Is My Stuff Worth Moving?

“Everybody’s gotta have a little place for their stuff. That’s all life is about. Trying to find a place for your stuff.” — George Carlin

You spent half your life acquiring stuff, and then once you hit that third age, egged on by the likes of organizers and ephemeral sensations like Marie Kondo, you’re supposed to get rid of your stuff. Downsizing, they call it, as if it were some kind of virtue. Or Swedish death cleaning, decluttering like there’s no tomorrow out of consideration for those left behind.

More than a few schools of thought come into play. One says to divest yourself of everything, pretending that you like minimalism and are happy, with enough possessions to furnish a modest monk’s cell. Some like to buy new, starting all over again.  Others see themselves as conservators of precious artifacts, handed down from since-forgotten ancestors. The frugal and utilitarian can’t jettison perfectly good stuff, like that never-used orange fondue pot. And then there are those who view their stuff as part of themselves, a continuing project.

Langley Wakeman Collyer saved newspapers so that his lawyer brother, Homer Lusk Collyer, who had gone blind, could catch up on the news when his sight returned. They both died, buried beneath their largesse of junk, which included some 25,000 books and fourteen pianos, in 1947. For a literary account of the Collyer brothers, see E.L. Doctorow’s novel Homer & Langley.

Will it fit wherever you’re moving?

If you’re moving from a four-bedroom three-story suburban house in the Midwest to a one-bedroom Miami apartment, you might have a hard time fitting your lifetime accumulation of stuff in. And even if there’s no shortage of space, some items might be as useful as a snowblower in the tropics.

What will it cost to move your stuff? Can you afford to move it?

Let’s answer this one with a question. Will you be moving with a rental truck, doing the driving yourself, or will you call a moving company? Will your move be local, long-distance, or international? Brace yourself for some wildly-ranging estimates.

Will you be insuring your stuff during the move? Is it even insurable?

What is the replacement cost of your stuff? If it’s irreplaceable, is it even worth replacing?

Is that stove a 1949 Chambers stove or a Viking range of just about any age? Does the replacement value exceed the cost of moving – and do you even like those stoves?

Do you like your stuff?

If you like your stuff, you can keep your stuff. Or at least, you should.

Your stuff doesn’t even have to be useful to merit retention. If three sets of sterling silver flatware mean something to you, even if you never use some of it, keep it. It doesn’t take up that much storage space. That Pony Club trophy from 1964 may hold meaning only for you, and if you like it, you should keep it.

Kayla moved across the country from 3-floor townhouse to a single-story house, only moving a few items. Handing over already-read New York Times bestsellers to friends, she doesn’t store books. Her tastefully decorated abodes are always magazine-worthy, minimalist and featuring the year’s fashionable color. Even her Le Creuset® cookware is the right shade: mist grey.

And then there’s Rima, whose collection of books and magazines are her pride and joy, lining the walls of a house that blends mid-century with shabby chic, her décor inspired by John Waters and Amy Sedaris. A life-size flamingo and a bronze chimp compete for attention with a chair covered in bottle caps.

Or are you keeping it out of a sense of obligation?  Two decades of harboring that etagere late Aunt Hattie left you is enough if you hate it. And the same goes for those awful Hummel figurines. You’ve earned a full release.

Are you holding on to stuff, because you view yourself as the custodian of family heirlooms? Let’s get real. Unless you really fancy antimacassars, even the ones crocheted, tatted, and embroidered by some long-forgotten ancestor, it may be time to pass those on to the natural objects of your bounty. And if they don’t want them, and if you don’t want them, it’s time to re-home those relics.

Sometimes heirlooms are just meant to die. My mother’s pool room harbored a non-performing, ancient Christmas cactus. While she was in Mexico and the cactus under my care, like most house plants, it up and died. Driving her back to her home in Iowa one spring, bracing for a lecture about my irresponsibility and failure to respect others’ property, the same lecture I’d heard for four decades, I waited until we were an hour or so away, driving along the two-lane blacktops of northwest Missouri, before I broke the news to her. “Thank God you killed that damn cactus,” she replied. “I hated that plant, your grandmother hated that plant, and all we ever heard was ‘don’t kill the Christmas cactus’ from your grandfather’s mother who gave it to her, like it was supposed to be some treasured heirloom.” Now I get more mileage out of having killed the Christmas cactus than if the damn thing was still alive.

Is there anyone who would actually want your stuff? 

In the February 28, 2022 issue of The New Yorker, Patricia Marx sets forth avenues for getting rid of stuff in A Guide to Getting Rid of Almost Everything.

Seduced by Antiques Roadshow and 1stDibs, spying a 1950s lunchbox at a thrift shop that’s just like the one that held your first-grade lunch, you may think you’re sitting on a gold mine. Chances are that you’re not.

In certain markets, your stuff might be valuable, but time and place may make it practically worthless. No one seems to want pianos these days. Goodwill in San Mateo County doesn’t accept furniture as donations.  No one wanted my father’s like-new green velvet sofa or plaid wool love seats. But in my neighborhood, definitely a mixed one, socio-economically, anything left, even a broken toilet, on the sidewalk will disappear within minutes.

Ten years ago, no one wanted LP records. Now LPs and flip phones are popular again. No one wants the Waterford, Limoges porcelain, Lalique, Murano glass, linen tablecloths, or the Ranch Oak furniture your grandfather bought in the 1940s, but that could change in the next decade. Today’s trash, tomorrow’s treasures.

Twenty-five years ago, I moved from Iowa to Mexico. In the decade preceding, I would wear out a Suburban, stuffed with more loot than the Jed Clampett brought with his clan from the Ozarks to Beverly Hills, road trip after road trip, maybe four years road trips a year, shipping books by mail. The bids that moving companies gave me were shockingly ridiculous, one ignorant mover insisting that Mexican cities were accessible only by dirt road and another saying the household goods would be shipped by rail to New Orleans and then by ship to Veracruz, and then overland to Morelia, which was just plain crazy. I finally landed on a company in Laredo that would contract with Mexican movers to move my stuff across the border and another thousand miles to Morelia, but it would be up to me to get the household goods shipped to Laredo.

And so, I hired professional movers to pack my worldly belongings in the largest truck Ryder rented, a car trailer hitched to that, and embarked on the most exhausting thousand-mile drive ever, driving the largest vehicle in my life.

You already know the rest of the story. That moving van contained all my stuff that I didn’t sell or jettison: a 1959 Evergleam Christmas tree, two leather sofas, old chairs, the damn Ranch Oak furniture, a dining room table and chairs, wrought iron patio furniture, more books, enough kitchen wares to stock Williams-Sonoma, a health and beauty belt massager, copper trays and Turkish artifacts, my grandfather’s tuxedos, sewing machines, my childhood bedroom furniture, Chinese Coromandel lacquer screens, a Turkish brazier, a samovar, an antique pine primitive corner cabinet that my mother bought at a thrift store long before I was born, most of my typewriter collection, an Ironrite Model 85 mangle and a Philco TV console older than I am, computers, printers, oriental rugs, an antique garden hand plow cultivator, a 1959 Encyclopedia Britannica, the J. Peterman Company 1988: Owner’s Manual N°. 1, a 45-rpm record of Witch Doctor and assorted LPs, and clothing spanning generations. And even more stuff that I’ve since forgotten about.

I left behind paintings of ancestors I didn’t recognize and that Coke bottle filled with oil from my grandfather’s foray into the oil business back in the 1940s.

Would I do that again? Sure. Unquestionably, I am a shameless maximalist. I have no plans to change. After all, I’ve got the makings of a museum of the mundane, which will surely support me in years to come.

Who’s Minding the Store?

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon occasionally engages in productive activity, and we’re proud to share with you our latest achievement.  You don’t have to be a lawyer to love Effectively Staffing Your Law Firm, 2nd Edition.

Let’s look at the details:

Good law office staff is harder to find (and keep) than clients (and sometimes spouses). Not a mere receptionist, typist, and filing clerk, good support staff can be the lawyer’s alter ego, right arm, custodian, den mother, rabbi, and guardian angel. Could you manage if your staff didn’t show up tomorrow morning?

The average solo or small firm lawyer may spend more waking hours each day with staff than with a spouse or significant other. And in some cases, even years longer. They will devote all kinds of time and money searching for that significant other, courting the person, learning how to live with that person, being trained by that person—but when it comes to staff, an “Oh, that one will do” more frequently than not seems to be the way it is all approached.


Troubled Mission

Plenty of lawyers say they want to get out of the practice of law, but few act upon those desires. And even fewer go on to actually do something to get themselves out of the quiet desperation of their lawyer lives and then return to practice. After a decade in private practice, Sacramento lawyer John Wagner wanted something more out of life, so he packed it in, and became a Catholic missioner, learned Spanish, and went off to Peru, where he would find himself doing battle with The Shining Path, the Fujimori Administration, the Peruvian Army, and the Catholic Church. Nothing that happened along the way was what he may have expected, but then again, nothing that happened along the way went the way he didn’t expect. And three decades later, having gone back to Sacramento and the practice of law, he retired and wrote about his experiences in Troubled Mission: Fighting for Love, Spirituality, and Human Rights in Violence-Ridden Peru.

TM cover ebookRather than bringing you yet another book review, we decided to ask Wagner some probing questions.

1. It would be too easy to reflect on how law school prepared you to do human rights work as a missioner. How did practicing law prepare you for this experience?

You’re right—law practice, as opposed to law school, was what really prepared me for human rights work. But the answer goes back to law school. At first, I had no desire to be a practicing lawyer. Before law school, I’d been a social worker and mental health administrator and saw myself getting a law degree and then going to a policy role in either a state government or the federal government, such as a Department of Mental Health. But when I took Evidence in law school, our excellent professor really made everything come alive. He kept saying: “You’re the lawyer. How are you going to make your case?” The more he focused on the practicalities of being an advocate, the more I began thinking, Hey, I really like this stuff. I want to be a trial lawyer.

Then, when I actually was a lawyer, I was always struggling with that same question—how am I going to prove up my case? I learned to focus on the building blocks of case preparation and the many traps for the unwary. It so happened I had some early controversial cases. One was pro bono for a whistleblower who was fired by a city government after challenging the unfair way a city was running its parole and probation programs. I could see very quickly the case wouldn’t be won on “legal” reasons—I had to make the commissioners mad about what the administrator had done to my client after the extraordinary things she had done for the city. Later, I heard an experienced litigator say it more precisely: “You have to build up enough facts to piss off a judge!” All of that led to my focus on developing a case based on real-life outrage (or at least real life understanding) but, of course, with solid legal theory behind it.

In the big case in my book, against Victor, our agency’s Peruvian attorney, I couldn’t be an attorney for Victor as I wasn’t licensed to practice law in Peru. But that didn’t bother me because I knew we had to build a public relations case that would put pressure on the local and national prosecutors who were going after Victor. I focused on working with human rights organizations around the world, explaining why the case was an effort to stop legitimate human rights legal advocacy and asking the organizations to pressure the Peruvian government to drop its case. At the same time, I had to be careful not to have the organizations go too far. The Peruvian president at the time, Alberto Fujimori, basically had declared himself dictator and had rammed through his hand-picked Congress a wildly overbroad “assisting and abetting terrorism” law. The law was blatantly unconstitutional in the opinion of all the Peruvian lawyers I knew who’d studied it. Yet I knew that if the human rights agencies argued that point, it would just make the prosecutors defensive and might make them feel they had to go forward to show they weren’t anti-Fujimori. So I asked them to focus on the specific facts in the case that made the prosecution improper and not on the numerous defects of the new anti-terrorism law.

2. You went back to practicing law, first with legal aid, and then back to BigLaw, representing hospitals and health care providers, pursuing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement appeals, performing internal fraud and abuse investigations, and representing professionals whose licenses were at risk. What did your sojourn in human rights bring to what some might call going over to the Dark Side?

Let me tell you a little about my background. I was never a careerist determined to work at a big law firm, say like the take-no-prisoners firms shown in the movies The Verdict and A Civil Action. There really are litigators who just want to strap on the jackboots and fight it out, regardless of the issues, but that’s not me. I just happened to stumble into a niche in which I could represent clients—in this case hospitals and health care professionals—against the overwhelming might of the federal and state governments. And I found I could be successful. In my case that went to the US Supreme Court, there were two of us attorneys for the hospital against more than twenty different attorneys for the US government! My dad always told me—“You always root for the underdog,” not as a compliment, and it’s true. I always wanted to fight against injustice and that has been the defining characteristic of my career.

After law school and a judicial clerkship, I actually would have liked to be a trial attorney for the Justice Department as long as I wouldn’t have to work on politically objectionable (to me) cases and if I could’ve made enough money to pay off my student debts. But you don’t get to choose your cases and I couldn’t have afforded it unless I lived somewhere with several roommates, which by then I was too old for. I wanted to develop solid legal skills and I went with the firm that offered the best training program. Yes, it was a big-name firm but here were all these newly minted attorneys coming in buying their new BMWs and renting fancy apartments while I was driving a ten-year-old VW beetle and renting a modest apartment. I paid my debts and saved for a down payment for a house, which took many years. But I was proud that I never sold out. I never represented employers against employees (or anybody against “the little guy”), I never represented the tobacco companies (and my firm had numerous opportunities for advancement if you did that) and I never represented causes I didn’t believe in. If I thought a case was morally wrong, I either bowed out or, later when I was a partner, actually told the client why I couldn’t do what they wanted, losing an important client along the way. I was lucky in that no one ever pressured me to work for a client or cause I objected to.

After my human rights work in Peru, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a job in my former specialization—because I had no “book of business” to deliver to a firm—and I did work for legal aid, which I generally enjoyed. But there were lots of internal politics and bureaucratic hassles. It just so happened that a former client tracked me down and asked me to represent his hospital system in disputes with the government. That brought me back into private practice (a mid-size firm, not really BigLaw) but not at all to the Dark Side. I’m not a right-winger but I do have strong feelings about the government abusing its authority. I even had to explain to a bureaucrat once why he couldn’t just do anything he wanted and why de had to follow “due process of law.” I had to explain that was an important part of our Constitution. His bosses had never explained that!

As you’ll see in my book, I couldn’t really get that many human rights cases in Peru because the agency administrator never really wanted me to come to her agency, even though our Peruvian attorney really supported me. That never was an issue in private practice. The big issue in private practice is, how much money did you bring in the door, not even, how good a lawyer are you. I don’t defend that at all. I think the private practice of law has lost its moorings and it really isn’t a profession (or, as they said in the old days, a “learned profession”) any more. But going back into private practice was so freeing, so exhilarating after all the internal problems at my human rights agency and then at legal aid. I could just concentrate on my cases and clients and I loved doing that, although I quickly reverted back to my workaholic ways.

3. You battled The Shining Path, the Fujimori Administration, the Peruvian Army, and the Catholic Church. Let’s not talk about how all of these experiences made you a better person. What did these experiences do to make you a better and more effective lawyer?

In Peru, I used my legal skills in non-courtroom settings, which forced me to combine legal skills with human relations skills. Before going to Peru, for numerous years I was immersed in the world of law, as a law student, as a clerk for a judge, and as a practicing lawyer. I tried to keep myself grounded by doing pro bono work, by getting involved in politics, and by still being a Grateful Dead fan. But little by little you become immersed in the world of law and most of your friends are in that world also. When I joined a mission program to do human rights work, I learned by accident that people who didn’t even know me were threatened by me because I was “a lawyer”—spoken like it was a dirty word. What? Threatened by little ol’ me? That had never occurred to me.

I’ve always had sort of an inferiority complex. As a lawyer I can be tough and aggressive. But when it’s “just me,” I tend to be shy and retiring. When I saw there was this reaction against me, this unknown person, I became even more shy and retiring, just to make sure that no one was threatened by me. In hindsight this may have been ineffective by keeping people from getting to know me, the real me. So after all these battles you mention, when I came back I tried to make a point of not being threatening to people but at the same time of trying to reveal myself more. I also tried to engage more with my law firm, joining committees, that type of thing. Marketing is a big thing with private firms and I think my focus on being more engaging may have helped me be more effective in marketing.

Strictly in terms of legal cases, I have to say my Peru experience didn’t help that much as I wasn’t “practicing law” there. But I knew that going in, so it didn’t come as a surprise. The big thing I noticed back in practice was that opposing attorneys seemed so personally hostile, as opposed to the professionalism I’d usually encountered before. Maybe that hostility was there before and I just never noticed it, as fish don’t notice the water. Or maybe it was a sign of changing times. But after a while it became so annoying, dealing with rudeness, sarcasm, especially, but not always, among younger lawyers. What was really frustrating was seeing attorneys lie and cheat, which I hadn’t seen before. Not saying it never happened but I just had never seen it. I tend to attribute this to the increasing focus by firms solely on “billable hours” as opposed to professional skills, leading to a lack of standards, a lack of ethics, and a “get away with whatever you can” mentality.

4. I don’t think I’ve ever met a lawyer who has hit the 10-year mark who hasn’t wanted to get out, if only for a respite. Those I’ve known who’ve gone off to do volunteer work seem to drop off the face of the earth. What advice do you have for those contemplating following in your footsteps?

That’s a big one. There are so many different angles. First, there are lots of practical considerations, especially money. You’ll have to build up a nest egg to cover your US expenses that don’t stop when you go overseas. (If you own a house, for example, as I did). And then you’ll need money for your re-entry time—which might be long—between when you come back and when you get a job. As well as extra expenses that your small personal allowance from your volunteer organization probably won’t cover. For example, I wanted to send out a newsletter and had to dig into my savings for the related expenses. (Actually, now in internet days, that would be a lot easier.)

Examine your motivations. There’s nothing wrong with having mixed motives—I think we all do—but it’s important to be aware of them. Do you really need to live overseas or can you find other things to do living in the US, where you know the situation and the language? There are so many little things that may become big things because we just don’t understand the culture.

Specifically for lawyers, we know what “due diligence” means—checking things out in detail. Inquire, in detail, about everything. The training program. What happens if you’re assigned somewhere you don’t want to go, or that doesn’t want you. Even in nonprofit and religious organizations, there can be many turf battles and you may unexpectedly be put right in the middle of someone’s turf.

Again for lawyers, question people in the organization very specifically on whether the organization has had lawyers before, how many, what did they do, and, as discussed above, whether people might be threatened just by someone being a lawyer. And, of course, not stop there. Try to contact former volunteers, especially lawyers and see if they’ll talk candidly about their experiences.

For non-lawyers, I have the same advice except, of course, not focusing on lawyers who have been volunteers. In an ideal world, I’d encourage asking for a specific written description of what the organization envisions as your job duties and negotiating that description to be as specific as possible. Realistically, however, most human rights or other organizations that use volunteers will be reluctant to give such a description. Most of the time, they just don’t know. So, the bottom line is what Joseph Campbell said: “Follow your bliss.” Do your due diligence as well as you can, knowing that what happens later may turn out to be a crapshoot. That, after all, is the way of all life.

Finally, be open to the unexpected. Maybe you’ll decide to live there permanently. Unexpected opportunities may arise. Or maybe you’ll decide this just isn’t for you. Who knows? Again, isn’t that the way of all life.

5. You’ve obviously transitioned from human rights back to life as a practicing, now retired, lawyer in Sacramento. What stumbling blocks did you encounter upon your return? What would you have done differently?

Re-entry is a major problem. First, you have reverse culture shock. This can be far more severe than you might think it will because you don’t realize how your attitudes and thinking have been affected until you actually get back. In my case, I had to get some medical problems cleared up so that actually ended up being a good thing because it gave me the time and space to re-acculturate. Also, I used the time to send out lots of resumes.

I knew it would be hard to find a job on my return and it was. Private firms wouldn’t have been interested because I didn’t have a book of business to deliver. I wanted to work for a human rights agency but those jobs are extremely scarce and everything seems to depend on having connections, which I didn’t have. The Peruvian attorney I’d worked with wrote a glowing letter of reference but he didn’t have any US connections. And the higher ups in my religious organization didn’t have any human rights connections and also many of the leaders had changed and many didn’t even know the work I did. When I was a humble human rights worker, I wasn’t shouting, “look at this, look at that,” regarding my accomplishments and it didn’t dawn on me until too late that when I got back to the States, it would’ve greatly helped to have a person in the program with some human rights connections who could act as an advocate for me. In hindsight, I could have tried to establish a re-entry plan early on and to push the organization for some early guarantees that they would help me when it came time to leave. But, again, probably most organizations won’t be willing to make commitments like that.

I had several months of unemployment, sending my resume to legal aid clinics all over the US. I was just about ready to give up and consider going back to school in social work to update my credentials but, even then, with all the changes I’d made, I feared no social work agency might want me. Luckily, I just happened to get a job offer with legal aid in Sacramento of all places.

I’m not sure what I’d have done differently—maybe if I knew how hard it would be to come back, I never would have left—but my advice to others (lawyers or nonlawyers) is to realize this will be a serious problem and to explore future job possibilities as an ongoing activity rather than wait until you come back.

6. You lived at the poverty level while in Bolivia and Peru. Would your lot have been more bearable, would you have been more effective, if you’d raised your standard of living to, say, middle class.

Definitely not! First, it was important to me for the spirituality changes I was trying to make. I write in the book of what the director of our language school called the “stripping effect” of a new language, a new culture, and a new, much lower, standard of living. I experienced that stripping effect in many ways and I think it really helped me grow as a person. Also, if I would have done this, it would have marginalized me from the rest of the volunteers in my religious community. They already saw me as “different” because I was a lawyer and if I’d lived a more middle class lifestyle (from my own money), they would just have seen that as putting on airs. Nor would it have made me more effective in my work.

I could have used some help in finding a place to live, but I was able to afford a decent place, nothing fancy. I really had no need of a car as buses and vans were convenient.

I did think of buying a laptop, they were just coming out then, but I decided to buy a portable manual typewriter—almost the exact same kind as I’d used in college over 30 years earlier! —precisely for the purpose of staying within a poverty lifestyle. In hindsight, a laptop would have made many reports and newsletters much easier and that is one thing I’d do differently. But otherwise, I found living poorly to free me in many ways.

7. It was really about the women, wasn’t it? In your book, there emerge two strong and very different women who drew you in, guiding your experience—Stephanie and Bella. Stephanie pushed you into volunteering, and Bella got you through the experience. Would you have survived long enough to write this book and be where you are today were it not for Stephanie and Bella?

Very perceptive! Yes, Stephanie and Bella are wonderful women. Alas, as you know from the book, Stephanie died even before I went to Peru. It wasn’t that she pushed me into volunteering, it was that her example made me want to volunteer. I just can’t say enough about her. And, spoiler alert, Bella became the great love of my life. She is so wonderful and it’s such fun to see her now as a grandmother! I was also profoundly influenced by María Elena Moyano, who I write about in the book. She was a strong leader in Peru who was horrifically assassinated for defying the Shining Path and organizing women. (Alas, there’s also a strong nun in the book who, let’s say, is about the exact opposite of Stephanie.)

There are also some men in the book who really influenced me: Archbishop Oscar Romero and Thomas Merton (as heroic, mythical figures I’d read about) and Larry Castagnola, an activist priest in Sacramento who became a good friend and—another spoiler alert—later married Bella and me!

No, I don’t think I would have volunteered without the example of Stephanie and yes, Bella definitely got me through the many turbulent episodes in the book. We had some dramatic ups and downs but it all ended wonderfully.

One thing I write about in the book are the many class and hierarchical issues in the religious world between priests (all male, of course) and women (both nuns and lays). Even putting aside the issue of women priests (when will the Church wake up?), women are always assigned subordinate roles to priests, even when women are really developing and implementing important projects. Unfortunately, this leads to separateness and hostility. The nuns live in their own world and have little interaction with priests or male lays. The women lays are more integrated with the male lays but many of them have become quite hostile, and who can blame them. This was probably the biggest surprise to me—the serious tensions between men and women in my very own religious organization.

8. Who should read your book?

I wrote Troubled Mission for any readers who’ve ever thought of changing their lives, of throwing everything overboard and starting over. I wanted to put the reader in my shoes: what made me even think about such an idea and then, step by step, inexorably, what happened. I tried to show the reality of being a lay volunteer in a religious organization, the good and the bad, including my many imperfections, my “dark nights of the soul,” and the many strange situations I got myself into.

Readers interested in living in a country besieged by terrorism will, I think, be absorbed by what happened in Peru, the horrific violence as well as a democracy that turned into a dictatorship before my very eyes. And readers who wonder how people can survive the worst conditions of barbarity and totalitarianism will see and feel the real issues that bring out character, or not.

Readers who savor words and enjoy complications should read this book, as opposed to readers who want to rush to find out “who done it” and nothing more. Above all, readers seeking to appreciate the human spirit should read this book.

The Thought Does Count

In A Designer’s Guide to Gift Giving, Steve Selzer exhorts readers to try and give their best gift ever. And I’m not taking about love, world peace, charity, good deeds, and that kind of touchy-feely crap. I’m talking about stuff that comes gift-wrapped. Read his article to spare me from setting forth the five requirements here.
I’ve already told you enough about horrible gifts.
Today I’m going to share the gifts that I’ve received as an adult that meet Selzer’s standards. Not all were given at Christmas; some were birthday and hostess gifts. And they all were gifts that I didn’t know that I wanted until I opened them up.

Perfex pepper mill
The completest-set ever of the top-of-the-line at the time Cuisinart professional cookware
French press
Top-of-the-line salad spinner
Pink elbow-length leather reinforced gardening gloves
Palette of eye shadow where the worst color was turquoise.
Injinji socks
Lady Gaga perfume. The donor admitted that she was intrigued by the bottle design, the gift box, and the idea of black perfume. Now that’s something I’d never buy myself, but I have to own up to using the entire bottle and enjoying it. And  praying that no one would ask the name of the fragrance, even if it did smell good.
Tweezerman gold glitter set in a gold leather case

Vegetable seeds

Gucci loafers

A plane ticket to Managua. I didn’t even know that I wanted to go to Nicaragua, and it turned out to be a great adventure
A vintage black mammy doll
A black Muñecas Minas doll from Mineral de Pozos

Coin purses, Fendi and Dooney and Bourke
A Mizraim Cárdenas lithograph
A Juan Torres painting
It’s hard to buy books for others, but here are three that came as gifts and remain remembered:
Very Special People

Cocaine Papers by Sigmund Freud

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein

(I cringe when I pick up books at a book sale which have been engraved “Happy Father’s Day from your loving son.” And which appear to be otherwise perfectly good books. And it’s even sadder when you know the recipient and feel that the recipient should’ve held on to them.)

This week I’m getting my load of Christmas load of shit, literally, from the cock-raising neighbor. And I’m thankful. He knows exactly what I want.

Yes, it is the thought that counts. Giving money or a gift certificate is the easy way out, because it doesn’t require thought. And while money is always appreciated and always fits, it’s seldom remembered.

Letters and Trailers

Should you mention Walter Kirn and Robin Sloan in the same breath? Well, I just did.

You see, I hate book trailers. Just on general principles. The only thing worse is listening to a writer read a portion out loud.

Walter Kirn’s publisher commanded him to take some steps to promote his latest book — Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade – on Twitter (which I also deplore but can ignore), Facebook (which I adore and can’t ignore), and the ever-hated book trailer. So Kirn uploaded a video to YouTube as an open letter to Little Failure Gary Shteyngart, which I shared on my Facebook.

My Facebook friends obviously weren’t as entertained as I. The photos I upload to Facebook revealing the lettuce and tomatoes I’ve harvested from my garden generate more comment. Only Frank Koughan (Cringeworthy!), an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer, chairman and executive editor of Burro Hall Enterprises, S.A, living in Queretaro, and David Leffler (That was great! The Ryan Gosling thing at the end was hilarious, but a little sad because there is some truth there.), a New York City lawyer and bon vivant who spent a decade penning columns about practicing law in a magazine I once edited took the time to comment. The only like came from Don Coulter, a Guanajuatense by adoption and Mexican by naturalization, Minnesota-reared, and former managing editor of AMI Auto World. Even the Facebook friends who like everything I post didn’t like this video. That’s probably more a commentary about my Facebook friends than the content of the video.

Saturday’s mail brought me a letter, addressed to me with the return address, written in hand:

R. Sloan

San Francisco, CA


Pondering for a moment who R. Sloan was, I ripped open the letter. And I instantly realized who it came from. Robin Sloan, who thoughtfully sends me e-mail from time to time, because I’m a fan of his book Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore: A Novel, but more likely because I’m on his mailing list. And it was his mailing list e-mail that invited me to go to his website and write him a letter, promising me one in return.


The handwritten reply will be neatly folded, put back into its envelope, and inserted into my first edition (as if those are worth anything these days) of  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore with its glow-in-the-dark cover. That doesn’t make it a signed first edition, but it’s a lot easier than sitting politely through remarks and standing in line at some author event. And even more so since I’ve never go to one in the first place, never mind that pigs will fly before any would be scheduled within driving distance of where I live.

Nearly a generation separates Kirn and Sloan, but the divide is greater than that. Kirn studied English at Princeton, and Sloan majored in economics at Michigan State. Kirn lives in Montana, and Sloan lives between California and the Internet. Kirn has hair, and Sloan doesn’t. But the real divide is digital. Sloan sought and got funding from Kickstarter. Kirn’s still old school, and Sloan’s a media boy. But that quaint old-fashioned touch of asking the U.S. Postal Service to deliver a reader something in the mail trumps everything. It’s almost something that Mr. Penumbra might do.

Now, I’ve bought every book Walter Kirn’s ever written, and some more than once. And I loved his video. I’ve only bought one of Robin Sloan’s books, but that’s because he’s only got one out in print, and I only buy print editions. All the book trailers in the world aren’t going to entice me to buy, but a hand-written letter will keep the sender on my radar for a long time.

Mexican Wins Chile

Rick Steeves calls him the “The Rick Steeves of South America.” I think he’s better than Rick Steeves, any day of the week.

Few travel writers know the Southern Cone better than Wayne Bernhardson, wrote the Moon Handbooks to Buenos Aires, Chile, Argentina and Patagonia. Before I entered this evening’s contest at Southern Cone Travel, I’d been debating about where to go on my next South American trip. I told myself that if I won, the decision would be easy. And because I know my mountains when I see them, I won the current edition of Moon Handbooks Chile.



Gone with the Wind in Mexico

Ever since C.M. Mayo’s The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire came into my hands a year ago last May, via Baltimore of all places, my reading life hasn’t been the same. Entire evenings would be spent hanging out at the Maximilian von Mexiko page, reading through the bibliography, following the links, and even plunging into more research. And now, Mayo’s dedicated a new blog, Maximilian-Carlota, for researchers of the tumultuous period of Mexico known as the Second Empire.

The Empress of the Farewells proved to be an exhaustive history of her life, but it still left me with questions to ponder. What was the real extent of Carlota’s madness – bad chemicals, circumstance, poisoning, or a matter of everyone being mean to her? Really now, wouldn’t you be just a little bit crazy if you went through all that she did? Did Maximilian and Carlota each produce out-of-wedlock progeny?

Going back in the other direction, Agustin de Iturbide, whose son begat the last prince, came from Morelia. Why can’t I find a fascinating biography of him? And why doesn’t Morelia celebrate him, whom I consider the real hero of independence, the problem-solver, as much as it does our other hometown hero, Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon?



Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His AppetiteFrom the time the owner of Bookworm, an Omaha bookstore, handed me Simple Cooking and told me to read (and buy) it, more than two decades ago, we’ve been smitten, taking him to bed with us nearly as often as we’d tune on and turn in with Rush Limbaugh. Like a good fairy tale or maybe, to others, a sonnet, his books bear reading over and over again like a good-night story.

John Thorne isn’t your usual food writer, all caught up in sous-vide (which as far as I’m concerned, Birdseye came up with long ago), slow food, ethically responsible food, whatever that is, and sustainable farming. He openly admits to a fondness for canned tamales, cilantro sandwiches, and rightly admits, as anyone with good taste food ought, that there is no better than Campbell’s black bean soup, doctored only with a spoonful of sherry. He reviews cookbooks, researches the history of important dishes from macaroni and cheese to menudo, and still finds time to experiment.

He may not have gotten pozole down just right (but you’ve got to cut a guy from New England a break), but we’re forever in his debt for introducing us to chicken with forty cloves of garlic.

We bought Pot on the Fire, Outlaw Cook, and Serious Pig, as soon as each was published, just because John Thorne had written them. Frankly, neither measured up to Simple Cooking, but that didn’t stop us from picking up Mouth Wide Open: A Cook and His Appetite—and we’re happy that we did. At last, Thorne’s back to what made him love us in Simple Cooking.


A Place for Men who Knit

When God’s not busy hating Africa, he hates girly men. There was time that we were so concerned about keeping the New World’s men from fates like that that we laid the groundwork for Miss Suzy’s RealMan™ Academy, place where parents with enough money could send their sons who showed signs of being too nice to old ladies and tendencies toward philately and numismatics for RealMan™ lessons in things like killing grizzly bears bare-handed and flossing their teeth with tumbleweeds. But we’ve been beaten to the punch, not only by The Dangerous Book for Boys but now by The Art of Manliness, which even lists 45 manly hobbies. Ham radios, ships in bottles, gardening, reading, and computer programming still live on! Any man who doesn’t profess an interest in at least one of these hobbies is hopeless. Personally, we always thought men who favored magic were the best.


Do Estadounidenses Get the Leadership They Deserve?

Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a LifetimeAn excerpt from Game Change appears here.  Of course, those in the know knew something was foul from the very beginning. How else could a nobody like Obama have been elected?

This is another book y0u, my faithful and good-looking readers, can buy me for Valentine’s Day.

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Buy Me a Valentine

Día de Reyes has now passed, and I’m sure that many Staring at Strangers readers are now contemplating what to buy me for Valentine’s Day. I’m going to make it easy for you this year. No chocolates, no marzipan, no flowers, not even a new pair of Ferragamos. You don’t even have to give me Amazon credit, although I definitely won’t refuse it if you do.

Adriana Trigiani’s latest book, Brava, Valentine: A Novel, will be available at a bookstore near you during the first week of February, just in time for you to buy it for me. Having stayed up until the wee hours of the morning finishing off the first in this series, Very Valentine: A Novel, I am in desperate need to have the sequel in my hands as soon as possible. I can’t wait around for it to hit the bargain pile. I need it now.

Remember, it’s not just one superannuated and recovering lawyer lost in the wilds of central Mexico you’ll be helping with this purchase. You’ll be helping the author, the American publishing industry, truth, justice, the American Way, and everything that’s good and pure with your purchase. Because I live in Mexico, I can’t just sally over to Barnes & Noble or Borders and buy the book. But wait, there’s more. Whoever buys and sends this book to me will receive, completely free of charge, a tribute right on the pages of Staring at Strangers. That’s something Sally Struthers doesn’t even offer up for your support of a starving child in Africa. And when I’m finished to the book, I’ll even loan it to a worthy stranger.

Write me at, and I’ll tell you where to send my Valentine.

Devolution of Memory

HOPE Bill Clinton was the Man from Hope, and Obama was The Audacity of Hope. In between those two came Vicente Fox’s Revolution of Hope. Hope never let any politician down. Hope is right up there with kissing babies and handing out party favors.

I’ll never forget arriving at La Soledad, an elegant resort in the old colonial silver city of Morelia, more like a hill town in Tuscany with its ancient vine-covered aqueducts and gracious cathedrals.

Revolution of Hope, Vicente Fox and Rob Allyn

Morelia’s old, and it’s colonial, but Taxco and Guanajuato it’s not. If there’s any silver here, it has yet to be discovered. Since when have Morelia’s aqueducts been covered with vines? Is there more than one cathedral in Morelia?


Was the Book Just a Passing Fad?

David Weinberger seems to think that books may turn out to have been just an accident of paper.

It’s easy to lament the demise of used bookstores, the downfall of public libraries, and the rise of the dastardly Kindle, but think, for a moment, of the number of friends and acquaintances you may have, educated, decent people, respected in their communities even, whose homes harbor nary a book. Frightening, eh? And that goes double in Mexico, where reading books is simply  not an act performed in public. At least among decent folk.

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Fans We Love

All right, I don’t know Rumbear, except that he says he’s constantly reminded that he’s not smart enough to be a Democrat, he’s occupied, lives in the United States Minor Outlying Islands, and is “urbane, witty and handsome in a bucolic sort of way.” He’s obviously a man of quality and style.

And we’re in love with him, at least for tonight. Among the good reads he read during 2008, right up there with Rick Perry’s book, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, and H.W. Brands’ Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life of FDR, he read my bookHow to Capture and Keep Clients. How cool is that?

If Microsoft Were Richard Dooling

then its EULA would include:rapture2

MANDATORY ACTIVATION. The license rights granted under this EULA are limited  to the first thirty (30) minutes after you install the book by opening it, unless you supply information required to activate your licensed copy of the book in the manner described on this page. You may also need to reactivate the book if you modify yourself or alter your personality. For instance if you grow older and more mature, develop a mental illness, change your diet, or receive any artificial limbs or joints, pacemakers, implants, or organ transplants, then you may need to reactivate your license before you will be allowed to reaccess the book.

Read on.

And in the event that you’re ignorant, you should know that Richard Dooling is the most famous lawyer turned novelist in all of Omaha.


One Magazine to Die For

It’s no secret that I’ve never met a magazine I didn’t like. (How’s that for a triple negative?) From Prison Living to Tapestry (a magazine for cross-dressers and transsexuals), I’m fascinated by more than just the content. The paper quality, binding, blow-ins, inserts, advertising lineup, and even the masthead all pique my curiosity.

The perfumed strips and makeup samples, musical cards, tiny booklets, and little gifts (does anyone else remember when Smirnoff included a set of mittens with its ad?) only added to the rich magazine experience. And who could forget the issue of Vanity Fair that weighed as much as your average major metropolitan area telephone book? Online magazines are better than no magazines at all, but there’s a lamentable loss in tactile quality.

There are lots of magazines about getting married, giving birth, raising children, being a modern drunk, caring for gerbils, practicing law, cooking fine meals, loving Texas, living in Mexico, growing and dealing dope, getting 0ld, and being rich. There are trade magazines for every occupation under the sun from raising lab animals to formulating pet food and designing packaging materials, from operating a car wash to developing operating systems.

imgLogo But until now, at least as far as I know, there hasn’t been a magazine about checking out. And it’s about time. It’s something that exactly every person reading this blog – and every other blog under the sun—will do eventually. Obit, whose mission statement reads “What death can mean to the living and what living may have meant to the dead” may be the final word.


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Food for the Apocalypse

It started innocently enough. A Mexican friend, a worldly and sophisticated kind of guy, a man who had actually lived in foreign countries for substantial periods of his life, started out with a fond reminiscence about canned chili. One thing led to another, and before long, the topic of misunderstood canned food came up. Well, it had to, sooner or later.

And then before you knew it, Daily Show writer and otherwise famous guy Rob Kutner writes this book, Apocalypse How, telling us how to get ready for the end of the world. But he carefully leaves out one very important fact. Guys who plan to survive do this, you know. (We have to mention his name as frequently as we do law or sex, because he sends us $10.00 each time we utter his name. We know a good thing when we see it.)

So, I’m at Albertson’s in Santa Fe, and what do I spy on the shelves? Yes, you guessed correctly: Hormel canned tamales. Those rich celebrity folks in The City Different know their gourmet cuisine, that’s for sure. Only hours after returning home to Morelia, it was time to send out a plea for more, and a very connected person in the next town over had confirmed orders for replacements on their way all the way from the U.S. to Mexico in a matter of minutes.

Suddenly, canned tamales became all the rage in central Michoacán. The mere sight of a can brought tears to the eyes of even more sophisticated, worldly folks, the kind who hang with the cognoscenti of Mexican culture. They spoke fondly of the first tamal that ever touched their tongues in far-off places like Springfield, Missouri, Dallas, and San Diego, savoring it right down to the paper wrappers, congealed orange morsels of flavor, and playfully light chili sauce.  One elderly man recalled his very first brush with the humble canned tamal in Denver some fifty years back.

Only yesterday, a half-case of Hormel canned tamales was placed in my custody. I fondly read over the label of the canned tamales, carefully noting that no xanthan gum, red dye number five or diethylhydrodemocratic acid or other foodstuffs not found in nature lurked in this all-natural, all-beef, preservative-free product. Yearning to open a can for my own selfish pleasures, I read the stamp on the cans, only to find that this stuff is best if served in 2011. This means that I have to wait three more years before this stuff is fully matured.

It’s for the best. Come 2011, we’ll all be good and hungry, if not starving, once the Apocalypse comes.  And those canned Hormel beef tamales in chili sauce will be even more damn delicious.




More on the Law for Promotion of Reading and Books

30% of Mexicans have never visited a library in their entire lives.

40% have never set foot in a bookstore.

1 in 8 have never read a book.

We’re not a poor country. We’re not an illiterate country. Reading just isn’t valued in this country.

Sobre la Ley de Fomento para la Lectura and el Libro (About the Law for the Promotion of Reading and the Book) is dedicated to an explanation of the history behind Mexico’s new book law and what it hopes to accomplish. The full text of the law can be found here.


What Keeps Mexicans from Reading Books?

It’s no secret that Mexicans aren’t exactly among the world’s leading readers of books. The absence of books in the homes of educated is frightening. So, too, is the dearth of bookstores. Any Mexican lingering alone over a book at a café might as well be committing acts of perversion and self-abuse for all the respect reading a book in public generates.

Books are expensive in this country, and that keeps many from buying them. Today the “book law” vetoed two years ago by then-President Vicente Fox was signed into law by President Felipe Calderon. The new law requires that all books, whether printed in Mexico or imported, be sold at the same price throughout the nation, forbidding discounting until the book is 18 months old and in stock for a year.  The rationale is that this step will encourage Mexicans to read more books.

If that makes a centavo of sense to you, I want to know what drugs you’ve been taking.


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