Thursday, April 28, 2011

Dear Passport Application: Don't Judge Me

Becky and I are getting married on Friday, September 16th, 2011.
The divorce from my first marriage was final on September 3rd, 2010.
I didn’t really think about that until I was filling you out.  I tried talking to you last year, but your marriage questions thwarted my efforts.  You didn’t just want to know if I was married, single, separated or divorced, you asked if I’ve ever been married.  Sure, whether one has been married informs a large part of one’s identity, but what do you care, passport?  You even wanted dates, and got picky about it.  You wouldn’t take my court appointment as the end date of my marriage because it was in the future.  Fine.
So here we are again.  I tell you the dates of my marriage.  I use Becky as my emergency contact.  Under relationship, I put fiance.  You ask why I need you.  I tell you for my honeymoon on 9/17/11, and you’re dated 4/21/11. 
It’s not like I got divorced, met a stranger, and got engaged in seven months, passport application.  It just looks that way.  
Listen, application - that marriage ended two years ago, more than two years ago, now.  Becky and I were colleagues, so even if I never looked at her in a certain light, I knew the cut of her jib.  She got divorced after I did and they hadn’t lived together for years, are you going to judge her, too?
You know what, application?  There are whole worlds out there you have no idea about, lives lived in the margins outside your paragraphs, emotions bubbling in the spaces between your lines.  You don’t even have ideas, you’re just paper.  Paper, and one really bad photo.
Guess what else?  I found my favorite white wine at Walgreens for $3.99 when I was getting that lousy picture taken.  You didn’t know that, did you? 
I do not have shitty taste in wine.
Look, I don’t need your attitude right now, okay?  It’s not my fault they made you more expensive and required you for a night in Niagara Falls.  Just do your job, get me over the border, and no one will get hurt.
In the meantime, let’s keep this between us.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Three Flu Over the Cuckoo's Nest

As I child, I never quite woke until the vomit left my throat.  Like getting up to pee in the middle of the night, a trick a child needs to learn if he wants to sleep in a dry bed, nausea pulled me from fitful dreams and sweaty tossing to stand bleary-eyed in front of the toilet, but it didn’t cleared away the gluey spiderweb threads of sleep.
Throat burning, eyes watering, coughing, I wondered what I could have done to deserve such a fate.  When I opened the bathroom door, both my parents stood there.  Both of them, every time.  Even if this first bout was the beginning of a long night of sickness, seeing them both blinking against the bathroom light, faces contorted in lines of concern, it blew my loneliness away.  
Somehow it’s become a fond memory.  I don’t remember the worst part of those nights; I remember mom and dad, standing in the hallway.
Now I know what it’s like to wear the expression I saw on their faces. 
Watching a child vomit is the worst feeling in the world.  I’ve watched my ex-wife in the throes of peritonitus, pain so intense she cursed God, vomiting until nothing came out but foam.  As far gone as she was, she knew the terrible truth - there was nothing to be done but ride it out and wait for the meds to kick in.
“I don’t feel good,” Dylan repeated, over and over, breaking my heart a little bit each time.  He still sort of believes a kiss will make it better.  He’s saying he doesn’t feel good because he thinks you can fix him.  
What do you say?  Poor thing, sweetie, it’s okay, we’ve all been there, it will pass, just try to get it all out and get some sleep, we’ll get you a cold washcloth and some Sprite, blah blah blah.  Rub his back, don’t admit your helpless feeling is complicated by guilt because you kept telling him to quit talking go to sleep.    
Dylan is not always a whiner, but it’s something he needs to be called on often.  He tries pulling the “tummy hurts” card to get his way.  If he’s finished the part of dinner he feels like eating, he’ll say his tummy hurts to try and get out of eating the rest (and it’s not a veggie thing- he’ll devour Brussels sprouts one night and decide he doesn’t like them two days later, or he’ll eat the top of a mini-muffin and forgo the rest).   It’s also one of his favorite reasons for not going to sleep once he’s put to bed. 
Saying his tummy hurts is suspect behavior on a good night.  When his Tia Nicky and her boyfriend Jose are staying over, both of whom Dylan loves to pieces, then he meets especially skeptical parents. 
In the morning, I tried to explain that that was exactly why I told him the story of the boy who cries wolf.  The boy lies so much that no one believes him when there’s really a problem.  I must be telling it wrong, because all he remembers are hungry wolves eating sheep.
We fed Dylan a breakfast which didn’t stay down, so he stayed home.  Then the next day, Becky was laid low.  Then the next day, it was my turn.  My first full weekend off since January and I spent it ill, not exactly the weekend in bed with the woman I love which I’ve been missing.  We had Dylan, six-year-old sweetheart who recovered first, bringing us Aleve and Gatorade.
That’s something I never did for my folks.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Beautiful Boy

     Part of Kevin Brockmeier’s Illumination revolves around a sensitive boy, the kind of boy I was, the kind of boy Dylan is.  His parents argue over how to raise this boy:
"You're saying he'll cry whenever he doesn't get his way."
"I'm saying what harm does it do to humor him?"
"The world will eat him alive when he grows up."
"That doesn't mean that we should eat him alive, too."
I’ve had moments with Dylan when I can’t believe the first response which bubbles up to my lips; Stop being such a crybaby.
Stop being such a crybaby is how we teach boys to suppress their emotions, how we turn them from communication and understanding, pushing them toward stoicism and silence, it’s how we make boys into “men”. 
I might have heard it from my cousins a time or two, but it wasn’t a family motto.  Where does stupid shit like that come from?  My worry that he’ll have a tough time in school, like I did?  Shame at seeing my crybaby behavior mirrored back to me?  Wherever it comes from, I’m thankful I’ve kept it inside.  
As a momma’s boy, his social life might be hard.  I say “might” because maybe things are changing from when I was a child.  But if he’s like me, it will be tough for him to relate to other boys, who have so much to prove with physical and emotional violence.  When they speak in locker rooms about girls they supposedly like in graphic and derogatory terms, loneliness will whistle through him as he realizes how different he is from these boys.  It will take him time, maybe decades, to find people his gender who share his sensibilities, to look past “men” and find men.     
However tough his life might be, it’s not for me to make it harder.
"You're saying he'll cry whenever he doesn't get his way."
"I'm saying what harm does it do to humor him?"
"The world will eat him alive when he grows up."
"That doesn't mean that we should eat him alive, too."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

You Should Read Kevin Brockmeier

Romance (n): A mysterious or fascinating quality or appeal, as of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.
Here’s one I’ve quoted (partially) at Sweet before:
The waiters there know you well, but there are days when you enjoy being recognized and days when you don’t, when you want nothing more than the simple curt reactiveness of a stranger.
- The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device
The next step in “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldberg Device,” a short story from View from the Seventh Layer, is deciding whether to go to an anonymous chain or where everybody knows your name.  It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure Story both like and unlike the ones you grew up with, where there were dozens of outcomes but only one “winning” one.  In “The Human Soul as a Rube Goldbeg Device,” every choice leads to one ending which makes you... well, I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s enlightening, entertaining, and surprisingly liberating.  

If you haven’t read Kevin Brockmeier, you should treat yourself.  He’s a writer who deserves a wider audience.  Consider some more tidbits from View from the Seventh Layer:    
People who read Tolstoy find it difficult to be alive because they are reasonable, while people who read Dostoyevsky find it difficult to be alive because they are not.
- The View from the Seventh Layer
“I’m having problems with the change machine."
She gives the words an unusual emphasis, hovering over them with her voice like a flyswatter before falling dramatically on the final syllable.  The change machine?  Jacob pictures something straight out of a science fiction novel, an immense apparatus of hatches, levers, and conveyors belts that allows you to step in as one human being and step out as another, in which atheists change into Christians, stock car drivers change into politicians, great beauties change into wallflowers.
- The Lives of the Philosophers
It is one of the curiosities of life that putting on a smile can make you happy, just as putting on a scowl can make you angry and putting on tears can make you sad, and in much the same way, adopting the postures of modesty had made the people who would not look one another in the eye uncommonly reserved and timid.  They found it difficult to begin romances and just as difficult to end them.  Words such as love and need and miss came slowly to their lips, however quickly they came to their hearts.  Long after their youthful friendships had hardened and died, they would continue carrying them across their shoulders like laborers hauling sacks of gravel.  They cringed at the thought of bringing hurt to one another, no matter how unwittingly, and often they would lie awake at night silently chastising themselves for some tiny slip of manners they feared might have wounded someone.
And so it went on, with the years laying their winters down flat upon their summers, and everyone passing within inches of one another, and everyone looking away . . . 
-A Fable Containing a Reflection
There is no form to this story because it is true, or at least as close to true as I have been able to make it.
- Andrea is Changing Her Name

The way David Mitchell’s third novel Cloud Atlas broke him into a new level critically and commercially, Brief History of the Dead felt like Brockmeier’s first novel, his breakthrough novel, the one which would build a groundswell of bookseller recommendations into a wave of book club readers, and finally into a bestseller.  The book takes place mostly in The City, where people stay after they die, until they are completely forgotten.  The City suddenly swells, then begins shrinking, which can only mean that the living world is ending. 

It didn’t become huge, but when you ask someone who has read Brief History of the Dead what she thought, you’ll see her eyes take on a faraway look.  She’s stopped seeing the room.  Her face takes on the cast of one recalling a cherished moment with a fond love.
There are worse legacies for a writer.  

There are also worse places to start a love affair with a writer than with Brockmeier’s latest, The Illumination.  In the best movie poster fashion, the copy on this one asks, “What if our pain was the most beautiful thing about us?”  I have another question; what if the central conceit of a novel - that people’s injuries give off light - had very little to do with what that novel's beating heart?
Illumination is a love story, an examination of the human condition, a character-driven page-turner, and just damned beautifully written.  The illumination (and by that I mean the light in the novel, not the novel itself) is a frame used to hang a series of unique, charming garments, like trying on different skins instead of different clothes.  The copy could just as easily been about a notebook that touches different people’s lives, but Nicole Krauss’ desk traveling through Great House took the wind out of those sails.      
What I’m saying is, don’t mistake Brockmeier for a gimmicky writer.  His work is firmly centered in reality, but his reality is mysterious and fascinating, his stories adventurous, heroic, and strangely beautiful.
Do yourself a favor and check him out.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

There Are Folks Who Hear You

I joined a writer's group last month, my first one in a couple years.  It was all fun and games until I was handed homework.  Homework?  Yes, homework.  I'm a 38-year-old man with homework.

My assignment was to submit my writing for publication.

While I wondered how to do this, Joe Hill came to Books & Books the very next night.  He said he survived the ten years looking for a book deal by always having several stories submitted at once.  That way when he got rejections back, there was always hope that another story he had out there would be published.

Okay, I thought, I will submit one story each week for publication and see what happens.

Week one, I submitted a stub I mentioned a few weeks back to Jai-Alai Magazine.   I could have sent a longer nonfiction piece but my first love is made-up stuff.  I had this tiny piece of fiction which shouldn't have been anything, then I realized that with some polishing, I could use the stub to meet Jai-Alai's 700-word limit challenge.

The verdict is still out on that one.  With University of Wynwood caught up with the month long gorgeous madness that is O,Miami! I don't expect an answer anytime soon.

Week two, I submitted a story to Lip Service.  They picked me.  I'll be reading when they team up with Under the Sun at the Miracle Theater on Saturday, the 23rd.  Instead of rehearsing in Andrea Askowitz's living room, we'll be rehearsing in a recording studio.  How cool is that?

Two people also reached out to me this week.

One of them saw me at a Books & Books event produced by Moya, which I meant to write about but somehow never did.  I'd like to thank him for including me in an evening of music and monologues, and offer a picture to show I was there:

Proof that bigger isn't always better: this shirt.

The first woman was a stranger to me.  She saw my name on the upcoming Lip Service event and remembered me from An Evening of Good Things.  She wanted to let me know there are other halfbreeds in Miami, to wish me luck, and tell me I should keep plugging away with my writing.

The second woman I used to work with at Borders.  We weren't tremendously close, but she was one of the people who got it (and by "it" I mean how absurd life can be), the type of person you're glad to see on a schedule when you clock.  She told me she's been having a rough time lately, and my blog helped her get through it.

It's humbling and moving to know something you've written has touched someone else.  I'm tremendously excited about Lip Service / Under the Sun, but emails from these two women overshadowed that feeling.    

Make no mistake, I write for me.  But it's gratifying to know someone is listening.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I Have News

First, there was Gabrielle Hamilton’s beautiful memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter.  Her father taught her that money, specifically a lack of money, is a stupid reason not to do something.
That phrase haunted me for a time.
Then over vodka at Fox’s Lounge, two wise friends offered counsel.  
Finally, a line from Darin Strauss Half a Life jumped from the page (and the subject matter), telling me: 
"That's the meter you come up with, as you approach forty.  If your relationship fills you with a sense of luck, you've chosen well."
Of course you could argue these aren’t signs in and of themselves, but merely one big sign that I’m ready.  I don’t feel like arguing. 
We had a couple of friends over for dinner, trying to get through beer left over from hosting Becky’s sister’s 30th birthday party.  Becky and I also removed Dylan’s first splinter.  Our friends ran interference by way of entertainment while I used a needle to break the skin on the sole of his foot.  It had grown over, looking nasty and red.  Once I exposed the splinter, Becky performed the extraction.    
After five minutes of freaking out, crying, squirming, and refusing uncover his foot, Dylan chose to be brave.  You could see it happen.  Still crying, he stood up straight, moved to his mother’s lap, took out his Nintendo DS, and pretended his foot belonged to someone else.  Becky and I worked together seamlessly, as we often do.    
Dinner was filled with laughter.

Sitting on our stoop after our guests had gone, I couldn’t imagine life getting any better.  Like the first time I told Becky I loved her, I simply couldn’t hold it inside any longer.  With just the right amount of beer in my system (enough to lubricate the tongue without the origin of the emotion being suspect), I told Becky I needed to ask her a question.  I told her to be honest, and I would believe her.
I asked her if she needed a ring.
She said no.
So I asked her to marry me, and she agreed.
It wasn’t how I imagined it at all.  Later that night, she dug a princess-cut pink “diamond” surrounded by smaller white “diamonds” from her jewelry box (this is an actual cardboard box, by the way).  She’d gotten the ring from lost and found when she worked at Barnes & Noble and had never worn it.  I took the ring from her, then got down on one knee and described how I had wanted my proposal to go.
My description was muddied because I’d imagined it so many different ways.  I’d get Papa Q’s permission, and Dylan’s.  I’d get a credit card and max it out to buy the perfect ring, princess cut in a platinum setting.  It would be a birthday or holiday to disguise the intent, either a really fancy dinner at a new place or a familiar dinner at one of our places.  Afterward there’d be a movie, or coffee and dessert somewhere else just for the decadence.  I’d pull her close when we got home, then accidentally-on-purpose drop my keys.  I wasn’t sure if I’d do the “hold this” a la Adrian in Sex in the City or just grab her hand and launch into my speech, happiest man alive, try to make you happy for as long as we live, share our lives, etc, etc.    
I don’t know how much of this I managed to get across.  The night I proposed is a blur of emotions, difficult to see beneath the relief that I didn’t need to wait, and that she said yes.
Darin Strauss, my friends, and Gabrielle Hamilton’s father were all right.  I feel lucky, Becky didn’t need a ring, and lack of money is a stupid reason not to do something.
Even marry the woman of your dreams.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Monkey Business

  I get it now.  It’s taken a year-and-a-half of knowing Dylan and six months of living with him, but I finally understand.  
Dylan is Becky’s son from her first marriage, and she shares joint custody with Dylan’s father.  We drop Dylan off at his dad’s on Saturday and we pick him up from after-school care on Tuesday (Dylan, not his dad; pronouns are tricky).  Becky and her ex have talked about doing one week on, one week off, but with all the changes in Dylan’s life - his parent’s separation, moving to Miami to split time in different houses, then moving to the Gables to live with this big doofus his mom seems smitten with - it would be cruel to change the one routine he’s gotten used to.  
I can’t say my parenting muscles were flabby from lack of use; I had never used them.  Baby-sitting is not parenting, and taking your nephews out for dinner and movies is not the same as raising them.  
Four days of trying to mold this boy into the best version of himself he can be, dealing with food issues, presenting yourself at your best, working with this moods, keeping him clean and happy, checking his rambunctiousness and attitude, trying to instill values you’ve taken for granted in your own life, and being patient when it’s the last thing in the world you think you’re capable of being, it’s all so exhausting. 
“Kids are easy,” a friend of mine said a few months back.  “Just give them lots of love, that’s all they need.”
This man obviously has no children.  
I said that exact thing when I had no children in my life.  It’s true, but it’s like saying, “Building pyramids is easy.  You just keep piling rocks up until they're 500 feet tall, then you stick a Pharaoh inside.” 

FYI, he picks his own outfits.
I used to anticipate Saturday the way you look forward to getting away for a three-day weekend.  I needed those breaks to keep from going crazy, to relax the muscles which had gone unused my entire life, muscles which suddenly needed to hold the world up.  When Becky got quiet after we dropped Dylan off, I figured it was a mom thing, something I’d never understand.
Now I get it.  We don’t drop Dylan off for us; we drop Dylan off because he loves his father and wants to see him.   
I still enjoy sharing time alone with Becky, but I miss Dylan when he’s not here.  I celebrate those weekends his father has plans he's unable or unwilling to change and we get more time with Dylan.  Wishing him goodbye has gone from bittersweet to just bitter.  
You’re obligated to do it, but there’s no way to enjoy it.