Be Good or Be Gone

You can newbies by the way they order their drinks.  On my left a man asks for a beer list and a white wine.  For a brief and agonizing moment I feel the embarrassment that is about to smite him.  The bartender, being a true professional gives it to him lighter than I would have.  As I am eavesdropping in on the conversation someone taps my right shoulder.  I swing around mug to lips and see a skinny man in his sister’s jeans.  “Sorry, could you please slide down a step?  You have your foot on Howard Houdini’s handcuffs and I’d like to show my friends here.  I’m kinda a Houdini nut.”  The pixie in black slid up his shirt sleeve.  Sure enough, on a pale forearm, was tattooed the face of the great magician.  For the first time since I took my position at the bar I noticed that my foot was in fact resting on a loose bit of hardware.  I lifted my sneaker and confirmed with a “No shit?” that my Chuck Taylor was covering a pair of handcuffs that, given my location, were not exactly out of place.  The bar tender in his white jacket had witnessed the entire exchange.

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“If heaven is what we want it to be, I’ll see you all at McSorely’s after I’ve gone.”

I wrote those words in a journal the first time I had visited the sacred pub.  For me, no trip to NYC is truly complete until I’ve had a beer at McSorely’s.  In some ways it’s like paying respect or doing your patriotic duty.  In other ways it’s like a beer drinker’s comfort food.

Like most hallowed ground there are rules and there is etiquette:

  1.  Don’t get too comfortable.  Your seat is only your seat until the man in a blue blazer says that seat over there is now your seat.  Don’t know the people at your new table?  Well let me introduce you to your new friends.
  2. There are 2 things served at McSorely’s.  McSorely’s Light or McSorely’s Dark beer.  No hard stuff, no diet coke, no blenders.
  3. Cash only.  Your tab is calculated using mental math by true professionals.  Don’t question the price.  Just pay your shit.
  4. Unless someone from behind the bar yells your name upon entry, YOU ARE NOT A REGULAR.  They know you’re a tourist. (This rule breaks my heart.)  All you can really do is throttle back the tourist and act like a “regular tourist.”
  5. It’s dirty, get over it.  The place has been open since 1854, it may have picked up some dust over the years.  (Although, on my most recent visit my new bar tender friend informed me that the health department had made them scrub every police and fire badge in the place.  We’re talking hundreds of badges spanning centuries from retired and deceased public servants.)
  6. When ordering beer, it’s either “light,” “dark,” or “2 and 2.”  Do not freak out when you say, “2 lights please,” and receive 4 beers.  He heard you correctly.  As should always be the case, beers come in pairs.

I looked down the bar and watched as Houdini Tattoo took some selfies with the handcuffs.  I was now within shouting distance of the bartender when he asked, “Where are you from sailor?

“Chicago.”

“No shit!?  What are you doing here?”

“Work.”

“Oh yeah?  What do you do?”

“I’m a pilot.”

Before I could say another word he yelled out:

“EXCUSE ME EVERYONE CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE?  If you’re on the 10:30PM flight to Cleveland this is your captain.  Be sure to head to the airport before he does and you should make your flight.”

I laughed and nodded at some applause.  He shook my hand and smiled as I asked,  “So, are those really Houdini’s handcuffs?”

“No…  But those are.”

He pointed to another set of handcuffs directly behind him hanging above an old picture of a police officer.  “Those handcuffs down there are the cuffs that that guy *points to the old picture* put on Houdini right before he broke out of them.”

“Shouldn’t those be in a case somewhere?  I mean I had my foot resting on them.”

He smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Hey, this is McSorelys.”

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I Drank Mexican Coke Before It Was Cool

When it’s time to cook a big meal in my house we go to a certain grocery store.  Most people head to the fancy – “is this gluten free” – place, but not us.  Our favorite place is what my kids have come to call the Mexican grocery store.  That’s really the best way to describe it.  It’s different.  Everything in the store seems to be slightly more colorful.  The produce in its neat rows is just a little more exotic and the butcher’s counter just a little more (how can put this) all encompassing.  Walking in, the menagerie of smells, the conversation and even the music takes me to a different time in a much different place.

I spent a lot of time in Mexico as a youngster.  My mother was the eldest of 12 children all born in the city of Chihuahua located in the state of Chihuahua.  More than a few holidays and vacations were spent reintroducing myself to the dozens of cousins that lived there.

My Grandmother was without a doubt the single best cook to ever walk this earth.  What she could do with a handful of ingredients and few hours has never and will never be replicated.  She had no recipe books and as far as I could tell no measuring spoons.  She would stand over a pot of something bubbly with palm full of salt and just stare at it.  She would then remove a pinch of the salt then add a half pinch.  When the weight or look or whatever she used to gauge the correct amount of salt was right, she’d flick her wrist and in it would go.

At 2PM every day without so much as a text or email, guests would start to arrive.  An actual seat at the table was harder to get than one at French Laundry.  Most people stood, including my grandmother who rarely left her post tending the tortillas on the comal.  (In retrospect, I can not recall ever seeing my grandmother actually eat.)  My abuela’s joy came from seeing her family standing around eating together on mismatched china.  She was a literal miracle worker.  No one was ever invited, they just knew when to come and yet day after day she never ran out of food.

I remember waking early to the sound of a spoon clinking a coffee cup.  It would stop and I would hear my Grandma whispering the neighborhood gossip to my mother so as not to wake us.  I hated eggs at the time, but for some reason she knew how to make them with that special sauce.  Hers were the only eggs I would eat.

Sopping up the last bits of egg with a broken tortilla she would haul me off to the market.    At that time the market was the only place to buy fresh produce.  It was open air like today’s weekend “farmer’s markets” but with less pretension and more actual farmers.  She had her “guy” for everything.  Meat?  She had a meat guy.  Lettuce?  She had a lettuce guy.  These “guys” knew that you didn’t fuck with the little old lady and the grandson in his Chicago winter tan.

The menu of the day was always planned organically.  I don’t mean she was asking if these cucumbers were free range or happy.  What I mean is that she would peruse the stalls and find what looked best that day.  The freshest and best looking ingredients came home with us.  What she created beyond that  was the result of technique, heart, and La Virgen De Guadalupe who hung on the wall watching all that when on in the house.

The best part of a market run came after all of our purchases were made.  One of 3 scenarios would play out.  In the first case, my grandmother would hand me a fist full of pesos and walk me to the tortilleria or tortilla factory.  This was the most ideal of situations.  I’m a stranger in the neighborhood and although I’ve been in town a matter of hours everyone mysteriously knows that the pale kid is “el hijo de Tere” or my mother’s kid.  This always opened me up to questioning which I didn’t have the time or the vocabulary for.  Grandma had my back.

The scarier scenario was when she would ask me to go to the tortilleria on my own.  (See above)

The last and more common scenario was when grandma needed her tortillas as fresh as possible.  This meant that the dish she was making had the humble starch circle as the headliner.  A call from the kitchen, another fist full of pesos and I was off.  If I was lucky I could convince a loitering cousin to accompany me.

The lines at the tortilleria were always out the door but if you’ve ever been to one you know that you never have to wait long.  The goal was to get inside the door.  Once inside there was only room for 4 humans to stand single filed.  The counter where you made you order was always a new coat of hunter green and stretched the width of the building.  The smell.  To this day even a hint of that smell and I’m instantly transported back to that doorway out of the sun.  An arms length behind the counter stood one of the oldest and most remarkable machines a young boy has ever seen.  It took up what remained of space in the small building and functioned on a exact rhythm of clanking metal and humming conveyor belts.  Rube Goldberg must have started life in the tortilla biz.

What amazed me the most where the gymnasts that worked this amazing culinary gadget.  They all seemed to work within its rhythm.  The point man, the guy I considered the quarterback of the whole operation was my favorite.  The goal was to do whatever it took to not interrupt his synchronous dance.  You had to play by his rules.

In the loudness of the room you had to convey your request in kilos.  If it was round number it was perfectly acceptable to use your fingers.  When grandma would screw you with a 2.5 kilo order, well things would get a little risky.  If that was the case you had to plan out and execute the exact time to yell across the counter.  Too soon and he wasn’t looking at you, too late and the machine blows up taking out the 3 houses surrounding the building.  If you did it right the QB would pivot on his heels to face the beast at it’s mouth with a large piece of brown paper.  The beast would spit out hot tortillas into his waiting hand.  After years of catching hot tortillas this guy could tell you what exactly 2.5 kilos felt like.  He would slap the stack of tortillas on a scale and he was never, ever more than 3 or 4 tortillas off.  With a thumbs up his hands would turn into a blur as he would use ancient origami secrets to seal the package.  The QB would then place his weight guessing hands into a plastic bag where you would unload the pesos.  With that, your relationship was over… until tomorrow around the same time.

Down the counter from the register always sat a lonely salt shaker.  This salt shaker spoke of the owner’s past.  It spoke of a time when his grandmother would send HIM to the tortilleria.  He knew what I knew.  No sane person in their right mind can walk home with warm stack of fresh tortillas and not try at least one.  You weren’t ready to go home until you partially opened the package, put a few shakes of salt on a tortilla, and rolled it as tight as you could.  It was bliss.

The grocery store I take my family to has a tortilleria in it.  It’s much more streamlined and quiet than the one in grandma’s neighborhood.  The product it puts out is great but not like the tortillas of my youth.  Walking through the store the brands, cookware, and little treats make me wish that my kids could experience the Mexico of my childhood.  My grandma never wrote down her recipes she passed them down through experience and teaching.  I can only hope that the experiences I give my children, as mundane as they may seem, are the things they cherish when I’ve gone to the tortilleria in the sky.

Writing and Christmas… Nope

Today I feel like I crossed some weird finish line.  Like those marathon runners you see being carried across the checkered line, I woke up and declared victory.  Christmas has always been one of the most frustrating times of the year for me.  Everything gets put on hold and you just get fatter.  Like every day… fatter.  I took a few days off from writing.  I just put on my sweats and hopped in the Christmas lazy river.  Minimal effort on everything.  (My wife actually told me that I needed to take a shower)

“What is this stuff?  Don’t know?  It’s on a cracker so it has to be good.”

Now we’re in that zone between Christmas and New Years.  That zone where I can’t remember if I should be at work or if I’m still off.  I think I’m still off…  Too early to start on those resolutions plus these left overs aren’t going to eat themselves.

One thing I did get for Christmas, (since I’m blogging about writing) is some new software.  Scrivener.  Let me tell you my first impressions.

  1.  I will have the book written way before I fully learn the software.
  2. It will not write for you.  Tried that… zero words for the day.
  3. You can learn anything on youtube.
  4. I thought I was disorganized before…. Nope I’m terminal.

I’m hoping to be able to at least get the high points.  What attracted me to the software was the easy ability to look at this project from a big picture point of view with just a click.

Before Scrivener I was using “Pages.”  I liked pages because it was simple.  I could write for the day and hit save.  Instantly I could access my story from my laptop, iPad, or phone.  If I had a quick idea while waiting in line somewhere, boom I could write.

We’ll see how it goes.  I need a cookie.

Write on!

Superstitious Writing or “Workflow”

In my first post about writing a book I explained how these blog posts were a result of my warm up exercise before I actually start to write.  I thought I would share, not only what MY workflow is, but how I developed it.

I have a long commute to work.  On a good day the drive is an hour and twenty minutes.  This means that I have a lot of “free time.”  After several months of beating my playlist into the ground I realized that (round trip) I had two hours and forty minutes a day where I could learn something.  Having decided to start writing a book I looked to writing themed podcasts.  Using spotify I simply searched “writing podcasts” and clicked on the first one.  It was the KOBO Writing Life podcast which can be found here.  For the most part the podcast interviews published writers about current and past projects.  Listening to how other writers approach their daily workflows started me thinking about mine.  Did I even have a set “workflow?”  Do I “prepare” to write?  One of the authors interviewed made a good point.  He said something to the effect of, “When you brush your teeth before you go to bed, you’re telling your brain that it’s time to start thinking about getting tired.  The same thing works with writing.  If you do the same thing every time you sit down to write, your brain starts to prepare for writing.  The creative juices start to flow.”

I had to get a “workflow.”  (I hate the term workflow)

I bought the guy’s book.FullSizeRender

It’s called 52 Pep Talks for Writers by Grant Faulkner and is actually the first part of my “workflow.”  The book is composed of 52 quick chapters with tidbits about how to approach your writing for maximum creativity.

The 3 most common themes for most of the interviewed artist were:

  1. Try to write in the same physical location.  (Desk, office, bed.)
  2. Start by writing something else.  Write a couple of paragraphs on anything away from your story.
  3. JUST KEEP WRITING.

So that’s what I did.  I set some parameters and figured out what was going to work for me every time I sat down to write.  Here’s what I came up with almost organically.  It has to feel right.

  1. I sit at the same desk.
  2. I quiet my phone or even take it out of the room.
  3. I read for 10 minutes. (See above photo)  I’ll read anything.  Usually something with a lot of dialogue so that I can find a rhythm.
  4. For 10 minutes I’ll write in a journal.  The goal here is to be spontaneous and uninhibited.  Entries range from 200-300 words.  It can be about anything!  I mostly write about where I’m at in my story, what needs to be fixed, or any ideas I had during the day.
  5. I begin to attack my story.  I’m a paper and pen type of guy so I use a notebook and just start writing.  I limit the pen and paper portion to about an additional 10 minutes.
  6. Only after steps 1-5 are done do I actually open my computer.  This, in my opinion, is where the magic happens.  I place my handwritten story next to my computer and will quickly glance at a sentence before I type it.  What I don’t want is to copy it verbatim.  What I do want to do is transform that sentence in the transfer to the word document.  My notebook is my sketch pad, the computer is the canvas.  Make sense?

And there you have it!  Like the kids say, “thats how I roll.”  Here are some things to consider.

  • This is my way of doing it.  What you need to find is what works for you.  What feels most comfortable?  Make your workflow your own, but stick to it!
  • The words you put into your computer are not the finished product.  Remember that even if you finish a 150,000 word novel, IT’S STILL A ROUGH DRAFT!  This is your baby, it’s going to need some rearing.
  • Set a goal.  Be realistic but not underwhelming.  When I sit down to write I take a sticky note and write what my day’s word goal is.  At a very minimum I write 250 words.  That’s about 10 minutes of actual writing.  On weekends I set higher goals.  Stick to at least your minimum number.  Realize that at 250 words a day you could have a 100,000 word novel written in one year!
  • Whatever you do, JUST KEEP WRITING.  You can’t call yourself a writer if you don’t actually write.  Even on days when you can’t seem to make any progress on your story, take out a notebook and write about something else.  In my experience writing about my lunch scene with detail has kick started my story again.
  • Stop convincing yourself that you can’t do it.  I make excuses too.  “I don’t have the education; I’m not talented enough; I don’t have the time.”  Anyone can write, that means you too!  As Grant Faulkner said in his book, “Write in the cracks of life.”  Find the time.

Write on!

Writing a book… Right

Listening to a friend talk about places he would like to travel someday, I responded to a destination he mentioned with, “Oh yeah, that place is on my bucket list.”  He turned to me and asked, “Do you really have a bucket list or are you just saying that.”

The truth is, I really do have a bucket list.  Seriously.  I’ve kept a running bucket list for many years.  It changes from time to time but there are a few items that have remained the same since I started it.  Among the various exotic destinations and adventures is one simple statement.

WRITE A BOOK

Of all of the items on my bucket list, this one seems to be one of the constants.  I’m not one of these writers who thinks he’s going to make any money or gain any fame from it.  I genuinely like long term projects.  Things that take a lot time and produce a higher reward at the end because of it.  Projects to me become my babies.  They are the things I think about before I go to bed and the first things I go to when I wake up.  Of all the items on my bucket list, writing a book is one of the things that I don’t have to wait on until retirement.

I’ve already started it.

As I write this, I’m currently about 3 weeks in.  I’ve just started chapter 2.  What I’ve come to realize is that without knowing it, I’ve created a work flow.  A series of steps before I actually put pen to paper.  One of these steps is that I sit down for 10 minutes and describe where I’m at in the writing process.  I talk about how I feel it’s going and where the story needs help.  It all goes into my journal as a “warm up” before I begin tacking words onto my story.

Today as I began to prepare to write I asked myself why I journal before actually writing?  What am I going to do with this journal once this project is done?  Probably nothing…

I know there are others out there in the same boat.  They have this uncontrollable, unexplainable urge to write.  But as awesome as a new page and fresh pen are, they can also be some of the most intimidating items in your life.

So I’m going to share my journal.  I’m going write about my writing and provide a transparent view of how my project is progressing.  The posts, like my journal entries are the 10 minutes I spend in warm up.  I write as uninhibited as possible in these 10 minutes so bare with me.

Write On!