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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