Has anyone seen Nero Wolfe lately?

Published May 8, 2017 by The Merida Review

Have the Nero Wolfe books really been out of print for 20 years? I’ve been trying to find out, and the last ones I see listed for sale anywhere were printed in the 90s. How can this be?

I pride myself on having a complete set, but somehow when I moved from Mexico to Ohio, a few of them went astray. Or are hiding here, in the total confusion of my makeshift bookshelves – getting some decent shelves are high on the list, and organizing my books! I’ve been reading through them all, in order – I do this occasionally – and am on the final 10, and I can’t find Trio for Blunt Instruments anywhere! I’ve crawled around on the floor, looking through all the piles and etc, I’ve balanced on the couch to check the uppermost regions, and can’t find it. Fer de Lance was gone, too, but I was able to borrow a copy.

My poor books are falling apart as I read them, covers snapping off (they’re just paperbacks and I don’t think the 10 year stay in hot, hot, humid Merida did them any favors), so I’ve been keeping an eye out for replacements at library sales, flea markets, etc, and there aren’t any! Thus the research into when the books were most recently published.

I find this quite alarming. How are new readers going to discover Nero and Archie and Fritz, etc, if there are no books out there? We are in agreement, right? New readers SHOULD be discovering these books, correct? I mean, yeah, the books aren’t perfect, they have a few flaws, but I think the assets outweigh the defects many times over. Right?

Meanwhile, I’m only one book away from Trio for Blunt Instruments, and can’t decide whether to suspend my Nero Wolfe-athon until I find one, or just skip over it. This is driving me absolutely crazy. I could spend $10 on ABE or Amazon buying one, I guess. (Also alarming is that there aren’t THAT many used copies available.

Perhaps we need to start a Save Nero Wolfe movement. Take this as a rallying cry. Bring him back! Publish those books again! So people can buy them and donate them to library sales or sell them at garage sales and I can rebuild my poor, falling apart, incomplete collection. I’m not getting any younger, you know.


Yes, the used book business is different, but it’s kinda fun because of it: or me vs the scanner people

Published February 5, 2017 by The Merida Review

When I moved back to the states, people kept asking me if I was going to get back into bookselling, I had had a used and rare bookshop before I moved away, and I kept adamantly saying NO, though I had no clue how I was going to support myself. In retrospect, I’m not sure why I was so dead set against it. Maybe I just wanted to look forward and not muck about in the past? Don’t know. At any rate, I found myself looking for books, buying books, telling myself I would be a collector and build up this fabulous collection, but when I found myself buying books I had absolutely no interest in, just because they were obviously worth way more than they were priced, the writing was kind of on the wall and I bowed to the inevitable and began searching for books seriously, with the intent of building up enough business to allow me to eat and sleep and feed my dogs so I could continue to write books that – well, they sell some.

I was something of an expert at the point when I moved away, but with a 10 year gap and a big recession in between my leaving off and starting again, I wasn’t sure what my old knowledge was worth, how much was different. So I bought rather hesitantly. And I don’t have a vast amount of money to invest, so I’m nickel and diming it, buying at the low end of the spectrum. I think the most I’ve paid for any single book so far is $15, and that was for a 1820s farrier’s guide at a country auction. Which will be a hard sell! but a delight to be the custodian of in the meantime. I love old books.

I have been officially in the book business for 10 months now, and am more confident – yes, the business has changed and a new generation of collectors have entered the field, and I don’t yet know everything, but I’m getting a feel for it.

When I left the business in 2007, we were starting to see people with scanners show up at charity book sales, but no one took them seriously.  And here, I think, is the biggest change in the business. I would say that nowdays, anyone who enters the used book business does it with a scanner in hand. They scan ISBN codes and their machines tell them what books to buy. The dealers set the parameters, and the machines tell them which books are worth X or above, and what the sell rate is. These dealers are only interested in books with ISBN codes, so only in books printed after 1966.

There are now hoards of book dealers with scanners at any sales with a lot of books. I went to a tiny library sale in a tiny town nearby last week, and there were 3 of them. The entire sale consisted of maybe 6 card tables worth of books, on the surface of the tables and also on the floors beneath. 2 card tables’ worth was the entire nonfiction section, which is where the scanner people were huddled. There was no room for anyone else to get in while they were there. They were shoulder to shoulder. What they do is go down the rows and hold their scanners up to each ISBN number and buy the books that get a positive response. So they don’t move till they’ve scanned every book. And then they just move a couple of inches. I looked between shoulders, reached over and plucked a few books over their heads and was pretty disgruntled with the whole experience. I’m in the starting phases of my book business and I’m pretty desperate for books at this point, but I don’t think library sales (now that the scanner people have invaded) are going to be very helpful to me. They never were, actually. Library sales tend to have newer books, and I’m interested in older books, but I would go anywhere that had books because you never know where you’ll find the next great book and I have found a few amazing things at library book sales over the years. But few and far between.

Estate auctions, on the other hand, where every book dealer worth his stuff would have been found in the past, are now pretty deserted. Auctioneers don’t even bother to advertise when they have books half the time. I asked a scanner guy about this when I was standing in line at the Fremont library sale last fall, and he said he’d tried auctions but he just didn’t find enough to make it worth his while. When I picked my jaw up off the floor and thought about it, I realized he is in a totally different business than I am. He’s making a living going around with his scanner and buying and selling books via ISBN numbers. I am building up a business to support myself based on authors and titles and content (and edition).

I come home with my piles of books and sit and look them up on the internet, to see how similar copies are priced, how common or scarce they might be. I carefully judge and describe the condition, I type my books by hand into a database one by one with a photo of each. Scanner people don’t do it that way.

I’m not judging what they do. I think they probably make more money and faster than I do. They don’t even have to house their own books, they can ship them off to Amazon, or other book brokers who will sell them for the scanner book dealer and send money when the books sell. I looked into this scanner stuff for awhile, thinking that maybe I could do it in addition to what I already do. Since I was already at book sales, maybe I could double my productivity. But I don’t think they’re compatible. We do things in a totally different way with a totally different mindset. And when I considered my future both ways, I’d rather be an old school used and rare dealer, it’s gentler and slower and would allow me time to write. I get to savor my books a little more, I think, which is important to me.

So as I soldier on, I am discovering odd little holes where the scanner people have left opportunities. Obviously books before 1966. But also with book club editions. They don’t have ISBN numbers, and old school book dealers won’t touch them (who wants a book club edition?) so there’s a (false) scarcity. Titless that weren’t reprinted (much) whose first editions are scarce and pricey, there’s a market for book clubs, because people who want to actually READ them want to buy them for $5 to $10. I am just starting to find this out, I am an old school book dealer who was trained not to touch a book club edition with a 10 foot pole, so this is an alien concept for me, and it’s only a select type of book that this theory is valid for. But it’s there and it’s explorable and it’s an avenue I can easily and cheaply pursue.

It’s having these little secrets that other book dealers don’t know that help you survive. I can’t think book club books are going to do much for me, really, but when you get into the book buying thing, you start finding fields that are starting to be collectible that other people haven’t caught on to yet, and you can go wild with it. (For a while. Other people will catch on.) Things like this make the used book business exciting. I don’t know if scanner people have that. I don’t know enough about what they do.

Listen to me. I remember myself a year or so ago, telling people that no way was I going to start selling books again. Ha. Silly me.

Anyways. Here I am. Book dealer. Old school vs the scanner people. Well, I don’t know if it’s versus as much as me discovering the opportunities they’ve opened up with their dependence on ISBN numbers. Oh man, I have learned to love ISBN numbers, or rather the lack of them. I mean, look how many books have been printed since ISBN numbers came along, and just look at how many there were printed before. The odds are in my favor.

photos of some of the dolls who inspired Irene, and a couple of me.

Published September 8, 2016 by The Merida Review




This is me, singing. (Duh.) Look how into it I am. Impressive.


Me holding a guitar. This how I usually look when I’m just sitting around (not!) Ohio cornfield in background, so no one confuses me with a city girl.



Me, again. In Merida, backstage, while we were doing a play. I was the assistant director. I am great at being an assistant director. You just run around doing things other people tell you to do. Why I look so calm there, I don’t know, because I don’t remember ever being calm during a performance.


These photos are from a photo shoot for a video that my guitarist was less than impressed with. I thought it was absolutely awesome. I think it has a total of 49 views on youtube, so I guess I’m just not finding the right audience for it. Look up Keeping it All by Cher Bibler and Dave Harms. Warning: loud rock music. You have to keep it on for 30 seconds to have it count, so don’t turn it off right away! Anyhow, this is Penn, holding the cardboard guitar. He’s really a Tonner and has a Tonner name, but to me, he is just Penn.


To the right, with red hair and a blue brocade dress, is Irene. The doll that started it all. I was sitting at my desk trying to figure out something to write, and she was on a shelf beside me, and I had just come back from a doll convention and my mind was all full of dolls, and I started writing a story through her eyes. She started out the protagonist, and then fantasy took over and the protagonist turned into a french fashion doll, who I unfortunately do not own, and never will own unless I find a really rich husband (anyone know of one?), but hey, fiction is fantasy, right? So this is Irene, the best friend.

These aren’t the way doll collectors normally treat their dolls, is it? But I swear no dolls were injured in the process. There was just some hair fixing and dress straightening when it was over. And the poor metal head who is the lead singer (metal head, how apt) had to get back into her horrid homemade 70s Little House on the Prairie type dress and bonnet. She is demanding a new outfit. She’s into punk. I’m pretty sure she’ll never enter a doll competition. She’s asking if she can get a tattoo and dye her hair purple.



That Penn, he sure knows how to woo the ladies. She is a Gail Wilson kit that I made myself. Impressive, huh?


Less impressive is the Betsy McCall rag doll on the right. It was my very first attempt at making a doll, though, so she has an honored spot on the shelf. She is standing by Irene, and in the background is the Peruvian witch doll.


A close up of the Peruvian Witch doll. She doesn’t really appear in the book, but we talk about her; she’s the one who taught Kim what she knows about magic. I make her sound scary in the book, but she’s actually a happy soul. You can take all sorts of liberties with fiction, however. She was my souvenir from Machu Picchu. I found her in a grave. Ha ha, no I didn’t. I bought her from a craft vendor who claimed she was made of antique fabric, but I took that with a very large grain of salt.


On the left is the doll who inspired The Grand Duke. I glamoured him up quite a bit, though. Made him less Little Lord Fauntleroy and more Clark Gable, I think. Again, poetic license.


I also lusted after a Queen Anne, and while living in Mexico, I commissioned this (on the right) from a woodcarver who lives near Chichen Itza. I gave him a bunch of photos and told him to do his own thing. She turned out really awesome, I think. He doesn’t have any power tools, it’s all hand carving. She is my Madame Zamalka. Or as close as we get. She had to borrow a dress for the party, she had nothing suitable to wear. She’s in a Tyler Wentworth gown. She had to give it back after the shoot was over, she’s not happy about that.


Not related to the book at all, but look at this drumset! I was so impressed with myself. I had so much fun doing this. My kitchen was covered with dolls for a week. Notice in the background a Tinfoil poster with my photo on it, not a great photo or anything but an actual Tinfoil poster for an actual date we played. This album was just me and Dave, so we didn’t call it Tinfoil. We’re working on a cd with the entire band right now, however.


The after-party. Notice the little bottle of champagne and the champagne glasses. They all got absolutely wasted. Well, you would too, if you had to go back to quietly living on a shelf after this.


Totally unrelated, a doll I just finished. All by me, no pattern, no kit. A photo for the dress. I’ve apologized to her for the lumpy misshapen legs, but she says never mind. She wants me to have another doll party so she can come, too. I think she needs a little color in her cheeks. And she doesn’t have a name yet. I’m not sure other doll collectors have as much fun with their dolls as I do.

On the New Yorker and on Victorian novels

Published March 5, 2016 by The Merida Review


Before we moved to Mexico, I checked out the Merida English Library to see what it had available. I am a person who loves books, who owns lots of books, and I didn’t feel I could ship them all down when we moved (I’m not sure why). I was trying to sort through and only take the essentials. Classics like War and Peace or The Red Badge of Courage you can find anywhere. You don’t ever have to worry about not being able to find a copy to read. Books like Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondeley are a whole different matter, however, and I am passionate about Victorian novels. I don’t read them all the time. Sometimes years can go by without me picking one up, but when I get in the mood then I ravenously plough through a bunch of them, and having them sitting on my shelf, winking at me when I go by, makes me feel secure. So, obviously, I had to take them.

I am a champion (in my own little universe) of a bunch of little known, underappreciated authors. In my past life as a used and rare bookseller, I had easy access and was always trying out books to see what was in them. I can’t tell you how many times I sat reading at an auction and then was obliged to buy that particular box of books to be able to finish the one I’d been reading. (Usually I could find something worthwhile enough in the box to at least pay for buying it.) My reading seems to date back to Jane Austen. I’ve tried to read novels that came before Jane, but I’ve never loved any, so my reading era spans back to her, and sputters abruptly out. I have lots of Dover editions of books.

Leaving books behind when I moved was gut wrenching. And the part of Mexico we were in (Yucatan Peninsula) doesn’t have many books. In Spanish OR in English. When we came home to visit, I would hit up flea markets and goodwill stores to find new reading fodder. When my luggage was getting searched in Cancun once, the customs agent asked if I was a teacher. I mean, who needs clothes when you can pack books?

I don’t think that owning lots of books makes you a pack rat, or a hoarder, since they fit so neatly on shelves, and you can have walls and walls of shelves. Books stand politely at attention until called upon. They are warmer and friendlier than any shade of paint or style of wallpaper. They are my preferred decorating style.

When I moved back to Ohio, my books went through another culling, not so heartbreaking this time as I knew I was heading back to the land of plenty, so far as used books are concerned, and lots of my more modern books had broken out with the humidity measles (brown spots on pages). No way, however, would I let go of my two beloved H C Bunner books, my Myrtle Reeds and Mrs Southworths, my Wilkie Collinses and George Gissings and Sheridan LeFanu and..and..and

I read things that aren’t Victorian, too. I have a healthy collection of poetry, a pile of mysteries and scifi/fantasy. I even keep up with a few modern authors. Sarah Waters, for one.

I have heaps of sewing books and fashion history. And doll books. And children’s books. And

After the kindle and its ilk were invented, life got way easier for expats who enjoy reading, myself included. Though I find myself reading an ebook and then tracking a physical copy so it can live on the shelves with all the others. After so many years of being in the business, I feel I can read people’s characters from their book collections, and I want people to get the right idea from my shelves. (Is that it, Cher? Really?) (Ok, I worry about something going wrong and losing my virtual book collection. Hard drives crashing, Amazon going under…Hey, anything can happen.) (And I like looking at them on the shelves. Sigh.)

How I started reading all the weird ass shit I do, I really don’t know. When I try to read the stuff other people read, best sellers (with a few exceptions here and there) I just can’t get into it.

So I write books, and who are they going to appeal to? All those other people who are mired in Victorian novels, steeped in writers like Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, passionate about children’s books from the ‘30s? Let me see. Um. How many people can that be? Ten?

They ask you to put yourself in a category, to choose other authors whose books are similar to yours, so that readers can be steered to you through those channels. (It’s the same way with music. I am currently trying to promote an album that’s on the verge of coming out.) You are supposed to endeavor to appeal to a huge category of people, write the next Harry Potter or 50 Shades of Grey. You are not supposed to aspire to a small, select audience. That’s not the way publishing works.

And yet my books don’t read like Victorian novels. Perhaps you can see some influence in them, I don’t know. People who enjoy Wilkie Collins wouldn’t particularly enjoy my books. Because I don’t know any authors or musicians whose work resembles my work, I just put a list of authors/bands I like. Trying to think of popular ones. I mean, “If you like Richard Bissell, then you’ll want to read….” just doesn’t cut it. My music resembles Nirvana, doesn’t it?

Yeah. Marketing.

So, Amazon was having this big magazine sale over New Year’s and since I am recently returned to the US and joyfully settling back into the culture, I picked out several and subscribed. If nothing else, it puts mail into my mailbox! I subscribed to the New Yorker ($5 for 3 months of it) because it’s been drilled into my head all my life, that if you want to reach the summits of authorship, the New Yorker is where you want to be. I have occasionally picked up an issue here and there but didn’t really enjoy it, to tell the truth. But for $5 I decided that if nothing else, I would read the fiction and poetry every week and know what kind of writer is a New Yorker kind of writer.


Aim at the heights.

My 3 month subscription is nearing the end, and it’s been an interesting experience. There are issues that I look at each page, read all the comics, but can’t get into a single article. There have been a few times I have been sucked in deep to articles. Once I even passed the issue on to a friend and said, “You have to read this!” There have been three times when something I read in the New Yorker made me sigh that sigh of total happiness/fulfillment.

There are times I have to read the poetry outloud to my dog to get all the way through it. No wonder poetry has such a bad rep. I have given up on having to get all the way through the fiction. I modified it to only having to read the first page of it. I have decided that I don’t aspire to be the kind of writer who gets into the New Yorker. At least not the fiction writers or poets. I don’t like their style, and here I feel mired in my Victorian roots, which I think would be about the opposite of a New Yorker writer.

If I were a nonfiction writer, I wouldn’t mind being in the New Yorker.

So I did learn something. I also decided that if Amazon wanted to give me another 3 months for $5, I would take it, but if they want to charge more than that, I’m out.

Do I stop submitting to them altogether? Unless they change direction/editors, I don’t have a chance in hell of getting in. And now, because of my $5 subscription, I know that.


Sgt Hathaway’s tie

Published February 21, 2016 by The Merida Review

I am the sort of people who likes the books better than the movie or tv adaptations of them. In fact, I can drive people crazy explaining why specific books are better than whatever movie or tv show we are watching. During the show, even. (There are people who refuse to go to movies with me.)

There are exceptions. Game of Thrones, for instance. I like the show better than the books. Phryne Fisher, also. Let me see if I can think of more….hmmm…well, later, maybe.

I like mysteries, some mysteries, I am very picky about which. I like good strong characterizations, and plots that aren’t stupid, and I feel like I’m wasting my time when I discovered I’ve been suckered into a bad one. I tend to read favorite books over and over again. It’s a safer bet, after all, to read one you already know is good, rather than gambling on a new title. But, academically, hey, you have to study an author’s style and method so you can learn what works. First time through, you read for enjoyment. Second time, it’s to pay attention to how the author got you from here to there. After that, you’re picking up nuances.

I like to have new books recommended to me by people whose taste I trust. I am very cautious dipping into new authors.

When I moved to Mexico 9 years ago, I was moving away from life as I knew it. You really don’t know what a barrier a language is till you move to a country where everyone speaks a different one. I was used to reading multiple newspapers every morning. I liked reading magazines. Television in Mexico is like a huge wasteland, at least in Merida, where I was. Is it better anywhere else? I don’t know. Hell, I even missed commercials. And books, of course. I felt so out of touch.

Gradually, I began reading online newspapers, The New York Times for starters, till they started charging for an online subscription. Then the LA Times, and the Washington Post (same story). And finally I landed on the Guardian, which is kind of weird, living in Mexico, a former Ohioan, reading a London newspaper. Pretty soon I was all up on UK news and tv and theater and actors. Other expats showed me how to stream shows I actually wanted to see or find them on youtube, and life has never been the same. I got used to the fact that I couldn’t discuss tv with anyone. No one I knew was watching Borgen but me. Or The Bridge. Or even Broadchurch. But man, good tv. Actual good tv! Wow. Oh yeah. And the Great British Bake Off. Would I Lie To You? QI. Fun tv.

And so, a few years back, I started watching Endeavour. Which, for those of you who were as clueless as me, is a prequel to the Inspector Morse mysteries, which I’d never watched, even though I could have seen them on PBS while I was still living in the states. I just never did. Endeavour was a good show (er, is a good show). A lovely show.

When I moved back to Ohio, I needed a million billion things and decided that, since I would no doubt be doing lots of Amazon ordering, I should probably get a Prime membership. I was thinking of it for the price of shipping alone, but now that I have it, I’ve discovered that insomnia + a kindle + Prime go together well. Middle of the night, can’t sleep, reach over and get the kindle and watch something. Without even wrinkling the pillows. Excellent.

Enter Inspector Lewis, of which all 7 seasons are available on Prime. Inspector Lewis was Morse’s sidekick and after the Morse mysteries ended, they spun off a series with him as the main dude. He has a sidekick named Hathaway. Who wears the most fantastic tie in series 4. Oh man, it’s the most beautiful fabric, I even googled Sgt Hathaway’s tie just to see if I could find out who made it – I really don’t want the tie, I more fantasize about yards and yards of the silk (I’m sure it’s silk!) and what I could do with it! Alas! Alack! however, the mystery of Sgt Hathaway’s tie remains unsolved. And if I tracked down the fabric, I couldn’t afford it anyways.

Both Endeavour and Lewis take place in Oxford, you know, where the University is (being from Ohio, and not being academic, I really don’t know much about it except that there’s this college everyone always talks about like it’s something special), you get way more feel for the town/university in Lewis than in Endeavour. It’s very Oxford-y. Like Oxford is one of the characters. (Though the way its professors keep getting knocked off, I’d think one would have to really seriously pause before accepting a position there.)

About the time I fell in love with Hathaway’s tie, it occurred to me that perhaps I should look into Inspector Morse. I wikipediaed Morse and made a list of titles and tracked some down. (They’re actual books, you know. Those things I like best!) So simultaneous with watching this year’s crop of new Endeavours and season 5 of Lewis, I started reading Last Bus to Woodstock, the first Morse book. Talk about disorienting! And yet, I’m having trouble getting into Morse (the character). The writing is good. There’s some interesting characters. Can’t really tell how the plot is going to go, since I’m bogged down in the middle.

I’m not normally like this, though. I’m not one of those people who skip the books and do the film and call it done. I am going to finish this book, by gumbo, and then I’m going to read the next one. Figure out where all this Morse stuff came from. (Yeah, and then I guess there’s another tv series to track down.)

I’m having real problems matching up the Morse I like so much in Endeavour with the one in the book…plus there’s an overall feeling that I’m getting into the whole universe backwards. People seem to like the books, though, I get that feeling everywhere. So, obviously, the problem must be me. I can’t wipe all memories of previous Morses out of my brain and start fresh (oh wait, there’s hypnosis, isn’t there?). This is so frustrating!

But I am going to read these books, damn it, and that’s all there is to it. I will. I will. I will.

After the affair

Published February 8, 2016 by The Merida Review

Every now and then, we are lucky enough to find a book that truly satisfies us, one we can indulge ourselves in, relax and trust the author and allow him (or her) to take us where he will and do with us as he wants. When we are done, we wake, as if from a dream, shake ourselves and think, So this is what real life is like! Sort of flat, and tarnished. Dull by comparison. We go about our day, full of fond memories or the characters we have so lately left behind, and full of hope for the future. At some point in the day, however, it hits us. We are done with that book. It’s through. We are left alone to drift in a cold, cold world. Life goes on between the covers of our beloved novel, but without us. We are cast out to fend for ourselves.

We veer recklessly into whatever book is closest at hand, like scorned lovers, thinking, There are lots of books in the sea! We need not be dependent on that one! We can go back and visit sometime, if we feel like, but we don’t need it. Ha, ha!

(ok, I’ll admit there have been times I couldn’t leave, that I started right back into it, from page 1)

But our new book fails us. It falls flat. We find ourselves constantly making comparisons, finding our new companion coming up short. It just can’t compete with our memories. We drift off, lost in our reveries, and it can’t get our attention. It makes a fool of itself, trying, but we don’t notice. It eventually tires of us.

So we decide to read something totally different, something so different we won’t have those absurdly high expectations. Something silly, maybe, or something experimental. It’s definitely too soon to try and get into another major relationship. Maybe a mystery, something escapist.

Time needs to pass for our wounded soul to heal. We have loved, and we’re glad of it. We gave our all, gave ourselves up completely, and we had a wonderful experience that will enhance the rest of our lives, but for now we are suffering from a bereavement, a loss of that world we got to know and love so well. We are missing the friends we made, the characters we lived with so intimately. We were able to live lives different from ours, lives that were perhaps more exciting, that took chances we wouldn’t take, that let us experience things we wouldn’t have been able to experience without them. Maybe we found ourselves liking that other life better than our own, or at least parts of it.

But for me, it’s always the actual people I miss.

In time we will recover, we’ll be able to try new books with an open mind, with a happy anticipation. It’ll happen, we know it will. We just have to go through the motions that get us from here to there. Whatever it takes.

For now, though, we plod aimlessly, adrift and bereft, fingering covers of books that are now void of charm; we can’t even remember why we bought them. We sample one after another, expecting them to disappoint us.

We wonder why we read at all. And yet, we can’t stop ourselves. We are back at the shelves, looking over the crop of potential new lovers, casting our eye in jaundiced boredom. We are there because deep inside us there is a little spark that still believes, that knows there is another book out there for us, that knows we’ll feel that thrill again, that joy, that total ecstasy.

We are hardened and cynical on the outside, but inside we are just marshmallows. We will never learn.

DDT and Dinner Theater: or, the politics of fundraising

Published February 6, 2016 by The Merida Review


I used to live in Merida, in the Yucatan part of Mexico, which was a perfectly pleasant place to live (well, it gets awfully hot for 2/3 of the year) with tons of perfectly pleasant (and some really bizarre) expats to hang out with. Because I am a poet and I was hungry for some creative companionship (meaning, just someone to hang out and talk shop with), I started going to a poetry open mic night that was all in Spanish. They said they welcomed anyone who spoke any language, but lots of nights it was all Spanish speaking folks and me. My Spanish is really bad, even after trying hard to learn (guess I’m just not one of those people for whom languages is easy or even achievable), so I usually couldn’t understand what anyone was saying, and I would picture what I thought their poetry was about, by their expressions, their passions, their style.

Sometimes other English speaking people would wander through, mostly I got contempt, however, for not being able to learn Spanish, for not writing poetry in Spanish (I wasn’t even at the level where I could’ve written Mary had a little lamb in Spanish), for not integrating more with my new city.

The language thing is such a big freaking deal in poetry, you know? Yeah, I eventually discovered that if I abandoned reading my own poetry and read stuff by famous people like Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, etc, I became much more popular. Because they’d heard of them, they’d studied them in English. They respected them.

Eventually, however, another English speaking writer had the great idea to start an open mic for the expats. All in English. And even though she was a little strange, and people were kinda hesitant to hang out with her, I was all behind the idea, and helped track down a location for it. And then eventually started being in charge of it when she got mad and left. That took awhile, though. This is not a piece on how difficult it is to keep an open mic going, keep it vibrant and fun and all that. Not going there. It was a great place to meet all sorts of creative people, though.

After awhile, a person who I barely knew, who became a really good friend, brought in acts of a play that she was writing, for fun. Well, I think she was writing it for the fun of it, I don’t really know. Whoever happened to be at Open Mic night that particular night would take a part and we would read through it, and it was enormous fun. When it was over, we thought we should have a special one night read through of the whole thing, and which ended up being a wild party at which everyone involved drank tons, and I said something like, Golly, we should put this on as a real play!

(Cue Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.)

Jill, the author, had acted in dinner theater productions when she lived in the states, and the play was a fun murder mystery dinner theater piece, with eccentric characters, and lots of inside jokes about Merida and expats. We couldn’t really do it for money, so we put it on for charity. Jill had worked with a no kill animal shelter in the Merida environs, and we donated half to them, and half to an orphanage for human children.

Choosing the charities was awful. Someone said we should vette them and make sure that none of our donations would go to paying anyone’s salaries. We had to meet with representatives of said charities and ask them questions. I hated that part of it. I didn’t care what charity we donated money to, I was only in it for the theater part. I was the assistant director. I told the rest of them to pick any charity they wanted, I didn’t care. The more I heard of different charities, the more they all sounded like they needed us. You couldn’t give money to all of them. We weren’t business people, we didn’t really think it would be all that much money, but hey. Let those picky people do the grunt work. I would work for whatever charity. They’re all worthy, just pull one out of a hat.

And there were plenty of other things to worry about, trying to put on a mystery dinner theater. Finding actors, finding a restaurant willing to take us on (they have to choreograph the dinner to go with the breaks in the play), props, costumes, tickets, poster printing, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing…

It was fun, and people enjoyed it, and we decided to come back and do one the next year. Jill wrote a new play, and they had to choose charities all over again, same location, though we looked at others, same headaches, some new headaches, much drinking throughout, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing.

And Jill said, “No more! I can’t do this again!”

So a couple years later, one of the actors and I were moaning about having no play, and we remembered another actor had said she’d written plays in the past, so we contacted Alicia and, by golly, she wrote a play for us. And we did it all over again, without Jill. And learned to really appreciate all the work Jill had done. We weren’t as experienced as Jill, and we weren’t able to anticipate details ahead like Jill. We muddled through the best we could.

So, we needed a charity. One of my fellow poets was hanging around with a woman who, besides running her own practice, was donating her time to a project where they replace the eyes of children who’ve lost their eyesight to cancer with prosthetics. So they look normal and other people don’t make fun of them and it makes their life better. For some reason, Yucatan has more eye cancer than anywhere else. One night, Gina had shown me before and after photos of some of her kids, and it had left a big impression, let me tell you. So when they were cluelessly looking for a charity to support, I offered up “In Your Eyes.”

Which turns out to be a bare bones charity run by Gina and her brother, she is an optometrist and he makes prosthetic eyes. I think. Most of these conversations were in Spanish, and I could be wrong. They operate on very little money. Jonathan (my friend the poet) was putting together charity poetry reading fundraisers for them. Us doing this play and donating the money to them was one of the biggest things that had ever happened to them.

They didn’t have a website, they didn’t have a facebook page. People started asking if it was a legitimate charity, to which I emphatically said Yes!, having seen those before and after photos. We asked for a brochure to use the information in our publicity. They didn’t have one. Julie, who was loosely allied with the play, offered to do a facebook page for them.

Another friend, who works with a charity who provides sex education to young Yucatecans, trying to prevent teenaged pregnancies and prevent the spread of AIDs through safer sex, was talking to me at a Christmas party and he told me if we donated half our money to his charity, he would promote the play through their mailing list, and I went to Alicia and told her that, and we decided Hell, yeah. Mark’s is a highly organized charity, with organized big-ticket fundraisers and a huge mailing list.

So there we were, working with a huge, organized charity, and a little, loosely run, take-them-on-faith charity. Both of them perfectly deserving. The money we donated to the big charity was a little spit in the bucket for them. Gina cried when I gave her the money we’d raised for her kids. And later sent me photos of the specific kids that we’d helped.

On the last night of the show, we made these giant checks and presented them to representatives of the charities, as is common in these situations. (It took a day or two longer to actually get the real money to them.) And, as I’ve said, I was only in it for the thrill of the theater. I didn’t care who we donated the money to. But since I was the one who suggested In Your Eyes, they treated me like I was something special. It was embarrassing, actually. I didn’t deserve it.

In Your Eyes would’ve never survived the vetting process we’d had the other years, believe me.

So we are all standing around afterwards, being polite and drinking more, the actors finally relaxing, and I was introducing Gina and Jonathan to people, and one bright soul asked why there is so much eye cancer in Yucatan, which I had never thought to ask. I guess I figured the answer would be too complicated and scientific for me to understand. DDT. The fertilizer which was banned in the US years and years ago. They use it in Yucatan. It runs off the fields and gets in the water system. Gina acted out a mother washing her baby’s clothes in the water, wrapping the baby in a blanket washed in DDT runoff water. The baby getting cancer.

If the cancer goes beyond the eyes, it gets to the brain, and they don’t live through it.

And me. The “Isn’t it fun to put on a play!” person who didn’t care where the money for charity went. Suddenly cared. Suddenly felt like the smallest, pettiest person on earth. And Gina, with her little charity, trying her damnedest to fix something that shouldn’t be happening in the first place, suddenly seemed like a saint. Because we weren’t very business oriented, our expenses ended up being so high that all we managed to raise for each charity was a couple hundred bucks. A spit in the bucket for one charity. Enough, though, to make Gina cry.

There must be a moral to this. And it must be staring me right in the face. But here I am in Ohio, going around trying to find people to put on a play, just for the hell of it. Not sure how to find anyone who writes plays around here, but I’ll figure it out.

You can always find actors, can’t you?

Maybe we’ll even donate money to charity? Oh. There’s the moral. Right there.