Deep Dish Youth

What follows is my attempt at recollection, a memoir if you will.  My road from waiting tables in high school to fine dining line chef.  There will likely be detours on the way, or stray tangents.  The lessons I’ve learned, the things to pass on.  I’m going to try to start at the beginning.

*~*~*~*~*

I think it’s common knowledge that I grew up in a foodie household.  My mother is an excellent cook and she used to be a professional in her youth, before I was born.  She also made the desserts for my wedding, which were perfectly amazing.

I spent a lot of time helping my mother in the kitchen while I was growing up.  I learned the basics of a kitchen, as well as an appreciation for some of the finer aspects of the culinary arts.  Of course, none of these reasons explain why I chose to work in restaurants instead of just throwing exemplary dinner parties like a sensible person.

In truth, the road to the back of the house was practical in some choices, desperate in others.  Though a passion for good food drives me, skill and need drew me deeper into the well.

I never wanted to work in restaurants.  Except maybe as the cool bartender or something, before I knew how much actual work was involved.  I wanted to be a rockstar/famous actor-director.  Or I was going to be a cult-of-personality writing sensation.  I think I even seriously considered black magic as a means to instant wealth.

Through hindsight I can call it foreshadowing, but in reality my mother begged, cajoled, needled and threatened dire punishment until I dragged my heels into Edwardo’s Pizza and the owner was kind enough to take a chance on me.  I worked there for most of my senior year of high school, waiting tables while doing homework and radiating teen angst.

I’ve really only got vague memories of that place.  I barely cared about it and didn’t fully appreciate even a meager paycheck or cash in my pocket.  I learned how to pour a glass of wine and fill a pitcher of beer without too much head.  I had to relearn that later, when serving beer became a bigger part of my job.

I also had my first taste of how people treat service professionals, from kindness to blatant disregard.  I got $10 tips on $10 checks and had $200 tables of ten walkout without leaving so much as a penny.  I can and will write a whole chapter on dining etiquette in restaurants, be they fast food chains or three Michelin starred.  But I don’t want to get distracted now.

 I had a taste of life as a service professional and I hated it.  On my feet for six to twelve hours, underpaid and underappreciated.  That I was a self-involved teenage shithead with no plan and no solid ambition probably didn’t help.

I should add that, being a good Chicagoan, I love deep dish pizza.  I wish that I had learned to make them while I was a that place.  That beautiful chewy, flaky crust rising up over glorious pizza, covered in thick marinara and stuffed full of cheese and goodies.  Spinach and pesto is my favorite from Edwardo’s.  Chicago’s?  Roast beef and garlic.  Giordano’s?  Sausage and spinach.  Gino’s East doesn’t stuff their pizza, but their cornmeal crust is nice.  I like their pizza with pepperoni.

Along with my disdain for making a living at the mercy of others, a foolish notion in its own right, I decided that rather than going to college I was going to move into Chicago proper.  Oh the stories that could be told from the years that followed.  Sex, drugs, booze and rock ’n’ roll, and a party that didn’t always end well.  I could probably fill a book just from my years living in the apartment known as the House of the Lotus Eaters.

I worked in a now-closed SF/F bookstore in Evanston for a while.  Then did some clerical work for a homeopathic clinic at the edge of Lincoln Park.  Another place deserving of a book to itself, between the doctors and the clients.  From there I went to a legit clerical position with a major non-profit, where I learned the hard way why I don’t do desk jobs.

Eventually, due to what amounted to a minor nervous breakdown, I left the non-profit and failed to find work.

I’m almost certain that I was a pretty unpleasant person to be around in those days.  Broke, hungry and usually drunk or high.  No savings and ever-growing debt on top of terrible credit.  I still wasn’t very good about forethought and planning, so I couldn’t pay bills or rent and I was about to get kicked out of another apartment.

Fortunately one of my close friends had just returned from a vacation in Yosemite National Park.  I was on the verge of full-blown panic when I called him.  He told me he’d think about my situation and call me back.

He did, about ten minutes later, with a brilliant suggestion.  Get a job at Yosemite.  He had met some folks that worked there and I would fit in.  He paid for the train ride and put me up at his place until I got hired.

I sold or stored my things, stripped myself down to the bare essentials.  I was going to live in the mountains so I didn’t need much at all.  I spent a couple weeks saying my goodbyes and I was off.  For the first time, I was leaving Chicago without knowing when I’d see it or the people in it again.

Even in the thick of the chaos that was my life back then, I understood that I was at a precipice.  Though I was running off half-cocked, I knew that whatever came next would change me.  I was getting back to nature, to gain focus and perspective.  More importantly, I was taking direct action, instead of just waiting for something awesome to just happen.  And so off to California I went.

*~*~*~*~*

Next up (in no particular order)

– Lessons in Humility, the Road to Adulthood (or How I Stopped Worrying and Embraced the Mundane)

– Proper Etiquette For Dining Out

– Adventures at 10,000 Feet

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Eleven Years

I’ve spent most of this day in reflection and contemplation.  How that could possibly be different than any other day is a riddle to me.  But this particular occasion marks the eleventh anniversary of Thomas Maenpaa’s death.  He was a good man, one that aspired to be a great man – not great in the world-sweeping change sort of way, but great in the impact he had on others.

My dad and I were close while he was alive, despite the difficulties and disagreements we had.  His absence in my life has been significant, though I’m sure it has contributed to my strength.  Now, with my own fatherhood visible on the horizon, it has cast his absence in a whole new light.  No longer is it about the things he’s missed in my life – graduation, adventure, marriage – but what he’s going to miss in the lives of my future children.  And what they’ll miss by not knowing him.

All these thoughts cluster in my mind, fragments at times or lingering details.  Sad and mildly frightening things – like not being able to instantly summon his voice in my ear.  Working to remember the little things, like the way he smelled.t

So I went hiking today, to get closer to his memory and to get some peace and quiet.  Colorado Chautauqua is within the city limits, with trails leading up into the Flatiron Mountains.  It was on the chilly side, a bit damp and gray – perfect weather for hiking.  I took my time, did a nice couple mile loop.  Brought some leftover pizza for lunch and a lot of water.

So a little past halfway, and a lot of uphill, I find a nice spot to sit.  I had started a poem and was intent on finishing it.  And I figured that pizza would be good right about then.  So I sat there, eating cold pizza on a misty day in the woods, thinking about my father.  I had an epiphany right there – that moment, a culmination of my memories of him – it all came down to eating cold pizza in the woods.  He could have been sitting right next to me, telling me about some tree or flower, or showing me a caterpillar or strangely shaped piece of bark.  And in a way, he was.

Cold Pepperoni Pizza

They say that time heals all wounds, but I think that’s absolute poppycock.  Scars remain, and scars can be more painful than the rend that made them.  But I feel closer to him now than I have in years, better able to understand him even if I can’t actually speak to him.  All I can do is try to be as good to my kids as he was to me, to love them and teach them and show them the beauty of the world.

I’ll finish this off, before I begin to ramble.  Here’s that poem:

Observance and Reflection 2011

Walking through rain-soaked woods
In a world shrouded by mist
Tangled up with tatters of the past
And glimmers of a thousand futures

Fatherhood dwells on the edge of mystery
An endless pattern in the fabric
I wonder what he would say
And for a moment I can't remember
The sound of his voice

We'll never know those answers
But I can imagine
I can talk to him in dreams
But he still won't answer questions
Should I fear his legacy
or welcome it?
Will my child be cursed?

Both thoughts and rock are chilly
And purposefully oblique
But at the core all is bright
Except the rock

New life, the gift of bright fire
Brought with love and joy
No longer living through other's missteps
But still learning from my own
Closer to peace

Holy Damn

This blog has been collecting dust since April, and for that I apologize.  There was May, the month full of birthdays, as well as my starting a new job.  And in addition to all those shenanigans, Zoe and I put our move to Colorado into full gear.  In fact, we will be living in Boulder as of August 1st, which is at times far away and all too near.

We depart San Francisco with a wealth of experience and determination in pursuit of our dreams.  While San Francisco is an excellent city, it is too expensive for two writers to live easily in.  We’re not the kind that thrive on poverty.  So blue skies and mountains await us, and to be sure more mayhem and hilarity.

It makes a strange sort of sense that my last post was about A Game of Thrones, as my next couple posts will also be on that subject and then I’ll shut up about it until Season 2 or Winds of Winter (whichever happens first).  A review of the first season of the HBO series is pending, as well as a mirror of my review of A Dance With Dragons for Fantasy-Faction.

I suppose this is all theoretical, trying to find time to speak to empty air in the midst of packing and moving, writing fiction, looking for work and adapting to a new environment.

Big things on the way, so stay tuned.

Winter is Coming

Winter Is Coming, and damnitall I’m ready for it.  I’ve been ready, since I finished A Feast For Crows back in 2005.  I was hesitant when one of my friends handed me a copy of Game of Thrones, urging that I read the series.  “It’s the greatest fantasy series ever written, you have to read it.”

My response, of course, was, “Is the series done?”  To which my friend replied, “No.”

“Well I don’t want to start a series that hasn’t been finished.”

“No, really – greatest book ever.  And he has a plan to finish it.”

“Sure, okay.  I’ll read it when it’s done or close to.”

I eventually capitulated, proceeding to devour the entire series as if it were so many morsels of sweet intellectual nourishment.  The intrigue, the plotting and scheming, the grand scale of myths being written; it hooked me.  I’ve probably read the four books already written in the series at least a half-dozen times, each time gleaning new details our information.  I’m like an addict, with any book that I’ve enjoyed really, I want the next piece of the puzzle.

The Game of Thrones series gets its television premiere on April 17th, thanks to the hard work of HBO and David Benioff, among others.  The hype is palpable, to the point where people who aren’t a fan of the books (or don’t generally read books, let alone the massive tomes of A Song of Ice and Fire) are buzzing about the latest HBO series.  This isn’t surprising, given today’s marketing strategies.  Nor am I upset about it, being the obsessive-fan-type about some things.  I think that, based off the 12 minute preview I’ve seen, the show is off to a strong start.

The temptation is to act as a sort of aggregator, collecting links to videos of Game of Thrones; there are many, so I won’t shell the links here.  They all exist on both YouTube and HBO’s site, available for your perusal.  Today, however, they released a 25 minute documentary – a primer to Westeros, if you will.  It’s neat to watch, and chock full of information to get you geared up.  Also, probably useful to keep those less savvy from being totally overwhelmed.  That the producers want to put out all this information before the series really takes off, it’s evidence of their level of commitment.  It also stinks of fan service, but who cares?

On April 17th I’ll be glued to my couch.  It’ll keep me occupied until July 12th, when A Dance With Dragons supposedly hits shelves.  I’ll stick it out through the bitter end, no matter how long the wait.  Why though?  Why this madness?  Can it really be that good?

Well, no.  But it is close enough.  I know I couldn’t write it, so somebody had to.  And I’ve stuck it out this long, I’ve already committed and I know that there will be plenty of other fiction to keep me occupied until the end finally comes.  By the time the final book in the series appears, I’ll have probably read the series several dozen times.  It holds up that well.

But maybe you won’t like the books.  ASoIaF is long, verbose and complex.  There are so many threads being woven together that I’ve had to read the series a half-dozen times to piece them all together and search for hidden clues.  The wait has been horrendously long, though it has yet to reach the scale of The Wheel of Time or The Dark Tower.  We have no guarantee that the last book won’t be finished until post-mortem (my vote is for Rothfuss or Brust), but I’m okay with that.  And the books are violent, depressing and no character is safe.  Maybe you just want to watch the show.  I won’t judge you this time.

 

Coming soon in future posts:  stuff.

Room for Discourse

This is an article I had originally written for Fantasy Faction, which I thought I’d share here:

 

Room for Discourse

 

Everyone has read a novel that changed the way they perceive the world around them or caused them to reexamine facets of their own lives. Perhaps the change was dramatic, but most often it was a subtle and lingering effect. History contains thousands of examples, from Pliny the Elder and Aristotle to more modern examples, like Philip K. Dick and Steven Jay Gould, of how literature can be used as a vehicle for social and cultural discourse.

There are many examples, both lofty and literary, of philosophies and anthropological treatises in our continuing conversation on society, culture and human nature. Poets and novelists fill libraries with the subject, but the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy are often overlooked, or worse, dismissed as being childish escapism.

This hasn’t always been the case and there are examples of science-fiction stories and works of dystopia that have ascended to the heights of literary classics or cultural icons. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm come to mind, as well as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. The works of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Phillip K. Dick come to mind as well.

 

Spoonful of Sugar

 

Science-fiction, often being set in humanity’s future where cultures and technologies have evolved as we move amongst the stars and our alien peers (or enemies), can be easy to understand and interpret as food for thought. The wonders of new worlds, where sects of society can flourish uninhibited, appeals to the imagination. The mysteries of other species can be like shadow puppets, examining humanity’s xenophobia and fear of that which is different through the trappings of the exotic and terrifying. It can be a delicate examination of expansionism, nationalism or civic pride painted on a canvas as big as the imagination and wrapped in a tale of daring adventure.

In the Fantasy settings, these trappings can be further exaggerated while we focus on imperialism, zealotry, slavery and the nature of Evil. We detail the triumph of human ingenuity and spirit as our lowly farm boy overcomes his station and becomes champion to the world. The indomitable spirit of Justice and the forces of Good prevailing despite overwhelming odds can be inspiration to overcome our daily dragons.

Horror, as a sub-set of Fantasy, explores the darker aspects of human nature. Serial killers, horrific monsters and overwhelming fear of the darkness lurking at the edge of our vision spur us to look for the light in the world as much as they titillate us with gruesome images. Stories of the world overtaken by ravenous, mindless undead hordes can be critique of greed and complacency.

What makes these genres that much more subversive than anything else? And what is it about them that makes social and cultural discourse more palatable? Some works are far more blatant about their philosophies than others, such as Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Others, such as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire presents critical thought on politics and morality amidst the scheming, warring and backbiting. Creating a fantastic setting allows a writer to take themes or ideas out of a modern context and frame them in the abstract, altering perspective and perception.

 

Love and Hate

 

In the best works of Fantasy and Science-Fiction, we find evil in the strangest places. The best villains are sympathetic, so that even as you cheer for their downfall you still reach an understanding in their motivations. Even more so are the anti-heroes, who do what is right even if it is ultimately self-serving, and whose morals and means are questionable. They are the assassins, wetboys, barbarians and warlords that populate modern fantasy, hardened killers and callous thieves holding onto ancient grievances and deep-seated scars.

These anti-heroes and villains represent the moral gray area, and give us pause to reflect on ourselves and how we would act, put into such a situation. The lowly farm boy, full of pluck and vigor, has given way to the endearing urchin, suffering abuse and cruelty and set out on revenge.

The monsters our heroes face are often human traits given substance. The dragons of old Europe, creatures of pure avarice and destruction perched high on their mountains of treasure, waiting to devour the next would-be slayer. The vampire as our desire for immortality and eternal beauty, but also as our obsession with death. Werewolves and the like can be seen as representative of our conflict with our own animal natures. Those things that we dislike in others are often the traits we fear in ourselves, projections of our own self-image. It would make sense then that these traits become symbols for the hero to overcome.

 

A Civil Discourse At The End Of The World

 

The Apocalypse and Dystopian worlds have long been fodder for writers, often blatant in their criticisms of society. In 1950, George R. Stewart published Earth Abides, one of the first novels to examine a world without people. In the novel, a plague eradicates all but a handful of our species, leaving the Earth once again in the care of nature. Isherwood Williams, the protagonist, explore the ruins of the United States and eventually gathers a group of survivors to him. Ish grows to fear the loss of humanity’s intellectual legacy as those who survive struggle with more mundane, day-to-day issues such as food, shelter, clothing and protecting their families. The story is told from Ish’s perspective, chronicling his change from isolationist on the edge of society to the father of a new one. Though written just after the second World War, the story holds up remarkably well as a dialogue on human nature.

Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother presents the reader with a dystopian world only slightly removed from our own, as a terrorist attack destroys San Francisco’s East Bay Bridge and the Department of Homeland Security places the city under martial law. The story is one of extremes, of government in the hands of zealots, the effects of American complacency and the spirit of rebellion and civil discourse that the United States was originally founded under. The protagonist of the tale is a 17-year-old kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, forced to examine his role in society and how he comes to form a grass-roots rebellion to overthrow an authority grown corrupt. It is a story that hits close to home, of civil liberty and the post 9/11 culture of fear in America.

There are so many tales of corrupt governments and humanity’s survival, it would be impossible for me to list all of them. While often less subtle in their analysis and critique, they still provide the reader with a heaping spoonful of moral fiber to chew on, amidst the chaos and adventure. Other great examples are Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. In Storm Constantine’s Wraethu, she presents a post-apocalyptic world where humans have begun to be overshadowed by the Wraethu, our next step in evolution. The tale is as much an adventure in strange magics and alien cultures as an examination of gender roles amongst human society.

 

The Pursuit of Happiness

 

Maybe you don’t want to swallow some heavy philosophical diatribe when you read. Maybe all you want out of your SF/F&H are crunchy action bits and thrilling acts of escapism. Maybe you want to live in another world for a few hours, or a few hundred pages, at a time. To experience the joys and sorrows of someone else, as they quest to save their family, the world or even just themselves.

Isn’t the need or desire for escapism a comment in and of itself? Perhaps you need a vacation from the stress of work, school or family. Perhaps you feel your life is so dull and mundane that you need to spend some time in Middle-Earth, Malazan, Dragaera or Melnibone. Or maybe, in your pursuit of sciences, you read space operas to inspire your worldy interests. Maybe you love to envision new cultures as a way to examine the rise and infuences of cultures from our world’s past or to speculate on an alternate course in history.

What books have made you think? What books have made you consider a different perspective, or try and understand the world in a different way? What books have filled you with a sense of outrage for injustices both fictional and real? Did I miss one of your favorites? Do you think I’m wrong? Tell me in the comments, and let there be discourse.

In The Context Of Me

I’ve probably mentioned that I hang around this website called Fantasy Faction, loitering with the other bad seeds, discussing our fantasy and science-fiction literature and shunning the non-believers.  Being of the nerdy persuasion and having had access to the internet since I was young, I’ve spent a lot of time on message boards over the years.  I was even some sort of administrator type person for a video game politics forum a few years back.  We sent flowers and a nice letter to Jack Thompson, who proceeded to continue being a crazy person.

I’m big on etiquette and manners, though I often choose to ignore them in favor of sounding good.  I also dislike drama, though often find myself at the center of it and I’m known for hyperbole.  Still, I’ve learned a few things, like not being a troll, not starting pointless flame wars, how to ignore people who just want attention and how to avoid being a smug douche.  When confronted with those types of people, I usually just ignore the thread or write around them.  When I respond, I try to avoid doing it directly.  This may seem passive-aggressive, but its more for the sanctity of my sanity.

That being said, there is this guy that makes me crazy.  I ignored, thinking perhaps I was over-sensitive.  Then I noticed other people being irritated by him.  And still others.  I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of why.  His posts come off as both smug and defensive, as if you could some how forget how he is the Font of Knowledge for the Universe, so he will prove it to you anyways.  But, while annoying, the guy can occasionally muster a good point.  Hard to see through the piles of bullshit yet to be raked, but those good points are there.  I don’t want to silence the guy, because maybe someone doesn’t like my voice or opinion and I don’t want them to silence me.

We all go through life viewing things from our own unique perspective, filtered by our experiences and opinions.  We interpret the world through a context of ourselves.  The Context of Me involves minimizing my external stress factors, because I do a good enough job making myself crazy that I don’t often want or need help.

The Context of Annoying Forum Guy is that everything is self-referential.  He is the guy who always has to reference his own opinions while giving you his opinions.  He’s the guy that makes everything about his Epic Novel Which Has Been Read By Acclaimed Author You’ve Never Heard Of.  He’s the guy that will give you all the crunchy numbers and statistics to prove that he is in fact right, but when you poke a hole in his logic, will then shun the non-believer.  He is the sort of asshole who probably doesn’t mean to be, but just can’t shift his perception of the world past his own bloated ego.  On better days, I chuckle and ignore.  On the worst days, I find myself contemplating technology that will allow me to physically pimpslap someone through the internet.

Yet I am still only perceiving these actions through my own filters.  One of those old adages, those ones your parents or grandparents tell you when attempting to appear wise, has stuck with me.  That which we dislike in others is a reflection of what we dislike in ourselves.  These are the traits we attempt to avoid, be it for moral reasons or because we are ashamed of our own bad habits.

I’m going to keep Annoying Forum Guy anonymous for a few reasons.  The first is that I don’t point fingers, because I don’t want somebody pointing back at me.  Goes against the whole ‘no drama’ policy I’m trying to establish.  Keep the action and intrigue to the novels, people.  The second reason is that Annoying Forum Guy’s name doesn’t matter.  You don’t know my particular case, but if you’ve spent any time on message boards or comment sections on the internet, you know Annoying Forum Guy or some other incarnation.  And thirdly, I have a moral message for you.  And you’ve read this far, so you may as well keep going.

It comes down to fairness, respect and integrity.  Words that often get chucked in with honor and out with the trash.  It comes down to being an adult and treating others the way you’d like to be treated.  Being both empathetic and sympathetic, while still maintaining a low tolerance for petty bullshit.  Love thy neighbor.  Some other tiresome cliche.

I’ll wind down my rant now.  I mentioned above that I’ve been on Fantasy Faction, writing some articles on some stuff.  My latest can be read here.  Progress has been made on the Western, though not as much as I’d like.  I have a handful of drafts started for blog posts, but I can’t bring myself to finish them.  I’ll try and throw another short story up here later this week, for your viewing pleasure.

In the meantime, be nice to each other.  And remember:  Arguing on the internet solves nothing.  It only makes you look dumb.

You Can’t Stop the Signal…

…but you sure can misinterpret.

 

Let me start by saying that I am both a Browncoat and a Whedonite.  I started watching Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the pilot on the WB, refusing to leave the house unless my dad promised to tape every episode thereafter.  In high school we had Buffy and Angel night, which kept up afterward.  I missed Firefly while it was on the air because I didn’t have a TV for a few years, but now own it on DVD.  I saw Serenity in the theater a half dozen times, and every time that last “I am a leaf on the wind…” happened, I gasped.  I’m such a Whedon devotee that I stuck it out for Dollhouse, watching every episode.

The whole Help Nathan Buy Firefly campaign is great.  Browncoats are numerous, and more crop up every day.  This is an awesome thing, and the series deserves it.  Moreover, we as fans deserve more Firefly.  Fox canceling it was a terrible decision, and they should pass the rights on to somebody who could do something with it.  That will not happen, even if you, me, Nathan Fillion, Patrick Rothfuss and Fidel Castro came up with 1 billion dollars and tried to bury Fox executives with it.  This article over at Inside TV has a very good explanation why.

I’m not trying to be needlessly pessimistic.  I want more Firefly, more of the crew of the Serenity, more awesome space cowboys and crazy ‘readers’ and Reavers.  I want Joss to do it, with all the cast returning.  Is it likely to happen?  Probably not.  Why not?  Well in the most immediate sense, Joss Whedon is busy.  Who else could be the showrunner?  None that I would trust with the integrity of the property.

But really, the whole impetus of this latest charge to resurrect our favorite canceled program was a misread signal.  The interview that spurred all this, Nathan Fillion made an off-handed comment.  “If I won the lottery….”  How many times have you said, “If I won the lottery, I could do X.”  Numerous, I’m sure.  The people running HNBF understand this, thankfully.

Fillion tweeted yesterday “It’s beautiful to dream of more Firefly, but PLEASE DON’T SEND ANY MONEY. Just keep being great Browncoats, which you are!”

So watch the DVDs of Firefly and Serenity.  Buy the comic books.  Watch Castle (because they like to make references and because its awesome).  Be the best Browncoat you can.  But don’t get your hopes up that Firefly is returning.  You’ll only crush them.