Monday, November 28, 2011

Model United Nations: The Are Two Sides to the Condom Man Story

My mom and I have different versions of the story, but the facts are clear; I gave a speech in Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University when I was eighteen, and the New York chapter of the Model United Nations was permanently banned from meeting there.

MUN was one of many organizations I joined during my senior year in a last-ditch scramble to get everything I could out of my high school education.  Even now I can't really tell you what it was about.  MUN appealed to me because countries got to pass notes in classrooms while ignoring the speakers, something I'd never done as a studious lad.

It was 1991.  Hendricks Chapel - an interfaith facility on SU's main quad - was filled to capacity.  While High School teachers and curious college professors stood against the walls looking on, high schoolers across New York state got up and pretended to be delegates from different countries.  Everyone got two minutes to speak for his or her temporarily-appropriated country, to talk about what they expected to get out of the two-day affair.  It was an endless parade of we the people of Argentina are proud to stand with our fellow nations and the proud people of Belgium are delighted to stand with you and Chile stands proud with it's fellow countries, all of it delivered in the same hand-shaking, staring at the page monotone.  Every country was happy to be there.  Every country had an agenda.  Every country had hope for the future.

East Syracuse-Minoa was assigned Nicaragua and. . . some other country.  I ended up speaking for Nicaragua because the guy who was supposed to do it chickened out.  Whether he never wrote a speech or destroyed it in his distress, I'll never know.

Somewhere around the H countries, Mr. Parziale came and squatted beside me.  Mr. Parziale taught accelerated Social Studies to tenth and eleventh graders, taught economics and political science in summer school, and was in charge of MUN.  He was smart, humorous, and fair.  He explained that there was no one to speak for Nicaragua and asked if I wanted to give it a shot.  No pressure, because they could always just bang the gavel and move on to Nigeria, it would be great if I could say a little something to let the New York MUN'ers know that East Syracuse-Minoa was in the house.

"Look at them," he said, gesturing toward the lectern.  "You can do that, can't you?"

"Indonesia stands proudly before you, but gratefully among you, as we work together-"

"No problem," I said.

One thing that's important to keep in mind - MUN is run by students.  The teachers guide and educate, but their most important job is getting out of the way.  Mr. Parziale told me to talk about rapid population growth, an issue taxing Nicaragua's healthcare system, environment, and educational system at the time.

I wrote furiously, watching the students drone on.  I had a semester and a half of Drama Club and had represented the school in a Shakespeare Competition.  I could do that, I thought.

Or I wake those people up.

Imagine that picture above filled with high schoolers in suits and dresses, doing their best to reenact a UN meeting.  A lot of navy, is what I'm trying to say.  I walked on stage sporting a mustard, leopard-spotted jacket from Chess King and a vintage, dark brown, gambler-crown, wide-brimmed hat.

Oh, the hat.  The hat's I wore in high school could be a blog in itself, and this particular hat would be a week of posts.  I waited until college to do any drinking or drugs, using eighties movies to alter my consciousness instead.  The result was that I often left the house looking like an eighteen-year-old pimp.   If the beaten western Clint Eastwood wore in Fistful of Dollars fucked the hat Jack Nicholson wore when the played the Joker, you'd get something like it.

Increase the width of this brim by 50%, lose the leather band, and flatten the top.
More importantly, the origin story: my high-school sweetheart's father lived in a mental institution; she loaned me his favorite hat.  I literally wore a hat only a crazy person would wear.
If I could make shit like that up, publishers would be beating down my door.

My speech was a hit because it matched my look.  I leaned over the mic and told the capacity crowd that not only was Nicaragua over-populated, it was under-educated.  We couldn't just throw condoms at them and expect the birth rate to level out.  It doesn't do anyone any good if people are walking around with condoms on their ears or using them as water balloons.  We needed a special committee to travel to Nicaragua, and all the underprivileged nations of the world, and demonstrate proper condom use, over and over if necessary.  This Condom Committee would travel the globe, tireless in its efforts to demonstrate proper condom use.  The Condom Committee would not leave any country unsatisfied.

Over a chorus of adolescent giggling, a girl behind me madly banged her gavel.  I don't know what school she was from, what country she represented, or how many committees she'd "won" to get the honor of chairing the opening the ceremony, but I remember the tremor in her voice.

"Delegate, please bring your remarks to a close," she said.

I paused for a moment.  I'd been speaking perhaps thirty seconds, so I was well within my rights to demand my alloted time.  I let the air grow thick, feeling the waves of panic behind me from people who took MUN way too seriously.  I had no doubt if I tried to continue I'd be gaveled to death, so I made it clear I had only one thing left to say.

"In conclusion. . ."

Behind me, dozens of high school students breathed a collective sigh of relief.  But I wasn't doing it for them, I was doing it for everyone else, for the rest of us who'd had to listen to them all morning.

". . . If you're in an underprivileged country, please walk softly, but cover your big stick."

1,100 formally-bored teenagers overlooked the inherent xenophobia of my speech and leapt to their feet.  The hooting, stomping, clapping, and cheering lasted long after I took my seat.  The only ones not laughing were the students on stage and the adults lined up against the wall.

Mr. Parziale cornered me as the students filed out.

"What are you doing to me, man?"  He asked.  He looked like he'd seen a ghost.  At the same time, he looked like he was trying hard not to laugh.  "People are pissed.  Pissed.  One teacher said, 'and in a church, of all places.'  I didn't even think of that."

I was too busy enjoying my celebrity to worry about the fallout.  People stopped me in the hallways to have their pictures taken with me.  Girls who had bussed in from out of town for the weekend-long conference slipped me notes in committee, inviting me to their hotel rooms to practice safe sex.  For one weekend of my torturous adolescence, I was cool.  I stopped being Aaron the loser and became - Condom Man.

Up to that point, it was easily the best two days of my life.

* * *

My mother is a five-foot-eight, silver-haired Mohawk Indian with a voice like a mouse and spine of pure steel.
Don't mess with this woman.
In her version of the story, her youngest son, the only one of her three children to make it to his senior year in high school, was in danger of being expelled.

She sat in East Syracuse-Minoa's Administration office with Principal Santulli and Mr. Parziale.  Syracuse University had already banned the Model United Nations from meeting in Hendricks Chapel, and the MUN wanted me expelled to set an example for any future members.  Mr. Parziale didn't want to do it, but it had to be done.

"I know he's just a child and doesn't know what he did," Mr. Parziale said, "But he went too far."

"That's right," mom agreed.  "He's a child.  He's a child, and you hurt him."

Principal Adams and Mr. Parziale looked confused.

"Do you remember the trip to New York City?" my mom asked.

MUN's biggest conference gathers the best schools from state meetings like the one at SU.  It takes place every year in New York City.  I don't remember the price tag, but it wasn't cheap.  Other parents wrote checks for their children and moved on with their lives.  Despite growing up four hours away, I'd never been to New York.  I wanted to go very badly, but I told Mr. Parziale I couldn't afford it.

I worked more hours in the deli at Leo & Sons Big M Supermarket, but it wasn't enough.  Just before the deadline, my Aunt Jeri stepped in to cover the difference.  I told Mr. Parziale I could go to New York City after all.

He told me that he had limited space for the trip.  I was a senior, graduating in just a few months, and he decided to send a freshman instead.  Over four years, he could groom this freshman to be a real asset to his club.  I told Mr. Parziale I understood, but inside I was devastated.

When Mom told him this, Mr. Parziale's face fell.

"I had no idea," he said.

Ultimately, my speech earned me a two-week suspension.  When I got back, Mr. Parziale apologized for putting me on the spot in Hendricks Chapel, and for not letting me go on the New York trip.

I don't remember anything but the fun part.  When mom told the story last year at Thanksgiving, it was like hearing the plot to a movie that came out decades ago.  It sounded awfully familiar, but I couldn't be sure I'd ever seen it.

I was the type of kid no one ever noticed in life, so when I got in front of a crowd I tended to expand.  Look at me, my behavior screamed, feeding off finally being seen.  I don't believe I gave that speech as some kind of screw you to Mr. Parziale, I was just trying to be funny.  But I didn't even remember being suspended, so how can I know?  More importantly, what did I do with that money I'd saved for the New York trip?  Buy more pimp outfits?

People resent the concept of fate because we like to believe we're in charge of our lives, but what if we don't even need to go as far as Fate with a capital F to see who's pulling the strings, what if all of our actions bubble from some subconscious stew?  What if every accidental sleight or unintentionally cruel joke is deliberate on some level?  What if all the apologizes and smiles between the thought and the deed are just smoke and mirrors, protecting our image of ourselves?

I haven't posted this one because I don't have a shit-hot ending for it.  But some things just end.  This will have to be one of them.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Miami Book Fair International Day 6: The Party Starts Today

This year opened with Christopher Paolini's Inheritance on Sunday afternoon.  The Miami Writers Institute, Student Literary Encounters, and the heavy hitters - Dorothy Alison, Harry Belafonte, John Sayles, Ron Suskind, Calvin Trillin - have been hitting all week long, but these next three days are key.  The Street Fair is its own monster, and Books & Books is 90% ready.

It's ten minutes to six am.  Becky and I are dropping Dylan off at school in the dark so we can finish the job of getting the tents set up.

Some retailers have the holiday season; at Books & Books, we have Miami Book Fair International.

Tensions are high.  Illness runs rampant.  Three of us have almost quit this week, including me.  When the gates open in about four hours, we'll find out if it's all been worth it.

There have been more cancellations.  I read an apologetic email from an author just recovering from the flu.  This author knew that flying down to Miami for the weekend would cause the flu to return, so... he can't make it, sorry.

Not everyone at Books & Books is or has gotten sick but there's a fairly sturdy illness making the rounds on some key players.  I worked a sixty-hour week, spent a miserable Friday night and all day Saturday in bed, and then worked another sixty hour week starting Sunday.  14 and 16 hour days are just as beneficial for your health as you'd imagine.

I'm putting more effort into stocking Authorton McFluwhiner's books than he is into promoting them.

As Becky says, "His loss, don't it so personally."  I don't.  Much.  I just get annoyed when people have the kind of jobs where they can make those choices.  I wonder what it is about me that I have never had the kind of job where I can take a sick day.  It is me, refusing to take one?  People call out all the time at every job I've ever had, so maybe it is just me.

Anyway, I've gone off topic and now the alarm is going off.  My point is, there's stuff I wanted to do.  I haven't written in forever, and not just blogs.  I've been sleeping in until seven, because waking at five would be pushing myself too hard, and this cold keeps nipping at my heels.  I wanted to morph that post about the wedding books into something Book Fairish for The Heat Lightning, because a ton of those authors are appearing.  I wanted to interview someone awesome like Vera Brosgol or Hillary Jordan for THL, too.  I wanted to drink juice and eat soup.

Well, I did that last one.  Just not enough.

By the end of every day, I'm in that mode where I have to keep moving, because if I stop, I'll crash.  It was over a hundred degrees in the tent yesterday.  I think I lost ten pounds of water.  I know I didn't pee once.  It's supposed to rain all weekend.

Wish us luck.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Letter to Miami Book Fair International Authors Who Cancel

Dear Authorton McWriterface,

God forbid you have a successful tour.  Poor you, having to meet folks who adore your work.  You don't want attention, then guess what?  Don't tour.  Before that, don't publish what you write.

Clearly your work has struck a nerve, but screw the fans whose purchases have assured you'll never need a real job again, right?  Screw the folks trying to schedule hundreds of authors around your event, huh?  Fuck that guy in the buying office beating his brains against his desk trying to find copies of your book somewhere, anywhere, because your publisher is caught by surprise and your book is in reprint, yes?

Fuck those people because it's all about you, and flying in an airplane, checking into a hotel, sitting in a chair, and signing your fucking name is just too much.  You know why David Sedaris signs for four hours at every gig, even after all these years on tour?  Because he knows that real work is much, much worse.

Get a fucking job.

Google Images doesn't have much in the manner of book beatings. 

And if your tour is not successful, so what?  You published an honest-to-God book.  In this climate, where publishers are leary of anything not rambled (or co-rambled) into existence by some "celebrity," you did it - you didn't self-publish, you didn't CreateSpace, you didn't offer your book on the Kindle for 99 cents.  A publisher looked at your work and thought, "This.  This will keep the doors open a while a longer."  That's not enough affirmation for you?

I get it, it's frustrating to think you have something to say and that no one will listen, like this is your one big chance to shout your message to a mass audience but the crowd went, "meh."  I have no idea what that feels like.  But you know what it feels like being the guy ordering books for the guy for whom that's not good enough?  It sucks.  It's soul-crushing.  It sets my teeth a-grinding.

So think of me, pull your head out of your ass, and woo the half-dozen people who care what you have to say so hard that they'll have no choice but to tell half a dozen others.

Of the two book beating images on offer, this is the clear winner.

And if this is your second year canceling... oh, Authorton.  Nothing could make me agree to this again, order everything for Miami Book Fair while doing my regular job.  But to see you come in, give your presentation, and melt down because your books aren't here, thinking of that almost makes it seem worth the effort.

Better yet, maybe we'll just have you sign copies of our return paperwork.  Fuckwad.

May All Your First Printings Be Remaindered,

Frustrated in the Buying Office