Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Hornet's Hummer

"Oh dear" was all I could think. I was sweaty from my exertions and badly needed my 20 oz mug of coffee from the Wawa (Native American for goose). My entire mind flashed at the jolt, which was miniscule I might add, but I saw a canary yellow bonnet and ferocious looking chrome grille in my rear view mirror and all I could summon was another "Oh, dear."

As I stepped out of my car in the parking lot of the 'Y' and she stepped out in a pair of black leotards and mustard sweater, my inner child screamed, "Oh, fuck, fuck". I couldn't also help wondering if God was getting even with me for poking fun at Pope Benedict and his newly minted cardinals at a recent dinner party, though the moment passed just as quickly because I know the Supreme Being is on my side and I'm not afflicted nor do I get off on conjuring up terrors of damnation like so many religious brethern living state-side.

"Gosh, I didn't see you drive in," I said to the hornet. Clearly she'd stormed into the parking lot, because I'd checked moments before and all was clear. By now, I should add I was addressing the slope of her back and increasingly honed ass--I must give full credit where credit is merited--because she was bent over inspecting the aforementioned ferocious looking grille and bumper.

Perhaps I should say at this point that I am not at all partial to Hummer 1, Hummer 2 and/or Hummer 3 vehicles, or their owners--actually, more likely to be lessors because it used to be a loophole in the US tax code which allowed deductions that encouraged demand for such idiotic ownership. In fact, I detest Hummers. They were invented for US army field use and that is exactly where they should have remained.
They appeal to a certain segment of the US population, in much the same way that Corvette's, because of their phallic-like appearance, supposedly appeal to men who...well, who might be a tiny bit deficient in certain nether regions.

With regard to the Hummer customer profile, I have found they appeal to the twenty-first century equivalent of the eighties Yuppies, namely thirty-something males and, judging from what draws alongside me and dismounts during visits to the supermarket, their manicured, exquisitely dressed and shod girlfriends or wives and similarly exquisitely dressed and shod toddlers. I've even seen one Hummer that's doubles as a billboard on wheels because the owner has the name of his company, which includes the word "Angels" and provides at home nursing services to the elderly, brandished on both doors and on the back.

Thankfully, the reign of Hummers and other gas guzzling mostrosities appears to be over because there's no longer a voracious demand. A dealership in New Jersey I pass by on the way to NYC has an adjacent field containing hundreds of them, all still with the opaque plastic wrapping on their roofs and bonnets, all waiting their day to meet the crusher, hopefully.

But I digress. The hornet muttered "Hmm, clearly," as she pawed, stroked and caressed her man o'war's shiny surfaces with her long, crimson painted nails. I shot a look at my own car, a dainty Sebring in comparison, saw it had sustained no damage. To my amazement, she then had the temerity to check her right wing which had not been within reach of my car.

"My vehicle has no damage so..." I allowed the sentence to trail unfinished in the air between us so Hornet could draw the logical conclusion that if mine had none, her canary yellow tank also could certainly not.

As she peered at my car, her countenance soured as if she'd been forced to take in some ghastly abomination.

"Well, I have a long scratch," she said, as she turned back to me.
"Aha, here." She pointed with a curled finger at the bumper and I couldn't help notice the myriad of liver spots on her hands. "It wasn't here when I left home this morning."
My tongue quivered in preparation to pass a caustic observation in the vein of, "Scour your car's entire surface every morning, do you?", but I stilled it.
The scratch was high and my car is low to the ground. "It couldn't have been as a result of my reversing," I said, and I nodded at my car and back to the scratch so she could make the connection.
"A flying pebble."
"Excuse me?"
"A flying pebble, perhaps." Her eyes fell to the macadam and rose again.
The addition of 'perhaps' gave me my 'out.' "Or an unattended supermarket cart. That happens all the time, I've seen how careless customers are after they've packed their groceries into their cars...and it's high enough on your vehicle for that."

I was determined not to commit the cardinal sin of admitting liability, thus giving my insurance company an opportunity to interfere with my pristine record and raise my premium should she start in with that caper.

Both of us fell silent in the manner of a car saleman who's made his pitch and the first to speak loses. The silence endured, broken only by the snore of passing traffic and the caw of an ancient crow with ragged wings flying low amid a stand of nearby trees.

"I've got to get inside. I booked a machine and I'm now running late. What shall we do?" she said.
I decided to be generous. "Look, I've got some Brasso in my trunk and you can borrow it because I'm sure it'll take away that little scratch immediately."
"I can't use Brasso. I've got no gloves."


I sighed exaggeratedly, then said, "I'll do it for you."
I opened the trunk of my car and ferreted about, wondering as I grabbed the rag and can if my action could be misconstrued in any way by Hornet for guilt, decided it could not, and in any event it was too late. I approached the tank and began to apply and buff, hating myself for having to even touch it, under her cold gaze. The ragged crow passed cawing again as if mocking me.

As I'd anticipated, the scratch vanished.

"It's gone. I told you so."

I walked back to my trunk.

"How come you travel with Brasso and a dustcloth in your car?"
It sounded so innocent, but of course was choc-a-bloc full of implication and suspicion.
"Oh, unattended supermarket carts." I opened my car door."Enjoy your workout."
I started down the parking lot and watched in my rearview mirror as she climbed into her vulgar bus and pulled into my vacated spot.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Perfect partners:tax refunds and BAFAB

Tuesday was D-Day and as a result I've been feeling very hassled and grumpy for the past few days. Reason: Taxes and looming deadlines.

I hate doing my taxes, even when I know I'm getting something back, because I hate maintaining files and all those expense receipts and things get tossed on a regular basis into a receptacle called 'The Bag' that sits near my desk for a year until this time of the year. Periodically The Bag intrudes into my peripheral vision--usually on rainy, depressing days when my spirits are already bloated and sagging-and evokes feelings of horror because I know the day is rapidly approaching when I have to go through it to determine what is business related and what is no and tally totals and I despise rummaging through the dogeared, crumpled detritus.

(For the edification of readers of this blog who live outside the United States, all American residents are required to file their annual tax returns by April 15th each year. And for those Americans who reside outside the country, they must file their taxes with the applicable US Embassy or consulate by that day--when I lived in London, it used to amuse me to hear my American friends talk about how they had to trudge to the US Embassy in London to do so every year.)

So I've spent the last two days tunnelling toward the depths of The Bag and tallying and recording until I became positively cross-eyed and snarled at Larry like a Doberman every time he came near the den. And always during the days of The Bag, I become vicious and acerbic of demeanor: I rail about why we're obliged to keep things like The Bag and do so every year or why the township I live in charges a 1.25% resident tax when the neighboring one doesn't impose such a tax, etc., etc. I rail about the wanton spending in Congress, this pork barrel spending and waste for pet projects such as bridges going to nowhere and I mean the latter literally. Don't misunderstand me: I really don't mind paying taxes and believe it does keep the country functioning, but the money they spend so carelessly is money that's coming out of my and other Americans bank accounts and there should be absolute accountability. Moreover, I understand the township uses the money to maintain the roads and buy land and keep it from development, but why must they impose this kind of tax when another municipality doesn't?

I went to H&R Block last year and had them do my taxes and it cost me a very attractive penny to learn I owed the IRS an entire mountain of pennies. This year, I decided to see if I could do the damned thing myself. So I dutifully downloaded the 1040 and Schedule C and the other relevant forms from the IRS's website, including the voluminous instructions, and then proceeded to replicate what the accountant had done last year, taking into account the new standard deduction amounts for 2005, etc. And all was going incredibly gung-ho...incredibly gung-ho that is, until I encountered an allowed credit for my IRA that she had claimed for me last year but I could not for the life of me determine how the sum had been calculated. I began to smolder. I reviewed every step she'd done, but of course she hadn't provided her work sheet so I was hopelessly adrift.

After another half-an-hour, I had crossed the smoldering rubicon into the land of absolutely livid. I also realized I was beaten and it then became a matter of investigating whether I'd use H&R Block or a tax preparation service competitor this year. After some research I decided to try Jackson Hewitt and raced off to their accountant's kiosk at a local mall (set up there for the tax season) last night and he relieved me of my 1099 MISC and other detestable documents and said they'd be done in a few days. But, during a brief scan of the papers, he said I'd be getting something back because I've overpaid on my quarterly payments. Whoopee!

Some of my refund will not stay in my possession for very long though because the to second of four annual Buy a Friend a Book Weeks is on the horizon and I'm an advocate of anything that encourages reading. It's April 1 through 7, so check out Debra Hamel's picks and the recommendations of her guest author, John Shors, who wrote Beneath a Marble Sky.

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Monday, March 20, 2006

The new immigrants

Given my forthcoming trip to Croatia, England and Ireland, it will be no surprise that I was riveted by a program on the telly last night about the upsurge in bed bugs at good hotels throughout the United States, especially in NYC. Indeed ivy league Columbia University has also had a problem and had to take remedial action in some of its dorms.

With nary a pause in the sensational urgency of her delivery, the anchor went on to remark bed bugs have always been regarded (in the US) as an incoming problem from Europe, the Middle East and other places abroad. They were at pains to say it is not a sign of bad hygiene to have bed bugs present in an establishment; bed bugs are indifferent to locale and will take up residence in top flight hotels with as much ease as they do in scuzzy rat holes. If what the media says is true, it would appear that these bugs may be as anxious to take in the imposing view of the Statue of Liberty and Empire State building as other foreign tourists and have been climbing
aboard the luggage of Americans as they quit their hotels and come back to the US.

I'm not sure I bought the argument that they've been a large European problem because I've stayed in many, many hotels in the UK and continental Europe and have not had anything feasting on my arms and legs...or stowaways. (The only thing I had happen was have my laptop nicked in London about six years ago at a small hotel called The Philbeach; it was an inside job and the management were very unsympathetic--indifferent, actually. They paid me 200 quid, which they were required to under the UK innkeeper laws, but they knew I would not return to sue them as it would have been too expensive. I must say it's been the only time in my life where I understood what exactly people mean when they say they've been violated. For the entire day, I could not concentrate on anything--not even on the splendor of HAmpton court where we went taht day--and I felt something had been taken from my psyche. It's a very strange and uncomfortable feeling.)

In any event, according to the program, the best way to check whether there are bed bugs in your hotel is to hoist up the bed's headboard (headboards are attached but apparantly the vast majority of them pop out) and check for molted insect skins and/or black patches of dried blood or fecal matter. You might even encounter the real thing because they hide in the cracks and crevices of headboards between feastings, as well as in the folds of matresses, pillows, curtains, and carpets. One poor woman visiting NYC woke up to find eight bugs dining on her legs; when she uncovered her sheets there were scores of the critters crawling about. And their bites leaves scars and bruises which last for weeks and months. Of course, she's suing the hotel for millions--which normally makes me skeptical, but I could tell by her speech and permanent scars that she was still traumatized.

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Thursday, March 16, 2006

Would Saint Patrick wear a shiny green hat?

I have had the experience of viewing a Saint Patrick's Day Parade winding down the canyons of NYC. It was not my exclusive intention to drive into the city to attend the parade, rather I had other business and decided to investigate for myself the sort of set up my American-Irish 'cousins' create. I lingered behind the police barriers for a whole ten minutes and took in the shiny emerald plastic hats, the tricolors, the screams and cackles and, of course, the pipers in their green tartan kilts and taselled stockings, a tiny gap betwixt revealing slivers of lily white knees as they marched onward. Everyone seemed to be having a jolly good time, though I think I've listened to far too many foot-stamping traditional Irish flings, ballads and jigs back home to get any sort of kick from them nowadays. (I will also add I've reached a similar stage with fellow country woman Enya's solo attempts at layering and layering and layering synthetic instruments and variations of her voice onto her musical tapestries. I was captivated by her music at one time, but God she really needs to give herself permission to move on creatively. I mean, imagine reading the same plot in a novel but with different characters and places for fifteen straight years. Her music's 'sameness' now relegates her to the same storage slot in my mind as Val Doonican and his version of Irish kitsch.)

As I turned away from observing the parade that day, I couldn't help pondering why the NYC Irish Gay and Lesbian organization is fighting so doggedly to march in the thing. 'Be careful of what you wish for,' is my advice.

Finally, I thought I'd link to last year's post about being authentic on the day of green. It's relevant, the truth, and, er, Irish-Irish

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Monday, March 13, 2006

A Muse from Philly

I blogged last October about roaming around Old City, Philadelphia where I had an encounter with a buxom lady hollering if anyone wanted some "sweet black ass", ate delicious gelato in a place offering lots of exotic flavors, and also read from my work at a noisy pub with a bunch of writers as part of Philly's 215Festival. It was there I met Janet Mason and we had drinks before the reading and exchanged books, etc.

It turns out she's also a reviewer and I received a wonderful surprise in my inbox this weekend. She'd read my book recently and wrote to let me know she's posted her thoughts on A Son Called Gabriel and has featured me on a muse:janet mason--her author and lit-zine site which features new authors every month as well as writings on mother daughter themes, reviews on lgbt and other books, audio clips, poetry, etc.

I'm doubly excited to be informed she liked the novel well enough to air in the future her commentary on the international lgbt radio show This Way Out which is syndicated throughout the United States, Canada and the rest of the world.

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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Irish Blog Awards

They're serious about blogging over in Ireland. Last night they had their first ever Irish Blog Awards organized by another Damien (spelt with an 'e') and Sinead of Sigla blog won in the Best Arts and Culture category. She runs a highly entertaining and intelligent blog, so go to 'General' on my sidebar and give her a wee visit. It'll be worth it.

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Thursday, March 09, 2006

The cholesterol test

I am cynical. I admit this. It is in my genes, a honed Northern Irish trait, perhaps as a result of 'the occupation.' I don't know the exact reason. All I know is I am more cynical than the average American citizen. I know this for a fact because I find so many Americans--perhaps the less well-educated or those pre-disposed toward gullibility--believe in crass corporate hype and exploitation. For example, it astonishes me that thousands and thousands of otherwise sensible Americans will wear Eagles, Phillies and Yankees, etc sports merchandise, will pay top dollar for the 'privilege' of doing so, will paint their faces in the corporate colors and again pay top dollar to go to the stadiums to root for these teams. They see a team; I see a corporation and players that will strike in mid-season when they feel their million dollar salaries are threatened. I should also say I am not so cynical that I am a crashing bore--at least I don't think so--but I have always subscribed to my favorite grandmother's philosophy that a bit of cynicism is healthy.

And I am viciously cynical when it come to the behavior and practices of the pharmaceutical industry in the United States. When I first moved state-side I could not believe the blizzard of 'in your face' commercials touting the amazing benefits of taking drug 'A' for lowering cholesterol, Drug 'B' for ending depression and no sexual side-effects, Drug 'C' for coping with a child's Attention-deficit Disorder and its sibling, Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Drug 'D' for turgid 'long lasting' erections that will have women swooning a.k.a erectile dysfunction banishment, etc. And the great majority of these drugs came with warnings, usually dispensed during the most visually pleasing parts of the slick-willie (no pun) commercials, that taking the drug could cause liver damage in some people, or kidney damage, or could give rise to suicidal thoughts in children, or could even be fatal.. Being cynical, I know there is no way for the pharmaceutical marketing people to say 'fatal' in a politically correct manner. I mean, let's face it, they can't say, "Taking this drug may cause you to pass on or pass away, though I'm sure they would love to because they sure know the public prefers the term 'pass away' to the 'D' word or saying terminal or fatal.

It was astonishing (and still is) to see these blatant commercials on the telly, more so because I grew up in a culture that expressly forbids such self-interested drug advertisements. I am not saying that the British National Health Service is in any way superior to the system in the United States; both in my opinion are abysmal in their own distinct ways, but I will say that the British (and European) ban on prescription drug advertisements to the public is sound practice.

So, when I went into my local 'upmarket' supermarket recently and saw they were offering FREE cholesterol tests, needless to say the words 'be cynical, be very cynical' began circling in my mind faster than the ticker tape at Times Square.' I bet they're trying to get a bunch of people onto cholesterol reducing medications,' my inner voice screamed. At the same time, I felt both curious and uneasy because my doctor informed me a year ago that I had to make an appointment for my next 'cholesterol screening' because my result was borderline last time. I have quite simply been avoiding my doctor as a result.

However, that it was 'free' overcame the healthy cynicism (we Irish love 'free' things), so I went over to the 'representative' from the testing agency--yes, cynicism levels soared again--and I was handed a form. The form was short, with space to enter name, address and phone number (no email, oddly) and warned they might have to contact my doctor if results were dangerously high. And, of course, I had to answer the thinly veiled marketing questions, to wit:

Do you shop here often?
Do you use the pharmacy?
What sort of products do you buy in our pharmacy?

I scoured the form for a logo or anything in the small print that might hint at the whole exercise being sponsored by a major pharmaceutical company. It was clean, refreshingly clean. The rep was a nurse, a friendly nurse, and asked me to take a seat with about four others while she attended to another customer--I mean patient. The others waiting were slim or slightly overweight. I watched like a hawk as this nurse attended to her patient. The gentleman was young (late twenties, ruddy Irish-American, German or Polish complexion. He was also Alabama fat. (I say Alabama fat because an Alabama woman visiting Ireland crammed into a flimsy chair at a social event was my first experience of a truly obese human being. As a curious child, it was jaw-dropping, and I looked at my mother--who was trying desperately to conceal her alarm about the possible demise of grandmother's antique parlor chair (one of a set), which she was assigned to inherit--and she nodded at me and said in a hissed whisper that she's "a distant relative and very religious and visiting from Alabama in the depths of the American bible belt. That's an experience a child takes with it into adulthood.)

While I did not hear this young man's cholesterol number, it was not good because the nurse wanted to get on the line right away with his doctor. He gave his consent and she went off to ring him. Everyone seated began to shuffle, wondering if they were in for the same daunting awakening, and I expected at any minute to hear the shrill wail of an ambulance plus a phalanx of buxom, sexily tanned drug reps--the ones you encounter in doctors surgeries everyday--snake from behind the cereal aisle waving tiny bottles of samples in their manicured, fire-engine red talons. It was all very anticlimactic in the end because an appointment was made and off he plodded with his results in hand.

When my turn came, she pricked my finger, took blood, dropped some onto strip which she inserted into a machine that resembled a calculator. As it did its number crunching (and at this point I was very nervous on account I was borderline) she took my blood pressure and pronounced it 'excellent.' A few seconds later, it beeped and she looked at the monitor and said, "You're really good."

I couldn't believe it.

'You're way below the 200 and that's great news.'

And I must say such tests are a good and beneficial offering from the icy heart of American corporatism, and I believe European institutions interested in health should learn from this practice and organize so that their populations could also be cost effectively and widely tested, though the person being tested should realize that 'selling' is taking place and remain cynically vigilant. Now go Yankees, go. Or is it, go Eagles go. Or...

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Monday, March 06, 2006

The public reading

Saturday was a marvelous day for the drive to Chester, New York which surprisingly only took a little over two-and-a-half hours. (On the subject of traveling, it used to crack me up when I used to work in Manhattan and commute to work because my colleagues couldn't believe I rode the bus into the city daily from Pennsylvania. It was as if I told them I commuted daily from Arkansas or Texas. It was then I discovered some Manhattanites cannot get their minds around the fact that parts of Pennsylvania are only about an hour-and-twenty minutes from NYC. Of course, it must also be added that Manhattanites are loathe to travel to the other NYC boroughs for dinner engagements on the grounds it's too far. For some, the very thought of traveling to the depths of Brooklyn or Queens can induce insecurity if not actual trauma--and an invite to Staten Island is not even to be seriously considered.)

After dinner, Phil and I headed to the theater where we set up a camera to tape the reading. Set within the grounds of the community college, the Orange Hall theater is a squat sixties building with seating for about two hundred people and serves the surrounding area. The actors (all experienced in local amateur theater) began to arrive in dribs and drabs, and at six-fifteen, Phil, switching gears from playwright to director, started to go through the roles with them and let them know which parts he'd narrate so that any members of the public in attendance would understand the context and could follow what was going on because it wasn't being acted with props, etc. I already knew Phil has a lot of directing experience in regional theater, yet it was fascinating to see him in action and the actors (who'd already had the script for a few weeks) discuss lines and cues, etc.

Halfway into the first Act, I thought the play might be too long and would need cutting. By Act III, I knew it, and my mind was already pruning vigorously as I listened. It's quite an odd process, but a reading by actors really helps clarify in a way that reading a piece quietly at home simply can't. One can spot where bits of duplication exist, which lines are cumbersome to deliver, which sections can be let go without adversely affecting the play's overall message and mood. Most astonishing of all for me was the discovery that some lines I thought would get laughs did not--I think they were too steeped in Irish culture for an American audience and didn't translate--and lines I thought would not, did. For example, there's a scene where Eileen realizes it's time to tell Gabriel the facts of life and does so, and her responses to some of his questions brought the house down.

After the reading, there was some time left to discuss the play and a few members of the audience provided superb insight, pointing out areas where Gabriel lost their sympathy, or where he was telling his emotions rather than showing and thus not engaging them fully. And I fielded questions from some members of the cast who were of an American-Irish background or who had a Catholic upbringing, etc. The actors were terrific and Phil and I are most grateful to them for taking the time to do the performance--and their enthusiasm for the play was genuine and most encouraging.

All in all, it was a tremendous experience and I left the theater that night thinking, "Wow, I really have written a play."

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Cell phone movies

Here's something intriguing that I was emailed by a fellow Irishman living in Canada. The chap read and enjoyed my review of Brokeback Mountain and emailed to say that there's a "madcap spoof" of Brokeback Mountain called Brokeback Chicken which has been made for mobile phone owners to watch.

It turns out many amateur filmmakers are creating 60 second films for mobile phones, and Canada is the North American hotbed for this activity because they have a tradition for making successful shorts up there. There's even a film festival called Mobifest to showcase the film.

Apparantly Good Morning America is to feature the phenomenon this week. Here's the Toronto Globeand Mail link.

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