Friday, January 28, 2011

Wonderful Movies You've Probably Never Seen

Everyone, I imagine, has a favorite movie or movies—something you can watch over and over and over and always see something new, always be surprised at how certain scenes, performances or lines of dialogue can still delight or bring tears, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. These are the movies we turn to when we need to be cheered, have a good cry or when there’s just nothing else on any of the 974 cable stations. (After all, you can only watch so many episodes of “Save My Nail Salon”, and that mythical “Law and Order” rerun you’ve never seen does not, trust me, exist!) The Hollywood equivalent of comfort food.

My partner has his favorites, including “Steel Magnolias”, “Ghandi”, “The End of the Affair” and “The English Patient” (which I long ago started calling “The Endless Patient”) along with the first two seasons of  “Ally McBeal”.

I have my list as well, and I thought it might be instructive to share them with you, write a little about them and see what, if anything, they have in common. “Just Tell Me What You Want”, with Alan King, Ali MacGraw and, of all people, Myrna Loy; “Color Me Kubrick” with John Malkovich; “Miss Firecracker” with Holly Hunter; and a little Australian gem called “Così”. As disparate as they seem, I’m willing to bet there’s some celluloid connective tissue tying them together. Let’s find out, shall we?

First up (and these are in no particular order) “Così” (1996). It’s based on a play by Louis Nowra and is basically the story of a nice, if aimless, young man, Lewis, who takes a job at a mental institution to do a little art therapy with some of the inmates. What he initially expects will be little more than a talent show turns into a full-blown production of nothing less than Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte”, into which he’s goaded by inmate Roy (a delightfully over-the-top performance by Barry Otto). The theme of love and jealousy in the opera is mirrored in Lewis’s personal life, as he suspects his friend – a full-of-himself Actor – is putting the moves on his girlfriend (Rachel Griffiths). There is a motley crew of other inmates involved in the production and, despite their individual disorders and quirks, somehow at the end it all comes together, to the delight of the powers that be at the institution and the government reps who have mandated the therapy. The show they put together – sets and costumes – is a fanciful hodgepodge of fabric and props and found objects that would do the Metropolitan proud.

The review in Variety called it “fast, funny and cleverly acted” with “hot femme stars Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths…giving terrif performances” in a “putting-on-a-show rib-tickler”.

Well, “terrif performances” by “hot femme stars” notwithstanding, “Così” gets to me every time I see it. And I think I’d qualify it as more than a mere “rib tickler”. It is funny, yes, but never at the expense of the mental patients, each of whom has his or her own problem and each of whom you see, eventually, as just another human being trying to get through the day, and through to another person. Before “Così” I had never seen or heard of Barry Otto, but his Roy is a fanciful, yet grounded creation and, in my humble opinion at least, an object lesson for actors in how to take a flamboyant character almost too far, then put on the brakes to reveal the very real person underneath.

In addition to the laughs, there are some very poignant moments, thanks again to Otto, and to Toni Collette as one of the patients, whose husband has all but abandoned her, leaving her alone and frightened and suicidal in the institution. Wait until you hear how she drops a little Ben E. King into the midst of the Mozart.

Ultimately, though, I guess what gets to me every time is the aching humanity of these people, the inmates, all of whom are desperate to connect in spite of their illnesses and quirks; desperate to be seen, heard, acknowledged...loved. Their transformation during the actual performance of the opera (they lip sync) is wonderful to see: the wonder and surprise and the absolute joy in their eyes as they realize they had nothing to fear, and then throwing themselves into the performance. I suppose it’s a bit heavy-handed here and there, but “Così” makes me smile and laugh and cry and feel glad to be alive each time I see it. As the Brits say, “It’s lovely!” See what you think.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Enough Said

This is priceless and needs no further embellishment from me. In a review of the play "Blasted" by Sarah Kane, published in 2007 in the online British Theatre Guide, critic Peter Lathan notes the following:

"One minor - but very telling - point, which says an awful lot about the way our society is going: in a play which presents us with full frontal nudity and graphic scenes of masturbation, oral sex, rape, buggery, cannibalism, torture and suicide, the company felt it necessary to note in the programme that "Cigarettes used in this production are herbal".

Photo: "Blasted" by Jay Fraley/Rude Guerilla Theater Co. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Why Do I Love Bette Davis?

Years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles – late ‘80’s, early ‘90’s – my then-partner Robert worked at an answering service located in West Hollywood. It was called Crestview and was located in a fairly nondescript office in a fairly nondescript high rise at 9000 Sunset Boulevard. (I think they’re still there.) This was way before mobile phones had become ubiquitous and you were really on the cutting edge if your answering machine was solid state rather than cassette tape-based. Celebrities in those days wanted a living person to answer their phones, rather than a machine, and among their clients they counted a certain number of celebrities whose careers were in a bit of eclipse at the time. 

One such client was Hollywood legend Bette Davis, who by that time had gone through a number of health crises but was still going strong, or trying to, feisty as ever and always willing to work. "I will not retire while I've still got my legs and my make-up box," she once said. Always with her was her personal assistant Kathryn Sermak, who would call in to the service at the end of the day to see if there had been any messages. One day a man called twice to speak to Bette Davis, only to learn that the number he had reached was a service, whereupon he hung up. Apparently he thought he was going to speak to the legend herself.

At the end of that day, for some reason, Bette herself, not Kathryn, called in for her messages. Robert informed her that there had been no messages, only two nuisance calls from someone who was probably a fan and thought he was calling her home. Upon delivering this news, Robert said there was a brief silence on the other end of the line, broken when at last Bette barked “I think people are hideous!” and hung up.

I’ll leave speculation about why gay men of a certain age love certain movie stars for the amateur psychologists and social scientists. I can only assume it has something to do with a certain spirit, determination, an indefinable quality of, for want of another word, “spunk”. Of course, there’s the cult of Judy Garland, whose story was very different from Davis’s: I doubt that Bette would have countenanced Judy’s addiction to pills, her lateness to the set and what could be interpreted as unprofessional behavior. Yet there’s no denying that she was explosively talented and worked, worked, worked to the bitter, unfortunate end. It’s easy to ascribe the adoration of Garland by a certain generation of gay men as being based in their shared feelings of loneliness, fragility, the yearning for love and acceptance. But as we’ve come to find out, Judy was made of stronger stuff and had a core of steel, reinforced with a boundless sense of humor.

After that who is there? Joan Crawford is, unfortunately, more of a camp icon, although her life and career have been reexamined and she seems to be getting her due as something more than the wild-eyed, hanger-wielding harpy of  “Mommie Dearest”. Katharine Hepburn? Admired, has her fans. No big gay cult that I’m aware of. Same for Dietrich, Garbo, the rest.

So we’re back to square one: why do I love Bette Davis? Well, there are many times when I think people are hideous, so we have that in common. And, like many of the stars of that era she was not traditionally pretty. Which we also have in common. But in many of her best films, she’s astonishingly beautiful: “Jezebel”, “Deception”... and let’s not forget the transformation of Charlotte Vale in “Dark Victory”. She’s a knockout. Of course makeup, lighting and camera angles had much to do with it, and she learned how to use them all to her advantage.

But she was courageous in the roles she played and fought for. She wasn’t afraid to appear unattractive or behave badly if the role demanded it. “Of Human Bondage” made her a star and by the end of that one she was not, trust me, a pretty picture. To play Elizabeth I she shaved most of her head for authenticity. And of course, there’s “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” for which she designed her own makeup, based on her belief that her character is so desperate to hang on to her youth that she rarely washed or removed her makeup. So she was deeply committed to her craft. I’d like to think that, if I ever throw myself back into acting, I’ll have the same ethos.

But that ain’t it.

At least for me, when you get right down to it, it was the fact that she spoke her mind and hang the consequences. That we do not have in common, although I trust that with age I’ll become less concerned with what people think about me and my opinions. That quality of no BS honesty is nowhere more on display than in what is arguably her best film, “All About Eve”. Her Margo Channing is a survivor, tough and temperamental, selfish, yes, but good-hearted and larger than life and, underneath it all, still a bit afraid and vulnerable. Which is to say, she’s a human being.

But somewhere along the way we’ve been led to believe that we, as human beings, can be even better human beings. The pundits and life coaches and cheerleaders and those people who pop up on PBS during pledge drives...there’s a whole raft of folks out there telling us how to be better than we are. They know how, and they’re just busting to tell all the rest of us! But I get the sense from Bette Davis that she would have had some choice words for some of these people. I get the sense that she was fine with who she was.

It’s not that I want to live a life like Bette Davis’s, or Margo Channing’s for that matter. (Although that apartment of hers is very Upper East Side and would be more than adequate for me. Not to mention having Thelma Ritter to mix my cocktails and tuck me in.) I just would like to have more moments of belief in myself, more spine to speak my mind or talk back to ignorance. I suppose for many people affirmations and “journaling” and any number of other techniques might work. But more and more I think that, like so many things, the best way to develop that spine, that fearlessness, is just to get out there and do it. Say it. Try it.

Action is the key. Even standing still, Bette Davis was in motion. Could we all do with a bit of improvement here and there? Of course. But you can think about something all your life, and if you don’t do it, as difficult as it may be, it’s all theory.

The inscription on Bette's grave is “She did it the hard way.” I’m still thinking about my epitaph. But as of this moment it starts “Fasten your seatbelts...”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Climate of...Bad Taste?

     Last Sunday, after a very nice brunch, a friend of mine – someone I’ve known for some years who has proved to be a very good friend indeed, and is a hard-working, big-hearted, very nice gay guy – this friend of mine felt the urge to tell a joke which he warned was in really bad taste and just awful, but he simply had to tell us.
     It was a Sarah Palin joke and I won’t repeat it here. In fact, I won’t repeat it ever, even to support the following argument, because it really is hateful. Suffice to say it’s one of those “What’s the difference between…?” knee-slappers that involves, among other things, using Palin’s baby Trig, who was born with Down Syndrome, to take a vicious swipe at the former governor.
     During the Bush administration, especially the second term (even though his father also served as president, the term “Bush administration” will forever only refer to “W”), certain commentators referred to the level of hysterical vitriol leveled at the president day after day as “Bush derangement syndrome”.  I think a similar thing has happened with Sarah Palin. A lot of people – Left and Right – are disliked, hated, unappreciated or loathed, but once in a while someone comes along the mere mention of whose name causes otherwise rational, intelligent people to start looking like some cartoon character whose top is about to blow: in addition to getting red in the face and spluttering incoherently, you half expect to see real steam coming out their ears, or from a factory whistle that pops out the top of their heads.
     Such is the case with Sarah Palin (for whom, by the way, I don’t have any great love).  I think the pleasure derived from the attacks on her is based on the fact that said attacks (and they are attacks, not criticisms of her policies, or analyses of her positions) give the attacker a sense of moral and intellectual superiority. But I would venture to say that if you asked any of these people why they hate her so much, the answer would be about as cogent and insightful as “Well, I mean… Jesus! She’s… you know, she’s an idiot! She’s a f---ing idiot!" 
     Of course. That explains it.
     There are plenty of people I actively dislike, and not just politicians. There are public figures of all sorts who cause me to cringe, wince and shake my head: Flo the Progressive Insurance pitchwoman. I don’t know why (the cartoon makeup, maybe?); Will Ferrell, whose comic genius eludes me; that guy on the Food Network with the spikey hair and the "dude" persona who's old enough to know better… I could go on. But none of these people causes me to act as though I’ve skipped a few shock treatments at my local psych ward. So I don’t understand the depth of hatred for this woman. Never will.
     But the other thing that disturbed me about the joke my friend told was the fact that a defenseless, handicapped infant was used as a punchline. (Full disclosure: my younger brother was born with Down Syndrome and he’s an angel. ) So, yes, I was hurt and offended on a very personal level: the word “retarded” figured prominently in the punchline as well. I guess it just seemed to me that someone like my friend, an intelligent gay man, should know better. After all, aren’t we the nice, kind, misunderstood, persecuted minority who believe, along with masses of other smart, kind, intelligent people, that calling names is hurtful, hell even hateful? Isn’t this just the kind of meanness that contributes to the climate of hate that’s lately been on so many minds?
     Now, having reached this point it occurs to me that maybe I’m making too much of this. After all, living as we do in an era when practically anything you say will offend somebody, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the offended, in many cases, should just deal with it, let it go, and get on with it. Instead we get lawsuits and calls for ramped-up “hate speech” legislation. Why do the offended get all the attention?
     Bottom line: my friend's joke offended me. It made me angry for a moment and left me fuming for a day or so, wondering whether I should call or email him to let him know how I felt, and maybe give him a lesson in sensitivity. 

     But I didn't, and I won't. Life's too short and the older I get, the more I need to pick my battles. I'll wait for something to come along that truly warrants a good fight, and simply accept the fact that my friend was a little misguided on this one and guilty of not much more than really bad taste.
     And move on.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Spin Cycle

I just read a wonderful variation on the saying I used as inspiration for this blog, and its title: "After enlightenment, laundry."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Year That Makes Me Go "Hmmm..."

Earlier tonight I was with my Tongue & Groove family, T&G being the spontaneous theater company I've been involved in since its inception four -- five? -- years ago. It's a wonderful bunch of talented people, but more than that, they're really good friends and supporters, like that awesome family you always wished you had. We hadn't been together in a while, so before we began rehearsal (and yes, we do need to "rehearse" for improvisation by working on our skills, developing new forms, etc.) we sat around and caught up in our "check in", during which we try to sum up what's been going on with us lately and how we're feeling at that moment. It can get very emotional, very funny and it's enormously helpful on a number of levels.

And at the end of my check-in, describing what I've been through lately -- going through the holidays with a smaller family than last year, the "procedure" and its aftermath, the fact that I had cancer, albeit non-invasive cancer -- at the end of my check-in I tried to put into words how I was feeling about it all. But I couldn't sum it up in a couple of words, certainly not the usual emotional words: happy, angry, scared...

It occurred to me that what I am, in fact, feeling is something like calm, a peacefulness, a willingness to just allow what's going on to go on, to step back and observe and see what I might learn from this or that experience. At the very least I'm perfectly content to just wait and see what comes up, instead of trying to slap a label on how I'm feeling.

Which put me in mind of Pema Chodron, who has a wonderful observation in her book, Start Where You Are, where she talks about having the rug pulled out from under you, or pulling your own rug out from under you, to change your static pattern. She suggests doing this by just "letting go, lightening up, being more gentle, and not making such a big deal.

"This approach is very different from practicing affirmations... Affirmations are like screaming that you're okay in order to overcome this whisper that you're not. That's a big contrast to actually uncovering the whisper...and moving closer to all those fears and all those edgy feelings that maybe you're not okay."

So this calm, this peacefulness I'm feeling about the new year and whatever it might bring, my curiosity about it all, has me just not making such a big deal. I'm waiting, being with whatever I'm feeling and looking ahead going "hmmm..." As in the song: "things that make you go 'hmmm'..."

Yeah. 2011 will be the The Year That Makes Me Go "Hmmm..."

By the way: Tongue and Groove will be performing in the Philadelphia Festival of the Arts, (April 7 to May 1), something we're really excited about. From this link you can also visit the T&G website.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


As a writer – even a part-time writer – and someone with just a soupcon of OCD when it comes to things like exactly where the pillows go on the couch and how my cologne bottles are lined up, there are many things – many things – I hear or see in print, on the Internet and in all the multifarious e-mails I read in the course of a week that make-a-me crazy.

Apparently, for example, a lot of people don’t seem to know the very real difference between “their”and “there”. Or “its” and “it’s”. It seems that somewhere along the line, the rule changed about when to use “who” and “that”, as in: “She was a person who did a very good job”. People are now “that’s”, as in “She was a person that did a very good job.”

Similarly, a choice is “between” two things or “among” three or more things. It is not, as in the current ad for something (I forget what) featuring Kevin Bacon as a Kevin Bacon geek, “a tie between all Kevin Bacon's movies”. Unless the gaffe was intended to show how dull the character is. But I doubt it. Everyone these days has a choice “between” everything. Not “among”.

(And for the record, et cetera is not pronounced "ex-etera", and a bride and groom celebrate nuptials not "nup-tuals", dammit! There... got that off my chest.)

And in the aftermath of the tragic, horrifying shooting in Arizona last week, the pundits and politicians and journalists and TV anchors have gone into overdrive, trying to “make sense” of this tragedy (as they do when anything horrible occurs: if we can just “make sense” of it, then… what?) And as usual the old tried and true clichés have been dragged out of the back of the Word Wealth closet and I’ve had it. Herewith a few of the tropes I would gladly go the rest of my life without:

Chilling effect

National dialogue - About race. About politics. About psoriasis. Enough! Dialogue is written for plays and movies. And anyway, even if we did all sit down for a cozy, healing “dialogue” it wouldn’t be long before the whole thing turned into “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with really bad language.

Slippery slope.

Culture of (insert problem du jour here: corruption, violence, denial, cheese...)

Diversity – As in the rich panoply of human experience to be found in a group of people who share something in common? Well, no. We're all Americans, like it or not, and as such we have certain things in common. And of course, within our American-ness, there's a great deal of diversity among us. But diversity as it's currently understood and promoted is better defined as Balkanization. Every aggrieved group - and sub-group -- demands recognition and some sort of special dispensation in the name of "diversity". It's what I call Wooden Shoe Diversity: it's all based on your ethnic background, or where your ancestors were from, or who you sleep with or whether or not your genitals are original equipment. It all comes down to your quaint native costumes. Your delicious cuisine. Your funny customs and holidays.

It is most certainly not based on diversity of opinion or personal philosophy. True diversity in that respect is a rare commodity. For the most part there are, among those who say they cherish diversity the most, only one, maybe two ways to go. If your personal philosophy or political stance are too far out of the approved mainstream it doesn't much matter if you're a polyamorous Estonian with some gorgeous embroidered skirts and a bunch of recipes that call for spices you can't get here, to be served on Jaaniõhtu,which is celebrated the night before Midsummer Day.

Senseless tragedy -- As opposed to the many tragedies that are completely understandable. "They cut off all their heads and threw the children into work camps? Now that makes sense!"

Speaks out -- As in "Tonight, the mother of the victim speaks out..." Interchangeable with breaks her silence.

Firestorm of controversy

Pain at the pump

And this rather good one from

Killing spree -- Webster's defines "spree" as a lively frolic". Mass murder is not a lively frolic. It's mass murder.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Recovering. Slowly but surely getting back to normal. Or something like it. Things are flowing again, albeit with a little discomfort, and I'm able to sleep. The doctor told me Monday that I had non-invasive bladder cancer. They removed a tumor they estimate was about 3.5 centimeters across. No big deal. And non-invasive is the way to go, if you must have bladder cancer. 

Of course, as soon as I'm feeling really healed and well in another month, I'll have to go back in for another "procedure" to be sure all is well up inside. I don't know how much more my delicate little system can take. But that's another day.

Also recovering nicely on another front: tomorrow (1/12) marks 27 years of sobriety. I don't know where the time's gone. But what I've done in that time...

... moved to Los Angeles, had a long term relationship there. Made a movie, (Marching Out of Time, I think you can look it up on IMDB). Appeared in Hook, briefly, as a pirate. Lost my partner to AIDS. Came back East. Began writing and performing again. A one-man show that played the Walnut Street Theater and two Fringe Festivals (including Dublin, Ireland). Got my Equity card. Acted at the Arden Theater. Made a commercial (below).

 Reconnected with Chris after fifteen years (now a couple for going on ten) and we traveled to the Dominican Republic and London. P'town. Had a number of jobs. Started my own business. Wrote, produced and directed "Hermitage" for the 2009 Philly Fringe ( Lost both parents. And a sister. A few minor surgeries. Cancer. And...

...still sober after all these years.

Has it been perfect? No. Have I been perfect? Certainly not.

But somewhere along the way I learned to let go of regret. There's simply no point. Everything that's happened to me has gone to make me who I am. And it all fits together. Of that I'm certain. It's all been for a reason. It always is. The problem, of course, is that we don't know why at the time. We have to wait. And I'm not good at that. I've gotten better, but I still have moments where I find myself standing in the midst of my life, tapping my metaphorical foot, waiting for the damn answer!

The universe takes its time.

So I wait.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Whatever Happened to Class?

My grandmother, Annette Andersen, age 16
I learned most of what I know of etiquette, table manners and how to behave in public from my mother. And my grandmother Annette, my father's mother, who was born in the United States but spent the first years of her life in Denmark, her parents' homeland. She came back to this country at the age of 16 .

It was undoubtedly the result of her upbringing, her experiences working as a parlor maid in some of the best homes on Philadelphia's Rittenhouse Square and at Miss Porter's School in Farmington, Connecticut ("They came as girls, they left as women"), as well as the traditions of the times, that resulted in her unwavering sense of what hospitality and good manners meant. When you visited her home for a meal, you sat at a table set with linen and silver and were served beautifully prepared food.

Friends of the family would drive over from the suburbs of Philadelphia to her house in Haddonfield, NJ, other Danes who weren't necessarily relatives, but whom we nevertheless called Aunt and Uncle -- robust women who wore silk print dresses, sturdy shoes and necklaces of heavy amber beads, and quiet older men with grave, handsome faces who wore suits and smoked good cigars. They would eat something and then get down to a few games of pinochle, accompanied by beer and Aquvavit. The men might take off their suit coats and loosen their ties, but that's about as informal as it got. No one showed up in baggy pants, Bedazzled sweatshirts and flip-flops. Nails were painted, pants were creased, shoes were shined. That's just the way it was. That's what I became used to growing up.

"The point of all this?" I hear you cry.

Over New Year's weekend on Long Island I found myself in a conversation with some people about etiquette and manners and, well, class. Etiquette, of course, is now considered passe and elitist, a set of arcane and anachronistic rules and regulations observed solely by bloated, gout-stricken robber barons and their wives, empty-headed old bags who talk like Billie Burke and never clean their diamonds. Even the high priestess of etiquette, Emily Post herself, was concerned back in 1922 that "manners seem to have grown lax, and many of the amenities apparently have vanished". Nevertheless, her book, which contained chapters devoted to "One's Position in the Community", "The Well Appointed House" and "Dinner-Giving with Limited Equipment", was more philosophy than a list of minutiae. "Manner," she said, "is personality -- the outward manifestation of one's innate character and attitude toward life... Etiquette must, if it is to be of more than trifling use, include ethics as well as manners. "

Ethics. Imagine. Not just which fork to use for the fish or how to eat a crustless cucumber sandwich. Ethics.

It seems to me that etiquette plus ethics equals class. 

If I'm not mistaken, there's a telling scene in a charming movie called "Princess Caraboo" in which a mysterious young woman, who is supposedly a princess from some exotic land, appears in England and is taken in by a wealthy couple who hold a banquet in her honor. At some point during the meal, she picks up her soup and begins to sip right from the bowl, to the horror of all the upper-crust Brits at the table. But the lady of the house, sensing the girl's embarrassment, picks up her bowl and begins to drink her soup as well, soon followed by everyone at the table, thus putting not only the "princess" but everyone else at ease. That's etiquette. And class.

But I often wonder, as Velma Kelly and Mama Morton do in "Chicago", "Whatever happened to class?" Why do I feel like such a fuddy-duddy when I cringe at someone on a cell phone repeatedly dropping the F-bomb in public? Why is it so unreasonable to expect people in a movie theater to watch the movie and have their conversations later?

I don't get a lot of what passes for humor any more. It's not just the language or the blue subject matter: there's nothing funnier than a good dirty joke well-told. But so much of what passes for humor these days is just mean-spirited and unpleasant and, frankly, laziness on the part of people who can't be bothered to sit down and create good material.  I've lost patience with people like Roseanne, who based her whole career on being a working-class Everywoman; Margaret Cho, the once-hilarious Hollywood underdog; and Kathy Griffin, a reasonably talented comedian, all of whom worked hard to achieve some well-deserved success, but who somewhere along the line devolved into what the cognoscenti would call "in your face, take-no-prisoners" divas. Which I freely translate as "braying, self-important, class-free loudmouths". People like Sandra Bernhard.

I will never understand Sandra Bernhard. 

"Reality" TV certainly hasn't helped. I don't follow the exploits of "The Real Housewives of (Pick the City), but based on the TV promos, they appear to be overripe call girls whose days seem evenly divided between attending charity "fashion" shows and pulling out each other's hair extensions. Classlessness is actively celebrated on the several shows that have given New Jersey an even worse reputation across the globe: why would people willingly allow themselves to be shown on television behaving badly, getting drunk, throwing up and sleeping around? For the paycheck, I suppose, and the "fame". These people are getting far more than Warhol's famous fifteen minutes, and I hope they have something to fall back on when the world gets tired of them and moves on. At least the girls on "Jerseylicious" can do hair and hock some of those gigantic earrings.

I'd like to think that, for the most part, these people are all just playing their parts (and brilliantly at that) for the benefit of an eager-to-lap-it-up public which simply isn't in on the joke; that when the lights go off they're just regular folks like you and me, who don't take themselves nearly as seriously in private as they do when cameras are rolling. 

But if, as Emily Post believed, manners are the outward manifestation of a person's character, maybe we know all we need to know of these people: cable TV's latest batch of spoiled, tantrum-throwing brides-to-be. (Why the grooms on these shows don't head for the hills after episode number three is a mystery to me.) Half-baked celebrities. Any of the numerous "comedians" who presume to tell the rest of us what to think and how to vote. Or the loudmouth on the cell phone in the supermarket line.

"Holy crap.
What a shame.
What became

Friday, January 7, 2011

David Sedaris on Letterman

The Toaster Speaks!

Friday evening. I've had my surgery (on Wednesday) and they seem to think they got all the tumor or mass or whatever it was. Now it will be a week or so until pathology returns with the final verdict. Of course, the night I came home from surgery there were, shall we say, complications and I was in what I believe members of the medical community and certain clergy refer to as "f---ing agony" most of the night, into Thursday morning. I felt like a water balloon, an unbreakable water balloon, and desperately needed help.

So, Thursday at noon my dear Chris drove me back over the Ben Franklin Bridge to the hospital emergency room and within a matter of a couple of hours, I guess, the problem was diagnosed, I was sedated and Little Fred met Mr. Foley! I am now the proud wearer of what David Sedaris has written of as a "Freedom Leg Bag" (see link above). It is not fun. The connection, the care, the discomfort... I'm just grateful that this won't be lasting more than three to seven days.

Surprisingly I was able to make good use of the little bit I've read so far of "Start Where you Are" by Pema Chodron, where she talks about focusing on the moment, the here-and-now, treating everything as a dream... the past, the future. It helps. If you've read this far, your experience reading the first paragraph is memory, a dream, it's gone. Breathing, concentrating on the breath... in... out...  And I was able to maintain a semi-positive outlook, joke around a little with the staff: to the young man who inserted the IV needle into the back of my hand: "You're good at this, right?" I'm sure he's never heard that one before! (Oh, and speaking of sedation, if you ever need it and you're given a choice, go for Dilaudid. It's a "hydromorphone" and it works in approximately two seconds. It also comes in pill form, liquid and rectal suppositories, so the possibilities are endless...)

Still, even through the haze I was able to be at least marginally grateful for what I have here. Working at the Drexel College of Nursing & Health Sciences I think gave me a bit of an "in" (I was in my own little room, not one of those emergency room cubby holes with the flimsy curtains or, worse, warehoused on a gurney in the corridor.) I have someone to care for me and about me: I don't know what I'd have done if I'd been on my own. I'm sure I'd have found a way, but just the presence of a calm, loving person -- it helps. And while I can't help feeling that in a few years complications like mine will be dealt with in less invasive ways (if innovation is allowed to flourish), I was grateful I wasn't going through this fifty years ago, like around the time my father was having his own problems and visiting the urologist on a regular basis. I remember him coming home describing in more than adequate detail what he'd endured and thinking "Please, God, don't let me have to go through that, ever! Please, please, please!" I offered similar prayers for good grades and so on as a kid, and those didn't work either. I've since learned it's pointless to pray for "stuff".

And so I thought of my father, too, who wound up with his own Foley catheter and health problems in the last years of his life and I was able to be there for him and occasionally attend to some of the less pleasant aspects of his care. Not that I'm so wonderful... but it was something I was glad to do for someone who did so much for me. If only to shake his head and wish me luck each time I came up with some hare-brained career scheme (writing for the movies, hand painting silk...) We were there with him when he died, holding his hands and Chris swears he felt a rush of air go by him at that moment.

It's all just what it is. As I get older, I find I'm more and more able to not take things quite so seriously. Everything is not the most important thing in the world. My childhood, my years in California and Switzerland, the deaths of my parents, work, my surgery, this morning's coffee: it's all a dream.

Just concentrate on the breath.





There you are...

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Original Broadway Cast

I don't know why, but I recently got to thinking about some of the remarkable theater I've seen over the years, particularly the original Broadway casts of some classic shows. To wit: Angela Lansbury in Mame. And Sweeney Todd. Chita Rivera and Gwen Verdon in Chicago. Ben Vereen in Pippin. Elaine Stritch in Company. Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold in A Little Night Music. The whole original cast of A Chorus Line. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in The Producers. As for straight plays: Alan Bates in Butley. John Lithgow in M. Butterfly. Katharine Hepburn and Christopher Reeve in A Matter of Gravity. George C. Scott in Sly Fox. Glenn Close, Laura Dern and Woody Harrelson in something called Brooklyn Laundry in LA. (And by the way, why don't actresses have names like Hermione Gingold anymore?)

And, while not original casts I was also lucky enough to have seen Ben Gazzara and Colleen Dewhurst in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (New York); Glenda Jackson and John Lithgow in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Los Angeles); Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon for the Misbegotten; and Tyne Daly in a smashing revival of Gypsy. 

I saw a young actress named Olympia Dukakis in a play called Nourish the Beast in the Village in, oh... 1973?

I heard Pavarotti and Joan Sutherland sing I Puritani the Met, and Magda Olivero in Tosca in, of all places, Newark, NJ.

I saw Hair in West Berlin. In German.

And then there was that beautiful young man playing the Bach cello suites, in a light rain, on West 4th Street in Greenwich Village.

That's still one of my favorite performances. Ever.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

So now we go ahead

My friend Laura and me,
North Fork of Long Island,
New Year's Day, 2010
"For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning."
                                       T. S. Eliot

January 2, 2011: The day after my birthday. Attempting to decompress from a wonderful Christmas break -- 10 days -- before returning to work and facing a "procedure" on the 5th. The "procedure" is to remove what the doctors euphemistically -- and rather darkly -- refer to as a "mass" on my bladder. Happy New Year to me!

And happy birthday.

Such is life.

Well, we nevertheless spent a wonderful few days away: New York City for a couple of days, then the North Fork of Long Island where friends have a beautiful house, rather, a converted barn. Post-and-beam, multi-level, stone and wood and Oriental rugs and, on holiday weekends throughout the year, a houseful of the most interesting people: artists and musicians; documentary filmmakers and playwrights; lawyers, PR people, teachers, students.

It's good therapy on several fronts: first, while there is TV out there, we don't watch it. There is, if you want it, very limited contact with the "real" world. Cell phones notwithstanding. Instead, people walk, hike, bicycle, go to the beach, swim in the pool (oh, yeah, there's a pool), lend a hand cooking -- everyone pitches in -- and sitting around, talking. Very interesting people who are genuinely interested in each other. And out there, for some reason, I don't compare myself to everyone else, inevitably coming up short. Everyone just is...

There's a definite Zen vibe (as the kids say); our hostess is a Buddhist, as are several regular guests, and very often there's time carved out for sitting meditation. Judgement seems suspended. I'm a healthier person out there, somehow. And I try to bring some of that back with me, on the Long Island Expressway, crosstown and through the Holland Tunnel and on the NJ Turnpike where, inevitably around exit 7 and 8, traffic is backed up for NO reason! Hasn't anyone done a study on this phenomenon and determined how it can be eliminated? You're zipping along at 65 or 70 and suddenly it's a sea of red brake lights, miles of stalled traffic and then, around Exit 8A, 9... nothing! It all breaks up and traffic flows beautifully and all for NO REASON!

So you see, I need the...Zen vibe.

And facing this "procedure" (the details of which I'll spare you. Suffice to say they "go in" to remove the "mass", but they don't make an incision. Know what I mean? Imagine what you will.) Of course, the "C" word was mentioned briefly, but there's no sense projecting. Living in the moment.

Oddly enough it makes me feel grown up, somehow. Even having lost both my parents and, more recently, a half-sister, I still feel very much like some kid who's just graduated high school and is finding his way, groping around, fearful, unsure of and not entirely crazy about, himself. Just the notion that I might have this very serious disease... I mean, sure, I had a hernia a few years ago, had it repaired. I've had a couple of colonoscopies, the valium and sedation portions of which I really liked. But this. I've already decided I'm a "survivor" and will be called on to tell my story to groups of American Cancer Society volunteers, student nurses and civic groups. I will "beat this thing", which seems to be the rallying cry, all the while valiantly going to work, performing with my improv group and going to yoga class and the gym. Where people will look at me with admiration: "He's not well, anyone can see that, but he's here ALL the time, working out. God love him. I'd be home feeling sorry for myself, but not him!"

Brave little toaster.