’s because the song is about passing from youth into middle age and it finally speaks to me, or maybe I just liked certain things about my teenage years, something besides pimples, peer ridicule, and feeling perpetually outside of a joke everyone else seemed to get.  Whatever it is, I see a long-haired mullet boy with braces, odd clothes, boney limbs, and love-handles shaking his head at me in disdain.

        "Boys of Summer?," he mutters.  "Really?"

Flipping through some CDs to play while I cleaned house, I came across a pink one mixed in with the A’s.  I thought it was Tori Amos’ Under the Pink.  When it came into rotation and started to play, I felt like a drunk gremlin was trying to spit in my ear.  I gave the whole disc a listen, reasoning that I’d liked it enough to buy it at some point.  When I popped the disc out, I saw it was Aphex Twin’s Windowlicker.  

Now, I didn’t much go for Windowlicker when it came out.  Until I decided to write this post, I never saw the video.  If you’re billing yourself as an artist and video is your medium, bring it, but don’t fool around in the studio and tell me it’s music.  That came out pretty fucking cool; let’s put it on CD!  I threw it in the trash, because life’s too short.  The video?  Definitely worth a peep or two. 
I’ve listened to a disc and trashed it once before [POTENTIAL EAR-VIRUS WARNING], Chumbawumba’s Tubthumper.  You might know it for the single “Tumbthumping,” the one that goes, I get knocked down / but I get up again.  You’re never going to keep me down, on and on until your head implodes, a song on more worst-of and most-hated lists than I care to name here.  

It should be noted that I loved the shit out of Tubthumper when it came out in 1997, and played it to death for a few months (usually skipping the annoying single).  Then I heard it last year.  That’s what pop in the nineties was like?  Oh, dear lord, no.
I think my favorite you can’t go back (or “don’t look back, you should never look back” as Don Henley would say) moment came on my birthday, in 2009.  In the middle of a divorce, celebrating my first adult birthday as a single guy, I scheduled an array of events.  I didn’t expect everyone to come to every event, but I figured with four to choose from, my friends would find time for at least one.  It worked like a charm, and I had the best time.
After opening night of Where the Wild Things Are, we found ourselves trapped in a line of cars.  Inching our way around the parking garage, we decided it would be fun to play a CD I’d been given at the bowling alley a few hours before- Spin Doctors’ Pocket Full of Kryptonite.  I still think it was a gag gift, but G insists she went to a thrift store and spent her hard-earned dollar on a genuine piece of nineties nostalgia just for me.  

We popped the CD in and were transported back in time nineteen years.  Trapped in the car, there was no escape.  Between signing along with the dated music, our running commentary, and the heavy emotions I’d been dealing with for the better part of a year, I couldn’t stop laughing.  I laughed until it turned into a fit.
“Man down!  Man down!” Amanda yelled from the backseat, while tears of laughter rolled down my face.  
I left that CD in Hilldawg's car, but it’s still one of the best birthday gifts I’ve ever gotten.  

Friday, March 25, 2011

I Meant What I Said

If you thought I was kidding about buying Cara Hoffman's So Much Pretty when I suggested it two posts back, here's somewhere else I sing its praises.

If clicking that link is too much work for you, here's a picture of a newborn butterfly pooping on me.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

This Writing Gig Can Be Frustrating

Opening files this morning and I came across this snippet I really love.  Pardon me while I subject you to the horror of a first draft:

Hannah Delaney sat in the garden of sound, thinking of how wonderful and cruel life could be.
      The pleasure was wonderful.  Hannah was odd but not so odd to think the garden had been made just for her.  Even though it was one of the few pleasures she had in her days, the cruelty it took to create the garden could only come from God.
The Delaneys were big on God.  On Sundays her parents took her to the big gym outside of town, almost twenty minutes away.  She listened to the tall, thin, white haired preacher talk about God and life and television and family, his timbre smooth, his tones bright.  He sounded like a commercial himself, a Voice You Could Trust stumping for a Life You Should Lead.  Every talk ended with the flock bowing their heads.  The preacher talked to God hard.  He invited people to raise their hands if they wanted to be saved.  Yes, I see that hand, the preacher would murmur in a tone like thick honey.  Yes, I see that hand.  Praise God.  Yes, I see that hand...    
Hannah never opened her eyes to see if people were really raising their hands, but she was always curious.  The idea of raising her own hand built over several months of Sundays until she realized she'd never have the nerve.  She gave up, and kept her head bowed and her eyes closed.  A few weeks later, when the preacher asked anyone who wanted God to enter his heart to raise his hand, Hannah's arm shot up at if pulled by invisible strings.  
"Yes, I see that hand," he murmured, sending a flush of pleasure from the pit of her stomach through her entire body.  She would have liked to sit with that feeling for a time, but he'd already moved on to the next person longing for salvation.  Yes, I see that hand...    
  The moment came suddenly, and ended just as fast.  Bookending her as usual, her parents must have felt her movement.  They'd never remarked on it.   
God ate breakfast and dinner with the Delaneys.  God was invoked when her aunt caught the cancer, or her cousin was born deaf.   God was invoked when the radiation treatments worked, or an uncle's business thrived.  God could send a station wagon to kill a beloved pet, God could eased psoriasis, God could inspire good people to do great works.  
When she turned thirteen, Hannah attended youth group on Tuesday nights.  Youth group took place in the chapel instead of the gym.  The chapel was so beautiful Hannah wished the church had never outgrown the building.  It was round, built entirely of wood so dark it was nearly black.  The spire on top was all glass, saving the space from gloom.  The podium was raised, the stage small, the cross simple gold.  She knew growth was a good thing, that sooner or later there'd be enough Christians to save the world, but she never felt as close to God in the gym as she felt in the old chapel. 
There were so many great churches downtown, miniature versions of the old churches of Europe, hulking in stone, swallowing city blocks, stained glass windows, copper roofs turning green, doors painted gleaming red.  She didn't know what kept the Delaneys from 
They didn't finish construction on the new chapel before she was exiled, so she never knew if the new, huge chapel was as warm and beautiful as the old one.   

It's written in a different voice.  I've never used "stump" or "timbre" in my life.  It's a promising beginning, more polished than some first drafts usually are, with a character I knew and a situation I wanted to explore.  Sure, I'd lose the first two paragraphs, but still; good stuff.

I must have been affected by all those churches I saw in central New York on vacation.  Growing up there, I never noticed how many of them there are.  And Garden of Sound is the phrase I think of when I hear one of Becky's favorite songs, Regina Spektor's Consequence of Sound.  I also remember that preacher from when I was born again.  That's where my knowledge of this piece runs out.

She didn't know what kept the Delaneys from- what?  What's the Garden of Sound?  And why was she exiled?  The water was flowing and I didn't get to the pump before it dried up, so I have no better answers than you.  I let the holidays or reviews or blogs came before Hannah Delaney, and she died.

I only knew her for a moment, on Monday December 20th, 2010, but I mourn her passing.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

You Should Read Cara Hoffman

“…there is no beach down there, and there never was.  That’s not what you find when you go digging.  There are bodies and bones.  Women’s bodies, which first became their coffins at puberty, a skin coffin.  A place from which you will never be heard, except maybe by those who are buried nearby, or those with their ear to the ground.”
 - Cara Hoffman, So Much Pretty

  In high school, I got into a debate on Sex Education with a girl from another school.  It was some future leaders of America something, where the top percent of students from different schools get together to butt heads.  The question of whether to teach contraception quickly became about religion (there are more churches in central New York than schools or grocery stores), with my Born Again best friend leading the abstinence-until-marriage charge.   
A few desks away, a girl with a future Women Studies Major’s enthusiasm led the condom charge.  Spittle flew as she spoke and gestured, blood flushed her face.  She talked about owning our bodies, taking responsibility for our sexual identities, ending the war on women.  She knew more than anyone else in the room and had given all of this serious thought.  Her fervor also scared us all, including the students on her side.
When she mentioned the use of animal feces as a contraception, we giggled.  We were still teenagers after all.  She giggled too, saying, “it’s true,” before heading back to her point.  We needed that tension breaker to hear what she had to say, and she needed it to calm down a bit.
Her passion told me there I was missing something about the world, with my matriarchal Mohawk upbringing, where tota means both grandmother and grandfather, where the men know they exist to season their women's lives, where the eldest woman names each newborn child.  I wanted to know what this passionate student knew.  Hopefully without the spittle.

At Syracuse University, I was accepted as a member of the Peer Sexuality Program.  If a Resident Advisor requested a Sex and Dating Workshop for her floor, the Peer Sexuality Program answered.  When a Fraternity wanted a program on Rape, we were there.  When a Sorority wanted a program on Sexually Transmitted Diseases and Contraception, they called us.
I did all the workshops with various partners (workshops were presented by one guy and one girl), but my two favorites were Homophobia and Gender Issues.  
I don’t remember all of the research and required reading of the Program, but the backbone of these two presentations was Suzanne Pharr’s “Homophobia: A Weapon of Sexism.”  I also remember Dr. Charlotte Davis Kasl’s Women, Sex, and Addiction and Sandra Lipsitz Bem’s The Lenses of Gender.
The readings deepened my interest in gender studies.  Moderating folks from the Greek fraternity and sorority system as they discussed all manner of sexuality, these young male and female fish who didn’t know the rigid roles and gender divide in which they swam, made this interest become a life-long fascination.
To give you an idea of how slack my reading on these topics has gotten over the years as I’ve gravitated toward fiction, Self-Made Man has been on my to-read list since it was published in January 2006.  

  Then along came Cara Hoffman’s So Much Pretty.  
  You can read all the non-fiction in the world on a topic but never really feel it.  The everyday horrors of life are so overwhelming they become white noise, then a story comes along and makes them real.

The best stories are mirrors.  They reflect life and shed light into the dark corners in ways that change the reader.  So Much Pretty is one of these stories.  It manages to attack the topic of violence against women without salivating over it, the way so many stories with dead women as central plot points unfortunately do.  It's a page-turning thriller, but look between the lines.  It's also a feminist manifesto.

 Keep your ear to the ground on this one.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Burnin' Up the Quarter Mile

Not greased lightning but my latest review for The Heat Lighting, a face off between Ape House and Great House.  I missed posting for THL in February because it took me forever to figure out how to get both cover shots into one image.

I'm not a computer whiz, but I have presidential taste in music.

Apparently, there are more of us out there.

Monday, March 14, 2011

You Should Read Joe Hill

I drop everything in my reading queue for very few writers, but Joe Hill is one of them.  
More than a writer, Joe Hill is a magician.  It’s not just his stories, joyful treats I can't praise enough, it’s the way his stories are so many things at once.  
He writes with suspense which will keep you up until 2:00am with every light in the house on, yet his stories have a complexity most page-turners only wish they had.  Hill looks in the world’s funky, shadowy corners.  What he sees there and presents to his readers is more thought-provoking than any writing so entertaining should be.  

As Ilana Teitelbaum wrote for the Huffington Post, Hill is “a horror writer for intellectuals.”
Locke & Key, his graphic novel series with illustrator Gabriel Rodriguez, is on more “best of” and “top ten” lists from comic book insiders than I care to name.  A playful family drama, a dark vision that’s genuinely unsettling, an inventive, imaginative fantasy, Locke & Key is all of these things.  Reading the series is like entering a lucid dream. 
If 20th Century Ghosts is your introduction to his work, you will become an instant Joe Hill fanatic.  I can't even tell you how good this collection is, it's that fucking good.  
In the New York Times, Janet Maslin called Heart-Shaped Box “a valentine from hell.”  Really,  critics and readers swooned over it so much that it made a sophomore slump for his second novel almost inevitable.  
Remember when I called Hill a magician?  Horns doesn’t just avoid the sophomore slump, it’s written with the winking confidence of a much older writer.  He knows he’ll make you laugh wether you want to or not, deflate your cynicism to put a scare in you, and make you wonder how in the hell what's essentially a souped-up revenge story leaves you questioning the nature of good and evil. 
Tomorrow night he's coming to Books & Books.  I'll be doing his introduction.  After the reading, we'll hang out and then become BFFs.  There are hundreds of reasons why, but here are the top seven:

Top Seven Reasons Joe Hill and I Will Become Life-Long Friends:
1)   "What I wouldn't give to have a tablespoon of David Mitchell's talent." - joe_hill Twitter update 3/14/2011 4:51(ish)

2)   We're the same age.

4)   We're both from the Northeast.

5)   In Joe Hill's "Best of Everything 2009," he names two of my favorites - AM Home's This Book Will Save Your Life and David Benioff's City of Thieves.  

6)   We both wear glasses.

7)   Joe Hill posts recipes on his blog to fight the urge to publish a cookbook.  I've been known to cook.

I could go on but I've got an intro to write.

Stop on by and buy a book, why don't you?

Friday, March 11, 2011

Don't I Know You?

A couple years after I began working at Books & Books, novelist Karen Shepard stopped by to sign stock of Don’t I Know You? for the stores.  
The ARC of Don’t I Know You? had caught my eye because of the letter she’d included.  In the letter, Shepard explained that she’d written the novel because of her fascination with a childhood classmate whose mother had been murdered.  
Like many explorations of childhood, writing the novel became partially about the discrepancy between how she remembered the incident and what had actually happened, but it was also an exploration of why this classmate haunted her.  
He kept cropping up in her fiction.  This letter called to me because whenever I wrote anything with characters younger than eighteen, sooner or later a childhood friend I’ll call Alex would appear.  
I grew up in East Syracuse, Alex grew up in Minoa.  We went to school together from fourth to twelfth grade, and sat together at the Brain table in junior high and high school.  Alex had four or five brothers, I’m not sure which.  He lived forty minutes to an hour’s ride from my suburb, in farm country.  When we were in fifth grade, his oldest brother deliberately killed himself, in front of Alex, with a gun.  
I remember it as a shotgun to the head but I’m not sure.  I remember his older brother was in high school, but I’m not sure about that, either.  I know Alex saw a psychiatrist the rest of his school career.  I know none of us ever mentioned the suicide, not once in eight years.  
There were times it seemed like he wanted to talk about it, like when he’d bring up the psychiatrist, but none of us followed up on anything he said.  We’d laugh at things Alex told us about the psychiatrist because he was joking and we wanted him to be happy, not because it was funny.  I don’t know whether we should have been better listeners, or if we should have been more curious.  I know I write about him to answer all of those questions I never asked as kid.
Don’t I Know You? turned out to be excellent.  Since Mitchell was out of town, he asked if I’d meet her and play host while she signed.  
Shepard was lovely, intelligent, and forthright.  She brought some relatives who embarrassed Shepard with tales of her success.  Shepard told me that when you’ve written a novel, the way to arm yourself from criticism and worry about how the book will perform is to be involved in your next novel.  She looked up from the stack of hardcovers she was signing, head cocked to the side.
“You know, this is the first time I’ve written something without being involved in the next project.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.”
Empire of Women was published in 2001, Bad Boy’s Wife in 2004, and Don’t I Know You? in 2006.  If we have to wait much longer, I guess we can assume it didn’t go well.  In the meantime, Don’t I Know You? remains a strong backlist seller for Books & Books.  I’ve enjoyed recommending it to book clubs and helping new readers discover it, and no one has come back to me disappointed.  
I told Shepard about Alex, of course.  I told her I’d cast Alex as a main character in the book I was writing, and I hoped I’d never see him again once it was finished.  She was most curious as to how time had played with the memory, but I told her proximity to Alex had probably stopped my imagination from running wild.  
I asked her if writing Don’t I Know You? had worked for her, if her childhood friend had stopped haunting her fiction.
“I’ll let you know how that turns out, too,” she said.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

I Quit the Gym

The One with the Ballroom Dancing

Examining my monthly spending to see how my income can better suit our family’s needs. . . was how I originally began this post.  Truthfully, I don’t think about money all that much.  Well, that’s not accurate either.  I think about money indirectly all the time, as in I’d love to go out / visit your aunt in California / see an opthamologist / update my wardrobe, but after rent and groceries there’s not much left.  I didn’t “examine” anything, though.  There were no pie charts or graphs involved, I just got rid of things I didn’t need.  This fiscal spring cleaning led me to cancel my membership to Bally Total Fitness.
My relationship with Bally goes back to 1996, when I saw pictures of myself on Virginia Beach and realized over-eating every meal wasn’t the giggle it used to be when I was seventeen.  I joined Bally when I got back to Syracuse, and it only cost me $50 down and $35 a month.  
I stayed long enough to lose the jelly roll and stop feeling like my limbs were filled with lemon juice instead of blood after every weightlifting session.  Three months at Bally cost me $120.
Then I moved to Miami and saw pictures of myself papering cars for Starbucks short-lived Tiazzi frozen tea beverage.  True, the big green apron wasn’t doing me any favors, but I’d skipped Billy and Stephen and gone right to Daniel Baldwinsville.  I spent $250 on a Premier Membership, with access to a trainer, a supply of some kind of legal speed pep pill, and the promise that my monthly membership fee would only be $15.  
Bally had gotten smarter.  They locked me into a one-year contract, so I paid them $430 for my second go around.
On the plus side, you’d be amazed what those pep pills will do for your motivation.  I dropped back into the 190lb area in no time.  Unfortunately, the motivation only lasted as long as the free pep pills.  I didn’t want to spend money to buy more legal speed, so I stopped going regularly after two months, and completely after three.  Through the magic of automated debit, my payments continued.  When this contract expired in 1999, I’d paid Bally’s a total of $550.
1999 was also the year I got digital cable.  Apparently, sitting around watching TV and eating potato chips doesn’t burn calories like you’d hope; it was the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life.  
This time I wanted to do it right.  I was tired of putting down huge sums every time I got fat.  I wanted a low monthly payment I could live with the rest of my life, so if I ever caught the workout bug again, the cure would be as close as the nearest Ballys.  I became a Premier Fitness Plus Member because the monthly payment dropped to a mere $5 after a year of $15 payments.  It also came with a trainer for six weeks, plus free training consultation whenever I wanted it, for as long as my membership lasted.  It also came with a humiliating body measurement session, eight weeks of legal speed, protein supplements, and the promise that I could go anywhere in the world and always have a Ballys nearby to keep me in shape.  
The big pimpin' package cost me $499, bringing my total Bally payments (as of August 2000) to $1,229 dollars.  
I’ve been a Premier Fitness Plus Member since 1999.  Unlike some of the horror stories I’ve heard, my monthly payment did indeed drop to $5 after a year.  This lasted until 2004, when it went up to $8.  Since 2006, my monthly payment has fluctuated from $11.41 to $10.15, every other month.  I’ve no idea why.  
After the millennium, I read Critser's Fat Land and Schlosser's Fast Food Nation.  I eliminated high-fructose corn syrup from my diet, and ate every couple of hours.  I started doing yoga.  Gradually, over the course of a few years, I became comfortable with my eating habits and my weight.  Before the car accident I was very into yoga.  Post-accident, as soon as I was able, I was back in the gym at my apartment complex, and biking to and from work.  
What I did not do was set foot inside any Bally Total Fitness, anywhere.  
But I kept paying that $10.15 to $11.41 every month.  If I ever decided to blast my body into shape again, I didn’t want to lose a huge down payment.  Trouble was, that didn’t work for me.  I need exercise that fits with my schedule, and biking to and from work and is it.  Finding time to travel to a gym is not.  
I’ve paid Ballys $2,178.44 for very little of my time.  I could have travelled.  I could have bought clothes.  I could have bought a used car.
Anything but exercise.  

Thursday, March 3, 2011

SOBE 2011: Thanks for the Memories

People travel from all over the world to attend the South Beach Wine and Food Festival (and I’m not just saying that- accents abound, and my favorite customer of the year was a restaurant owner from Greece).   If you tried to book a hotel room within a hundred miles, you’d never know we’re in a recession.
As we have since the festival’s inception, Books & Books sells cookbooks at the Grand Tasting Village.  Not the bargain basement Kidz Kitchen ticket for $20 at Jungle Island, or an $85 Lifestyle Seminar or $150 party at a swank hotel, not the $200 Bubble Q or Burger Bash, but the hot ticket: $225 of all-you-can-eat-and-drink fun, right on the sand.
Here’s what I don’t get.  Folks shell out upwards of $400 dollars to eat and drink, and then not only protest when presented with a $30-$40 cookbook, but actually get offended by the suggestion that they should purchase a book to meet their favorite chef and have him or her sign it.
“I’ve spent $540 dollars on this weekend,” one woman told me, “I’m not spending another $40, that’s ridiculous.  I’m sorry, but it is.”  
Um... how much can you eat and drink between 10:45am and 6pm?  If tapas and sliders flowed over you on a river of vodka, you still couldn’t consume twenty bucks a minute worth.  Yet a cookbook your grandchildren could use one day is the rip off?  The phrase more money than sense comes to mind.
You could try to explain that the cookbook money is not going to The Food Network.  You could explain that the money they spend on Rachael Ray’s Look + Cook (“Isn’t she rich enough already?”) doesn’t actually go to Rachael Ray.  But these folks are slugging back wine faster than the sun can dehydrate them.  It’s not the ideal forum for a discussion on independent book selling.
But it is fun.  Folks come to have a good time, and they’re high on the atmosphere before they imbibe a thing.  When the gates open, people actually run across the sand like children on a playground who want to get the best swing.  How can you not love that kind of enthusiasm?  
The food is unbearably delicious.  From gunpowder cocktails made with actual gunpowder to a simple barbecued beef brisket sandwich, I wish every plate came with a logo so I’d know who to thank for some of the amazing creations.  Instead, I’ll just say thanks to everyone who cooked.
Except for the free food tent for employees, “catered” this year by Dominoes.  No wonder the volunteers left early and no-showed in droves.   
In the portable bathrooms out front, I stopped for one last pee break on Sunday before it was time to pack the books up.  In the lowest denominator of male bonding, the dude next to me slurred, “That was totally worth it, huh?  I wasn’t sure going in, but that was a lot of free stuff.”
He wore khaki shorts, a button-down, short-sleeved knit shirt, and leather loafers.  His body was buffed and outdoorsy.  He looked like a chiseled, blonde, happy J Crew ad.  I was wearing ratty jeans, sneakers, and a sweaty black ABFFE t-shirt which said, FREADom
I wasn’t sure how to answer, so I said as kindly as I could, “I work here.  At the Books & Books booth.”
“Oh,” he said, facing forward hastily.  I looked down and saw I was peeing on the front button from someone’s pants.  Either the guy was in such a hurry to relieve some of the booze that he ripped his pants open and lost a button, or he ate too much and it popped off on its own.
Either way, that’s a hell of a party.