Monday, February 23, 2009

Writers and celebrities

Did you watch the Oscar last night? Did you notice how few writers received any recognition? That seems so wrong. After all, not one actor or actress parading across the stage wrote the memorable lines delivered in the performances that have brought them fame and fortune.

Instead, they repeated, or directed, the words handed to them in a script authored by someone else. If Bernhard Schlink hadn’t written the book "The Reader," there would have been no award for Kate Winslet. "Slumdog Millionaire" would not have existed without the novel "Q&A." So the next time you watch a movie or a television show, or even listen to music, give some thought -- and credit, please -- to the person who wrote the words you heard.

OK, enough of that rant. I'm a bit cranky after staying up late to see the entire Oscars show. Why do millions of us watch this annual telecast anyway? Is it because we love movies? Glitz and glamor? The gowns and jewelry? The music and excitement? Or is it because we love celebrities?

Maybe it's all of the above, but I do believe our nation has become obsessed with the famous. There are dozens of television shows and magazines dedicated to news about celebrities. You can't turn on your computer without seeing a teaser headline about a celebrity on the opening pages of AOL, MSN, etc. We discuss their lives as if they were members of our families or close friends. And we enjoy passing judgment on their latest antics, even though they may be designed to make us talk about them so we'll buy their music, tickets to their movies or their books (and sometimes all three).

I admit that I am not immune to this. In fact, I sometimes tell people that having my photo taken with celebrities is a hobby, which I proudly display on the "I Love Me" wall of our TV room. Although I don't always have a camera with me, I've certainly been fortunate to encounter more than my share of well-known folks, thanks to years in journalism, a love of theater and books, and the belief that New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary is a great source of free entertainment.

Some encounters have been unexpected, like walking past Robin Williams on Fifth Avenue or nearly knocking over Arnold Schwarzenegger when I rushed out of the CNN restroom at 8 ½ months pregnant. Or realizing that the mother admiring the same Miami Zoo exhibit fascinating my son was Jamie Lee Curtis.

Others have been planned, like driving Space Shuttle Commander Robert Crippen from the Dallas airport to a UPI conference, although I didn’t expect to get us lost for three hours. A purchased ticket got me into the same Smithsonian cocktail party as Robert Redford, though I never anticipated he’d be so thin that two of his legs equalled one of mine. The actor Stacy Keach (who played Detective Mike Hammer on TV and whose brother James Keach is married to the actress Jane Seymour) got into a little drug trouble a few years back and decided his community service should include testifying before the US House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control while I was serving as press secretary. And I was such a fan of the television show "China Beach" that I dragged a sick child to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, to see the taping of the final episode and Dana Delaney, now of "Desperate Housewives."

I met Glenn Close (photo proof above) at a small breakfast when she was campaigning in NH for the now-disgraced John Edwards. Jane Fonda and Ted Turner were still married when they made periodic visits to CNN’s Washington bureau where I worked. In those days, Larry King broadcast from that location. I can’t even remember all the celebrities who came through the doors to be interviewed by him.

How many celebrities have you encountered in your lifetime? I recently attempted to compile a list of all those whose paths I've crossed over the years. Does this qualify me as a stalker? Here it is:

Celebrities I've at least said hello to include: Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Arnold Shwartzenegger, Jane Fonda, Ted Turner, Jamie Lee Curtis, Sissy Spacek, Glenn Close, Jessica Lange, Dana Delaney, Alec Baldwin, Kim Basinger, Stacy Keach, Carol Channing, Howie Mandel, John Stamos, Chuck Connors (of “The Rifleman”), astronaut Alan Shepherd, astronaut Robert Crippen, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and the folk trio of Peter, Paul and Mary.

Well-known journalists I’ve talked to include: Diane Sawyer, Charles Gibson, Robin Roberts, George Stephanopolus, Larry King, Bernard Shaw, Wolf Blitzer, Catherine Crier and Helen Thomas.

New York Times Best-Selling Authors I’ve met include: Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, children's author Tomie de Paola, Tess Gerretsen, Harlan Coben, Lee Child, Lisa Scottoline, Anita Shreve, Elizabeth Berg, Jodi Picoult, Sandra Brown, Nelson DeMille, Donald Westlake, Robert Parker, Joe Hill, Brunonia Barry, Jennifer McMahon, and David Carr.

Celebrities I’ve shared air space with: Robin Williams, Oprah, Ralph Fiennes, comedian Jackie Mason, Billy Graham, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, David Letterman, Edie Falco, a number of Supreme Court justices including Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O’Connor, author Dan Brown, cookbook author Nigella Lawson, Meredith Viera, Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Al Roker, Leslie Stahl, Olympic skaters Scott Hamilton and Nancy Kerrigan, Derek Jeter, Meadowlark Lemon, Carl Yastremski, Bob Cousy, Nomar Garciapara, Willie Mayes, Carlton Fisk and Pete Rose.

Celebrities I’ve seen in stage performances include: Al Pacino, Richard Thomas, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Cesar Romero, Carol Kane, Yul Brynner, Sally Struthers, Mike O’Malley, comedians Lewis Black and Jay Leno, Alan Alda, author Mitch Albom and documentary maker Ken Burns.

Presidents I’ve met or been in the same room with include: Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan.

Some other politicians I’ve met include: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Bill Richardson, former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, former Defense Secretary John Tower, John Edwards, Barry Goldwater, Bob Dole, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Rudolph Giuliani, NH Senator Jeanne Shaheen, NY Congressman Charlie Rangel, former Texas Congressman Charlie Wislon, former House Speaker Jim Wright, Joe Lieberman, Rudy Giuliani, Gary Hart, and New Hampshire Governors Craig Benson and John Lynch.

How about you?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Love in the toilet

My 2008 Valentine’s Day gift was a new toilet.

I realize it may not seem like much of a sweetheart gift, unlike a bouquet of flowers that can be displayed as a symbol of love and affection. I also can understand why people might prefer chocolates over industrial porcelain. And compared to jewelry, a toilet isn’t exactly the kind of present one might be eager to show off, although mine IS the environmentally friendly, low-flush type.

However, the new toilet does meet some “good gift” standards: It was unexpected (arriving in advance of February 14th) and it won’t be exchanged. Nonetheless, I realize few would view a piece of plumbing as a gesture of affection. But I certainly did.

I might never have received this unanticipated gift if it hadn't been for the revelation that an empty nest also meant a vacant bathroom down the hall –and a way to end Husband No. 1’s years of grumbling over the makeup and other female necessities encroaching upon his half of the vanity.

After 30 years of marriage, I was downright giddy at the thought of my own bathroom. Such a luxury was worthy of a massive reorganization and cleaning operation. Concerned about the chemicals about to be unleashed, I wrapped my toothbrush in a washcloth for safekeeping. The bathroom overhaul took longer than expected. By the time I pulled the level to flush the cleaning liquid, I’d forgotten that the cloth I grabbed next also contained my toothbrush. I watched in horror as it rolled into the toilet bowl and disappeared with the cleaning solution.

In 20-plus years, no child of ours had ever plugged a toilet with foreign objects. Was this cosmic payback for the bathroom banishment? It began to look that way when plunging and snaking did no good and the overflow risk ratcheted higher.

The plumber finally arrived three days later. After two hours of unsuccessful manipulation, he reached the point where a new toilet would be cheaper than his mounting hourly bill. He tried to ease the pain by noting a 23-year-old toilet couldn’t last forever.

Final tab: $330 (plus a new toothbrush). Are you wondering what this toilet tale has to do with romance? Despite all the aggravation and the cost, Husband No. 1 never once complained or chastised me. He simply shrugged and wrote the check. What's more loving than that?

I just hope he’ll be as understanding with the $250 speeding ticket I brought home yesterday. Maybe that can be my President’s Day gift.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

How far would you travel for a favorite food?

Husband No. 1 and I drove 82 miles this weekend to dine on a brand of hamburgers and fries we’ve loved since 1986. But since it seemed a little indulgent to travel an hour and a half just to eat, we decided we'd also visit some interesting spots along the way to Dedham, Mass.

And when I say interesting, I mean destinations that would appeal to people who’ve visited Cereal City, the home of Mile High Pie and Elvis’s plane. You get the idea. The Museum of Bad Art (MOBA) – the world's only museum dedicated to “art too bad to be ignored” – fit the bill perfectly.

It’s located in the basement of the Dedham Community (Movie) Theater, just opposite the men’s room. At the theater concession they sell a T-shirt that sums up the experience – “In our museum, it’s not the artists that are tortured, it’s the patrons.”

They aren’t kidding. I’m posing next to a work of “art” entitled “Drilling for Eggs,” which was one of the better paintings retrieved from the trash, yard sales and thrift shops. There’s only room to display about 30 or 40 of the free museum’s 400 pieces and after viewing some of the other works online, I can honestly say we're relieved "Sunday on the Pot with George” and "Circus of Despair" weren't on display.

Friends suggested we also include a visit to the New England Mobile Book Fair, New England’s largest independent bookstore, in nearby Newton. It's a 32,000-square-foot maze of rooms filled with books that are a minimum of 20 percent off. The bargain section of this 52-year-old store is huge and the prices are incredible. There are so many rooms and shelves that it's easy to spend hours there. Part of the store is organized by the names of publishers and many of the books are arranged by title, rather than author, so you either wander up and down and enjoy the view or go to the computer to figure out where to find a book. There are category shelves, as well, such as a section for winners of the prestigious Edgar awards bestowed by the Mystery Writers of America, a prize I'd like to claim myself someday.

After all the books and bad art, it was time to continue the pilgrimage to our dining destination --Five Guys Burgers and Fries in Dedham, the nearest location thus far of a burger chain that began in 1986 with one tiny takeout spot four blocks from our former home in Arlington, Virginia. It didn't take us long to fall in love with their fresh, never-frozen, ground beef without fillers or preservatives, the free toppings and the heavenly plain or Cajun french fries cooked in peanut oil. The buns came from (the now closed) Brenner's Bakery next door and there were barrels of peanuts to amuse the kids and adults. We were such regulars that we only had to call and say our name to get our order started.

Today, that little takeout restaurant, launched by the Murrell
family with the college money they'd saved for sons who decided not to go, has been franchised to 1,500 locations in 25 states. But nearly everything is the same, down to their habit of putting so many french fries in the Styrofoam cups that they spill into the bag. Even the prices haven't changed too much. And they're still feeding our family, including our two sons in the Washington area who are regulars at Five Guys locations around D.C. Although I'm now a semi-vegetarian (a subject for a later blog), it wasn't difficult to make an exception for Five Guys.

I've made that same exception for a sliced beef brisket sandwich and ice-cold beer at Angelo's Barbecue in Fort Worth, Texas (although the experience isn't quite the same since the Health Department made them take the sawdust off the floor). Come to think of it, I traveled two and a half days by train to get to Texas (also once my home), so going to Dedham was easy in comparison. Although the Texas trip was for a surprise birthday party, I couldn't leave without visiting Angelo's and the Village Bakery in the town of West, Texas, for kolaches.

How about you? How far would you travel to enjoy a favorite food?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Medical excuses for not writing....

I can come with a host of legitimate excuses to explain why I’m not writing as much as I should. But I never thought my annual physical would be one of them.

There’s nothing major wrong with me, thank goodness. But all the minor things I recently discussed with my doctor have developed into cure strategies that are now eating up big chunks of my limited writing opportunities. I can’t imagine how time-consuming it must be if you're really sick.

My primary care physician sent me home with directions to take Vitamin D twice a day, instructions to increase my thyroid medicine that requires carefully cutting half of my pills in quarters until my new mail-order prescription arrives, a sheet of daily exercises designed to relieve foot pain, and a recommendation for a skin cream to be applied twice daily. She also handed me referrals to two specialists.

The ear, nose and throat doctor said there was nothing seriously wrong that a nose spray and a saline solution kit, both to be used twice a day, couldn’t fix. The orthopedic guy ordered me to put ice on my impinged shoulder for 20 minutes, three times a day; take a pain reliever twice a day; and to try his list of exercises until the start of my physical therapy appointments, which will take one hour each, two times a week.

I'm sorry to bore you with my maladies, but isn't this list of minor cures mind-boggling? It makes me sick just to think about it. All these courses of treatment have gotten so complicated that I'll need a daily calendar just to keep up.

A doctor friend tells me the compliance rate for physicians’ orders is generally low. I understand why. If you add up all my medical directives, I could be spending the equivalent of one day a week dealing just with them – and there’s hardly anything wrong with me.

But then I thought: maybe it’s about time management. What if I could find a way to put the ice on my shoulder at the same time I take all the pills, use the nose stuff, apply the cream and then twist myself around to do the foot exercises, too? That would get me down to one hour of medical mania a day.

On the other hand, there’s the risk of something going wrong or developing a new injury from trying to do too much at once. Then I’d be sucked further into the medical black hole. So I've decided to pace myself and hope all these cures don’t kill my writing career.

Nonetheless, the next time someone asks me how the novel is going, I’m just going to say, “Ask my doctor.”

Have you ever found yourself in the medical black hole? Doesn't it make you wonder whether the cure just might be to STOP consulting medical professionals?