Thursday, April 20, 2006

Spice

I write with a heavy, constricted heart. Our beloved cockerpoo Spice died at 3.25pm this afternoon. It was a mutual decision. He let Larry and me know in the early hours of this morning that he was in pain, that the steroid medications were no longer working, and it was time to leave us. He was a gentle and loving dog from the moment I set eyes on him fourteen years ago when I met Larry and he took me home to met him and he remained a faithul and loyal pet to the end with his considerateness.

We took him to the vet this afternoon and he passed peacefully. A little later we buried him in a casket that Larry had already prepared. We took him to the place where our new home will be as that is where we weanted him and Larry said he romped there as a puppy. Our friend Lee of L+L was there--she came with us to the vet and stayed with me in the room--and she was an enormous comfort.

Our hearts are empty. Outside of my first dog Sandy, I have never loved a dog so intensely. In the fourteen years I have been with Larry I have never seen him cry; this morning when we knew Spice wanted to leave Larry did and he is a true man for it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Smelling the roses

Now that there's real warmth in the Pennsylvania sun I've been feeling very energetic and Larry and I have taken to becoming stonemasons of sorts. What's more, for the first time ever I worked on Easter Sunday; under Larry's supervision--well he has an excuse to take things easy for another few days--I carted fieldstone over from another part of the property to the front of our house where we created stone flowerbeds.

I should explain that a lot of Pennsylvania fieldstone--more precisely Bucks County fieldstone--is a type of slate with beautifully flat surfaces and comes in a rich red color, all of which makes it ideal for building houses, boundary walls and flower beds. As one drives through Bucks, one encounters walls bordering pastures that go all the way back to the days of the Penn's Purchase, the period when William Penn bought thousands of acres from the native Indians and then sold or granted the land to other European immigrants from the Netherlands, Germany, England, etc.

This week I'm still busy apprenticing as a mason. In addition, flower beds need filling so I'm also busy wheeling barrows and barrows of loamy soil and chucking it inside these newly created spaces. Thankfully we had the good sense to put in shrubs--assorted types of spirea because the deer don't like those--when we first moved into the house a few years ago so the planting aspect of the project is not too onerous. Last night we went out to a garden center and bought lots of annuals which I'm really looking forward to planting.

There's something primal, affirming and satisfying about driving one's naked hands into the soft soil, digging it out and inserting a brightly colored flower into it. It's also a tad weird for me to enjoy doing this now because I despised this sort of work when I was an adolescent because my father made me do it and as a result I swore never to garden when I became a man. I also swore to live in a city.

Throughout my twenties and early thirties I assiduously avoided gardens and plants--except for indoor rubber and spider plants--and never noticed the advent of spring because I was far too busy bar-hopping and clubbing at places in Berlin and London like Metropol, Knast, Heaven and the Copa Cabana and experiencing the sorts of things that need to be experienced in order to get them out of one's system and move on without later regret that I'm told can eventually fester to acute bitterness in one's seventies and eighties, etc. For me too, I guess my new love of creating flowerbeds and growing things is related to choice and issues of control: Then, I had no choice; now I choose to do it.

What was truly astonishing was the gigantic sense of satisfaction I got when I stood back and looked for the first time at the new flowerbeds alongside Larry. I felt quiet joy at having helped to create this piece of rustic beauty, something that will endure long after we've moved to another place. (I hope New Yorkers don't buy the house because, much as I love their energy, many of the ones who move out here are like locusts and immediately alter, even obliterate, already gorgeous landscaping in some misguided desire to insinuate their peronalities on the property.) As my eyes bounced off the crannies and nooks in the stones, I felt the same kind of joy I felt when my publisher first handed me a copy of A Son Called Gabriel as a bound book ready to be shipped off to the bookstores. Simple experiences make life so worthwhile.

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

A blockage

These past few days have been quite hectic. Larry has recently felt very tired and sluggish during the day and has been awoken by a burning sensation at night for three or four weeks now, the latter symptom he tried to banish by taking antiacids to no avail. So he decided to visit his primary physician who told him to go for a stress test at a cardio clinic he recommended. The clinic has four branches yet only one had an opening to see him the following day. Being a trifle anal about getting to a new place without incident--namely he and I screaming at each other because we're postively retarded when it comes to our senses of direction and almost murdered one another after dropping my sister and her family off at JFK seven years ago--we duly set out on Monday evening to ascertain the exact location of the clinic. It was a good decision because we could not find it easily notwithstanding the huge water tower landmark.

Next morning I sat in the waiting room as he took to the threadmill and did a battery of tests. Half an hour later, I grew weary of flicking through the magazines--cooking and family orientated for the women and sports for the men--and listening to the very helpful (it must be said) receptionist gossip with a trickle of nurses stopping with her while eating their lunches. Presently a door opened, literally. I heard a woman talk about a blockage, ask someone questions, and then Larry responded. For a moment my own heart reared in its cavity because I knew the words 'heart' and 'blockage' never feature happily within the same sentence. A number of phone calls ensued and then Larry appeared and we had to drive off to the hospital ER where they'd arranged for him to undergo further testing.

Naturally, Murphy's Law kicked in at the hospital because no-one there knew about the clinic's results or even that we were expected. Additional calls resulted in the person who did know coming to the rescue. A wait then commenced: It was the cardio unit's busiest day in months because six people with heart attacks--yes six--were in various stages of admission or on the operating table. Larry remained very calm as the minutes ticked onward. I resolved to remain calm too, but my hypochondrical streak would have none of it. Absolutely none. This was its opportunity to inflict maximum anxiety and it has never been known to forgo such a plum. It would brook no attempt at suppression and sent other parts of my brain into a frenzy of conjecture; I saw clots forming before my eyes in glorious technicolor; I saw Larry clutching at his heart and me shouting at the doctors to do something, anything; I saw rushing guerneys and flailing arms.

The cardiologist appeared at last only to say he was running very late as it had been a busy day and, as Larry wasn't experiencing discomfort, he was going to admit him overnight and perform the procedure first thing in the morning. And that he did. The procedure confirmed there was indeed a blockage and a stent was inserted to get blood flowing properly and Larry spent that night in the hospital, too. He's now out, feeling so much better, but surprised about having a blockage in the first place because there is no history of heart problems in his family.

All in all, the experience has left me confident about the level of care within the American medical system. Yes, the system's unwieldy, expensive, involves a great deal of waste, but care really is top notch. No matter that it galls me a little to have to admit it, the system functions better than the National Health System that exists in the UK. My mother has had an issue in the past in connection with her heart and I learned it takes far too long to get an appointment with a specialist. In Larry's case, he was seen immediately and the entire procedure done in forty-eight hours. If he had not been able to be seen so speedily, the cold fact is he could have had a heart attack and/or stroke. I shudder to think about the number of people in the UK who have not been seen by a specialist on time and have died needlessly as a result. I think the addage about the squeaky wheel should be remembered at times like this.

I also wish to say that the goal of the British National Health Service, namely that all citizens have access to quality medical care, is laudable and moral. American citizens and residents should also have universal coverage and the present system fails miserably in this regard. I hope sincerely that the health care model which the Commonwealth of Massachusetts seeks to implement very shortly will work and result in all its residents having access to quality medical care. If that happens, it will surely be just a matter of time before other states follow suit.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

A bit of web scouring

Like everyone I know, I love to buy my air flights cheap and travel with reputable airlines. A few friends, Larry and I are off soon on a jaunt to Europe, but because it's a tour and I'm breaking off afterwards to visit family and friends in Northern Ireland and England, I have to find my own flights to and from our first and last destinations. So I've spent the last few weeks scouring a myriad of internet sites for flights at reasonable prices. I've learned a lot and, as the vacation season will soon arrive for millions, I thought I'd share my experiences.

First, I searched using the much touted Hotwire.com and Expedia.com and discovered these two sites are connected to one another; indeed Expedia invites the harried surfer to try to find a cheaper flight by visiting Hotwire after a search of their database has been completed. I've come to realize that searches of these sites and others (including Cheaptickets and Orbitz) tends to yield the same price give or take a couple of dollars. I imagine that's to do with a maturing of the practice of booking travel on the web and the fact that everyone is now savvy and double checking to ensure they've got the cheapest and/or most suitable deal.

The big surprise was that I could have saved myself a great deal of hair pulling by going directly to the carriers sites, specifically the European carriers sites. As I will visit London at some point, I decided to keep my eye on the British Airways website and the cheapest fare (and most direct route) was found on their site because of specials they started running. And something very interesting occurred on the Hotwire site while British Airways commenced its offer to London; no matter how I interrogated their database, no British Airways flight turned up during the currency of BA's offer, a fact all the more remarkeable in that BA flights were popping up like wildfires prior to this period. Instead, all I got from Hotwire was a long list of American Airlines flights at higher fares. I imagine this must be because Hotwire and other sites have to add on booking fees, etc. and the airline making the special offer direct to the public via its website will not pay the internet company such fees, etc and thus they have no incentive to offer them.

The bottom line is to remember to keep airline websites in mind when doing searches.

For people travelling within the UK, Ireland and continental Europe there are a slew of budget airlines offering fantastic and cheap travel options. For example, I can travel to Belfast Airport from London (usually Stanstead airport which is easy to access) for as little as $25.00 including taxes, etc. The principal airlines with good fares are EasyJet (whom I've used before and was very happy with), Ryan Air and Air Berlin. Be forewarned that it is prudent to book your flight stateside; if you wait until you arrive in the UK and leave yourself little time between booking and travelling, you will pay a much higher price nine times out of ten.

One problem I'm encountering during my leg to continental Europe is that some of these airlines (Ryan Air, in particular) tend to use out of-the-way smaller airports that are a considerable (if not great) distance from the named arrival cities. Americans unused to the locations of airports in and around European cities should be especially vigilent here.

For example I'm going to Budva in the Republic of Montenegro, which is not as well served transport-wise because it lies in the former Eastern European bloc as would a major Western European city. If I were to use British Airways or JAT etc. from London, the cost of the flight plus additional fees and taxes ranges from half to almost three-quarters of what I shall pay to get from the US to Europe. This is extortionate to the American mind (although our internal fares can be hefty too), but the trade-off is that they would get me to within thirty kilometers of my destination city. By contrast, EasyJet will fly me to Split in Croatia for about $45.00, but Split is 230 kilometers away from Budva. I must then get a bus from Split to Budva ($40.00) which runs only on certain days (otherwise I have to take a bus to Dubrovnik, then catch another one to Budva) and the journey takes five to six hours. This is not a problem for me as I have time to coordinate all the various schedules and I get an opportunity to see a lot of the riveting coastline.

A vital matter to watch out for with the budget airlines is baggage allowances. My research showed that (in addition to one item of cabin baggage--check each airlines specifications about that) the allowance is one piece of luggage weighing up to 20 kilos (44.2 Lbs approx), which is adequate for a chap but will cause nightmares for fashion obsessed lads and lassies, families, and women with an inability to cull brutally during their initial packing. (My dear friends L&L fall into this unfortunate category as I've seen them arrive at airports sheparding a medley of bulging suitcases bearing a "total cram load" similar to that of those enormous steamers used on Atlantic sea crossings in days of olde.) Should one traverse the limit, the airline watchdogs will pounce joyously and without mercy because--whether admitted or not--this is a revenue source. And it's highly lucrative because each kilo one goes over will cost an additional $9.50--up to a maximum that, if exceeded, could in theory actually result in your being refused permission to fly.

I'm now happy because my flights have been booked and I can now look forward to the trip. Regardless as to how or where you decide to travel, enjoy the search and Bon voyage.

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Monday, April 03, 2006

A 50th Anniversary

In a time when self-appointed conservative watchdogs are working feverishly to deny gay and lesbian human beings their civil rights including (for those that desire it) the right to have their relationships recognized by the state, it was magnificent and refreshing and thought-provoking to attend the 50th anniversary of good friends I know this weekend. About eighty people-gay, straight, married and single-were privileged to gather at the restaurant to congratulate Wally and Ralph who met in NYC all those years ago and eventually moved out to Bucks County.

(As a lawyer, I fall into the camp that it does not matter if a legal relationship between gays or lesbians is called 'marriage' or a 'civil union' or anything else. What matters is that all applicable federal and state laws that bestow benefits, privileges and impose obligations in heterosexual marriages are triggered in like manner when a gay or lesbian relationship is registered. This would be inordinately simple for the Congress to achieve with the words, "Marriage as currently defined and civil unions between people shall have the same force and effect throughout all the territories of the United States" signed into legislation.

That Wally and Ralph have been together as partners and formed a household for 50 years really caused me to ponder deeply that evening. My first thought was, "My God, my parents haven't been married 50 years yet." I pondered next about these two men having stuck by each other through this large slice of time; through fifty humid Pennsylvania summers, 50 spectacular falls, and 50 dry or bone-chilling Pennsylvania winters, through thousands of days of rain and sun and snow, through thousands of days of 'for better' and 'for worse', and throughout every minute of those thousands of days without a shred of legal recognition from the democratic instruments of state in the country that is their home.

I pondered how most heterosexual married couples probably don't give a thought--maybe don't even know--that over a thousand federal laws (1,138 to be more precise, as well as 100 state laws) are automatically activated or applicable as soon as they enter their signatures on the marriage register; over one thousand federal laws that operate to protect, support, and impose obligations on a couple who've chosen and are allowed to formalize their relationship in American society; over a thousand federal laws, American laws, that are denied a significant segment of the American population while, simultaneously, we wage war abroad in the hallowed names of democracy and justice.


As I sipped on my sweet, velvety Cabernet and watched the pair, both clad in smart tuxedos, flit between the tables laughing and accepting congratulations, my reflections were usurped by feelings of bitter anger. I thought about the people who work feverishly to deny honest, hardworking gays and lesbians who wish to commit the right to so do. I thought about them working feverishly to hoodwink their fellow Americans about the so-called degeneracy and sinfulness of gays and lesbians, how in the name of 'God' and 'Jesus' many of them wish to maintain the status quo and ensure the applicable federal laws continue to be discriminatory and inconsistently applied so that gay couples can't enjoy the tax benefits that married couples enjoy, that gay couples only inherit a deceased partner's property after the payment of unjust penalties and unnecessary legal expense, that they are excluded from their partners' sick beds in hospital and stripped of all standing with regard to decision-making unless they again resort to expensive legal measures. It is unconscionable that gays and lesbians, in middle and old-age, have had to resort to the instrument of adoption by one partner of the other in order to ensure they could have some semblance of even-handed treatment under the federal laws of these United States.

My eyes swept around the room to take in the forest of couples, many of them together thirty or forty years. Two chaps were actually in their fifty-fifth year with not a photograph of the day their relationship was formalized to bear witness. I thought if this is degeneracy and sinfulness, then America needs more of it.


As I watched, my anger dissipated as quickly as it surged because I knew that the feverishly working people will lose this war. Justice in this matter has taken root and is spreading throughout the world: it's rooted already in Canada, in Spain, in Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia, and even in stiff upper-lipped England. In time it will take root throughout most of the United States. It will, because Americans are essentially fair-minded and passionate about equality and will silence the fearmongers, bigots and bible-thumpers thundering among them.

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