Thursday, December 29, 2005

Feeding the baby-New York style

I met my collaboration partner for a work session yesterday in NYC. Times Square and the Theater district was awash with pedestrians as many people who work in the city had taken vacation and then decided to return post-strike in order to shop or visit the theater, etc. with friends and family.

Phil and I started off in Starbucks on 42nd where he was able to plug his laptop into the electricity (he was also able to get internet service, even though it's not a 'hotspot' for that) and we worked for five solid hours in between sipping coffees. Thereafter, we scarpered to a Chinese deli for lunch and worked for another two hours before calling it quits. All in all, we felt really pleased with the amount of work achieved.

Now that the first draft is written, we were able to prepare a comprehensive 'cast of characters' and decide who was in and who was out of the play. (For those of you who've read the book, Fergal, Uncle Tommy and Auntie Bernie are eliminated.) Through a process of rigid cutting and deciding which characters can double and triple up (actors love that as it keeps them busy), we've been able to prune the character list to 13 actors who will play 37 roles. Some of you might wonder why we had to reduce the cast list. The answer is that many theaters state the maximum number of cast members and, in going through the book which lists theaters seeking submissions, we've found that a lot have eight or ten as the magic number. Larger theaters often do not stipulate, but it's wise to keep the list smaller rather than larger. So with a cast list of 13 and a tightly written play, we should be able to get the script read by some important theaters.

In order to remain faithful to the novel's content, message and resolution, we found that the absolute minimum of characters required was 13. We've also decided to write a second version of the play some time in the future with a cast of eight, but that will require us to take great liberties and diverge quite a bit from the published novel.

As I was on my way back to the Port Authority to catch my bus, I saw a sight that made me laugh. I guess you could say it was the oddest case of multi-tasking I've ever seen, and the expression 'only in New York' is probably apt. While waiting for a pedestrian light to change, a sleek, white Land Rover drove slowly by driven by a forty-something man. In the front passenger seat was a pretty blonde woman dressed in a caramel sheepskin coat who was reading a book while simultaneously feeding her baby (lying in a portable crib on the back seat). I wouldn't have thought it possible unless I'd seen it for myself. There she sat totally absorbed in her reading with her left arm bent backwards as she held the bottle of milk in the baby's mouth. And the baby was sucking away contently, its eyes gazing up at the ceiling of the vehicle, which told me this wasn't the first time the method had been utilized. Instantly, I thought this is an attorney, investment banker or something, with an elegant Fifth Ave apartment, and a nanny who'd had the temerity to ask for some vacation over Christmas.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Argyll in the sky

Nine million people will travel by air throughout the US today. It's the busiest travel day in the continental United States throughout the holidays. This afternoon, the Pennsylvania sun was bursting from the cerulean sky and it wasn't hard to verify that Americans are on the move. Everywhere the eye alighted above were pristine trails of vapor. It was amazing, actually. Being within the flight paths of planes leaving and arriving from Newark, JFK, LaGuardia and Philly, at one point the sky was so awash with crisscrossing jet trails that the it resembled the front panel of a giant Argyll sweater.


Zooming off now to do a quick bit of shopping because I'm a procrastinator when it comes to shopping at any time. I hate shopping, period. It's all my Mum's fault really, because she dragged all her kids into endless boutiques in bomb-blasted Belfast (it was the seventies and quite 'iffy' then) and made us endure interminable waits while she tried on, what seemed to us, every dress, blouse and skirt in the goddamned shop in hopes of finding something that would transform her plump body to sleekness.


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Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Debating Christmas

This is the time of the year when tempers in America seem to rise at the same rate as outside temperatures on the East coast fall. And the reason for these rising tempers is the old Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays debate.

I should preface my opinion on the issue by saying first that Christmas is a cultural not religious holiday to me, that I dislike the swirling, cacophonous commercialism associated with it, and I spend it in the US, not Ireland; I enjoy eating good food, drinking good wine, and chewing the fat with friends. Secondly, I was oblivious about the debate when I lived in Ireland and England. Over there, we say 'Merry Christmas', period. It wasn't until my first Christmas in America when I was invited to Christmas Day dinner at the home of some of Larry's friends that I learned about the whole 'Happy Holidays' thing. As I entered the house, I said "Merry Christmas" to everyone I encountered and one woman said, "It's more proper to say "Happy Holidays." Needless to say, I bristled, wished her "Merry Christmas" again, and passed into the room with its enormous Christmas tree and wreath on the wall. (In an adjoining room, I might add was a navitity set because the host had converted to being an Episcopilian from Catholicism.) As one does in such situations, I inquired later about this woman and was informed she was Jewish, had graduated in law from a Catholic university, had a powerful position at a law firm in Philadelphia, but was also a closeted lesbian who would not acknowledge her longterm girlfriend because she lived in terror of being 'outed' at work. The last nugget of informatiion gave me the measure of the woman who had confronted me. For the entire day, she behaved as if she and I were the North and North poles of two magnets. When I joined a group of people where she was present, she immediately jettisoned herself to another room; if she remained because she'd just joined the group herself, she would not look at me, not even when I was talking or when I addressed her directly (made a point of doing that, actually. And she did respond, but it was apparant by its brevity that she'd have preferred to munch on the rim of her crystal wine goblet.

This year, the debate seems to have stirred the national consciousness because many people are making a point of saying "Merry Christmas" to those whom it seems logical would celebrate Christmas. People appear to be genuinely angry about this piece of political correctness that's gone awry. I've seen the attitudes and emphatic greetings at the malls. Maybe its because my name is Celtic, they know they can say "Merry Christmas." I also watched with horrified amazement as Macy's struggled about what to call their Christmas tree during the televised lighting ceremony at their principal store in the state of Georgia. After much wrangling, they decided to call it the Great tree I mean, give me a break. It's a Christmas tree. It's not a 'Holiday tree,' and it's not a'Great tree.'

Whatever happened to common sense. If a person is African-American and they celebrate Kwaanza instead of Christmas, then one simply says 'Happy Kwanzaa' if it falls in the same time period as Christmas and you know they celebrate it. If they don't celebrate Christmas and it's Christmas Day, then just wish them "Merry Christmas." Good manners dictate that they either wish it back or, if they desire to make a point, they can say 'Thanks, but I don't celebrate Christmas.' This applies also to Hanukkah. If the person is Jewish and you know it, say "Happy Hanukkah" if it falls contemporaneously with Christmas (as it does this year), or you can resort to the generic "Happy Holidays". If you don't know they're Jewish, Muslim, Sikh or whatever religion and it is 'Christmas Day, then say "Merry Christmas" and let good manners prevail. Simple as that. I have many Jewish friends and they do not twist into gargoyles of political correctness because I wish them "Merry Christmas" on December 25th.

My point is, there is no need to subvert wishing someone Merry Christmas because of a fear or reticence about traversing political correctness. It is Christmas and the fact that it is so should be acknowledged by intelligent people of any creed or culture. Not to do so demeans, stupifies and holds us hostage to one hell of an asinine aspect of the gospel of political correctness. Let's just all acknowledge our different cultures and associated holidays and maybe, just maybe, learning someone we meet comes from another culture might prompt us to ask about their holiday and learn something about it. We certainly won't learn anything by saying 'Season's Greetings' or 'Happy Holidays' and pretending the different traditions don't exist.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

The hornet

This morning I had an epiphany of sorts at the Y while on my favorite elliptical and watching my favorite anchor CNN's American Morning Soledad O'Brien (whom one of the L's of L&L tried to convince me unsuccessfully over dinner the other night was reputed to be an absolute and insufferable bitch, or so she'd heard from someone 'in the know.' I told Lynne that I could not form any opinion on someone based on hearsay (that's the lawyer in me, I guess), that I would have to experience the alleged imperious and demanding personality firsthand before I could agree. My 'Y' epiphany concerned a fellow member who was peddling with determination on another elliptical machine. I was peddling pretty vigorously too because I'd keyed in the 'fat-burner' program as opposed to the more sedate 'calorie-burner' one and, disinterested in the interview Soledad was conducting with yet another author of the "How To' genre, I happened to look around at my fellow elliptical-cum-stairmaster junkies.

The member, a late middle-aged woman trenchantly frosty of demeanor with short, blunt, professionally dyed honey-blonde hair, always reminds me of a NY Supreme Court justice I'd once argued a case before when she strides into the gym. You may be familiar with the archetype from LA Law, Law and Order, and Ally McBeal and such, one of those powerful female presences that exude an intimidating 'Don't pull any fancy attorney crap such as another request for a continuance,' and/or 'You screw with me in any manner no matter how trivial while you're in my courtroom and your ass will be jumping through hoops and up for contempt' aura. This morning however, she was already astride the machine and sported a glow above her thick layer of make-up. Given the position of my machine and hers, I had a body profile view of her and it was not very flattering because all human dignity while on these machines is cheerfully traded in the pursuit of the 'nirvana of sveltness.'

My frosty 'judge' worked more and more feverishly, her painfully thin legs sheathed in a black lycra leotard, her very thin arms tugging at the handles, her hunched (on account of the machine) barrel-like torso draped in a baggy mustard and black striped T-shirt that resembled a carapace, and I immediately thought,'insect'. This woman resembles an insect. I watched riveted. I could not take my eyes off her and, boy, did my twenty two minutes pass quickly for the first time ever. (She always stays on the machine for forty-five minutes, despite there being a time limit of 30 minutes per member per machine in the interests of consideration for fellow members, but not even the staff will approach to remind the 'judge' of the Y's rules. As her time on the machine approached an end, I expected a pair of wings to slowly rise from out of her back and to see her body lift off and set course for the free weight section, her legs drifting wispily like a hornet.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Brokeback Mountain: Thoughts

It's wonderful when a quality movie starts to receive the recognition it deserves and I'm pleased Brokeback Mountain is receiving lots of buzz and critical acclaim, the latest being the slew of nominations it received for the Golden Globes. I'm not just saying this because I'm gay and thus may be seen by some--most particularly the Christian Right--as being biased or of having a vested interest in seeing it succeed.

No, that's not the reason for the joy I'm taking at the glorious buzz. I'm joyful because, as someone of an artistic sensibility, I want as many people as possible to read uplifting books, hear uplifting music and see uplifting films of marvelous quality. For far too long, Hollywood has produced far too much dross and Brokeback Mountain, from the highly talented director Ang Lee, is just one of a number of top quality offerings to emerge this year. Others include George Clooney's, Good Night and Good Luck and Memoirs of a Geisha. I am hopeful the trend will continue and that we will see more fresh and novel (no pun intended) storylines for the consumption of the intelligent mainstream, rather than a continued flow of old movie rehashes, tired plot lines and mindnumbing mediocrity suitable only for...well, the numb of mind.

For those of you who haven't heard anything about Brokeback Mountain, the movie is based on a short story by Annie Proulx and involves a secret and tortured love affair and hauntingly sad relationship between two cowboys. (Interestingly, there were/are a lot of gay cowboys.) Here's a link to CNN's review of the movie:
Brokeback Mountain

Predictably, the Christian Right is angry and you will hear lots of anguish and predictions about the continued decline of public morality and our flight from God--read Christianity, for that. There will be much fire and brimstone warnings. I will post another essay about this in the near future.

At the moment, I merely want to rejoice that something good, something vital, something that shows another aspect of our shared humanity is seeing the light of day.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Book-Blog.com

And I'm informed that A Son Called Gabriel was a best reads of 2005 at Debra Hamel's Book-Blog.com.

Check out her reviews of some other terrific books.


Ms. Hamel also started the ingenious Buy A Friend A Book Week which runs four times a year and I was fortunate to be invited by her to choose my three favorite books some time ago. What better idea than to buy a friend a book for no good reason other than that they're a friend and you want to give a gift, right?

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

Blogcritics pick A Son Called Gabriel

I am very pleased this morning because I just received news that A Son Called Gabriel was chosen as one of the top 10 best books of 2005 by Blogcritics.com. Selected critics were asked to submit their favorite book of 2005 and a critic called Joan Hunt who'd erad my novel selected it.

This is especially wonderful news to receive as Phil Hilden, my collaborator in the play of A Son Called Gabriel, is coming to Pennsylvania today so that we can go though the first draft of the play.

Here's the link to Blogcritics:
Blogcritics

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A deer in the gloaming

It all began as an uncertain shadow that appeared suddenly in the corner of my left eye, and then came a sickening thud followed by darkness as a feverish tangle of limbs filled my window. The time of evening was what the Scots call 'the gloaming'. (I guess 'the gloaming' is an ancient Celtic word and Irish and Welsh Gaelic probably have similar words, but I don't know the Irish one because I was always hopeless at retaining my Irish vocabulary. The gloaming is actually a more precise word than teh word 'dusk' and, growing up in Ireland, we called it the 'between the lights' in English.)

In any event, I was returning home from a book signing and the deer bounded out from a wood near my home, struck the front of the car and was catapulted over the bonnet and against the windshield. Of course I braked quickly, and the animal slid off the bonnet to the road beneath, picked itself up, and dashed into an open field on the other side of the road. A bolt of electricity surged through my body as I drove to a lay-by--in my backview mirror, I could see the equally shocked deer pick itself up off the grass and dash across the field to disappear into a copse of trees--where I got out and inspected the damage, which amounted to a broken headlight and a badly dented bonnet.

The encounter resurrected a couple of memories stored deep within the recesses of my memory banks. One accident occurred shortly after my seventeenth birthday, and I had just got my driver's licence and was on my way to a 'sixth form social' (the equivalent of the senior prom in the states) at a neighboring school when a fox crossed my path. The fox did not survive. Another accident occurred while I was driving my sister Deirdre and cousins Helena and Rosemary to a new disco that had opened in a nearby town. When we arrived, the bouncers would not allow me in because I was wearing jeans, so we had a pow-wow on the pavement and decided to drive to another disco in Portstewart, some thirty miles away. We were so keen to get to the disco, I drove far too fast and next thing I rounded a corner that never seemed to stop turning and...well, I planted the car deep in the bosom of a row of rhododendron bushes flanking the ditch. All I remember as I stepped out of the car was my sister, dressed in a wide flared lemon skirt that gleamed in the darkness, pacing up and down the road in a panic because we could not extricate the car, accompanied by Rosemary and Helena who was wearing extremely tall high-heels that kept clicking loudly as she walked. In the end, it was decided that I would stay and continue my efforts to free the car while they walked down a farmer's lane to seek help. Off the heavily lip-glossed envoys clicked into the night.

Twenty minutes later, there was an enormous roar and a farmer's tractor loomed in the dusk. As it drew closer, I saw the girls perched in a most undignified way on the towing hitch. They climbed off when it came to a stop. Helena approached me, stilettoes in hand and pencil skirt drawn above her knees, and gave me a look that suggested I would have much groveling to do to make up for the affront. As the farmer was towing the car out, two British landrovers rounded the corner and came to a stop. To their credit, they stopped and asked if they could help, but I quickly declined. After it had been removed from the bushes, we inspected the car and I saw there were no dents--loads of scratches but no major damage. We thanked the old farmer profusely, decided to go home, and drove off, but as we advenced, we could not deny to one another that the car was making discomfitingly strange sounds. It was as if it were spitting out gravel or tree limbs from underneath the chassis. The sound lessened as I continued, but it was still noticeable, and I knew my father would know something was wrong as soon as he drove the thing. I decided to pull into a lay-by just outside the town where my cousins lived and had they and my sister rehearse a lie I'd concocted in the event my father smelled a rat and began an investigation. Next morning, I arose very early and went outside and quickly used "T-cut" (a Brasso like substance for removing scratches and tar) on the scratches and successfully removed all evidence of the accident. Satisfied, I went back to bed. Later, as soon as my father returned from Sunday mass, he called me to him and asked what was wrong with the car because it was making funny sounds. With scarcely a pause, I told him I'd swerved to avoid a fox and landed in a ditch and it must still be be shaking off earth and small stones. Only years later, did I tell him, and it's since became a family joke, which he still invokes to this day.


With regards to the current encounter, both the deer and I were lucky, though I'm sure the bruised deer will be feeling some pain for a few days. Certainly, I feel lucky because I've heard of instances where the windshield had broken and the deer has fallen into the cabin and crushed the occupant. And a few neighbors in the area have had their cars 'totalled' as a result of such accidents. The irony of the thing is I'm always so careful about deer when I'm driving. I'm constantly watching out for them as soon as I turn off the main road and start along the back roads winding through the township where I live. I'm sure I'm not alone in my vigilence because Pennsylvania has the highest rate of car accidents involving deer in the entire United States, though that's a record I'm sure the Commonwealth will not be keen to hold on to for very long.

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Monday, November 28, 2005

Thanksgiving and goodbyes

Thanksgiving day was such a relaxing day and I didn't go near the computer once. We spent the morning pottering about the house and then went to dinner at the home of friends. The night before we'd gone with L&L to the Ottsville Inn, a local restaurant which we hadn't tried that changed hands six months ago. It now belongs to a commercial pilot who has an arrangement to fly in his fish fresh from all over the United States, though on this occasion I tried the duck which was seasoned in a German rub and simply delicious. Larry wasn't quite so enamored with his Delmonico steak which was topped with spinach and mozzarella (quite a tasteless cheese unless eaten in Italy, I find) because it was altogether too 'spinachy.'

A survey of the wine list raised eye brows and tightened lips when we noticed the American wines started at $39.00; so we ordered glasses (generously poured, it turned out) of Australian wine, imagining they were probably $10.00 a pop--an image guaranteed to give an unpleasant edge to the alcohol 'lift' we were desirous of achieving, and were pleasantly surprised--if not actually stunned--when the bill came and we saw they had been only $5.00 each. (I must say the Australians have been very shrewd in their attempt to gain dominance in the American wine market; their wines are very good, particularly the Shiraz and Cabernets, well-priced, and I love the quirkiness of their bottle labels.) All in all, we'll definitely go back to the restaurant.

Thanksgiving is such a singular American holiday, a special time to spend in the company of family and friends without the obligation to rush out and hustle up a gift because you know you're going to receive one and don't want to stand there looking like a prat because you didn't buy one for them in return, etc, etc. I despise having to give 'expected gifts' Where's the surprise in the act of gift-giving? Thanksgiving is also a holiday that hasn't been commercialized by the corporate marketing 'gurus' scouring for yet another opportunity to claw yet more dollars from out wallets, and I applaud the good sense of my fellow Americans for keeping it that way, though we do, of course, get bombarded by the shrill bray of 'Black Friday' advertisements proclaiming wondrous deals that inevitably turn out to be duds.

On Friday, I did some work on Act 1 of the play and then in the early evening went out fishing for a new laser printer and needless to say didn't buy one. The sales staff at our local Staples really needs to get their act together because one chap praised HP printers and lacerated all Brother offerings, and another guy ten minutes later, after I popped in to ask a question I'd forgotten to ask, praised Brother and lacerated HP. Either that, or first time I got the chap whose remit is to sell all things HP, and second time I got the chappie with the Brother remit. In any event, I've decided to wait until the depths of January when aforementioned corporate marketing gurus toiling in the fields of silicon-dom are feeling the heat from weak sales and decide to do some genuine price mark-downs.

On our return home, there was a message on our answering machine from our neighbor across the woods whom Larry had sold a house (I lived in it for ten years) to nearly four years ago. She sounded agitated and asked us to call her back on her cell phone as she had news. When we did, we were devastated to learn Karen's husband Larry had died at two o'clock that morning of a massive heart attack. Larry was a New Yorker, Karen from California, and they have a cute three-and-a-half year old daughter, Alexandra. We became friends after the house changed hands and I always appreciated that he would always ask about my novel as it was winding its way toward publication, and they came to a reading, and he always wanted to know what I was currently working on. Such is the busyness of life, we hadn't spoken for a while and then he called the day before Thanksgiving and told us his mother had passed away two weeks previously.

Needless to say, his premature death reminded me of my own mortality and I attacked my cardio routine at the gym this morning like a man possessed, whipping my heart into a frenzy of pumping muscle. Quite frankly, a regimented program of exercise is the only hope of preventing heart problems.

As Larry was Jewish, his body had to be interred within 24 hours, but due to the Sabbath, the funeral took place on Sunday morning. Two neighbors, Larry and I attended the service in North New Jersey, and it was the first time I'd ever been to a Jewish funeral. The service took place at the Beth Israel cemetery and I put on one of the yalmukes provided--another first. As I listened, I was struck by the simplicity of the service, by the raw honesty as family members eulogized him, and by the cantor's singing and the saying of Kaddish at the columbarium. It left me with a feeling that Catholic and Protestant funeral rites could borrow a little from the Reform Judaism rites, most particularly the eulogizing of the deceased. I had the distinct feeling we have surrendered too much of the intensely personal to our clergy and ritual. I can't remember a priest ever delivering a thought-provoking, interesting eulogy in all the funerals I've attended. Surely it's the place of family and friends to eulogize someone they've loved, someone whose flaws, qualities and humanity they've known and lived with daily. I can't speak to Protestant funeral rites, but I will say that Catholic funerals should be far less about scripture and sermon and more about goodbye.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

Introducing my collaboration partner

Last week was a busy week because I met up with Philip Hilden in NYC last week to discuss and begin our collaboration on the play of my novel A Son Called Gabriel, which may or may not remain the final title. We met at Starbucks in Times Square and, over a cup of coffee, discussed the fine points and then signed a collaboration agreement as set forth by The Dramatists Guild (of which Phil is a member) modified to suit our needs.

So I'd like to officially introduce Phil and say how really happy I am that we've hooked up to work on the play. Here's some background:
Philip grew up on Long Island and has been attending theater in NYC ever since his fifth birthday. A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he has an extensive acting and directing resume in summer stock at Trotwood Circle Theater in Dayton, Ohio, at the Cape Playhouse on Cape Cod and in children's theater with The Paper Bag Players in NYC and at The Theater Workshop in Lynbrook, NY.

Phil has adapted Bram Stoker's Dracula with Robert Bethune which sold out during its run in Newburgh, NY. He has also adapted two of LaVyrle Spencer's best selling novels, That Camden Summer and Then Came Heaven. His most recent play is an original work, a fast-paced comedy called The Resurrection of Derrick Donnelly.

In addition, I've discovered Phil is also an extremely talented and successful photographer and his work can be viewed at Hilden Images

I must say Starbucks is a great place to do work because they didn't hassle us once about sitting at a table for hours and, in fact, even come around and gave everyone free samples of cookies and muffins and stuff, which I grabbed, of course. Well, I'm working out now, so it's okay to nibble, I figure

Phil had brought his laptop and the two of us went through a scene by scene breakdown of the novel we'd prepared. It astonished me that the novel had some 65 scenes. At this stage, I will say, Phil's been so enthusiastic about doing an adaptation that he'd already penned out the preliminary content of the two Acts and copied a great deal of the novel's dialogue into his computer. So, for over three hours, we scrupulously went through the book's scenes and decided what was in and what could be omitted. It's hard to distill a novel spanning twelve years into a two Act play, but it's absolutely doable.

Most interestingly, the exercise showed both of us that we can work together because there was a great deal of consensus between us. And, on the few occasions we disagreed, the party wanting inclusion of the scene argued the case and we made our decisions. (Some of you might wonder if I would have difficulty breaking up the novel I wrote, doubly so because it's semi-autobiographical, but I can honestly say I have no concerns with that. Our mission is to stay true to the book's plot with everything else being fair game. In any event, Phil thinks a great deal of my novel's dialogue can be carried over into the play because it's strong;it's what enabled him to see the book as a play in the first place. That definitely was good to hear.

Now the real work begins. This weekend, I worked on Act 1, modifying, creating or extending scenes to meet the needs of the theater, while Phil spent time whittling down Act 2. We plan to meet again soon and 'marry' the two and then do a rewrite. Aftre that will come a reading and then we'll get some actors he knows to do a live reading, etc. Heady stuff.

All in all, I believe it's going to be a fun experience and I'm looking forward to learning from Phil, especially since he's directed.

I'll keep you posted on progress.

So here's to A Son Called Gabriel playing one day in a NYC, London or Dublin theater. Oh, what the hell, I'm going to be greedy. Here's to it playing in all three cities.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

Darwin and the Bucks County bucks

The woods around my house were alive with the thunder of hooves this weekend because deer rutting season is at its peak. On Saturday, I saw a very impressive, muscular three-point stag wandering out by the garage and could not figure out why he wasn't at all phased by my presence. (The deer in Bucks County are so numerous--in fact, Pennsylvania has the largest deer population in the entire United States--that contact with humans is unavoidable and, as a result, they've become entirely nonchalant if not actually brazen about the whole thing.) As I peered into the wood running alongside our property and the neighboring property, I saw at once the reason for his indifference. A delicate doe was laying on all fours in the brush. Obviously tired of his advances and, perhaps holding out for a shag with a four-point or more as she went about her business throughout the course of the day, she'd decided to wait him out--fickleness and rapid boredom being more associated with the male of any species, I think--by laying down. And her strategem worked. He strutted about flashing his bobtail and pissing near various trees for about an additional fifteen minutes and then left to pursue other coital opportunities.

Sunday wasn't quite so lucky for another doe. As I was carrying Spice out to do his business (he can no longer walk by himself), there was an enormous crashing through the woods and I looked about to see four bucks (one with five-points) chasing after a doe. They were relentless. They chased her back and forth around the entire back portion of the abutting woods before they finally ran off and all I could hear was the frantic rustle of dead leaves being stirred.

As I'd watched, I thought of Darwin and evolution and how it was probably the five-point buck, clearly the strongest, who exhausted the others and got her at the end. (Darwin's been on my mind ever since the Dover, Pennsylvania voters saw the light and decided to throw out the entire school board, undoubtedly Christian Right, at the elections last week because the board tried to advance the lie that the theory of evolution isn't settled yet in science and thus intelligent design had to be taught too. In Bucks, we don't have that sort of argument or question in our local elections because we accept science's proof and pronouncements on the matter and because we're--well, quite frankly, we're a sophisticated county, but it's very, very encouraging to see that our peers in more rural areas of the Commonwealth are making strides).

It did also cross my mind if Darwin's theory was perhaps a little sexist viz-a-viz mating situations, because we always seem to think of the term 'fittest' in these situations as applying principally to the male of a species. Normally, we assume the most virile wins the prize. But what about the females, in this case, the doe? Clearly, she would have to be as strong as the fittest male in order to run the lesser males to exhaustion. Or maybe I'm over analyzing and they all took turns on the poor thing!!

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

A question of body age

I felt every muscle in my body tighten in rebellion immediately after the instructor gave me the results of my physical exam. I should preface these words by saying I'm 5'11" and pretty lean (with a little paunch that's been troubling me) despite not having exercised for a few years. I keep lean because, when I notice I'm putting on weight, I cut down on my calories dramatically until I feel my clothing loosen again. I've already played the dead-end game of buying new, more comfortable jeans--the kindler, gentler industry term is 'relaxed fit'--when this inconvenience occurs, but two things put a permanent end to that solution. First, a discovery that sizes on American clothing labels are aimed at massaging a customer's ego rather than imparting valuable and truthful information. Thus, for example, one cannot assume that a 34" waist in a particular pair of jeans means that your waist is 34"; your waist measurement in fact could be something more, er, generous. (In the even more cut-throat world of female fashion, I'm informed that an American size 8 corresponds to a size 10 or 12 in Europe, which is definitely an ego boost for American women when they meet up in London or Paris or wherever and chance to chat about their dress sizes with their svelte, disbelieving European friends.) Secondly, I think it's just plain lazy to upsize when one puts on a bit of poundage, rather than take it as a warning bell to do something. And let's face it, the era of 'supersize me for just a dollar more' is over.

So, after being strapped up to a computer the other night, I was told to do various exercises which enabled John (the instructor) to measure my breathing, strength, body fat percentage and a host of other things that, when aggregated, could determine my BODY AGE as opposed to my actual age.

I have always considered myself to be fit because, one, I went religiously to my gym in London over ten years ago and, two, when things have had to be done because of time constraints and deadlines, I have helped Larry do whatever grunt work was required on one or other of his house building projects. So I approached this entire battery of tests with smugness and absolute certainty of result. And all did begin most rosily. John asked me to do some press-ups.
He said, "Do only what you can do comfortably, even if it's just eight or so."
Always spurred by low expectations and/or challenges, I executed thirty-five with the zeal of a psyched marine, which performance was duly acknowledged by grunts of admiration from John and Larry. Next up was flexibility, which I insisted on redoing as soon as I saw the result flash alongside the words below average on the monitor. A nadir was reached when more wires were attached for the body fat calculation and--and you must remember I have a lean frame--it came in at 28.9%. The desired range lies between 8 and 16% and, but for the fact I had already insisted on one recount with regard to flexibility, I would have disputed the result. So I kept quiet and waited as the computer did its number crunching for production of the body age result. Within a minute, the laser printer began to whine and a sheaf of papers spewed out which John began to riffle through.
'Oh, wow..." he said.
"Yes."
"Wow, it says you're two years older than your actual."
'But...what....but...there must..."
Larry was chortling in the background because his had come in at eight years younger.
"Given your age and weight, it says here that you're two years over in comparison to your peers," said John.
"Well, I guess these things are kinda arbitrary, aren't they?" I said. I have discovered I lapse into the American vernacular at times of stress. "I mean, who came up with this concept of body age anyway? I bet it's some corporation seeking a competitive edge."
"No, it's a complicated calculation and accurate.
"I see."
More chortles in the background.
"The good news is, you can reduce your body age by at least 10 years by working out" said John. "That's what is important to take from this."
With those words, I became appeased. With much pounding and lifting and sweating, I, too, could turn back my body clock just like my peers.
"So I'll draw you guys up a program and let's get together soon and go over it," he said. "When'd you guys like to come in?"
"Tomorrow," I said. "Tomorrow evening."

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Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Forgotten Irish writer

I've been working out at the gym and, as soon as the aches and pains subside, I'll write about how my physical went the other day, which proved to be a wee bit of a shock.

In the meantime, Sinead Gleesan of Sigla has a fascinating, very enjoyable essay on her blog about the writer Maeve Brennan who was of Irish parentage and worked at the New Yorker.

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Old slippers and armchairs

Camilla's on this side of the pond for nearly a week and is nervous, apparently. She's nervous that she won't be received very kindly by 'the Americans.'
Why? You might ask.
Well, there's a lot riding on her shoulders, and please indulge me in my use of equestrian imagary. The sad state of the British monarchy is such today that, first, the royal minders deem it necessary for Charles (in his new man-of-the-people accent) to make obsequious speeches praising the American president as being of vital influence and necessity in the world in order to pay for the White House dinner thrown in his honor and, second, they also desperately need 'the Americans' to show their enthusiastic admiration for the couple so they can do some American-esque spin in order to boost Charles and Camilla's acceptance at home. Very sad. Tragic, actually...the tragedy exacerbated when one considers how terribly proud the monarchy once was, how its imperiousness and aloofness preserved the cachet. How they'd love to get back to those days of splendid aloofness, to the days of blue-bloods and a grateful peasantry who, on official occasions, could be counted on to trek from their council houses throughout the kingdom to stand outside Buckingham Palace in their hundreds and hundreds of thousands with painted red, white and blue faces and Union Jack cloaks, all chattering and squealing 'God Save the Queen' and 'We love you, Ma'am' Some, a hundred thousand or so, will still do it today.

Unfortunately, for both the mandarins and royalty junkies, it seems fully 81% of the American public are disinterested--though early mandarin spin is that a turnaround will result after the royal couples jaunt to see the devestation in New Orleans. And the American press might also help boost ratings with their fixation about Camilla having to walk four paces behind Charles that's got nothing to do with 'barefoot and pregnant' sexism, but rather a quirky royal protocol based on the ancient premise that all attention must focus on the senior royal. (At this point I will say that I'm perplexed as to why Larry King finds it necessary to haul people of the caliber of Joan Rivers on to his show to talk about the couple. Is it because she did a few seasons of comedy at some London theater a few years ago that now makes her the American expert on all things royal and all things Brit? Or is it possible she saw an opportunity and bulldozed her way onto the show? I've never understood the woman's loud, tawdry spiels, if indeed they can even be classified as some form of mediocre humor, so I guess I'm biased.

Regarding Camilla, I do wish the media would get over being unkind to the woman regarding her appearance and demeanor. It's been milked, so move on for Christssake. I'm actually warming a little toward the old gal. Lurking behind those flying saucer-wide hats favored by older royals is a woman supposedly possessed of a great sense of humor. And I do like people with a bit of living etched on their faces and who can crack a joke.

She's also an English Catholic by birth and, as I'm an Irish one and our childhoods were thus most likely similarly marred, maybe I should feel some sort of automatic liking for that reason alone. I'd also imagine we share a commonality in not running like the bejasus to the confessional every time we might have sinned, nor is there too much danger that we might bulldoze any member of our local RC congregations in order to get the best pew at Sunday morning mass. (In any event, I think she's probably converted to Anglicanism now--low church, by the way.)

I certainly won't like her for the reasons I'm told to like her by some plummy-mouthed, moldy English men and women who're their friends and will say anything to be allowed to retain the best seats at Highgrove House dinner parties. The royal mandarins dragged these people from their country houses and dried and dusted them off to appear on American TV to say that "the Americans" should like Camilla because "she's like an old pair of slippers or one's comfortable armchair, really." I'm not joking. Royalty is now sold to the American masses by comparing them to old slippers and comfortable armchairs. That's what I heard a Brit author with flat, matted silver hair, which she wore in a style highly reminiscent of Susie Quattro in the seventies, state without the slightest whiff of irony the other night.

So America, know that representatives of the British upper-middle class are counting on you to love a pair of old slippers or two comfortable armchairs.


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Friday, November 04, 2005

The yearling

This morning as I sat at my desk to begin work on the play adaptation, I happened to look out my window which has a great view of the woods surrounding most of my house. To my astonishment, a yearling was lying down right beside the window and was peering in at me with its shiny, liquid brown eyes. It made no attempt to rise, instead just intermittently chewed and watched. Deer really have the most amazing eyes; they're so alive and full of intelligence. Of course, its coat had lost its spots and the rich tan color of summer was succumbing to the tufted heavier grey coat they get in winter.

As I watched I began to fear it was injured and, if so, exactly what I should do. Was protocol to call the local police, or the state park warden, or the guy who patrols the area to make sure no one is illegally hunting on people's land or using the wrong implements. (Bow and arrow season has commenced in PA, and in a few week the musket season will start.) Certainly, unlike my friend Colleen who was adopted by a fawn two years ago whom she called Tinkerbell and who's still a pet, I didn't want to have to care for an injured deer.

In any event, the yearling must have guessed my dilemma because, with a last stare, it rose and sauntered over to inspect the withering ornamental grasses.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

A return of sorts

I've been struggling with a guilty conscience about something for the past year. It started off as a vague yet bothersome niggling and then became a great wailing siren that I couldn't expunge. No, it's not to do with my malaise about getting back to work on my first American novel. It's something more fundamental.

Twelve years ago I was a 'gym bunny'. I lusted and chased after the obtaining of the body magnifique...and I achieved that status to a large degree. You see, I am very driven and there was simply no alternative but success. A passable or mediocre body was unacceptable because that was tantamount to failure. As a result, I became one of the 'gym bunny' pack at Flames (the gym in West London I went to) and also purchased all the latest gym apparel to accentuate what had to be accentuated and hide what needed to be hidden. I endured pain willingly and cheerfully to maintain my body magnifique, and given my addiction, frequently signed up for back-to-back aerobics classes of an evening. And, like the other Princes of the Dumbells, I was intolerant of people who did not look after their bodies or exercise. I was also scornful of those who tucked into pounds of cheese and fatty dips at parties, diluted my wine with soda water, and nibbled on fields of carrots, celery and broccoli.

Having more or less eschewed organized religion by this time, the gym became my new church, the aerobics instructress my new pope. Why, I even had my first panic attack while working on my lats at the gym I attended. I had no idea at the time it was a panic attack, though the owner--a very nice chap and his girlfriend--recognized it for what it was (I thought I was dying), were very solicitous of my needs, and even drove me to the local hospital in Hammersmith where I was given a brown paper bag by a nasty, indifferent nurse, told to breathe into it, and had to wait...and wait...and wait.

Moving to the states provided the necessary excuse to leave this church without feeling any guilt whatsoever. And then my life became busy as I studied for the NY State bar, found a new job, moved from NYC to PA, wrote a couple of novels. Over the course of a decade, a few honest looks in the mirror, in conjunction with a certain unwelcome pressure around the waist when I could not get the metal catches of my belt buckles to assume their assigned holes and a tedious softening around my pecs, always resulted in the purchase of the latest fad pieces of exercise equipment. A promise of the body magnifique's certain return came first in the form of an 'as seen on TV' red and gray plastic ab thing that looked uncomfortably promising. When that failed to deliver by the end of the first month, more expenditure was required and a sleek rowing machine was purchased, only to be sold covered in Siamese cat hair a few years later for a pittance at a yard sale.

Next came a full gym, installed on the third floor, which fell into disuse six months later when a cable wore out and we never got around to ordering a new one. With unspeakable generosity coupled with our singular loathing about moving the contraption, its fate was sealed and we gave it to the new purchasers of the house as a house warming when they commented they'd love a gym too--though now they've asked us if we'd like it back because they just don't use it. Ski machine No. 1 came next, which proved unwieldy and highly unsatisfactory on account of its plastic cheapness. A step machine then arrived which didn't calculate the calorie burn accurately enough, despite my sessions of profuse sweating, and thus became so demoralizing, it was dispatched to the basement. Finally, Ski Machine number 2, a fully loaded, gleaming, oak trimmed Alpine Trails, arrived six years ago as the solitary Christmas gift for Larry. I read the voluminous literature and then attempted to instill enthusiasm in him by explaining the thing was so fully loaded it came with its own video that included panoramic views of the Swiss Alps so he could forget he was exercising. This apparatus lasted the longest, not because of the alpine video, but rather because the writing was on the wall and our burdgeoning tummies demanded attentive and relentless action and commitment.

And all was well until its death eighteen months ago. During a very rigorous month of exercises on it--very rigorous because we'd been on an unconscionably long hiatus and I'd put on weight and my jeans were tight and would not allow me to deny their complaints--the wheels cracked and literally came off and jettisoned around the floor. In a crazed panic, I called the manufacturer, only to be rerouted to a company who'd bought Alpine Skier's assets during their bankruptcy, and was then informed the machine was obsolete and there were no stocks of wheels left.

For over one year, we have not exercised and I have been guilt-ridden and kept promising myself to sign us up at our local YMCA. I have also zealously kept putting the event off, telling myself we have no time because of my novel's imminent hard cover publication, the arrival of visitors, the advent of winter, Larry's house-building project, the advent of spring, the novel's imminent paperback publication, the advent of summer's humidity, the book tour, the coming Thanksgiving holiday. Last month, my guilt would no longer be brooked and I was compelled to action. I visited the local YMCA, spoke to the people, and left very, very impressed. The gym is ultra modern, has all the latest equipment, offers lots of different classes including yoga, kick-boxing, pilates, and aerobics, has a basketball and badminton area, and an olympic sized swimming pool replete with sauna.

Another three weeks went by and I knew I was again procrastinating by using our dog's failing health as another excuse. So at the end of last week, feeling a strong need to take control, I drove to the Y, paid up for a year, and made an appointment for Larry and I to have our physicals. We are having them tomorrow, during which their high-tech equipment will calculate our actual body ages as opposed to our actual age, and what we can expect to achieve. Later in the week, we shall meet with an instructor who'll have devised a course for us and will show us how to use the equipment, which I'll report upon in another post.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Everyone, open your books at page...

Since it's autumn and the trees they are 'a peaking,' I thought it might be interesting to share how the various colors come into being, something I just came upon quite recently. I used to think it was utterly dependent on the amount of rain and degree of frost and stuff like that. Well, that's not entirely the story.

Leaf color comes from pigments: the yellows and oranges are carotene; the green is chlorophyll, of course; and the red is anthocyanin.

When autumn arrives, the leaves produce little or no chlorophyll, which thus allows the stored carotene to come forward as an array of magnificent golds, oranges and yellows. (In Ireland, I went to primary school on the site of an ancient fort whose old moat was ringed with beech trees and I remember staring for ages into the bright gold canopy at this time of year.) The intensity of red produced in a given year is dependent on temperature and amount of cloud in the sky. Reds are at their most impressive when there's a period of warm, sunny days followed by cool nights because during the day the trees can still produce sap in which anthocyanin is synthesized; then during cool nights, the sap does not flow to the trees extremities and all the stored anthocyanin turns the leaves into hues of brilliant red, maroon and purple--think red maples and dogwoods on the east coast.

Rain does affect the intensity of color, however. If the Fall is warm and wet, such as we've been experiencing this year, the brightness of the turning leaves is affected adversely. I'm finding this year quite strange because many trees are still green and those that are turning are very disappointing. But I suppose it takes an off-year or two to make us truly appreciate those spectacular years when the show really blazes. And lastly, an early and severe frost simply causes the leaves to turn a horrid brown immediately.

Tonight we're supposed to get our first frost and it'll be very interesting to see if my turkey vultures change color, too. Just kidding. Dear reader, you do know I'm not that naive, right?!


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Friday, October 21, 2005

The visitors

A most extraordinary sight occurred near the house last night. At dusk, I was taking our doggie out to pee and I heard an enormous crashing in the tree canopy and looked up to see about ten turkey vultures descending into the woods. One even looked like a black-feathered Holy Ghost as it landed with wings uplifted in the cleft of an ash. As I peered into the nooks and fissures created by the tree branches, I saw there were about a hundred or more of the birds already roosting there. I stood utterly amazed. And as I watched, another flight arrived and negotiated paths through the trees, their huge wing spans beating against the trees extremities which in turn sent a rain of turning leaves spinning to the ground. It was at once beautifully primal and beautifully eerie, the silence of the great birds and the approaching darkness broken only by turbulence of wings beating against limbs.

The sight also made me laugh. Prior to our friends moving from Bucks to New Orleans, ten turkey vultures landed on the roof of their bank barn. As both of them are elderly, they got very spooked and went out and threw stones at the unwelcome visitors until they had no choice but to leave. I also recalled my mother doing the same years ago in Ireland when doves landed on our home, though in that case she was such a lousy shot she broke two panes of glass--much to my father's annoyance.

A few years ago, a flock of turkey vultures had done the same thing for a couple of weeks in the trees surrounding a nearby village. There were hundreds of them. It caused a sensation and TV stations from Philly came out to film the sight for the evening news. It turns out that turkey vultures congregate in this manner for a brief period during the fall. And the village was advised not to shoo them away because the birds, if frightened, would expel the carrion they'd eaten that day.

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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Theatrical obsessions

Given I may be about to collaborate on the play (dealing with the contract stuff presently) of A Son Called Gabriel, I've been doing some preparatory work and am thus understandably obsessed with all things theatre currently. So, last Sunday I went to up to Princeton to see the final matinee of Miss Witherspoon by Christopher Durang. Full disclosure here: Mr. Durang is a neighbor and I do know him.

Durang's play is billed as a comedy fantasy and described thus:
"The show's title character is a persnickety woman forced to reincarnate against her better judgment. Miss Witherspoon's previous lives - whose highlights include a ringside seat at the Salem witch trials and an exasperating tendency to run into Rex Harrison - were no picnic, so it's no wonder she's dragging her feet. The 21st century, after all, isn't going too well so far. With a motley cast of characters that include appearances by Jesus and Gandalf, Miss Witherspoon is a fractured fable for our time."

Scenes play out in the place souls go to when they're awaiting reincarnation --represented by azure sky, fleecy clouds and ornate glowing Indian lights because her guide in the afterlife is an Indian deity replete with colorful sari--and on earth. Sound effects such as something akin to the tumultuous whine of jet engines or perhaps a rocket bound for space during the unsuccessful reincarnation sequences were superb, though the scenery was a trifle minimalist for my taste on occasions. Though wary of works tending toward the crackpot and/or whimsical, I found the play entertaining without having to belly laugh (unlike some members of the audience in attendance) and thought it well written and executed. At the core of the play is the theme of religion, though unlike his Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You where a Catholic education is held up for scrutiny, Durang refers to Christianity and at one point concludes God has more than one face.

(The play will begin a run at the Playwrights Horizons theater in NYC in November.)


Still consumed with preparations for writing my first play, I popped into the Drama Bookstore on W40th Street and purchased copies of the adaptations of The Cider House Rules Parts I and II, Michael Cunningham's adaptation of Flesh and Blood , and, since he won the Nobel Prize last week, the complete works of Harold Pinter 1971-81. Pinter is a dramatist I can relate to; his work is clean, understandable, relevant and breathtakingly brilliant.

I've now gone through my novel and broken it down into 68 scenes. From some of these scenes will emerge the play and, as the writing progresses, I'll post little excerpts so you can get an idea of how the thing's going. All very exciting, though daunting too, of course, because of the looming decisions about what to include and more importantly what to exclude. In effect, one is trying to distill a 341 page novel into around 100 pages of story and dialogue.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Banishing cockroaches

TNMy Husband Betty
Last June in NYC, at the Lambda Literary Awards, I had the pleasure of meeting author Helen Boyd, a heterosexual woman married to a heterosexual crossdresser, whose book My Husband Betty was an award finalist. We exchanged books and, as I looked at its contents and cover, it set me thinking about these people and their community and the prejudices they must endure and fight to overcome. As the offspring of parents who were brutishly discriminated against in their own country, and as a member of a so-called 'alternative lifestyle' minority, I have absolutely no tolerance of prejudice and bigotry, or of people who herald these human flaws as qualities to aspire to, and shall in my own way try to shine the light of education on difficult subjects so that all cockroaches will eventually be exposed and banished.

I, too, have in my life been prejudiced against different kinds of people. It's inescapable, the product of being reared in a homogenized community. We learn it from watching our parents deal with others, from our teachers, from our vicars and priests, from all in positions of authority. I think all young people growing up in conservative communities are saddled with that burden, and we spend the rest of our lives--the intelligent, enlightened ones, at least--trying to erase the marks of that onerous saddle. With regard to crossdressers and the transgendered, my prejudice was based entirely on ignorance and laughter. By laughter, I mean laughing at, not with. I have had no dealings with crossdressers, nor have I made any attempt to befriend such people. After all, it is so much easier not to befriend those regarded as outcasts or defective by society; it saves one from having to explain how one came into contact and befriended such a person to one's 'normal' friends. In fact, until I met Helen, I hadn't pondered my prejudice about this to any degree, unlike for example, the way I occasionally ponder the paucity of black, Indian or Pakistani friends I have got, and how few of them I encounter at the dinner tables of my friends, both gay and straight, in suburban America.

My knowledge and experience of men dressing as women is limited--as will most likely be the case of my Brit and Irish peers--to bizarre and comic characters on the telly such as the effette Danny Leroux (I think that's how his name is spelled and he's Irish, I believe) and Dame Edna Everedge (Australian, and used to be pretty tight with Maggie Thatcher as their politics were the same) and the slaggish Lily Savage (now retired by her creator, Paul O'Grady) who began her meteoric rise at a South London pub called The Royal Vauxhall Tavern where I used to drink on occasional Sunday afternoons. In other words, my contact with crossdressers amounted to watching drag queens, both those on stage and the garish, sharp-tongued wags inhabiting the periphery of gay life.

My friend Lee of L&L also read My Husband Betty recently, found it fascinating and had this to say:
"The book was very funny and at times heartwrenching...the author does a wonderful job of letting us into her life both good and bad..."

So I've invited Helen Boyd onto the blog to shine a light and hope you enjoy learning about what she has to say about her friends and community.

Helen, thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions.

Thanks for inviting me.


DMN: The preface to your book begins:
"I never thought I would write a book about crossdressing, but when the opportunity knocked, I couldn't resist..."
You are a heterosexual woman who's married to a heterosexual crossdresser. Is this quite common in the crossdressing community?

HB It’s very common – since gay crossdressers don’t end up married to women, and hetero crossdressers often think that getting married will keep them from crossdressing. So a lot of women find out years into a marriage, and are upset by having been lied to. I was lucky in that Betty told me before we got married, and even though I did a lot of research, I still wasn’t fully prepared. I should add that Betty never thought of herself as a crossdresser – that was more what other people called what she did, but she didn’t use a label – and has come, over time, to identify as trans, or transgender.

DMN: Can you talk a little about your relationship with your partner and share with us some details about the community?

HB Betty and I had to forge our own community to some degree; we feel most at home with lesbians who are hip to transness, trans people who are hip to GLBT people, gay men who are hip to crossdressing, and tend to hang around most with other trans-couples (ie, where one person is trans and the other isn't, usually, like us). We think of our community as the queer community, which consists of a lot of smaller communities. We also, of course, have friends who are artists, especially actors (as Betty is one) and writers (because I'm one). But historically, the "straight" crossdressing community tends to separate itself from GLBT people, often while mumbling something about how straight they are. We found that hypocritical, and so never felt really comfortable in a community we were told we "belonged" in. Luckily, a younger generation of CDs is rejecting that homophobic and transphobic attitude, too.

DMN: What percentage of crossdressers are heterosexual and what percentage are homosexual, or is that too simplistic a categorization?

HB It’s too simplistic. There are definitely both types, but any guesses at what the percentage is – even if you were to force all of them into one category or another – is unknown. A lot of crossdressers’ sexualities involve feeling “like a woman” sexually, by which they mean being somewhat coy and submissive, and being the one seduced. Some of the “straight” ones, as a result, end up experimenting with men not so much because they’re sexually attracted to men but because being with a man makes them feel like a woman. Some of them probably like men, too, and crossdressers will often have sexual relationships with each other, too. Sometimes they’re bisexual but their bisexuality is dependent on their gender presentation. And others, like Betty, only love women. (The whole “opposite sex” idea gets pretty complicated when someone switches genders, as you can see.)

DMN: Is it fair to say that the world of crossdressers is not discussed often in Western culture and is thus misunderstood? If so, what are the major misconceptions and how do you and your husband try to overcome them?

HB I think most of the time crossdressing is dismissed as a kink, or an eccentricity, but the feelings behind why people crossdress are much more complicated than that. It’s not like collecting vintage ties, and it’s not a “lifestyle.” It’s more a quality of life kind of need, along the lines of being gay or lesbian – yes, it’s something people can and do repress, but doing so isn’t a good way to be mentally healthy. But it’s also not entirely about sex, either, though it can be deeply connected to sensuality. I think the one thing I can say for sure is that most of what people think they “know” about crossdressers isn’t always right, and probably isn’t even usually right. Very few crossdressers fit the textbook definition of seedy men getting off on wearing women’s underwear. For some, the crossdressing is an outlet for gender dysphoria, and for others, a way of embracing sexuality in ways they can’t as men. Basically, there are as many reasons to crossdress as there are crossdressers (which is usually estimated at somewhere between 2 – 5% of the male population.) Many crossdressers are starting to identify as transgendered – either because they feel dually-gendered or because they have deep feelings of being gender dysphoric – that is, that they were assigned the wrong gender at birth, or that their gender is not the one that their genitalia presumably indicates.

DMN: What do you hope to achieve by writing My Husband Betty?

HB Four things: 1) to provide crossdressers and their wives useful information, 2) to dispel larger myths the public has about who crossdressers are and why they do what they do, 3) to provide a book for counselors, therapists, sociologists, etc., who wanted to more more from an insider’s point of view, and 4) to provide anyone interested in unusual love story a good read.

DMN: How have you been received by your heterosexual peers and people whom you meet along with your husband for the first time?

HB Our heterosexual peers are pretty open-minded, and I haven’t lived a particularly white picket fence kind of life – so my friends were fine with it. And Betty’s friends like her, so they were sometimes surprised but were also supportive – like good friends, they wanted their friend to be happy. Strangers who meet us for the first time usually can’t figure us out, and keep their distance, but it’s kind of remarkable: if we’re at a party and one person works up the nerve to ask us what our deal is, a crowd will gather pretty fast. So mostly, strangers are curious. Het women generally respond better than het men, but that really depends on the situation.

DMN: Can you share a funny incident or two as well as some that made you sad or were particularly hurtful?

HB ThereƂ’s one incident that’s both sad and funny, depending on how I’m feeling. Betty was in male mode one day when he decided to try on a pair of pumps at a small boutique here in Park Slope (a neighborhood with is very GLBT-friendly). The woman who owned the shop nearly hurt herself being open-minded, and immediately went into her best gossip-dishing I’m-speaking-to-a-drag-queen chatter. Then I said something about how the shoes fit, and she looked at me as if I’d beamed into the store at that second; she’d welcomed us when we both walked in, but after Betty asked to try on the shoes, I became invisible. So it was funny in the sense that people will go out of their way to be welcoming, often in ways that show they’re also nervous or uncertain, but sad because when someone assumes a man who wears pumps is gay means our relationship disappears.

DMN: Have you experienced overt discrimination or prejudice as a white heterosexual woman who happens to be the partner of a crossdresser?

HB Not discrimination, no. Lots of misunderstanding, and I’m occasionally challenged in difficult ways. Some older gay men apparently think I’m the biggest fool that ever was, as *they know* that men who wear women’s clothes are always gay and that I’m deceiving myself. Lesbians likewise often look at me like I’m the biggest closet case that ever was. Wives of crossdressers and crossdressers themselves often assume I’m a lesbian because I’m okay kissing Betty when she’s en femme. None of these things are true, and it often makes me feel quite lonely – but hardly discriminated against.

DMN: Are you working on anything new?

HB I’m working on a book now called Boy Meets Girl, which is about the things I've learned about gender in relationships as a result of being with Betty and as a result of meeting a lot of gender variant people since I published My Husband Betty. What I've noticed is that until or unless there’s a problem with gender, it’s invisible. We make huge assumptions about who a person was and who they’re supposed to be as a partner and lover based on gender – and I came into this relationship thinking I was pretty smart about gender, and didn’t do any of those things. But when your husband starts wondering if he should transition (that’s the PC term for a ‘sex change’ these days), you have to think a lot harder about gender, and learn a lot more. Boy Meets Girl will be a memoir of my struggle to figure out what it might mean to our romance if my husband became my wife, and how what I learned in the process might help others in relationships of all kinds.

Helen also runs a blog Myhusbandbetty.


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Saturday, October 15, 2005

Philadelphia, the conclusion

The next evening I arrived again in Philadelphia to participate in the Formats are for Losers forum, hosted by Kevin Smokler at Voices and Visions Bookstore in The Bourse. Having arrived in town early, I decided to go to the Reading Terminal Market and walk about the place taking in the sights and smells of the farmer's market. This is a Philly gem, a must visit.

The market's underneath an old railway terminal and it's just like an Irish town in the variety of small shops. There were no garish T-shirt outlets, no record stores, no cheap necklace and lurid poster stalls. I walked about like a child in a candy store, engrossed by the colors of goods and aromas and sounds of the place. There's well over a hundred stalls, not including restaurants, and one can purchase meats from an old fashioned ruddy-faced butcher, or chicken, turkey and fresh eggs from another specialty vendor, or inviting breads, veggies and preserves from Amish farmstores (which were unfortunately closed that day). There's also a collosal variety of European and American cheeses, enough to make you momentarily consider walking up to the displays and start tearing open the packaging and devouring the contents.

I was truly spoiled for choice as to where to have supper, whether to sample something at an old fashioned sausage store, or dine on something aromatically Moorish, or traditional perhaps Japanese or Chinese, etc. In the end, still guilty because I've put on a couple of pounds due to rich eating while our New Orleans friends stayed with us, I selected a salad bar and tucked into a mound of greens and some of the most delicious tuna and crab salads I've ever tasted. At the next table was an elderly African American gentleman talking to an elderly white lady and I couldn't help evesdropping because he was telling her how his North Philly neighborhood was changing, how people were buying up home and prices were going up. She was from South philly, Italian I thnought, and all she did was shovel down the rest of her dinner and then start in on a collosal bowl of ice-cream. And all about me the same sort of thing was happening, office workers and people of all races, ages and classes were chatting and eating their suppers.

My will power crashed shamelessly fifteen minutes later while strolling on 13th Street. As soon as I looked inside the window of Capogiro Gelato Artisans and saw the tumult of gelato in the openfaced fridges I knew my self-denial was over. I should say here I am from a family quite fond of Gelato. Mum spent my siblings and my childhoods hunting for the most perfect gelato in any place we ever visited. Ireland did not have much to offer, let me also say. It was an obsession, a still as yet unfulfilled attempt to relive her girlhood experience of first tasting what she considers the true nectar of the Gods during a visit to the shore.

Caught up again in the hunt, I frantically pushed open the door and charged up to the display. I'd have called Mum if I'd had a mobile phone and am absolutely sure she'd have been fully absorbed within seconds of my describing the decedant bounty before me. A smiling young Goth--yes, smiling--whose arms were awash in tattoos smiled as I greedily satisfied my eye hunger, then asked what I'd like to try.
"Try...what, for free?" I said.
"Sure." She whipped a heap of colorful plastic spoons from a bucket.
"What would go with that bitter chocolate?"
"Everything goes with bitter chocolate," she said. "And we've just gotten in our Fall samples today."
I felt like I was in a boutique, which of course I was.
"Try the Thai coconut, and the mango, the banana foster, and the candied Russet apple."
In the end, I purchased a cup of bitter chocolate and a new fall flavor, Italian plum, took a seat by the window and watched Philly life stroll by. It was good, though I can honestly state she's wrong. Not everything goes with bitter chocolate.

The forum was fun and we discussed how contemporary writers are not confining their writing to books nowadays. Quite a few are blogging, some are writing for radio, and yet others are writing screenplays and/or adapting their work for the stage, myself included.

Rita-Anne, a lady who'd emailed me some time ago to say how much she'd enjoyed my novel, showed up with her friend Nick and we chatted before the event began. (Actually, I posted her email expressing how she felt about my writing because I felt it was something worthy of sharing.) Later, I bumped into the pair again outside and Rita Anne and I went for a drink to a pub called Lucy's Hat Shop. Isn't that a neat name for a pub?

We chatted up a storm over a pint of really, really hoppy tasting beer (I love hoppy beer and I love micro-breweries and cannot understand why Americans drink stuff like Bud, Coors or Miller); subjects covering included her forthcoming marriage, life in Philly, and her thoughts about moving to suburbia upon her nuptuals. We also shared our thoughts on sex, monogamy, and our views on the give-and-take in relationships. I love it when I meet a kindred spirit and Rita-Anne was one such spirit. I'm sure her previous contact with me and her love of and frequent trips to Ireland shortened the time needed for us to get deep into our psyches. She shared with me a story that brought home how truly small our world has become today. Recently, she was on the internet at her home in the States scanning the crowd in her favorite pub in Belfast who just happen to have a video cam streaming to the internet. To her surprise, she saw her best friend walk in and watched as she sat with a pint of beer at a table with some friends. For a laugh, Rita Anne called her mobile and told her to put down her beer. Her friend was stunned because she hadn't known the pub had a video cam streaming to the internet.

Finally, I looked at my watch and realized I'd have to hightail it to the station or I'd miss my train. In the end I did miss it because every damned door to the station was locked and I had to go out to the street again and go to the main door. But it was worth it. There's nothing like spontaneously doing something, and going for a drink with Rita Anne was just the perfect way to end my Philly jaunt. And that's what Philly represents. It represents down to earth people, real people, people who don't get all hung up on the rat race and other nonsense, and that's why I can see why it's a city on the rise. So, cheers to Philly and hoppy beer.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Philadelphia Story Part II

My Wednesday reading at Valanni's Restaurant was scheduled to begin at 10.00pm so I drove to Jenkintown and took the train into center city. I arrived twenty minutes early and, as I mounted the steps to the restaurant, a woman hollered my name and I spun around to see her approach.
"Are you Damian?" she asked.
I nodded my affirmation.
"Thought I recognized you from the photo on the festival's site." She held out her hand and shook mine enthusiastically.
Janet is a poet--an exceptional one it transpires because we exchanged books (as authors are wont to do in these circumstances) and I read her work on the train journey home. Quite frankly, I was transported to another world, a world of magnificent femininity and promise.

Here's a couple of excerpts from A Woman Alone which she told me was inspired by a trip to Greece.

a woman alone
is her own possession;
she is a street
dark with devout faces;
she is her own high priest
swinging the incense
of her own scent;
a woman alone
is the flame;
she is the wax that burns


a woman alone is time
turned back
on itself;
she is a swell
of sea;
foam born
from its own breaker;
a woman alone
rises
on the crest,
her own wave

a woman alone
is her own body
ripening;
she is the cold embrace
of sea and her own
nakedness
that swims in it;
she is the heat
of the sun
and the smooth
hot rocks that contain her,
a woman alone......

Should you wish to find out how to acquire Janet's work, just email her at janetmason3@msn.com and I'm sure she'll be delighted to help you.
---------------------------

Janet and I sat at a table--her with a soda water and me with a diet coke, which we though were on the house because no-one gave us a bill...initially--and slipped into easy camaradie, the two of us jabbering ten to a dozen as if we'd known each other for years. I so enjoy it when I meet people with whom I feel immediately comfortable. So engrossed did we become, we scarcely noticed how quickly the place filled up, and next thing the manager approached and introduced us to our festival host, John Lessard. Soon there was a band of gregarious writers milling about the narrow room, including Jim Gladstone whom I'd also never met. I loved this opportunity to mingle with fellow writers, an opportunity which many city writers enjoy regularly, and even indulged the thought that it would be wonderful to live in Philly because of it.

The event began late and, as Janet had to leave early due to an early morning meeting, she, aided by a green keychain light due to a snafu concerning adequate light for the authors to read their work, was first up. I was to swiftly follow second owing to the fact I had to catch the last train home or I'd have been stranded until five o'clock the following morning. Despite a healthy din from some diners also in attendance, I was immediately struck by Janet's words and only regretted her reading was so short. In a flash, she was gone and the DJ recommenced playing, his performance accompanied by a partner who kept fiddling with some peculiar gadget that caused images flashed against an opposite wall to move and contort in all sorts of odd ways.

Ten minutes later, it was clear the DJ was on a roll and would brook no interruption from the plebian authors. Consulting my watch, I saw it was 11:25 and I had about half an hour to read my excerpt and bolt to the train station about ten minutes away. The chap was in full view but no amount of glaring and finger drumming on the table would guilt him to relinquish the floor. Simply put, we were plebs. Two minutes later, a jag of pure panic compelled me to mutiny and I went up to the restaurant manager, seized his arm, explained my dilemma, and the reading commenced. Still very noisy, I read my piece and left, very disappointed not to be able to stay and hear the others read from their work.

Hurtling along 13th street, I spied a tall, well built African American lady shouting something indiscernible as she started along the next block. As I drew closer, I saw she was wearing high cork-heeled shoes and a lightweight, dangerously short black dress that displayed the nether regions of her very full bottom. It appeared as if she wasn't wearing knickers, and the sleeves of her dress had long, silky fringes which swayed back and forth as she raised and moved her arms in the balmy October evening air.

I crossed the street as she called aloud like a Victorian street vendor, "Some sweet black ass here."

Given it was 13th and Chestnut, I was positive I'd misheard, until I saw other pedestrians turn their heads to look back at her. Chuckles emanated from a posse of young men and women on the other side of the street. Despite a need to maintain momentum, my feet began to slow.
"Hi Sugar," she said, as I swung out to pass her by.
Her accent was Southern and, given the recent catastrophe down there, it flashed in my mind that she might be a New Orleans ex-pat adrift in the wrong end of town. Certain her pickings would be slim, I wondered if I should redirect, though had no idea exactly where to redirect her.
"Good evening," I said,instead.
"Aaw Sugar, don' be in such a hurry," she called after me. "Nobody got time. Don' you want some o' this sweet black ass?"
I focused on the pink neon guitar at the Hard Rock Cafe on the corner of Market St. and began to increase speed again. But the incongruity of location and this woman's mission proved far too intriguing and, like a hick, I turned my head to stare and marvel at how dextrously she spun around on those high-arched cork heels at the street corner and began to retrace her beat, her call and fringes rising above the low din of the late evening traffic.

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Monday, October 10, 2005

Spice update

Spice is now on oral steroids for two weeks after which the vet--a lovely, warm and kind lady--will evaluate. Here's hoping!! Thanks to all who emailed or posted well wishes. It is appreciated.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Philadelphia Story Part One and a Presidential interruption

Recently National Geographic did a feature on the rise of Philadelphia as a great city again entitled Next Great City: Philly, Really, The premise of its re-ascension is based on two undeniable facts: Philadelphia is an open city, namely it accepts and actually courts all kinds of people--artists, singles, gays, etc.--to live here and it is installing WiFi (wireless access to the internet) for all city residents to exploit and enjoy. The latter service will be made available at a low cost (free to its poorer residents) by the end of next year. This will result in Philadelphia being one of the most sophisticated cities in the US from a digital perspective, as well as enable its residents to find high-tech jobs. Of course, the cable and phone companies are displeased, but Philadelphia is a blue-collar city with sound blue-collar values, and is not in the business of making corporations millions of dollars in profit at the expense of its residents.

Don't misunderstand me: Philadelphia currently has problems. Mayor John Street's administration is mired in corruption and the subject of FBI investigation--he vociferously denies any personal wrongdoing and so far there is no evidence of any on his part--accused of rank cronyism in dealing with lucrative City contracts, some of which was used to fund the mayor's campaign for office. But despite this, the city is bustling with energy and excitement.

Last week I had an opportunity to experience this vibrancy firsthand when I participated in a reading and panel as part of Philadelphia's literary festival, 215Festival. As a warm-up to the festival, my publicist, Joan Schweighardt, arranged for me to appear on Marty Moss Coane's Radio Times show on NPR (WHYY) with authors Chris Bauman and Kevin Smokler. To my dismay, when I arrived at the station across the road from the magnificent Constitution center, they informed me that President Bush had decided to call a news conference which would devour part of the hour during which we were to appear.

Together, in the studio, poised to don our earphones at a moment's notice, Chris and I watched (Kevin was on the phone from San Francisco) with Marty as the President waxed on yet again like a broken record about Iraq, New Orleans, and his latest choice of Supreme Court justice. I keep this blog free of American politics, feeling that my objective is to entertain with stories and slices of life, but I was incensed by his pointless intrusion.

Why incensed? Well frankly, I am tired of seeing President Bush's face on the telly. The White House stated it was a rare news conference, but his presence is uniquitous these days. He's on the telly and radio as often as some advertisements I abhor. He's relentless. And the message is always the same. It's insulting to me that he continues to deliver the same meatless tripe on every occasion. Does the White House really believe that, if I am forced to endure the same message over and over, I will believe the banal spin to be true? Enough, Mr. President! I have teeth, I am intelligent, I want meat. Do not insult me with repetitive asininity.

Anyway, after half an hour, said interruption came to an end and we came on the air and there was plenty of meat for all. In the space of thirty-five minutes, Kevin, Chris and I talked about writing and the different formats that some contemporary writers are experimenting with, such as me with my blog for writing nonfiction and slices of life, and the essays that Chris and Kevin do for radio. Moreover, we talked about how some writers are even adapting their books for the screen and the theater, of which I am one now too because I've started work on a play of A Son Called Gabriel.. You can listen to the show by calling up the second hour of the Oct 4th show. If you'd rather not hear 'the interruption', just move the controls forward until you hear Marty introduce us.

In the next post, I'll talk about the 215festival event at Valanni's Restaurant and whom I met there, my brief encounter with a buxom lady in Center City, the Forum next day with Kevin and Chris at Voices and Visions, and my jaunt to the pub with Rita-Anne.

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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Interviews

It's been a difficult week because my doggie, Spice, is getting on and is now unable to stand up. His back legs are shot currently. I feel very sad. There's nothing beautiful about getting really old, either for dogs or humans. So I'm taking him to the vet today to see if steroids will help.

And I was running about like a lunatic to and fro 215Festival. I'll post my doings there very soon.
Philadelphia Stories interviewed me for their Fall issue...as did the literary ezine VOID Magazine. If you'd like to read the interviews, just click on their URLs' on my blog's sidebar on the righthandside.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A festival, a play and turkey vultures

Last week was very busy and this week will be too because I'm reading at the 215Festival in Philadelphia on Wednesday night (starting 10 pm) at Valanni's Restaurant (13th and Spruce) with a number of other authors and then on Thursday evening (starting at 7:00 pm) will be taking part in a forum with Christian Bauman and Kevin Smokler at Voices and Visions Books in The Bourse, 111 Independence Mall.

Tomorrow between 11 and noon, I'm back on NPR with those same authors to talk to one of my favorite hosts, WHYY's Marty Moss Coane, about books and how authors are also using other forums--theatre, music, film, blogs, etc.--to reach their audiences.

In this regard, it's quite possible you'll be able to see a stage production of A Son Called Gabriel in the future because I'm currently talking to a playwright with a view to collaborating on writing a play based on Gabriel's life. Very exciting, and I'll report more on the blog as things develop.

We've had some friends staying with us for the past five weeks from New Orleans and they leave tomorrow for that great city. As you can imagine, they're excited to go back to their home in the French Quarter, though they're also apprehensive as they don't quite know what to expect vis-a-vis the infrastructure, etc. Luckily, their home emerged unscathed from Hurricane Katrina though, as I'm sure you can imagine, they're devastated by what has happened to other New Orleans residents.

Larry and I had some friends around yesterday to say goodbye to them and, at one point, we took a walk though the fields to the site of the new French Country home we're building. It was a beautiful day because the dogwoods have now turned crimson and the sky was cloudless and cerulean. At one point, I looked up to see a hundred turkey vultures floating like black rags in the sky. It was breathtaking. Immediately, I alerted the others and all of us stood in the silence watching the drifting silhouettes. The birds were stacked at various heights like aircraft at a busy airport, some I'm convinced were more than a mile high, and it was truly spectacular. As I continued to watch the drifting birds, images of Hurricane Katrina popped into my mind, and I thought how hideous and gorgeous can be the face of Mother Nature.

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