Thursday, June 30, 2011

New York City is Amazing

Becky reppin' 305; NYC doorman representing . . . 35

John Updike said, "The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding."  I don't believe people who say they "hate" New York City.  I refuse to accept their statement because it tells me we will have little in common, and finding common ground is what life's all about.

I've visited New York City natives a few times over the years, friends I went to college with who either came to Syracuse University from NYC or who moved there afterwards.  This last trip for BEA made me realize their limitations in playing host (and my own in bringing friends and family to Miami); they showed me their New York, but I never really experienced the city as a newcomer.  I wanted to wander, to find someplace and dip inside, to stand on the subway as a jangle of nerves because I could never quite be sure I'd taken the right route until I magically ended up where I wanted to be.

The first morning, Becky and I walked from the Holiday Inn to the Javits Center.  We stopped at a corner convenience store-cum-deli with a latin dude at the flat-top and a middle-eastern dude behind the registers, guys who only need to hear "a breakfast sandwich with egg and cheese" and "coffee with lots of cream and sugar" to give you a downright delicious meal to start your day, and the best bagel you've ever eaten.

Eating great for cheap is part of what makes New York City cool, more than the accents or the stories you hear strangers exchange in the street, yelling over traffic like they're not sharing something intensely personal (people from LA and Miami seem to think the addition of a cell phone makes them superior to New Yorkers, like yelling dirty laundry into a phone is more refined than yelling it into a face).  Even better, every place that catches your eye has a story.  Using the criteria that I can't stop myself if I tried, I realize I'm only truly addicted to two things - reading and writing; I'm all about story.

Becky and I stopped at a bakery on impulse, one with a name like Hilda's Bakery (I've searched the internet like Cyber Sam Spade but there are about a billion bakeries in Manhattan and I've delayed this post long enough).  We walked in and saw a big-boned black woman and a flamboyantly gay man behind the counter.  We assumed Hilda was a figure made-up to sell baked goods.

Then we saw three framed black-and-white photos by the register, and a fourth frame filled with long-hand notepaper, faded by time.  Turns out the woman in the photos is Hilda, and the notepaper is one of her original recipes.  All of the recipes they use at Hilda's Bakery are, in fact, Hilda's.  And the baby in photo number two?  That's the current owner, also known as Some Chick From CSI.

(You'd think with that much information, the internet would give up a name.  The BBBW who rang us up even flashed the actress's headshot, and I can't remember who it is.  Damn.)

How good were these cupcakes?  After stuffing our faces with cupcakes Becky and I tried to leave twice.  We returned both times to buy more cupcakes.  They were that good.  Meanwhile, passers-by kept ducking in to critique pastries they'd eaten earlier in the day.  The employees and the regulars knew each-other by name, and the employees obviously were having a lot of fun.  It made me wish I lived there so I could familiarize myself with Hilda's entire menu, to form opinions I could shout in passing on the way home.

"Hilda's Bakery," Carnegie Deli, Hell's Pizza Kitchen, that no-name corner store with a breakfast counter or the half-dozen other places we dipped into, we saw nothing but cheer amongst New Yorkers.  The New York Sneer - particularly post 911 - is like Big Foot.  It's legendary, told so often it must be true, but it's doubtful you'll ever see it in person.  Plus, the stories behind these places?  Forget about it.  Fuggedabboutit.  Fuhgeddabowtit.

Still, it's good to be home.

Miami, in the dead of winter, sans pants.     

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Gone Fishin'

And camping...

(sister and brother-in-law's cabin)
And frogging...

And flint mapping...

And hiking...

(Green Lakes)
And smooching...

(Pratts Falls)
And hiking...

(Tinkers Falls)
And riding...

(sister-in-law's house, but not her horse)
And mountain-climbing.

(Rocky Mountain)
Among other things.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

You Should Read "Blood, Bones, and Butter."

Still got one or two signed ones left.
At her event with Books & Books, Gabrielle Hamilton claimed that as much as she would like to write a novel, she could not see herself writing fiction.  I've no reason to doubt her, but my wish to read more of her voice makes me refuse to believe it.  It would be a loss.

Vegetarian blogger Ellen Kanner wrote a great review for the Miami Herald.

I gave it 4.5 on Goodreads, and also mentioned here at SwF&F how the book helped me propose to Becky.

There are many things to love about Blood, Bones, and Butter.  The stories, the writing style, her lack of pretension, Italy, Greece, New York City, the way she effortlessly deflates the worship of celebrity chefs.  I pull this quote because I like what she does, flirting with run-on to help communicate that feeling of being forced from bed and into life before you're ready, culminating in my favorite metaphor for grogginess that I've ever read:

He was not yet awake when I called at seven thirty and had that funny sleeper's defense where you pretend that you are wide awake in spite of having just been roused and you want to sound like you know exactly where is where, who is who, and what is what when in fact you are still wearing a narcotic brain helmet of cement and foam.

Read it.  There are a lot more riches where that came from, I promise.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Perform Stand Up Comedy? I'd Rather Swim with a Shark, Thanks.

The hook for My Year with Eleanor is that Noelle Hancock got fired, panicked, and got inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, in the form of a quote written on a chalkboard at a coffee shop: "Do one thing every day that scares you."  So Hancock decided to face the things which scared her most - skydiving, swimming with sharks, working in a funeral home, interviewing ex-boyfriends, etc.

When People magazine asked what was the hardest thing she did, Hancock didn't hesitate.

"Hands down, stand-up comedy," she said.

I haven't read this one, but it caught my eye because I love standup comedy.  Done well, it's a great evening.  Done wrong, it can make you question your whole existence.  Comedians who do well are killing, while comedians who fail are dying.  Clearly the stakes are high, and you can take it from a woman who has experience, that this:


is far less terrifying than this:

We hate your face, Chuckles.

Noelle Hancock had such an irrational fear of sharks that swimming in pools made her nervous, but she still picked performing stand-up as scarier than "going nose-to-nose" with a shark.  Which is why hecklers should be shot.  

Or at least Oswalted.

Recommended viewing: Jerry Seinfeld's documentary, Comedian.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Man Who Couldn't Stop Talking About His Nuts

wrote about my vasectomy over at The Heat Lightning because it gave me an excuse to draw awareness to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.  Not so much because I support their cause - although I agree most of the earth's problems can be traced to overpopulation - but because I think the idea of VHMT is so peculiar.  Finding them on the internet one night was like getting lost in a strange city, stumbling into a theater, and seeing a show which you're not sure is madness or genius.  The verdict is out, but in the meantime you hand out directions to that theater.

I've never given the procedure a second thought in almost seventeen years.  I got it for myself, because I didn't want to bring another child into the world.  If I adopted one day, that would be another matter.

When children came up in conversation - and when you're in a committed relationship for a number of years, children come up often - we'd get around to my vasectomy sooner or later.  People refused to accept "there are enough humans in the world" as a reason.  For me, it's that simple.    

Soon, I started telling people that I'd gotten it done because of my ex-wife's health problems.  No children for us - haven't you ever seen what happened to Shelby in Steel Magnolias?  We can't take the risk.  My ex backed me up.  We told that lie so often that I believed it.

Then, I tumbled upon VHMT and ended up doing the math; my ex wasn't diagnosed with IGA Nephropathy until after my vasectomy.

How much of my decision to surgically never have children came not from what was best for my partner's health, but from personal guilt?  I'd entrusted two different women to handle birth control for our respective relationships, and both women ended up pregnant.  This was two or three years apart, in high school and college.  I couldn't blame my girlfriends; I'd taken no responsibility for myself, after all.  They both decided to get abortions (and I don't care what anyone says; the "father" is a bystander in that decision), so early fatherhood was not in the cards for me.

I became a staunch advocate for condom use, giving birth control lectures around Syracuse University as part of the Peer Sexuality Program, my station wagon decorated with fun slogans for National Condom Week.  At 22, I also became voluntarily sterile.

I'm sure the abortions factored into my decision, but it doesn't feel that way.  Maybe it's the gloss of hindsight, but I've always been proud to have done my part not to bring another child into the world.  I'm also a firm believer in teaching boys responsibility for their own bodies and sexuality, from masturbation to condom use to getting an enthusiastic yes from a prospective sex partner.  So many unwanted children and unwanted abortions could be prevented with a little love and understanding.

But as far as the chop?  Je ne regrette rien.  All these years later, I'm still a firm believer in adoption.  I just hope adoption believes in me.  From what I hear, it can be very difficult.

As Becky says, one thing at a time.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

New York City: Racist

You can't visit NYC, the Big Apple, the city so nice they named it twice without writing a thing or two about it.  Before I write my love letter, I thought I'd get this out of the way.

We passed a shop with a window full of Indian statues, the sort of kitsch with sets my teeth a grinding.  If these were statues of Indians, they'd be offensive.  But they're statues of Native Americans, so we're cool.

I like my face in one and the statues in the other, but until I learn how to use Photoshop you'll have to look at both.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Click a Few Links While You're Here

David Eagleman just visited Books & Books to promote Incognito, which gives me an excuse to go back a few weeks to the this post for The Heat Lightning where I mention his first book, Sum.

Also, The Heat Lightning would like you to offer embarrassing moments from your life for public consumption.  I'm doing it; you should, too.

And because every blog post needs an image, here's this one:

Friday, June 3, 2011

The Only Constant is Change

If you looked closely at the pictures on this post about the Bottega Challenge, you'll notice a certain five-foot-one Cuban with a luscious booty lurking about.  This picture wasn't uploaded, but it was a preview of things to come:

Cristina, an excellent event co-ordinator but evidently not the best cook, had deveined the inside of the shrimp.  I set about deveining the tops of the shrimp (ie, the part that matters) and Becky stepped in to help.  We joked that they'd be the cleanest shrimp ever eaten.

The post didn't go up until October, well after my marriage separation was underway.  I was right in the thick of the mess when this was snapped.  The man in this picture... little did he know.

Becky and I are basically strangers in this picture.  

We wouldn't share a kitchen again until we made chocolate chip cookies from America's Test Kitchen, otherwise known as the Best Chocolate Chip Cookies Ever, at her parents' house.  Making those cookies was the moment I knew.

I love this picture because it fills me with wonder at life's unpredictability.  I love it because it shows how well we worked side by side, long before that became the reason we enjoy our lives so much.  I love it because Becky and I are in it, together.

Then, now, always.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

You Should Read David Benioff

Talent must be a fanatical mistress.  She’s beautiful; when you’re with her, people watch you, they notice.  But she bangs on your door at odd hours, and she disappears for long stretches, and she has no patience for the rest of your existence: your wife, your children, your friends.  She is the most thrilling evening of your week, but some day she will leave you for good.  One night, after she’s been gone for years, you will see her on the arm of a younger man, and she will pretend not to recognize you.
Ushakovo – The Courtyard Hound, the fictional book David Benioff’s Kolya (Nikolai Alexandrovich Vlasov) is writing in City of Thieves

I rarely experience professional jealousy.  I might read a Joe Hill story that's so genius I wish I'd thought of it first, or a lush David Mitchell novel that makes me realize I'll rise to the top level of my ability and still be looking up at him, but the reading experience doesn't plunge me into despair.  It energizes me, feeds me, shows me ways I can explore my own work.

Then, there's David Benioff.  

City of Thieves is so, so good.  I pulled the above quote because it's a delicious metaphor, a tribute to the language and a joy to read.  It gives you an idea of his talent, but it can't tell you how good the book is.  It's so good that you have to wolf it down in huge gulps.  It's so good that any fiction about World War II puts me off and it's still one of my favorites.  It's so good that a passage like the one above doesn't even make it into the "real" book (okay, you could argue that it's Benioff's way of getting around one of writing's basic tenets: Slay Your Darlings.  It's great but it has no place in the actual narrative, so he  throws in this book-within-a-book to give it a home.  Did you make that argument?  Well, congratulations; you hate fun).  

But City of Thieves didn't make me jealous.  This did:

That's the author photo on the dustjacket of Benioff's first novel, The 25th Hour.  Like many, I read City of Thieves first.  The 25th Hour isn't quite as good, but it's got style and story to spare (and shouldn't a writer improve as s/he goes along?).  It's from the Elmore Leonard School, where character drives everything, and dialog reveals all.  It's literate fiction pumped up for the thriller genre, which makes it a unique experience.  He delves into these men's heads-

You know what?  Just read it.  

Halfway through, I was enjoying the book so much I had that moment of wondering what the dude who wrote it looks like.  Once more, it was this guy:

Hey, ladies.  I call this one "smoldering."

Suddenly, The 25th Hour's descriptions of the uber-gorgeous Monty didn't seem so far-fetched.  

Ed Norton plays him in the movie, which makes no sense.  I was picturing Ian Somerhalder while I read, which brings us to my gripe; David Benioff is too good-looking to be so talented.  He's rich, too.  Bottom line?  Fuck that guy.

You might argue that no author looks as good in person as they do on a dustjacket.  Sometimes you're right.  Many times, in fact.  Authors are human, like the rest of us.  Some of us are photogenic, some of us aren't.  Those of us who aren't photogenic don't have the luck to always be caught at a good angle in the right light. 

Take Benioff.  That author photo is way old.  In fact, he grew up and eventually became the hideousness that is this:

It's sad that I'm so beautiful. Wah.

Poor Benioff, trapped in the ivory tower of his gorgeousness, dismissed as a cinematic author turned screenwriter by literary snobs.  He's probably forlorn because with that puss, he'll never be taken seriously enough to win a Booker Prize or a Pulitzer.  I'll bet he cries himself to sleep every night while he's banging Amanda Peet on top of a pile of cash.

Seriously, fuck that guy.  

And when's his next book out?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Book Expo America 2011: Thanks for the Memories

BEA is the biggest trade show in the industry.  Bookended (ha-ha) by training and workshop days with IndieBound and the Independent Booksellers Consortium, you've got three days where all the heavy hitters and wannabes come to wheel, deal, and talk up their latest offerings - be they books, t-shirts, or software.  

There are also special events around the city.  From Random House Children's Books' party aboard an aircraft carrier, to breakfasts with authors, to cocktails at Ground Zero with Globe Pequot, there are dozens of things to choose from, often four or five a night.  They used to feed us at these things, but industry belt-tightening means a scattering of appetizers and plenty of booze.  This is the time for a lot of naturally bookish folks to cut loose in the big city; Booksellers Gone Wild.

I've stopped doing author "breakfasts."  I can deal with a boxed wrap and a can of soda for lunch, but a pile of stale pastries in the center of a table and all the coffee you can drink does not a breakfast make.  Sure,  BEA "breakfasts" have the best book giveaways, but until they bring back bacon and eggs, or change the name to Coffee Author Chat, I'm done.  They are not breakfasts.  NOT!  BREAK!  FASTS!


If you're lucky enough to work for a major independent like Books & Books, the events come to you.

Norton invited me to a lovely dinner at Tarallucci e Vino with Diana Abu-Jaber.  I just finished Birds of Paradise last night and it was damned fine, five stars, but more on that later.  Apart from it being bookstore related, Diana and I couldn't remember when or how we met.  I've always felt privileged to know her because she's a great writer and a nice person.  I've also felt a kinship with her because she grew up in Syracuse and she takes heat for not looking Arab enough, while I grew up in Syracuse and take heat for not looking Indian (or "Native American" la-dee-freaking-da) enough.  The meal and the company - Norton folks, Diana's agent, and some other booksellers - were delicious, and I hope that Birds of Paradise is a huge success.

My other big dinner was thrown by Harper Collins in a private space at the Savoy to celebrate Wildwood, a gorgeous, rollicking romp written by Decemberists frontman Colin Meloy and illustrated by Carson Ellis.  I'm only partway through but so far I'm loving it.  I'm such a huge Decemberists fan that I recognized neither of them, and I keep combining their names into "Carson Meloy" when I talk about the book.  But wine did flow, and good times and deliciousness were had by all.

Everyone at the dinner knew Becky - the Girl with the Pigeon Tattoo - and I couldn't help but feel that she should've had my seat.  The folks from Harper introduced Betsy Bird as a future author, so we spent the whole time she sat next to me talking about her upcoming titles.  When I got home, the magic of Google told me that Mrs. Bird is the most powerful children's book blogger on the planet ("You don't mean Fuse 8, do you?" Becky asked me.  "Oh my God!").  If I was such a force, I'd announce it with every handshake.  But that's me.

I figure doing a big three is good, so I'll mention the mighty Hillary Jordan's When She Woke.  I realize now that while I've sung the praises of Mudbound in other places, my only mention at SwF&F is this squib.  Criminal.  So here's a segment from the opening chapters of Mudbound which shows you why you should read it:

     When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Limning my husband's fingernails and encrusting the children's knees and hair. Sucking at my feet like a greedy newborn on the breast. Marching in boot-shaped patched across the plank floors of the house. There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything. I dreamed in brown.

Here's hoping When She Woke is huge.

Other memories of BEA include passing Flava Flav, meeting Laurent de Brunhoff, and Hellfire.  You're not supposed to talk, tweet, blog, or take photographs at Hellfire, but I can't resist; Josh Ritter bought me Budweisers!

Don't believe me?  Here's proof:

Thanks for reading.