Thursday, December 31, 2015

Resolutions



“Be at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let every new year find you a better man.”
Benjamin Franklin



If you are like most folks you are probably considering your New Year’s Resolutions. You’ve got until midnight to declare your intentions. No pressure. Can you recall when you started making resolutions? Were you in college, high school, or the third grade? You probably made some resolutions because your parents made them. Mom wanted to quit smoking or Dad wanted to finally clean up his den.

Resolutions have been around a long time, and although nobody has proved it yet, I bet they popped up with the earliest agrarian societies, maybe even before. As far as records go, it is said that the ancient Babylonians were some of the earliest people on this mudball to make resolutions at the onset of the New Year. They did so, it is believed, to honor their gods by paying off their debts and returning their neighbors belongings. The Ancient Romans made promises to Janus so that he could absolve them of the previous year’s sins.

When I was in my teens, my resolutions were all about improving my down-the-line backhand and getting more zip on my second serve. Even to grow a few more inches. That’s long behind me now. Thank goodness. At least, I think it is. So maybe tennis has become a sideline for me, a way to blow off some steam on weekends. While I’m no longer gunning for Wimbledon anymore, my resolutions have kept the same germ. Mine are about goals. Smaller ones perhaps, but I’ve never been the type of person who is looking to shed: weight, smoking, gambling. I’ve got my fair of vices, but as I lope into the New Year I think of starting fresh, doing instead of denying.

I list places I’d like to visit, books I’m planning to read, journals I’m targeting to publish work. I also try to procrastinate less. This is one of those vices that has clung to me like a chummy barnacle. We’ve been living a symbiotic relationship for who knows how long. Benny Franklin said be at war with your vices. I say be chums.

When we make a formal resolution, we are said to be determined to follow a course of action with intended purpose. This word comes to us from Middle English (about 1350 – 1400). Merriam-Webster’s definition (a) states that it’s the act or analysis of a complex notion into a simpler one, and though this is not quite the specific definition we are homing in on when we make our annual pledge, I think this aspect nicely underscores the goal, which is to make our lives better, more focused.

Being a writer, I also cannot help thinking of the story definition of resolution which is the abatement of conflict. Some epiphany is achieved and the central tension has dissipated. While this is a great notion, the fact is that the New Year’s Resolution, in all likelihood will create gobs of tension. You’ve thrown down the gauntlet and are trying to change traits or characteristics that have been natural to you that have made you who you are for probably umpteen years if not longer.
No matter how hard it might be we still want to take another crack at our perceived shortcomings, and why not.

I remember a conversation my parents had when I was a kid, about seven if memory serves me correctly. Mom and Dad enjoyed their sparkling wine. I sipped my Canada Dry. The room still redolent of pine needles. We never got rid of the tree until after the Epiphany, Ukrainian Christmas. Mom kept pressing my Dad to share his resolutions with her, and, after a couple of flutes of sparkling wine, he finally did. “I plan to do next year what I didn’t get around to this.” He flashed her his smirky grin, and I remember liking the glibness of that response— its understated sagacity.

I’d like to think there’s a bit of that in me when I claw away at new things on the horizon: Underworld by Don DeLillo, the town of Chablis, and yes, publications in Narrative and Agni. I’m also hellbent on unearthing a real Trilobite fossil. No, keep the shovel. Can you lend me a small awl and a toothbrush? This requires a soft touch and patience.
Happy New You!




Thursday, December 24, 2015

How I Got Into Italiano


Inspired by Jhumpa Lahiri’s recent essay “Teach Yourself Italian,” I’ve decided to share a memory from way back how I got into Italian. Our paths couldn’t be more different. Whereas Jhumpa’s was a full-on Neptune-plunge immersion into the briny sea of that rich lingua, mine is more of a wading, or, more to the point, a toe dip.

In my freshman year of high school, I studied at Xavier in Manhattan. Prior to that, I had been tethered to the comfy confines of my childhood neighborhood, Forest Hills. I was both ecstatic and petrified about moving beyond that secure boundary. Besides having to commute to school by subway, I had to embark on the unbidden imposition of finding new friends. There was also the task of learning a new language. Nowadays kids start tinkering with a new tongue by the time they enter daycare.

I remember the surprise I had when I first grabbed my schedule and noticed that my 3rd period class had mistakenly listed Italian 101 instead of Intro to Spanish. I broached the subject with Brother Ciprian in the main office, but he explained in his avuncular yet stolid voice (as Jesuits often do) that there was no mistake and that I’d better dash or I’d earn my first tardy for my Italian class. I wasn’t miffed by the encounter so much as I was curious as what to expect in class. I really didn’t know anybody who spoke Italian, and everybody who I’d met, who studied another tongue in school either took Spanish or French or Japanese on the weekend. I knew that Latin was a choice and so was German, but since my Kantian predilection hadn’t been born at this callow time, I didn’t even give German a shot.

My teacher turned out to be a Dublin-born musician with a brogue thicker than her Irish-knit. She was very smiley and bubbling with ideas she’d been brewing since she’d just hatched from grad school. It was her first day too, and Ms. O’Shea wanted to make amici with her gli studenti. We were soon baptized with Italian names: Joe Simmons became Giuseppe, Lou Harris became Luigi, and, of course, I became Giovanni Gorman.

We went around the room and shared a bit of ourselves. After that, Ms. O’Shea decided to play some music for us. She fished a Maxell tape from her bag and slipped it into her tape deck. In case you were wondering, a tape deck is this thing that played music before CD players and after phonographs. You could consider it the great granddaddy of the iPod. The song she played was a catchy tune called “Lasciatemi Cantare” by one Toto Cutugno. It was nothing like the Louis Prima or Rosemary Clooney stuff I’d heard my parents or friends of my parents play. It was charmingly corny. “Lasciatemi Cantare” was pop music. Imagine Erasure or The Petshop Boys singing Italian. Okay, maybe I’m reaching, but it piqued my curiosity. Ms. O’Shea sang with a lot of feeling and most of us tried to match her musto. Warbling was about all we could offer.

Toward the end of the first week, on a Thursday afternoon, Ms. O’Shea arranged for us to go to a café. Our procession of navy blazers headed to Union Square. I was still getting used to the snug cut of my blazer, and the bunching up at the elbows. Maybe you didn’t have to suffer such an indignity back in your formative years. It’s no easy fete getting a teenage boy to wear one, but having been uniform-groomed, for eight glorious years, it didn’t take long to make the transition. Plus, I was only too happy to shed my gray slacks and clip-on green ties from my old school.

On the way to the café, I chatted with Paolo Bronsky who told me he was considering going out for the part of Maestro Borov in the school's Fall Production of Bye Bye Birdie. I told Paolo that I didn’t think that part was going to be available since we were supposedly putting together a show based on the original Broadway script, and the Maestro part was a Hollywood add-on. “Why not go out for the Mayor of Sweet Apple or Mr. Johnson if you want to land a shoe-in?” Paolo seemed to like the idea, and to be a good sport, he encouraged me to give Conrad a crack.

It was nice to chat with somebody who a penchant for theatre (music theatre anyway). Paolo also was in his elementary school production of “Hello Dolly”, and I must say he sure looked like a Barnaby. We were bragging about who had more Playbills between us when Ms. O’Shea interrupted, asking if we preferred to grab our coffees outside rather than inside. Her attempt at rapport-building was not unwelcome, but a foursome grabbing the last outdoor spot nixed our al fresco experience.

It was better inside. I told Miss O’Shea so and we ordered a round of cappuccinos. There were a few espressos too, and a couple of Coca-Cola-quaffers. We waited for Ms. O’Shea to go teacherly on us, but she ended up letting her hair down (even more so). Literally too, right out of her ponytail band. She passed out loose pictures of her trips to Italia. The architecture, sculptures, and piazza pictures were gorgeous, but she treated us to what really was more of the everyday experience. None of that postcard crap. So many faces, everyday Italians: kneading bread, selling fruit, bicycling, fishmongers hawking fresh catch, grannies wringing wet laundry. She had what seemed like a zillion pictures of food and people swooning over their food, gelato, salumi, wine. I’d already grown smitten with the land, the people.

Ms. O’Shea only lasted a few months. She got a big break, a singing gig in Toronto. A Jesuit Brother took her place. We missed her terribly. I played sick for a couple of days, but I couldn’t duck out forever. I wished, the lame-brained wish she’d come back, but it wasn’t right for me to quash her buona fortuna. The think is, she really lit a spark for Italia in me, and when I think about it especially when I’m swigging a Docletto or slugging back my espresso, I’m so glad somebody in that office goofed and signed me up for her class, even though, more often than not, I still butcher my sentences.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Boba Fett Blues



(This essay first appeared in The Rose & Thorn in The Fall of 2008)


So you want to know my earliest realization that I was just another boob consumer? Trace it back to my Star Wars Action figure days. Fish out the collapsible C3PO from a war-torn pile of crummy Jawas and Storm Troopers, no they're all out of Snaggletooth again, but don't fret there's another Woolworth over by Fresh Pond Road if I could finagle my mom into a ride over there. The tough part was getting an advance on my already advanced allowance.

The thing was, if you clipped off enough of those coupons from the back of the action figure packages you could get a really nifty limited edition something or another. Feast your eyes on Boba Fett, the badass bounty hunter, puppet-strings of Jabba the Hutt. I was way psyched to be the first kid on the block with the hot new toy, especially since I'd read all about the missile that shot from Boba Fett's backpack-launcher.

I played hooky in anticipation of the special delivery. Why waste a whole day through ho-hum math classes and those retarded fire drills when Boba Fett could be hiding in my mailbox? Mom's deal was that if I stayed home I had to clean my room, take out the garbage, and other crap like that. In return, she promised to write my teacher a phony baloney sick note. She was quid pro quo all the way.

The big day finally came, but when I tore apart the package, my action figure didn't have a launchable missile. It stuck there welded in place, without any buttons or levers to fire it out. I had to see for myself if it was possible to tweak the design to suit my bounty-hunting appetite. Equipped with a pair of pliers I fished out from under the kitchen sink, I went to work. Dislodging the missile was tricky. I started off gently and soon swung into a rhythm whereby my half-cranks turned into roundhouse yanks that finally stripped the ammo clean off Boba Fett's back. It left me with a weird numbing feeling. Maybe neuter was more like it. It's hard to say. As I sat there with the red, bean-sized missile in the pinch of my hand I just didn't feel like gluing the stupid thing back on.

My buddy Kenji, the only other spoiled brat I knew who got everything he whined about, told me some dickweed from Oshkosh messed up his cornea blasting Boba Fett missiles off his front porch and that was why all the second batch figures were shipped neutralized. Kenji also mentioned that the puny Boba Fett was nothing compared to the new line (if you'll pardon the pun) that was being launched, scheduled to hit the stores for the holidays. According to him the new line would be as tall as Rom the Spaceknight. This brawnier Boba Fett would fill the void of the inferior one loafing under my bed.

In the meantime Rom posed as my scab Boba Fett, until the bathtub incident whereupon the better part of his foot was caught and snapped off in the drain. Mom nursed Rom's foot with the gauze she used to bandage my hands when I hurt myself digging around for baseballs behind the old ball field. The rejuvenated Rom met his ultimate demise outside the fourth floor window of the boy's bathroom at my school. The parachute never opened.

When Kenji popped in the original Stars Wars on his Betamax, we made some startling discoveries: 1) it was Han Solo, not Luke who killed the Rodian bounter hunter Greedo — Kenji liked to call him Guido; 2) upon closer inspection it did look like Princess Lea had an armpit-sniffing fetish after she and Luke swung to safety by way of Luke's trusty grappling hook. 3) Jabba the Hutt had already made his first appearance despite Kenji's insistence that it was Return of the Jedi where the tub-of-slob made his debut.

In their own right each of these were fascinating discoveries, but what bugged me, after catching The Empire Strikes Back, was that Bosk, another mail-away bounty hunter, also had a nothing part. What was up with Kenner and their whole peddling enterprise gassing up kids' hopes, getting us all psyched up to covet their action figures when they took away the best features (AKA Boba Fett's missile-launcher)? And more importantly why were they pawning off these bit part bounty hunters? They didn't have any of the characters from the cantina, not a single one, though Kenji and I wrote numerous letters lobbying for them — to Kenner, the Star Wars Fan Club for Midgets, George Lukas, Obi-Won Kenobi, whoever. Our only reply smacked pomposity. Wait until the droid factory hits the shelves so you smart asses can build whatever figures you want. O.K. so maybe they didn't add that last part, but the sentiment was implied by the persnickety little ink-stamped signature on the bottom of the form letter.

We didn't want more figures for the heck of it. We wanted to preserve the real-world integrity of Star Wars. Sure we had imagination, but it was cool to have Hammerhead and Walrus Man to spice up our battles.

One day Kenji and I got into a fight because he thought I took his Luke Skywalker light saber, a very jaundiced weapon with part of the tip spliced off. I'd lost mine some weeks earlier and had inserted a colored toothpick into the aperture underneath Skywalker's wrist.

“I didn't take your stinking light saber,” I said, “If you don't believe me, here, take the toothpick. You should clean your teeth.”

That's just how I said it. Of course, it didn't go over well and that's when he called me a grub.

“Not only are you a moocher,” he said, “But a copy cat too. You always want what I have.”

At that moment, I was furious and hurt by the assessment. My integrity, manhood, and friendship were insulted. An only child tends to blast a floodlight inward when the looker only needs a flicker. I took it to heart. Later on when his mom offered us a plate of Oreos and two tall glasses of milk he apologized.

“Forget it. I was only messing with you,” he said.

The thing is that little squabble did mess with my head. I could take punches, noogies, and the occasional pile-driver, but it hurt more that he thought, even for that moment, I'd stoop so low and steal his figure. It wasn't the Jedi way.

I don't really know when something loses luster. The cherished toy underneath the Christmas tree has a short half-life and simple, honest, malicious words leave permanent marks. To this day, I have a sweet spot reserved for Star Wars, though I wonder what's at stake when I trade figures on Ebay. What stories belong to the Han Solos, Darth Vaders, and Chewbaccas? Did two buddies have a break-up? Who were the bullies, the nerds, and all the others who played with them? These things I consider when making trades. Playing with another kid's old figures slips me into a forbidden past.

Kenji and I stayed somewhat friends, saw each other now and then when we played ball, burnt ants, and honed our joystick waggling skills. We shied away from action figures. Maybe I keep up with the Star Wars studs because I'm trying to make up for lost time. Maybe I haven't grown up.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Just As Good, Sometimes Better


WARNING this is not for the faint of heart



Spam
Garage Bands
Lung-blown balloons
A fire escape in lieu of a terrace
Spayed cats
Canned laughter
Deacons
Hydrox cookies
Jackson Pollock’s placemat
Royal Crown Cola
Anything from Chinatown
Fingers (for stirring)
Species when you can’t remember Genus
Understudies
Auxiliary Cops
Four-seamed fastballs
Mirages
Unscented urinal cakes
Blackberries
Doppelgängers

Friday, November 20, 2015

Banville's The Blue Guitar


Banville’s The Blue Guitar is a fine yarn told by the aging artist, Oliver Orme. Right off the bat, he grabs the reader (tickles him really) with “Call me Autolycus.” This engaging intro, a clear nod to Melville, is more of a cannonball plunge into erudition than the chummy flair offered in Melville’s iconic opener. A brief refresher of high Greek drama is needed to unlock the symbolic significance. Autolycus, the son of Hermes and Chione, is known as the wolf. He wore a helmet that made himself invisible, and was a great thief. Our narrator, Oliver the artist, is also a seasoned swiper.

The story is told, in reflection, by a self-absorbed artist, who is regaling the reader in his prurient past more so than unburdening his conscience. He calls his penchant for stealing as a “childish vice”, but really it is a reoccurring trope that ties in neatly with establishing the impetus behind his affair with Polly. He compares his first childhood theft in the art shop to his snatching Polly. “I did steal her, picked her up when her husband wasn’t looking and popped her in my pocket.” To extricate himself of the sheer banality of wrongdoing, he goes on to say that he stole things as “an attempt to break through the surface, to pluck out the fragments of the world’s wall and put me eye to the holes.” His vainglorious curiosity exonerates any wrongdoing. So Oliver leads us to believe.

Banville is a logophile, and it’s a good idea to have something in the way of a pencil and scrap paper to jot down words to add to your own repertoire. Some fun and frolicky references to painters like a “Poussin sky” and “Bosch the devil-dreamer” are peppered through the story. At times, his prose, drips with newly dappled paint droplets: “pink-cheeked shepherdesses and pirouetting ballerinas, blue-coated Cherubinos in powdered wigs.” After his estranged paramour, Polly catches up with him after some years, Oliver describes her “with her fist pressed to her cheek … like that oddly burly angel in Dürer’s Melancolia.” He’s miffed that she has discovered him holed up in his childhood home, never gave her credit for piecing together the meaningful scraps he’d shared from his past. It underscores his appalling lack of sensitivity. Things heat up when Polly confesses she messed up and admits she has ebbed into the profound cliché of going back home herself, to her mother. Polly asks Oliver to take her and her daughter there, and Oliver obliges.

Chalk up another smartly done work for the Irish stylist.




Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Inzolia, Not to Be Confused With Émile Zola



Sicilian reds are already on the map, and burgeoning in popularity. Nero d’Avola is old hat. People ask for Cerasuolo di Vittoria by the case, by the truck if they have a deep enough cellar. Grillo is wonderful goto with steamed mussels. And who doesn’t love to say Frappato? I’m hooked on saying it myself. It reminds me of Fraggle Rock, sound-wise. Also, it gives me a Muppet-fuzzy sensation. Even Nerello Mascalese is no longer an oddball. Not since Etna Rosso has become shamelessly fashionable.

What still might be under-the-radar are Sicilian whites. Sure we’ve swigged Marsala, but most of us don’t go hunting for its constituents (except for Grillo). The other two blending buddies Catarratto and Inzolia are underappreciated, if not unknown to most wine lovers. As their mono-varietal selves, they make some very interesting and refreshing light to medium-bodied summer quaffers, but also have the stuff to be enjoyed all year long. Inzolia in particular. Inzolia is a white grape found primarily in Western Sicily which goes by Ansonica in Tuscany. In blind tasting lineups, the wine is usually betrayed by its nutty nose. Garbed in a splendidly unctuous core it is supported by bright minerality and floral notes. Weight-wise, it’s perfect for briny faire and bacon-wrapped scallops.

I’ve always been a huge fan of Hauner, if I can snag one, but I’ve also grown rather fond of Feudo Montoni’s Colle del Mandorlo. Their estate sits in the province of Cammarata where the altitude has a wide range between 400 to 700 meters above sea level. The cooler climate, relative to most of the sun-scorched Sicily, adds vibrancy to the wine. Fabio Sireci serves as the estate’s wine steward. It has been in his family’s hands for three generations. He follows the old family recipe for farming success, letting the grapes fend for themselves and cough up their “emotions”. The vines are allowed to graft onto the wild plants and work their own hocus pocus.

I find their interpretation of Inzolia to be sturdier than many other producers’. Sireci’s wine is stonier and pleasantly oily with a kiss of sea foam. Yet, it isn’t briny so much as there is a charming, salty finish. It’s a great wine with lighter chicken dishes.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Bones Brigade



(This is about as Halloweeny as I get. I'm sharing a piece called "Bones Brigade" that first appeared at Mississippi Review online (Now known as New World Writing) back in the Fall of 2006. Enjoy.)

~~~~

Charlie blasted through the front door sending my nervometer tripping. The mess of bones was strewn over the oakwood table. Two of his goons lugged the body over, freshkill.

"Think of it as your boobie prize," Charlie said.

He wore the sardonic grin of a carnival clown as he swung the butcher blade down, right below the kneecap. Blood splotched in the air like so much tomato clam chowder.

"Bye bye birdie," Charlie said.

He chuckled, a long drawn-out guttural guffaw. For whatever reason I fused his face with Prof. Jackson’s, though Charlie was a somewhat pudgier cheeked, barrel-chested version, but still. Thwack, he separated the fibula from the ankle. Grimple, his do-it-all goon, still donning his woolen cap, came over with his scraper contraption. He skinned the meat right off till there was nothing but bone. My neck swelled up, a rush of phlegm scooched all the way up to my throat. I tried real hard to dam it back, but I hurled all over the table, all over my pants.

Grimple busted out the trusty hose already lying in the sink that was waiting for just such an occasion. He washed all the gunk and guts away.

"Now get to it and make my mobile," Charlie said.

He called the finished product, the hanging skeleton, a mobile. The idea was to string together his victims’ bones and bring it to their enemy crews’ hangout, pinning it up so that it would do its hangman dance, thus striking fear into his lower alpha nemeses. Apparently mobiles, even ones with sailboats and bunnies frightened him as a kid, so this was one way of facing his fear skull on.

The mobile thing became Charlie’s signature stunt, but it had become such a sought after, in-your-face kind of tactic, that before long he had a bunch of underbosses pestering him to supply the service their way, for the appropriate fee of course. So I was needed overtime. The upshot of all of this was that since so many orders came pouring in I got a fat paycheck. Charlie paid me in bricks, thick stacks of hundreds. That they came in bricks came in rather handy. The leg to my fan busted so I used a brick to prop it up. I was still hoping to go to Lake Turkana someday so I needed to get accustomed to the sweltering conditions in my shoebox of an apartment. A simple fan was hardly cheating in my book.

So what was the problem? Why wasn’t I holding up my end of the bargain? Whatever I’d learned in Prof. Jackson’s classes went to mush in my head. I found myself twiddling my fingers against my lips, the way those bozos in cartoons do when they’re going nutso.

See, it’s like this, at the time I was pursuing a degree in Biological Anthropology at U. Chicago’s Grad Program. What I really wanted to do was dig up bones in Lake Turkana, but instead I was consigned to a lab sorting through fossil fragments that quite frankly could have been stale gingerbread crumbs. I bagged them in Ziplocs and labeled them so that whoever came by to sift through the remains could identify whatever the hell it was they were looking at.

Let’s just say pursuing a career in Paleontology isn’t the most lucrative path one can take, which is why I jumped on every moneymaking opportunity there was to pay my bills. Twice a week I even went to the sperm bank, I got more for those deposits than all the interest I earned for the past two years in my high yield savings account at Amalgamated Bank. There really wasn’t all that much in my account to begin with, but hey. At first I told myself I went down to the sperm bank to quench the anthropological thirst inside of me and see what specimens loitered around, maybe I could dig up a thesis just by paying enough visits. But of course, as much as it pains me to admit, it was a totally gratifying experience being there. Beating yourself off, in a doctor’s office, is addictive. The possibility that the nurse might accidentally open the door with my pants felled around my ankles heightens the pleasure more so than cutting off circulation to your neck. It’s different for everybody, but I know what floats my boat. Ooh, it sends shivers down my spine just thinking about it, although I’ve never been so lucky. Nurses ought to work on their bedside manner, but that’s just one guy’s opinion.

I’d grown tired of giving museum walking tours. Actually, I was afraid that the Curator could really revoke my fossil-hunting license if I continued to horn in on his turf. The museum had a very strict policy when it came to profiteering off their patronage. Plus they were pissed that I still hadn’t returned their plaster of paris Homo rudolphensis molar mouthpiece. You could say that’s where part of the trouble began. All I wanted to do was see how Granny would look if I pulled the old switcheroo on her fake teeth.

After Verizon shut off my phone for the second time I decided to answer an ad pinned up outside of the Dean’s office. Big money digging up bones. Had the ad been posted anywhere else I may have been skeptical. I was hard up for cash so I was willing to do whatever I could, within reason; the allure of being a hired hand in something broadly related to my profession got my juices going. I celebrated by making a pit stop at the sperm bank before heading to the docks where, according to the ad, the interview would be held.

A deft breeze tussling the low mast sails sounded something like wet towels whipping flesh. I lit a smoke to calm my nerves there was a rough element that hung around there so I did my darnedest to blend in. After I tossed my seventh butt away I got that lousy feeling I’d been duped. Some prick hiding behind a crate was having a good laugh about it. What dipshit would answer such an ad? Grad school, or so I thought, was supposed to make a man out of me, push all that pussy optimism out and pump in the pragmatics.

As I was ready to leave I felt a hand on my shoulder. There to my surprise was a guy wearing a woolen hat tucked over his ears even though it was a mild seventy-two degrees that listless late spring night. Without a word he led me over to his forklift. He made me get on the lift, while he jumped onto the seat. I hung on for dear life even though we scuttled by at a whopping two miles an hour. I had that feeling that somewhere underneath the hood of that forklift was a turbo-charged motor and this hooknosed goon was going to dump my body into the river.

He didn’t of course. We ended up in a warehouse amidst a labyrinth of crates. He grabbed a crowbar and hacked a crate open. After tossing away numerous crumbled newspaper balls I could’ve swore I saw a pelvic bone. He handed me a flashlight and told me to get to work and put the skeleton together.

It was something. Under all that pressure I actually rose to the occasion, having fused all those years of lab classes into my hyper-charged synapses at that moment. I’m not a spiritual person, but I have to say that I was thanking my lucky stars, quasars, whatever.

"What do you call this," he said to me holding up a fragment.

"A patella," I said.

"And this."

"An occipital bun."

"OK you’ve got it."

"Got what?"

"You’ll start tomorrow."

The next day on I was the fair-haired boy of the bunch. I had a chance to meet Snucker Salas, Donnie Darling, Carlo Campanella [A.K.A, Charlie Cannoli] the head honcho of the crew and many other luminaries from the dark side of the dock. Prior to that I had only read about them in the news and seen one or two mugshots but they weren’t as mean-looking as I’d pictured.

Charlie Cannoli took to me immediately. He had me boxing up the leftovers of his dirty deeds. I told him that my specialty was piecing together pongid skeletons, that I was only beginning to get the hang of hominids, forget about anatomically modern Homo Sapiens.

Donnie Darling was Charlie’s right hand man, a bit of a dandy. He couldn’t leave the john without wetting his hair so that he had that slicked back look 24/7. He wore tighter shirts than the other fellows. Seriously, he made Rayon and other cheap threads look silken or linenish just because he had a flair about him that said style.

He kept an eye on me to make sure that things went down smooth. I sort of liked the guy, not in a faggy way, but enough to want to pal around with him after work and drink beer and throw darts.

"What’s the matter with you Paulie, you ain’t you today," Donnie said.

"Paul, I prefer Paul," I said.

Probably shouldn’t have harped on it so much, Donnie calling me Paulie, it was his way of saying I was one of the crew, that I wasn’t just another cabone meant something. I’m not exactly sure what, but it had to be good.

"It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle," Donnie said.

He rumbled through his coat, I could see the barrel of his gun. The hair on the back of my neck shot up. Then he pulled out an envelope.

"Maybe this will make you feel better."

He brushed his thumb against a wad of bills, letting them flutter. This actually gave me a deeper chill, the goosebumps multiplied under my sleeves like a bunch of hyperactive sea monkeys on crack.

"That’s a lot of shcarole. I’ll spot you some, just to get a little taste, but you’ve got to fill your end of the bargain."

That’s just it I’d got way more than I bargained for. It made me sick seeing the way they’d butchered Prof. Jackson. I never should’ve opened my big fat mouth, I could’ve done better on his exams, I mean, it wasn’t his fault I did lousy on Scantrons. He had to be fair to the rest of the class.

"You can’t just chop up my professors because they want to take me to do some fieldwork," I said.

"How do you expect us to run our mobile ring, you’ve got it down pat?"

"I can teach anybody, really, just give me the chance. There’s this guy from my Lithic Tool Analysis Class who’d be perfect to take my place."

"No can do, you’re our ace-in-the-hole."

That’s when I knew that I had only one choice, to finish that job so that I could get out of there alive, but I knew I couldn’t go back. I never learn to keep my big fat mouth shut. Charlie had that devious glow about him while I glommed Prof. Jackson together, like he knew that sooner or later he would replace me.

After I finished the job I took my brick and sped off. I never returned. As a result they kidnapped the Dean of the Department and sent his body parts wrapped in butcher paper to each of the faculty members. So I had to cut my studies short. They would’ve gotten to me sooner or later, nobody could be so important, nobody was irreplaceable. They would’ve caught on eventually that, contrary to popular belief, I wasn’t so special, that practically any of my fellow Grad students could’ve handled the mobiles. I just didn’t want to be around when they came to that indubitable conclusion.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Interview with Aida Zilelian


Aida Zilelian is the founder of the Boundless Tales Reading Series. She recently released her outstanding debut novel Legacy Lost Things. She’s a Queens resident, and also a contributor to Newtown Literary.

JG: Tell us a little about yourself.

AZ: I’m an English teacher and a writer. Before I decided to start writing seriously I played guitar and wrote music. I played shows all over New York City for many years.

JG: When did you start the Boundless Tales Reading Series? What was the impetus behind it?

AZ: I started Boundless Tales in September 2011. Queens didn’t seem to have a reading series that I was aware of, and I wanted to provide a platform for emerging and established writers.

JG: Do you like MCing? How do you put together a lineup?

AZ: I do like MCing. It’s especially fun introducing new writers. My lineup is based on the type of literature being read (i.e. fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc…) and the overall mood of the pieces. I like to create a nice of balance.

JG: I understand you had to change venues. How did you land the new location?

AZ: Waltz Astoria, where we used to be, was closing. And the Astoria Bookshop seemed like the most obvious and sensible choice. And the owner Lexi is marvelous.

JG: Where does the inspiration come from in your writing?

AZ: My family. Their strengths and flaws.

JG: How has the book tour been treating you? Any interesting stories you’d like to share?

AZ: The book tour has been interesting. I was surprised about how many different types of people were interested in reading about an Armenian family who immigrates to Queens, NY. Last week I spoke with an African American man in his late 80’s who used to be a musician in Harlem in the 1940’s. He bought the book.

JG: How long did it take you to write The Legacy of Lost Things? Any hurdles you had to overcome?

AZ: It took me about a year to write. The most difficult hurdle was writing about characters who resembled my family members and portraying them as honestly as I could.

JG: How many publishers did you approach?

AZ: I don’t remember, honestly. I was fortunate, though. I finished writing the novel in September 2012 and signed my contract in January 2013.

JG: This might be probing, and I’ll understand if you don’t want to answer, but did you draw on any stories or background from friends or family regarding immigrating or assimilating into New York City?

AZ: Absolutely. My parents immigrated here. I drew on their experiences and my personal accounts of their struggles.

JG: Where did you go to school?

AZ: Queens College for my B.A. and M.A. But I was a psych major with a double minor in philosophy and sociology. My M.A. was in creative writing.

JG: What writers have had the greatest impact on you?

AZ: Truman Capote, David Sedaris, Sylvia Plath

JG What are you reading now?

AZ: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

JG: You are also involved in Newtown Literary. You serve on the editorial review board. Tell me about your experience.

AZ: It’s been quite amazing. Tim Fredrick, the founder, is one of the best people I have ever worked with. His intuition on how to run and manage a publication always impresses me. And the staff overall is extremely innovative.

JG: What’s the Queen Book Festival?

AZ: It’s a festival featuring Queens literature. They are working very hard to make it a huge success. It will be the first one the borough has ever had.

JG: Opinions about MFAs?

AZ: They aren’t necessary, but they help in many ways. It gives the discipline, insight into other writers that you wouldn’t normally read and you have to produce a body of work by the end of the program. Those are all valuable aspects, I think. But as I said, not necessary. It depends on the writer.

JG: Do you have a schedule for writing, a preferred time or place?

AZ: I just need peace and quiet and I need to be indoors. Being outside is too distracting. As long as I write every day, regardless of when, I’m happy.

JG: Any guilty pleasures?

AZ: HBO’s “Girls”, Lindt salted chocolate, tequila, gin, and aji verde.

JG: What do you want to be when you grow up?

AZ: A person whose writing has made on impression on her readers.

JG: If you were throwing a dinner party who would you invite (Living or dead)?

AZ: My stepfather, my father, my grandparents, and many other relatives who passed away. I know— not very exciting and kind of sad, but they inspired me more than anyone else in my life.

JG: How do you deal with rejection?

AZ: I don’t let it bother me. When I send out stories or my work for consideration I always keep a detailed log, but I forget that I sent it in the first place.

JG: Any new projects?

AZ: I’m working on a new novel. The deadline I have set for myself is December 2015. It’s about a girl’s quest to find out what happened to her family in Armenia during the Genocide.

JG: Places you long to visit.

AZ: Argentina, Italy, and Armenia.


Check out her novel Legacy of Lost Things. You can find out more about Boundless Tales Reading Series right here:

Friday, September 4, 2015

Panther Creek's 98 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir

Recently, I had a chance to taste the ’98 Panther Creek “Shea Vineyard” Pinot Noir. Willamette Valley’s answer to premier cru Burgundy. Holy cow! As a bottled-up 17-year-old it was still so vibrant. Packed with bing cherry up front, offering notes of sage, and rose petal it gave way to darker fruit and a touch of gaminess on the finish. Its balance proved it to be a venerable pairing delight. It’s a silky wine, well-knit and still showing grip, but civilized grip— tannin tame enough to appreciate Debussy in the park.

Panther Creek was founded by the legendary Ken Wright in 1986. Ken moved on in 1994, and so did his bold, fruit bomb style. When Michael Stevenson took over as winemaker in 1996 he brought a new philosophy to the estate, one that focused on balance, nuance, and more restrained oak over flamboyance. 1998 was a Shawshank Redemption to the 1997 washout. The ’98 produced a small crop, less than the tiny ’94 that basketed less than 2 tons per acre. They talked it up as the vintage with plump and powerful wines, many properties were already licking their chops. Harvey Steiman described the ’98 Argyle “Nuthouse” Pinot Noir as “Ripe and seductive” offering “plum and black cherry, shaded with hints of chocolate”. Wine Spectator gave it 93 points. When the ’98 Domaine Drouhin was released its “bright” fruit and “soft” tannins had hailed it as approachable enough to start the Pinot Party. The consensus declared it as an excellent vintage, but I’m not sure anybody realized how long the wines would last in the cellar. Even after you’ve completed barrel tastings, even after you’ve tasted a finished product, a year or two out can seem like an eternity. Wine tasting is indeed a game of extrapolation. A warm vintage like 1998 might show itself plusher in the early rounds, but the fear that it may be short-lived lingers.

The ’98 vintage started out dismally with heavy spring rains. There were already comparisons to the ’97 washout. Then it got warm for the summer, and just before harvest, maybe even too warm for some tastes. The kicker was the fact that they had less grapes to cull from, and, with viticulture less is usually more (in terms of quality). With less than a ton of grapes per acre (when 2.5 — 3.5 is considered the norm) it was going to be a tiny harvest.

Pinot Noir is fickle no matter where it grows, and this is where the love affair begins for the wine wonk. What sets Shea Vineyard apart from other sites? It’s a pristine vineyard located in the AVA of Yamhill-Carlton and is known for its soil composition: sedimentary with cracked sandstone. It is rich in marine deposit and is unirrigated, enveloped in small ridges. The grapes ripen earlier and are known to offer jammier fruit. This is the challenge then. If you you’ve got riper fruit more extraction will lead to fruit bombs. Tannin offers structure, but so does acidity. It is often overlooked as a key factor. For many people the fruit and tannin stand out. The lack of one bolsters the other, but one has to be mindful of all the components, and the interplay between fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannin.

Panther Creek’s ’98 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir has the balance and acidity level have offered tremendous ballast. It’s a layered wine with great nuance. I see this wine carrying on well into the next decade.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Journeyman’s Guide to Flushing: Welcome to the 2015 US Open Qualies


The big rub for the journeyman is how he can seal his apprenticeship and sluice into a full-fledged master. Doesn’t happen by osmosis and it doesn’t come cheap. One must make sacrifices and be totally committed. Precision is the key. Tennis is no different than blacksmithing or carpentry in this instance, it requires the dedication and diligence of a craftsman. I shadowed the racquet-wielding journeymen this past week during the US Open Qualifying rounds. These guys have battled all year long, playing just about everywhere a net can be staked. They’d rally with frying pans if it came down to it.

The Qualifying Rounds don’t get much press, if any. You won’t catch these matches on cable. Nobody is tuning in at their local watering hole. None of matches are slated for the stadiums of Arthur Ashe or Louie Armstrong. They’re relegated to the outside courts, but every match is a battle for survival, the lifeblood of the sport. The next Pete Sampras or Rafa Nadal may be smacking groundies on one of these blue courts. To get an idea what’s at stake you need to realize that most of these guys cannot fully earn their living playing matches. Yes, they are playing for prize money, but their purse is a pittance compared to the main draws of Masters level events. Due to the incredible costs of travel and lodging, equipment, inflation, and oh yeah food, some of these guys have had to crash in their cars or in sleeping bags under the stars. Many have had to do various odd jobs. Stringing racquets and giving tennis lessons happen to be two of the most popular staples. Many of these guys don’t have the luxury of traveling with their coach. Some don’t have formal coaches.

Qualifiers cover a large swath of skill level. There’s pedigree too. Some are rising stars, still in high school or college, others have been career journeymen. A few have made into the bigtime and have slid back into the lion’s den. This year’s top-seeded Qualifier is Paul-Henri Mathieu from Strasbourg, France. He’s been ranked as high as 12 in the world back in 2008. He’s raked in some $5.4 mil in prize money since he’s turned pro. He’s the anomaly, French Open Juniors champ of 2000. He went the distance with Agassi at Roland Garros in 2002. He’s beaten Andy Roddick, and Fernando Gonzales when the Chilean was #5 in the world. Mathieu has 4 ATP tour titles under his belt, but has recently fallen on hard times, and now he’s forced to grind it out as a Qualifier. So far this year he’s made 2 ATP tour finals, most recently the Generali Open in Austria, earlier this month where he succumbed to Phillipp Kohlstreiber. At Wimbledon, he didn’t even make it into the main draw, losing in the 3rd round of qualifying.

Here in Flushing he seems to have his A-game, knocking off the Italian, Matteo Donati 6-3, 7-6 in his first bout. In his second-rounder, he crushes the German, Tobias Kamke 6-1, 6-2, but there’s always one more match, and the looming anxiety of breaking through. He’ll to get past the hard-hitting Colombian, Alejandro Falla or else it’s a plane back France.

This year the Sake Squad is a new attraction. You might be familiar with James Blake’s groupies. Allow me to introduce you to the Sake Squad. There’s about 35 to 40-some-odd of them (give or take) clogging up the left side of benches on court 12, wearing bright orange shirts that read Sake Squad. I mistook them for fans of the German, Jan-Lennard Struff garbed in an orange and black top. An innocent mistake, but I soon noticed that their cheers and claps were out of sync with the German baseliner. I then realized they were fans of Saketh Myneni, the 6 foot 4 Crimson Tide Alum, originally from India.
Myneni’s best results this year topped in the Spring. He made it into the semis at the Batman Challenger in Turkey, and then in May he made the semis at Samarkind Challenger in Uzbekistan. Early in the second set Myneni pops a string, and has to go over to his bag to grab a new stick. He must have at least 9 racquets hidden inside. You’d think they are all identical, the frames for sure, but, as a longtime journeyman myself, I have a hunch some may have slightly different tensions. Sometimes you want more bounce off your serves, the trampoline effect, and, other times you need a tighter, more laser-focused touch. That kind of edge makes all the difference. Maybe.

Myneni’s contingent is loud and eager to pump fists for their player. Tennis fans aren’t as dorky as you might think. Some show the souped-up ebullience of soccer nuts, they might even throw-in a wave (the rippling kind often associated with beer-chugging sports). All that hullabaloo doesn’t shake the German. Struff gets stronger as the match progresses. His serves are booming. He cranks his backhands. Midway through the second set it looks like the Myneni has run out of gas. Struff wins in 3 sets.

Later on, I stumbled upon a nearly crowdless match on court 6 what was merely a green practice court oh so many years ago. Am I dating myself yet? It’s the court I won my Freshman Doubles Championship match with my doubles partner Richie Reyes back in 1988. I was drawn to the match because it pitted a lefty, Jonathan Eysseric against a righty, Jose Hernandez-Fernandez. I’ve always been smitten with that racquet dichotomy. McEnroe-vs-Lendl, Ivanišević-vs-Agassi, Nadal-vs-Federer.

Hernandez-Fernandez is currently ranked 183 in the world and plays Davis Cup for Dominican Republic. At this year’s Wimbledon, he suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Czech player Jan Mertl (15-13) in the third. Despite that he’s jumped 100 spots from 2014. Here he started off slow, hitting balls at what I’d call warmup pace. Eysseric looked sharp had those nice lefty angles. The lift off his back foot made him seem like a pelican or an old-school Nintendo character, think Super Mario swinging a racquet rather than an oversize hammer. Hernandez-Fernandez hung in with good repertoire. Clearly, he had a big forehand, but what impressed me was his ability to rush the net when necessary. During the critical fifth game, while he was twice in jeopardy of going down 4-1, he chipped his way into the net, and eventually broke his opponent’s serve, placing a crisp forehand volley winner to get back on serve. Then in 10th game of the first set down 5-4 on his serve he ran around his forehand and sliced a backhand to force an error. Eysseric was livid. During the tiebreaker the Dominican dialed it up a notch, cranking forehands and backhands. The Frenchman clubbed his way back, and then Hernandez-Fernandez began mixing it up, and won an awesome rally with a chip forehand. He bulled through the second set and onto the next round where he fell to the American, Tommy Paul. Tommy is a Jersey boy who lives and trains in Boca Raton. Having won this year’s Boys French Open he comes into US Open with high hopes. Nonetheless, he’s still a dark horse never having risen above 429 in the world). After Noah Rubin and Mitchell Krueger lost in their second-rounders, Tommy becomes the lone American left in the Qualies.

Taro Daniel is back. He qualified last year in his first US Open appearance. Now he’s seeded #9. He won his first match against the Argentinian, Renzo Olivo. Keep an eye on Elias Ymer, the 19-year-old Swede, Galo Blanco’s protégé who has earned a trifecta of births into the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon. He’s a favorite to make a qualifying slam after he dispatches Jan-Lennard Struff in the 2nd round.
One of the great joys about wandering around the courts during the Qualies is that you get to see the dwarf stars before they burst into supernovas. Back in 2004, I remember being impressed with a young Frenchman who had sweet strokes and a cannon for a serve. His name was Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Nobody knew much about him. I caught both his matches. He eventually lost to fellow countryman, the veteran lefty, Jérôme Golmard. Then in the 2005 I stumbled upon a talented British kid, Andy Murray. He was cocky as hell, but he had the weapons to back him up. I caught his 2nd and 3rd round qualifying matches when he knocked off Paolo Lorenzi 6-3, 6-2 and then made minced meat of the Ecquadorian, Giovanni Lapentti 6-0, 7-6. When he beat Andrei Pavel in the main draw I was convinced that this guy was something. This was even before he hooked up with Brad Gilbert. But Murray ran into a wall with Arnaud Clement. Clement too had qualified into the main draw 2005, and cruised through his 1st round match beating the former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero.

It’s 7ish and the sun sluffs off and will probably crown the Unisphere before the next batch of fans pours in. Night tennis in New York rocks. The blare of white light on blue courts brings new energy. It’s invigorating. The 21st century gladiators are smashing, lunging, and slugging their way into the blue hour. Some will win. Others will not. It’s great to be out, watching this protean transformation. That guy, that guy right over there that beanpoley guy he’s going to be the next Djokovic. Wait, what’s his name? Let me check my program.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Interview with Sarah Frances Moran


Today I’m sitting with the talented poet, Sarah Frances Moran. She is the founder and publisher of the brand new, rising parvenu of a literary journal, Yellow Chair Review. Sarah, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your insight. Tell us a little about yourself.

SM: Well I’m a 33 year old, native Houstonian living in Waco, Texas. I’m an assistant manager at the local spay/neuter clinic. I spend my days with lots of cats and dogs. I live here with my partner and our animals. We have a small houseful.

JG: You’re billed as the Waco Poet. How does sense of place influence your writing?

SM: It really doesn’t influence my writing tremendously and honestly there are a ton of other amazing poets in this small town. I do think it’s important to be active in and supportive of your community so I do my best to do that.

JG: What’s the poem that hooked you? Did you ever try to emulate it?

SM: Langston Hughes’ “Genius Child.” It has always been my favorite. When I was in high school I carried around his Collected Works. That poem has always been important to me. I’ve never tried to emulate it though I’ve frequently made reference to searching for that genius child within myself.

JG: How long have you been writing? What is your earliest recollection of writing?

SM: I remember writing poems when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade as assignments. I didn’t begin to write poetry that was on my own terms until I was fifteen. So I’ve been writing longer than I haven’t been writing!

JG: You are, indeed, a brave soul, launching a new literary journal? What are your goals for it?

SM: Thank you! There are moments when I sometimes think “what have I done?” Mostly though I love what YCR is becoming. I want to see it continue to grow. It’s been gaining moment at a rapid pace and it would be awesome to see that sustain. Since it started I’ve added staff to assist me with the submissions. It’s become a lot of reading! I’m working now on getting funds together to start publishing chapbooks. I haven’t decided if it’s going to be in contest for(m) or open reading period form.

JG: Why Yellow Chair Review? Does the name have a special significance?

SM: Yellow Chair was the title of a poem I wrote in high school. It’s in the inaugural issue. There were many name ideas but this one stuck.

JG: What do you look for in a submission?

SM: Heart. I look to be moved. That’s the most simple answer. Sometimes being moved is laughing, or crying or just feeling like I can’t shake it after I’m done reading it. It stays with me.

JG: Social Justice might be the zeitgeist of our time. Share your thoughts on your Social Justice
blog.

SM: Yeah the web has bred a whole new species of social justice warrior. Lol. The social justice blog is probably the most dead aspect of YCR right now. I started it in June when the Supreme Court was expected to be ruling on Gay Marriage. Since then we haven’t done a whole lot with it. I’ve toyed with the idea of revitalizing it with the Rock The Chair challenge, merging it so-to-speak. Right now Rock The Chair is just the best poem of the week. I’ve considered changing it to the best social justice poem of the week. That’s undecided.

JG: What are you reading now?

SM: So much poetry! I’m also reading Go Set The Watchmen, Harper Lee’s book. Or maybe Harper Lee’s book who knows? So much drama on the authenticity of it. I’m slowly reading it. I worry it will ruin Atticus Finch for me.

JG: Opinions about MFAs?

SM: No opinion really. I don’t think those with MFAs are any more qualified than those without. I have a serious disdain for the literary elite. I think a lot of the times that falls into folks who feel their education makes them overtly special. Some will say it’s because I don’t have an MFA but it’s a core belief of mine. I don’t equate education with knowledge. They don’t always intersect well.

JG: Hindsight, but also extrapolation, might be the blessing and bane of writers. Any advice for
teenage Sarah? Advice for old Sarah (eons from now)?

SM: Oh god. We’d need to be here all day! I’d tell Teenage Sarah to be patient with herself above all else. I’d tell Old Sarah to also be patient with herself. I think the greatest advice ever though is to enjoy life and treat others with kindness. I’ve always tried to keep true to that.

JG: Do you have a schedule for writing, a preferred time or place?

SM: It’s very random. A lot of times I’m putting poems into my phone because something hits me and it’s all I have with me at the time. I’d like to say I have a more set schedule but I don’t.

JG: Tell me about Chihuahuas.

SM: They’re awesome? They’re these tiny little creatures with a hell of a lot of heart and they don’t take any shit. I have three. Two that are full and one that is a mix with Rat Terrier. They’re my family. They keep me sane. Nothing will ever be as loyal to you as a dog is.

JG: What do you want to be when you grow up?

SM: I’m pretty much living the life. I love working with animals and on the side I have this Review and my own work. I suppose if I could own my own full-time publishing press that would be living the ultimate dream.

JG: If you were throwing a dinner party who would you invite (Living or dead)?

SM: Stevie Nicks. I’d just love to sit and have dinner with Stevie Nicks. Just me and her. I think I could talk to her and it feel easy. Music and writing. I guess that’s not much of a dinner party but that’s what I imagined immediately with this question.

JG What are you working on now?

SM: On a personal level I’m always writing poetry. I’m sending out chapbook manuscripts like crazy. I’m slowly writing and putting together a chapbook of poems based off this video game called Fallout 3. It’s like nerd to the next level stuff. Three of those poems just got picked up for an anthology so that’s given me more motivation. I’m also dabbling in writing flash fiction.

JG: Places you long to visit.

SM: Pretty much anywhere I haven’t been. I love to camp. We do a ton of camping during the year. We’ve mostly focused on hitting as many state parks in Texas as we can. Next year we hope to expand that to other states. Aside from that I’d love to go to Greece. I’ve always wanted to visit there.

JG: Hardest lesson you’ve learned as a writer.

SM: To not take rejections to heart. A lot of times whether someone likes your work or not is completely subjective. I’ve had poems rejected over and over again and then I get this acceptance where someone raves about it. I think it’s important to not let those rejections get you down and at first they really bummed me out. Now I just move on and search for the next place to try or send to the same publications that have rejected when I’m allowed. Gotta keep on trying!


You can learn more about Sarah and her writing on her website


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Interview with Weam Namou


JG: Today I’m sitting with my friend and fellow author Weam Namou. She is the author of the books The Mismatched Braid, The Feminine Art, The Flavor of Cultures, and, a poetry collection entitled I Am a Mute Iraqi With A Voice. Because of the great success of that collection, she started the Iraqi Americans book series. So far she has two books published of this series: 1) The War Generation; 2) Witnessing a Genocide. Welcome to Papercut. Thanks for taking some time to chat with me and my readers. Tell us a little about yourself.

WN: Thanks for inviting me.

JG: Your first book is The Feminine Art. Would you mind sharing your experience both the writing and the publishing aspects?

WN: It took me two years to complete The Feminine Art, and then in 1996, I attended a local writer’s conference at Oakland University where Frances Kuffel, then a literary agent at the Jean Naggar Agency, critiqued the first chapter of the novel. She loved it, asked me to send her the finished manuscript, and soon we signed a contract. Frances was my literary agent for a number of years. Her belief in my work allowed me to start and finish a second novel, The Flavor of Cultures.

Frances went on to become the vice president of the Maria Carvainis Agency in New York. She was still my agent, but then in early 2003, she published her first memoir, Passing for Thin, and left the agency. No longer having representation, I was advised by a number of friends, professors and authors, to independently publish my book. The 2003 US-led invasion had just begun and they felt that my book had a timely appeal. They were right. Within six months of publication, I did over a hundred nationwide radio interviews. I also received a number of newspaper and magazine jobs, requests for poetry submissions, speaking and reading invitations, and even my own column for a local paper.

JG: How long have you been writing? What is your earliest recollection of writing?

WN: My first attempt at writing a book started about twenty-four years ago, at age nineteen. My earliest recollection of writing a story was in fifth grade, shortly after I arrived to America. I had to write a personal story and I wrote about having to leave, in secrecy, my friends and school in Iraq and moving to a foreign land. My English teacher asked me to share my story in front of an audience of parents at a school event. This was my first “published” piece.

JG: You’ve been engaging in multiple mediums for some time now. Tell us about the articles you write.

WN: I live in the city of Sterling Heights, nicknamed “Little Baghdad,” so I’m surrounded by material which is easily translated into different types of literature. Writing articles about high profiled Iraqi Americans, mostly Chaldeans, as well as covering events about the community has introduced me to people and subjects that I would not have discovered on my own. These encounters led me to come up with the idea of the Iraqi Americans book series. Each series will include a different subject matter about the Iraqi American community.

JG: What’s it like to write a screenplay?

WN: Green Card Wedding was a short film I made for my thesis at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan. After graduation, I spent two years turning it into a feature script. The process was entertaining because a number of people were involved. My younger brother and my nephews, who were in their early twenties, came over every week to critique the material I had written. Because the script was a light comedy, we had fun playing around with the scenarios. The creative energy in my living room was great, and it led us all (including my husband and one year old daughter) to go to L.A. in 2007, to find actors for the film. Lance Kawas, an accomplished filmmaker who was one of my instructors in film school, really believed in Green Card Wedding and worked with me to attain funding.

Then in 2010, a family approached me to write a story about their daughter, Dawn Hanna. Dawn was in federal prison at that time, accused of conspiring to broker telecom equipment to Iraq during the sanctions. Unbeknownst to her and the jury which tried her, her coconspirator was actually a CIA operative. The project was sponsored by the United States to listen in on Saddam and his men. I put the film on hold and for the next four and a half years, worked on the Dawn Hanna story, which I named The Great American Family. I completed the book last year and currently, I’m searching for a home for it.

JG: How do you organize your day?

WN: During the school year, I write once I send the kids to school. I will take breaks in the late afternoon, during which time I cook and do light housework. The evenings are for research, interviews and marketing. In the summer, my writing hours in the daytime are shorter because I like to spend time with the kids and enjoy the warm weather that does not last too long in
Michigan.

JG: Have you been to writing festivals? Do you have an opinion regarding them?

WN: No, I haven't. I feel that interacting in any literary community is healthy and inspiring for writers. However, some writers spend more time in writer's groups and conferences than they do writing, or honing the craft of writing, and that’s not going to move the book forward.

JG: What are you reading now?

WN: Maria Theresa Asmar's Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess
Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (audio)
The Paris Review Interviews Women Writers at Work

JG: What is your job as a writer? Who is your audience?
I freelance, mostly for the Chaldean News and right now I’m concentrating on the Iraqi Americans book series. The next book will be about the lives of artists, and it will be released in autumn 2015. My audience is intellectuals who like to read history, politics, biography and literary fiction.

JG: You are Chaldean. Can you explain what exactly that means? How does being Chaldean inform your writing?

WN: Chaldeans are Christian Iraqis who trace their roots to Prophet Abraham since he was from Ur, the biblical land of the Chaldees. When I began to learn about my heritage, I felt empowered by the richness of my ancestral land, where writing was invented. But I was also bothered by how little the world knew of these people’s achievements. Enheduanna, the first recorded writer in history, was a woman from ancient Iraq. I came across her name by accident and I could not understand why our Chaldean churches and the general educational institutions did not highlight her achievements.
Then while covering a story in 2012, I learned that almost two hundred years ago, a woman from Telkaif (my parents’, grandparents and great-great parents’ once Christian village in northern Iraq) had written a 720 page memoir. Maria Theresa Asmar was a Chaldean woman born in 1804 when the Ottoman occupied Iraq. She ended up traveling to Europe by herself, met the Queen of England (even dedicated the book to her), and described in the book her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. She died in France. An English version of her book was published in 1844 and was well received in England. Yet very few people in our Chaldean community know about her work.

JG: You are a wonderful writer. I’m a huge fan, as you might’ve guessed. I think that you are the Chaldean equivalent of Jhumpa Lahiri. Would you agree or disagree?

WN: I’m honored. Thank you. I read Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” when it first came out, and she and other ethnic writers such as Amy Tan showed me the possibility of telling my ethnic stories through the English language. Although, as I write this, I remember my former agent, Frances, and an Iraqi American book critic, after reading The Feminine Art, had compared my writing to that of Jane Austen because of my attention to small details that are the thread of family relationships.

JG: Do you have a schedule for writing, a preferred time or place?

WN: From early morning until late afternoon, every day, unless I’m out of town.
I used to love writing at coffee shops, libraries and bookstores. When you have kids, however, it’s not easy to just get up and go. You have to depend on the schedule of those who will watch your kids, and that dependence takes away your freedom to write how much you want to write.

I live in the same house my husband and I bought ten years ago when we got married. From the start, we made the family room my office. While I loved it spaciousness, it took years for me to get used to working in an atmosphere that was either very quiet (when the kids are asleep) or very noisy (when they were up). But over the years, I renovated it to create the right writing atmosphere for myself. I began to enjoy the window view I have while writing – the squirrels, birds, cats and rabbits that visit our backyard and nibble on food that is left behind from the previous night’s dinner we had on the patio.

For some years now, this has become my favorite and preferred place to write.

JG: What does Weam do when she is not writing?

WN: When not writing, Weam is mostly taking care of the house and kids and doing various family activities. I’m also currently helping care for my mother, who lives with me. I come from a big family (six sisters and four brothers, nearly 35 nieces and nephews, etc. – not to count my husband’s side) so much time goes into extended family as well as my own family.
When I have free time, I love to spend it in physical activities such as yoga, walking, and swimming. Once in a great while, I’ll have time to go to the movies.

JG: What do you want to be when you grow up?

WN: My great-grandmother Maria was a well-known healer. My father, who headed the accounting department at Baghdad’s railway station, was also a bonesetter for family and friends and whoever needed that free service.
Since it’s in my genes, for many years I have been studying spiritual work through different teachers. I’m currently a fourth year apprentice of Lynn Andrew’s school. Lynn Andrews is the bestselling author of the Medicine Woman series. Over twenty-five years ago, she founded Lynn Andrew’s Center for Sacred Arts and Training, a four year spiritual and healing school.
I want to continue to use my storytelling abilities to do work similar to that of my great-grandmother, my father and other family members.

JG: If you were throwing a dinner party who would you invite (Living or dead)?

WN: Dead: Margaret Mitchell, Maya Angelou, Henry James, Nora Ephron, Saddam Hussein (I have a lot of questions to ask him), Layla Al Attar (a famous Iraqi artist), Maria Theresa Amar

Alive: Woody Allen, Al Pacino, Robert Di Nero, Meryl Streep, Michael Moore, Stephen King, Kahtim al Sahir (famous Iraqi singer), President Bush Sr. & President Bush Jr. (I have a lot of questions to ask them too).

JG What projects are you working on now?

WN: I’m in postproduction of The Great American Family, based on the book with the same title. www.thegreatamericanfamilydocumentary.com

JG: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

WN: You are responsible for your own success.

JG: Any advice?

WN: A friend of mine once said to me that if she wanted to, she could write a book in a week. This woman had a master’s degree in business and was successful in her field, but she is a very impatient person and the one thing you need to have to write a good book, especially if you’re starting out, is patience – while writing the book, while finding an agent/publisher, and after the book is published, then when writing the next book, and so on.

Along this journey, it’s important that you keep your priorities straight and have a balance rather than obsess over your writing. What’s the use of having a great book if you have a lousy life? These days, especially, having a great life can easily translate into a great book.

JG: Opinions about MFAs?

WN: It’s a matter of preference and opportunity. If one can go, why not? If one can’t, that should not stop them from being a writer. Many famous writers never went to college. Maya Angelou never even took a writing class. William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Jack London, and H.G. Wells dropped out of high school nearly from the time they enrolled.

JG: How did you land your agent?

WN: As I mentioned earlier, I met my first agent, Frances Kuffel, at a writer’s conference at Oakland University in Michigan. I met my second agent, Cicily Janus, in 2012 at a writer’s retreat in Colorado. At that time, she worked at Folio Literary Management.



Learn more about the author on her webpage http://www.weamnamou.com/

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Pride of Manduria, Pirro Varone



Okay so maybe I like wines from southern Italy because they’re usually not phony bolognas. They’re not itching for aristocracy. They’re happy in their blushing grape skins. So today I’d like to share some background and tasting notes of a wonderful, hidden gem of a property called Pirro Varone from a sleepy town, Sorani, in the heart of Manduria. The roots of Manduria go way back. Pliny the Elder cited the area in his magnum opus Naturalis Historico. The ruthless Saracens crushed it in the 10th century. Over time, the town was rebuilt, but not until the 18th century did it take back its old name, Manduria. It sits in the region of Puglia, which once upon a not-so-long-time-ago was hailed with the dubious distinction as “Europe’s Wine Cellar”.

Vast improvement have been made in recent years. There is quite a contrast in style and quality depending on where grapes are sourced and who is at the helm of production. Wines closet to the Salento peninsula tend to be the fruit bombs with high alcohol and yes wines closer to Taranto, near the Ionian Sea seem to be more vibrant. These are gross generalizations.

These past few years, as I’ve had the chance to taste and retaste the Pirro Varone wines, I’ve been surprised how, time and again, they keep getting better. Pietro Ribezzo, the talented winemaker, produces some of the best Primitivo anywhere on this mudball. What distinguishes Pietro’s Primitivo di Manduria from the other sluff is the fresh varietal expression. The alberello-trained vines are grown in black earth with tufaceous layers. He also grows olives.



Despite what you might think the grape name Primitivo refers to the fact that it is an early-ripener and has nothing to do with it being primitive though it has been around for a long time. It’s a constituent varietal of Salice Selentino, and is also related to that Hemingway of a grape, Zinfandel, by way of a distant relative from Croatia called Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Forget what preconceived notions you have of Primitivo. Pirro Varone’s wines revel in authenticity and pure essence, none of the cosmetic fluff you get with certain producers trying to beef-up for point scores. No mouthful of stewed prunes. No rubber-bally aftertaste, and no wood. Not a splinter in his wines. Behold the redder fruit on the palate, a jubilant medley of raspberry, tamarind, and dried herbs. Spicy notes sneak in mid-palate. The bright acidity tames the ample alcohol. It wears its 15% ABV like an elephant in capezios. It’s a liquid tour jeté.

His entry level Casa Vecchia exudes more rusticity and is ever so more gracile, sourced from 15 — 20 year-old vines. It’s a late night jammer (think alto sax not fruit preserve) whereas the Pirro Varone (coming from 50-year-old vines) is a studio artist with a bit more polish.

Pietro farms organically and is ICEA-certified organic. His desert Primitivo ‘Tocy’ (no snarky remarks) is fantastic. Sure the fruit is super-ripe, but the viscosity never gets anywhere near syrupy, its consistency and mouthfeel are supported by a tangy finish.

Besides Primitivo, Pietro plants Grisola, an organoleptic anomaly he found one day chilling amongst his grapes. You will be hard-pressed to find any other living soul or zombie winemaker making wine from this varietal. Grisola is the George Plimpton of red grapes— swilling with personality and virtually impossible to pigeonhole. He also plants Minutolo, a white which is thought to be a distant cousin of Fiano, but is a distinct varietal that tastes like a melonball dipped in gingerbread.

The property’s name is an homage to a distinguished merchant, Giovan Battista Varone, who lived in the area during the 16th century. Pirro Varone was his son. He was a Jewish nobleman who converted to Catholicism, and eventually went on to become a great philanthropist, building the first hospital in the area and built a charitable foundation that is still going today.

Let’s face it, Puglia is a sunbaked seaside region. The climate seems perfect for fruit bombs with high alcohol, and it usually delivers, but when you find a sumptuous, well-structured Primitivo you are practically raring to belt out “Some Enchanted Evening”. If I had the pipes or thicker walls in my apartment, I sure would.

Sip and Swirl.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Barbera: A Spit Bucket Primer


The workhorse of Piedmont is one of the most versatile Italian varietals. It has come a long way since its days of relegation as blending buddy for Nebbiolo. Almost half of the region’s production is dedicated to Barbera 70,000 acres (28,000 ha) as of 2000. It is the 3rd most widely planted red grape in all of Italy. It’s known for its deep ruby color, bright cherry flavors, sharp acidity, and near absence of tannin. Depending on where it is grown and the winemaker’s practice in the cellar, the grape may show itself to be fresh and approachable, slightly rustic, and even a substantive wine that is a force to be reckoned with. It is considered to be native of Monferrato, in Southeastern Piedmont near the hilly Asti and Alessandria, but also grows in Alba, Rubino, Gabiano, and the Colli Tortonesi. The vigorous-growing vine requires constant pruning to prevent excessive yields, which, if not kept in check, can dilute the quality of the wine. Sandier soils help lessen its rigor though the grape tends to show best in chalkier and loamier soils. Fortunately, Barbera is blessed with a high level of acidity which helps maintain crispness and structure. Because it ripens a couple of weeks earlier than Nebbiolo, in late September or early October, the grape has historically been viewed as a cash crop for growers in the region. Recent DNA studies suggest Barbera may be related to Mourvèdre. How you like them apples (or berries really?) The jury is still deliberating.

History
A lease agreement from the mid 13th century, belonging to the cathedral in Casale Monferato refers to a bunch of vineyards planted with de bonis vitibus barbexinis (the name from antiquity). The first written proof of vinification dates back to the 17th century and is kept in the town of Nizza. In 1798, Count Giuseppe Nuvolone-Pergamo of Scandaluzzo, deputy director of Società Agraria di Torino, included Barbera on the first “definitive” list of Piedmontese varieties. Around that time, Barbera wines were relished by officers of the Savoy army who claimed the wine gave them courage on the battle field.

By the early 1900s, Italian immigrants brought vine cuttings along with them as they set sail for the Americas. Barbera set its roots in both in the Central Valley of California and Mendoza, Argentina. For a while, it spent time consigned to the bulk wine or blending category. In Italy, Barbera d’Asti received DOC status in 1970 and it was right at this time that the infamous Emile Peynaud encouraged winemakers to use smaller barrels and a carefully monitored oxygenation to soften the astringency and the potentially reductive quality of Barbera. By the 80s, Giocomo Bologna decided to give the varietal the royal treatment, growing single-vineyard Barbera called Bricco Dell’Uccellone. His Braida cellar increased concentration and extraction, aging his wine in French barrique thus creating a “Super Barbera.” For good or bad, this pioneering move created a paradigm shift and a wave of disciples cranked out burlier wines.

In recent years, Barbera has evolved into a Zeligesque wine that evokes myriad styles based upon mood and context. It is both worthy for everyday consumption and cellaring. The grapes great versatility, ranging from wines with fresh fruit and laser-beam sharp acidity, to plusher wines with dried berry flavors, medium-bodied, to the bigger, bolder wines, that show a smokier, leathery character. Some growers have also been extending the harvest later to reach higher sugar levels and offer crowd-pleasing fruit-bombs.

Barbera d’Asti DOC

Since Nebbiolo is not planted in Asti, Barbera is given the best vineyard sites and thus has a chance to thrive in this zone where it often produces brighter red berry fruit with mouthwatering acidity, a perfect food-pairing companion. The town of Nizza is the warmest area of the appellation and makes the ripest, most approachable wines. According to DOC law, a minimum of 85% Barbera must be used, the remainder may consist of any combination of Dolcetto, Freisa, and Grignolino. The wine requires at least 11.5% alcohol and must be made before March 1st, immediately following the harvest.

Barbera d’Alba DOC
Often described as more robust and ageworthy than its northern neighbor from Asti, it is sometimes vinified for early consumption, but offers a darker berry flavor, is generally, although not always lighter in acidity. The soil type is mainly limestone-rich, chalky, and the growing area runs through the rolling Langhe hills, including the famous Barolo and Barbaresco.

Other Appellations include Barbera Delle Langhe DOC, Barbera Del Monferrato DOC

DOCG Status
In 2008 both Barbera D’Asti Superiore and Barbera Del Monferrato Superiore got bumped up to DOCG status. Both require an additional minimum of 1% alcohol and need an additional 14 months of aging





Thursday, July 23, 2015

Got Tar? Or Just Plain Erbalicious



(originally appeared in Appellation newsletter 5/1/12)

Barolo ranks forth on my delicacy index. Big deal. But, consider this, my other three cravings all hail from Piemonte. And let me make this perfectly Teflon-clear. I’m lumping Barbaresco, Gattinara, Ghemme, Carema, and anything vaguely Langhe Rosso into the same rudderless boat. So what beats out the King of wine? Black Truffles, White Truffles from Alba, and Nutella.

Let’s get down and dirty. Shall we? My patience and pocketbook have both gotten paperclip-thin through this period of austerity. As such, I want more opulence, and yet I want more finesse. Am I pazzo or I am hedging my true ribald desire? I take the fifth.

To quell my appetite for earthy and ethereal elegance I hunt, regularly and rigorously for Langhe Nebbiolo. On a most recent hunt, I stumbled upon something that blew my mind— Erbaluna. The thing is, I’ve had their “Plain Jane” Barolo before and their single-vineyard ‘Vigna Rocche’, which I’ve always loved and reminds me of what I’d imagine the lovechild between Elio Attare’s ‘Albiona’ and Bruno Giacosa’s ‘Le Rocche Falleto’ might be like if such Daliesque dreams materialized.

Pilgrims, I tell you, Erbaluna is a mountain biker’s paradise, replete with undulating slopes, castle-topped hills, and the scent of truffles. There are approximately 10 hectares of vines on the crumbly-clayish Tortonian marl and sandstone. Brothers Andrea and Severino Oberto live in the midst of their vines. Grape-growing is in their roots and has been for over one hundred years. Andrea and Severino took over in 1985 and right from the get-go decided to go organic. That’s right while you were grooving to “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” the Obertos were going green.

Erbaluna’s Langhe Nebbiolo smells like geraniums and tar and mushrooms. The soft side of La Morra offers approachability and great depth. To my mind, Erbaluna has much more in common with Bartolo Mascarello than with the hyper-modern Roberto Voerzio. The Langhe Nebbiolo, doesn’t smack of tannins, but is grippy. Ample choke cherries and raspberries are supported by a solid spine of acidity and tangy tannin. Serve it with braised rabbit and risotto with chestnut shavings. Try it with fontina or Gouda, and if time and weather permits, honey-dipped Gorgonzola and black truffles.



Wednesday, July 15, 2015

All*Star*Break



They sure need a break. Don’t they? It’s a long and grueling season, an emotional rollercoaster. It can wear you down. I mean, how many grounders can a guy take? And think of all those calluses and splinters from BP.

You know who hates the break? Anybody working on a streak or climbing out of a slump.
It used to be shorter. So was the season, half of Rollie Fingers’ mustache. Now they hail
Mr. November and instant replay.

I’ll tell you who really needs the break. The grounds crews. Boy, do they ever. The way they pull that tarp to keep the infield from flooding during a downpour. Hats off to the hotdog, peanut, and beer vendors. Have you ever hupped stairs with a keg on your back?

Wait, how many days off? In a row. That’s a lot. How do I fill the time? Maybe I should mow the lawn or spruce up the den. My Bobbleheads need dusting. Let’s face it, the All Star Break is a long stretch, but those dugouts need a major league hosing.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

An Open Letter Regarding My Chia Pet Molly

Cha-Cha-Cha-Chia


Dear Sir or Madam,

It never occurred to me before, but raising a Chia Pet is so small fete. I’ll have you know that I’m the proud owner of a happy basket of baby’s breath, a perky cactus, and a mercurial bonsai. Whenever I get the chance, I stuff apple pits into soil-filled Styrofoam cups. My next door neighbor, Delores, helped me turn my fire escape into a hanging garden. Old Babylon, you got nothing on us! It only takes a week or so for the little apple buds to work their magic. Now I’m not the mushy type, but I learned from Delores that you must flirt with your plants. It builds their egos.

What I don’t get is this stubborn Chia Pet of mine, Molly.

She’s got the whole sanctuary of my cable box to herself, where the light flitters in through my open blinds. I’ve done just about everything imaginable, including giving her Fiji bottled water and a daily backrub.

A startling revelation hit me the other day after I was feeling a bit lonesome while reading Penthouse. Now I’m sure you’re thinking that nobody bothers reading such smut, but I’ve seen so many skin mags in my lifetime that frankly the pictures just don’t do it for me anymore. So I’ve turned to the randy little letters that people write-in, and this does the trick for me, although I tend to toss a newspaper over Molly because it makes me sort of uneasy knowing that she can see me getting all jolly by myself in the rocker.

I guess what I’m dying to share is this. Call me crazy, but I think Molly has grown a pair of boobs. Maybe she’s taking my relaxation technique as a form of competition. It’s gotten so I feel funny chatting with her the way I used to and now I find myself oddly aroused by these leafy boobs she’s grown.

I know it seems like I should be sharing my exuberance with her, but I’ve never done anything so kinky. I’m not looking for the greenlight, but just was wondering if any other Chia Pet owners have had a similar experience. Maybe there’s some sort of support group I could attend that could give me the moxie I need to face this head on.

Truly, I would appreciate any advice you can give. Something tells that I’m not the only one.

Sincerely,
Graham Greenethumb

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Interview with Danny Herrera



Today I am very lucky to have an opportunity to chat with a rising star, humorist writer, Danny Herrera. Sit back, relax, and hang onto your helmets. You can learn more about him here on his blog http://bydannyherrera.com/

JG: Welcome to Papercut. Thanks for taking the time to sit and chat with me. Tell us a little about yourself.

DH: It's a pleasure— thanks for the opportunity John. I was born and raised in the westside of San Antonio, TX. I've bounced around a little: I went to college in Iowa, and lived in Denver for just about 2 years. But I've been living in New York City for 3 years now. My problem is that if I get too comfortable somewhere I get all this existential anxiety and feel the need to leave that place. But with New York it's different— between the rats, the constant stench of urine in the subway, and all of the eccentric humans that live here— it's hard to feel too comfortable here. The city really pushes you to your limits and it just feels right for me. It's home, for now.

JG: You write non-fiction. When you go back and recall these past events, how do you maintain the accuracy of things that were said and the rest of the details?

DH: Keeping a diary helps. Often, I'll take note of a piece of dialogue or an event/thing/person that strikes me and then later on I'll transfer it into my diary. I'll usually revisit a diary about a year after the date I started it. I've written a lot about my family and my childhood and luckily because most of my family is still around, I can ask them about how they remember a certain event/person and that will sometimes trigger new memories in my mind. But man, there are just some things you'll never forget. Like the time my cousin Rudy pulled down my shorts in front of my entire family and I wasn't wearing any underwear.

JG: When did you start keeping your diary?

DH: I started keeping a diary in high school. Ms. Hood was one of my teachers. She stood at 5ft 4 inches and weighed well over 300 pounds. She taught "Health and Wellness." And although she didn't lead by example, the habit she instilled of writing things down has stuck with me ever since.

JG: How often do you update your diary now?

DH: Daily. My goal is to write one sentence each day and usually I write more than that.

JG: Do you blog? Do you enjoy blogging?

DH: I took a writing class while living in Denver. One of my class assignments was to create a blog and upload work. So I've kept up with that but I don't really enjoy it. Just the verb 'blogging' makes me nauseous. I never liked the idea of blogs and I still don’t. Themed blogs are the worst. Either way, by virtue of having a blog I put myself in the company of this weird virtual world. A friend of mine recently said that the blog is like the literary equivalent of a “selfie.” I think that's a good way to put it. But I've kept up my blog for 3 years now and one of the good things about it is that I imposed a weekly deadline for myself and created new work every week. That led to some of my essays getting published which was new for me and felt good. Nowadays I update my blog a few times a month. I like to think of it as my creative compost. Not everything on there is good but sometimes a really good essay will come from that compost.

JG: I’ve had the great pleasure of hearing you read your essay “Biddie Biddie Bom Bom”. It’s funny and poignant. Would you like to share the inspiration behind that piece?

DH: That essay started with the image of me as a 10 or 11 year old singing “No, Señor” by Johnny Z. I remember my mom smacking me over the head when I sang that song because some of the lyrics were filthy. So I started with that memory and built upon it. That then led me to questions about my cultural identity and the essay just naturally evolved into this theme about what it means to be a Mexican-American that didn't grow up speaking fluent Spanish. Like sometimes I was made to feel like I wasn't “Mexican enough” because I wasn't born in Mexico. And then other times I felt like I wasn't “American enough” because I've been called racial slurs in the past. It's a weird in-between state and I still think about it. Race is one of those things here in America that is constantly talked about and I think it's important because the “American experience” is constantly evolving and as we move into the future, it's going to continue to be more and more diverse.

JG: Who are your writing influences?

DH: Hunter S. Thompson because of his courage to implicate himself in the journalism that he creates. David Sedaris for being able to blend humor and insight. Toni Morrison for her wisdom and being a master storyteller.

JG: What do you like to read? What are you reading now?

DH: I like to read a lot of fiction and non-fiction. I'm currently reading Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. It's about the history of Harlem and how it became a slum/ghetto. I like it because I live in Harlem and I want to know its rich history. Recently, I also read Bill Buford's Among The Thugs which was a great read. If you want to read about English hooligans who drink way too much and start riots at soccer games, I highly recommend it.

JG: How long have you been living in the city? Give me your impression of it. How do like it compared to other places you’ve lived?

DH: I've lived in New York for 3 years. I lived in Astoria for a year and now I've been living in Harlem for 2 years. I like New York because it's the cultural capital of the world. New York is a city of extremes and whatever you're into, you'll likely find it here.

JG: You’re billed as a humorist. How does this shape what you write? Do you consider yourself to be naturally funny or have events in your life helped pave this way?

DH: I think being a “humorist” shapes my writing insofar as I always try to paint an image in the reader's mind. Some of the funniest things are images you can see in your head. So that helps to shape how I write. I always try to imagine how it looks and then I try to translate that by creating a vivid atmosphere for the reader. I think there's humor in everyday moments and I really try to lock in on that. For example, while on the train recently, a man was standing next to me with his phone out. It started to ring and the contact on his phone read, "Dickhead." "Hi mom," he answered. "Yeah, almost there."
Now that's not profound, but it's funny. And who knows, maybe one day I'll find a place for it somewhere in one of my essays.

JG: How do you like to write? What mediums do you use (ie; laptop, notebook, napkin, cell phone)? Do you have a preferred medium?

DH: I make notes on my phone and at the end of the day I'll expand on those notes in my actual diary. Since high school I have used paperbound diaries and I still do. I go through a couple every year and at this point I have many completed diaries which becomes a problem when I move. So I'm actually considering starting to keep my diary on my laptop. It would save me some time and space, that's for sure.

JG: Do you have a schedule for writing, a preferred time or place?

DH: I work full-time so I usually write at my desk at night.

JG: When you are not writing, what are some of things you enjoy doing with your time? I go to the movies often. I listen to a lot of podcasts (my current favorites are Fresh Air, Radio Ambulante and This American Life).

JG: What do you want to be when you grow up?

DH: Well, in terms of my “professional” career, I'm starting graduate school this fall. I'll be getting a Master's in Urban Policy Analysis. So I hope to be able to do future work that helps disadvantaged populations. But creatively, I hope to be the author of a book(s) of essays.

JG: If you were throwing a dinner party who would you invite (Living or dead)?

DH: I'd invite Francois Truffaut, Toni Morrison, Conan O’Brien, and the President.