Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Lost in a kilt

Last November 1st, after a Halloween night spent tossing Fun-Size candybars to the ravenous hordes of kids who descended upon our house of horrors, I had to take an early train from Baltimore to New York. My ten-minute walk to the Amtrak station passes by one of the stops for the Baltimore Light Rail; I saw a twenty-something-ish man get off, who clearly had had a wild night.

He was barechested, had large blue stripes painted on his face, and he was wearing a kilt.

He was walking in vaguely the same direction as I was, but didn't look like he knew where he was going. At a street corner, he caught up with me.

"Do you know where the Red Line is? I need to get to Union Station." At the moment he asked, my brain seized only on the first part of his question.

Baltimore does indeed have a subway of sorts, although I have never ridden it, or even seen it. I know that there is a stop vaguely near my house ... somewhere over ... there, I think. I've seen signs pointing the way to the stop. The symbol for the subway has some red in it, I think. That must have been what he was looking for.

Luckily for him, having only the barest shred of a clue has never stopped me from wanting to play Answer Man.

"It's somewhere over ... there, I think." What my early-morning-sluggish brain hadn't gotten to was the fact that I didn't think the subway connected to the station, which was looming up before us only a few hundred yards away. Why, I was walking there myself.

But, he had taken my advice and shambled on his way, looking for the mythical subway station.

It wasn't until I was walking into the train station that my brain defrosted enough to put together a few more facts.

I didn't know what they call the subway here, but I was pretty sure there was only one line. So why call it "the Red Line?"

And the train station in Baltimore is Penn Station, not Union Station.

It struck me: he doesn't know he's in Baltimore. He thinks he's in D.C.!

It was conceivable I guess if he'd been in a distant suburb between D.C. and Baltimore and had been dropped off at the light rail station which had taken him in the wrong, wrong, wrong direction. I hadn't even thought of asking him if he knew what city he was actually in.

I thought for a moment that I should go to try and find him; he wasn't moving fast, that was for sure. But my train was coming; I consoled myself that somebody would certainly end up pointing this still-drunk Braveheart in the right direction, eventually.

I hate when I give bad directions. It hurts the Helper in me.

I'm having that sensation that I'm guessing all bloggers get at some point: blog-a-vu, where I'm convinced that I've blogged this story before. I looked through my (not extensive) archives ; it doesn't look like I have. I live in fear of repeating myself, partly because my father can tell the same story five times to the same person without ever being aware of it.

So, if I have blogged this story before, then my worst fears have been realized. Go me.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Night versus day

Thanks to both jet lag and horrendous hacking, we've both been getting up earlier. We've been going to bed earlier also, which is rare for me. David wants to keep this early-early riser trend going, especially since we change the clocks next week. Me? I don't know how realistic that is, but I'll give it a shot.

I seem to do fine on the days when I have to get up early to teach: in New York I get up extra early in order to beat rush hour, and have time to go have breakfast before class at nine; when I was coming directly from Baltimore I was getting up at 4:45 to catch a train an hour later. That's early. Come on. I get points for that.

But other days, left to my own devices, I will sleep the morning away. I need my eight-and-a-half-to-nine hours. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I'm not getting up yet.

I was heartened to see an article in the NY Times a few days ago questioning the "I get up at 4 a.m." myth that many go-get-em CEO types like to propagate about themselves. Apparently in a study, when motion-sensing bracelets were attached to these Type A's, at 4 a.m. they were blissfully still - same thing at 5 a.m. So there.

Cynthia Ozick, who proudly proclaimed that she awakes at noon, talks about the shame of being a late riser - people calling in the early afternoon with accusing voices: "Did I wake you?" A guy who I went on a few dates with said to me once, eagerly, "So I'll call you tomorrow morning, early, first thing."

"Uh ... that's never a good idea."

During the time when I was free-lancing and working a lot of second-shifts doing desktop publishing (in my post-corporate-bot life), my work schedule and body schedule finally were in sync. And in New York I could do my shopping right after work - at midnight! No lines! I was right in tune with everything - no grogginess in the morning, no wishing I could crawl under my desk for a nap - the sleep deprivation of my entire life was being erased.

So then I thought, I'll go for the big money and work third shift.

Third shift was a tough haul; you really have to commit to it. I tried it, and could never adjust. My body never knew the difference between one day and the next; from Tuesday through Saturday felt like one ... long ... day ... that never ended. I actually started to hallucinate the teeny-tiniest bit toward the end there. I was sleeping, but my brain never seemed to be getting any rest.

I suppose I could have stuck it out and reversed my body clock: my sister actually became nocturnal one summer (which is a nice thing to be in Arizona when it's one billion degrees during the day.) We have the genes for it: my mother's mother was the über-night owl. She and I would stay up long into the night during those Florida summers. Even after I would fall asleep by two (two? child's play now), she would sit up until the sun rose. Then it was off to bed until the early afternoon.

The article said we should each embrace our lark-ness or owl-ness; after all, the tribes always needed someone watching alertly at all hours. It even said that early and late risers gravitate toward different professions: yes, the late-risers flock toward the arts. Big surprise there.

Still, it's nice to imagine that I could be one of those people bounding out of bed every day at 5:30. On the days when I do - and when I actually can maintain consciousness enough to string thoughts together - it's a great feeling having accomplished a lot before ten a.m.

But I don't know ... I feel the lure of the midnight hours very strongly. I appreciate the post-midnight stillness, if I'm writing words or music and it's all flowing freely and smoothly. I love waking up the next day, looking at the song that's been finished the night before, knowing I was in the grip of the muse, wondering how it all happened.

You can't punch a clock for that.

Monday, March 28, 2005

And yes, I'm happy to see you.

The other day, I discovered a banana in my pocket. To be more precise, it had been in the pocket of my leather coat; like a stowaway in an airliner wheelwell, it had come to a bad end, having been squished at some point during my journey from New York to Baltimore. I didn't remember exactly how it got there; does it matter?

Once, while waiting at the Baltimore airport for my sister to arrive (and trying in vain to catch a glimpse of anyone from Airline), I nonchalantly pulled a sandwich out of my pocket. David was slightly aghast. What was I doing with a sandwich in my pocket? Where did I get it? How long had it been there? I thought the answers were all obvious: it was there Just In Case; from Subway (it had been part of a foot-long Subway club); and, does it matter?

No sooner had my sister arrived than she mentioned that during her flight, she had pulled a sandwich out of her pocket. I felt justified somehow; it had been conclusively demonstrated that having a sandwich in my pocket was a genetic tendency over which I was powerless.

Of course now, before I sit down on my coat, I check my pockets.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Your basket is on the roof

There were so many things on the agenda this Easter: help out at the egg-hunt held in the tiny park behind our house; go to David's family dinner; strap pink bunny ears on Goblin and parade her in front of the neighbors. But alas, the day was gray and drippy, and so was I. The lingering cough from the pneumonia kept me on the couch most of the day; neither of us were in any shape to go to a family gathering, what with the wheezing and the hacking. So it was a quiet day, capped off with the watching of that traditional Easter fare, Battlestar Galactica.

I read a depressing article in the New York Times today that said the new big thing for Easter is branded Easter baskets for children. Parents and grandparents, instead of putting some chocolate bunnies, jelly beans and plastic Easter grass in a basket, can instead plunk down $15 for a NASCAR or Barbie themed basket with toys and gadgets and maybe a piece of candy or two.

So, Easter is the new Christmas. Great.

My parents enjoyed holidays - the fun family-activity stuff. There were a few boxes of holiday-related decorations and supplies out in the garage, which I always liked peeking into ; it heightened the anticipation, knowing that the baskets and Easter grass and egg-dying apparatus were out there, just waiting.

We always dyed eggs, moving up from the usual vinegar-and-coloring Paas kits to more ambitious endeavors - Ukrainian-style egg-decorating, little plastic-egg diorama things, and one year some sort of mod looking oil-based dip-art for eggs.

The Easter Bunny would leave us baskets full of the requisite eggs, colored grass, chocolate bunnies, and jelly beans, but we had to work for it. Easter meant a treasure hunt.

This wasn't just going around the lawn looking under leaves for eggs; no, my parents went all out, creating maps and puzzles, watching as we each followed our own trail of notes and clues.

The baskets would finally be found in unlikely places: one year I remember mine was on the roof (the chocolate bunnies removed to a safer place away from the Arizona sun) and my sister's was in the dryer. It was this kind of creativity and spirit of fun that I think did a lot to make me (and my sister and brother) who we are now. We're all writers (albeit of different sorts); we're really trying to create that same kind of experience - constructing a puzzle, leaving little notes and hints, beaming as someone follows the trail up to the roof to find a treasure.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Room 333

I'm back, after a lengthy delay; my absence was due to the delirium induced by our Scottish souvenir - no, not single-malt whisky - pneumonia. I seem to be on the mend, and today was the first day my brain could actually begin to put sentences together.

We were on a train from York to London when I blogged last, enjoying the wireless access. The cabdriver who took us from King's Cross to our hotel was very chatty - he said he'd had some women from Alabama in his cab recently, and did a fair approximation of an Alabama accent. We talked about some of the different American accents, how some of them (Noo Yawker, hick Southern) can cause people to assume you're on the dumb side, and how others (genteel Southern, New England) are a little more prestigious. He asked what the best accent to have in America might be - the answer (at least in New York)? A British one. I've worked at a number of companies that specifically hired British people to be receptionists or executive assistants - wanting that crisp accent at the other end of the voicemail.

The cabbie also shared that he was into hi-fi, and had just bought a pair of mahogany headphones that cost around 800 pounds. I didn't know they made headphones out of mahogany, or that they made $1,500 headphones.

We had chosen the Langham Hotel because of an article saying it was haunted. We're apparently very gullible, er, persuadable. We had requested room 333 because it was supposed the most haunted of all; the Australian girl at the reception desk noted our choice.

AUSTRALIAN GIRL: "Any particulah reason?"

US: "Um, er, no, why, uh, we saw it on the internet!"

AUSTRALIAN GIRL: "Ghost hunters, ai? Good luck."

This was the sort of hotel where someone whisked your luggage away from you the minute you emerged from a cab, tagged it, and brought it up to your room minutes later. It was also the sort of room which had snuggly robes and slippers - but not, at first inspection, ghosts.

It was nice to be in a luxurious space for the last night of our trip; the other places we stayed were certainly nice, but by now we were both getting colds, and needed a little coddling. We took a quick nap; it was then that we saw the true horror, the nightmarish thing that lay in wait in the corner, lurking.

The mini-bar can of Pringles that cost seven dollars.

We managed to collect ourselves and get dressed to meet Campbell (who you will have seen toffing about the comments pages, but not yet on his own blog) for tea. We hopped into a cab outside the hotel, where I had one of those awkward "do I tip you, and when?" moments with the hotel doorman. The moment went quickly, and I didn't end up tipping him. In instant karmic revenge, David realized he had forgotten his wallet when we were a few blocks from the hotel, and we had to go back. Because of a road closure near the hotel, the cabbie was forced to go in a wide circle to get back again, racking up an eight-pound journey before we'd even gone anywhere. This time, while David nipped upstairs to get his wallet, I confessed my tipping ignorance to the doorman, tipped him, and had a brief chat in which I discovered his son lived in White Plains, New York. But then David was back, and we were off.

Campbell selected the Wolseley for tea, and it was beautiful. I don't know how good of company we were, considering that we were doped to the gills, but the charmingly handsome Campbell was a pleasure to meet and spend an afternoon with.

We talked about the oddity of knowing people through blogs - and why doesn't he have one? I believe he said that all his would be about would be "Another Fucking Day in the Office" which I thought was a fine title. So, get to it.

After tea, we strolled with Campbell along Jermyn Street; when we got to Piccadilly Circus (I think?!) he pointed us in the direction of the hotel, a short walk along Regent Street.

David was fading fast, and crawled into bed as fever overtook him. We had arranged to meet Sherry in the hotel bar, but David was in poor shape by the time eight o'clock arrived.

Sherry is delightful; over wine (her) and whisky (me), we talked about life, work, relationships. Sherry is studying to be a lawyer, and her boyfriend Dan is a student doctor, currently in Bangladesh. She showed me his picture - very cute. Mid-conversation, I called up to the room to check on David, who sounded worse. I was hoping he would have been able to come down and meet Sherry, but that will have to wait until next time.

As the hour grew later, Sherry had to run to catch a train, and I had to see how David was doing. When I came back to the room, he was burning up with fever; I don't know if he remembers this, but he claimed the ghost talked to him in French, saying "the plan's for the seventh." Or perhaps it said this and then talked in French, I don't know.

I spent the next couple of hours putting cold cloths on David's forehead and feeding him twelve-dollar minibar orange juice. When we finally went to sleep, I wondered if this was the moment when ghostly apparitions might arrive - the past witnesses had claimed that they'd seen glowing balls, or else had their things thrown about the room.

As we had already thrown all of our own things about the room, perhaps the ghost felt unwanted. In any event, there were no sightings, and we slept peacefully through the night.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

(Old) York, (Old) York

I am writing from the carriage of a train that's zooming its way from York to London, which is magically outfitted with a wireless internet connection. We are both recovering from colds, but seem to be on the mend. Yesterday we wandered into a chemist's, where I purchased an elixir for "chesty coughs." I now have something to add to my list of possible drag names, should I ever need one.

York was beautiful - amazing that it was really an afterthought to our trip. We stayed in a lovely guesthouse, where our room was under the attic eaves. It was just a short walk to the city walls.

York is a medieval city surrounded by ancient walls, with sturdy gates (called "bars") at several points. The streets are narrow, winding cobblestone lanes - very "Diagon Alley" for you Harry Potter fans. Beset by coughs, we didn't do more than wander the streets and poke our heads into the little alleyways.

York Minster, or cathedral, is a stunning work of architecture; the land where the Minster stands was first the site of a Roman fort, then a Norman church, and finally the Gothic cathedral that is there now. We toured the "undercroft," where you can see the remains of the Roman and Norman structures, as well as the modern reinforcements that were installed when the Minster walls began falling apart not too long ago.

The tour of the undercroft ends in the crypt; all throughout there are cases with treasures preserved from the Minster's history.

Even though York is known as "the most haunted city in England," our quest for ghosts was unsuccessful. We were turned away when we tried to go on a tour at the Museum of Psychic Experience, as they were all booked up (shouldn't they have known we were coming?); we opted not to go on the York ghost tour recommended by our hosts when we saw we'd be in the company of twenty-odd ten year old girls, along with a handful of parents with babies. By then we were in the full grip of our colds, and in our grumpiness, it was probable that we would have been the most frightening things on the tour.

So, last night we retired early to our attic room, nursing ourselves with cups of hot tea, and dosing ourselves heavily with the various medications we'd picked up in the chemist's. I watched an endless series of quiz shows (one called "Jet Set" seemed fun - the winners get whisked off on a luxury vacation - but in their final challenge they go up against the previous week's winner, who can extend their dream vacation if they win the round. The action stopped every so often for the drawing of lottery numbers, which were then worked into the action of the game. It all seemed very complicated to my drug-addled brain.) David did not share my fascination with British TV, and instead put in his earplugs and tried to read.

I do love to check out the programs and commercials - the interview shows (chat shows?) that I saw was fun - there was one in which an actress from a soap called "Footballer's Wives" talked about her devious character - followed by a series of children in raincoats demonstrating various goopy science experiments involving baking soda and vinegar.

The other thing that I can be mesmerized by is a simple grocery store. Not just the showplaces like Marks & Spencer, but just the ordinary grocery store where you'd buy your ordinary things. Maybe it stems from my time at packaging design firms, but it's so intriguing to see how a culture is reflected in its brands and packages. Sometimes there are brands which are one letter off from U.S. brands (Anadin for Anacin - and we also saw a store called T.K. Maxx, clearly the UK cousin to T.J. Maxx.) And all the painkillers seemed to have something called paracetamol which I haven't seen in the U.S. Whatever it is, I've had quite a lot of it. (Well, so much for that mystery. I just Googled it, and found that it's just acetaminophen, or Tylenol. And I was so hoping that we were ingesting some banned-in-the-U.S.A. drug.)

So now we head for our one night in London, at the haunted Langham Hotel. We'll see if any ghosts make an appearance; more likely we'll be scaring any apparitions off with either coughing, or the sound of a TV quiz show blaring away.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Nae wee ghosties

Yesterday, we walked ten miles. The day before that, twelve miles. I know this, because we are geeky enough to have a pedometer that records our every step.

Today, we sat on our asses and were carried in style through the Scottish Highlands.

Catching up from my last post, when we were about to go on the City of the Dead tour in hopes of encountering the Mackenzie Poltergeist: we didn't encounter the poltergeist, but we did encounter "Angela & Paolo." They were the musical act entertaining at the restaurant where we ducked in to grab a bite before our ghost tour. As they plugged in their keyboards, microphones and amps, a waiter distributed request cards that said, "Please, Angela & Paolo, won't you play.......", where you would fill in your favorite songs, and probably attach it to a five pound note. We left just as they were beginning their set, singing middle of the road jazz in an American accent.

The ghost tours in Edinburgh have placard-kiosk sorts of things announcing the times of the tour, the price of the tour, and how much spookier the tour is than the competition. You gather in front of the sign at the appointed time, and the guide meets you. Our City of the Dead tour was at eight-thirty, led by one of the guides written about in The Ghost That Haunted Itself, the slightly over-the-top book about the tour and the poltergeist that got us interested in the first place.

The guide took us on a short walk through the streets, pausing at different points to tell the story of the tortures visited upon those accused of witchcraft in Edinburgh's good old days. During the guide's rendition of the tale of the unfortunate Balfour family, I kept being distracted by another tour across the square, whose guide was done up in vampire makeup with a cloak. The City of the Dead tour prides itself on "no gimmicks", so the guides do not wear costumes other than a long black leather coat. I was also wearing my long black leather coat, so I fit right in. The guide brought various group members up to demonstrate what happened to the Balfours (the little girl of the family had thumbscrews applied so vigorously that her thumbs burst; the little boy had his shin splintered to bits in the iron boot.) I got to stand in for Mr. Balfour; the first thing we were told was that Mr. Balfour was stripped naked, so the guide commanded, "Strip naked." If only he knew that you barely have to ask me.

The torture visited upon Mr. Balfour was gruesome in the extreme. An open-bottomed metal cage containing a rat was placed on his chest; the cage was heated until the rat, driven mad, had no option but to eat its way out through Mr. Balfour's "soft parts."


The tour made its way to Greyfriars Kirkyard, where a quarter of a million people have been buried. The place is not that big; it's just that they kept piling people in, and in, and in ... as the guide said, you don't have to ask "Am I standing on someone?" You're always standing on someone.

The night was slightly drizzly, with wind tossing the bare branches of the trees as we stood among the moss-covered gravestones. It was creepy in the extreme, as there were no lights but the faint glow of the streetlights coming over the wall. We were led to the locked section known as the Covenanter's Prison; one of the girls on the tour lost her nerve at this point, and declined to accompany us in. The Covenanter's Prison is a long, fairly narrow sort of alleyway, lined with tombs on both sides. We went into one of these empty vaults, known as the Black Mausoleum. This is where the Mackenzie Poltergeist has been known to "interact" with people, to use the tour guide's words.

At first, neither David or I felt anything out of the ordinary, although it certainly is a nerve-jangling place. Still, it was worth it just to be there, in an abandoned tomb in an ancient graveyard. We all waited ... waited with bated breath ... the hair slowly rising on the back of my neck ...

Then, something did happen. But I've been sworn to secrecy.

The next night, we thought we'd sample one of the competing tours. This company was called "Auld Reekie" (the old term for Edinburgh, "Old Smoky.") This tour's advertising board promised tours every hour on the hour from the afternoon into the night - witchcraft tours, torture tours, a tour ending at midnight in the city's most haunted pub! Costumed guides! And even a poltergeist of their own - the "South Bridge Poltergeist."

We ended up on the nine o'clock tour, led by a deadpan blonde English girl; when she heard we were American, she asked if we were from Michigan. She was taking a summer job at some place in Michigan "... by a lake..." and wondered what it was like. She was going to leave her job as a ghost-tour guide and "boss seven year olds around" for a summer. I'm sure she'll be marvelous, as she was quite a fine guide.

The costume that the tour company obliged her to wear was a black shawl and long black skirt, which she had on over her jeans. She had a non-costumed sidekick along who was learning the ropes; this slightly shy but charming redhead took over a few times during the tour, spinning more tales of bodysnatching and witchcraft from Edinburgh's past.

This tour followed essentially the same pattern as the other, leading us on a winding path up and down the cobblestone side streets. We were taken into a small "torture museum," where one could see actual thumbscrews and the like. Again we heard the tale of the Balfours, although I did not get to repeat my performance as Mr. Balfour. As gruesome as the stories were, they were all delivered in a rather humorous way - as humorous as tales of people being burned alive can get, I suppose.

This tour's spooky spot was a vault underneath one of Edinburgh's bridges; this area had once been used by merchants as storage, but when it proved not to be waterproof, the goods were removed, and the homeless moved in. People were packed into these underground streets, where violence and disease were rampant. The guide told us of a fire which claimed the lives of hundreds below ground, and of the modern witches who practice in the same vaults. She explained the difference between a ghost - a spirit who is essentially repeating behavior over and over - and a poltergeist, which is more like the remains of a discharge of fear-energy. She had the group separate - men on one side of the vault, women on the other. She claimed that on the men's side there were more "poltergeist attacks", and that the poltergeist tended to attack women more frequently than men. David and I both seemed to feel something - a prickling sensation - while I was also touching the wall of the vault, perhaps tempting fate a bit.

Maybe it was just the suspense and tension generated by the guide's storytelling, or the anxiety created when she shut off her flashlight, leaving us all in the dark - but everyone on the tour definitely saw and heard something.

But we're sworn to secrecy.

As for our daytime activities: walking, walking, castle; walking, walking, walking, museum; walking, walking, walking, walking, palace. Soup! Milkshakes! Tea! Walking, walking, walking, walking.

And tomorrow, I shall tell you about today.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Sixteen thousand steps in Scotland

I debated whether or not to write a travel journal, as David is blogging away already. But if you care to, you can read both: he'll supply the poetry and atmosphere. I will tell you what we ate, and how much of it I spilled on myself.

Today is our second day in Edinburgh. We flew out of New York; I had forgotten about the afternoon taxi shift-change, so it was a bit of a challenge finding a taxi willing to go to JFK at 4:15. I haven't checked out the new Airtrain yet; perhaps it's less hassle than getting to JFK on the A train (which I've done - you just need a spare two hours.) We got there speedily enough, and got on a plane so large it was being boarded at two gates. United's coach class is snug (when the woman in front of me reclined, I could have given her a scalp massage), but surrounded by pillows, blankets, books, bottles of water, I managed to sleep a bit (thanks, Unisom.)

The British women across the aisles from me had some issues with their seats - namely, that one of their seats wasn't a seat at all. It had broken; a technician came along to reinstall the cushion, somehow leaving it wet and soaked. The women made up for their misfortune by having many brandy-and-lemonades, and singing along with the music in their headphones. I tried not to get sucked into their drama, but when they pestered the flight attendant for another cushion, it was all I could do not to fling them my pillow. I can't help it. (Crumb report: the hot buns they served were delicious. I ended up with flakey crumbs all throughout my United Airlines-supplied blanket.)

I set my watch to UK time once we arrived at JFK, attempting to pull a fake-out with my body in hopes of avoiding jet lag. It seemed to work fairly well; I was a bit tired once we arrived, but no more so than if I had stayed up late.

My latest obsession has been haunting the forums at, where you can get instant advice on subjects like the fastest way to get from Heathrow to King's Cross at rush hour (answer: forget the Heathrow Express, which takes you to Paddington - a bad place to be at 8:30 am - instead, ride the tube all the way from Heathrow.) The travel mavens there dispensed advice on every aspect of the trip - scolding you if you haven't researched the forum archives sufficiently - but it was all very helpful. David mocked me about it, of course, as I can get too wound up about being prepared. For instance, when my family came to visit New York and we all had to try to sit together on a crowded Amtrak train to Baltimore, I had us hovering near the gate, ready to charge like stampeding wildebeests. But, we speedy wildebeests got seats together, whereas the slower members of the herd were eaten by lions - er, didn't get a seat, I mean.

Once we were off the plane, to the tube station we went. I brought some British money along with me that had been left over from my last trip to the UK. When I tried to buy a tube ticket with a five pound note, I was informed by the clerk (nicely) that it was about 15 years old, and their currency had changed. Who knew? I felt a bit like I had tried to buy a Metrocard with a doubloon.

We got to King's Cross train station in record time, thanks to the advice from Fodor's. We spotted the "Platform 9 3/4" sign that they've installed for Harry Potter fans; our train, the Flying Scotsman service to Edinburgh, left from Platform 4. The Flying Scotsman train waiting on the next platform over looked very Scottish, with seats upholstered in plaid, handsome panelling on the walls, and small lamps on the tables. Our train looked like it had come directly from 1981, bringing a load of smoked glass and gray carpeting along with it.

The scenery on the ride to Edinburgh was lovely; endless acres of gently rolling farmland, with herds of frolicking sheep. We also passed the coast on a few occasions, where the waves pounded against rocky shores, beneath lonely stone ruins. (Crumb report: we were served shortbread along with our coffee on the train. Shortbread crumbs everywhere.)

The trip was 4 1/2 hours although it seemed to go much more quickly. We arrived in the Edinburgh train station and began bumping our luggage down the cobblestone streets to the B&B. The place I had chosen was farther away than we anticipated, but not awfully far away - a 20 minute walk. Because we'd taken an earlier train and were there an hour before we had originally indicated, no one was there to greet us. So, we bumped our bags back down the street to a tiny coffee shop, where we had hot chocolate and delicious crusty grilled sandwiches. The entire length of Pilrig Street, where we were staying, was lined with guest houses. It's the B&B ghetto.

Back to the B&B at the appointed hour, we met our smiling host, and were ushered into our very large room, complete with a three-paned bay window looking over the street and velvet chaise longue. Did I mention this is gay-owned? Perhaps I didn't need to.

We passed out for a nap, waking up somewhere around seven o'clock. It was dark, and was raining a bit. We set off to walk around and find some dinner; we wandered around Old Town, where, soaking wet, we stumbled into a nice pub/restaurant called the Royal MacGregor (of course.) After a bottle of wine and a nice dinner (which we pretended didn't cost an unbelievable amount of money due to the weak dollar) we walked back home. (Crumb report: within one minute of tucking into my steak pie, I had gravy down my shirt and on my pants. The stain on my pants was later joined by a smudge of sticky toffee pudding. David wondered whether I could add "King of Stains" to my roster of titles. I don't aspire to be King, but perhaps could purchase a small baronetcy. Baronet of Blots.)

We got up at a fairly decent hour and had our Scottish breakfast, served by our host in a waiter's apron and muscle shirt. I snarfed David's serving of sausages and bacon as well as my own, justifying it with the fact that we'd be doing a lot of walking.

We started where everyone begins their tour: Edinburgh Castle, where the views over the city are amazing. The weather was windy but the rain had lifted; we strolled down the Royal Mile, popping into the Museum of Scotland for an hour or so. We also walked around Greyfriars Kirkyard, which is atmospheric and creepy enough in the afternoon - we'll see what it's like after dark.

By that time, we'd gone 16,000 steps and were fading a bit; back to the B&B we came. After some time catching up on e-mail (we're addicted, it's awful), David is now napping. We're heading out in a few hours to find some dinner and then to go on the City of the Dead tour, which ends up in the Covenanter's Prison section of Greyfriars. There many people have encountered the Mackenzie Poltergeist; it has grabbed the unwary, leaving scratches and marks. Some have felt cold and sick, and some have passed out.

If anything happens to me, it will likely be because I ate too many sausages.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Hello, Nessie

We're off to Scotland, so blogging may be sparse. Sadly, we're not actually going to Loch Ness; we'll save that for another trip when we have more time. But we are going to go on ghost tours in Edinburgh (the City of the Dead tour, famous for the Mackenzie poltergeist) and York, and conclude by staying in haunted room 333 at the Langham hotel in London.


Friday, March 11, 2005

Melting dinosaurs for Christmas

I remember a lot of things from early childhood, I think because we moved across the country when I was about to turn six. The drastic difference between New Jersey (snow covered when we left it) and Arizona (hot, dry, hot, dry, and did I mention hot?) kept those early memories from melting together.

And speaking of melting together, let's talk about one of my favorite toys from the New Jersey Era: Strange Change. Or more specifically, "Strange Change Featuring the Lost World."

I must have gotten this toy at Christmas, 1971; I think we had gone to my Other Grandmother's house in Mountain Lakes to get together with some of my father's family. My cousins were intensely jealous of this toy, with all its plastic dinosaurs, scorpions, and other assorted creepies.

Here's how it worked: the machine was roughly a foot square, made of red colored metal. There was a heating chamber that had a metal mesh floor and a clear plastic dome, which had a door which swiveled open and closed. Once you plugged the machine in, the chamber got very hot. You put a plastic square (looking vaguely like a Starburst chew, but twice the size) into the heating chamber; the square unfolded into a dinosaur, a pterodactyl, or some other bizarre little shape.

After they cooled off, you could play with the dinosaur, running it around the plastic mountainscape that came with the toy. Then, you would put the dinosaur back into the heating chamber to soften it up; once it was suitably gooey, it got dropped into the press on one side of the machine. Then you cranked the press, which squeezed the dinosaur back into a square, with "Mattel" stamped on it.

I can recall the smell of the molten plastic very well - that aroma of slightly burned brontosaurus. I'm surprised I didn't burn myself with this toy - it was one of those toys that you could probably never sell today without a consumer advocate group freaking out: heat, small parts, toxic fumes. But of course, I loved it.

The plastic mountain landscape was the first part of the toy to break; the landscape developed a fissure and then tore apart. Never mind that - the dinosaurs were the important part. Then some of them succumbed to overcooking, getting a little brown around the edges.

Later on in the 70s the "shrinking-growing-plastic-toy" category got hot again when Shrinky Dinks became popular. This toy (or "craft kit", I think you'd say) included plastic sheets onto which you would trace designs - like, for instance, my Taurus key ring. Then you colored the designs and cut them out; when popped in the oven, they shrank and became thicker. Hours of fun for the whole family. Actually, looking back, we were a fairly craft-oriented family. Not insanely so ... but in the 70s we made our fair share of macrame, string art, make-a-plate, paint-by-numbers, soap, candles, and even plaster molds (in keeping with the astrological theme, I made a Taurus plaque which I painted gold.)

I wonder sometimes about toy inventors; I know that Strange Change was inspired by the invention of plastics that would remember their shape when heated. But I always like to think about whoever was in a room, brainstorming: "What if there were ... dinosaurs! Yeah, that's it! Little dinosaurs that ... grow! Yeah! And then you can squish 'em back up again! In a little cooker that gets to be about a thousand degrees ... ! Sounds great! Aw, don't worry about the kids, if they get burned, they'll just learn not to touch it again! It's a life lesson! With dinosaurs!"

If only all of life's lessons came with dinosaurs, I'm sure I would have learned much more along the way.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"They Survived Doug and Hildi: Drama in Real Life"

Okay. Here's what I know about the "black room"/"white room" episode of Trading Spaces, otherwise known as "Los Angeles: North Cherokee Avenue."

Now, I'll tell you right upfront: this is secondhand information. I do know one of the foursome who were featured on the episode - I've known him for maybe twelve years -- but we're not close friends. He is one of my best friend's best friends. A friend of a friend -- or a FOAF, as they say. But such are the crumbs I have to scatter today.

Starting at some point in Season Two, David and I were hooked on Trading Spaces. We were just slightly ahead of the curve ... most people knew the show vaguely: "Wasn't there a woman who hated her room so much she cried?" Why yes, that was Crying Pam, the Seattle woman who inadvertently made the show's reputation by her reaction to Doug Wilson's modern design for her fireplace. Considering some of the crap he's pulled since then, his design for Crying Pam was the height of restrained taste.

Back then, I almost wrote a song about Crying Pam and Trading Spaces - I was working on a revue of my stuff at the time - but thought it was too obscure. Very funny to those who watched, but not familiar enough yet to your random audience member. I mentioned it to the pianist one day, and it turned out that he knew Doug Wilson from the days when Doug was still trying to make it as a musical theater performer, and only doing design on the side. Apparently they all worked together on some rent-a-show that was hired out for parties; in the van on their way to various gigs, Doug would talk about his design ideas (he first became known for his wall treatments). They thought he was crazy. Apparently he would also talk about girls he was dating. The pianist said to me, "We would all look at him like ... 'girls?!' But he was serious."

My best friend Richard, an actor in Los Angeles, was spending some time in New York, and was doing the revue while he was there. He hadn't heard of Trading Spaces. Fast forward to a year and a half later, when he came back to New York with the news that our friend had just finished taping an episode with Doug and Hildi, and that it had been a disaster.

(Another strange connection from this tiny revue of mine to Trading Spaces; when we were casting, my director called an actor friend of hers from Yale to ask if he wanted to do the show. No, he said, it sounded great, but he was burnt out from having spent months doing shows out of town. He was just laying low, not performing, just going on an audition or two. So, we moved on. One of those auditions he went on was apparently to be the host of Trading Spaces Family - and he got the job. Ka-blink.)

So, back to the Doug/Hildi debacle. If you haven't seen the episode, it featured two gay male couples in Los Angeles. Doug designed an all-white room, and Hildi designed an all-black room. The couple whose living room was painted all white were extremely unhappy. Actually, no one was happy, but they hid their anger and dismay less successfully.

Our friend B. - nameless to avoid the Googlebots - was part of the couple who worked on the white room and had the black room created for them. Things had gone wrong from the very beginning; the producers, perhaps hoping to cash in on "Sex and the City" season finale fever, had brought special versions of the "Trading Spaces" shirts that the homeowners wear. These had the names of the SATC characters appliqued on the back like an über-gay bowling team - Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda. The guys were quizzical. "Oh come on," the producers said. "It'll be fun. We'll shoot you eating brunch, having cosmos, you know, a weekend with the 'girls.'" As fey as a couple of them admittedly were, they weren't girls, and said as much. "Oh come on," they were told. "Don't be difficult." So they put on the shirts.

Of course, they are made to look as though it was their own idea, like they ran home and got out their Bedazzlers and put the SATC characters names on the shirts themselves. Paige quizzes them about it ... "Which one of you is Carrie?" They laugh about who is who... "Oh yes, I'm Samantha..." It's one step away from, "Which one of you is the wife?" B. was gritting his teeth through this, but figured it was all part of the show. Trading Spaces had had a few gay couples by this time, but these particular producers (there are a number of different producers who oversee things) were out to make them look like the gayest gays who ever gayed. Of course, it didn't help that one guy in the other couple knotted his shirt into a blouse a la Daisy Duke. But still.

Trouble began when Doug revealed his monochromatic white plan for the living room that B. and his partner would be working on. The other couple had just painstakingly restored the floor and wood trim of their Arts and Crafts style bungalow, and now Doug proposed painting over all of it. Besides that, the couple had expressed their wish for something colorful to express their personalities; this was as far from that as you can get.

Of course, by this time, I think anyone going on the show had to be ready to be shafted. Ever since Crying Pam shed her tears, the show went for high drama, pointedly ignoring anything the homeowner might actually like or want. If you had just spent a ton of money fixing up your living room and then invited Doug Wilson in the door, you were a fool. But, the lure of the show was still great at that time; I probably would have done it too, and taken my chances.

But B. and his partner knew in their gut how wrong a choice this was - I believe that it was the other couple's idea to go on the show in the first place, so it would be particularly hurtful when their home was ruined. B. tried to express his misgivings a number of times, but you're really in a powerless position once production is underway. Finally, Doug snapped at him, "Listen Dorothy, just click those ruby slippers and back off."

B. had had it. He's a great guy - very low key, and very slow to get angry - but he had been pushed too far. He was ready to walk off. The whole SupaGay! angle was really distasteful to him. Paige tried to calm him down, and Doug was sent to apologize. "Listen," he apparently said. "I'm gay myself, I didn't mean anything by it."

So B., not wanting to ruin it for everybody, went back to work.

If you saw the Season Four outtakes show, you saw even more instances of B. and his partner trying to reason with Doug, and then getting stressed with each other when it was clear the All-White-Room-of-Doom was inevitably going to happen.

When they went to the reveal of their own room and saw it done up in all black, the theme of the episode became clear; the designers had never considered the homeowners for a minute. The producers had selected these two couples to be guinea pigs for an episode that would be about a high-concept design - never mind how wrong it was for them.

They actually didn't mind their own room so much; they had chosen a low-stakes room that didn't matter much to them (a wise decision.) Apparently it looked much better in person than it did on camera.

When the other couple were shown their icy white room, they were stunned at first; then the more emotional of the two (well, flamboyant is what I mean to say, but I don't like that word) became so upset that he eventually tore his mic off and left the set. Honestly, I don't know how much of that was a genuine reaction - it might have been partly a self-conscious attempt to become another in the pantheon of Crying Pams. But that may be ungenerous; I think they were truly looking to have a good time being on a show that they loved, and they were screwed from the very beginning. And not in a good way.

I don't know how long they left the white room that way; it was a few months until the episode aired. B. and his partner left their room all black, at least until they had their screening party.

By the time the episode was on, my enthusiasm for TS was waning. Watching someone I knew endure all the humiliation - especially of those damn shirts - really killed any last bits of warm feelings I had for the show.

As happens so often, I think the producers got too interested in short-term gain (drama! they cried! they hated it! they threw a fit!) and lost sight of why people liked the show in the first place - you loved it when people were thrilled and happy. Friends helping to create something for their friends - and it was great to see designers come up with new and interesting designs that took the homeowner's lives and personalities into account. When they started hiring no-talents like Kia, and purposely pissing people off by giving them ridiculous and ugly designs - well, I was done.

Ironically, the pendulum has swung the other way with Ty Pennington's new show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition", which pours on the syrupy smarm by the gallon. It's a giant love-fest of epic proportions. Trading Spaces tried to mend its ways - giving homeowners more say, letting the neighbors choose the room to be redone - but it was all too late. They had lost our sympathy and our interest. And now, losing Paige, the one person who seemed to care when someone like B. was upset - there's no more reason to watch.

The next time I talk to Richard, I'll see if there's anything major I've forgotten to include. I do remember this, though - what really pushed B. over the edge was the hypocrisy of the production team. At first he was treated like just another know-nothing homeowner; then, when they all discovered that B. is a fairly well-known agent (a partner in his own agency), they were all handing him their business cards.

So, that is the secondhand tale of the black and white rooms, and the gays who survived them. Drama in Real Life.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Snow. Napping. Television.

Well, I was a fool. Yes, I know, I need to be more specific.

On Monday, I was suckered into believing spring had arrived. The ground was warming up, the sun was out, the air smelled clean and alive. I could feel the potential for heat in the air - the promise of summer coming soon. Ibegan to get the urge to do spring cleaning, and fretted about how behind I was in getting ready to plant.

So, I traipsed off to New York on the train with just a little jacket. No gloves, no nothin'. Why read the weather forecast? Please. Spring is here.

It was raining this morning when I went to class. Ah, I thought, a nice spring rain to wash away the last of the dirty snow. Of course, when I emerged from our windowless building at three in the afternoon, a blizzard was in progress.


I scurried home to the apartment, and took a long nap, listening to the howling of the wind outside. I had the TV on at a low volume, which helps me sleep when I'm not with David. I went in and out of consciousness: falling asleep during "Gilmore Girls" and waking up during something possibly called "The Starlet" ... ? This is a reality series in which the hunt is on for ... a starlet, I suppose. Faye Dunaway is there to look sagely at the quivering contestants (or contestant-lets) and deliver the Trump-esque kicker line, which is "Don't call us, we'll call you."

The flock of starlets were being judged this week on how well they performed in a lesbian kiss scene in a jacuzzi. The best seemed to be a blonde from South Africa; the worst seemed to be a Molly Ringwald-esque pixie, who was booted off the show by Ms. Dunaway and her compatriots. She really was heartbreaking as she left, reaffirming her belief in her own talents, no matter how she was judged.

I generally don't watch reality shows, especially of this kind. I think I'm one of the dozen or so people who have never watched "American Idol." Maybe it's because I see enough people risking rejection on a daily basis - writers, actors - all of whom have to come into a room and make themselves vulnerable to someone: me.


There are some reality shows that I have watched: I was passionately addicted to the first season of "Survivor"; I like the geeky PBS series like "1900 House", "Frontier House" and "Manor House"; and I watched every painful episode of "Boy Meets Boy." I can't muster up the enthusiasm to watch "Trading Spaces" anymore, when once upon a time it was the centerpiece of my weekend. I had friends who appeared on it - the infamous Doug/Hildi white room/black room episode from last year. I think my last shred of enthusiasm died there, having heard about the behind-the-scenes goings-on that were even more appalling than what made it to the screen.

After the starlet show, I dozed off again, flipping the channel occasionally in my half-awake state. I managed to grab the remote when an announcer's voice promised "a special full hour of "According to Jim." Nobody needs that.

I don't know what it is about having a mumbling TV on while I sleep that comforts me. I don't need it all the time, and I know that it's terrible feng shui to have a television in the bedroom. Still, it can be soothing.

(There's a story from the time when I had knee surgery at the age of 14: when I was brought back to my hospital room, still unconscious, the television in the room was playing an episode of "Bewitched." Apparently, when someone went to turn the set off, I said, out of the depths of my anesthetized sleep, "I'm watching that." I don't know if that actually happened, or whether it is family urban legend. But it goes to show how much I love "Bewitched.")

In my last apartment, over on the Upper West Side, for a while I was convinced I was being visited by ghosts and/or aliens who were controlling the television set. I confessed to David that, one night when I was sleeping alone there, I dreamt that the television had come on in the middle of the night, and was telling me something. I don't often have dreams I remember, so that one was a little disconcerting. It was especially unnerving that I woke up still clutching the television remote.

The next time I was sleeping alone at my apartment, the same thing took place. I was awakened at three o'clock in the morning by the television, which had apparently come on all by itself. There was some sort of infomercial on. I was freaked out. I mean, come on, I'd seen Poltergeist.

That time, I knew I wasn't dreaming. It had really happened. I couldn't explain it. Power surge? Incipient alien abduction? New marketing techniques? It was a mystery.

Finally, I was in the apartment late one night suffering from insomnia. And, bingo, at three a.m. the television blinked on. I wasn't crazy. I finally had the bright idea to play around with the various settings on the television; I knew that it had a "sleep" option, which would turn off the television after an hour or so. I discovered another option, with a misleading name that I've forgotten, which was the opposite: it would turn the TV on at a specified time, if you wanted to use it as an alarm clock. Somehow this function had been activated, meaning that the television was regularly popping on in the middle of the night. I thought of all the nights I had slept at David's; I thought of my neighbors, dealing with the sounds of the TV coming from my apartment in the dead of night.

I thought of the aliens, who weren't preparing me for their 3 a.m. arrival after all.

So tonight, the price I've paid for having a long afternoon-to-evening nap is being awake at 2:30 in the morning. The television is off. The wind is howling fiercely. The city is silent, except for an occasional police siren in the distance.

And if you listen carefully, somewhere, somewhere far off, you can hear the starlets crying.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Playing the game

Tonight was a night that tested my vow not to blog directly about work (because theater types like to do nothing so much as Google themselves obsessively. Yes, you.) I had an interesting conversation this evening with a producer who produced a show of mine last summer, and who may or may not be mounting another, larger production. (Interestingly enough, one of the actors in that production kept a blog, and was journaling his rehearsal experiences, both good and bad. The producers found his blog via the aforementioned obsessive Googling, and much freaking out commenced.)

So, as I said, it was interesting. We got to know each other a bit more. We discussed things. And I can say no more about it.

But it did put me in mind of a game that was a favorite with my Other Grandmother. She loved card games. She taught me this one; come on over, and I'll teach it to you. It's called Manipulation.

No, seriously.

It's a basic variation on rummy. The object of the game is to win by getting rid of all your cards. Shuffle two decks together. Everyone gets seven cards to begin. To get rid of cards, you have to lay them down in groups of three or more: the groups can either be by rank (tens, threes, jacks, whatever) or else little straight flushes (six, seven, eight of hearts, for example.) Every turn you have to draw at least one card, and discard at least one card. If I drew a nine of hearts, I could either tuck it on the end of the six,seven, eight straight, or if there were a group of nines already down, I could place it there. If I drew a card that couldn't be discarded, and no other card from my hand could be gotten rid of, I would have to draw cards until it was possible to discard something.

I once figured out the maximum size of a hand of cards in this game: twenty six (because after that, you'd have to have three of something.) A few times, I did get very close to that number, which is a feat in itself.

Manipulation starts to get interesting when players configure and reconfigure the groupings of the cards that are down - you can rearrange the cards in any way you like, as long as all cards are safely in groupings of three or more when you are done. You can steal a five of clubs from the fives pile (as long as there are at least three of them left), a four of clubs off the fours pile, and put them together with your three of clubs. Someone else can come along, put the four and five back where they came from, and swipe the three to go with the two other threes that are in their hand. Or, they can pull out a two of clubs and tuck it onto the end of the grouping you created, piggybacking on your work. You get the picture.

So there we would be, whiling away a summer afternoon playing cards with our Other Grandmother; she was fierce, as is the whole family when games are concerned. With her cigarette dangling and her glass of red wine handy, she'd growl "You forgot to draw a card. YOU FORGOT TO DRAW A CARD! COME ON! COME ON!"

And much freaking out commenced.

We'd quake with our hands of cards and our little cans of Vernor's ginger ale, quickly learning that Manipulation was an art, and you'd better master it to survive.

So back to my phone call. Were there attempts at manipulation? Oh, yes. On which side? Both? Or neither? Who was showing his hand, and who was holding his cards close, waiting for another turn?

We shall see.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Clean up crew

I've been going to Quaker (Society of Friends) meetings fairly regularly since last summer. A lot could be said about it.... I'm sure at some point I'll write some gigantic, rambling post about it which involves my memories from fourth grade and/or my obsession with some bad movie or failed television show.

But today ... just something simple.

After meeting, there is always lunch downstairs, which is called ... simple lunch. Usually, it is simple: makings for peanut butter sandwiches, some carrot sticks, cookies. But on the first Sunday of the month, there is a pot luck, with a wider array of food. Today there was a tomato-rice soup, another rice dish, an assortment of breads and cheeses, homemade toffee and some interesting pastries. There was also the ever-present peanut butter, for those like me who can't get enough of it.

Every week, two people sign up to assemble simple lunch, and two people volunteer to clean up afterward. Last week, when the list of volunteers was looking sparse, I signed David and myself up to be the cleanup crew. Luckily David remembered this later in the week, so that we didn't accidentally sleep in and embarrass ourselves to the point where we could never return.

Meeting took a bit longer than usual; a resolution was passed to display a sign on the lawn outside in observance of the anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq; all the churches on Charles Street were erecting signs of some kind. It was the pacifist nature of Quakerism that first drew us to the meeting; it has been interesting getting to know the group and how it operates. It has a certain eccentric quality which I love; there is a sincerity and directness there which I respond to. The members of the meeting (we are just attenders; one has to apply and be accepted to become a member) voted to display the sign, which will say "Seek Peace on Earth." This is in contrast to the usual sign, "War is not the answer." It was felt that the emphasis should be on peace, not war. One member of the meeting voiced her concern that the sign might be vandalized, or perhaps taken ... "someone might want it for their bedroom."

While no one could exactly imagine what sort of person would want a thirty foot banner proclaiming the need for peace in their bedroom, the committee responsible for the sign also was ready to replace it on a daily basis if vandals struck. It was this sort of quiet, unblinking steadiness that I have found so attractive in this group.

The vote was concluded, and we went downstairs for lunch.

After my peanut butter sandwich made with natural peanut butter and fresh bread, I scouted out the kitchen to see what my cleanup duties would be. It was your standard institutional kitchen, like you might find in any older church or school, with a large iron stove, cabinets full of mismatched plates and mugs, and a large stainless steel triple sink. I got my dishpans ready - wash, rinse and bleach rinse - and awaited the arrival of the dirty dishes.

As lunch wound to a close, I tackled the very basic dishwashing duties - mugs and silverware mostly - while David cleaned the tables and swept the floor in the meeting room. It didn't seem like much of a daunting task at all, although numerous people thanked us in a way that made it seem like no one ever cleaned up at all. Of course, one of the charming older women in the group spilled the beans to David: "For the first two years someone is in the group, we like to sit back and watch them clean up. Thank God for you new people - otherwise nothing would ever get cleaned." She was joking, of course.

Other people came in to scope out my working methods; one member who had shown herself to be very particular about things was a bit surprised to find that I knew how to use the triple sink.

"Did you work in a kitchen?" I admitted that I had done my time as a busboy, so I knew the basic procedure. She seemed both pleased, and yet perhaps a bit irritated that there was nothing to criticize. In my few brief conversations with her, she has seemed to be the type who is slow to defrost; certainly not typical of the people I've met, who by and large are very welcoming. This woman, although warming up to me, wasn't won over completely.

"I've worked in a kitchen. I'm a professional." She then washed the cutting board she was carrying. Incompletely. I surreptitiously re-did it the moment she left.

After the dishes were washed, dried and put away, I scrubbed out the sinks. By this time most people had gone; one gentleman with prematurely silver hair was puttering around the kitchen as well, weeding out anything made of the wrong kind of plastic that had been put in the recycling bin, and generally making sure things were in their proper place. He turned to me, as I was swabbing out the sink.

"You like to work, don't you?"

It's sort of an odd question, but ... "Yes," I said.

"That's good. It's healthy." Then we went back to working. I was struck by how clearly this person saw that side of me.

It is true - I do like to work. One might not know it, considering the amount of time I seem to spend not working - but sometimes I don't feel as though my brain is really functioning unless I have a task. At a party -- my own or someone else's -- chances are I will be in the kitchen, either preparing something, or cleaning up. It's true in my theater life, also: whenever I am about to go into rehearsal, my mind is always a blank until we have begun work. Once we have started, I can think about nothing else. Once the show is open and my task is done, my brain shuts down again, blank and empty.

I finished in the kitchen, and went out to find David sweeping up the last of the crumbs. We said goodbye to the silver-haired man, and walked out into the beautiful day. Spring was coming. Things were clean. It felt good.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Arrr, mateys

Today, I went to the swanky-ish place where David gets his glasses, in order to have my eyes examined. It's time for new glasses - my old ones are battle-weary. What's odd is, if you look at the lens coating, it seems to have worn away in a pattern that looks like two flaming circles. I'm attributing this to my heat-ray vision.

For the first time, I was thinking about getting contact lenses. I've never worn them up until now - mostly because I didn't like the idea of sticking my finger in my eye. But I thought, hey, time to try something new. The eye doctor, after dilating my pupils to the point where I looked like a Precious Moments figurine, declared that my eyelids were suffering from some redness and inflammation. I told him I occasionally got styes (gross, I know), and he said that there were probably small blockages of the ducts going on all the time, leading to the redness. But he offered a course of treatment, which I would have to undergo before I could have contacts.

I have to shampoo my eyelashes.

I can barely remember to shampoo my hair or schedule a haircut (my inattention to these things makes Kyan cry.) But now I have to add another segment to my daily regimen, brief as it is. This involves cranking up the water temperature, aiming the shower at my (closed) eyes, lathering up some baby shampoo, and massaging it into my eyelashes. Also, the doctor added, I could massage my lower lids, to "express anything that might be blocked."

Oh, great.

Still, if this can avoid any future styes, I am all for it. If you've never had one, count yourself lucky. I had never had one my entire life, until I was working for BoozeAnne. On the weekends, I was playing second keyboard for a production of The Pirates of Penzance in a theater out on Long Island - the guy I was dating at the time was the music director. The air in the theater was full of dust and grit; that, coupled with the intense stress I was under from working for BoozeAnne, brought on my first-ever stye.

But, since I'd never had one before, I didn't know what it was, or how to treat it (warm compresses and ibuprofen.) It got worse and worse, until I looked like the Phantom of the Opera, with a grossly swollen eyelid.

BoozeAnne was supportive. "Ha, ha. You look so stupid. And weird!" Then she'd go back to her beer.

Little did she know that I was already planning to jump ship. Over the last few weeks, I had been pursued by CrazyCo Hellkins, a corporate identity firm. Many of the executives there had come from International BrandCorp, where I had been an industrious assistant to the creative director and several design directors. The creative director had a reputation for being difficult and eccentric, but I had always enjoyed working for him. He was a Venezuelan of German extraction. He wore a cape. You get the picture. Anyway, he put the word out that I should be recruited for the new firm, no matter what it took. Little did they know that I was dying to get away from BoozeAnne and our No Exit-like office.

After being wooed at a few clandestine lunches by another of the executives (with whom I had once had a brief affair - but that's a story for later), I was going in for an interview at the Rockefeller Center offices of CrazyCo Hellkins. There was only one problem: my reddened eyelid was the size of a golfball. So, I did the natural thing.

I bought an eyepatch. Like a pirate.

When I went in for my interview, I imagined that I looked like the Man in the Hathaway Shirt. Instead of, you know, just another guy in an eyepatch. I could tell everyone was curious, but they were all too polite to ask.

"Can you tell us something about your management style ... and, oh, are you missing an eyeball?"

I think I did joke about it - "I learned my lesson, don't run with scissors!" - but otherwise, I made no reference to it. The interview seemed to go well. I wanted to throw in an occasional "Yo, ho, me hearties," but didn't.

I stopped in at the Sort-Of-Urgent care center that was near BoozeAnne's office. The very nice Indian doctor explained to me what a stye was and how to get rid of it. "Oh my goodness. It is so simple. A warm washcloth and many Advil. My heavens. Look at the size of it. What a pity."

I got the new job, and fled BoozeAnne's office, leaving a me-shaped hole in the door like Wile E. Coyote. When I turned up at CrazyCo, I once again had the use of both eyes, and never brought up the eyepatch. I kept it for a while, just in case I felt like a pirate.

I'm off to shampoo my lashes. Yo ho ho.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

The fondue incident

In eighth grade, I had managed to scrape together some kind of social life ... whatever that means when you're in junior high school. I was the unofficial leader of a small band of guy friends, and we had a parallel group of girls that we hung around with. We were all smart ... not too horribly geeky ... the creative types. The newspaper, the yearbook, band. Those kind of people. Okay, a little Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings-related wargames here and there, but come on. It was 1980.

So, the girls' group was headed by my ex-girlfriend Paula. A quick backstory: Paula moved to Tucson from San Luis Obispo and showed up in sixth grade as the new girl from California. Blonde, smart, pretty. Into horses. I immediately set out to make her my girlfriend, ditching my current girlfriend, Meta, the kind, sweet, pious fundamentalist Christian girlfriend who kept every note I'd ever given her. For Meta, I'd gone to after-school Christian classes (and won a souvenir bulletin board for memorizing Bible trivia.) For Paula, I would eventually join Library Cadets (the sole male member) so we would spend every lunch period together. (Okay, maybe I had a fascination with Paula and the Dewey Decimal system. Is that so wrong?)

After a showdown at Skate Country where I competed for Paula's affection with another guy in our class, Patrick (I can't skate all that well, but I managed to somehow out-skate him), Paula and I were going together. I gave her a mood ring.

It was a good choice of gifts, because she was damn moody.

Our boyfriend-and-girlfriend-ness broke up sometime during the hell that was seventh grade. Paula kept a secret list of Things I'd Done Wrong; when I amassed a certain number of Wrong Points, she would give me the silent treatment. Of course, if I wanted to know what I'd done, the reply was along the lines of, "If you don't know, she's certainly not going to tell you."

This would be delivered to me by her bitchy friend Heather, because Paula, of course, wasn't speaking to me.


For some reason, typing out the lyrics to Simon and Garfunkel's "The Sounds of Silence" on my mother's Olivetti typewriter and slipping them into Paula's locker failed to thaw her. I don't know why.

Eventually, when it was clear things were over, she returned the mood ring to me. She had put it in the freezer, where it turned black. Permanently.

But, time passes and we get over these things; after the summer, we were able to be friends again. We still liked hanging out together and having parties; in fact it was easier now that we weren't boyfriend and girlfriend.

I started dating Paula's "second in command," who was, like me, interested in drama. She was eccentric, neurotic, funny. Her nickname was Shaggy Mafer. You don't have to be a genius to figure out what her name was.

So, Shaggy and I were going together. We read various contraband Judy Blume books - like "Forever" - as they were smuggled around chemistry class. We read plays together. I put my arm around her at movies - that's as far as that went.

Meanwhile, Paula and I were still planning the various parties that our little social group had. Paula wanted to do something called a "progressive party," where you go from house to house, having a different part of the meal at each house along the way. Keep in mind that we were in eighth grade, so this involved a lot of parental persuasion; somehow we convinced enough parents to drive our crowd all over Tucson for this shindig.

My house was first - appetizers. At Paula's we would have the entree, and we would wind up at Shaggy M.'s house for dessert and swimming. Somewhere in between these places we would stop for salads at someone else's house and, I don't know, green beans somewhere besides that. This kind of party is mileage intensive.

Well, of course it wouldn't do to just slap out some chips and dip. I was only 14, but by golly, I knew what it took to cater a party. I had been fascinated by my parents' fondue set left over from the 60s, with its color-coded skewers. So, I talked my mother into making a swiss cheese fondue. Along with that we would have club soda into which I dumped various flavored extracts - sort of like an Italian soda, although, since I'd never heard of those at that age, this was more like my own Frankensteinian invention.

Everyone arrived, and we sat chatting in my mother's black-and-white-toile-covered living room. People managed to choke down the club soda, but the fondue was a definite hit. I mean, who doesn't like yummy cheese? The party was off to a good start.

We were talking about whatever we talked about in those days ... chemistry class? English class? Xanadu? when we all noticed that Shaggy had gone quiet. This was rare. We all looked at her. Was she upset? Sometimes Shaggy had moody spells or pitched a fit now and again. She was always interesting, to say the least. She scowled. She clapped her hand over her mouth.

She vomited swiss cheese through her nose, in long streamers. Like silly string.

Chaos erupted. My mother was thrilled at the new addition to the living room decor. Shaggy fled to the small downstairs bathroom and locked herself in. No amount of pleading from me or any of her girlfriends could manage to get her out of there. We told her it would be all right - we just hoped she wasn't sick. Nobody cared what had happened. She wouldn't budge.

Eventually, like the caring boyfriend I was, I left along with everyone else, trundling off to the next house on the list to have salad.

We kept thinking that Shaggy would catch up with us at some point along the way. I think she finally turned up at her own house, the last on the itinerary. But as I recall, she didn't join the party, but hid in her room. There was much eye-rolling. Nobody cared that she had shot fondue out her nose. But she extracted the maximum amount of drama from the situation.

Somehow, of course, the whole thing was my fault, and that was the end of us as a couple.

So. Who's up for fondue?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Nice going, Ace

When I was in eighth grade, I was in my first play. It was the dramatic classic The Sky's The Limit, which concerns the wacky hijinks that ensue when a cheerleader mixes up her family's phone messages. My friend E. played the cheerleader, Sunny Sky, and I played her boyfriend, Ace, a football player.

That was the first and last time anyone has called me "Ace."

I remember I very carefully drew the cover art for the program - a set of interlocking arrows - because they're all going in different directions, get it? - and I believe hijacked the copier at my mother's office to print it up. I wouldn't be surprised if I stole, er, borrowed some of my family's furniture to use on stage; my mother got used to all the phones in the house vanishing (I needed them!) or half her dishes appearing in a starring role in a dinner scene.

E., the star of the show, was as unlikely a cheerleader as I was a football player, but she was very funny. We had become friends in fourth grade when I changed schools, and stayed friends up through high school.

In seventh grade we started having long phone conversations at night - I remember once we were trying to stay up all night on the phone, actually falling asleep at points during the conversation. I used to plug another phone in near whichever phone I was using, so I could have a phone on each ear, creating a stereo effect. Thinking back, I can't imagine what a pair of 13 year olds could talk about for hour after hour. But we did.

At this point I developed a severe crush on E., but for some reason couldn't tell her. I would leave anonymous presents on her doorstep on my way to school, and anonymous poems in her locker. This lasted for maybe two months - I wanted her to know it was me, and yet I didn't. By the time she figured it out, I think the crush had broken, and we were able to go back to being friends.

We never went out on an actual date, although we hung around together all the time and went to a few dances together. We entered a costume contest at the Halloween dance, going as Kermit and Miss Piggy (this was at the height of the Muppet Show's popularity.) My dad got into the act, creating two giant paper-mache heads for us to wear.

My parents had a long tradition of being involved in making Halloween costumes; back when we kids were very young, they built a pair of paper-mache Bert and Ernie heads and wore those for Halloween themselves. More on the Halloween traditions some other time.

It took a couple of weeks for the heads to be born: there was a base of chicken wire which had to be shaped; then it was covered with paper mache and sculpted a bit. It's not as easy to build a Kermit head as you might think: it's an unusual sort of shape, and everyone instinctively knows if it's "right" or not, having seen Kermit for years on Sesame Street. After the shapes were right, they were painted, and had styrofoam eyes put on.

E. got some lilac-colored satin elbow-length gloves, and off we went to the dance, wearing our giant heads. We came in second. I forget who won, but no giant heads were involved. Everyone we knew said we'd been cheated, but we didn't care. We danced the night away. With our giant heads.

E. had an interesting family. She was Jewish, which was a little unusual for Tucson; her parents were the hip-cool-likely-pot-smoking type. Her father ran a record store and wrote record reviews for the local alternative weekly; they had shelf after shelf of albums in their house - old jazz players, punk bands, European pop groups I had never heard of.

I don't remember how we came to be doing The Sky's The Limit. This was probably part of a class I was in at the time - the kind of class where they rounded up the creative kids and let us do whatever the hell we wanted, more or less. I Googled up the teacher who ran the class - ordinarily I wouldn't put someone's full name here, to avoid search engines - but Renee Wallner, if you ever see this, you were an amazing teacher. I found that in 2001 she had planned to take early retirement, but had it rescinded so she could go on teaching - still at Amphi Junior High (now Amphi Middle School.) She was listed as a Dreams teacher - and that is exactly right.

All my friends, the creative types, were in the play - Maggie, who had to spray her hair gray to play the grandmother. She and I became boyfriend and girlfriend later that year - until the unfortunate Fondue Incident. Another time for that. The grandmother's male admirer was played by my friend Anthony, squashing a fedora down over his face, swinging a cane and doing his crotchety-old-man voice. (All of us who knew Anthony wondered why he never wanted a girlfriend, considering all the girls swooned over his Mayan-Prince good looks. Well, of course, now we know.)

Another friend named Julie (not the one I've mentioned here previously) was Sunny's little sister, who likely had some other punning name. I've forgotten the rest of the cast - whoever was playing the other members of Sunny's hapless family.

I'm sure the play was ridiculous - something we probably found in the pages of Dramatics magazine - but we had fun. I wore an oversize football jersey and did pratfalls over the furniture: "Sunny! You're kidding! You did what?!"

Of course, what I really wanted to do was direct.

That came later - directing a couple of one-act plays for the National Junior Honor Society - but I was clearly hooked. I didn't yet have my heart set on having a life in theater - in those days I had thoughts about going to Harvard and becoming a lawyer. It's funny to think that this silly play was one of my first steps to where I am now.

I heard from E. again about five years ago. I had registered at Classmates Dot Com, and she found my e-mail address there. She was married and I believe still living in Tucson. I wrote her back a long reply, catching her up on every move I'd made since we'd lost touch. I included the fact that I was gay - something I was sure she wouldn't be surprised by. I mean, come on, she and I memorized the entire spoken section of Moon Zappa's "Valley Girl," and would perform it for each other. That's just ... gay.

I never heard back from her. I didn't know if it was just one of those things that fell through the cracks, or if she felt that we were so different now that there was nothing more to say.

But wherever she is now, I'm glad that she (wearing a backward-facing baseball cap and one of her dad's shirts) sought me out and became my friend in fourth grade, when I was the new kid. It was great for all the years it lasted.