Friday, January 27, 2006

Here's a sample of our new Irish play

Phil and I completed another draft of the play and it's truly remarkable how much we've been able to cut and how tight the piece appears now. It's been very tricky to portray twelve years of a young boy's life in a conservative Northern Irish community in a 90 minute or so play--by that I mean getting in the Northern Irish 70s' political milieu because this was period known as The Troubles and the Catholic minority were under attack by the British government and Unionists, Gabriel's sexual confusion, and the dark family secret involving his Uncle Brendan, the missionary priest--but I believe we've achieved it.


The play exists now in three Acts. As well as having written, Phil has directed in regional theater and he's organized the first reading of our play for February 11th in New York. That's the evening when a group of actors come together at the theater and read the piece in its entirety and we listen to how it all sounds, etc. Phil advises me that members of the public will be in attendance because there are lots of theater lovers who make a point of attending first readings of plays. I'm tremendously excited as this whole experience has been a first for me.

I've also invited my very good friend (and now literary agent) Joan Schweighardt and her husband to attend the public reading because Joan has been Gabriel's champion from the moment she first read A Son Called Gabriel as a manuscript. Joan loved the work so much she took it to my publisher and started the ball rolling toward its publication. For that act of blind faith alone, I would love her. But then she was appointed publicist for both the hard cover and softcover campaigns and, through the amount of time we spent together, our professional relationship transmuted to one of trust and friendship. My father always said to us that we should aim in life to have many good friends and people who one can implicitly trust. Joan is one such person whom I've found on American shores.

As promised, I said I'd post parts of the play. So, here's the first scene from Act One which, any of you who've read the book, will recognize because we tried to stay faithful where possible to the plot. Gabriel is six-years-old when the curtain rises and will be almost nineteen at its end.

A Son Called Gabriel

September 1964 – August 1970
The action of the play takes place in Northern Ireland during the 1960s’ and 70s’ in the house of the Harkin family. All other scenes take place downstage.


ACT ONE


SCENE 1
Off to School



GABRIEL
(He runs across the stage.) I’m definitely not going.

EILEEN
(She walks out onto the stage following Gabriel.) Who do you think you are? Go to school this instant or I’ll fetch a sally rod and beat the living daylights out of you.

GABRIEL
It’s all right for you to say I must go, but you don’t have to deal with Henry Lynch every day. He makes the others gang up on me and you won’t listen.

EILEEN
You must go to school or you’ll just be a stupid Harkin.

GABRIEL
I don’t care.

EILEEN
Last year, you wanted to go so much, I went and got permission for you to start school early.

GABRIEL
That was before I knew Henry Lynch would be in my class.

EILEEN
You must try harder to get him to like you. Talk to him instead of shying away...and don’t take his name-calling to heart. You must be a man, Gabriel. Nobody likes a boy who’s too sensitive.

GABRIEL
I’m still not going.

EILEEN
(She walks into the kitchen and returns with a rod, then runs up to him.) I’m not putting up with this nonsense. Your sister’s starting after the summer holidays and I’m not going to tolerate you showing her a bad example. (She grabs Gabriel’s arm and whips him as she drags him across the stage.) I can’t have you deciding whether you’re going to school or not. Go! (She gives him a shove) Faster, or you’ll be late for class. (She watches for a moment then exits.)

CAROLINE, PEGGY, CELIA, JAMES, NOEL and HENRY enter and sit with their lunches at the desks down stage right. GABRIEL runs on carrying a chair and places it in front of HENRY. CONNOR and MARTIN roll a large blackboard into the classroom.

GABRIEL
(He turns around to face HENRY.) Henry, would you like one of my ham sandwiches?

HENRY
Why would you give me one of your sandwiches, Harkin?

GABRIEL
(He pauses.) I thought you might like to try something different.

HENRY
Have you spit on it?

GABRIEL
I have not indeed. I’d like us to be friends, Henry, so I’ll also give you my chocolate today.

HENRY
I’ll take the chocolate bar, but I wonÂ’t have the sandwich unless you eat a piece of my Indian scone.

GABRIEL
I’m not so very hungry today.

HENRY
Is my scone not good enough for you to eat, Harkin? Is that what this is about?

GABRIEL
No. I just thought youÂ’d like some ham for a change, that’s all.

HENRY
Harkin, are you saying my ma can’t afford to buy ham?

GABRIEL
(He places his sandwich on HENRY’S desk.)

HENRY
I’ll have a tiny, tiny piece, then. (He breaks off a piece of scone and hands it to Gabriel. They watch each other chew.) How do you like my ma’s scone?

GABRIEL
Delicious.

HENRY
In that case, you can have the rest and I’ll take another ham sandwich.


HENRY looks toward the door as FATHER. MCATAMNEY enters. GABRIEL pulls a long hair out of the sandwich, twists up his face as he regards it, and then throws it away.


FATHER MCATAMNEY
Time for your catechism, boys and girls. First Holy Communion will soon be here. (He looks over at Henry and Gabriel) I see you two’ve been sharing each other’s lunches. Look, girls and boys! Look at the example Henry and Gabriel are setting. They’ve been sharing. Sharing is good to do. Now, who can raise their hand and tell me another person who shared a feast? (No one raises their hand.) I’ll give you a hint. His name begins with a ‘J.’ (Still no hands go up.) Jesus, boys and girls. Remember...remember I told you Jesus gave his body to the apostles to eat?


FATHER MCATAMNEY walks back to the blackboard and starts writing. HENRY prods GABRIEL.

HENRY
Listen, Harkin. From now on, you have to hand over all your chocolate bars or whatever treats you have for lunch.

GABRIEL
I can’t do that, Henry.

HENRY
If you don’t, I’m going to make it very rough for you.

GABRIEL
Henry, I really want us to be friends, but what you’re asking me to do isn’t right.

HENRY
Don’t tell me what’s right, you fucking sissy boy. (He prods his finger into Gabriel’s chest like a jackhammer.) I’ll give you a good thrashing if you don’t give me the chocolate…and you’d better have picked a football team to be your favorite by lunchtime or you’ll get hit as well.


FATHER MCATAMNEY rings a hand bell signaling that class is over. The kids all get up from their desks and gather downstage. CAROLINE, PEGGY, CELIA and GABRIEL stand off to the side talking. MARTIN, CONNOR and JAMES toss the ball back and forth to each other. Finally, HENRY intercepts it.


HENRY
Hey, Harkin, come here.


GABRIEL walks over and the other boys gather around.


HENRY
Have you picked a soccer team to support yet?

GABRIEL
I quite like Chelsea.

HENRY
Why Chelsea?

GABRIEL
I like the color of their outfits...and Chelsea’s a nice part of England.

HENRY
The color of their kit doesn’t matter a fuck. (He smacks the top of GABRIEL’S head with his palm.) What an eejit, right fellas?

GABRIEL
Stop hitting me, Henry. That’s not allowed.

HENRY
Don’t tell me what’s allowed, you big sissy. (He hits GABRIEL on the side of the face.) Come on, Harkin. Fight me, or are you a yellabelly?

GABRIEL
(He stares at Henry.)

NOEL
Come on, Gabriel. Don’t let a chap from the other side of Knockburn beat you.


GABRIEL looks at NOEL but still does not fight.


HENRY
(He turns GABRIEL around, kicks him in the ass, and he falls to the ground. HENRY raises his fists up like a boxer and begins dancing around GABRIEL.)


All the BOYS laugh and cheer.

GABRIEL
(He stands up slowly.)

HENRY
(He hits him in the nose.)

BOY
Leave him alone, Henry.

NOEL
He has to fight. Come on Gabriel, he’s made you bleed. Hit him and let’s see the color of his blood.

GABRIEL
I don’t want to fight.

NOEL
Don’t be a coward.

GABRIEL
Fighting’s for animals. They don’t know any better. (He lowers his fists and turns to leave.)

HENRY
(He pushes GABRIEL real hard.) Go and play with the girls like you always do, sissy boy.

The school BELL rings. All the KIDS disperse.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Framing the house

Last week was a busy week. I've mentioned before that we'd cleared trees and shrubs from some land in the early spring in preparation of building a French Country home that we hope to move into by the end of the summer. Progress has been good, though the framer and guy who constructs the chimneys started in the late fall when Larry had hoped it would be mostly completed by then. The house has now been framed and it looks magnificent because it's got really steep pitched, high roof lines that one would see traveling through Provence. (I should say that this is an Americanized version of what a French Country house looks like; in other words, the architect has given it the look and feel of a 'cottagey' French style house but, in dimensions, it's large and designed for contemporary living.) Next comes putting on the slate roof--we'd got about eight bids on the last fortnight and appointed the winning contractor four days ago--and choosing the color of stone as it's going to be a Bucks County stone house.

As I'm the son of a man who had an excavation and plant hire business, I've worked around construction guys as a schoolboy and am used to the ribald, jocular humor and 'cussing,' etc. They're no different in the United States. Buildings sites in Ireland and the US share certain universals, though admittedly one is most unlikely to encounter burly, rough-spoken men tucking into mescaline salad with oil and balsamic vinaigrette dressing and vegetarian pizzas on an Irish building site.

Our framer is from the old school of construction; he doesn't use electrical guns to drive in the nails, preferring instead to use the old fashioned hammer, though I'm fairly sure his younger crew feel differently about that. He and his crew are also well treated because he gave Larry some chocolate chip cookies one afternoon that were homemade. It turns out a neighbor of ours arrives every day at teatime with a plate of homemade cookies for the chaps. (She and the framers wife are friends, but still the daily gesture underscores that the spirit of largesse and true friendship are alive and well in contemporary America, just as it was in this formerly predominately Quaker township over a hundred years ago.) And the framer also let Larry know in a sly way that he knew he was gay by remarking that he knew Spice, our dog. Upon Larry's inquiry as to how he knew him, he replied, "My wife is in partnership with Natalie, the woman you and your friend use to look after him when you go away and she fed him when you went away last year."

I must also say that framers are not given full credit by people like me for the beautiful work they do. As I walked around the new house with Larry (carefully treading as we've had rain and the place is a mire in places), I was nothing short of astounded by the precise craftsmanship of their rough-in carpentry, by the amazing angles and interesting nooks and crannies they'd created that will soon forever be concealed by the roof's slate and walls of stone.

Last week also saw the laying of the electricity and high speed cable lines into the trench that runs alongside the driveway to the front door. The electricity company took an entire day to install a large cylindrical box onto a nearby pole that will increase the amount of invisible 'juice' surging into the house. And because these lines must be blanketed with gravel before the trench was closed again, Larry had me come along and help with the shoveling. At one point, the chap astride the pole shouted at me to get out of the trench and then the line went live. After they'd left, Larry asked me to come with him to the cellar and we stood before the electrical box.

"You can have the honor of being the first to let the electricity flow into our house," he said.
I was moved, but it didn't seem right I should do it.
"No," I said. "We'll do it together."
And so we put our hands on the switch and pressed it down and a single light came on.
We laughed. It was a fun moment, though one tinged with a little sadness that I did not share with him albeit I'm sure our very old, ailing doggie Spice was also on his mind as well.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

The teenagers of the Rainbow Room

Last night, my friend Maria invited me to attend a function at the Rainbow Room which is a resource center set up by Planned Parenthood Association of Bucks County for the benefit of teenagers who are either LGBTQA. (I knew that 'L' stood for Lesbian, 'G' for Gay, 'B' for Bisexual, 'T' for Transgender, but the 'Q' and the 'A' had me stumped. I asked and was informed the 'Q' stood for Queer or Questioning and the 'A' stood for allies, namely the straight youth.) The event was an opportunity for the adults supporting the venture either financially or as volunteers to meet and get to know the youth, and for them to get to know the adults. Prior to last night, I'd attended one other event called 'Sing Out Loud and Proud,' a musical presentation by the kids that was a fundraiser. That performance took place at Solebury High School near New Hope and was extremely well attended. Of course, it also raised the ire of a few bigots in the area who protested the fact that Solebury High School would lend its facilities to any kind of an organization supporting kids working out their sexuality and their allies. But hey, this is America and, because we cherish our First Amendment rights, they, too, should have a right to speak their hate under the pretext of honoring God.

As I entered the room where over 50 youth (ranging in age from 16 to 20) from throughout middle Bucks County were assembled, some with piercings, some with vegetable dyed hair, one sporting a black Charlie Chaplin hat, some fat, some thin, some conservative in their attire, some African-American, some straight, some gay, some bisexual, I was struck by their confidence, cohesion, and enthusiasm. Maria and I arrived a little late and people were already introducing themselves and stating why they liked the Rainbow Room, each person speaking only when they came into possession of a teddy bear that was being circulated from individual to individual. Thereafter, in an excellent device to get the teenagers and adults to interrelate, the entire room was invited to take a questionnaire and circulate around the room asking people to help complete the questions by writing their name across from a question they could answer. Questions began with 'Find someone who':

Has been married;
Got good sexual health info from family members
Can describe how to use a Reality/"Female"Condom. (To my amazement, afterwards, a young man who'd participated in a class to enable him to give sex education counseling to women gave a very informative description.)
Likes their body
Knows what the pregnancy rate for lesbian teenagers is in the US (25%, and nearly three times higher than their straight peers, probably due to their desire to prove they're normal and fit in, etc.)
Has been on a fun trip recently or has one planned, etc.


It was a fun exercise and one that really worked because the kids would approach adults and ask the questions, etc.

A second, singularly American interactive 'game' called the 'fishbowl' next occurred as the teenagers sat in a ring to answer questions while the adults listened and then vice versa. (As an aside, this is one of the things I love about Americans; I've been in enough situations to conclude that many are not frightened to think outside the box, to try something unusual, to risk making a fool of themselves, to do things that Irish or Brits might roll their eyes or shrink from and dismiss with a "how juvenile" or 'very American, that is.") Questions asked included, "What do you like about being a teenager?" and its obverse, and "What do you want people to know about you as a group?" Answers were universal, in that I imagine teenagers in Ireland or England would have similar opinions, and included the complaints about parents who don't understand them, 'not being allowed to buy cigarettes', being stereotyped, etc. A wit among them said, he didn't like having to pay off the US deficit we adults are running up when he and his peers gets older. Next came the adults--much creaking and cracking of joints as we tried to sit crosslegged and dignified on the floor under the watchful eyes of the teens--and we answered questions such as "What do you like about being an adult?, and what we didn't, what were our perceptions of teenagers? and what thoughts we wanted the teenagers to take from our words.

The evening wrapped up with an amusing slide show prepared by the kids which depicted them attending various Rainbow Room and other functions throughout the years it has been in operation.

All in all, I came away from the event with a definite sense of American youth and their confidence and sense of social responsibility, something I really didn't possess before I went in. (I don't often get a chance to connect with teenagers and kids, except during visits home to Ireland where I have a healthy and exuberant brood of nephews and nieces. But my nephews and nieces, though I love them dearly, are all pretty similar in their views and behavior due to the educational system in Northern Ireland and their upbringing, and thus are not fully representative of the entire range of today's youth. They are all highly educated and already motivated by money and status, and sadly I never hear them talk about giving back to society in any way. Rather, I hear them talk about being accountants, lawyers and doctors, and what cars they want to drive, etc. Unfortunately, the Northern Irish system of education--which is in effect British--is very deficient in that it puts a premium on uniformity and academic excellence at the expense of the arts. One is, in effect, encouraged to be an accountant or an engineer, but discouraged from aspiring to be an actor or writer. The system--especially in the Catholic schools--collects money for the 'black babies of Africa', but teaches the students nothing about racism, sexism, homophobia intolerance, hypocrisy, etc.) With regard to the United States, too often I've seen herds of teenagers trolling around the malls with blank expressions, heard them talking on TV, and it's been discouraging; it seemed as if the corporateers have won, that these kids have bought en masse into the menus of morose corporate hype and Hollywood crap they're being fed, that they can barely speak three syllable words and are unable to think, that all they crave are Gameboys, X-boxes, cell phones, and cigarettes.

The kids I met last night are refreshingly different: they're individuals but love cohesion and friendship, they're energetic, driven, love to question and challenge, will not swallow whole the biases and hypocrisy of their parents, religious institutions or government. Of course, I realize these Bucks County teens are extraordinary in that, at an early age, they are learning about and dealing with (or have dealt with) very adult and tricky issues such as sexuality and sexism, prejudice, racism and bigotry. They have already gone out on a limb and challenged the status quo. This bunch of straight, gay and questioning kids have taken the initiative to learn about and work towards making society tolerant. I feel confident about America's future because of these kids and others like them throughout the US. They will go on to college and then become leaders in society one day, of that I have no doubt, and we will be better off for it.

Congratulations to them, and to Bucks County Planned Parenthood and its dedicated staff for setting up the Rainbow Room.

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Monday, January 16, 2006

Secrets, and Understanding

I read quite a few blogs, both literary and personal, and have found of late that I don't have enough time to read them all, so I've had to really cut back. One that I stumbled upon some time ago by accident is by a blogger called Chris who's been married for over two decades and he's also a father, but always felt something was different. The 'something' is that he's also attracted to men, that he's gay, and last year matters came to a head and he resolved to discuss these core feelings with his wife and family, moved out of the home to live a short distance away, and has been blogging about his whole painful experience, and the joy he's finding now in being true to himself. I found the blog compelling right from the first paragraph I read and it's become one of my favorites both because of the quality of his writing and the content. What compelled me about the content? Well, the subjedct interested me and I was bowled over by its searing reality and the subtext, if you will, that we are on this earth for a short period of time and must be true to who we are no matter how hard while we walk the fields and streets.

Anyway, it turns out this chap has read my novel recently and posted his feelings entitled Living With Secrets in relation to it on Coming Out at 48. I was stunned by how well he understood Gabriel, how infinitely more so than the vast majority of professional reviewers and interviewers who've had me on their shows. He went to the core of Gabriel and literally touched his quivering soul. He understood, and I am tremendously moved by what he has written.


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Friday, January 13, 2006

The 'Frey' frenzy

Today National Public Radio's Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane was debating the issue of whether memoirs should be true because of the recent debacle involving James Fray's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces and how some of it had been proven by The Smoking Gun.com to be utter fabrication. At one point, one of her guest's, Carlo Romano, nonfiction reviewer at The Philadelphia Inquirer stated that Frey's manuscript had been circulated as a novel and turned down by 17 houses until it made its way to the Nan A. Talese imprint at Random House. Apparently, editors at the Talese imprint suggested the book would be better positioned as a memoir. The debate really struck a chord with me because of my own situation with A Son Called Gabrielso I called into the show (she takes live calls) and gave my opinion as a writer.

Basically, when my book was accepted by my publisher they asked me how much of the plot was true because, being set in conservative Northern Ireland and involving the issue of a young boy's struggles with his sexuality, they were chomping at the bit to publish it as 'memoir'. They said, given its Irish setting and the fact that it deals in part with an Irish Catholic boy struggling with homosexuality against the background of 'The Troubles,' the publicist would be able to easily get me tons and tons of media if it were positioned as nonfiction. The downside was, that if I kept it as a novel, it would not attract the attention of the media caught up in the intrigues of a presidential campaign (2004) and that it was nigh to impossible to get radio and TV for fiction, never mind it was an Irish piece of fiction coming out in the US.

In effect, it was boiling down to a 'dollars versus truth' decision. Did I want to take a very good chance that I would earn a lot of money and garner a lot of attention for a memoir entitled 'A Son Called Damian', or was I content to let my first book go out as a novel and risk it getting lost in the roar of the 2004 presidential election campaign? I have never hidden the fact that many scenes in the novel replicate my experiences, but the family is not my family nor is the book's plotline concerning Brendan based on fact. (In the end, I did get a fair amount of publicity and am not complaining.)

It was very tempting at the time to consider pulling a paragraph here and there and re-editing it as a memoir, but I decided I had to be true to myself and to the character I'd created. The truth was I had never intended my book to be a memoir as I understand a memoir to be. As I was writing it, I knew it was falling into a sort of gray area that many books end up in, namely that much of the story had a basis in real life, but there are also many dollops of fiction added to the mix. In fact, I thought about this very same issue a great deal when I was visiting Northern Ireland last year when I stood at the fresh grave of the boy (in my mind he was a boy, though of course he died an adult) who had once seduced me. He'd been 11, I only 7, and it turns out he was also simultaneously interfering with my much younger sister. (He had had a very sad life, went off to live in England, returned to live with a woman--yes, he was heterosexual--and then drank himself to death.) As I stood there looking at the brightly colored flowers and notes from people who'd loved him, my childhood came back in a torrent of recollections; I hadn't seen him since I was eleven, though he has always been at the fringes of my reminiscences about growing up in rural Ireland. (And, in case you are curious as to what I was feeling, I felt neither anger or sorrow for him as I stood at the gravesite on that bleak January day that Ireland seems to excel at producing. I just felt what was reality, that an obscure life had come to an end, that his demons whatever they were had obviously controlled his life and prevented him from reaching his potential, or maybe the life he'd lived was his true potential--sometimes, in our zeal to see that all humans have great potential, we fail to recognize that some do not.)

I'm fairly certain Frey had a similar decision to make about his book and, in his case, must have decided to subordinate his conscience and thus was happy enough to gussy it up and send it out as a memoir. My opinion is that a memoir should be factual, though times and names may be changed on occasions for legal or to suit the flow of the narrative, and there should be no exaggeration or embellishment. I think it's a shame that the lure of the dollar outweighs all else in some cases, that people are quite willing to subordinate their reputations in order to earn millions or win tremendous fame. Also sad is the attitude of a lot of Americans who stated they don't care whether he told the truth or not. We seem to be living in a culture that's sliding if not in actual decline, that what is base, false or stupid is lauded, and we haven't truly realized that collectively yet. We're living in a culture where the truly dumb is celebrated, where education and critical thinking is no longer aspired to by the masses.

One point came up in the interview that struck me as would a slap in the face. It was a comparison between Frey and Judge Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court nominee, and it was very much on point. The issue revolved around Alito's failure to remember the facts surrounding his membership of a very exclusionary and conservative alumni association (Concerned Alumni of Princeton) during his years at Princeton. Apparently, Romano, who was at Princeton a few years after Alito, stated that this association was not of the kind one drifted into, and thus membership of which one could not forget or dismiss as of no consequence. He stated one had to take active steps to join and thus one could not, by that circumstance alone, forget one's membership. This actuality, combined with the fact that Alito boasted about it in the eighties during a job application for a position in the Regan administration, would seem to indicate he has put his personal ambition and desire to be a member of the US Supreme Court above the need to tell the absolute truth. If this is true, is he not indeed a symbol of what is wrong in society today? And should he become a Justice of the Supreme Court, does this not make his judgments forever defective and nonbinding--regardless as to whether they are conservative or liberal leaning--because they would be fruit of a 'poisoned tree,' a legal principle the judge would well be familiar with from his law school days....unless, of course, he's forgotten.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Bucks County Wrebels

I'm a member of a writing group in Bucks County that ended up being called the Bucks County Wrebels the spelling a joke when one of the members suggested adding a 'W' to the word 'rebel'. There are six of us (Jeanne, Marie, Dave, Chris, John and me) and we broke away about five years ago from another group. Of course, we're all still very friendly with the original group--which is much, much larger--and a few members are also still members of that group. Last night we had a meeting at which we brought in another new member and already I can see she will be a valuable addition to the group.

Until she joined, there were four males and two females and, when we considered adding a new member a few months ago, Jeanne and Marie (also avid 'Y' members) said it should be another woman. They felt we needed another female voice and mind for balance, and they are right, of course. We concentrate chiefly on writing novels, though now that I have been writing an adaptation of my published novel, we'll also review plays and screenplays, too. Some of the group also write short stories, which is something I tend to avoid because I'm not comfortable with the format as I need pages to unfurl my stories.

I am at the moment the only member of the group to have a novel published. Others have had pieces published in magazines and Dave has had a book about local history published last year. In December, Marie got the good news that Random House wanted to publish her Young Adult novel in 2007 and,last night, she arrived elated and told us the contract was negotiated and it is now a two-book deal. So all in all, we're a group that's highly motivated and others will undoubtedly follow Marie and I into seeing our work published.

Last night my play was up for scrutiny and I was apprehensive. It is one thing to have written a novel, but quite another to take it and adapt it for another media. So I arrived at Jeanne's home (we meet there) both excited to meet the newest member, Grace, and a nervous about the critiques. Grace had brought a gift of a box of cherry and liquor dark chocolates (not a bribe), candies I'm partial too, though all present refrained because we're all trying to cut back on the calories. Okay, I lie. I had two where I would happily have scoffed five, so that's tantamount to restraint.

The critiques were valuable in that, as with critiques of our novels, they were thorough and very helpful. It brought home to me how truly essential it is as a writer to surround oneself with people whose talent and judgment one trusts, and how vital it is for a writer to join a writing group. Of course, the Wrebels pulled aspects of the play apart, pointed out flaws and weaknesses, but that is absolutely essential to creating something compelling, something that will endure, something that a stage director might want to produce. During these times, when my work is being critiqued, I find that a tendency to be defensive comes to the fore. I think this is natural in many of us, and so long as we recognize it, quash it and listen to the opinions being offered, much can be learned.

What was particularly satisfying to discover last night was that Grace has a great deal of theatrical acumen and experience, which made her opinions even more valuable. And, of course, this morning as I read her and the others comments contained in the script's margins, I realized how truly lucky I am to be in a group such as this. It was also this group of friends and colleagues who first critiqued parts of the novel and cheered it on its way toward publication. And now they're doing the same with the play. Thanks guys...and girls.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Powerball, poker and bankruptcy

I'm not really one for gambling. As a kid with my siblings and parents, I used to go for a day trip to Buncrana in the Irish republic (just a little bit over the border from Northern Ireland) and gamble with pennies and sixpences I'd saved. The place where we gambled was called 'Berties' and, as well as slots and other kinds of coin games, they also had a helter-skelter and dogems and other kinds of defying rides. For kids like us who had to watch their pennies, it was nirvana, and I look upon those times spent with my siblings with great affection. It was our childhoods at their most pure, though of course we didn't realize it then. And our parents seemed also at their happiest on these trips: they often chatted animatedly and laughed a lot, something they seldom did at home because then the realities of life and its attendant pressures sent them in to their own quiet corners where they nursed their own concerns and agendas zealously.

Then, I was a tight or wise little bugger, the adjective to describe me depending on whether it was the proprietors of Berties or me who was doing the describing. If I started to lose at the machines, I possessed the good sense to just walk out of the arcade and cut my losses. It was not a characteristic shared by any of my siblings because they would stay and gamble until their money was spent and then depend on their big brother to cough up for the licorice and penny chews, etc. But those days spent at Berties also sowed a deep and healthy suspicion of gambling joints and the people who own them that has held me in good stead ever since. I have no interest in going to Las Vegas to gamble, nor do I ever feel the need (as some friends of mine have) to jump in the car and go off to places like Atlantic City in order to gamble myself stupid.

When the Powerball lottery (of which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) is a member, Larry and I often buy a bunch of tickets and sometimes win five or ten dollars. Last night was very interesting because some time ago we'd bought some of those scratch it "Poker" cards that the Commonwealth also flogs at $5.00 a pop and, as there was nothing interesting on the telly, we decided to go through them. On the first card (containing four deals), Larry revealed Four Kings and, if it 'bested' the hand held by the dealer, we'd won $100,000. Well, (and this is where the game hooks people), all we saw in our great excitement in the dealers hands was a bunch of odd cards and we genuinely thought we'd won. Hurriedly, we scratched through the other cards and discovered we'd 'won'an additional $580.00.

After we sat back in wonder for a while, I decided to methodically go through the tickets again. You've guessed it. Those 'odd' cards held by the dealer in the $100,000.00 game turned out to be a royal flush which trumped our 'four of a kind.' (The way the tickets display the various 'cards,' it makes it difficult to spot this immediately.) It was the same case (in different combinations of 'cards') that resulted in our winning 'ziltch, nada, nothing in the other deals. So we were out $15.00. That amount is not much, but it is a lot of money to the 'customers' who usually buy these tickets. The Commonwealth's current pitchman is 'Gus', the second most famous groundhog in Pennsylvania, the first being Punxsutawney Phil, the one brought out on Groundhog Day to predict whether we will have an early end to winter. While I recognize the Commonwealth's need to obtain revenue in an age of tight and decining revenue sources, I am not convinced it should be spending millions of dollars on advertisng campaigns aimed at persuading its 'poorer' citizens to gamble. It is at best unseemly.

Ever the cynic, I decided to go through the tickets and analyze what was going on with the 'dealer' every time we held a great hand, and I discovered something extremely interesting. If we held a flush, the dealer invariably held a Royal flush or something equally difficult to obtain had it been a regular game of cards. Quite frankly, the probability of this happening to the dealer when a customer holds a great hand should be very, very remote. But on the tickets, it happened all the time. My conclusion is that the machine churning out these cards seems to operating contrary to the laws of probability.

This set me to thinking about gambling in general. Pennsylvania is soon to introduce slot machines in Philadelphia and other places throughout the commonwealth. In preparation, casino owners like Donald Trump have created partnerships with prominent Pennsylvania citizens and gone to Harrisburg to lobby for the contract to build and/or manage these places. I find this ironic. My understanding is that Trump casinos have twice filed for bankruptcy in New Jersey. I cannot understand why Pennsylvania would even consider meeting with someone at the helm of such an organization.

That issue, of course, brings me careening into the question of the purpose of the federal bankruptcy laws. In the old days, when a corporation went bankrupt, it truly meant the corporation was in genuine trouble and needed protection in order restructure and become viable. Today, many corporations (such as a few unprofitable American airlines, some of whom have filed twice) are using the bankruptcy laws as a means of evading their debts or as a stick to beat the heads of employees from whom they are seeking concessions or, at best, as a means of attracting fresh finance. The federal laws are becoming nothing but a corporate tool, and this was not Congress's objective. It is appalling, and we should be very angry at this flagrant abuse...particularly so as parts of those same bankruptcy laws were amended late last year in order to make it more difficult for individuals to file and obtain protection. And who were the chief lobbyists for these amendments? That's right! The credit card companies.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Stretching oneself

It's been a surprisingly busy week here in Bucks county as I've been working diligently on my stage play collaboration. I'm closing in on another draft and am feeling in high spirits as it's looking very tight and I can now see it being produced. I think next week I'll give you Act I Scene I which is the same opening as the novel. Throughout the process, Phil and I have been able to stay pretty faithful to the novel, though some things had to go because they didn't fit, etc.

Last night Phil emailed me the Properties list, which is a theatrical term for all the props that are required. He's now working on the music, etc while I complete this critical draft. I really have learned a great deal about the theater process as a result of our collaboration. He really is talented and his absolute love for the theater is very infectious.

One thing I've been struggling with is that Eileen and Gabriel, as two core characters, appear a lot at the beginning and end of chapters in the novel. It's the same with the scenes in the play. This makes it very difficult for the director as his or her actors need time to effect costume changes between scenes, etc. So I've had to devise methods to allow this to happen fluidly and add new dialogue where a device won't work. It's these sort of critical elements that, if not addressed so there are loopholes and impossibilities, can cause a riveting manuscript to be shot down by a theater.

Drafting the play from my novel has shown me that I'm much more than a novelist, that writing novels is not enough to keep me interested and motivated. So my new year resolution regards my writing is to complete this play, write another one that's been niggling to be written for years (one my father is very keen for me to write) and also complete the screen play of A Son Called Gabriel. I'll also continue to work on my first American set novel, which I haven't looked at for ages.

While the plays or 'Gabriel' screen play may never get picked up, I've nevertheless decided I'm the best person to write stage and screenplays based on my own work. And there is a body of writing from Irish writers that's made it onto the screen and the Leicester Square and Broadway theaters. Director Neil Jordan has done films based on novels by Patrick McCabe such as The Butcher Boy and his latest, Breakfast on Pluto. Jordan alos wrote The Crying Game, one of my all time favorite movies. I feel if he and others can adapt or write original screenplays, so I can, too. It's vital to stretch oneself in life, to do what one fears, because, in doing the task, one sumultaneously achieves the objective and realizes that the people who do these things possess no monopoly over the required magic. In any event, I'd rather do my own adaptations than risk some young, inexperienced writer working for a studio taking my characters and putting them in situations they would never experience, etc. I know my characters best, I know Ireland, and I know my work.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

Brokeback Mountain: review

I decided to see a late matinee at my local arts theater where Brokeback Mountain was showing and unwittingly ended the year on a true highlight. From the instant the huge truck with its lights traveled across the screen and Brokeback Mountain rose to assert its presence, from the moment Ledger walked into view, the movie tore open and claimed a piece of my heart, permanently. Yesterday, New Year's Day, all I could think about was the movie, not exclusively about the plot, scenery and cast--though I've done my share of that--but rather about the way of life cowboys and others working in America's lonely backwaters lead and how some of them are, as we journey into 2006, living the very circumstances depicted by these two terrific actors. For this Irish man, it pierced for two hours and fifteen minutes the veneer of onion-layered sophistication created by a solid education, law school and years of big city living, and I almost joyously became once more the raw Irish boy who'd loved and hated in equal measure growing up in the rural backside of Ireland with all its prejudices, fears, limitations and hang-ups, including my own.

The movie is upliftingly sad rather than depressing as some gay friends have called it. Yes, uplifting sadness is the paramount emotion I'd venture is experienced by the viewer, and it is also crammed to the brim with richness and terrible beauty. And it has its minor flaws, but then many of the best movies I've loved do, also. One, for example, I could not get past was the fact Ennis had two daughters, yet only one of them appeared throughout the final third of the film. The aging of Jack (played by Gyllenhaal) from 19 to 39 is unconvincing, a visual amplified more so when one considers how well they aged Ennis (played by Ledger) and how his voice deepened, though Ledger being Australian where the culture of machismo is worshipped undoubtedly helped. And Ennis's wife Alma (played by Michelle Williams) seemed altogether too passive for my taste, especially when she accidentally witnesses and is devastated by the sight of her husband passionately kissing Jack when the two men meet up for the first time after their love affair began on Brokeback mountain. But the crushing power of that scene, as the stricken wife realizes her husband harbors a love and voracious yearning for another that is stronger than his love for her, banished the stirrings of cynicism.

Ennis is brutishly heroic, a magnificently tortured soul, a man quietly at war with himself because he is possessed of deep-seated homophobia and unable, if not indeed unwilling, to kill his all-consuming passion and love for another man. I could scarcely breathe when the two cowboys parted after their initial summer spent together on Brokeback (ostensibly forever because Ennis stated he would not return the following year in response to Jack's inquiry) as first Ennis watches Jack's truck pull away and then retreats to a dusty sidestreet where he falls to his knees, vomits, beats at the walls of the unyielding building and cries furiously; another cowboy happens by and watches and Ennis roars at him to get the fuck away, his timbre perfectly articulating the torrent of loss, confusion, denial and pain swirling within. The film is magnificent in allowing us to slowly realize that it is the stoic, reluctant Ennis whose love is the most searing, the most faithful, and, at one point, he tells Jack that meeting him has cost him everything. Ennis's life, the life of a married man with two daughters (whom he adores) which he is compelled to live because in his circumstances and milieu there is no other way, is an interminable midnight with little illumination except for occasional intense rays afforded when Jack and he meet up several times each year for a week's camping on Brokeback Mountain.

The movie is raw, breathtaking, overwhelming, all-consuming; a story as full of poignancy and universals as any of the greatest Hollywood love stories, and it does not descend at any point to cheap sentimentality or attempt to pontificate. When Ennis visits Jack's impoverished parents at one point, the subtext in the movements and looks exchanged between this rough-mannered yet vulnerable cowboy and the love-of-his-life's mother is heartbreaking to the point of inducing headache...and then, of course, there is Ennis's discovery in Jack's closet of the plaid shirt--placed over the shirt Jack wore and with the sleeves of both intertwined--he'd thought he'd lost during the first summer they'd spent together on Brokeback Mountain. (Thanks to a blog comment for pointing out an error I'd made about that.) Nor does the movie correctly offer apology for its being a love affair between two men. Rather, in its own way, with the credible sexual immediacy of the initial tryst between the two men, in its unapologetic acknowledgement that enduring love begins often with and then moves beyond raw sexual attraction, it seems to poke a finger in the eye of Hollywood's conventional, cardboard and cliched treatment of developing love relationships.

Given Hollywood's misguided and overly simplified treatment of sexuality in general, as well as its poor understanding of what the general public will or will not accept in movies, it is entirely understandable that Ledger and Gyllenhaal were 'very, very nervous' about playing two men in a love affair for fear of alienating their teenager fan base. It is testament to their strength of character and a measure of the men they are that they saw the script's power and cast convention aside, ignored their innermost fears and the shrill warnings of doom from their timid male fellow actors, agents and others in the industry, and threw themselves headlong unreservedly into the roles. In fact, Ledger in an interview said that, after the first kiss with Gyllenhaal, it was just the act of kissing another human being. How very true. And, if the teenage girls who sat next to us in the cinema are any indication, the actors need have no fear. All the girls were riveted, riveted by the story, by the love affair, by the poignancy and human condition...and their balled tissues were working overtime. Great things come only from taking great risks and Ledger and Gyllenhaal have proven their mettle as actors of the highest caliber.

The movie is correctly positioned mainstream and will be enjoyed by all, except for the homophobic (male or female), and any heterosexual men with doubts about their sexuality should probably stick to the action flicks. Congratulations to Ang Lee for another superb piece of work, to Annie Proulx who did the research and wrote the original story, and to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for seeing its potential and writing the script.

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