Friday, April 29, 2005

One week later, recovered from birthday madness

I've spent the last week recovering from the three-day festival that was my birthday (oh, and surviving the end-of-semester teaching crunch.)

David and my sister collaborated on my birthday gift: a set of Wüsthof knives. I've always skated through life buying cheap knife sets (the last was a ten-dollar special from Ikea. Stylish but flimsy.) These Wüsthof knives make chopping an onion near to a religious experience. It is glorious.

The early part of the day I spent up to my elbows in potting soil, planting some groundcover and installing a new brick border in the tree well outside our house, and putting together new windowboxes to replace the dead stalks left from last year. It was a very satisfying way to begin the day - I thought my windowboxes turned out just as nicely as the professionally assembled ones we got when we moved in. My adventures in gardening will be the metaphor for the year, I've decided - making things grow, and perhaps getting a little dirty.

Later that day, David and I strolled around the Inner Harbor; it was an appealingly windswept and blustery day (the kind of weather I like.) We walked to the American Visionary Arts Museum, where I had never been before. The galleries are fascinating: many of the artists suffered from mental illness. I found the artist's life stories displayed next to their work to be as intriguing as the works themselves.

I was most affected by "Tapestries of Survival" by Esther Krinitz. These intricately sewn panels depict how Esther, 15 years old in Poland during World War II, escaped to the forests with her 13 year old sister, hiding from the Nazis. She began to create the collage-tapestries almost fifty years later. The power of the story comes through in a palpable way. They are amazing.

In the evening, a swarm of friends arrived for a party. Among them were many bloggers: Linda, Cara, JWER, Jen and her partner Karen, Zenchick, and special guest star Faustus, who braved Greyhound to travel to scenic Baltimore. Much wine was consumed. It was delightful. Zenchick bestowed a book of movie scandal and trivia upon me, so that we will have more to whisper about when David is looking the other way; Jen and Karen brought the most inventive gift - the "Instant Circus", a collection of multicolored capsules which transform into sponge circus animals when tossed into a glass of water.

Linda had searched in vain for a "Strange Change" toy on eBay, but they have vanished into the past. It's actually for the best that she didn't find one, because I'm sure I would have burned down the house and/or gotten melted dinosaur all over everything. And you know pterodactyl stains never come out.

On Saturday, we went to see the touring production of Little Shop of Horrors, starring my friend Jonathan. I've known Jonathan since he was cast in a production of a show of mine in Minneapolis in 1997. His voice is incredible - he has the gift that very few singing actors have - whatever he sings seems to come right from his soul - always truthful, always moving, never overdone. Jonathan made the move from Minneapolis to New York as an understudy for the show "A Year With Frog and Toad"; he was then cast as the understudy for the role of Seymour in "Little Shop of Horrors." I saw the first night that he went on in the show. I cried for him - I knew it was his dream role, and I knew how hard he had worked to finally arrive on Broadway. He was perfect in the part - in my opinion, better than the guy he was understudying. He has been touring the country in the show - a strange existence, arriving in a new city every week. It takes endurance and commitment to perform in such a physically demanding show - the cast is incredibly dedicated. It was great to see it here in Baltimore and to spend some time with Jonathan before he continues on his cross-country journey.

On Monday, Goblin had to return to the vet to have her Mysterious Spot excised. Although everything went absolutely smoothly and the whole procedure was finished in about an hour, I couldn't help getting a little choked up while we waited in a nearby Starbucks. Ah, the joys of parenthood.

Even though we are almost the cliche of male-couple-with-small-dog, I can take solace in the fact that we are nowhere near the heights of ridiculousness achieved by Brandon and Ryan, the gay couple on "Showdogs Moms and Dads." This series on Bravo is our current guilty pleasure - like a reality show version of Best in Show. They are completely unprepared to be dog owners, it seems - every episode seems to involve them having a screaming bitchfight in front of the cameras, and one or the other of them holding their tiny dog Liberace as ransom from the other one. The dog has already broken its leg falling down the stairs (or more likely, trying to climb out the bathroom window to escape from this psychotic pair.)

So - that's the story of the birthday festival week. Now that I'm recovered, I think I need to go sharpen my new knives.

Friday, April 22, 2005

(buh) Earth Day

It's Earth Day, everybody. It also happens to be my birthday. That makes for some awkward moments around the office.

"Hey, we're collecting for a gift for the Earth, we're thinking maybe a gift certificate? Or something? You wanna kick in?"

"Okay, everybody is bringing in something for a potluck for the Earth during lunch tomorrow. I'm assigning you potato salad. Don't get the kind with mayonnaise, the Earth hates that kind. No, Trish is already bringing cupcakes, you should have asked me sooner."

"We're all going out for beers with the Earth after work - it's Earth Day! Why do you have all these birthday cards on your desk? Is it somebody's birthday?"

It's a little hard to compete with The Earth, so I just go with it.

Actually, I've always had pretty great birthdays, even though I might not have been the world's most agreeable birthday boy. One year - I'm thinking this was my eighth birthday, could be ninth - I'm sure I embarrassed the hell out of my parents when I ignored all my party guests in favor of reading the TV Guide.

If it was my eighth birthday, then it would have been this issue:

If it was my ninth birthday, then I might have been reading this:

Or, more tellingly, I could have been reading the previous week's issue, with Cher on the cover:

In any case, I was engrossed in my usual activity of absorbing information directly into my cerebral cortex. Parties? Bah!

My mother always made creative cakes for our birthdays: armed with cake mix, her trusty hand mixer (which I still owned until just a couple of years ago), various pans and food coloring, she made cakes in the shape of just about anything. One year she made a cake for my brother in the shape of a baseball hat, baking the cake in a mixing bowl and going from there.

I don't remember what the cake was like at my eighth-or-ninth birthday. Hey - I was reading the TV Guide.

A few birthdays stand out from the others - one year Mr. Ex managed to completely surprise me, which is no easy feat. We were laying around, not doing much of anything. "So, do you wanna go and eat, maybe?" he said. Sure, why not. Maybe we should walk over to the Barking Dog, our favorite restaurant. Yeah, sure. Whatever.

When we got to the restaurant, I was annoyed because there was a group of people already sitting at our favorite table. How dare they. But then, they all took the menus down from in front of their faces, and lo and behold, it was a gang of my friends that Mr. Ex had miraculously rounded up. I was astounded at how smoothly he had gotten me there - what if I had said I wasn't hungry? Oh, wait. I never say I'm not hungry. Now I see.

Mr. Ex also surprised me on my thirtieth birthday, although not in person. He sent our mutual friend, Angela, bearing an enormous bouquet of black balloons. A few years earlier, I had given Mr. Ex a small celebration for his thirtieth birthday: we were in a motel room in El Paso, which I suppose is depressing enough. I decorated the room with black streamers and balloons (but I did manage to score his favorite snack foods and favorite ice cream - Baskin & Robbins daquiri ice.) The topper was a card that read, "So, it's your birthday? Well, I'll be..." and then on the inside "...younger than you for the rest of our lives." Charming, charming. Yes, who wouldn't want a card like that on his birthday? So I should have expected the black balloons as my just punishment. They were delightful. I have pictures of Angela and I romping with them. They lasted about a week or so, floating on my apartment ceiling, until they gradually withered and deflated and sank to the floor. A perfect metaphor.

Now, of course, Mr. Ex can rest secure in the knowledge that David loses no opportunity to remind me that he will always be younger than me. So karma is biting me on the butt. Go me!

For my birthdays in my thirties (this is my last one, in case you were wondering) I always tried to do something I'd never done before. There were a few birthdays in a row which I spent quite happily alone, going on a mini-adventure. One year I hopped on a bus to Atlantic City and stayed overnight at Caesar's Palace, completely on a whim. I went exploring that night and found a gay bar; when I walked in, a man with a shaved head, wearing makeup and squeezed into a tiger-print miniskirt, was singing "I Did It My Way." Now, that's a happy birthday.

Other birthdays I just chose a section of New York I didn't know that well, and wandered through the streets, seeing where fate would take me. It was always interesting. Being born in April, my birthday is almost always a nice spring day, and there's nothing better than exploring New York on a beautiful spring day.

When I was doing my time at International BrandCorp, I was usually one of the major organizers of other people's office birthday parties. We happened to have a lot of Aries people in the office, so by the time we got to the end of April, people were burned out on birthdays: accordingly, mine would usually pass without much of a to-do. I actually preferred it that way, as it made it easier for me to slip out after a half-day and go have an adventure.

Besides trying to do something new, I don't have many birthday rituals. I usually buy the Post, the Daily News and Newsday to see what my horoscope says, and sometimes save the little "If Today Is Your Birthday..." section of the horoscope. Occasionally I've gotten my tarot cards or my palm read. I talk to my mother and my sister and my best friends on the phone; I try to put aside some time for reflection.

And sometimes, there's cake. Well, if the Earth hasn't hogged the biggest piece with the icing flowers on it.

Monday, April 18, 2005

The Norwegian Dawn Adventure

Imagine my surprise when the Norwegian Dawn, the cruise ship I randomly happened to see in the Hudson River a week or so ago, was in the news tonight. Apparently the ship, weathering rough seas on a cruise to the Bahamas, was struck by a 70 foot wave which shattered windows and flooded cabins.

I'm glad no one was seriously hurt. And of course I immediately thought of The Poseidon Adventure.

The Poseidon Adventure, if you've never seen it, is the 1972 Irwin Allen film which ushered in the era of 70s all-star-cast disaster films like The Towering Inferno and Earthquake. The movie is about a luxury liner capsized by a freak wave on New Year's Eve; survivors Ernest Borgnine, Stella Stevens, Jack Albertson, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, Carol Lynley and Pamela Sue Martin have to follow maverick preacher Gene Hackman to safety by climbing upward through the upside-down ship.

The scene where Shelley Winters, a former swimming champ, swims endlessly through an underwater passage to rescue Gene Hackman, only to die of a heart attack afterward, is a camp classic. Surprisingly though, the film is still very effective - you really do feel for the characters, who are much better drawn than the usual "rag-tag band of survivors" that you find in other disaster films.

For some reason this film fascinated me when I was a kid; I had the View-Master, and I remember my father more than once reading the accompanying story booklet as I sat with the View Master glued to my face - a bedtime-story substitute for the geekified. I used to float boats in the pool and try to make waves that would capsize them. I drew the upside-down ship. I would create simulations of the disaster scene by arranging action figures and furniture inside a cardboard box like a diorama, and then slowly rotating it. I don't know why I was obsessed with it.

Maybe I identified with the character played by Eric Shea (the pesky younger brother of Pamela Sue Martin's character) He's the inquisitive kid who knows everything about the ship, whose knowledge helps save them all. I was that sort of kid. Of course, he does say that "Charlie, the third engineer" took him down to see the "ship's screw." Mmm-HMM.

My Poseidon dreams were realized when we got to tour the Queen Mary, berthed in Long Beach. The Poseidon was modeled on the Queen Mary; many exterior scenes were shot on board. Being on the Queen Mary was a Poseidon-geek's dream come true. I have a memory that we actually spent the night on board, but that could just be my imagination. I might have just seen passenger cabins - but I remember there being salt-water taps and fresh-water taps.

There was also an oceanic museum aboard the ship - in one room there was an enormous globe that floated in a cloud of icy mist. I kept coming back to this room to stare at the fog that was pumped out around the suspended globe. It was mesmerizing.

I have never actually been on a cruise ship, except for a brief tour of a ship that my ex-roommate Jeannette was working on as Jeannette, Your Ship's Photographer. I don't remember which ship it was, but the main rooms looked like a lesser Atlantic City casino hotel; she lived in a tiny room in the crew section. Her cramped quarters made our New York apartment seem like a vast open space.

I keep thinking about taking a cruise, as I've mentioned before, but I think the possibility that I will despise everyone on the ship is quite high. I once chatted with someone who had gone on a gay cruise which was then caught in a storm. He summarized the entire experience as "Nine hundred gay men. Seasick." 'Nuff said.

I've heard they might remake Poseidon Adventure. I thought the sequel, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, was bad enough. This was a bad (not good bad, boring bad) piece of flotsam that came out in 1979. It revolves around a skipper (Michael Caine) and his flaky mate (Sally Field) who are trying to claim the ship for salvage. There are other passengers still on the ship, including Jack Warden, Shirley Knight, Shirley Jones, Mark Harmon, Veronica Hamel, Angela Cartwright, Karl Malden, and Slim Pickens. In contrast to the striking production design of the original, which featured eerie lighting coming up from the ceiling-turned-floor, this movie had flat TV lighting illuminating the cast as they sat around in nondescript sets. The highlight, or lowlight, is a weepy monologue delivered by Sally Field; it's bad, but even worse when you consider that she did this crappy movie right after her Oscar-winning performance in "Norma Rae." She's lucky they didn't send anyone over to repossess her Oscar.

I don't know if you can even rent Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. I, of course, own a copy, bought for $3 when my local video-laundromat-tanning-salon-fax-and-mailbox-rental center went out of business. I also purchased Xanadu, which deserves a post of its own.

Maybe what drew me to The Poseidon Adventure was the upside-down-ness of it all. I often feel like my life is turning upside-down. Maybe in the capsized ship I finally saw a world from my own perspective.

Good luck, Norwegian Dawn. I'm making my reservations soon.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Snuggler Smuggler

Well, with David heading to North Carolina to a furniture trade show, it was decided that Goblin should come to New York with me, as she has been shuffled around to a lot of different caregivers in the past few months. Parental guilt is kicking in.

When Goblin is riding on Amtrak, a little subterfuge has to be employed. Her traveling bag (which she loves to burrow into) could sort of pass for a gym bag, if one ignores the face peering out from behind black nylon net. The trick is to make sure that she doesn't get restless during the three hour train ride, and give away her presence.

So, we do what good parents do: we make sure she's had an invigorating and tiring walk, we have a heart-to-heart chat with her about what our expectations are, and then we slip her a roofie.

Uh, I mean, a veterinarian-prescribed sedative, hidden in a piece of Pasteurized Process Cheese Food Product.

Goblin always knows when we're packing to go anywhere; her usual response is to dive into her bag and not come out, hoping we will take her along wherever we take the mysterious black bags with zippers. Of course, today her wish came true, and I carried her all the way from home to Penn Station in Baltimore. The last time I came through the train station, there were police dogs roaming the area. I hoped that wouldn't be the case today, since Goblin (who hardly ever makes a sound) would surely go nuts in the presence of uppity german shepherds, roofie or no. But luckily, no dogs.

The trains were packed this weekend: besides the problems with the brakes on the Acela trains (which caused all the Acelas to be cancelled and replaced with smaller-capacity trains), the Orioles played the Yankees today in Baltimore; the trains were full of baseball fans.

I didn't manage to snag a window seat, where I could stuff Goblin's bag out of sight. Even in my aisle seat, no one really paid attention; as usual, I was surrounded by businessmen who were busy having shouted cell phone conversations that went like this:




You're breaking up, REALLY BAD.

I'm ON THE TRAIN, to NEW YORK. If you can hear me, I'll CALL YOU when we LAND in NEW YORK."

I thought, "When we land?" Okay.

These businessmen appeared to be in the professional sports industry. Mike, whoever he was, couldn't get through on his cellphone, but e-mailed his fellow businessmen's Blackberries to say that he was at the Toyota Arena in Houston, and he found it "plain vanilla." They discussed this endlessly, as there were three of them -- two sitting together, and one across the aisle, who couldn't quite hear. They repeated the message for him, louder and louder, till I finally wanted to burst out of my seat and scream, "PLAIN VANILLA! PLAIN VANILLA! MIKE THOUGHT IT WAS PLAIN VANILLA! VANILLA! PLAIN! HE JUST. DIDN'T. LIKE. IT.!!"

But instead I thought, "Mmm. Vanilla."

Ordinarily I go get a drink and maybe a snack and stretch my legs, or else sleep a bit, but I sat warily through the entire trip, ready to forestall any questions that might come up if Goblin started waking up. Questions like,

"Um ... is your luggage squirming?"

"Pardon me, is your bag snoring?"

Or, "Excuse me, did your purse just fart?"

Worse, though, if Goblin became gaseous ... my seatmate was more likely just going to think it was me. Delightful.

But Goblin played the role of illicit contraband well; we made it to New York without incident. We hopped on a local train up to the Upper West Side; Goblin emerged from her bag in her old Central Park stomping grounds, near David's old apartment. She seemed overjoyed - and by that I mean, she peed everywhere. It takes a lot out of a little dog who is trying to mark all that territory.

We ambled over to the Upper East Side, to the new apartment, which she remembered. She is snoozing now, having deposited her toys all over the room.

Tomorrow, we're up early so she can terrorize squirrels in Central Park; then she gets to go to school with me. She will have to hide out in her bag for the subway ride, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Then, she can help me realize my dream of being the professor who dispenses catty criticism while petting a small dog in his lap. If I can pick up a Truman Capote costume from the store tomorrow morning, all the better.

"I thought your song was fine, but Goblin here found it derivative, pretentious and dated. Didn't you, precious?"

Okay, time to wrap it up. Goblin is snoring. All is right with the world.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Al Pacino came to me in a dream

A few weeks ago, I inexplicably dreamed about the 1982 movie Author! Author!. This was Al Pacino's stab at a Kramer vs. Kramer type role (he turned down K vs. K, leaving the role for his arch-rival Dustin Hoffman. Okay, maybe they aren't arch-rivals, but I like to think they are.) He did this movie between Scarface and Cruising, so he was clearly trying to prove he could play the "wacky dad" in this drawn-out movie sitcom.

Occasionally I browse through the movie selections on TiVo to select movies I might want to see, and lo and behold, there it was - Author! Author! I didn't know why I dreamt of this movie - I've never seen it, and in fact I remember when it came out that it looked like the sort of movie I would hate. But I thought, hey, maybe there's a hidden message in it. So I TiVo'd it and tonight had a spare two hours to watch it.

Maybe Al Pacino was coming to me in a dream to say, stop watching crappy movies that you find on TiVo.

There were elements of the movie that were just bizarre. Tuesday Weld plays the Meryl Streep-in-Kramer vs. Kramer role, the slightly unstable frosty blonde who gets our hero in trouble. In the movie she has a flock of children, all with different fathers (she gets bored and leaves each marriage after 2 or 3 years.) Al Pacino plays an Armenian playwright whose show is opening on Broadway - if only he can fix the second act! Al, Tuesday, and their six adorable children live in some enormous fantasy Manhattan brownstone, as people in movies do. Tuesday, who works as a school teacher, leaves Al halfway through the movie; he takes up with Dyan Cannon, playing the improbably named Alice Detroit, the movie star who is playing the lead in his show. She moves in, and shortly thereafter, moves out again. Al goes to Gloucester, Mass. (in a New York taxicab!) to drag Tuesday back. But she leaves again. He keeps all the kids. His show gets a good review. The end.

The bizarre things in the movie, though, were the strange little actions that were never explained. At the beginning of the movie, it is Al Pacino's birthday. Tuesday appears with an enormous sheet cake, which she and the kids shove into his face. After dinner, they are cleaning up in the kitchen, and Tuesday puts the clean silverware, a frying pan, and the party hats into the refrigerator. Al, understandably, asks why she is putting the clean silverware, a frying pan, and party hats into the refrigerator. She says, "It's an honest human mistake!"

I'm sorry, what?

There are several instances of characters referring to other characters by other names. "I need to go talk to Kravinsky." "Who's Kravinsky?" "I said Davidson." "No, you didn't, you said Kravinsky!" Never explained further.

Again, I'm sorry, what? And, WHAT?

With the party-hats-in-the-fridge moment, I thought, is this woman insane? Or unraveling? In the film, she sort of was, but not in any sort of way that would explain this kind of thing. The movie was full of this - people saying strange things to one another. The screenplay was by a playwright, so perhaps it was "artful dialogue." It mostly just made me blink in confusion. How was I supposed to get the message that Al Pacino was clearly trying to communicate to me? This movie was bad, and strange. What is the message, Al?

In the movie, Al's Broadway play seems to rehearse forever - weeks on end. Also, bowing to the usual movie convention, it rehearses right in the theater where it will open, as the director, producer and playwright all sit in the red velvet audience seats. Of course, this is not how things happen - all you theater people know this. Ordinarily you're in a rehearsal studio somewhere, and don't move into the theater until technical rehearsals, when you start working on the actual set under the stage lights. The movie did get one thing right - it is devilishly hard to get your second act right. It's the thing everyone loves to pick on - "It's great - just needs some work on the second act." I'm currently working on a show which has had at least five completely different versions of the second act. Maybe that was the message - hey, thanks, Al. I'll keep working.

One more bizarre sight in this movie was Richard Belzer, the standup comic who played detectives on Homicide: Life on the Street and is currently on Law & Order: SVU, in a five-line role as the swishy stage manager. He helps Dyan Cannon on with her mink and declares that it's "just divine." He is wearing the same smoky glasses he still wears to this day.

Another tiny role - the Ms. DiPesto-like secretary -- was played by Judy Graubart, who was a cast regular on The Electric Company. She played Jennifer of the Jungle, among many other roles. I loved her - she was my favorite.

Although the movie was generally mystifying, it was nice to see shots of New York circa 1982. The "Village Cigars" store near the Christopher Street subway stop looks exactly the same. Times Square, on the other hand, looks completely different.

At one point, when people come out of the theater where Al Pacino's show is playing, you can see that the theater next to it has the RSC's production of Nicholas Nickleby, which was a big Broadway hit in the early 80s. It was an eight-hour adaptation of the Dickens novel, performed over two nights, starring Roger Rees, who later turned up on Cheers and the West Wing. My undergraduate college performed Nicholas Nickleby (trimmed to six hours) in 1985; I played a few assorted schoolboys and orphans.

Was that the message, Al? Something about Nicholas Nickleby? Dickens? Orphans? Eight-hour plays? Anything?

I admit, I always look for messages in dreams, and in everyday moments which could be brushed off as coincidence. I thought it was too odd that I would dream about a movie that has never crossed my mind, and that it would turn up on TiVo. Maybe it's just my subconscious mulling over my own career as a writer (in the movie, it's Al Pacino's birthday, and mine is coming up.) Maybe I need to stop storing my leftover party hats in the fridge.

Or maybe, just as Al's play had no ending, I'm meant to discover that this post has no ending, either. Maybe that's it.


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

What not to wear

Okay, so it was early summer in New York - pleasantly warm at night. I was still living on the Upper West Side, and was into a good solid gym routine. I belonged to New York Sports Club at the time, which was only four blocks away. I liked to go once the after-work crowd had diminished, so I ambled on down to the gym around 8:30 or so.

I was doing a lot of cardio, so I hopped on the elliptical trainer and started churning away. The 45 minutes seemed to really fly. I noticed I was getting some looks - niiiice. I usually don't care about this kind of thing at the gym; I don't wear my glasses, so everyone is in a fog anyway. And I really hate gyms that get all cruisy - yeeccch. But still, it's nice to have a glance thrown your way every now and again. I had been really consistent with my gym going, so it was clearly paying off.

After the cardio, I hopped off and went over to the mats - thought I'd do my crunches before I went up one floor to where the freeweights are. I laid down on my back, and went to adjust my gym shorts a bit.

Except, I discovered I wasn't wearing gym shorts.

Oh. My. God.

I was only wearing my boxer briefs.

I had just been on the elliptical trainer for almost an hour, slogging away, IN MY UNDERWEAR.

It was every high school panic dream I'd ever had, except it was really happening. I had strolled down West End Avenue, happy as a clam. That is, happy as a clam who is only in his underwear. Carefree. Smiling at passersby. Clad in a tank top, and boxerbriefs.

Somehow, I had forgotten the last step of getting dressed: PUT YOUR PANTS ON. No, I had blithely sauntered out into the warm summer night without a care in the world.

In my underpants.

Thank god the boxerbriefs were dark blue. Anyone at the gym who didn't have their glasses on might have thought they were bicycle shorts. Except, no, they were definitely boxerbriefs.

Dear God, no wonder I was getting looks.

I immediately got the hell out of there and headed for home. My mind raced during my four-block trek back down the avenue to my apartment.


See, dreams can come true.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The trembling violinist

During my chat with Reality Man the other day, he reminded me of a story I'd once told him. Now, as I'm writing about it, I can't believe this happened over 10 years ago. Gaah.

Some background before I get to the story: I had just had a life upheaval - broken up with Mr. Ex, and briefly moved back to Tucson, Arizona - my hometown. I lived at my father's house; he and his second wife were divorcing, so both my father and I drifted around the house, in mourning for our relationships - except I never mentioned mine, of course.

My father was in that peculiar stage of grief where anger takes all sorts of forms. My stepmother had owned two large and not-very-lovable chow dogs; my father would occasionally burst out with cries like:

"I hated those damn dogs. And now she's taking them away from me! It's not fair."

What especially was not fair was the fact that he was having to sell his beautiful house, with its view of the Tucson valley and the Catalina mountains. They had refinanced the house during the marriage, so it had to be sold to split the assets. It was depressing, wandering around the house knowing that it wouldn't be in the family much longer.

My father offered to let me have the antique player piano that I had taught myself to play on; I wish I could have kept it, but the sheer size of it (not to mention the fact that the sounding board was made of cast iron) was daunting. There was no way that it could ever have traveled with me back to New York - and oh yes, I was determined to go back to New York. I just didn't know if I ever would.

Even more depressing was the fact that I was temping while in Tucson. I was working at a financial services company which offered loans to people who had been turned down by the bank that the company was a subsidiary of. My job was to call the people, ask if they were still interested in a loan, and then get their permission to run their credit history.

Around the time that I was on a phone with a soldier's wife, who told me how they were drowning in debt - while I looked at their credit report which listed the boat, the house, the cars - I decided I needed to get out of that job, fast. It was killing me.

Magically, my writing partner from graduate school called up with an idea for a show; he sent me some lyrics and I began feverishly writing music on the player piano, before it was sold. I whipped together the score for the show in about three weeks, and then made my plans to go back to New York. The piano got sold; the guys who showed up to haul it away dropped it flat on its back before they got it to the truck. The huge dissonant gong of the cast-iron sounding board was like the closing of a chapter.

When I got back to New York, I stayed in an extra room in my writing partner's apartment; it was him, his boyfriend, me, and the two enormous cats. These cats would try to leap up onto the kitchen table, but were too fat to make it. They would then struggle up onto a chair, and then heave themselves onto the table, where they would settle their bulk and refuse to move.

Finally after a few weeks, during which we finished writing our show, I got a two-month sublet on the Upper West Side. The apartment belonged to a friend of a friend, who was a musical director and pianist. This was my first taste of the Upper West Side, which I loved. I had previously lived on the Upper East Side, so this was a new place to explore and call my own.

The woman who lived next door was a classical violinist; she would often have a few friends over, and the most ethereal, gorgeous string music would come wafting through the walls. I had occasionally encountered the woman in the hall. I had told her that I was a composer, and if my playing the piano bothered her, she should just tell me. She, a petite elegant Asian woman, assured me that she never had a problem with the apartment's usual tenant playing his piano, so it should all be fine.

At this time, I was working on a country-western musical that I'd been commissioned to write. There was a sort of Jerry Lee Lewis number that I was writing - banging away on the keys and wailing in a country twang.

In the midst of one pounding-and-hollering session, there was a knock at the door. I rushed to answer it; it was my neighbor, her eyes almost closed, quivering as though she were in pain. She spoke only one word, whispered, pleading:


I was immediately mortified. I was clearly driving her to the edge of sanity with my caterwauling. I immediately stuffed a rug behind the piano and played at one-quarter volume.

The story of my encounter with the Trembling Violinist was one that I told Reality Man; he actually tells it better than I do, although he changes it around a bit so that he's there in the story. He's good at souping up anecdotes to make them really funny - so looking back, he already had all the natural qualifications for doing what he's doing in television now.

It's amazing how my musical self confidence eroded after that one visit from my neighbor. Clearly, I was a boorish hooligan destroying her sensitive musical soul with my heavy-handed mauling of the piano. Every time I played in that apartment after that, I imagined her next door, stuffing in ear plugs, perhaps cocooning herself under the bedcovers or in layers of bubblewrap, trying to escape the pounding, pounding, pounding from next door.

Too bad I didn't have the out-of-tune player piano with the cast-iron sound board; a couple of times through the piano roll "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am" would have finished her off in no time.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

The cat walking on the newspaper

I met up with Reality Man today. I also told him about this blog, so if you're reading, hi! You know who you are.

It was a gorgeous day in New York, so I walked through Central Park before heading downtown. I passed a mother explaining life to her two young sons as she pushed a stroller along the path:

Mother (calmly): "Well, if you go where I can't see you, then you might be in danger."

"Oh, COOL! What kind of danger?"

"Just don't do it. And stop hitting your brother."

I headed downtown, and walked out to Chelsea Piers, dodging the bicyclists and skaters. I looked out over the Hudson River; suddenly an enormous cruise ship appeared, the Norwegian Dawn. I can't believe the river is deep enough that a huge craft like that can fit. It looked like a ten-story building.

I've always wanted to take a cruise, but I don't know if the experience of being packed into a floating hotel with a thousand revelers who are dying to get in line at the buffet and then get plastered is really right for me. I suppose I would take one of those cruises where they provide educational lectures on the indigenous flora and fauna, and everyone is busy birdwatching or dolphinspotting. Then maybe I would be first in line at the buffet.

Reality Man had suggested we meet at the Eagle; I'd never been there, so why the hell not. The Eagle was a legendary leather bar, recently reopened in a new location, far west among car lots and industrial buildings. The main floor was dark, with concrete floors and walls lined with chain link fencing. It was still light out, being about five-ish, so we went to the roof deck.

I haven't been to a gay bar in forever, so it was an interesting experience. It wasn't full-on leather time, although some of the guys there clearly have wardrobes full of chaps and straps and all that sort of thing. It was mostly an assortment of nice, regular-looking guys, with some muscle-types mixed in. Tattoos. Crewcuts. And me, the nice guy in glasses who had at least remembered to wear jeans (you can be barred for showing up in khakis.) So it was like going to a barbecue on somebody's patio, if that somebody knew a lot of very, very beefy men.

Reality Man looks great, and had some great stories to share about his tenure on the Mad Makeover show. He's much happier at his new television job, where no irate producers throw things while in the midst of steroid-induced rages. He's still looking forward to the day when he can work in development, and get his own series produced. He's been working on it almost since I've known him - it could be the next step past Queer as Folk and Six Feet Under.

Of course, I want him to get his series picked up so that I can beg him for a job as a staff writer. We all have our dreams.

We talked about old times, we talked about what we're both doing now; we've both progressed in our careers and seem to be on the right path, although after each achievement there's always another goal to aim for. We talked about whether or not one can really change, after therapy, increased self-awareness, and good (or bad) relationships. We can strive to be better, but maybe we are always just the same people we always have been. Maybe we only become more essentially ourselves.

Reality Man reminded me how I had once described his admittedly needy behavior to him: you know how, if you have a cat and you're trying to read the newspaper, the cat will just walk right onto the newspaper. The cat thought you might have been paying attention to something else; THAT kind of behavior has to stop. Reality Man, at times, was the cat walking on the newspaper. "Hi! Look at me! Were you reading that? Stop it!"

But he knows he's the cat on the newspaper; he is also the little brother holding his finger a micron away from you, saying "I'm not touching you! I'm not touching you!"

He is not afraid to demand love and attention, which is a great thing. He's always meeting men - I know that one of them, one of these days, is going to be fully worthy of Reality Man. The cat will find the person who will put down the freakin' newspaper and lavish some love on the cat.

After talking for an hour and a half, the breezy deck was getting a little chilly, so we left the Eagle. Thus ended my leather bar experience. We walked back through Chelsea, where we hugged and said goodbye. I had to head to school to oversee a student rehearsal; as I walked, I thought about the fact that all sorts of people from my past have been popping out of the woodwork - not just exes. People I've worked with in the past have tracked down my e-mail and dropped me a line - showing up after years. It must be something in the air, or the planets, or that it's spring.

Or maybe they've heard I've got this blog, and are worried that they'll be next to be written about. Oh, yes, I've got a list.

Who's next?

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Chicken Man on the Planet of the She-talkers

The exes are coming out of the woodwork lately.

I'm friends with nearly all my exes, as is David. In fact, a couple of years ago we simultaneously went on vacations with our exes (he to Edinburgh with his previous partner, me to Las Vegas with Mr. Ex and his family, whom I love.) We're oh-so-modern.

So I just heard from another ex ... well, he just barely fits this label, since we moved very quickly from dating to "let's be friends." He's a great guy who, when I met him, had just quit his sales job to pursue his dream of working in television. He finally broke into the business, working on one of those shows where they grab you off the street and forcibly give you a makeover. He's moved on to something on a different cable network which is more documentary oriented. His quote: "It's not reality TV, so it's actually more real."

We'll call him Reality Man, even though he wasn't working in TV when I met him. His name for me: Chicken Man. This is penance for relating the Skeksis/pudding story.

We were hanging out at my apartment and decided to order grilled chicken from a place around the corner ... really great Greek grilled chicken that comes with pita bread and a couple of sides. I picked up the phone to order and clicked into my "phone voice." The minute I hung up, he was teasing me about my voice suddenly dropping an octave when I got on the phone.

Now, I have a naturally fairly deep voice, plus all that drama school trains your voice further ... plus I have had a lot of phone-intensive jobs. It's not quite an FM DJ voice, but close. So, I can't help it.

He was mocking me mercilessly... "Uhhh, yeahhh, I need some chicken, and uhhhh, yeAAAhhh, extra sauce uhhhhhh." And thus I became Chicken Man.

Of course, I had always mocked him for being a she-talker.

When we were first dating, I expressed my doubts to my friend Julie. "I don't know ... he's from the other division of the tribe. From the Planet of the She-Talkers."

You know, the guys who call everyone "she." He was telling me about someone where he worked, "Oh she is such a pain in my ass" and it took me half an hour to figure out that this She was some guy named Brad (or something like that. Brad, Bruce, whatever.)

I'm a guy. I prefer "he." I made that known.

A week later, Reality Man said, "I told everybody at work what you said ... that you don't like being called 'she.'"

"And what did they say?"

"'She needs to get over herself!'"

After our brief relationship was over, every so often I would get together with Reality Man and hear about his latest romantic adventures. On one random Tuesday, he waxed rhapsodic about the Broadway choreographer he'd met. They were soulmates; they had bonded instantly and were never apart. Reality Man was already making plans to sublet his place in Chelsea and move into Choreographer's Central Park West apartment.

This sounded great; I'm always happy when my friends are happy.

"Oh my god, . So when did you guys meet?"


As in, last Friday. Well, he was always enthusiastic, which is a good thing.

It ultimately didn't work out, as Choreographer was apparently coked out of his mind on a regular basis. But Reality Man has moved on; he's never without a boyfriend for long.

His enthusiasm and my reticence were at odds when we were dating. I had some basic rules in place: for me, it takes three dates to figure out whether someone is worth getting to know further; it takes three months to really begin to get to know someone (that's about as long as a person can successfully fake being something he is not, and all the real stuff begins to come out); and at some point you have to spend 24 hours together to see if you drive each other insane.

He jumped to saying "love" pretty quickly. I can't.

"Well ... I can't say 'Love' right now."

"Oh, come on. You can too."

"No ... but I can give you an L."

That's as far as I was able to go; three months was a long way off. Reality Man would tease me, asking for an "O" ... but I was firmly stuck at "L."

Just a couple of weeks after we began dating, I went off to do a show somewhere. Reality Man gave me a little bag of presents - just small things from Chinatown street vendors - one for every day I would be gone. The last one?

A little wooden O.

Well, we never really made it to "O", much less "V", but we have stayed friends. He is energetic and passionate about what he wants to do in life, and also hilariously funny. I am so thrilled for him that he's been actually pursuing his dream. So many people would not have had the guts to make it happen, and he has.

She's got it going on.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

In praise of pudding

Well, now for something completely different. This is an ode to ... pudding.

Yes, pudding. Yummy, creamy, delicious pudding.

And of course I'm speaking of American pudding. In the U.K., as you probably know, they use pudding to mean any dessert. "Sticky toffee pudding" is sticky, and delicious, and one of my favorites, but it's not pudding.

I love chocolate pudding; vanilla pudding (especially warm off the stove); rice pudding, tapioca pudding, pistachio pudding; even butterscotch pudding ... which isn't really butterscotch but instead some other taste that doesn't exist in nature.

A quick sidebar: when I was in high school, I was on the Speech & Debate team. The Speech part of that was mainly Oral Interp, as it was called. In the various categories - Serious, Drama, Humor, Poetry - you would stand and read an eight-minute selection from a book or play, turning your head and providing the voices of the different characters. I once did a piece with nine characters - it was like school-sponsored schizophrenia.

One of the girls who always scored well did a piece from the delightful, frothy little play called Night, Mother. You know, the one where the daughter commits suicide to escape her overbearing mother. One of the lines from the piece was delivered in the down-homey fake pseudo-Southern accent that all high-school actresses love; the line was, "Rice puddin's goooood." This line and the particular delivery this girl gave it has stuck in my brain for the last twenty years; my sister and I will recite it to each other, having nothing better to do. Because, of course, it speaks the truth. Rice puddin' IS good.

Early on in this blog, I made reference to the chilling, birdlike cries of some of my exes. Well, wouldn't you know that the ex I was referring to actually read that post. So I feel I should explain. And there's a pudding connection.

Mr. Ex, as we will call him, is an actor, director and writer; he is excellent at all three. In fact, he is without a doubt one of the funniest actors I've ever seen on stage - and I'm including all the Broadway plays I've been to. I've watched Mr. Ex reduce an audience to tears with no lines - a simple routine involving him being on a bunkbed trying to snag a tray left below - it sounds like nothing, but it was pure genius in its vaudevillian simplicity.

He was also gifted at doing a million different voices. One of the more terrifying was the voice of the Skeksis.

Now, the rest of this post hinges on you having seen The Dark Crystal - the 1982 fantasy film produced by the Jim Henson workshop. The film is populated entirely by puppets - the elfish Gelflings, the old and wise urRu, and the evil Skeksis. The Skeksis were like decayed reptilian birds, with a trilling screech. Frank Oz supplied the voices I believe. Mr Ex would occasionally lapse into Skeksis-speak and do a few lines from the movie. It was chilling.

So, there were were, living together while I was in my last year of graduate school. I was extraordinarily stressed out, and when I am stressed, I eat. What do I eat? Comfort foods. Mashed potatoes ... pizza ... fried chicken .... and pudding. Mmm, pudding. Mr Ex had his own comfort foods: Marlboro Lights and Diet Pepsi.

At the time, I believe he was working in a seafood restaurant near the United Nations whose coked-out owners were busy running a successful business into the ground. Mr Ex and the other waiters had to prepare their own seafood appetizers, so they were constantly suffering from contact dermatitis caused by being elbow-deep in vats of oysters all night long. It was a hard job, and all Mr Ex really wanted at the end of the night was to come home to a chilled sixpack of Diet Pepsi.

I believe my sister was visiting, when Mr Ex came home to find a refrigerator devoid of Diet Pepsi, but full of pudding. He doesn't care for pudding. The stress caused the Skeksis to take over his body, and hiss and screech something like this:

"Oooooh, no, there is no Diet Pepsi for Jonn, ooooo noooooo, noooo Diet Pepsi. But there is alwayyyys PUDDDING! Yessss! PUUUUUUDDDDDINNNNG! Plenty of PUDDDDDING for RAAAAHHHB."

Perhaps you had to be there. It was hilarious and terrifying. Much like our relationship.

The sad thing is, even pudding can lose its allure. I was shopping for food last night, as I'm here in New York for a couple of weeks and the cupboard was bare. I looked at the pudding. It didn't seem all that appealing. Instead, I was craving fruit. What is wrong with me?

I'm sure I'll get over this silly fruit infatuation. And when I do, and go crawling back to pudding, pudding will be there, waiting. It's always waiting, ready to enfold me back into its sticky, creamy embrace. Pudding forgives you for trying to leave. Pudding knows you would never love a mango as much as you love pudding.

Rice puddin's good.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

I'm out of pope jokes

In 1981, I was a freshman in (Catholic) high school. On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II, who had become Pope only a few years before - the first non-Italian Pope in over 400 years.

We were herded into one of the classrooms with a television to watch news reports. Everyone was jumpy because of the assassination attempt on President Reagan only six weeks earlier. But Reagan had pulled through - surely the pope would.

By senior year I suppose the assassination attempt - which led to the introduction of the PopeMobile - was a less sensitive topic. After all, I came to school dressed as the Pope for Halloween.

I have had mixed feelings about Catholicism throughout my life. My maternal grandmother was a devout Irish Catholic, with a statue of the Virgin Mary in her Florida room. She made vestments for the local priests, and was a well-respected member of her parish. My mother respected the tradition, but was also practical: when we were living in New Jersey, my siblings and I all under age 5, my mother decided she didn't care for the booze-breathed priest at the Catholic church. Instead, she took us to the Episcopalian church - which, really, just serves Catholicism with one-third fewer calories.

I've always been moved by the ceremony involved - the incense, the candles, the statues, the glorious music. There seemed to be something there, some mystery at the center of it all. It's true that the saying of prayers by rote - prayers which all seemed to hammer home the worthlessness of the individual and the supremacy of the church - could be dismissed as the indoctrination of sheep. But still there is power in ritual.

I have known some truly admirable people in Catholic religious orders. Sister Gail, who was the teacher watching over us the day we freshmen learned that the Pope had been shot, was a young nun who had spent time in El Salvador. She was no-nonsense, and intended to shake us all out of our early-adolescent self-absorption and complacency. She wasn't well liked, but she had no time to spend on sweetness. She wanted us to think.

Father Craig Morrison was another. He was Brother Craig at the time he was teaching at my school, when he was only 24, if I remember correctly. He is now teaching at the Vatican - I believe he teaches Ancient Greek and Latin, or something equally challenging and arcane. At the time he was marooned in Arizona teaching high school juniors, he was assigned a class called "Christian Morality," a required course. He told us the first day that he was redefining the term - it was to be a course in critical thinking. He constantly exhorted us to avoid the "herd mentality." We talked about propaganda - how to see it, how to resist it (he used "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" as an example of seductive propaganda. Draw your own conclusions here.)

Sadly, many of the country-club babies in my class actively resisted his approach. One girl, Lisa, quite sharp, while debating Brother Craig as much as said that she preferred not to think critically, thank you. One can assume she is doing quite well today.

These were people I admired - there were many lay teachers as well who were tough, smart, and provocative; they did not see faith and critical thinking as mutually exclusive. They demanded that we engage with the world.

The student folk masses that I took part in - where we played guitar and flute and sang songs in James Taylor harmonies and ate our chewy whole-wheat communion bread - were opportunities to try and break out of the prayer-by-rote habit. I tried to think fully and deeply about what was being said, to really engage with the meaning of each prayer and each song. Those simple Masses were probably the most meaningful ones I ever took part in.

It was on this grass-roots level that I had no problem with Catholicism. But the farther up the ladder one went, the more removed from human practicality it all seemed to be. The Church's official positions on women, on homosexuality, on the use of condoms in the face of AIDS spreading across the globe - they are relics of another time. The defense always seems to be, well, the church can't go changing to suit the whims of the day. Perhaps not. But they can pull their heads out of their asses and look around at what good they are doing in the world - or not. The coverups of the abuse scandals merely confirmed every Catholic-conspiracy-theorists innermost fears. The unwillingness to throw open the doors and let the cleansing sunlight in - and to possibly admit that celibacy was a requirement most suited for another era - it was disappointing.

Whatever my disagreements with the Catholic Church - one has to admire John Paul II if only for his support of the workers in Poland. He gave hope to many, and traveled far in a body that ultimately and tragically gave out - he was described in his last days as "a soul pulling a body."

It will be interesting to see if the next Pope is from Latin America or perhaps Africa - a new pope for a new century. Maybe the Church will begin to move towards change - perhaps not as striking as Vatican II - but then again, who knows?

I said a prayer for the Pope. I am glad he's free of his body... no longer trapped. Now we wait for the puffs of white smoke, which will tell us that Condoleeza Rice has been elected Popess, in an election with no paper trail and no verifiable ballots.

Angela Bassett will play her in the movie.

There will also be a related series called "Pope Joan of Arcadia" in which a teenaged girl suddenly turns out to be, like, Pope, like in "The Princess Diaries" and she has to move to the Vatican and stuff? And she hates, hates, hates the hat. But the Cardinal, played by Hector Elizondo, makes her wear it anyway. "Will infighting at the Vatican keep Joan away from her prom?"

Okay, it's late. I'm wandering off-topic. But I'm sure the Pope has a sense of humor about things. Hope so, anyway. Because otherwise, I was screwed with the whole Halloween costume thing.

I am the Pizzaman

Always conveniently sloshing in the speedboat wake of any trend, I am just now catching up and learning about things like "Googlism" ... basically, where you put your name into Google like so -- "Rob is" -- and then see what you find.

This is what I found.

Rob is tricky, Rob is sly.
Rob is now leading in newspaper endorsements 16-1!
Rob is always available by appointment to meet with you
Rob is often interviewed for or quoted in articles about South Florida real estate
Rob is honored to have his music and moves be a part of God's work
Rob is a three-time contributor to the Harvard Business Review
Rob is a Master Blackbelt in Six Sigma
Rob is an excellent motivator
ROB is a powerful, comprehensive modelling
and simulation tool
Rob is a member of the Eastern United States Pipe Band Association
Rob is by no means unhappy
Rob is globally recognized as an expert in the field of undercover investigations
My manager Rob is weird
You should know that Rob is building a 1⁄2 scale WAR Folke Wolf 190
Rob is in a tiz about the Western Australian nurses' union
Rob is always willing to assist attractive or interesting actors and models
Rob is married and lives in a small rural hamlet of Gloucestershire
Rob is a neurotic, and he obsesses over his lackluster romantic history
Rob is the Pizzaman
Rob is the author of the following: several half-completed novels
Rob is a very funny fool
Crazy Rob is completely sane
Rob is a smart-ass
Rob is interviewed via satellite from Toronto
Rob is Still Wrestling With Churchill
Rob is anything but a jerk-off.
Rob is surprised by this

And my favorite:

Rob is an Evil Genius

Friday, April 01, 2005

Oh yeah, April Fool

It's April Fools Day, which used to be my favorite holiday. I've always been fairly deadpan... I made wicked use of this every April first. I would sit at my office drone job, calling my unsuspecting friends at their office drone jobs, and after "whaddya doing ... nothing, just working" crap, would spring my trap.

Sometimes, it was that an opportunity had come up to move to London, only I needed to do it next week and this was a good-bye call.

Other times, it was that I had decided to get married in a green-card arrangement. Or I had decided to give up theater and move to Alaska to finally pursue my dreams of studying archaeology. There was a grain of truth in all of these things, which is why my friends usually fell for it hook, line and sinker.

And somewhere mid-freak out, I would say, "Man, I am so crazy with all this going on, I don't even know what day it is." And then I would ask them, what day is it?

And then the hatred would pour forth from the phone. And I would giggle like a madman. It got the point where my friends didn't take my calls on April 1.

One year, I was calling my ex-roommate to commit my yearly batch of telephone shenanigans. I was talking about two of our mutual friends, male and female, who had been dating, much to the surprise and disapproval of us all.

"They set a date!" I said, acting all shocked and dismayed and can-you-believe-it-ed. "They're really going through with it!" We went through the stages of grief together - denying it, being pissed off about it, wondering if we could bargain them out of it, and then accepting it.

And then I had to admit, I had forgotten what day it was. What day was it ... ? And the hatred, oh the hatred. Tee hee.

Hoo boy, was the joke on me when they did set a date, much to our surprise. And I felt like a shit for having joked about it.

My ex-roommate and I were at the wedding. We pretended that I had never made a mockery of it. I stopped making my annual April Fool's calls. I felt like I was starting to affect my karma (although I have yet to receive a job offer that would take me to London, much as I would love one.)

The marriage was troubled; it has come to a quiet end, eleven years later. I still think back on my office drone days, making my prank calls, thinking I was so damn funny.

Man, I am so crazy with this blog, I've forgotten what day it is. What day is it?