Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Weekend Update

It took me about an hour and a half to drive home from the Greenmarket on Saturday night. We ended up getting about 9 inches of snow, with parts of Brooklyn getting as much as 14. After closing up the syrup stand, we went to have dinner at The Spain Restaurant, which is one of my favorites. When people ask me what it's like, I say, "It's 100 year old drunk waiters in polyester bolero jackets." It's also the place, when asked if they could bring something for the vegetarians, said: "I'll bring some potatoes." So, after dinner, we made it back to our parked trucks and slogged ourselves through the oncoming blizzard. Taxis were sliding all over Third Avenue. On the Queensboro Bridge, the visibility was so bad that you couldn't see any light from the city, from Queens, from the cars in front of you. I'm glad I made it home without incident. I was glad that I had a large heavy vehicle, and not some tiny plastic car. Perhaps the most New York-ish of images, was, of course, some delivery guy on a bike, at 10pm in a blizzard. How we do love our delivery.

I'm writing a set of discussion questions for Yield, which will be in stores in Sept 2010. I'm not sure what do to about this. What do people want to talk about, or think about, after they have read my novel? In some ways, I think that the author is the worst person to write these questions. Perhaps I am the best person to answer the questions once they have been written? Or, maybe the readers are the best people to answer these questions? I'm not sure what to think about this.

Kip and I are headed to South Carolina and Tennessee for a few days after Christmas. We hope to see Laura and Amy while we are all in the same place--perhaps convening at a Waffle House, which Amy has learned to love.

I'm taking a short break from the blog--and will see you in the beginning of the new year.

Love to everyone.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ugly in Art

This was posted in the mail area of an apartment building in Greenpoint.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dinner at Per Se

Back in October, some friends and I went to eat at Per Se, Thomas Keller's outpost in the Time Warner Center. It was, hands down, the best food I have ever eaten--as a whole experience. (That is to say that I have had some pretty transcendent pork tacos from a shopping cart in Jackson Heights, but that's another story.) What was most remarkable about the meal was how easy it was. Truly unhurried, relaxing, incredibly polished service. Flawless food with impeccable details and additions. An amazing view of Columbus Circle and Central Park.

I emailed the restaurant to ask for a copy of the menu, since there was clearly no way I was going to remember everything we ate. And drank. But, um, I do remember a 1985 Sauternes....plus the half bottle of champagne we started with, and two more bottles. (I don't remember what the wines were....except that they were perfect.) Per Se offers two tasting menus: one meat, one veggie. There was also two amuses, plus an assortment of bread things that came around in a basket as we wished. But for the main idea, here's what the meat-eaters had:

--"Oysters and Pearls": "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar.

--Hudson Valley Moulad Duck Foie Gras Poele: Hobbs Shore’s Pancetta "Melba," White Wine Poached Honey Crisp Apples and Braised Tuscan Kale with Tellicherry Pepper "Mignonnette"

--Sauteed Fillet of Florida Pompano: Razor Clams, Compressed English Cucumbers, Piquillo Peppers, Petite Onions and Cilantro Shoots with Pimenton "Vierge"

--Scottish Langoustines "a la plancha": French Breakfast Radishes, Haricots Verts, Globe Artichokes and Sweet Carrots with Parsley "Pudding"

--Four Story Hill Farm's "Supreme de Pigeon": "Confit de Cuisse," Buckwheat Crêpe, Brussels Sprouts and Chestnut Purée with "Jus de Pigeon"

--Rib-Eye of Marcho Farms Veal "Roti a la Broche": Yukon Gold Potato and Chanterelle Mushroom Gratin with Hakurei Turnips, Creamed Turnip Greens and "Sauce Périgourdine"

--Consider Bardwell Farm's "Dorset": "Sablé aux Quatre Épices," Butternut Squash Confit, Belgian Endive and Toasted Pumpkin Seeds with Blis Maple Syrup Vinaigrette

--Pear Sorbet: "Silver Dollar" Pancakes, Bosc Pear Compote, Anise "Bavarois" and Almond Crisp

--"Tea & Biscuits": "Millionaire’s Shortbread," Sweet Tea Panna Cotta and Chocolate "Crémeux" with Darjeeling Ice Cream

--"Peanut Butter & Jelly": Peanut Butter Mousse, Concord Grape Jam, Peanut "Génoise"
and Grape Sorbet with Dried Milk Tuile


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Advertisting Blanks

One of my favorite things about the MTA are the sections of tile in advertising transition. The many layers of posters and graffiti become modern art pieces themselves. I love how these are created randomly, and yet always come out looking so beautiful.

Do you have some of these at your station? Send them to me and I will add them here.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

An Open Letter to New York State Senators Aubertine, Addabbo, Diaz, Huntley, Kruger, Monserrate, Onorato, and Sachowski

Dear State Senators,

The votes that each of you cast yesterday should fill you with shame. When you returned to your homes in the evening, to your spouses and children and beside tables, did you feel a sense of accomplishment? Did you think that you had honored your commitment to democracy and government? Or did you wake choking in the middle of the night, grasping desperately for a glass of water, your body caught in the twisted sheets, knowing that the choice you made was the resentful, hateful, bigoted choice of a coward?

I am afraid that you slept soundly. I am afraid that you think that this is just how some things go in Albany, that votes don't mean what they really mean. I am afraid that you cannot see what you have done. I am afraid that because of your ignorance you do not understand that your votes are not simply votes to deny the rights of thousands of loving, hopeful, trusting, giving, caring and tax-paying people--many of whom voted for you--the right to happiness, and equal protection. Your votes are expressions of pure, unequivocal hate. You have said: It's okay to hate gay people.

Do you understand that heterosexual marriages are actually made less sacred by the choices that you have made? Do you understand that if the love between two women who wish to marry is a threatening advance on the stability of your marriage, then your marriage has no stability at all?

Though you may not see it, this is not simply a vote against gay people who want to share a life together. This is a vote against every gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or questioning child that gets bullied, beaten, assaulted and abused--on the playground, in classrooms, and in the very communities that you represent. Your vote is a vote against their future.

Of all the reasons to have the institution of marriage open to every one of this country's citizens, perhaps the most important is this: So that our gay and lesbian children feel valid. So they can grow up to be productive, loving, active members of the American idea in action. Your vote has said to them, loud and clear, that your neighborhood and your government thinks that you are worthless. That worthlessness, which is the worthlessness that you have incited, encouraged and have now perpetuated, will cause some of those children to attempt suicide. Some of those who try to kill themselves will succeed. They will shoot themselves with guns, or hang themselves in closets, or slice open their fragile young wrists.

I hope that when this happens--and sadly, terribly, regretfully, it will happen--that you are visited by their ghosts in the night. I hope that the dark room you are sleeping in turns suddenly cold. I hope your body feels icy, frozen with the knowledge of what you've done. I hope that you wake shaking, and screaming in fear.


Lee Houck

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Important Ages

1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 18, 21, 25, 29, 30, 31, 37, 40, 48, 49, 50, 55, 59, 60, 62, 65, 70, 75, 79, 80, 81, 82, 85, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

GrammarPiano TweetCloud

TweetCloud, this cool new website, is "a service that lets you generate a cool looking cloud of the words your tweets mostly contain." I like that they call this a "service." This is what mine looks like:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ms. Difranco at Town Hall, 2009

Ani Difranco played the Town Hall last Saturday night, and I was there. My friend Robert Maril, who later asked that in this blog post I describe his hair as "shiny" and "with body," joined me for this, my 37th Ani show. This indicates some kind of insanity, surely. (That's approximately $1700 in tickets, if you're quick at math.) But here's what I think I have finally discovered--after so many performances in so many cities across this country, even a show in Paris: I think more clearly, more crisply and thoroughly, at an Ani Difranco show than anywhere else.

My first show was in Knoxville, back in 1996. That night's recording of Dilate made it onto her 1997 record "Living in Clip," minus the part in the middle of the song where she stopped, and proceeded to have a quite valid, fussy, frustrated and yet especially articulate in a way that only Ani can be, scolding of the audience for singing at the top of their lungs. As I recall, she said something along the lines of "This song is not a soccer chant." She would never do that now, as far as I can tell--and the way she keeps playing Both Hands as the first encore song over and over starts to push her, and the song, into Closer to Fine territory. (Some of you will know what that means.) The birth of her child, her second marriage, and I think the election of Barak Obama, all of this has made her more relaxed. She seems to really be enjoying herself again.

It was dark back in 1997. Things started to get more exciting in the early 2000s, but by 2003 she had seemed to wind herself down into another period of, well, Ani-inwardness. The songs from that period are lonely and cold. She toured solo for a while, and then when band members started showing up again--her sound changed dramatically. Most recently, with the incarnation of the previous two years--Todd Sickafoose on bass, Allison Miller on drums, and Mike Dillon on percussion--have made her music sound more robust, more textured, more grounded than ever before.

Because this show was on a Saturday night, there were lots of younger people in the audience. It might be unfair of me to presume--but lots of them seemed to be teenage girls perhaps dropped off by their parents in cars. (I went to my first Indigo Girls concert in 1992 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta this way--we sat in the very last row.) Two rows in front of us, were a gaggle of young ladies who insisted on dancing and swaying and singing to every song they knew. That they knew the songs is the important part. It makes me think that the experience, for these kind of concert-goers, is not about the music or the moment, but about recreating the private experience they've had in their living rooms and bedrooms and iPods.

If you feel one thing at home alone listening to Ani, you want to feel the same thing in concert--such is the logic, I guess. And because the swaying and dancing doesn't extend to the new songs--that is to say the songs that Ani hasn't released yet, and therefore only the savvy, and increasingly numerous, internet traders know them--to my eye, it's even less about the show. A few times, the dancing girls attempted to get the people sitting around them to join in, standing and dancing and singing and generally annoying everyone around and behind them. As if their own experience would be made better if they were not so alone in their revelry. As Joan Didion might write: "The narrative is already in place."

So, back to the way I think. I've seen her so many times that it feels like a family ritual--some of the same notes are struck here and there, like a favorite dish at a holiday meal, and then some new things appear and disappear, changing as the seasons do, but staying the same. Something about sitting there, in the dark, watching the lights change and watching Ani sing, listening to those songs I've been listening to for almost twenty years, some of them, it just feels comfortable. My brain shifts into a happy neutral.

I'm glad she's delving into her back catalog more these days. She Says, a song from her 1991 record "Not So Soft," has been appearing in the middle space of sets lately--a revised guitar riff and slightly shifted melody makes the song even more lonely, even more beautiful. I almost write "if that's possible." But clearly, with Ani, it is.

Here's the setlist:
Coming Up
Alla This
November 5th, 2008
She Says
Which Side Are You On?
New Bible
If You're Not
Untouchable Face
Both Hands

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

This Week

Part One:
One of the (many) benefits of living in the great City of New York is that cultural events happen here on a very large scale. The downside of this is that everyone wants to attend these events, and when something comes around like Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall for two nights only, way more than 12,000 people clamor for tickets at 10:00am on that fateful Friday only to discover that, surprise, you are too, too late. Even the presale tickets were gone at 12:00 noon the day before. But somehow, StubHub was selling tickets throughout each section, orchestra and all three mezzanines, days and days before even the date of sale was announced. People on Craig's List were selling Orchestra pit tickets weeks ago. This speaks volumes about the terrible truth of how the music industry and its cronies and friends-of ruin the music business for fans. But then, after it became clear to me that I was not getting tickets, and no one I knew was able to get tickets, I realized that maybe this wasn't such a big deal after all. Everything Lady Gaga does is about visibility, about being seen. So, I figure, whatever she does those two nights, I'll see it. It will be on YouTube, or all over the blogs, she'll Twitter her thanks to all her fantastic gay fans, and perhaps this monopolizing of the imagery and webwaves, maybe this is what Gaga is all about.

Part Two:
Tonight's dinner turned out terribly. Does rice expire? Even when you have it in the fridge? I guess it does--it sort of fell apart, like puffed rice does in leftover cereal milk. I was trying to re-create this leek and white truffle risotto that I made a few weeks ago when some friends were over to watch the Emmys. That night is was spectacular. I was actually surprised it came out so beautifully. But, like other things, and like a lot of people, I need a little reason to shine. So, when it came time to make this big pot of dinner this evening, I felt half-assed about it, and the results are hideous. If I weren't alone, I'd throw it out.

Part Three:
The new Margaret Atwood novel is intriguing, as one might expect. I'm having a weird reaction to it--I'm loving the writing, the specific sentences. But the overall narrative isn't that compelling to me. And this is odd, considering that this one, The Year of the Flood, is kind of a continuation of a thought, a sort-of sequel to one of her books that I loved, Oryx and Crake. I sit on the B61 and read and read, and I keep wondering when the story is going to start. In fact, today I skipped ahead and read the first two pages of a later part of the book to see if there was something maybe I wanted to get to. The good news is: There was. So, I continue on.

Part Four:
I just finished the new Dan Chaon novel, Await Your Reply. This was a totally different experience. The story itself is so exciting, so twisty and slow-to-reveal itself, that I couldn't wait to get to the end. I felt really torn about it. The writing is so beautiful, and so concentrated and thoughtful, that I wanted to take my time. But the what-is-going-to-happen was pressing on me so much that I wanted to stay up all night and read and read and read.

Part Five:
The madness of the holidaze has begun. What to do for a holiday card this year? When to schedule the tree-trimming party, in which people don't actually tree-trim but admire the tree-trimming that you have done earlier in the day? What to buy people? Whether to buy for people? How long do marshmallows keep if you ship them?

Part Six:
Can we see Levi Johnston naked already?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Learning to Write, Part 3

My friend Jane over at Leaf-Stitch-Word tagged me in this meme she created. She asks us to look for three essential markers, practices, or maybe habits. She asks, "What can you tell me about your twisted paths to becoming a writer?" I'm going to take this in three posts. Thanks, Jane!

Part Three: Since Always

This meme has been really difficult. My instinct is to say, at this point, in trying to chart my path toward being a writer, something like: "It's just who I am." I don't ever remember doing anything else that was as satisfying.

In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion writes that she believes that "...meaning itself [is] resident in the rhythms of words and sentences." She is writing about meaning in the large sense--capital M, big ideas, Meaning Of Life. When I read this, on the 6 Train underneath Lexington Avenue, I wanted to blast off into the sky, exploding off the ground like Neo does at the end of The Matrix, having finally understood that he is infinitely powerful, unbeatable. Nothing--absolutely nothing--feels more right to me than a string of words that say what you have been feeling all along.

I love reading because it is singular--not like other performing arts where the experience is collective. The intimacy of a book is different than the intimacy of a concert, or a well-made play. The experience is, I think, a more direct line to the reader's emotions and sense of space, self and emotion. It's an entirely cerebral immersion. I'm not trying to say that it's the best way to experience a work of art--I'm just saying it's my personal favorite.

Friday, November 06, 2009

From Eileen Myles

Most likely, we travel to exist in an analogue to our life's dilemmas. It's like a spaceship. The work for the traveler is making the effort to understand that the place you are moving through is real and the solution to your increasingly absent problems is forgetting. To see them in a burst as you are vanishing into the world. Travel is not transcendence. It's immancence. It's trying to be here.

--From the essay, "Iceland" by Eileen Myles

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Learning to Write, Part 2

My friend Jane over at Leaf-Stitch-Word tagged me in this meme she created. She asks us to look for three essential markers, practices, or maybe habits. She asks, "What can you tell me about your twisted paths to becoming a writer?" I'm going to take this in three posts. Thanks, Jane!

Part Two: Diligence

When I moved to New York in 1998, I was a theater person. I had spent the previous four years under the tutelage of an extraordinary teacher and theater professional, and spent the summer after graduation working on yet another show with the same people I'd been working with for years. We had a captive audience--the school was required to attend the productions as part of the curriculum. We could do whatever we wanted, and we did. We did
productions by the San Francisco Mime Troupe. We did Peter Weiss's Holocaust play. We did Brecht and Beckett. We did the Neo-Futurists. This was in a high school in Tennessee, mind you. My brother is famous for claiming that all our shows had basically three elements: 1) Writhing, 2) Sirens and 3) Guns'N'Roses. (I sort of resented it then, but he might have been right.) Other people in school called us "Theater Jerks."

The first thing I did when I came to New York was jump into a show with the folks who had made the migration with me--there were four of us living in the same apartment, plus a few more living in Brooklyn. We did a toy-theater version of Vonnegut's "Sirens of Titan," at Los Kabayitos Puppet Theater, on the Lower East Side. And at this point, I started writing monologues and scenes for two people. Some of them were mon
ologues in my mind, but clearly would make no sense in front of an audience. It felt like an extension of the same work--I'd write these things and at some point we would perform them.

But that didn't happen. Theater in New York is very, very different. Bless our hearts for thinking that we'd put something up and then people would come to see it--easy as that, right? We tried to do a few other things--things with scripts, things without scripts, things where the script was supposed to emerge from the work. (Ha!) Then things shifted--one of us moved to Vermont, essentially. One of us became more and more busy with schoolwork. And I found myself, night after night, wondering what I was going to do with all this creative energy that was zapping its way through my body.

Then I wrote a paragraph in a very clear, very concise voice and after a few days of reading and re-reading it, I decided that I would keep writing and see where the voice wanted to go. Two years later, I had a first draft of a novel. Two years after that, I had maybe a 10th draft. Then in 2005, I finally finished it--counting verbs, posting the pages all over the new apartment. (I was now living alone.) Then, two years after that I sent the novel off to a contest, and it won the dang contest. Then three months after that the phone rang. It was my agent--someone wanted to buy novel that I made from the echoes of that first paragraph. And that novel will be out there for you to read about a year from now.

This end point--the waiting until the book is a thing outside of you--is not the point where you become a writer. All of the above is how you become a writer. You were a writer the whole time. This picture is the stack of manuscripts going back the last five years. The five years before this have already been recycled. So, when Jane asks: "What can you tell me about your twisted paths to becoming a writer?" I think this is a long, rambling way of saying: Diligence.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Learning to Write: Part 1

My friend Jane over at Leaf-Stitch-Word tagged me in this meme she created. She asks us to look for three essential markers, practices, or maybe habits. She asks, "What can you tell me about your twisted paths to becoming a writer?" I'm going to take this in three posts. Thanks, Jane!

Part One: What You Didn't Know You Knew

When I was five my family moved from a smallish house on James Drive to a big house on Murray Hills Drive. The new house had a huge living room with a fireplace and a wide bay window. What it didn't have was furniture--any furniture. For three years the living room served as my gymnasium/playroom/performance space until my parents had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves built into the fireplace wall, and two bulky love seats installed facing each other in the center of the pale blue carpet. What happened after that was this: books started arriving.

On the top shelf were a set of thin black photography books about minerals and gemstones, from Time Life Books, with dazzling colors and textures, and insane letter-happy names like Gypsum and Topaz. Malachite, Hematite and Tourmaline. On the opposite side of the hearth were thick hardback volumes of fiction whose spines I remember to this day. "Sophie's Choice," by William Styron is a pale corn-yellow color, with text in a lighter and darker shade of the same brown. Kaye Gibbons's books are smaller, with lighter, less dramatic fonts. The books written by Reynolds Price were higher, a few shifted over to the shelf beneath, like words pushed off the line by a long sentence--a fact that nagged at my OCD, even at that young age.

Here's the thing, though: I never read any of these books. Except for turning the pages of the gemstone books, I just spent a lot of time hanging around them. They were like friends who I knew nothing about, and at the same time, they were objects that I knew held some significance to my mother. That my parent's house was, and still very much is, swallowed up by books of all sorts, means that from a very early age I knew, by unconscious absorption or firsthand instruction, that books were: 1) possible. 2) meaningful. 3) cherishable.

Simply, as the books arrived, I started to notice them. This is not to say that if your mother had books and you noticed them, then you will become a writer. But, if deep down inside, you are a writer looking for a map of possibilities...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Back in the summer of 2005, which was the last summer I spent sitting at a desk all day, answering the phone, filing appearance contracts and expense reports, searching for things on "The Google," as my boss called it--I wrote this, which is part of the first post on this blog:
In the last few months, I have been forced to think a lot about my relationship with my writing, and I discovered that my resistance had (really) more to do with a self-imposed division of what is meant only for me and what is to be read by others. A fake sacredness that I invented.

And I'm over it.

Thus, the work can be "the work." And thus, the work can suit the purpose, be it here, as viewed by me (and maybe two people plus my mother, if I'm lucky) or committed to actual paper and available at your favorite independent bookstore (if I'm luckier.) Whichever is most appropriate.

I hadn't actually learned that lesson when I wrote those paragraphs, that lesson about letting the work just be the work, but sometime between then and now--this is my 500th post for GrammarPiano--I did learn it. Writing is alchemy; you can make things true that aren't, or that aren't yet. This blog has, for the most part, especially in the years since I felt like a "real" writer, given me the relationship that I have with my work.

Blogging teaches you how to sit down with nothing and make something. It teaches you to put your work out into the universe and expect nothing back. Sometimes you do get small blips on the screen--emails, comments, references from friends in your actual real life conversations--all that is wonderful, and reminds you that people really are reading. But, in the end, blogging really teaches you that you do it for yourself. You do it because you have something to say and you need to figure out what it is.

This blog also helped me get over some pretty terrible events. It gave me a place for my grief, a place to turn that grief into something observed, something distant enough from my real self, something that wouldn't swallow me. It has given me creative, cerebral, often deeply touching relationships with other great writers like this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and this one. It has given me the confidence to write what I think is the most real, true, strong and meaningful, as well as the most strange, observational, small, re-county, daily, blah stuff that happens--and taught me (hopefully) try to make those things interesting to read.

All that...and I am getting luckier, just as I wished--Yield will be in bookstores in the fall of 2010.

I kind of think that my writing is who I am, and this is one of the places where the writing lives, and so, kind of, I live here, this is me, transposed. I have never felt more like myself, never had such a clear idea of who that self was. And, conversely, I don't take myself all that seriously. I'm more open, listening, curious. Forgiving. I hope.

Thank you to all my dear readers, known and unknown. I see your IP addresses....so I know you are out there.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mindy / Oleanna

On Tuesday night, I went with my friend June, a photographer and fabulous chef, to see Mindy Smith play the City Winery. I'd never seen her live, though I've had her latest record, Stupid Love, in constant rotation since it came out. She's a kind of folky-country artist that has an incredible, textured and girlish voice that writes incredible, potent, simple and beautiful songs. Alison Krauss put a song of hers on her last record. Okay!

The show was wonderful--except that Mindy's in-between banter was, to put it mildly, sometimes a bit awkward. It was as if she wasn't used to being in her body, or being in front of people, or being applauded for her incredible talent. At times I kept thinking, please get back to the songs. But when she did, they were ethereal, floating things, which held everyone's attention and made everything feel more beautiful.

The venue is very nice, with a huge selection of wine, glasses and bottles, and a lovely menu, though I didn't have anything to eat. And the best thing about the place is that when you buy tickets, you can pick your exact seat from their seat map online. YES!

I have a feeling that the new Tegan & Sara, called Sainthood, out Oct 27, will overtake Mindy. Just a hunch.


Tonight, I was at the Golden Theater where Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles were in "Oleanna," David Mamet's old play about...sexual harassment? Higher education? Self-aggrandizing political correctness? I liked it, but I think I liked the evening out, in the theater, seeing a stage set, seeing actors act, seeing Times Square and all the theatergoers, more than the play itself.

Oleana is a hard play to like; it is not very fun to watch. It's talky, difficult to listen to, and I often found myself distracted--but that's me in general, so... John, the accused professor, is always answering on the phone, which I found annoying and empty--is that the point? I've always wondered whether Mamet wants more equilibrium on stage--or, perhaps he doesn't. Every time I see the play, I think Carol comes of as a loose, desperate joiner. We've seen their interaction, so we, I'm going to assume this here, are generally siding with John. Maybe Mamet doesn't care about ambiguity?

Actually, it's all still swirling around in my head and I don't know what I think about it right now. The acting was good, though I often think that actors can never really get their mouths around Mamet, since it's so unnatural, and makes for, if you ask me, very little poetry on stage. Directors always want to give his language a certain speed, which isn't helpful in making theatrical moments. If you ask me.


On my walk home, I stopped in the Baskin-Robbins and got a scoop of Mint Chocolate Chip on a sugar cone. Perfection!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Blood Poem

First, it was the used tampons at the bottom of the wastebasket,
The white string coiled around the rust-colored plug,
In the bathroom when you came to stay with me that summer.
I had forgotten that you were a woman.

Then the water jug in the refrigerator leaked
Onto the container of pickled plum paste,
Which you always bought when you came to town,
Like it was part of the bigger ritual.
The water dissolved it, and it dripped down over the racks,
To the bottom of the white box.
When I opened it that morning
I thought something had been slaughtered,
Some feral animal turned irrevocably inside out,
Until there was nothing left but this murder scene:
Wet, and cold.
Red, and redder.

Finally, it was the shirt you were wearing when the
Truck crushed you underneath it.
And the shoulder bag, which carried your belongings.
They were stiff by the time I got to them, congealed.
Brown and ferric, smelling like earth,
Sealed inside a numbered plastic bag.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


Cory & Sean got married in Asbury Park over the weekend, an occasion so momentous that even the New York Times marked it. It seemed that we, the guests of all sorts, filled up the town, with people you know and love appearing everywhere you look--the boardwalk, the hotel lobby, the restaurants, the big bed & breakfast where the boys stayed with their family.

I had forgotten how people's families look. Do you know what I mean? Gay people have always separated themselves from their biological families--in various profound and not-so-profound ways--and at occasions like this, weddings, funerals, graduations, the whole myriad of people who inhabit the electron shells of the central atoms are pulled from all corners of the country to celebrate a moment. Frankly, I would die--having to juggle all of that. But maybe, perhaps, if you're getting married, you've gotten past all that stuff that I haven't. Just a thought.

We all gathered on the boardwalk, in our fancy shoes and ties, some of the gals in fancy dresses, Mike Z's dog bounding around our feet--and then trekked down to the beach, where the ceremony was held, just south of the Paramount Theater. There were some people there still on their towels, dusting themselves off, looking over at our wedding party, looking off into the distance. As Cory & Sean were walking down the aisle--which was just an area that the crowd created by standing on two sides of the same sand--I could see a few tears, the kind that burst out of you when you feel overwhelmed.

In that moment--the small choir of friends singing, the indifferent fishermen out on the wharf behind, the ocean pouring itself against the beach in quiet waves--I was thinking about the concentration of energy, what it feels like when everyone is focused on you, actually beaming all their love and hope and memories and happiness into you. I'm not sure what marriage is--if it has something to do with this kind of concentration, or if something as focused, as bright and hot like that, would fizzle it out. I wonder if marriage is something slower, a little bit of faith and a lot of work. Or the other way around.

Whatever it is, nobody deserves all the good promises marriage holds more than these two. Actually, thousands of people deserve those good promises equally as much as they do, if you hear what I'm saying.

Sean & Cory, I adore you. Congratulations. I hope I can keep this ivy alive.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My Hero

It's so rare to see a man talking about his girlfriend like this:

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pizza Dough

Now that the seasons are changing, and the nights are becoming cooler, I've found myself in the kitchen again. Each year I attempt to get really good at something that I think people should know how to make well, quickly, and at home, with few ingredients. Last year it was "cheese," in general. (Although I managed to get two or three cheeses down to subtle, ethereal perfection--I'm not shy about this--I don't have the equipment, time--or patience--to make the kinds of cheeses that really blow me away: this one, this one and this one, are my favorites.)

So, the new project is pizza dough. I am certain that I have come about 80% of the way there.
Here's a good recipe that will make you 3-4 skillet-sized pizzas, which you can top however you like.

-1 package active dry yeast
-a spoon full of honey
-1 cup of warm water
-2.5 cups of flour (bread flour if you have it, but AP will work fine, too.)
-1 teaspoon salt
-olive oil

--Stir the yeast, honey and water together and let them sit about 5-7 minutes. It should foam a bit and look like a creamy miso soup.
--Then add the flour and salt, working the dough with a spoon until it wants to come out of the bowl and be worked by hand.
--Knead the dough for 3-4 minutes, flouring as you need so it doesn't stick, until you have a lovely soft, bouncy-back dough.
--Let the dough rest for about 5-10 minutes.

Now, I don't like to heat up the whole oven if I'm just cooking pizza for myself--particularly in the summer--so I started cooking the pizza in my cast iron skillet, which turns out beautiful, soft, spotted-black crusts.

Cut your dough into three or four pieces, and roll one out to about 1/4 inch thickness. Lightly brush the bottom of your skillet with olive oil, and then lay one circle of dough on the heat. Pop the air bubbles if they happen, and about 3-4 minutes later, peek under the edge and see how done it is. When you are ready to flip--making sure you have all your toppings ready in advance--flip the dough over and start with your sauce, cheese, toppings, what have you. Put a lid on the skillet so the cheese melts beautifully. The second side won't need as long, and you can adjust the heat if you find it's cooking faster than you like--peek when you need to, so it doesn't get too black. Although, I find that I like a little spot of carbony crust every now and then.

This dough tends to be very soft, almost like Indian nan, so if you want a more traditional, crunchy-edge kind of pizza, then, of course, do it in the oven. You can also run the whole thing under the broiler if you want to crisp up the prosciutto or whatever you put on it--but I promise this, as is, will do you right.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Excerpts in Limbo, Vol. 10

“I saw your mom’s work the other day. In a magazine.”

“Hmm,” Daniel said. There was a speck of dust on the snout, a tiny white dot on the field of lacquered black. He pressed his fingertip against it and then brushed it off onto his pants.

“What does ‘hmm’ mean? She’s good.”

“Do we have to talk about her?”

“Just making conversation.”

“Can we make it about something else?”

“How’d you get here?”

“I drove and slept in the car.”

“You didn’t.”

“Most of the way. I took a train to Omaha and then bought this piece of junk.”



“That must have cost you a fortune.”

They looked at each other for a moment. Daniel spent money as if he had it; Jackson made him feel guilty about spending it—particularly if it meant he was spending it on him. “It wasn’t much. I worked all summer.”

“Did you get here today?”

“Last night.” Jackson arranged a bunch of mallets on a table. He caressed them, seemed to love them, like hand bells.

“How’s the neighborhood?” Daniel said.

“Everyone is moving out. When I say ‘everyone,’ I mean white people. They want sprawling lawns and away-sloping driveways.” Whole blocks were boarded up, with barren streets, entire zip codes reassigned to governances of pigeons and smudges of humid weather. A lot of Memphis looked like this. A lot of America looked like this.

Monday, September 07, 2009

What Can Come True

Kip made this photo of us several years ago; I found it this evening while going through a bunch of old emails. Funny--that three years later we actually would end up at the Parthenon, and would actually sit around the top of the Acropolis. Granted, not in sailor suits.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

What Reviewers Have to Say About the South Williamsburg Post Office

--"I just moved to the area and I ship hula hoops folded in half, never had a problem.. until this horrible place."

--"She completely gave up on me."

--"After a 2 hour goose chase, My package did NOT get sent and I left the post office in tears."

--"Long lines, incompetent staff... I'd rather just take the packages to China myself."

--"This really is the worst post office ever. to top off every bad experience i have had there (and they all have been) they were closed an hour early this evening for no reason.

--"Avoid this post office at all costs."


--"This place is hell, they never have forms, is filthy, and they blast trash TV to "distract" people from their mess."

--"I almost got jumped by two women in this post office about 4 years ago, now I cannot get them to forward my mail to a new address, it must be in a gigantic pile there somewhere."

--"This post office is THE WORST."

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What's Happening Now

I'm in Brooklyn, sitting on the couch with Kip's cats, who are doing that typical cat thing: putting all their energy into ignoring you. Kip is still in the bed, snoring a bit, sometimes sounding like he's drowning--not a lovely sound, but I'm used to it, and that's comforting, in some way. I'm eating a bowl of cereal and trying to decide if I should watch the new episode of Project Runway, or the Real Housewives of Atlanta--this TiVo is a gay fantasia.

The weather is turning. Or I should say, the seasons are. Fall is my favorite time in New York, and I always look forward to the evenings spent walking around the city, feeling a bit chilly, the air filling your chest. And Fall has the best clothes--yay for looking cute again!

Do you know Gilt.com? My friend Peter turned me on to it. It's designer labels for practically pennies, and I am addicted to it. I don't really buy much--I have bought one shirt and one pair of shoes--but every day at noon, some new crop of clothes goes up and people rush to see how they can spend their money. This week, there was an Alexander McQueen western-style shirt with this really interesting piping and a yoke that looked a bit like the squiggly bracket. It was $300 on Gilt, retailing for $1000. I didn't buy it. Sometimes its a good thing that I'm poor.

Today we're meeting some friends for brunch--I officially hate brunch, refusing to pay $20 to eat an egg or two and lukewarm side dishes that I could prepare better myself at home--but I'm learning how to order better, and I like to see my friends. This evening, there's a benefit party/concert for Circus Amok, starring a cavalcade of singing and honking wonders. I look forward to seeing everyone.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A New Kind of Movement

I started biking to and from work on Monday--from Astoria to South Williamsburg. Already the novelty has worn off....okay, not really. But biking quickly becomes just work when you are commuting--one can't read a book and bike, not in this town. However, I'm noticing how different the movement is from anything I've experienced in the city in the last 12 years. This is perhaps something that other people would have considered before riding their bike inter-borough, but not me. It didn't occur to me until it was happening.

The scale is different. I like to walk everywhere, if possible, and I'm used to driving the huge syrup van around town for Greenmarket and other random syrup deliveries. Walking, of course, is slow. It becomes about the pavement, about the storefronts and the other people on the street, weaving in and out. Driving is this other beast, about the other cars on the road, about braking, about using force of will to make lights and other drivers do what you want them to. Biking is some kind of hybrid of the two. You're moving much faster than walking, but your scale is generally the same. So the disconnect is new for me. A new speed, at a new scale.

Where you look is different. I find myself looking--aside from the road and the cars and the people--in this middle distance, just about the second and third floors of buildings. That, and the open space above smaller buildings. Somehow, for me, biking gives New York City a new kind of spaciousness. Or, perhaps by traveling through it in a new way, it gives you a new response. The city is alive like that.

Plus, you arrive at work stoned on endorphins. I sit at my desk sort of mesmerized by all the things around me--stapler, pencils, paper clips, scissors--looking at the objects as if they are alien, as if I could never figure out their intended use. Scarfing down breakfast, gulping water and Gatorade, staring out the window at the subway train rumbling over the Williamsburg Bridge--so small, tiny people reading and checking their voice mail.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 10 of 10

Day Eight: Departure

We take the bus to the airport—only three Euros, compared to what would have been a fifty Euro taxi ride. There are empty rows here and there on the plane, and everyone spreads out. The flight passes pleasantly: more Woody Allen, more delicious wine “from the Olympic Airlines cellars,” whatever that means.

A few days later, I’m talking to someone who asks where I’ve been. “I was in Greece,” I tell her. “With my boyfriend.”

“That’s amazing,” she says, “What role did you play?”

For a moment, I am wondering why this person, who I don’t know that well, wants to know the specifics of my sexual proclivities. “Oh, no,” I realize, “Greece, the country. Not Grease, the musical.”

“Sorry,” she says, turning red. “But wouldn’t that have been something?”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 9 of 10

Day Seven: Santorini/Athens
The morning is insanity. The airport in Santorini is small and crowded, as you would expect, with lines of passengers spilling out onto the sidewalk. Inside there are a dozen Chinese women buying refrigerated sandwiches from the small kiosk, and on the roof are tables where everyone is smoking. Although we all have assigned seats on the flight back to Athens, people crowd against the doors to the tarmac, then cram onto a lumbering bus, which rides us out to the plane itself. People rush, again, to board.

After about thirty minutes, we’ve landed in Athens, dumped into a choked mess of traffic and angry drivers—it takes almost two hours to get to our hotel. Kip and I are rattled by the speed of Athens, after having been downgraded to the lull of Santorini. We throw down our bags and walk quickly to the Archaeological Museum, only a few blocks away, and after discovering that they are open later than we previously thought, we step into a coffee bar across the street to eat bad sandwiches next to two loud smokers.

Athens needs a better museum. The artifacts here are some of the oldest, most extraordinary objects in the history of known history, they are the tiny beginnings of what we know about culture and art and democracy—at least in the West. But the building is old and badly ventilated, and at the most basic, very unpretty to look at. I think they should build a room for the Elgin Marbles, which were stolen off the Parthenon and now reside in the British Museum in London. (Here, they are called the “Parthenon Marbles,” naturally.) The Greeks should make themselves ready for their return, I think, and maybe in the new Acropolis Museum, they have.
Kip implores that we choose a contemporary restaurant for dinner, enough of these “taverna” type traditional places with all the same food over and over. I agree. We look to our guidebook for a new restaurant, something younger. Dare we hope for something gay?

Cook Coo Food is buried in a neighborhood that feels like the East Village—with rock show posters for bands called “Gods of Blood,” “Drunk Motherfuckers,” and “DeathWram”—I realize now that the neighborhood we stayed in before was more Upper East Side. The walls of the restaurant are decorated in blown-up photos of sign language letters, a hundred hands and fingers all along the walls. From the ceiling hang chandeliers that look like silver crowns spotted with fake roses—very gay. We order the tomato fritters, which the witty menu has listed as “Santorini’s favorite!!!” They are fantastic, the freshness of the tomato covered up, briefly, by the hot crunch, and then the cool touch of mint. Kip orders a roasted pork thing with feta and potatoes, and I have a vegetable coconut curry. On the walk home, we find a pastry shop with a freezer full of tiny ice cream pops—pale green, as big as your thumb, for only pennies.

That night, I have a dream about someone I went to high school with—Pearl Hwang, of all people. She and I are driving my car around some nameless town, and in the back are all these electrical cords that I know connect to some matching set of vacuum cleaners, somewhere. Then—the way things happen in dreams—they are stolen. Then the police come. And, turns out, Pearl is undercover, and she takes down some details about where I’ve been, even though she was with me in the car the whole time. In the morning, I tell Kip about the dream as he brushes his teeth.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Things I Keep Meaning to Say

--Sean, I promise I'm getting to the whole "childhood corkboard" stuff. As you well know, I've been inundated with "real work" in the last two months, so I have been lazy about taking photos and, like, putting them into the computer. Are there cameras that just beam the photos into the computer now? Without a cord? I'll have one of those, please.

--Who wants a 3D drawing pad, complete with a pair of glasses? You draw your drawings just like regular on the pad, then look at it through the glasses and shazam! Anyone?

--I'm not normally one of those people who goes on about "OMG, can you believe it's the middle of August already?" But did you realize that, OMG, it's the middle of August already?

--Sometimes I wonder what people are thinking. Watching Kathy Griffins show where she has meetings with Random House has been really interesting. They don't seem to enjoy Kathy's dick/vagina/hymen jokes. Did they forget who they gave a book contract to? I realize that Kathy is most likely turning the volume up for her own show, and thus maybe the Random House people are feeling a bit like their time is wasted...but did they really not laugh at Kathy's desire to put a picture of her flipping to major birds on the cover? And did the designer really say "It might not play well in Wal-Mart in Kansas." Who do they think her audience is? Why are they always so serious?

--Publishing things makes writers happy. There, I said it.

--Some books are just not for me.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 8 of 10

Day Six: Santorini

“We have one,” the woman says, when we inquire as to whether the rental car agency has a vehicle with automatic transmission, “and we will bring it to the hotel.” We pack bottles of water, sunscreen, sunglasses, reading materials, and bananas—which have never looked more out of place than they do in the Greek Islands. Minutes later, we’re off, headed down to the southern end of the island, to see the ruins at Akrotiri. They are closed for the year, some kind of archeological work that is too sensitive for roving tourists. So, we sit under an umbrella and stare out at the ocean. I commit a grave sin, and strike up a brief, lively friendship with one of the street dogs—everyone stares. The local bus arrives, and people pour out of it, carrying beach towels, bags, chairs. We watch them walk over the rocks, along the shore, and over the hill in the distance, to the beach.

Red Beach is so-called because of the volcanic mud that makes up the high cliffs. The beach is short, and not crowded, all tourists from around Europe. We stretch out on our towels. I plug my headphones into my ears, and crank up a Kaki King bootleg. A while later, it’s hot, and I get up go dip myself into the salty sea. The water is cold, but soon I’m comfortable, waving back to Kip on the beach. There is some kind of feathery, papery stuff in the water, maybe some kind of seaweed, and later I find my pockets filled with it. We lay there a while longer, baking, sweating, feeling good.

A pack of Australians, fifteen or so, perhaps two or three families, come walking down the beach, headed back to the parking area. Among them, is a shirtless young man, maybe twenty or twenty-one years old, barefoot, the hair on his arms and head bleached by the long hours in the sun. He finds something interesting in the cliffs above me, and standing only about six feet away, pulls his camera out of his pocket to take a picture. He lifts his arms up, stretching the full length of his body upward, the slope of his hipbone slips out of the top of his wet shorts, the patch of hair in his armpits darker, a tuft of fur dipping down from his navel, disappearing into his waistband. For a moment I’m dizzy, lost in the body of this gorgeous, splendid creature.

We drive through the winding roads of the island, never quite getting lost as much as re-thinking the route—you can basically see every in every direction at any time, so the map quickly becomes unnecessary. At Kamari, we eat lunch, peeking into more souvenir shops, watching couples cuddling each other on the beach. Then we drive the full length of the island, along a stretch of slightly treacherous-feeling road, to the northern tip, to the town of Oia. There, we park, take pictures, stroll down the walkways. I decide that my parents should take a vacation here, and pick out the hotel I think I’ll make them choose.

A few weeks prior, my friend Josh told me that we had to eat and stay at the Windmills in Oia. “It was one of the most romantic places I’ve ever been,” he said. He implored me, begged me to go, with a kind of serious desperation, holding onto me when he said it. I felt charged with whatever had happened to him there, whatever deep and meaningful things he encountered, as if my ability to re-create those same encounters was crucial to confirming that Josh’s experience had been real.

We didn’t find them, and I haven’t told him.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

How to Be a Good Customer: Lessons from a Syrup Slinger, Vol. 3

"How to Be a Good Customer: Lessons Learned from a Syrup Slinger" is a blog series that emerged from my years of experience selling maple syrup at the Union Square Greenmarket. The mission of this sporadic, multi-part series is to teach the citizens of New York how to be polite, intelligent, interested consumers, without acting like imbeciles.

Lesson #3: What, Do You Think We're Dragging our Minks through Monaco?

A woman came to the stand yesterday and opened with "I don't want to pay that much." Seriously, that was her answer to my initial "Hello." She seemed to think that she was the one who decided the price, with this carefree whoop-dee-do about it.
She wanted a gallon of syrup. "I'll take one of these for forty-five," she said, just like that, case closed. "I'm sorry, I can't do that," I said. Then she said the thing that people say when they want to be assholes: "Well then, I'm going to talk to the manager."

People who say this are often disappointed to discover that 1) We are not like the grocery store, where one dude is in charge of all the aisles. Hello, each stand is its own entity. 2) I am the manager, and you're not getting your gallon of syrup for $13 less. 3) The Greenmarket managers could give a shit.

Let me just say this. If you think that prices at the farmer's market are inflated then you're an idiot. And if you think that the farmers and their workers are living it up, renting penthouses in Vegas, downing bags of blow and laughing their asses off because you were foolish enough to pay--$8 !!--for that eight ounces of syrup, then you need to get over your sad-sack miserable-me of a self.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 7 of 10

Day Five: Santorini
After filling ourselves with the hotel’s breakfast, we walk up to the old capital city of Thira, through all the tiny alleyways and staircases. We look through every store, selling every kind of plastic, ceramic and glass crap they were selling back in Athens, plus millions of Euros in very nice jewelry—Gold Street is the main drag. Something about seeing the same trinkets over and over makes you want to buy them; you start to think you’re missing out. For hours we walk, sipping fizzy drinks with labels we can’t read, eating sticky bricks of baklava, and, as Kip says, “other shapes of baklava.”

We amble down the long, donkey shit-covered walkway to the base of the caldera, and the ocean’s edge. Donkeys are a popular, if sort of novel, way to get to the city from the base of the island, which is a very steep climb of about 220 meters—and their dry, stinky droppings are everywhere along the stairway. A Carnival Cruise boat is anchored in the distance, and there is a skirted table where two men are handing out hot towels and tiny cups of water to the fat ladies waiting to get back on the boat. This strikes me as such a fake way of traveling.

The cable car whizzes us back up to Thira, and we continue walking. The view is exactly what we imagined when we had planned this vacation weeks prior. We stop at a small café and order glasses of local wine, which is served, according to the menu, with “an assortment of Greek delicacies.” The delicacies are: two cherry tomatoes cut in half to make four pieces, four olives, and four slices of Persian cucumber—a feast! The wine is fabulous, and we order more, becoming rather drunk, and making confessions about our past—freed by distance, perhaps. The waiter has a question mark tattooed behind his ear, using a small brown mole as the dot.

Finally, we walk back to the hotel to bathe and change clothes. Then we end up somewhere in Thira at the Volcano Restaurant, where the waiter demands that we eat their signature dish “Lamb Volcano,” which is pungent with garlic, onions, and dill, served with some kind of shredded cheese in a clay pot—delicious. Then we eat more tomatoes stuffed with rice, raisins and pine nuts. Then I eat a huge plate of squid. Later, we walk back through town sucking down scoops of chocolate gelato.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

What I'm Thinking About Lately

--I'm coming up on 500 blog posts. I guess maybe I should think about what the blog has done for me, and maybe what it hasn't. How it has changed the way I write, the way I think about writing, the way I think about what it means to make writing for free, and give it away for free. I find that even though I'm not particularly interested in marking certain passages--year marks, large round numbers--I am also compelled to mark them, as evidence. Of something.

--I am ambivalent about everything. Perhaps too much.

--Does supplemental material change the perception of a work of art? I'm thinking about this age of DVD commentary, bonus tracks, and so on. I think about Doris Salcedo's work "Shibboleth," which was at the Tate Modern in 2007. She wouldn't discuss how the crack was made--and that actually made the work less interesting to me. Perhaps because the feat of it was so startling. I'm with her, in some senses--the work stands alone. But...

--Antony Gormley's current work of art, in London, "One & Other." Basically, for 100 days, 2400 members of the public will stand on the vacant fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square for an hour each. Watching the public use this moment--their 1 hour of a certain kind of fame--has been interesting. People are using it to raise awareness for a certain cause....or they are hanging out, taking pictures, having tea. It's interesting to me to think about use, and identity, and art, and how all these things are crammed in together with activism--which I never even thought about until the public started bringing signs and stuff with them to their hour on the plinth. This brings about the question of visibility, and what that means.

--I used to have a lot of sadness about finishing my novel--only in that you're essentially killing off people who have lived in your brain for so long, your friends in the loneliest of times. But, for whatever reason, it never occurred to me that, actually, in finishing it--you're giving them life, forever. (Or, as least, as long as you remain in print.)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 6 of 10

Day Four: Santorini

The “ferry” is actually a huge cruise-ship style boat, carrying about 1,800 people from Athens to Santorini, making interim stops at Paros, Naxos and Ios. Imagine that you’re in a small airport, and every flight has been cancelled due to weather. Everyone spreads out, taking up every corner, every aisle and walkway. They have planned to be immobile for the eight-hour trip, and so every table on every deck is full—card players, smokers, drinkers, elaborate board games and stacks of worn paperbacks. A few laptops drink from the scarce electrical outlets. Some passengers wander up and down the boat, holding their cords and plugs out in front of them, forlorn and wishful, like beggars.

But we have sprung for a first-class cabin—it is perhaps the best money I have ever spent. About an hour after we board—after coffee in the lounge, and the waiter’s light scoffing at me drinking Coca-Cola at 7am—we figure out how to get into room 702, which has two tiny beds, along with its own shower and toilet.

We lay down and I fall, miraculously, asleep.

Periodically, the ship’s crew makes strange, squawky announcements, which emerge from a tiny speaker on the nightstand. Out the window is ocean as far as you can see, then a dark line, then sky.

We arrive at Santorini’s new port, maybe two hundred of us, everyone looking for a taxi, a rental car, a scooter, some even hire donkeys. After a bit of confusion about which car we should get into, we end up squished against some gay guys from…Germany? The Netherlands?…who I decide must be deaf and on their first date—they are full of hand gestures and awkward pauses. Thankfully, we arrive at our hotel first, the El Greco. They put us in room 314, which looks out over the pool on one side, and over the caldera on the other. We open the windows and the breeze blows through the room. It’s so remarkable, and simple, that I use my little camera to take a movie of the billowing curtain—which I later post on Facebook, to the “like” of nine friends. (Logging in from Greece changes my preferred language to Greek, and I start getting emails that say things like: Stephanie Hughes σχολίασε την κατάσταση σας.) We lie on the bed and talk about food, about whether we should venture to the beach today or tomorrow, whether we should get in the pool before or after we walk into town, whether we should order in. We discuss options like we’ve won the lottery.

Santorini, aside from the views, is famous for a dish called Domatokeftethes, which is a tomato fritter seasoned with mint, and for the local fava beans. What makes the fava beans taste so great is the dry, volcanic soil, which—apparently—concentrates the flavor. The restaurant we choose for dinner doesn’t have the fava on the menu, and the tomato fritters arrive soggy and rather tasteless. The trouble with eating in tourist towns, of course, is that you have no idea whether any particular restaurant has any particular reputation. However, the rest of the meal is lovely, and, as it turns out, the soil makes for deliciously complicated white wine—bright, sunny and dry. The artichoke stew is homey and filling, but the grilled pita brushed with olive oil and dill, on that breezy evening on the rooftop restaurant, looking out over the caldera to the West, is the best thing we put in our mouths.

We eat dessert in bed, watching “Greece’s Got Talent,” which is a clone of the American show of similar name. For the most part, at least according to the contestants on this particular episode, the Greeks do not have talent. The act that gets the most applause is an old man who manages to stand on his head on top of a rickety chair. Then, an older gay man, like pudgy Paul Lynde, sings a traditional Greek song. The judges are a goateed man with no discernable sense of humor, a model/actress/princess (?) who changes outfits during every commercial break, and whose hair is an elaborate spray of stiff, shiny black, and the last, another singer/entertainer type, dressed in a light suit with a huge turquoise pocket square, who looks like a less-butch Elizabeth Ashley.

The first night in Santorini, I spend three hours awake, level 3 out of 10—not sleeping, but without anxiety. For a while, I watch the tiny green blinking light on the fixture in the ceiling. Insomniacs, like me, who just lay there—instead of getting up to do something, thus compounding layers of worry on top of a kind of eerie displacement of time—have the opportunity to be conscious with their unconscious bedmates for long periods, listening to their breathing, their murmurings and ramblings.

Jason was a serious sleeper, shutting the world out entirely, motionless, his body becoming heavy and immovable in the night—quite the opposite of his bright, energetic waking self. We slept in the loft bed of his 29th Street apartment, with books stuffed in between the mattress and the bed frame, as if one needed fifty choices at arms length.

Andrea was a sleep talker. She washed her hands at night, holding them above her in the air, rubbing her elbows, and waving conjured cobwebs away from her shoulders. “Did you find the bodies?” she once asked, to no one in particular. “Thank you, Mr. Peterson,” she said, “Add them to the list.”

Mario slept quietly, soundly. He had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. His alarm clock was the CD player, and every morning, for months, out of the speakers came first the Jill Scott record, then the Dixie Chicks record. I listened to those songs over and over, holding his hand in mine under the pillow, wondering if he had any plans to get up.

Meg never used a pillow, and took up little space in the bed. Not only was she a small person, but her movements were always was focused, contained, and she slept the same way. Resting her hands behind her head, or along her sides, always on her back. Even in sleep she was conserving energy.

Kip twitches. He snores. He has nightmares that he either rarely remembers, or rarely shares with me. His body is always relaxing one more muscle at a time, sinking into sleep. Sometimes I lay there imagining elaborate devices to hold open the throat, thinking that if I just had a curved piece of plastic or something, if only I had a tube of some kind, a way to sleep hanging face down, somehow—your mind does strange things in the small hours. He snores into the pillow corner, into the cats’ faces, into my ear as he holds me.

In the morning, I look up the side effects of insomnia: drowsiness, increase in stress or anxiety, headaches, problems with digestion, physical impairment, mental impairment, heart disease, memory loss, weight gain, depression, reduced self-esteem, premature death.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bios that Might Have Been, Vol. 2

For more than thirty years, Lee Houck has taught the most popular elective on the campus of Hoodoo University in Kent, "No, Seriously," which has been profiled in reality-style television on the BBC, the CDC, the DMV and the PCP. His scholarly papers have been given (and received) in more countries that he cares to list, although Sweden is not one of them. More recently, he has produced a line of teacher-helpers, including pointing things, snooty-looking glasses, grade-giving-mechanisms, and advanced bits of technology that allow small felt boards to become large felt boards, at least temporarily. He is currently the Hambone-on-Okra Scholar in Semi-Residence.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

What Happened on Friday

It took me 19 minutes to get from Union Square to Astoria last Friday night. That's a world record, surely. The avenues were empty, and the bridge was so clear and gorgeous--which is often is, but I noted it, just the same. When I arrived home, in my mailbox was the first check from my literary agent, for my novel, Yield, which is coming out next fall. This was turning out to be the best day of my life. Except that, at sometime between noon and 6:45pm, a burglar had broken through my back bedroom window, swiped my laptop and my jar of change, and then bolted away. When I saw the window the first thing I thought was -- why is my window open? And why is the computer missing? Then it all sort of assembled together in my brain, and I felt numb.

Bean was still cowering in the closet, making the small, scared noises that she does when someone she doesn't know is in the apartment. (This said to me that the person could have been in the apartment even five or ten minutes before I got home, but she is also the kind of cat who would stay hidden in the dark for five hours.)

The cops came. We filled out the paperwork. They were very nice. One bitched about their superiors who, he said, were "fifteen years younger than us." "And man," the other one added, "they really bust our balls." I felt bad for them; in that moment they seemed pitiful. One of them was huge, and he looked too big for my little chair and desk. They told me they'd wait outside for the sergeant to arrive, and they probably wouldn't be calling me again. I didn't expect that they would.

When people are burgled, they talk about feeling invaded, violated--as if something from outside of them has moved into their being. But I feel the opposite -- as if a part of me has been taken out of my body and is now wandering the world. Pictures of me, essays I've been working on for months or years, my manuscripts, thousands of emails that I have saved for their important information, or for their sentimental value. The lesson here is, of course, protect and backup. Thankfully, Apple's Time Machine feature saved everything I had except for about two pages of new fiction -- and the second draft is always better.

I spent the entire day on Saturday trying to counteract the negative energy of the theft--somehow feeling the burglar's desperation, that desire, that sad karmic choice--as if it had come from within me, how strange is that? I bought some arty junk from one of the artists on the south end of Union Square. I was ridiculously helpful at the syrup stand--even to the customers that I want to stab in the eye. There was a guy playing electric guitar under the subway at Broadway in Astoria, and I put ten bucks in his hat. I needed to make choices, and I wanted to choose generosity. Do you understand how this kind of giving was about steeling myself against the alternative?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 5 of 10

Two Weeks Later: New York City

Convinced that I have missed something about the Parthenon, curious about the uncertainty that nicks at me from somewhere, I watch the episode of NOVA in which they explore the building’s restoration. I’m sure that if I just get it, something about my experience there will retroactively change. In the NOVA episode, the architects, artists, historians and scientists, they’re all talking about the building’s beauty, its perfection, the feats of mind-boggling skill, effort, and organization that it took to build something to majestic, so long ago, on such a remarkable scale. But it’s all cold, removed and distant. I’m sure the scholars who have devoted their entire lives to immersing themselves in the lives of the ancient culture, I’m sure they have some sense of life contained in the stone.

But where is it?

I spoke with a friend before I left. “Athens is a shithole,” he said, “You get up there on top of the Acropolis and there’s all this beautiful marble and its just brown and getting eaten up by the smog and acid rain, and you look out over the city and its just disgusting.”

I hate that the exhaust made by the machines of modern man are destroying the beautiful marble. I hate that history, and memory, and the glut of tourism has revised and rewritten everything to the point of the lowest common denominator. But most of all, I hate that I stood there, on the edge of the Propylaia, trying to feel the life-force, trying to cull the ghosts right out of the stone, holding my hand against the cool surface, and I came up with nothing.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Bios that Might Have Been, Vol. 1

Lee Houck is a third-generation milliner with an extensive background in silk, wool and leather, and the recipient of the Ordres des Chevals des Champinioux. A pioneer in the field of butch men's hats, he has created one-of-a-kind red carpet looks for Ed Harris, Francois Sagat, Steve Martin, Sam Trammell, and Prince Carl Philip of Sweden. His trademark styles have graced the cover of numerous magazines in the U.S. and abroad, such as Vogue India, GQ, Hello and Printemps. For her farewell tour in 2025, Mr. Houck produced more than thirty elaborate headcoverings for Grace Jones, including the infamous "Green Spike." His distinctive dress and elaborate mannerisms have been lampooned in The New Yorker, and perhaps most memorably, by Daniel Craig on "Saturday Night Live."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 4 of 10

Day Two: Athens

By accident, we sleep until two o’clock in the afternoon. I wake up once or twice in the night, my usual amount of insomnia, currently stuck on level five out of ten. I don’t check the clock, for fear that it might be earlier than I can bear. Every time I turn over, fussing with the pillows, I worry that it might be three, four, five in the morning, and I will have to lay there, bored and anxious until a reasonable waking hour. It never occurs to me that it could be noon.

At the same corner coffee shop we buy “Greek salad sandwiches” from the same blonde woman. Is she the owner? The waiter? The fill-in? She seems not to recognize us, and I wonder if perhaps we look like every other set of American tourists that stroll through to buy a cup of coffee, or drink a beer and smoke a cigarette. Something about her seems so shy, and she seems to understand so little, despite all the hand-written signs in English, that even my rudimentary (or just rude?) pointing is met with a stare. But she takes our money, wraps the sandwiches in wax paper, and smiles. “Enjoy,” she says, and then I wonder if I’ve misunderstood the entire interaction. The sandwich is a floury baguette with olives, feta and tomato. It makes a perfect breakfast.

Clearly, the architects and designers involved in building the Parthenon wanted the reveal to be a spectacular event. You hike through the scrubby trees and brush along the pathways up the west side of the Acropolis, emerge from the narrow width of the dramatic Propylaia, to find the Parthenon set back in three-quarter view. Imagine the structure untarnished, elaborately colored, incredibly rich—most importantly, complete. Stories of wars and celebrations were depicted in sculptures along the roofline, some life-size, in stunning detail. For the Greek people, the visit must have been a deeply satisfying, transformative experience.

All around the Parthenon there are huge chunks of marble, as if the entire structure had exploded—at one point it did, under the Ottomans, who were using it as a gunpowder magazine. The area looks like my five year-old nephew’s playroom, building blocks in every configuration of stacked, toppled, and forgotten. There is new marble waiting to be matched and assembled as part of the current restoration efforts, and there is ancient marble—all of it from the famous quarry at Mount Pentelikos—cracked and worn by 2,500 years of wind, rain, pollution, fire, earthquakes, canons, restless infantry, the Christians, the Muslims, the Turks, the Venetians, and the British. Finally, the 20th Century American and Italian tourists wearing high heels are carving divots into the walkways.

On the southern slope of the Acropolis, there is the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which is still in modern use, seating about 5,000. “Memorable performances,” according to some on-site literature, include the return of Nana Mouskouri after a two-decade absence, and Yanni’s “landmark” 1993 performance. During our visit, the stage is being prepped for a production of Aida, with huge Egyptian obelisks being moved through a deep red proscenium.

Everywhere there are structures, and the remains of structures. There is the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, the Sanctuary of Asclepius, the Odeum of Pericles, the Temple of Athena Nike, the Stoa of Eumene—all bearing the enormous crushing weight of layers and layers of history, revised and repaired, rethought and repurposed. We hear this story over and over again in Greece—the Romans replacing the marble or stealing the marble, the Christians dedicating the Parthenon to the Virgin Mary, the Greeks themselves moving statues and buildings, the frescoes buried underground during the war, more fakes on display. I keep wondering what remains of a culture that has re-imagined itself for more than 2,000 years.

On the northern side of the Acropolis, there is the Erechtheum, with its striking Porch of the Caryatids: six women, draped in fabric, holding up the roof with their heads. Some of the original statues are displayed in—so I’m told—helium-filled glass cases, in the not-yet-open-to-the-public Acropolis Museum; the ones on the actual Acropolis are replicas. Lord Elgin, perhaps the most famous looter of Greek artwork, had one of the original Caryatids removed and later displayed at his sprawling estate. At night, they say you can hear the statues crying out, wailing for their missing sister.

But we don’t hear any crying.

Do the replicas cry out? Or the originals, now drowning in helium? I try to get a sense of how the ancient mythology might interact with daily life today—but no one wants to talk about that. They only want to talk about how polytheism is crazy, about what the ancients did and didn’t do on the most basic behavioral level, nothing about what it meant to them, how it felt to be them. Tourism, or maybe plain old capitalism, has co-opted the culture, dimmed it, and arguably destroyed it. Contemporary Greece seems to say, about the past, only: “Here, buy this plastic toy Parthenon for two Euros.” When I visit the Lincoln Memorial—a structure that owes so much to the Parthenon in look and feel and use—I get a small sense of a living idea at work, a striving. In Athens, I can’t figure out why everything around me feels dead.

For dinner, we end up at Estia, a lively modern café in the heart of the Plaka, the oldest neighborhood in Athens, full of restaurants and souvenir shops. I try to order the local sheep cheese, which, as the menu states, comes with honey and sesame seeds. The waiter promises that we won’t like it, and bullies us into the saganaki: fried cheese, not a horrible choice. We eat more grilled lamb, a delicious mousaka, various dips and garlicky things, and finally end with a warm chunk of walnut pie, and shots of cinnamon schnapps.

Across from our table is the entrance to an open-air movie theater, on the roof of what appears to be an art gallery. There is one 11:15pm showing of the Ron Howard-directed “Angels & Demons,” which, in Greece, has been renamed “Something something something Illuminati.” The movie is horrendously bad, a grotesque insult to the intelligence of the audience. (Or maybe I am mistaking the film’s audience.) At one point, Ewan McGregor flies a helicopter straight up into the night, above the Vatican, so that when the anti-matter explodes it doesn’t kill everyone—no, really. It was a marvelous experience: a rooftop in Athens, the glowing Parthenon set back on the hill, the cooling night air, street cats slinking through the holes in the fence, cold beer.

Back at the hotel, we watch an episode of “America’s Next Top Model,” with sections dubbed into Greek, and CNN, with Anderson Cooper interviewing Ani Difranco about her visit to Myanmar. There are advertisements for cream-filled croissants in various flavors, which are made, it seems, by cartoon bumble bees with giant eyes. There is “Scandal” brand ice cream in square boxes that old ladies eat with wooden spoons. There are 6:00am morning shows with goofy hosts, dressed ready for a nightclub. There are cheap exercise machines sold along side cellulite creams, with manicured hands massaging thick, pasty thighs. Then there is Jessica Alba selling some kind of watch, or was it just a piece of jewelry? This, I think—advertising—is the language that I will never understand.

When I’m awake at 4:40am—insomnia on 6 out of 10—I wonder if maybe it’s the jetlag, just my confused internal clock. William Gibson wrote that jetlag was the slow-moving soul trying to catch up to the body, which had crossed the globe at higher speeds. This sounds about right. I entertain myself by trying to remember each item in the minibar from left to right: milk chocolate Toblerone, that purple-wrapped candy bar with the white goop inside, two cans of Coca-Cola, one can of Coke Light, one box of orange juice, one bottle white wine, one bottle champagne. The door is filled with tiny bottles of liquor, amber and clear and one that looks like pale blue antifreeze. There seemed to be one more thing. What was it?

Sunday, July 05, 2009

What Do You Want from Air Travel, or Miracles Do Happen

"It's raining, can you believe it?" my mother asked at about 5:45am this morning, when I had staggered out of my bedroom. Everything was still dark and quiet. The weather meant that my plane was about an hour late getting out of Chattanooga--the worst kind of late, the kind where you're all sitting on the plane, buckled and stowed, and yet the weather has you grounded--so no getting up, no moving around, no getting off and rethinking the whole idea. "Maybe we could just drive there," says the guy in the other row--ha ha, never heard that one before!!! Eventually, they re-routed us over Nashville (who would have known?) and we made it to Memphis, where I had missed my connecting flight to LaGuardia. (None of this part of the story is that interesting or original. I know.) However, there was a flight to JFK that was to depart about 25 minutes after I found myself at gate B1, and the nicest of the nice, "Ms. Anna B.," as her name tag said, was kind enough to put me on it. Hence, I'm on en-route as I write this long rambling post. A miracle!

The woman sitting in the seat next to me on the ground in Chattanooga was quite impatient, making huffing noises and glaring at the flight attendant, as if she had something to do with the rain, or something to do with NOT making it go away. I'm always amazed at these people. Because the pilot--whom you just have to trust, like surgeons or cab drivers or, you know, literary agents--is trying to make the best decisions possible. Because the alternative is, you know, death.

The 4th of July holiday has "become my Christmas," my mother also said. These days, it's the only time our whole family gathers together. With my brother and his family in Orlando, making their own Christmas traditions and rituals, and me having 11 years of being stranded in Birmingham, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Atlanta, Memphis, and even Philadelphia, I try to avoid flying in the snowy months as much as possible. But I like to come down and see everyone, eat bad food that gives everybody strange bowel movements, and watch my dad run in fear from a canon.

The older you get, the stranger your family becomes. Rather, the more you get to know them, and hence, their eccentricities float--dramatically, quietly, hilariously--to the surface. They were weird to being with, most likely. I began thinking a lot about this over the weekend in Tennessee, where the whole American suburbia thing started to make more sense to me--actually, not "make sense" as much as "reveal.". When I say "the whole American suburbia thing" I mean whatever Sam Mendes is always trying to work out in his movies. (See American Beauty or Revolutionary Road, or even, god help you, Away from You, or was it Away We Go, or something.)

Your neighbors grow up and become frail old people. They introduce themselves to you, forgetting that you are the tiny child that they once invited to eat popcorn and watch a movie. They forget that you are the tiny child that was disappointed to find out that the movie was "Around the World in 80 Days," and not something that had been released in the last two weeks--like maybe about Ninja Turtles--let alone his lifetime. It was not as fun as he had hoped, and perhaps as you had hoped, but he remembers it fondly--and I suppose that's the most important thing.

Also, things that happened to you when you were smaller, and that you will never ever forget even if you live to be 200 years old--like the handle bar of your brother's bike jamming up into the side of his mouth and taking off a layer of his gum, followed by your mother rushing out of the house with a bottle of cold water and making him drink and spit, drink and spit, the water rushing red out of his mouth, then pink, then red again and again, screaming--you may learn that your mother, for example, doesn't even remember it happening. "There were so many," she said, meaning injuries, meaning tiny, urgent emergencies.

My nephews are glorious little specimens of humanity. It's good that I do not have children. Children to me are simultaneously the most fascinating subject one could turn his attention to, and the most boring, repetitive robotic weirdos you could meet. Why do they do what they do? I guess, why do any of us? They are lovable little terrors and joyful little bunches of personality.

Miracles do happen! In the Memphis airport, and in your very own family. Okay, miracle may be the wrong word to use--particularly when all "Ms. Anna B" did was her job. But this plane is being battered around quite a bit by the wind outside it--and if you are reading this, then it means that I survived, and made it to my boyfriend's house in Brooklyn, which is pretty miraculous. The nephews, too, are pretty miraculous. If you want proof, here it is:

Friday, July 03, 2009

Letter from Greece, Part 3 of 10

Day One: Arrival in Athens

Airplanes always look like fish to me, swimming themselves up to the gates, vomiting out beleaguered passengers, hundreds of Jonahs with rolling suitcases. There should be a better way to arrive in a new place—one airport gate looks like the next, no matter where you are in the world, the same refrigerated air, the same shiny bottles of liquor for sale at duty-free shops, the same gaudy perfume, boxes and boxes of cigarettes. There should be a way to shrink the distance between the traveling self and the experience. Couldn’t we arrive on the beach directly, without customs and baggage and bureaucracy? Couldn’t we reform—magically, molecularly—at a pre-determined rooftop happy hour? Outside the airport, through the layers of tinted glass, is the bright, empty sky.

Here’s how you hail a taxi in Athens: You stand on the street corner, and when a yellow cab pulls up slowly near you, not exactly stopping, you yell your destination out at them, as loud as possible, into their open window. Except that I don’t know this at the time. So, Kip and I are sitting in the back of the cab, dizzy on no sleep and warm air, and suddenly, Greek women in their work get-ups are screaming into our window. Larisis! Syntagma! It’s like that perfume commercial, with all the models bursting through the French doors to their balconies—Egoiste! I wonder: Are the citizens of Athens welcoming us? Are they hurling abuse? Why are the drivers pulling away so quickly, not even responding? If they can’t get a taxi to stop, how are we going to? I later learn that the taxis will generally pick up other riders, if you’re both going in the same direction. Thus the slowing down, the speeding away. This would never work in New York. Can you imagine if suddenly you were veering toward 1st Avenue because someone else got into the cab?

The Divani Palace Hotel is modern, clean and unhurried. The woman at the desk wears bright purple eye shadow, and lipstick in a darker shade of the same color. She installs us in a tidy, fifth floor room with a balcony that overlooks the pool, and has a splendid, unobstructed view of the Acropolis. Finally, despite what everyone says you should do to combat jetlag, after being awake for almost thirty hours, with all the lights on, I sleep.

A few hours later, we walk through the neighborhood. Everywhere are the trinkets and tchotchkes of tourism: tiny Parthenons, tiny statues of Athena, reproductions of vases and amphorae in every color, in terrible and wonderful colors, the white and blue trademark of the islands in shirts, hats, coffee mugs, ashtrays, toothpick holders, shot glasses, Zeus playing cards, Athena notepads, Apollo serving dishes. Postcards and postcards and postcards, aisles of them, like a library.

We land in a tiny corner coffee shop, eating flaky dandelion and feta pastries—rich, fatty and sharp. The street dogs lay wherever they can find shade, looking dead. A German woman sits at the table next to us. “I am café,” she says to the waitress, pantomiming a tiny cup of espresso.

We return to the hotel, and another nap follows. The air conditioning is turned up too high in the room, and after an hour, I slide open the doors to the balcony, to let in some warmth, some light. We get up, wander through the blocks again, and take the tiny elevator to the roof of an apartment building, for dinner at Attikus Restaurant. We eat tzatziki, tomatoes and peppers stuffed with rice and pine nuts, lamb meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, saganaki, more lamb, this time stewed with lemon and potatoes. We order a bottle of Retsina, piney and green, and I get the feeling that the servers there wouldn’t dare drink it—but I like it. We talk and laugh, a bit drunk, overfed. The olives, dark spots on every plate, are spectacular. The Parthenon is perched on the rocky hilltop behind me, golden light shining out from the inside, white spotlights hitting the columns. We take a few pictures as the sky fades from blue to darker, until the waiter brings candles to our table.