Tim Elhajj @ Unity on Union Bookstore in Seattle

unityonunion

I’m going to appear in Seattle later this week at Unity on Union Bookstore, a really fabulous space in the central district. If you’ve never been there, you should come. I went down to see Carol Latimer, the owner, and fell in love with the store—big open spaces, gleaming hardwood floors, and just a really friendly vibe. I’m going to read from the book and sign copies. It’s going to be catered. I know Holly is baking treats.

Where: 2420 East Union Street, Seattle, WA 98122

When: Saturday, March 10, 6 pm to 8 pm.

Unity on Union Bookstore
Unity on Union Bookstore
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On Writing An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career

I got my copy of Best Sex Writing 2012 earlier this year and was very pleased to have my work featured alongside so many great writers. Like they used to say in the old Penthouse Forum letters, “I never thought it would happen to me!

For my part in the Best Sex Writing Virtual Blog Tour, I wanted to talk about how I came to write my submission, An Unfortunate Discharge Early in My Naval Career.

This was a difficult story for me to write. As nonfiction, I have long thought the story would work better if I had been gay. Consider the synopsis: caught having casual sex with a shipmate, a troubled teen collides with an out-of-control and powerful homophobic authority. This, in turn, makes our intrepid young protagonist confront his own homophobic fears, which allows him to realize that he is… STRAIGHT?

Humm. I hear you. You probably want to say something like: Your synopsis doesn’t seem quite right, my friend.

That’s exactly what I said. For years. Too many years. But then I read a brilliant craft essay by Kerry Cohen, a former Best Sex Writer herself, and discovered that the story really is mine, even if it doesn’t map cleanly to what a reader might expect. I can own it. I don’t have to tell it the way it would be told if it were in a Hollywood movie or a cheap novel. If I can overcome my own personal shame long enough to see the truth, I can make the story mine.

With that revelation, the only thing left to overcome was the social stigma.

As the author of a memoir about my recovery from heroin addiction, I know a little something about social stigmas, how damaging and infuriating they can be. In one of the first pieces I ever published, I refused to acknowledge I was an addict because I was afraid of what people would think of me. I published the piece—a great story about my relationship with my oldest son—without mentioning my addiction. But I started to think seriously about how much of my life I wanted to share in my stories. What does it mean to write nonfiction? What impact comes from openly sharing true stories about socially stigmatizing issues? Nonfiction gives our stories a little extra something that fiction can’t manage. That’s not meant as a ding against fiction writers, but as encouragement to writers of nonfiction: Our work matters in ways we can’t always know or understand. As Kerry Cohen points out, we have to be brave enough to “locate the truth,” to own our own stories.

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Tim Elhajj @ Redmond Association of the Spoken Word

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I’m going to appear at RASP later this month to read from Dopefiend and sign books. I’d love it you came over and said hello. I’ll have a bunch of books and the readings usually include a little Q&A at the end.

Where: Old Redmond Schoolhouse Community Center, Room 105
When: Friday, February 24, 2012, 7 P.M. (and the last Friday of every month)

Map picture
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Kids Need a Mexican for a Class Project

My kids have been attending a Spanish immersion school since they were in kindergarten. They’re big 8th graders now, about to move into high school, where the “immersion” part of school will change, so that they’re essentially only doing a single foreign language AP class. So they’re “graduating” from the immersion portion of the program.

For their final project they have to interview a native Mexican, who speaks Spanish. It’s just a crazy project for so many reasons. A Mexican? We live in Seattle. The photo above is an aerial map of Seattle. Red dots represent where all the white people live. Orange dots represent Hispanics. Where are we going to find a Mexican?

Plus, the assignment is just so ethnically specific. Meanwhile, Seattle is so liberal and progressive people tend to discount ethnic/racial differences, so this is putting ethnicity squarely into focus in ways I haven’t really thought about, and that make me feel somewhat uncomfortable.

“Hey. You Mexican?”

Why not just task them with interviewing someone who doesn’t speak English? They’re in a Spanish immersion class, so it’s hard to imagine they’re going to interview a Russian or a Texan or something.

We tried to coordinate a Skype interview with family friends from Mexico who we haven’t seen in years, but the logistics and technical challenges were too great to overcome. We have all sorts of ethnic friends, but no Mexicans. It was very frustrating. Finally, end of semester approaching, they loosened the requirements to any Spanish speaking culture, which opened up the door to my son’s in-laws, who are from Cuba and Costa Rica. Hooray for in-laws!

My kids interviewed Tim’s mother-in-law, who was kind enough to stay up late and chat with Aaron and Kennedy, who both got a HUGE case of the shy-kids, and proceeded to chat for about an entire two minutes. As it turns out, that was enough. Interview accomplished.

So. Major kudos to my daughter, Carry, who took a huge part coordinating the effort, despite a full-time load at university and two little ninas of her own to care for. Thank you Carry! And big thanks to your mother, Miriam, for taking Aaron and Kennedy and their school project seriously.

We really love you guys!

Will be interesting to see what the interviews look like. Not just Aaron and Kennedy’s, but the entire class. We were not the only ones that had a hard time. I know of at least one family who went to a Mexican restaurant and interviewed one of the wait staff. The assignment required the students to get pictures of the people they interviewed, and when the cameras came out, the restaurant staff all got a little antsy. Does that just seem — I don’t know — incredibly awkward?

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Thai Basil Chicken with Cashews

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 lb asparagus, trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 Tablespoons vegetable, canola or peanut oil
  • 4 teaspoons chopped garlic
  • 2 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved in 4 teaspoons water
  • 1/2 cup lightly packed Thai basil or sweet basil leaves
  • 1 cup roasted cashews
  • 1 fresh jalapeno chili, thinly sliced into rings (optional)

Marinade

  • 4 Tablespoons lager-style beer, like Tsingtao
  • 2 Tablespoon oyster sauce
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper (or black pepper)

Sauce

  • 1/2 cup chicken broth
  • 2 Tablespoon lager-style beer, like Tsingtao
  • 2 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoon fish sauce (or add an additional 3 teaspoons soy sauce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar

Directions:

  1. Make some rice.
  2. Combine the marinade ingredients in a bowl. Add the chicken and stir to coat. Let stand for 15 minutes.
  3. Combine the sauce ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.
  4. Place a wok or wide sauté pan over high heat until hot.
  5. Add the oil, swirling to coat the sides.
  6. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 10 seconds.
  7. Add the chicken and asparagus and cook, stirring constantly until the chicken is no longer pink, about 2 minutes.
  8. Add the sauce and bring to boil.
  9. Add the cornstarch solution and cook, stirring, until sauce thickens, about 1 minute.
  10. Remove pan from heat and stir in jalapeno chili, basil leaves and cashews.
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This River by James Brown

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James Brown’s new memoir, This River, is a collection of a dozen stories, most of which were previously published in literary journals or magazines. Here they come together to form a taut, sometimes brutal, picture of a man whose life has been ravaged by drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and plain old-fashioned hard luck. But it would be wrong to label this work as confessional or some sort of misery memoir. Brown doesn’t revel in his personal catastrophes. Arguably some of his best work is the work in which he explores his relationships with his two young sons or his own father. He’s got a light touch, a thoughtful outlook, and he knows how to weave a gripping narrative.

I enjoyed this book immensely. Having had my own struggles with addiction, I appreciate good stories about the lives of addicts and alcoholics. But the problem with many of these stories is that it’s so easy for an author to allow the work to fall into one of two catchall categories: sensational tales (as in James Frey’s Million Little Pieces), or revisionist bullshit stories that are often little more than thinly veiled testimonials for another person’s efforts or some sort of therapy. Brown doesn’t fall into either of these traps with his writing.

Of course, Brown does have extraordinary situations to relate—what lifelong addict wouldn’t?—but he doesn’t rely on this sort of circumstance to carry his stories. Case in point, in the chapter titled, “Instruction on the Use of Heroin,” Brown describes going to purchase drugs in a well-to-do community somewhere in the “neighboring mountains” of San Bernardino, “well above the fray,” where he meets a man who was formerly his AA sponsor, now a drug dealer. Brown describes his former recovery mentor’s appearance at the door this way:

He’s wearing a ratty tank top, but what I notice most at this moment are the syringes hanging from his shoulders, one on each side, the needles sunk into the middle head of the deltoid muscle. On the left, it’s loaded with heroin. On the right, it’s cocaine. I can tell the difference because one syringe contains a dark-colored fluid while the other, the coke, is a milky white.

If he needs a bump up, he depresses the plunger on the milky-white side. If he needs a bump down, something to even him out, to take the edge off the coke, it’s the dark side. The idea is to find the perfect balance, but for now he’s on the upside, spun on the coke.

What makes Brown’s work so satisfying to read is that he doesn’t rely on these type characters alone to carry his stories. In the above chapter about meeting his drug dealer, Brown thoughtfully examines the sexual mores of another character, Crystal, (her name an apt pseudonym) an equally strung-out teenage girlfriend of the forty-something drug dealer. We learn with horror that Crystal lives with the dealer with the permission of her mother, who is also strung out on drugs.

“[Your wife is] so pretty,” [Crystal] says in that dream voice again.

By no means is this Crystal’s way of flirting with me.

She’s genuinely interested in my wife. At every A.A. meeting, when we were all still clean and sober, and whenever my wife accompanied me in support, which she did often, Crystal would stare at her from across the room. And there was something desperate about it. Something sad. Something pathetic. It was the way a young girl stares admiringly at a beautiful older woman, the one the girl wishes to be like, the one she might’ve hoped to have had for a mother. And because she did not, because she lacks the confidence and self-esteem that is every child’s birthright, because narcotics steal any fleeting hope of a better life, Crystal trades, as her mother still trades, on her sexuality.

Brown sizes up poor Crystal accurately, in just a few words, but he’s so gentle, so tender. Another writer might have described her as immoral or worse. Something more heavy-handed. But not Brown.

And if he doesn’t rely on his career as an addict to move us, Brown’s not here to laud any particular therapy or approach to addiction either. If an A.A. sponsor shows up in one of Brown’s stories, he’s just as likely to have failed at his own recovery as to hold out the lone chance for anyone else’s redemption.

Brown doesn’t limit his introspection to seedy characters from his addiction. In a brief, touching chapter, “Remembering Linda,” he explores his childhood anger for Helen, a teenage girl with whom he lived in a strict foster home. Only you don’t realize he is angry with Helen until the very end of the story. Throughout his telling, he is more concerned with his infatuation with Linda, who is then suddenly whisked from the foster home (and his life) for rule violations, and for which he feels oddly incriminated. But what makes the story so remarkable is that Brown mutes his anger even as he reveals it. Instead he focuses on the larger truth of the desperate emotional needs of teenage girls trapped in foster care, a truth that is made clear so swiftly and with such ease in the very last lines, it can take your breath away.

When it comes to addiction and mental health issues, Brown’s This River doesn’t offer platitudes, easy answers, or stock characters. He seems at his best when he fixes his gaze on the hard realities of life, not to complain or blame, but to shine a light on the resilience of the human spirit.

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Remember the Veteran Day

12-16-2005 040, originally uploaded by tim_elhajj.

Tim is much taller than I. This shot was from a few years ago. Tim has earned more rank since then, as well as a bit more of my esteem. What a great son!

Tim Elhajj to Guest Lecturer @ University of Washington

I’ve been asked to return to Theo Nestor’s memoir class at the UW! I’m so excited.

October 25, University of Washington

I think you have to be part of the class to attend, so I won’t list the building and time.

I studied with Theo a few years ago and have sat down to discuss my book and my journal on her blog.

The last time I visited Theo’s class, I came away so jazzed about memoir. That class was mostly students my age, who all have jobs or families, and everyone is showing up late at night to get their memoir written. It’s a very satisfying, creative space and I look forward to enjoying all that good writer energy.

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White Chicken Chili

Ingredients:

  • vegetable cooking spray
  • 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 4 poached boneless chicken breasts
  • 4-5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 4 cups poaching broth
  • 1 can corn (Del Monte Summer Crisp)
  • One (1) 4-ounce can diced green or jalapeno chili peppers
  • Two (2) 15-ounce cans white northern beans
  • Reduced fat shredded cheese, fat-free sour cream, and salsa for serving (optional)

Steps:

  1. Spray a saucepan, add the oil, and sauté the onions until tender.
  2. Add remaining ingredients and simmer for about 30 minutes.
  3. Serve with cheese, sour cream, and salsa, if you want.

Serves 6 (1 cup servings)

Calories 330; Protein 29g; Fat 5g; Carbohydrates 44 g; Fiber 9g; Sodium 120 mg.

If you’re not crazy about the corn, you can substitute 1 cup chopped red or green pepper in place of the corn.

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