Monday, January 28, 2013

A Metaphor for Peace

    I awoke this morning to a gently falling snow, though it's hard to tell how gentle it really is from inside this studio.  The buildings, rooftops I see from my little terrace-- don't worry, I'm not going outside-- are less than lovely, truly un-enhanced by the great monstrosity that caused the major crisis after the storm, with its dangling crane.  There are ropes and cables and ladders--- hardly the view Matisse had from his window, poor though he may have been, of Notre Dame, that I have on a postcard a new Brazilian friend gave me, stuck into the frame of the painting in front of my desk.
   But the flakes themselves, tiny, with enough space between them to qualify as individual snowdrops, are curiously soothing as they fall.  It is only when the wind picks up and sends them rushing in the same direction, that they stop being a source of tranquility.  So I see that as a metaphor for people, and realize what makes New Yorkers seem both distant and not present is that they are driven.  All on their way to something, rushing.  Nobody really where they are.  Including me. So "pure as the driven snow" might not really be a state to wish for.
   I am in the midst of a crisis so stark that even the most sanguine among you would feel a rush in the blood, and not necessarily the good kind.  At exactly the same moment, something I have wished for most of my adult life shows signs of possibly coming to be.  My lovely friend Fiona, a psychologist in Belfast, where there's usually more reason for anxiety than here, says that stress comes in good and bad- so we are affected(effected? I never can be sure)by both in less than wonderful ways.  I know that if I were to write what is happening now, the bad part, I would be thrown out of the window by my once editor, the lovable madman, Don Fine, in a rage because it is too unbelievable, at the same time it is cliche.  I don't think even a TV show would accept it, it is so horribly banal, at the same time it is excruciating.   But then there is the good part, so my day is a struggle just to stay calm and allow it all to unfold.  I should learn to imitate the snowflake, the one that simply sits on the air.  If only.
   Yesterday, in the incredible cold, I went to the 3 PM showing of QUARTET, the new film directed by Dustin Hoffmann, that features, stars, holds up for admiration, scores of British elders  as musicians in a retirement home, most especially Tom Courtenay who still looks exactly like the young Tom Courtenay, only old, and Maggie Smith, who it never mattered what she looked like.  I went the last minute, just before three, as I didn't imagine there would be anyone else going.  To my surprise and only a moment of discomfort, I could hardly find a seat.  To find the right adjective to rant joyfully about the movie seems, for the moment, out of my grasp.
   So I will tell you my little Maggie Smith story.  No matter how my life has gone, smoothly(not very often), or with jagged points in it that seemed to be aimed at my heart, I have had the good luck/curious destiny of encountering some of the fabled people on the planet, and in some instances become actual friends with them,(eg: Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Gregory Peck, and right in the midst of Watergate, my neighbor who had just moved in and came to ask to use my telephone, John Dean.) Gene Kelly was my dancing teacher in Pittsburgh when I was two.  You get the idea.
   I wrote a movie that I intended to have star my unexpected bonanza of a buddy, Cary Grant, and David Niven.  It was bought by David Niven, Jr. for his dad.  But Cary, which I still feel odd calling him, he was so impeccable, didn't want his daughter to see him on screen "looking old."  The movie was made without him, and someone sadly unsuitable in his part, all of it badly directed and rewritten, by Bryan Forbesm a man who had the balls to tell Larry Gelbart he didn't undertstand humor. But there was added a Nanny, and who played her was Maggie Smith.
   Part of my deal was tickets to the French Riviera for me and Don and my still very young family. So we went.  And besides the glory of the locale-- we quickly fled the one where they were making the movie, and, at the suggestion of my smart, loved friend the Time magazine journalist Sandra Burton, later to be murdered in Bali, who said "Everyone says 'St. Tropez, c'est finis' but I think you'll like it," went to Saint Tropez.  But while we were still in Nice, I got to hang out a little with Maggie Smith, and she was all you'd expect Maggie Smith to be, including lending me 50 francs to make a phone call.
    So when a season or five (I don't remember) later, I saw her in London in a play, in which she was (Surprise!?-not really) magnificent, I went backstage to say hello, and paid her back.  "Fifty francs," she said, looking down at the coin with her remarkable eyes. "How squalid."
    I mean to tell you, she was really Maggie Smith.
    When I came out of the theater yesterday, pumped, elated, at the same time saddened, because what the movie is about, besides being a touching love story, is growing old.  For all we might have been aware of death, nobody told us about growing old.  I talked to my once, still great editor Bob Gutwillig about writing about it, but we both agreed nobody would buy it, because that would be an admission they were getting old, and much of getting old is about denial.  Still, you couldn't tell that from the people waiting in line, in the bitter, bitter cold.  All of them, at the least, older.
    The line was very long, and it would be a while before the theater was cleaned for the next showing, and there is no waiting room inside.  But I said to one tall, still lovely woman waiting there, shivering, "It's worth it."
    She looked at me with tired but unremittingly bright eyes, and said "Is it?"
    "Absolutely," I said.
   You must go.  But go carefully.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Twying to Twitter

     I spent yesterday trying to become a person of this century.  Have a younger, eager friend who spent what seemed to me an inordinate amount of time communicating, if that is what they really do, on social media, so asked her to help me.  And because she is as sweet as she is eager, she did, although she admitted to me that now that she is so happy at her new job, she has less time for Facebook. 
    The day before having provided me with enough material for an overly long REPORT, I had saved the most moving part of it.  Needing a stretch of the legs, which you do if deskbound as I mostly am, having read that my circulation is fucked and probably my heart as well,  I went to Whole Foods on Columbus Circle, which many have renamed Whole Paycheck. In spite of myself I did a full grocery shop, mostly salmon on sale.  I also picked up several items I blithely did not pay attention to the price of, including almonds, (eat 3 daily to guard against cancer, my beloved friend Carleen had counseled,) and a whole papaya, which the distinguished literary agent Don Congdon, a friend, had eaten every day so became quite old, but now is dead anyway.
    At the checkout, which is usually a mystical experience for me, as I pay attention to the number of the window they send you to, add it up and think what it signifies(there is a meaning, one to ten, --if you ask me, I'll lay them out for you,) so I take the number I get as how the rest of my day will be. Mine added up to 10, which is Cosmic Consciousness, something I once believed in but then I was living in Southern California.  So I went happily to the right counter, and engaged in some light conversation with the clerk, a really sweet, somewhat overweight Chinese, whose name I will not give in case someone in corporate chances to read this, and he gets in trouble.  But he was kind.
      The important thing is to be kind, Aldous Huxley, once a very acid man said after his illumination.  These have been very difficult days for me,-- close friends know I am going through something I cannot talk about even with close friends-- so I have gotten through them by trying to put into practice the teachings of my beloved Jack Kornfield, who teaches Vipassana Meditation which I'm not that good at, since it involves silence.  You pay attention to the breath.  Instead, I pay close attention to every moment I am having in New York, with all its noises, but it also includes little children you pass on the street and out-of-towners who are friendlier than the people who live in your building.
     So there I was at the checkout counter, having this fairly warm exchange with the clerk and giving back the almonds, since they were too pricey, when I noticed that there was a gash in the papaya.  I said I would have to exchange it, when he suggested he might exchange it for me, asking me if I would trust him to do it, to which I responded "Of course."
    I paid for the order, gave the address for the delivery, and left my new friend.  Later that night the order came.  And in it were two papayas.  He had given me an extra one.
    All through the night when I felt sad I would get up and see that on my sink were two papayas.  It signified caring, humanity, kindness, all the things you need to wrap yourself in even if the weather isn't as bad as you expected.
     So yesterday when Melissa came to instruct me, I tried to condense that warm and loving experience into 140 characters, and tweet it.  The very word offends me.  Maybe I will learn, but I don't really think so.  Who was it that named it Twitter?  Go tweet yourself.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Helluva Town!

    The past few days having been, as the restrained people say, as "challenging" as any in my history, beyond imagining even for an imagination as overworked as mine.  I worked on getting through it all by observing carefully what seemed real.  First there was the subway, on which I am learning to travel semi-fearlessly, though I do step far away from the edge of the platform in case there is one of those psychos who, of late, throws people onto the track when the train is coming.  Then there was 35th Street, filled with "bargains" of pseudo-Coco perfume and racks of fairly convincing and a little too colorful fake furs; then there was the showroom of Jimmy Crystal, with its jeweled glasses, which I have been wearing for several years and finally got around to having the stones re-set, as they keep falling out.  When you give your full attention to the petty you can get past the overwhelming.
    I bought an extra pair for the teller at the bank who admired them, even though we are less than friends, which the actual manager and I have become in light of my account having been mulcted, a word I learned that I thought I would never have occasion to use, but have utilized fairly often in the past week.  There were over $16,000 worth of fake charges to my Mastercard, already paid as I am on Autopay which I urge all of you to cancel if you have it, as there is better than a band of thieves working the ATMs and credit cards.  My actual ATM card, which I used on the 21st of December to get Christmas tips, was immediately mulcted for an additional $3500, in the next four minutes.  We are all trying to figure out how they do it, including the police, as it would make a great NCIS.  Then my American Express, which I never even took out of my wallet, had $1500 of fake charges.  My new best friend, Nadia, a lucky name for me, the manager of the bank told me not to suffer over it, as I will not be responsible;  my other new best friends, the cops in the station downstairs in the subway at Columbus Circle, which doesn't usually handle such things, did, as they don't want me to have to go to the precinct place a way away, since I am, to my surprise, older.
      When I went to that precinct the first time, I read the pictures on the wall, of traffic police, which is all they are supposed to be, really, who were killed in the line of duty, chasing fare evaders who then drew the cop's gun and shot them.  A heavy price to have paid for someone's not having a token.  
      My cop was still alive and a lot more savvy, a former accountant who changed professions as he was bored.  He seems quite serene now, as does the pretty policewoman who first directed me, a former journalism student who did a piece on the police and decided that was more interesting.  I am sorry Naked City is no longer on the air, as this is good stuff, as Cary Grant, my darling and fairly prominent friend used to say.
      But when I had to go back yesterday to add to the report my AMEX fraud, there was a handsome young black with earrings and his hands cuffed behind his back.  He had to be in his early twenties, tops, and his eyes were downcast, and he seemed genuinely touching.  I moved a little closer to him in what I felt would be a show of compassion, to let him know I didn't regard him as a pariah.  But then I saw that the cop behind him had a gun that the cuffed man might have grabbed and shot me and the policeman, too.  But on my way out of the station, which nobody knows is there, the glass doors are so dark and there is no sign, and if you yell 'POLICE!' which I have had to do to try and find them, nobody comes, I did wish the arrested man good luck.  It is a very sad city, in some of its more obscure corners.
      Then I went to the Fedex, the post office being closed, to send out a copy of my new book (you can get it online) The Daughter of God, which I had also given to my new best friend the bank manager, even though she is Muslim and doesn't know the Christ story (in mine, he comes back as a woman, and it's uplifting and funny but not irreverent... a lovely woman who works in the Bryn Mawr alumnae office and is married to a black Methodist mininister, says he found it "Biblically sound," which I wish I could print on the back cover.)   I was going to send a book, an old novel of mine, to my new best friend from last week, Ulisses Jung, the Brazilian, but it would have cost $111.00 so decided to wait till the post office opened which I am afraid it is not going to be doing that much longer.   I hope Ben Franklin doesn't know how badly he is being remembered.  Soon there will be no vestige of him besides electricity and swim fins, and his picture on the $100 bill which will eventually mean nothing either.
      Later I joined my beloved old friend, Steve Berger, not acquired in the course of these urban adventures but a genuine pal, a confrere of Bob Dorough, the pianist who played for me when I sang at the Mars Club in Paris, and wrote Schoolhouse Rock among other achievements besides staying for a lifetime a wonderful man.  Steve is a first rate guitarist and was also Nationals Table Tennis champion some decades back, inspired by a man who was a ping pong dynamo and partnered in SPIN, the table tennis club that has become all the rage, where last night there was a memorial for him, where everyone talked about his table tennis style and history, and not that much about what a sweet, funny man he was.  Nor did they add much of an air of uplift, except for my Steve and the amazingly lovely Susan Sarandon, who, as the gossips know, even some who are not usually gossips, left Tim Robbins for one of the owners of Spin, a very tall, and extremely affable and bright young man named Jonathan, genuinely cute, and young enough so that adjective still obtains.
     She almost literally stunned me, as she seems  genuinely present, slender and lightly curved in all the appropriate places, in a form-fitting (and why shouldn't it, when the form is still that well-shaped) black dress, with a very hip (is that word still good?) little black bag slung over one shoulder, tights, black boots and an extremely accessible and relaxed personae.    She raised a glass to the vanished co-founder, gave everybody enough champagne in theirs to salute him, and said a few excellently chosen words that elevated table-tennis to a Performing Art.
     When I was introduced to her, I told her I was a friend of Taffy, my long-time loved buddy who was one of The Starland Vocal Band who had 'Afternoon Delight' and a Grammy and would have had a great career except that they were managed by the over-rated and, in my opinion, which is constitutionally protected, egomaniacal Jerry Weintraub.  At the name 'Taffy,' Susan Sarandon did a take that would not have been out-of-line in The Three Stooges, great eyes enormously widened, with five fingers up in the air on both sides of her in a gesture of Surprise ('WHAT!)  But a second later she was once again moving effortlessly and very much at ease through the crowd, who dealt with her presence as if she were just another person.
     I must say, that did not include me.  I was blown away by her understated grandeur, and loveliness.  When I got home, I took off my make-up, and studied my own face, which I have to say is not in too bad shape considering the length of my run.  But she looks not all that different from how she appeared in Rocky Horror Show, and much as she did in Thelma and Louise.  So I would have to factor in the gods, who clearly abide by their own rules: if Talent, and Beauty, Grace and Graciousness, a sense of commitment to things that Matter, and an indulged attraction to what is vital and enjoyable keep you young, she will live forever.
   And all during this day and evening, whenever I started to think about what was really going on that I couldn't bear to think about, I wrote a song, that I sang as I moved along these alien streets.  It  the best one, I  believe, in SYLVIA WHO? which I am now convinced will actually come to be.  My job is to stay alive till it opens. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013


     So in this city to which I have returned with Quixotic hopes, where it is so hard to make new friends at this point in the road, except with two and three-year olds, some of whose hands I have been holding with the permission of their maids as we walked to the corner, I believe, (hope, affirm) that it all is changing. Tuesday night I went to 54 Below, where Linda Lavin charmed me into feeling, yes... there could be an energetic, gifted performer who could play my heroine in SYLVIA WHO?, the musical comedy I have been working on as long as it took Meredith Willson to realize The Music Man.
    And tonight I went to a meeting of the National Association of Professional Women, which was nothing less than inspiring, for one whose whole career is based pretty much on inspiration.  But of course writers have no workplace, except at the desk, so it is a trip, in this case only a little way uptown, to the J.P. Morgan building (we have to assume that in spite of purported financial difficulties the company will stay solid with two facing apartment buildings on Park) to find some good souls also looking to connect. 
     The speaker was herself a trip-- a truly adorable woman.  I use that word in spite of how seriously effective she is, because it really doesn't hurt that she looks like Heidi Klum.  Karin Caro is her name, and not knowing what to expect, I thought it would be an evening of hawking our wares, talents, or, in my case my new book.  But instead Karin, as the speaker, gave an incredibly energetic and informed AND informative tour through how she had started in business at eighteen and made her way to heading companies in three countries, including El Salvador. (A pause for a plug here: one of the meditations in The Daughter of God, my new book, a surprise coming from me, even to me, is "Why lay up clothes in closets, where moths corrode.  Give them to a friend, or send them to El Salvador where God can see them."  I mean, it's funny, although the president of the organization was fearful I was a religious nut, not knowing I was the author of the sexiest bestseller of the 70s, when no matter how erotic a novel was, it still had to be well-written.
     Anyway, this in-spite-of-her-effictatiousness- darling woman told how one connected, promoted, social networked, naming websites that even those who are internet-savvy would have to be astounded by.  Most of the women there seemed to be in fields like real estate and finance, with the occasional beauty business or hope of finding what business they might want to be in.  It was, from my point of view, I who have never had a workplace, if you don't count the Comedy Development program at NBC, beyond eye-opening.  It made me sorry I wasn't a business.  Ah, if only words were merchandise.
     Karin spoke glowingly of Starbucks, as a place for young people to connect with people and maybe even find a great job through that connection, as a girl who now works for her did.  But even without that as a hope, Starbucks is a great place to work, she says, as it  has benefits even for part time workers. Who knew? Now that I do I will stop being annoyed at how long it takes to get your cappuccino.
     So it turns out, as is my own philosophy,  you just never know.  The secret is to stay alive. As long as you do that, there could be an unexpected turn. 
     These past many days, as close friends, all of whom live someplace else, know, have been beyond nightmarish, terrifying if you let yourself buckle.  My Citibank ATM was filched for $3500 more than I myself took out;  the other fraudulent withdrawals were within seconds of my taking out money for Christmas tips.  My Mastercard  was larded with $17,000 of fake charges.  And that was the good news.  It is a nightmare past  understanding or explaining what can happen to someone in New York even if they are a few years past being an innocent.
     Ah, but it does the heart good to connect with someone like Karin, whose ten-year old daughter is also in business, the profits of which go to children with handicaps.  Karin is to be honored in February by the American Heart Association to which she asked that we all give donations.  I wish I could get her to shore up the book business.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

The Consolation of Culture

     Yesterday, being one of the hardest days yet in a struggle to be an integrated human being in spite of what is going on in one's personal life, holding in what I would have to objectively characterize as 'rage,' sauced with confusion, I tried to return a Waterpik to the drugstore where I had bought it the night before, my old one having failed me, as serenity seemed to be doing. Waterpik, the mechanical flosser that had been my one constant besides friends who were trying to help me from slipping over the edge at horrendous goings-on both in my country and family life, had a customer service that instructed me on how to fix the old Waterpik, so I did.  Your whole history might be swirling down the drain, but you can't neglect your gums.
    So I went to drop off my bio to a friend who wants to get my musical on-- my biggest and constant fantasy, the reason I moved back to New York, as irrational a dream as Congress getting it together and the NRA losing its influence,-- and on the way, return the new Waterpik.  The woman behind the counter advised me that the box was not exactly how it had been when i bought it the day before, so said sh would not take it back, and I would have to mail it myself back to the company, when everyone knows the post offices are becoming inaccessible along with memories of its founder, Ben Franklin, and gave me a number of papers to fill out.  At that point I believe I shrieked into the stillness of the vitamin section; "I'M TRYING NOT TO HAVE A FUCKING BREAKDOWN HERE!"  So she proceeded to agree to send it herself, after what I believe was a brief round of stunned.
    All of life, I believe, is a struggle to keep things in balance, which of course in that moment I had lost.  Trekking through the Manhattan frigid, trying to restore myself, I saw a line of hundreds, ringing the entire block around the Museum of Modern Art, and asked what they were waiting for.  The answer, Free night.  Having recently renewed my membership, I went inside to see if a swing through creativity might not heal me. 
     My good friend Matisse had a few pieces that made me feel better, as they always do, Wyeth had a soother, and I said to a little girl of about eight who was studying her Iphone. that that she could carry with her always, but these paintings were only there for her eyes right now.  Her father translated what I had said into whatever language it was, so she put her toy down and looked at what hung on the walls. A teacher from Maine, Rebecca, thanked me, admiring the action but adding that some there might not have approved.  Like you care, when you're in a pitched battle to reaffirm that the world is a good place.
    Then I made it up to the big draw, Munch's THE SCREAM, which, as we all know even if we no longer subscribe to Time Magazine but cannot avoid seeing its cover, has become the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.  One hopes Van Gogh, who never sold a painting in his life, and his buddies if he really had any, have not heard about that in the Afterlife, if there is one.  The painting is framed in what appears to be a chintzy kind of wood, mostly for protection I would guess, with a shield that perhaps protects it from the flashes of people taking pictures.  The colors are bright, but not brilliant, as the painting, pained and agonized as is the expression of its subject, which I assume was not unlike mine in the drugstore, is not so moving as to make me wish I owned it, something I always feel with a Matisse.  
   But the one I really liked was the small black and white drawing of the same thing, on a wall in the corner.  And this one is labeled, I believe in the artist's own handwriting, 'GESCHREI.'   I cannot explain how much more powerful that word made it for me.  Centuries of my forebears calling out in anger, grief, disappointment, all the things that make up the human condition when it isn't about happiness.
    Then I sat in the museum's empty garden for a while, identifying with the man whose brass face half-buried lies in profile in the grass.  Finally becalmed, I made my way out, saluting the huge statue by Rodin of Balzac, who drank three hundred cups of coffee a day, which apparently made him smell, and probably accounts for his output.
     Remembering I hadn't eaten all day, except for my own insides, I went into a little restaurant on the sidestreet and ordered Thai, since theirs is the nature and nation that never allows for showing anger, no matter what is going on with your children, no matter how old they are.  Then I bought some roses, left one for the lady in the drugstore, and went home.