Friday, January 28, 2011

What I'm Not Talking About Here, and Else Where I Do

I just finished an  Cara Hoffman's incredible debut novel So Much Pretty.  I will write more about this amazing book later, but it doesn't come out until March and it's not even on Books & Books' website yet.  In the meantime, I'll just say I loved it.  A few pages in I realized I might just be holding something great, and it didn't disappoint for a second.

Okay, here's a link to Cara Hoffman's blog.  If you poke around and find her "Order Here" button directing you to the A-Word and use it, just don't tell me.  Hopefully you won't hear the sound of an Indie bookseller's heart (and bank account) crying when you click it.

Really, I'm here to send you to my non-book related post for The Heat Lightning and to show you this picture of me in footie pajamas holding Jaws:
Enjoy both.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dear Mom and Dad: I'm Sorry for How I Acted

I know you can only count on a yearly call a couple weeks before it’s time to come up for Thanksgiving so we can schedule an airport pickup.  I might call once every couple years on your birthdays, or Mother’s Dad and Father’s Day (never both), but you’re always in my thoughts.  Especially now that there’s a child in my life.
What I want to know is, how the hell did you do this?  How did you raise a child not just once, but three fucking times?
My fingers are shaking so badly I can barely type.  It’s nothing major, just a normal child-rearing night gone wrong.  He pitches one fit too many, his tone is a little too bossy and demanding, he won’t listen just once more than you can take, so you tell him there will be nothing fun tonight.  He will eat, and he will go to bed.
He doesn’t like this.  At all.  Sure he’s exhausted and could use the early night of rest, but that’s not the point.  The point is, he’s not getting his way, and he needs you to know he’s not happy about it.  The end is fairly dramatic, a slammed glass of milk splattered everywhere, the child sent to bed without dinner.  
The screaming and crying continue, because he’s not happy with this development either.  
Now you’re at a crossroads.  Did the thousand little ways he tested you all day entirely deflate your patience?  Do you have one parenting urge that hasn’t been worn away by the incessant questions, neediness, wheedling, cajoling, bargaining, ignoring, whining, pleading, and crying?  It feels like you have nothing left to give; it would be so much easier to scream back.
I’m leaning over the oven, emotionally exhausted. The kitchen and dishes are clean, so I can’t avoid him any longer.  His behavior has been and continues to be terrible, and he’s headed for a spanking.  I don’t want to deliver one because I never have and I’m not sure I’d know how, but his actions leave little room for anything else.
How did you do this? 
I hear Dad’s voice in my head, answering me with a slanted grin.  Not very well.  Then my mom’s voice.  Kent, that doesn’t help him.  Yet somehow it does.
I go to Dylan’s bed and tell him he’s headed for a spanking.  That I can’t give it tonight because I’m so upset that I might accidentally hurt him, but that if we need to tell him one more time to be quiet and sleep, he will get a spanking first thing in the morning.       
When the fit continues because he’s hungry and doesn’t want a spanking, I scoop him into my arms.  I hold him close and speak into the soft skin of his neck.  I don’t want to hurt your feelings little one, but the world doesn’t revolve around what you want.  Forget about dinner.  Your behavior gave dinner away tonight.  It doesn’t mean we don’t love you.  Now.  You can choose to go to sleep, or you can choose to get a spanking.  It’s up to you.  I don’t want to spank you, and you don’t want to get spanked.  So pick.
He chose sleep.  I chose a big glass of Chateau Ste Michelle dry riesling.  
I think we both slept content.          

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Face-to-Face vs. Facebook

Facebook might help you connect with the people in your life, but it’s also a huge party with a bunch of people that lasts forever.  There's the nervousness over how you present and what people will think of you.  There are background folks you barely notice, the person who won’t stop talking your ear off, the klatch of recent marrieds and recent parents, the people you really want to talk to but hook up with all too briefly.
There's also Becky's father.  Becky's sister set his profile up for him.  When Papa Q discovered Facebook took actual time, he said no way.  This gives him a certain mystique in the virtual world.  A profile people can approach for friendship that will never answer, because the password is a distant memory.  He is the Garbo of Facebook, discussed on my blog, bandied about on updates, tagged in our pictures, but never glimpsed directly.

This approach could work for me.  

Virtual identity is supposed to be great for a writer because you can use your strongest asset to present yourself.  Little did I know, no matter the distance between what I write and who's reading it, the distance from myself to myself is the same; all the insecurities and social awkwardness I feel in life follow me online.

I see the future, the distance from neighbors and family, the little cocoons built around individual lives, or couples or families, the growing suspicion of the Other.  We make friends safely online and forget how to interact in person.  The mechanism between mind and verbal communication which creates charm will atrophy.  Face-to-face interactions will become stilted, uncomfortable, borderline creepy.  A smile from a stranger will become a thing of suspicion, greetings something to ridicule.  

Given how crazy the world can be, some people see this as self-preservation.  Given how lovely the world can be, I think Stranger Danger should never overshadow the Kindness of Strangers.

Anyway, why not find me on Facebook and friend me?  When publishers are trying to decide whether to take a chance on this unknown writer, I'll need body count.  

Monday, January 17, 2011

You're Better Looking Than They Give You Credit For

The voiceover playing during the “before” shot of a woman with a nice butt in an ill-fitting bathing suit says that with Hydroxy-cut, women can have the hips of a ten-year-old boy in just four to six weeks (the “after” shot is hot, if you like young boys).  A guy and a girl wearing the bare minimum of black spandex with abs I could bounce quarters off tell me that with Bowflex just ten minutes a day, I’ll see results in only six weeks.  A fairy-tale princess with Tori Amos hair and freckles tells me that if I want my nasty, yellow teeth to glow like hers, it’ll take whitening strips.  A stunningly gorgeous young brunette in a business suit says if I have a painful yeast infection slowing me down, I should do what she did and get Monostat-7.  A tall, thin, impossibly gorgeous black girl tells me that if I want skin like hers, all I need to do is scrub my face twice a day with some foamy stuff that looks like cottage cheese.  

Then there’s the celebrity group assault.  Brook Shields, Jessica Simpson, Vanessa Williams, and P. Diddy all let me know that they used to have faces like a DiGiorno frozen pizza before they started the exclusive three-step system of Buy This Product Now Before You Turn Into A Leper.  Now, people come up to them all the time and accuse them of drinking baby blood to stay young.  

Even if your problem (which is always physical, and therefore easily fixable with the right purchase) has nothing to do with age or weight, the person trying to sell it to you is young, thin, or young and thin.  Whatever’s wrong with you that three easy payments of $29.95 will fix, there’s two underlying messages throughout; you’re too old, and you’re too fat.

Nacho Man is history, and don’t tell me about the satellite TV guy- the Michelin Man is a pile of tires and it somehow went on a diet.  The Pillsbury Dough Boy lost weight and he’s a dough boy.  Not only did the Kool-Aid pitcher lose weight, its arms got thicker.  How does a pitcher get buff?  IT’S A FUCKING PITCHER.  

Maybe I am too old.  The Brook Shields telling me my acne problem makes me John Merrick?  She’s not the nothing comes between me and my Calvins hot girl I grew up with, she's a thing with no baby fat or eyebrows, a latex mask stretched over good bone structure.  Who knows what a beautiful woman she might have been, if she wasn't so obsessed with looking young.  Vanessa Williams?  Same thing.  She may still be hot, but there’s a desperation to her, a need to look not just younger than she is, which she already does, but to really look science fiction younger than she is, which she doesn’t.  What she looks like is inhuman.  That's what they all look like, and we're so used looking at these flesh masks that we barely notice.  

Who's next?  What will Jessica Simpson look like when she’s forty-something, being tortured by pictures of herself in Daisy Dukes for longer than she’s currently been on the planet?  Will she grow old gracefully, or become another plastic person? 

The joy is the meltdown.  Buy so many copies of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album that the sales record will probably never be equaled despite the increasing population, then sit back and watch him carve himself up.
What do I want?  Health, which includes a positive self-image.  It doesn’t include a nineteen-year-old kid I work with who walks around with one of those little wrist-flexers to build up his forearms.  From the waist up he has the body of a Greek God.  Meanwhile, his calves are boney and he smokes a pack a day to keep food intake from covering his ten-pack stomach.  That’s not health.  

Me wishing I had his body is not healthy, either, but that's another story.   
I’d also like the media to stop portraying eating as an activity, because it isn’t.  “Don’t just sit there and watch TV,” these commercials scream, “EAT SOMETHING!”  That’s why you never see people just sitting in a McDonald’s in their commercials any more.  Sedentary is bad because it leads to fat; the food has nothing to do with it.  People are dancing and leaping while stuffing their faces with Big Macs and french fries.  “See?" these commercials scream, "McDonald’s isn’t something that barely qualifies as food, it’s ROCKING YOUR BODY, BABY!”  
Finally, it would be nice for plastic surgery (including Botox and whatever other crazy nanobytes or microbiotics they come up with in the future [because We're Science]) to stop.  A bomb blew your face off?  Fine, get a new face.  You've got a new movie coming out and you need to look like you did twenty years ago?  You don't, you won't, and my daughter's self-esteem matters more than how your face looks in Hi-Def, so deal.  The way advertising plays on our insecurities sucks, but these body modifications are a plague.  I've seen where it leads, and it's not pretty.  
There's a lot more we could do, but let's start with these three and see what happens.        

Friday, January 14, 2011

We've Created a Monster

When we moved to Madrid Street, Dylan had a tough time sleeping alone.  While we stayed together at her parents' place, Becky and I read to him, then we'd turn the lights out and settle in to his bed.  When Dylan fell asleep, Becky and I would leave.  He had curled up with Becky and I a few times in the middle of the night, but I didn't know it was a "thing." 

In Dylan's mind, the three of us slept together the whole night.  Waking up alone was disorienting and frightening, so he'd come down the hall and cuddle with us.  Until we shared our own roof, I didn't realize those nights Becky and I spent alone were nights Dylan slept straight through.  Getting used to the new place must have been difficult for Dylan; he joined us every night.

I couldn't sleep.

He's squirmy and kicky , but that's only part of it.  I'm used to the feel, sounds, and smells of a woman in my bed, but a six-year-old was a different kettle of fish.  His presence felt strange.  Time would change that, but I also had silly concerns which I didn't know were silly, like. . . what if I rolled over and crushed him?  What if I popped a woody and he noticed?  Was seeing his petite little mom sleeping with this two-hundred pound lummox scarring his psyche?  Laying awake and worrying sucked most of the night away.  I'd be forced to my old day bed to catch a few quick hours before it was time to get up and write.  

I decided Dylan was old enough to sleep alone, and Becky agreed.

Rather than ask my own parents, or my siblings with grown children of their own, for advice, I Googled to see what had worked for a bunch of strangers.  Maybe that's just a symptom of modern living.  Maybe I'm embarrassed over my lack of knowledge, or for getting such a late start relative to my relatives (even though I'm sure my family would be thrilled to help).  Anyway, I emailed a list of techniques and suggestions to Becky.

That night at dinner (one of Becky's strengths is that she doesn't talk or plan something to death; once she decides, she acts)  Becky told Dylan he'd better spend the whole night in his own bed, otherwise the Sleep Fairy wouldn't visit him.

The Sleep Fairy barely merited mention in the stuff I sent to Becky.  Truthfully, I thought the idea was lame, but I wanted to be thorough.  Becky, however, knows what works.  

Dylan's eyes grew wide.

"What's the Sleep Fairy?"

Becky explained that the Sleep Fairy visits houses and leaves little gifts for children who spend the whole night in their own bed.  That night, after being tucked in, Dylan suddenly sat upright.

"I love you, Sleep Fairy!" he called.  "I believe in you!"

He's slept on his own ever since, and all it costs me is some Star Wars miniatures I had when I was a kid.  As Becky says, parenting is bribery and broken promises.

Google promised the Sleep Fairy would gradually fade from our lives as Dylan no longer needs her, which is true.  Google didn't mention that she was married to Santa Claus ("What about Mrs. Claus, Dylan?"  "Mrs. Claus is the Sleep Fairy."  Duh.), or that she would morph into the Finish Your Dinner Fairy, or the Don't Have an Accident in Your Pants Fairy.  When Dylan refused to eat, or "forgot" to use the toilet, the Sleep Fairy got a note and Dylan got nothing.

But lately Dylan seems to have forgotten the Sleep Fairy.  He's finished his dinners, kept his underwear clean, and managed to listen just enough to keep Becky and I from blowing up.  I've left a one-inch die-cast metal Han Solo and a Luke Skywalker in the usual place, and they've gone untouched. 

Thursday night, looking at broiled chicken with a side of corn risotto, Dylan wanted to know what he would "get" if he finished his dinner.  How about good nutrition?  How about you don't get sent to bed?  How about Becky and I don't get upset with you, and we enjoy a nice evening together?  That meant nothing to him.  

I suppose we could blame ourselves, but I'd rather blame that stupid Sleep Fairy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Our Favorite Story

You've probably heard that there are a limited number of stories, that every book, TV show, play, ballad, movie, or musical ever made can be stripped down to one of seven basic plots.  This same theory - or truism - also holds that the most popular story of all time, a favorite the world over, is young man leaves home, has adventures, and returns wiser.  
I hear Chicago has one of these, too.
A few years ago I decided I could never live in Syracuse again.  As much as I love and my family, my tendency to depression simply won't tolerate that level of relentless gray in the sky.  And how many weeks of the year can you actually bike there?  There's no cafecito.  And I think I've mentioned more than once how much I enjoy blending into the melting pot.   

Syracuse University's Hall of Languages; Charles Addams based the Addams Family Mansion on it.
I don't know if a trip home qualifies as a return in the literal sense of a story plot, but it is a type of return.  

East Syracuse
Taking Becky to visit Syracuse was the first time I saw the place I'd grown up as an outsider, as someone who'd never return, and with someone who had never been there.  

Niagra Mohawk 
It made my home town clear for the first time.

I loved being there with Becky because showing her my hometown was also showing her part of myself, but I never expected what her gaze would reveal to me.   We didn't even explore any of the natural beauty - the apple orchards, Green Lakes, Chittenango Falls, etc. etc. - and I found Syracuse to be cool and special.  

S.U. Hill
It might be a college town like a thousand others and its economic hub might be a mall, but the buildings are unique, the winter-bare trees and picturesque neighborhoods are charming when you really look, and Dinosaur Barbeque is still fucking delicious.

I hear New York City has one of these, too.
All I felt when I lived there was the urge to leave.  With Becky, I could have stayed forever. 

Or at least another week or two.  

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Just When You Thought She was Into You

Lisa Ann M_ [I'm reading Frederick Exley's A Fan's Notes] came into the store with the kind of forceful personality which is either intensely annoying, indefinably charming, or the magical combination which comes across as Holly Golightly on speed.  Like a heavy current, you realize you could be swept along, so you let it wash over you and try to remain upright.  

When I leave the buying office and register work distracts me from my agenda, I do my best to be civil.  The customers don't realize whoever should be on the register is AWOL, and they're the reason there's a roof over my head, so I resist the urge to vent my annoyance at my job situation on them.  Sometimes, I even manage to fake enthusiasm.  In LAM's case, her joie de vivre was catchy.  

LAM purchased a copy of Les Standiford's Last Train to Paradise, explaining that she liked to read about the places she travelled.  I gave her points for being a paying customer, for her boho chic outfit (fashionable isn't my thing but stylish is, and the look suited LAM) and blocky black glasses, and for loving Books & Books.

"Are there any cool places in this city?" she asked.  "You know, for people who love books?  Events, or somewhere special you like to go?"

I asked how long she planned on staying.

"I'm leaving Miami as soon as possible," she said.  

In that case, not really.  

"Is there an Art Deco district?  I've heard about all the cool Art Deco architecture.  I saw some on the Beach but it looked pretty run down."

If you've been to South Beach, that's about it on the art deco.  I mentioned Wynwood and the Design District, but since I couldn't offer directions I was fairly useless to her.  

When I first moved to Miami, I would have commiserated with the numerous negative things LAM had to say as I rang her up, but I'm done bad-mouthing The Magic City.  I've lived here long enough to see Miami, to love this town and adopt it as my own.  By this time, Becky had come by.  She wasn't cock blocking but she was certainly present.  Lurking, I guess you'd say. 

"Are you a biker, by any chance?" LAM asked.

I allowed as I was.  

"Because I biked here by Venitian Bridge.  Do you know Venitian Bridge?"

She meant Venitian Causeway, one of the few bike-friendly places in Miami.  

"Once I got off it, there didn't seem to be anywhere to go.  I got honked at a lot."

I told her apart from Alhambra, there wasn't a street in the Gables with a bike path.  The best you could do was bike carefully.  

LAM refused a bag for her purchase, instead tucking Last Train into the bag over her shoulder.  She plucked a copy of Tim Gautreaux's The Missing from her bag to make space and asked if I wanted it.  She'd just bought the book in New Orleans, finished it on the train, and wanted to travel light.  I told her I was familiar with The Missing and had intended to read it since it was published.  I thanked her, wishing I had something to offer in return.  

According to Becky, Lisa Ann M_ was flirting.  I might agree, if not for the following.

"I can't really get you back to Venitian," I said.  "That's out of my six-mile radius."

"Six mile radius?" 

"Yeah.  All social engagements need to be within a six-mile radius of my house.  Otherwise, I don't go."

"What it that, a Miami thing?  Or an old-person thing?"

She may have meant "is that an old-school thing" or "a classic rule of living" but I wasn't about to find out for sure.  I said it was my thing which I'd adopted from a friend, wished her luck on her travels, and bid her goodbye.

I may not have gotten an ego boost out of it, but at least I got a free book.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Here's What You Should've Read Last Year

In case you missed them, here's a bunch of books I recommended for The Heat Lightning.

I didn't include Nicole Krauss' Great House because I'm in the process of writing something where I compare it to Sara Gruen's Ape House.  Great House vs. Ape House, get it?  That's good stuff, right?  I've got three pages to whittle down that can be summed up thusly: you can't wait to finish both books, but for very different reasons.

I also didn't include Peggy Orenstein's Cinderella Ate My Daughter or Les Standiford and Joe Matthews' Bringing Adam Home because I read ARCs; they don't come out until February and March, respectively.

Joe Hill's Horns was hands down the best guilty pleasure of 2010 and I forgot to include it.  Of course it's not really a guilty pleasure since he's such an amazing author, but he makes reading so damned fun it feels like you're getting away with something.

If any of these strike your fancy, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Happy reading!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I'll be Home for Christmas

I grew up in Syracuse, which just experienced 97 consecutive hours of snow. My first experience of Christmas in Miami was on video.  Watching Andi and Jim on their front lawn, wearing shorts and t-shirts, fighting with the water guns they'd just gotten under the tree, I immediately decided Christmas in Miami did not exist.  

I moved here in 1998.  Sometimes there were decorations and a tree, sometimes not.  Sometimes we'd eat at the in-law's, sometimes a friend's, sometimes at the brother-in-law's, and sometimes at home.  We always exchanged gifts, stuffed stockings, listened to holiday music, drank egg nog, and spread holiday cheer, but nothing in thirteen years of semi-tropical merriment filled me with the excitement and joy I always associated with Christmas up north snow or no snow.  

Supposedly it's bad trying to relive your childhood through your own children.  You get the high you used to feel by seeing something through their eyes, which is fine, but the danger is you might end up resenting the children for not having all the fun and happiness you remember (or imagine you remember).  

Well, screw the danger.  Whether it was Dylan, Becky, or the way the three of us have become a family, I now know Christmas comes to Miami.

We opened our gifts Christmas morning.  Dylan, who wants to be an immediate expert at everything he tries, became frustrated with the Beyblades he got.  If you're unfamiliar, Beyblades are the dramatic re-imagining of tops.  You spin them together in a plastic arena to battle, and the last one spinning is the winner.  

Beyblades are for ages eight and up, and they're tough for little fingers to put back together when they fall apart.  I warned Dylan if he threw another fit about the Beyblades, I'd put them away for two years, until he was old enough to use them.  I was preparing breakfast for a crowd, Becky was frantically cleaning, and if he wanted to play instead of helping, he needed to do it without the drama.

As Christmas approached, Dylan has been a handful and a half.  Both Becky and I have wanted to cancel Christmas at least once.  One fine day, after blowing most of a paycheck on Santa's toys, he decided it was time to see who was in charge around the house while mommy wasn't around.  I stormed into his room and yelled, "Guess what? I fucking AM Santa Claus!  Unless you want me to bring everything back and use the money to fly your mother and I to New Orleans, you better clean your goddamn room NOW!"  
Well, no.  But I thought about it.  Hard.  A few mornings later, Becky and he screamed at each-other.  Both of them ended up crying and shaking with anger and frustration.  

We told ourselves he'd be better once Christmas finally got here.      

Of course, Christmas morning, Dylan threw another fit when the Beyblades fell apart.  I had to put them away, and his snit became a crying tantrum.  Becky and I didn't get upset with him for ruining Christmas, imagining our childhood selves as dancing sugar plums of joy.  I hugged him and told him it didn't mean we didn't love him.  Becky invited him to play with the piles of other toys Santa brought. 

Parenting is one of those things you'll never understand unless you experience it yourself.  By extension, you can't understand your own parents without being a parent yourself.  You might think you know how you feel about your parents, but being a parent will cast those feelings in a new light.  I've never felt closer to my family than while forming my own.  

The Quiroga Clan joined us for breakfast, as well as Carroll, and it was beautiful.

When they left, Becky and I enjoyed our first Christmas waking in the same house.

After twelve years in Miami, Christmas finally found me.  

Monday, January 3, 2011

Coconut Grove: Racist

Visiting the Grove on Boxing Day after the 29th annual King Mango Strut parade, I spotted a new cigar shop next to The Cheesecake Factory called Coco Cigar.  Touristy knick-knacky crap has been replaced by my best friend, the cigar store Indian.  

He's patriotic.
 Then we lunched at Mr. Moe's.  What are wooden logs from North Carolina, Colorado river rock, and Nova Scotia slate without a nice carving of an Indian head on the wall?
Psst, buddy... try the blue cheese burger.
Apparently, I missed the big one.  No matter how you present demeaning Indian Kitsch, it's fine as long as you use the respectful term of "Native American".

Happy New Year!