Books by People I Know: “Junkette”

31UKFHgIfxL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI was an enthusiastic Sarah Shotland fan the moment I met her. But then again, pretty much everybody is.

Sarah made a splash in Pittsburgh when she dreamed up Words Without Walls, a writing program for people in prison. You can read my interview with Sarah about this groundbreaking program over at Pittsburgh Magazine.

But Sarah is so much more than Words Without Walls. She’s plainspoken and hilarious. She speaks with the subtlest Southern twang. We spent many nights yukking it up on her porch in Friendship.

We met in Chatham’s MFA program, but we really bonded over theater. Sarah is an accomplished playwright and has worked for theater companies around the world. She has spent time in Spain and China, Texas and New Orleans. Chatham’s MFA program attracts many students in their mid-twenties, so Sarah and I felt a little older, a little more road-tested. We are similarly laid-back, and similarly diehard about our labors of love. No matter how much time passes, we pick up our conversation where we left off. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “Talking Tico”


Joe Baur is my doppelgänger. Or maybe I’m his. On paper, we’re practically interchangeable.

Joe arrived in Costa Rica shortly after I did, to study at the University for Peace. When I learned of his arrival, I looked up the usual sites—Facebook, LinkedIn—and was shocked to discover our similarities.

Joe grew up in Cleveland, while I spent most of my adult life in Pittsburgh. Like me, he’s a writer, videographer, photographer, podcaster, and traveler. He has produced sketch comedy, as have I. We both have Germanic surnames and personal interest in our Central European heritage. We are both avid cyclists and abhor automotive dependency, and we both refused to drive for many years. We were both avid contributors to The Tico Times, especially the travel section. We have both written for a range of publications about craft beer. We are both recreational runners and chronicled our first races in the tropics. We both married to our longtime girlfriends in streamlined weddings shortly before we became expats. We both moved out of our longtime homes and lived with our in-laws for a short period before the big move. We resided in Costa Rica for similar stretches of time, and our casas were located 10 miles away from each other, roughly on the same road. Facially, we could probably pass for cousins or even brothers, especially in Latin America. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “Let Me Clear My Throat”

19178979.jpgThis is my favorite story about Elena Passarello:

We were in college, and the theater department threw a basement party. Someone had hired a DJ. The audio equipment stood on a flimsy foldout table. The music was loud and throbbing.

Elena had made friends with a small cohort from Manchester, England, and invited them to the party. The Brits were new in town and didn’t know most of the people there, but that didn’t seem to bother them. They started dancing to the music.

One of them leapt up and down. It was a wild, thrashing dance. Emboldened, he sprang in the air and landed in the middle of the flimsy, foldout table.

The table broke in half. Or maybe it fell over. Whatever the case, the audio equipment went flying. Piles of CDs clattered on the tile floor. The music stopped. The party stopped. Everyone stared in disbelief at the Brits, who were now huddled in the corner, shocked and uncertain what to do next. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “Senseless”

12363496.jpgI spent much of my twenties at a restaurant called Joe Mama’s. The happy  hour crowd was a cultish bunch of bohemians and ne’er-do-wells, and they have remained some of my closest friends. The bar was big and U-shaped, and there was little distinction between regulars and staff; we bantered for hours, talking life, art, sex, and politics as the Pittsburgh skyline darkened outside. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.

Damien worked as the all-star bartender, a boisterous and heavily bearded young man with a golden sense of humor. The moment I learned that Damien had (also) studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, we’d spend whole evenings swapping favorite book titles and book summaries and ideas for future books. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “Your Life Idyllic”

51ON-VUMVVL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIt was the perfect setup: Craig had an office, and I had an office.

Well, Craig had a real office. Directly across the hall, I shared an office with a bunch of adjuncts. My office was usually empty, so I took the corner desk.

If we leaned back in our chairs, Craig and I could see each other across the narrow corridor. Craig has a quiet intensity. He’s dryly funny. We got along great. We’d shoot conversation across the hall—about writing, about teaching, about whatever. He told me a little about his days in the Navy. (A submarine!) He told me about his years as a dishwasher. I admired his toughness: He commuted to Duquesne University on a racing bike, even in snowstorms, using a pair of welding glasses to protect his eyes against the wind. Now and again we’d describe the things we were working on. The books we really wanted to write. The projects that we’d maybe finish, one day.

And then he finished one: Your Life Idyllic. And then the book won the St. Lawrence Book Award. It surprised me—not because I doubted Craig, but because he had been so quiet about it. Craig has a slow-burn personality. He speaks in a kind of mellow growl. He’s captivating in conversation. You always suspect he knows something he’s not letting on. In this case, it was an entire book. Continue reading

Books by People I Know: “I Will Say This Exactly One Time”

I_Will_Say_This_Exactly_One_Time.jpgOn social media, D. Gilson often posts screen-shots of his conversations with a woman named “Bev.” These exchanges, always by Apple Messenger, are perfect little nuggets: Bev interrogates D. about his love life. She makes fun of her neighbors. She describes daily existence with her husband. She pretty much always ends with a zinger.

For a long time, I had no idea who Bev was, but it didn’t matter. Their daily correspondence was better than any three-panel comic strip I’ve ever read. The banter is decently funny, particularly if you know D. But it’s also revealing, off-color, and fun. It’s easy to imagine a coffee table collection of Bev’s random rants.

“Revealing, off-color, and fun” is exactly how I would describe D.’s essay collection, I Will Say This Exactly One Time. I met D. when we were both students at Chatham University. In an MFA program that caters to bookish young women, D. was an instant hit: lovable and petit, wearing thick-framed glasses and a goofy smile. He speaks with a mild folksy twang. D. can use the term “queer” in regular conversation, making the word sound rakish and worldly. He never seemed to go anywhere without a cadre of girlfriends. Anywhere D. went, the scene might break into a heated discussion about gender politics or a glitzy dance party. Meanwhile, there was the persistent rumor that D. had once competed in a rodeo.


A typical D.-Bev exchange.

These essays reflect D.’s unpredictable élan. They cover the gamut of topics, from the pleasures of walking around to the semiotics of Ke$ha. This is not comic writing; many of these vignettes are deadly serious, as D.’s family has been cursed with a string of tragedies. D. studied poetry at Chatham, and his style is pensive and lyrical. My favorite essay, and probably the most shocking, chronicles his family visit to a NASCAR race. But to me, D.’s writing is like a cross between Dale Peck and Chuck Klosterman—cerebral, pop culture-savvy, and willing to lay bare his most personal pensées. The essays are meandering in the way of late-night conversation. He may say all these things exactly one time, but here’s hoping he says a lot of other stuff, too.

You can find I Will Say This Exactly One Time on Amazon, or you can order it from your local bookstore.