personal anecdotes

So that’s where they all went

During the signing following last night’s reading at Third Place Books, I noticed a number of people had copies of Bad Monkeys with gold “LOCAL AUTHOR” stickers on them. Since I’d seen Third Place Books’ stock and knew they didn’t use stickers like that, I asked what was up, and learned that these copies were from Costco, which reportedly has a stack of Bad Monkeys next to the Harry Potter books. It wasn’t the discount that had led these people to buy from Costco, though — it was the fact that Costco’s copies were first editions. Unfortunately, because Costco is not a rare bookstore, they don’t understand about condition, and I have a feeling those stickers are going to be the kind you can’t remove without a chisel.

While I was out of the country…

…Bad Monkeys reached the #15 spot on the Book Sense national bestseller list.

…the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer simul-published their reviews of the novel. Though neither is an unqualified rave, both say enough nice things about me that, by the time HarperCollins’ P.R. machine gets done excerpting them, they will be remembered as unqualified raves. Be warned that the P-I review contains plot spoilers.

…the San Francisco Chronicle, having already run the Associated Press’s love letter to Bad Monkeys, decided to give me another three paragraphs in a round-up of summertime sci-fi adventures.

…the corn I had planted in the front yard, mostly on a lark, set its first cobs.

… weighed in here.

…HarperCollins decided to order a fourth printing of Bad Monkeys—five thousand more copies, due from the printers on September 7th, which happens to be the day before my birthday.

In which Jeff Bezos foils me again

A sample copy of the finished Bad Monkeys arrived in the mail over the weekend. It looks great, and it also looks different. All that yellow in the cover, plus the tall and narrow dimensions—it’s 9 1/2″ by 5″—really make it stand out on a shelf.

The book’s arrival during my in-laws’ visit tempted us to an act of market manipulation. We pre-ordered ten copies of the book online in my mother-in-law’s name, hoping that this would bump my rating enough to start a chain-reaction that would rocket Bad Monkeys to the number two spot on the list (the #1 spot, as you may have heard, is taken).

Amazon ranking before we placed the order: ~41,000.
Amazon ranking an hour after we placed the order: ~59,000.

Oh well.

This frightens me

The in-laws were visiting over the weekend, and yesterday we made our usual pilgrimage to the Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn. Along the way we stopped at Denny’s, where I spotted the following item on the menu:

Mini burgers — “Six mini cheeseburgers with mustard and grilled onions surrounding a mound of crisp golden-fried onion rings”

This is not a to-share platter—it’s intended as a meal for a single person. I know that “mini” probably means White Castle-sized, and that it’s not unusual for people (including my younger self) to inhale half a dozen of those at a sitting, but still… six cheeseburgers. With deep-fried onion rings. Dude.

This, Dr. Pepper, is SPARTA!!!

So what do authors do to pass the time while waiting for their publication date?

One answer, if you know the right people, is: fill plastic soda bottles with water and then hack them apart with swords…

BTW, this is two separate cuts with two different blades (and two bottles; Dr. Pepper didn’t survive his encounter with the longsword in photo #1).

Here, fellow Pepper matador Cooper Moo scores a clean decapitation:

Pics courtesy of Neal S.; deadly weapons courtesy of Angus Trim and Tinker Pearce.


Thanks to a German fan named Kolja Böther, I now have a copy of my missionary grandfather’s memoir, Roughing it for Christ in the Wilds of Brazil. It’s short—more a pamphlet than a book—but does a good job of conveying what his life in South America was like.

The “roughing it” part is no joke. Traveling between his various mission posts, Grandpa sometimes spent as much as twenty hours at a stretch in the saddle (he rode mules, the terrain having proved too rugged for horses). And his home life, when he had time to enjoy it, sounds like something you might read about in a Matt Ruff novel:

The parsonage was well meant by Synod’s representatives. A large, two-story building of sixteen rooms, intended to house two missionaries, with the greatest number of large French windows that I ever saw in a house of that size. With the exception of my study, the windows were without glass during the war, and for some time after. There were no shutters. In Brazil it rains at times. We sometimes have the feeling as if it were always raining there. And with every rain the water would pour down through the ceiling on the windward side of the house. In some rains all four sides seemed windward, as the storm drove the sheets of rain through from end to end. But we were trained, like a ship’s crew, to stow all movable goods away on the driest side of the house. And when the wind changed, we would re-stow them on the other side. And sometimes we would be sitting on the leeward side and wouldn’t notice the rain coming in the windward, and would then find some books ruined or a bed wet through and through, or even covered with a layer of clay mortar from the unfinished wall. That, too, was hard on the nerves. But I can say that I always tried to find a funny side. One of the funny sides was this, that the floor was absolutely waterproof. We had to bore holes through it to get the water out. But after I had a wife, and before I got the idea of the holes in the floor, and whenever we would have stowed the goods away on a dry side, before the wind would have a chance to turn, we would join hands and dance around barefoot in the sea on the floors of study and dining room…

About the wife: in the stories my mother used to tell me, Grandpa and Grandma’s marriage was far from idyllic. Among other issues, Grandma eventually converted to Mormonism, which I imagine made for interesting dinner conversation. But at time Grandpa wrote Roughing it, the big theological debates were still in the future, and his description of her and their relationship is actually quite touching:

[S]he is a German Russian by birth, a Brazilian by adoption since her eleventh year, an American by sympathies and by marriage. Having had no school, she is a wonderful reader. In her confirmation days and after she memorized all of the synodical catechism, including most of Luther’s introduction. In her girlhood days, she made 14 miles afoot and back on the same day, in the rain and barefoot, of course, to hear one of our chorus concerts…
We have been asked other questions, one or two of which I shall answer here. “Don’t you wear wedding rings in Brazil?” Yes, we do. At least those people do that have the money. We didn’t have it at the time. Later on we made up our minds that we would have a sweet revenge for this condition of affairs, by buying our rings at no other place than Tiffany’s in New York. Which we did. They are the usual gold bands, and contain the legend: “Urwahnfried — 1918.” Nothing else, but that is a volume. Urwahnfried is a word composed of old German word roots, and means in modern English, “Fulfillment.” Or, more explicitly: “The Place where my Fight for the Highest and Broadest Ideals of Life Came to an End in the Peace of Victory.”

And that’s today’s word.

(Update: My grandfather’s book is now available in a Kindle edition.)

The color code of the day is #FAEE04

As part of the master plan to sell copies of Bad Monkeys to every cool person in America, HarperCollins has set up a Myspace page. I got the password a couple days ago and am starting to familiarize myself with the interface. Most of it’s pretty straightforward, but if I want to spiff up the look of the profile page—and I do—I’m going to have to learn to hand-code CSS, which should make for an interesting project.

And speaking of books with large amounts of yellow on their covers, I just got word that the German paperback of Sewer, Gas & Electric is entering its 7th printing. If any of you should run into David Hasselhoff today, please tell him I said hi.

More Ruff and Lehenbauer family trivia

Since blogging about my cousin Ernest, I’ve been on a family history jag. I’m not sure how interesting any of this is to non-relatives, but with Bad Monkeys‘ pub. date just four months away, I’m starting to get requests from publicists for biographical tidbits to feed to reviewers and interviewers, so maybe there’s something here that’ll qualify as “local color.” And, hey, I think it’s cool.

First, a couple corrections: in my previous post, I had originally written that both the Ruffs and the Lehenbauers came from Bavaria. Actually, the Ruffs were Prussian; my great-great-grandfather Johann Frederick Ruff was born in 1830 in the village of Badeleben, near Magdeburg. I think the reason for my confusion on this point is that my German publisher is located in Munich, so I regard Bavaria as my home base when I’m over there. But if there’s a Bad Monkeys book tour, I’ll have to see if I can arrange a stop in Badeleben, and maybe at the University of Berlin to look for J.F.’s old school records.

As for Mom’s side of the family, I wrote that the Lehenbauers worked as linen weavers in the town of Oettingen “during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.” Those dates come from The Family Lehenbauer, a privately published genealogy. What I’d forgotten until I started digging into my files is that I also have a set of addenda to the genealogy that pushes the timeline back even further. Turns out the Lehenbauers were in Oettingen from at least the 17th century. The ur-ancestor is a man named Johann Caspar Leonhard Lehenbauer, born in 1674.

Geez, 1674. I’m simultaneously awestruck and amused. I mean, the guy is my great-great-great-great-grandfather (one of them—I’ve got, what, 31 others?). At a remove of six generations, the genetic link must be getting pretty weak, and culturally we’d be aliens to each other. So to feel a special connection to him is, on one level, absurd. And yet…

Closer to home (temporally speaking), I also did some checking on my grandfather, the Lutheran missionary who went to South America. It seems he wrote a short memoir, Roughing it for Christ in the wilds of Brazil, that is listed on, though of course it’s long out of print. My wife Lisa is going to use her rare-book skills to try and locate a copy, but this is the sort of ephemera that is notoriously difficult to track down.

One thing I did find, though, is a street in Santa Rosa, Brazil that’s named after Grandpa—the Rua Pastor Albert Lehenbauer (Google Maps has the last name misspelled as “Lemenbawer”, but it’s definitely him). While I’m not sure how he came to rate a street sign, it’s probably got something to do with his role in Brazilian agricultural history. Grandpa was the guy who first brought soybeans into the country and convinced the local gauchos to start growing them; today, soy is Brazil’s second-biggest legal export crop.

And one more neat little discovery: if you fire up Google Earth and look at Santa Rosa from orbit, the town is disappointingly blurry. But if you track south-southwest, the satellite resolution suddenly gets a whole lot sharper (CIA must have had biz in the neighborhood), and if you look closely, about fifteen miles out you’ll find a dot marked Ipiranga next to a spot where two dirt roads meet at right angles. I believe this is Ypiranga Crossroads, where my grandfather and grandmother were married and where my mother spent her early childhood. The level of detail is high enough that I could easily pick out the house, if I knew what it looked like.

So again, a mixture of awe and amusement. Hi, Grandpa. Hi, Mom. Greetings from the future.

In which your author finds a relative sitting in Saddam Hussein’s chair

My family doesn’t have a strong military tradition. Although a number of the men, particularly in my father’s generation, have worn uniforms, there aren’t any career soldiers, and reference to “the service” has always meant religious service.

The Ruffs are typically pastors; the Lehenbauers, my mother’s people, incline more to missionary work. If you sense a fundamental difference in temperament here, you’re right. Lehenbauers tend to have—how shall I put this?—a healthy love of debate, and they are also more prone to wanderlust. Both sides of the family immigrated from Germany to the American Midwest in the 19th century, but while the Ruffs stayed put once they got here, Grandpa Lehenbauer got restless and decided to continue on to South America—first Brazil, then Argentina. Then in the 1950s my mother backtracked to the U.S., drawn in part, one suspects, by the nomadic promise of the new Interstate Highway System.

The reason I mention all this: as I say, we’re not a military family, so until recently I assumed that none of my relatives were over in Iraq. But if you’d told me that one of my kin had been spotted across the street from Abu Ghraib prison, or goofing around in the throne room of one of Saddam’s palaces, and asked me to guess whether it was a Ruff or a Lehenbauer… well, it’s not even a question, really.

A few months ago I was doing research on the town of Oettingen, where earlier, less itinerant generations of Lehenbauers worked as linen weavers. A Google search turned up the following photo:

This was the home of my great-great-grandfather, Johann Matthias Lehenbauer (the siding is a more recent addition, and of course in the 1700s only the wealthiest Germans could afford electricity).

The photo was posted in the blog of one Ernest Lehenbauer, a civilian engineer under contract to the Department of Defense to help bolt supplemental armor onto Humvees. He’d visited Oettingen while on leave from “Camp Warrior” in Kirkuk.

“Well that’s interesting,” I thought. “I have a long-lost cousin named Ernest, whose dad was an engineer for Ford, and not only is he a Lehenbauer, he’s one of the Mormon Lehenbauers, which means he’s way crazy enough to volunteer for work in a combat zone…” Sure enough, this was indeed my cousin Ernie, whom I last saw back when we were teenagers (as I recall, we spent much of the visit trying to convince Ernie’s younger brother Eric that the house was being buzzed by UFOs).

Ernie’s trip to Oettingen took place in 2005, and by the time I stumbled across his blog, his tour in Iraq was already over—he’d finished up his contract and headed home in March of 2006. His final blog entry was entitled “Moving on, I guess,” which I understood to be Lehenbauer code for “I’ll stay Stateside just long enough for my mother’s blood pressure to return to normal, then see if anyone in Afghanistan needs a mechanic.”

Big surprise, a couple days ago I discovered a new Ernest Lehenbauer blog called “Back to Iraq.” Seems that he reupped to help out with the surge, and now they’ve got him unclogging the Internet tubes at one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces. (Though it’s been many years since our UFO-spotting days, looks like Ernie and I still have the same sense of humor. I would totally do the “Saddam’s throne photo op with bad pun” thing, if you could get me within a thousand miles of the place. But I’m only half Lehenbauer, and somebody needs to stay here on the West Coast and watch for North Korean submarines.)

I’ve added Ernie’s blog to my journal links so I can keep track of his doings, and because, in case it’s not obvious, I’m proud of him. I’m worried for him, too, but another factoid about Lehenbauers is that they’re historically quite difficult to kill. Grandma Helena, for example—the original Mormon Lehenbauer—was hit by a truck at age 77 and survived to argue theology for another nine years. I’m optimistic that the same mojo will work against exploding trucks… and hopeful that this theory will not be put to the test.

Sin City

My wife Lisa and I are back from Vegas, where we got an early start on the traditional Jewish Christmas of low-stakes gambling and buffets. Some highlights:

Our favorite poker room — Treasure Island. The new Venetian poker room was a surprise second.

Our least favorite poker room — Excalibur. Even with the special prize wheel you get to spin whenever your aces get cracked, it was strangely not fun.

My best poker hand of the trip — 2/4 limit hold ’em at Treasure Island. Seated to my immediate left are a father and son who play lots of hands but haven’t grasped certain fundamentals of the game yet. With the big blind two seats to my right, I am dealt pocket aces. The guy under the gun limps in. I raise. Son calls. Father calls. A few other players call. Under-the-gun reraises, and I think, Oh good, he slowplayed pocket kings. I reraise, saying, “Cap it.” The dealer counts my chips and informs me that the betting is not capped—in this casino, as opposed to the Muckleshoot in Washington state, the maximum number of raises on a given betting round is four, not three. “Oh,” I say. “OK.” Son calls. Father calls. The other players, seeing dark clouds on the horizon, fold to Under-the-gun, who puts in the fourth raise. I call. Son calls. Father calls.

The flop is Q-7-2, with two clubs. Under-the-gun checks. I bet. Son calls. Father calls. Under-the-gun check-raises. I reraise. Son gets this look on his face like, “Hmm, I may be up against some really good hands here,” and folds. Father calls. Under-the-gun calls.

The turn is the 6 of clubs. My aces are both red, so this is not ideal, but there’s no reason to assume I’m beaten yet. Under-the-gun can’t have a flush, and Father will let me know if he does. Under-the-gun checks. I bet. Father just calls (nope, no flush). Under-the gun calls.

The river is a T of spades. Under-the-gun checks. I bet. Father calls. Under-the-gun calls and shows his kings, neither one a club. Father turns over…Q-8, neither one a club. And my hand is good.

My most annoying poker hand of the trip — A different 2/4 limit hold ’em table at Treasure Island. Seated to my left is a guy I’ve dubbed the Human Kill-Pot, because he plays almost every hand, and raises every hand he is in. In the small blind, I am dealt pocket fives. Two players limp in. A guy in early-middle position who is apparently a friend of the Human Kill-Pot raises. Two more players call. I call. The Human Kill-Pot, his usual preflop raise having been preempted, just calls. The limpers call.

The flop is K-5-4, with two spades. I bet. The Human Kill-Pot raises. The limpers fold. The preflop raiser just calls. The two remaining players call. I reraise. HKP calls. Everybody else calls.

The turn is a 7 of hearts. I bet. HKP calls. The preflop raiser calls. The two remaining players fold.

The river is an 8 of diamonds. I bet. HKP raises. The preflop raiser folds. I cross my fingers that HKP has made two pair or is overplaying a king, and call. HKP turns over 6-5 offsuit, for the backdoor straight. As the dealer shoots me a look of commiseration, HKP turns to his friend and says, “Kim, you know why I called that down? I felt it!”

My most second-guessed poker hand of the trip — Final table of a $60-buy-in no-limit hold ’em tournament at Treasure Island. Five players left, top four places pay. Lisa went out in twelfth place, so I am defending the family honor. The blinds are now 1000/2000, and after posting the big blind, I have 8000 left in my stack. Everyone folds to the small blind, who has about 10,000 left in his stack. He just calls. I look down at A-8 offsuit and quickly go all-in.

My reasoning is as follows: SB’s play has been relatively straightforward, so it’s unlikely he’s trapping. If he had a pair or a better ace than mine, he’d have raised; his call means he’s got a more speculative hand, like two suited cards or T-9 offsuit, that he’d like to see a cheap flop with but probably isn’t willing to gamble the majority of his chips on, especially this close to the money. There’s no point in giving him a chance to get lucky; best to put him to a decision now, while I’m ahead.

That’s the expanded version of my reasoning. My literal thought process was more like this: “I have an ace, and I sense weakness… All-in!”

Well, it turned out I’d read him exactly right, except for the part about him not being willing to gamble. He started to ask the dealer how much it would cost to call, then shrugged and said, “Eh, let’s do it.” He turned over Q-5 of diamonds. My A-8 was a 60-40 favorite, but the board came 4-4-6-5-5, and that was that.

All of which I would be cool with—I got my money in with the best of it—except that as I was getting up, I realized the one factor I’d failed to consider before making my all-in move was that the guy to my immediate left, the one due to post the big blind next, only had 2500 chips left. Sure enough, he busted out on the very next hand. So, if I had just waited…

But, that’s probably results-oriented thinking. If the small blind hadn’t hit his 5, or if I’d spiked an ace on the river, I’d have doubled up and felt like a genius. And I didn’t just want fourth place, I wanted to win. But…

Bad poker player we came closest to feeling sorry for — The young man who sat down at our table the last night we were there and announced, “This is my first time.” Usually such a comment would be facetious, but in this case it turned out to be true, and over the next half hour the guy lost all his money, much of it to Lisa. He was clearly very embarrassed by this, and his embarrassment was compounded by the fact that his girlfriend was sitting right behind him, watching him lose. But the girlfriend couldn’t have cared less—her every gesture conveyed that she was bored out of her skull and desperate for this stupid game to be over so that they could go do something fun. Lisa thought this boded poorly for the future of their relationship.

Poker player we actually did feel sorry for — At the same table as the above, the sad-looking kid who folded so many hands that when he finally decided to call, the other players applauded. Then somebody raised, and he folded that hand, too.

Smelliest casino — The Wynn. I don’t know if the super-rich just smoke more cigars or if there’s a problem with the air filtration system, but at a time when the rest of the Strip is noticeably less smoky than it used to be, this place has the kind of nicotine stink that sinks into your clothes and follows you home.

Our favorite eating spot — The Stage Deli, in Caesar’s Palace.

My favorite food of the trip — Chicken in a pot, at the Stage Deli.

Lisa’s favorite food of the trip — Corned beef sandwiches, at the Stage Deli.

Runners-up in the favorite food category — Made-to-order omelets, all-you-can-eat king crab legs, and shrimp shumai at the Mirage buffet; lobster fra diavolo at the Grand Lux Cafe in the Venetian; and grilled paninis at ‘Wichcraft in the MGM Grand.

Pounds gained while consuming the above — Zero! Vegas is big, inside and out; just to get from the Mirage lobby to our room was probably a quarter-mile hike (and yes, that’s using the elevator). Throw in a few treks between casinos and you’re talking serious exercise.

Most intriguing item spotted while window-shopping menus of restaurants we couldn’t afford to eat at — Wok-fried frog with basil ($38, at Pearl, in the MGM Grand).

Most intemperate utterance of the trip — Me, upon being seated within earshot of former Cincinnati Reds player Pete Rose, at the Stage Deli: “Wow, Pete Rose in Vegas. Do you think he gambles?”

Deep question of the trip — Me, standing in line outside the Mirage buffet, surrounded by very large Americans, watching food porn on the flat panel video array they use to whet your appetite while you’re waiting: “So if the North Koreans could see us right now, do you think they’d all die of shock or just cry for a really long time?”

Coolest non-poker, non-food related thing — Video projection on the floor of one of the MGM Grand corridors that reacts when you step on it.