Fifty Shades of Orange

There are probably just a few weeks out of the entire year when the weather in Florida is perfect. When the humidity is no longer oppressive, when the heat has cooled, when the storm clouds have gone. This is one of those weeks. You can be sure that we have all the windows open.

They already have Christmas ads everywhere, but we’ve been celebrating Halloween to the fullest anyway. I have been consuming everything pumpkin: cookies, pancakes, juice, cider, cake. Pie is only for Thanksgiving, of course.

My sister decorated our pumpkins:

We’ve already had a neighborhood party. I made cups of dirt, a Halloween treat I loved when I was little. I’d almost forgotten about them, but I was reminded when thumbing through one of our neighbors’ holiday cookbooks. There are decorations everywhere around the house, both inside and out. Cobwebs and severed hands hanging, orange lights, skulls, masks. Everyone dressed up except me because I couldn’t really come up with anything this year. I probably should think of something. The real Halloween is tomorrow.

I’ve been writing lots of things in lots of places: in my physical journal, in my online journal, in letters and emails to friends I miss a lot. I haven’t written as much fiction in the meantime, but I am still sending things out. I am trying to make it my duty to always be sending  things out. Why should I wait anyway?

I wrote about finding community through writing over at ReadLearnWrite. Writing is mostly lonely, but there are places where it doesn’t have to be. Not always.

Frames of Reference

Melissa Dominic, via the Pocket House, got me thinking recently about the places I grew up in, where I come from, and where I’m headed. The whole trajectory. You can read hers here.

Hard as I try, I don’t remember much about the first house I lived in. I was so small, and I don’t even remember what my own room looked like. All I remember is the cold beige tiles and how I would roll a plastic bowling ball down the hallway at a rainbow of plastic pins. I’d later grow to love bowling alleys because of it, the french fries with huge globs of ketchup, and the arcades, even though I could tell my friends found my birthday parties there boring. I also had a vegetable garden in our backyard. My family told me I had a green thumb and I told them I wanted to be a botanist. I grew bell peppers, string beans, and tomatoes, and Nana would use them in her dishes.

I come from an old town in Florida called Hollywood, where there are a lot of musty buildings, benches with graffiti written over the smarmy grins of real estate agents, big backyards, long alleyways, and streets named after presidents. We eventually moved to our second house located on one of these streets. A teacher of mine lived a few houses down from us and I was convinced she was a real-life witch because she would take our lunches away if we so much as breathed too loudly in class. I went to a private Catholic school not because of the religious education that was offered, but because my mom felt the other schools in the area weren’t up to her standards.

I always did well in school, always had really good grades and honor roll status. I had some friends, but not many. I didn’t like a lot of people there because I found a lot of things they said and did offensive. I was called a lot of things because of who I was, but I tried to shut it all out. I dealt with bullies on my own. I was the shortest boy in the class and a few girls had crushes on me because of that innocence I had simply because I didn’t curse and didn’t yell. If anything, Catholic school taught me that people didn’t know how to behave towards each other.

It is always hot and wet in Florida, and there are always thunderstorms and hurricanes causing periods of power outages. Sometimes the power flickers on and off for no reason. We had hurricane parties, where the neighbors would gather in the streets and start a barbecue and play dominoes. We had big combined garage sales with my little lemonade stand and painted signs pointing the way.

You could say I grew up in standard suburbia: shopping plazas, highways, and countless rows and rows of houses. Lots of time spent driving between places, getting to school. Lots of time in between to think and imagine and write down what I saw. If there weren’t these stretches, maybe I wouldn’t have been a writer. Who can know.

My sister was born and things changed instantly. I wasn’t sure how to react. My mom says I took one look at Paula and asked: Is that it? I don’t remember that, but it seems like something I would say at that age. I was happy though because I knew I wanted a sister from the beginning–there were too many boys in the family anyway. My sister was a funny person ever since she was born, and I am happy to say that we are still laughing a lot together.

I left Catholic school when I was going into the seventh grade. My mom was very worried to take me out, but when she told me about this new public school that was opening, I wasn’t fazed. I didn’t care about what I was leaving behind and I wouldn’t miss anyone. When we took a trip to see this school being built, I was curious. Ironically, I’d soon realize that this period would be the best transitional phase in my coming of age. No one knew each other at this school, so I didn’t really care what people thought of me. I made new friends quicker than ever before. I’d be nice and gentle and bright-eyed and people wouldn’t have an issue with that. Teachers started to notice how I could write, which was something I really never paid attention to before. It was just something I did because of the long distances.

High school was in a different place. High school was also very different because everything is slightly askew and slightly sideways when you’re a teenager. We moved into the third house, which was much closer to the high school. It is located in a very new, more densely populated city in Florida. There are more gated housing communities and senior citizens, and it is more multicultural. I continued my education and my sister would eventually follow suit by attending the very same high school. I got my license, got a small white car I named Atticus Finch, spent time with friends at the mall on the weekends. My grades went from really good to flawless. I didn’t have a lot of school spirit, but I did volunteer work with handicapped kids. I started reading and writing a lot, and took advanced placement English and creative writing classes. I didn’t go to school dances, but I did go to the senior prom–a limo and everything. A few girls asked me to go with them and I caved with the first choice. After graduation, I’d eventually go off to college in Miami, where I realized I wanted to study English. It was between English and psychology, but I decided on the former because I knew I’d prefer writing about people’s problems rather than trying to solve them.

Sometimes, there are moments of tingly nostalgia (this is bound to happen if you grew up in the 90s), but I like to think of myself as a long-term forward thinker now. I’ve grown morbidly afraid of watching home videos for this reason, and I’d rather not waste time watching someone I hardly know anymore. Also due to the obvious embarrassment and having to watch my mom cry or say things that make me cringe.

Sometimes, I do pass our old Hollywood house though, usually on a trip to the doctor’s office. Out of all the places, this is the one with the most memories that have stuck. The lawn is overgrown now, like a jungle, and the pool is just that color green too. There is ivy growing on the garage next door. The houses down the block are painted colors like bright chalk, colors that would get us a notice tucked in our mailbox now. It’s like returning to Wonderland and realizing something is amiss. There is a fear of what may happen next, but a confident cheshire glow of what still remains.

Writing from Home

Home has always been more strange than familiar.

This is a video clip I found while going through old stuff on my computer today. It shows my sister throwing rocks into the lake by our house. You can hear Nana laughing. I’m also laughing to myself right now because the clip is actually labeled “” in my videos folder.

I make fun of Florida a lot. I was born here and I’ve lived here all my life. It’s quite a strange place to live, to be honest, if you don’t know anything about it outside of your occasional trip down to Disney World (or any of the other theme parks) or to Sanibel Island for the nice beaches. Although, if you watch the news enough, you might know something about how often people get murdered too. The perpetual heat makes people do crazy things, I think. I also live in one of the most popular counties (and attended one of the most overcrowded universities), so it is the very definition of hot and crowded.

Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, often uses Florida as fodder for her fiction, spinning it into her own mythology and an eccentric ensemble of characters. I write about it sometimes too. I write about neighbors and neighborhoods a lot, and hurricane parties. I remember writing a short story once about a gated community where the neighbors all gather outside after a hurricane has passed them over. That’s one unique experience that I’ve lived through quite a few times. It’s an interesting experience seeing all the people gather into the streets – sometimes people you hardly know at all – and sit down together to share some lunch, games, and conversation.

Other than that, I write about escape too. I think about leaving. Really, there isn’t much here to see besides all the housing communities, shopping plazas, and miles and miles of sprawl. I sometimes wonder how things would’ve been different if I grew up in a city in New York instead, which is where my parents are from. How different it is there. I wonder if I would’ve grown up into a writer at all. I say this because, as a child, boredom and an overactive imagination were a potent combination, and Florida – despite how much I pick it apart – has proven to be the perfect place to grow something like that. New York would’ve made the process almost too easy, maybe, for something like that to happen. Maybe all the color and culture would’ve been too much – there would’ve been less reason for me to write as a kid because the stories would be happening to me instead of me having to make them up for myself.

Edit: I received a comment about this post elsewhere discussing how I was implying that people who come from the city are more likely to have a weak imagination, which is obviously not true. Plenty of great writers come from such environments and I didn’t mean to insinuate that. This post is more speculation about my own personal trajectory.

Another Pointless Trip to the Bookstore

A few weeks ago, I took a trip to a local Barnes and Noble. I hadn’t been to this particular one in a really long time, or even to any other actual physical bookstore. The only other local bookseller around here is a place called Volume One, which I’ve been to a few times. It’s nice (and there are shelves and shelves of books there, with that great old book smell that you want to shove your face in), but their books are all used and they don’t really have any new stuff by contemporary writers. And then we come to my other dilemma: Barnes and Noble no longer seems to carry what I want either.

On this most recent trip, I noticed how things had changed considerably. Nooks are in the very front instead of a showcase of new bestsellers that just recently came out, and they completely rearranged the store’s shelving. Poetry is non-existent except for Homer. I also noticed a distinct change in genre: there were a lot of new sections dedicated to “young adult” books. Not only that, but these sections were further divided according to sub-genre: fantasy, dystopian, romance, etc.

“Young adult” is very popular now. I’ve read quite a few articles popping up here and there claiming how more young adults must be reading avidly now, considering how popular this new genre has quickly become. But really, I can’t help but wonder: Is it really more young adults reading young adult fiction, or more adults reading (and writing) more young adult fiction? I’m not sure.

I always thought of coming of age stories as stories that anyone could write. Hypothetically, I mean. If people were forced to actually write books, even if they weren’t “writers” themselves, I would hypothesize that this would be the genre they would naturally gravitate towards more than any other, just because we all grow up and we all remember what that’s like. But therein lies the problem: not all of them will be particularly good reads (or particularly well-written).

I hope this isn’t coming off as too cynical. I just really want to give my money to a bookseller other than Amazon, but it’s fairly difficult if Barnes and Noble doesn’t even carry what I want and ultimately forces me to return home, bookless, and order what I want online anyway (and probably, for less money elsewhere). I wish there were more local independent bookstores. I would open one up myself, in my dreams, but somehow, I don’t think it would be a particularly wise investment here (even in my dreams).

2011: The Retrospective

I never do New Years’ resolutions anymore (setting little goals scattered throughout the year seems a bit more reasonable and attainable), but it’s nearly the end of the year already, and instead I decided to do a retrospective collection of the things that made it worthwhile.

Of course, there have been things that have made it not so worthwhile as well. There have been issues dealing with post-college unemployment, despite trying to apply for some small odd jobs here and there, as well as a few writing/editing jobs for small presses that could’ve been really interesting and exciting. There has been literary loneliness and reclusiveness, and confusing periods not dissimilar to adolescent identity crises in which I really wanted to go back to school just to discuss books with people again. There have been periods where I didn’t know what to do at all anymore (and still do), which have brought on severe panic episodes and moments where I suddenly found myself bolting out of bed. There was a lot of yearning for the nineties, to go back to the way things were, back before high school, to regress and exist when things “used to be good, you know?” And alongside these periods throughout the year were some illnesses and serious surgeries for other family members as well.

But there have been many really nice moments too, which is always worth sharing to keep your balance: such as making new friends online (some that I even got to meet this year in real life) and going to my very first concert in Miami with a band I fell in love with. I spent a lot more time getting to know my sister: helping her with Physics homework, giving her ideas for her artwork, playing Harry Potter video games, listening to the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack in the car, reading Ethan Frome aloud together so she wouldn’t fall asleep. I spent some time cooking with Mom and writing stories for Nana. I spent some time with friends, which is always a nice excuse to leave the house, even though I wish there was more of it. Mostly, there are just friends scattered everywhere: I’ve kept up with my really good friend Melissa in Orlando (watching Jeopardy! on Skype together and helping to keep ourselves sane), I wrote letters to my friend Thea in Wisconsin, I helped my friend Genie from New Zealand procrastinate on her thesis (and she’s helped me procrastinate in other ways), I started a secret blog with my friend Zying that is just between the two of us.

I made some new pen pals and talked to fellow writers. I managed to get myself motivated in times of dejection and insecurity, and sometimes inadvertently inspired others as well (reading through some old things online, I always find that kind of surprising—to look over some of these messages I’ve gotten). I pushed myself to finish writing projects (Letters for Burning, my collective effort ended up being over 100,000 words long). I learned a bit more about the publishing industry and the art of editing, I found new book blogs and literary journals to possibly submit to, and of course, I discovered great new books and music and films.

Sharing is caring—this is not everything obviously, but here are some things that defined 2011 for me, and maybe they’ll interest you too.

Black Hole by Charles Burns
The Scott Pilgrim graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Not Simple by Natsume Ono
Blood Music by Greg Bear
The Realm of Possibility by David Levithan
The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor
Feed by M.T. Anderson
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Son of Rambow
Exit through the Gift Shop
Run Lola Run (AKA Lola Rennt)
In the Mood for Love
The Dreamers
American Splendor
Rabbit Hole
La Vie en Rose
Ghost in the Shell
Au Revoir, Les Enfants
An Education

“After the Rain” & “Constant Surprises” by Little Dragon
“Boy Lilikoi” by Jónsi
“Down by the Water” by PJ Harvey
“Black Sheep” by Metric
“Sadness is a Blessing” by Lykke Li
“What Else is There?” & “Circuit Breaker” by Röyksopp
“Pavlov’s Daughter” by Regina Spektor
“Lions!” & “Quiet” by Lights
“A Cause Des Garcons” remix by Yelle
“Comme des Enfants” & “Berceuse” by Coeur de Pirate
“Belle à en Crever” by Olivia Ruiz
“Je suis un Homme” by Zazie
“Rolling in the Deep” by Adele
“Soldier of Love” by Sade
“Parting Gift” by Fiona Apple
“Basic Space” & “Islands” by The XX
“Video Games” by Lana del Rey

My 8tracks mixes
This American Life
The complete Daria DVDs
Jónsi and Alex
Pogo’s remixes of the real world
Simon Amstell’s standup
American McGee’s Alice games
Myers-Briggs personality tests
Baby chameleons
Kate Beaton
Other People