Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Remembering Blake 9/30/09

Six months ago tomorrow, I was boarding a flight to come to LA, where, following Blake Snyder’s scriptwriting course in March, I had been sufficiently inspired to pursue my writing career 6000 miles away from home.

Last night, I attended Blake’s memorial. He died suddenly on August 4th, and the outpouring of grief on his website, together with the grateful thanks from those whose lives he had changed, made his death an all-consuming experience.

I heard about his death on Facebook; his longest-standing friend, Tracey, who had known Blake since they were two, heard about it on Twitter. Social networking is the new bearer of both good and bad tidings, and it is also the 21st century means by which the dead live on.

The many tributes to Blake that appeared on an hourly basis on Facebook extended the grieving process; tortuous as it is, I continue to dip into them; it helps me to feel that he is still among us. His words, and the encouragement and support he gave to so many, is, to me, the way he lives on.

Blake’s friends organised a wonderful tribute that, despite the sadness of the occasion, was full of laughter and happy memories. Colleagues and friends shared their thoughts at the Writers Theater in LA, and despite the air of disbelief that still hangs over his death (I still felt that electric shock when Tracey said: “When Blake died . . . "), the evening felt not like an ending but a new beginning.

Blake believed in the power of transformation; it is what informed his own work and his teaching. In his brilliant screenwriting book, Save the Cat, he addresses the Finale of his 15 part structure as the place where “we wrap it up”; the place where “the lessons are applied . . . " The Final Image, he says, “is your proof that change has occurred and that it’s real.”

When I left London six months ago, I was very unhappy. For financial reasons, I had been forced to leave Paris, where I had enjoyed a very happy eight years, and I was miserable being back in the city I have never liked since I first moved there 25 years ago.

I had hit 50, many friends were sick or had already died, and the recession was biting hard in the media industry, as it was (and still is) elsewhere.

Blake’s passion, energy, and support of my writing got me to LA, and in the short time I knew him I felt ensconced in his bubble; that’s the only way I can put it. I drank in every word he said, both professionally and personally, and began to regain much of the confidence I had lost in the UK.

Blake and I talked or e-mailed all the time, and when we met for lunch shortly before he died, we talked about where the “act three” of my story – the autobiographical one that is the subject of the book I am writing – might be heading.

I was expressing fear; Blake, in his eternal optimism, expressed excitement that I didn’t know. Who could have predicted this cruel twist in the narrative that, ironically, has led me into my act three, alone.

Blake spoke often of the mentor figure who, in screenplays, sometimes dies at the end of act two, the point at which the hero decides whether he or she puts the lessons learned into practice, or reverts to the place they were in before.

Over the past six months, I have learned many lessons: about people, writing, and myself. My mentor has gone, but his teachings live on, and fearful (even more so) as I am about where act three might be going, this is undoubtedly the start of it.

I feel that Blake came into my life for a reason: right time, right place. I am blessed to have known him and to have shared in his wisdom.

At the memorial, one of his writing partners, Sheldon Bull, said that we should ask ourselves whether, when we died, people would share in such an evening as we were doing for Blake. If not, he said, we were not living, and we should get out there and make some mistakes.

I don’t know what my act three holds, but of one thing I can be certain: there will be many more mistakes; and they, just like the things I learned from Blake, will be valuable lessons, too.

Nobody’s life is perfect, but despite the sadnesses, there is still enough good to make it worthwhile, and it is by our mistakes that we grow.

April 1st 2009. The day I came to LA. October 1st 2009. A new beginning, Blake. As you say in Chapter two: “The same thing . . . only different!” - thanks to you. Good-night, sweet prince.

Who Wants To Bag A Millionaire? 9/30/09

Who wants to bag a millionaire?

It’s the question that seems to occupy every single woman over 40 on this side of the ocean.

Forget what they say about people in LA not drinking.

From Friday night to Monday morning, every bar is packed with older women who seem to have just one aim in life: to get through the weekend without even touching the ten dollars they came out with after work on Friday, and get rich blokes to provide them with cocktails and copious amount of champagne until they (a) fall over, (b) fall into bed, (c) find themselves unexpectedly in Vegas, having tied a whacking great knot (marital, or literal, around their new spouse’s neck, depending on their luck).

Television has been quick to cash in on women seeking a fast route to snare a man and his fortune.

Megan Wants a Millionaire featured the proverbial blonde with large breasts looking for exactly what it said in the title. At the end of each episode, the unlucky reject/sad sap of the week was handed a card and informed: “I’m sorry, your credit has been declined”.

The show was pulled, when one of the former contestants was found dead, after being sought for the murder of his wife.

My current obsession is My Antonio, which features a group of women in Hawaii, all trying to pull the Hollywood actor Antonio Sabato, and it is hilarious.

This diverse group of women, which includes a NASA researcher, a nurse and a Playmate, really seem to care for nothing in life but getting this undoubtedly handsome man. Antonio’s mother Yvonne, who also stars, clearly hates them all.

Even Antonio’s ex-wife Tully is in the mix, and to me it’s pretty obvious that the pair got it together before the show began and then used this rather spurious means of making some cash out of it.

I thought I might stand a better chance with Millionaire Matchmaker, which is set in LA, and boasts a wider cultural diversity than the shows offering just one man or woman whom everyone else must fight over.

Why did I bother? Having seen the millionaires on offer, I can only assume that presenter Patti Stanger has bagged all the best ones for herself and her mates.

Patti runs an elite matchmaking service in LA, and in series one concentrated on wealthy men looking for women. In series 2, rich women and rich gay men were added to the mix (tough luck if were a lesbian with dosh), so there were more fruits for the picking, but, alas, a lot more fruit pickers.

It certainly appears to be a much-needed service in the city, where women constantly bemoan the lack of available men.

I am quick to reassure them that I have now lived in five different countries, and they may as well stay put, because it’s the same story the world over.

Millionaire Matchmaker was therefore the first place I turned to here for advice in my quest to pull a rich man who was more than just the wad in his pocket (size isn’t everything, after all).

I quickly learned from Patti that you can say goodbye to your inheritance when your rich man pops his clogs, if you slept with him on the first date (you have to hold out until they have opened a veritable MFI warehouse store of doors for you, apparently).

Oh, dear. From the guys on offer, I would sleep with them ONLY on the first date.

Take Hatch. He sounded a possibility, as he liked short women, and, in particular, women of 5 foot. Five foot exactly. Which is what I am.

My chances would have been quickly blown, because at the “Mixer” party he went straight for a woman who needed to duck when she entered the room.

Then there was Jimmy, who wanted to meet a cultured, Polish woman, who could speak Italian. Specific, or what? He blew her out when they went on a tour of LA and she declared: “I don’t know what’s in the Getty.”

That would have been fine, had she not also said that she was a tour guide. Serves your own right for being so fussy, Jimmy boy.

Patti employs date coaches, therapists and personal shoppers to try to match like with like, and claims to have a lot of luck with what she believes is her true vocation in life.

I am now re-grouping and going along with her main suggestion: that a man will get his act together quickly if he “senses another penis around”.

I’ve already started auditions.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Strim Low, Street Chariot 9/29/09

The US Strimming Championships taking place outside my front door can be the only explanation for why the sound of revving machinery woke me before 8am Monday morning.

And Sunday. And Saturday.

In fact, had I sent out an invitation to every strimmer enthusiast within a 300 mile radius, they could not have turned up in greater force than they have done in their own front gardens since I moved in last week.

It’s not so much a feeling of living in a flight path, as having relocated onto the runway itself.

When I moved here, I was excited to be living in the famous postcode, Beverly Hills 90210. My apartment was a smart but small, one-bedroom affair in a portered block that served me well enough for the first six months.

Well, ish. A woman on the balcony opposite sat for at least ten hours every day, shouting into her telephone. I became more familiar with the antics of her family than I am with those of my own.

At weekends, residents disappeared to the coast, but left their dogs behind, wailing and crying all day and night.

Then, some new people moved in above me and immediately began chopping up bodies for the freezer (or showing horror movies while acting out the movies’ plots – whichever is the noisier).

I am very, very sensitive to noise. In the UK, I became convinced that there was a theatrical group of scaffolders who followed me wherever I moved, setting up their stuff and beginning their singing/shouting/Radio 1 performance the moment I unpacked my last box.

Finally having shaken them off by coming to the US, I discover that the entire human race is in cahoots with said scaffolders, and the hit squad are just coming up with new and more interesting ways to annoy me.

Hence the strimmers. You don’t get many strimmers in South Wales. In Cardiff, we have well over 200 days of rain a year, so strimming is never really top of anyone’s agenda.

On vaguely warm days that could, were you of a strimming mentality, spur you to don your dungarees and start up your motor, you are usually so excited by glimpsing sunlight that you rush to the pub, all thoughts of strimming set aside for another year.

I bought a gas barbecue two years ago, and it still sits in my shed, untouched.

There have been numerous half hours of sun within that time, during which I could have cooked a dozen sausages; but, alas, never the two hours it would take me to get the contraption out of the shed, try to light the gas, and then track down a neighbour - who would doubtless be at someone else’s barbecue – to do it for me.

Brits leave home in pursuit of the great outdoors. Spain used to be the number one choice, but the pound’s dreadful exchange rate against the euro has scuppered that idea.

It’s a little better against the dollar, and with utilities and petrol/gas so much cheaper than in the UK, more people are looking to the US, either to buy second homes, or to emigrate.

When I first arrived here, I could see the attraction of the outdoor life. I love not having to take an umbrella with me when I go out to dinner (heck: I like not having to take one down to the washing line).

I enjoy going to bed with all the windows open, rather than struggling to find another duvet when I am freezing in bed at 4am.

I like not having to charge the car battery every time I set out for my local Tesco if there's a frost.

But there are stresses to the outdoor Californian lifestyle that nobody tells you about, and the strimmers are just the start of it.

When the strimmers rev down at the end of the day, the crickets start up. Now, the trouble with crickets, is that they have only one topic of conversation; and, to boot, only one topic of conversation set at the same monotonous level.

Think of Morse Code with just two frequencies. Sung by Kate Bush.

Then there are the dog walkers.

Everyone in my new area, 90212 (which is the Beverly Hills Golden Triangle, though it does not feature in the TV series), has a dog that is a cross between a Bichon Frise and a poodle.

And they do not stop barking. I suspect they are the cousins of the dogs at my old apartment block.

Their owners stop on the street to talk – for up to an hour at a time. The dogs bark more loudly because they want their walk.

The owners speak more loudly to get above the dogs. Sometimes, I pray for a strimmer to come along and drown out the lot of them.

I’m going back to the UK this week and am praying for rain. Anything, just to keep people indoors and away from anything that might bark, rev, or spew sausage fat within a half mile radius of my house.

I bet those theatrical scaffolders are tuning up their spanners even as I write.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How To Hurry A Curry 9/16/09

Everyone has at least one thing they have never done that seems to put them at odds with the entire world.

When I told some friends that I had never listened to an episode of The Archers, for instance, they pulled away suspiciously, as if I had approached a group of small children with a bag of sweets.

The same happens in LA when I say that I don’t have a car. I have lived six months without one now, and still walk or take the bus everywhere. This week, a friend visiting from Sydney, told me that he lived here for five years without a car. We huddled together in a Century City cafĂ©, proudly giggling over this act of aberrant defiance.

Now for the real confession: until Sunday, I had never been in a Starbucks. The friend I was with nearly went under a car as we crossed the road and I made my announcement, as the dreaded green logo loomed ever closer.

I’ve passed them thousands of times, of course, in cities across the world, but have never been tempted to enter. I’m not a big fan of chains, and I don’t drink coffee, so it was always going to be hard to see the attraction.

I won’t be going to one again, either. The one on Melrose Avenue was filthy. Leftover dregs on the table, bits of food on the floor – it was less like feeding time at the zoo than post-prandial regurgitation.

It took ten minutes to establish that I wanted plain black tea, not Earl Grey (I have more trouble with English here than I did in eight years in Paris with my not very good French); another two minutes to get the cup filled up more than halfway; another five minutes to carry it, overflowing, to the milk trolley; 40 minutes to drink the worst hot drink I have ever had in my life. Star****s to that.

I think perhaps one of the main reasons I never tried one out was that it took me so long when they first arrived to know exactly what I would get, once inside.

I like places that deliver what they say on the tin, and Starbucks sounds more like a "saddle up yer horse and grab a Bourbon" kind of place (as well as not drinking coffee, I don’t have a horse and don’t drink Bourbon).

You don’t get the same ambiguity with, say Pizza Express or Bella Pasta. And this week, having inadvertently stumbled upon a Japanese quarter of LA, I was sure that Hurry Curry would deliver what it promised.

I quickly discovered that the trouble with Hurry Curry is that there are so many people in a hurry for their curry, you have to queue for a table. In fact, you have to queue so long, you could have gone to a restaurant, tucked into a three course lunch, and returned to Hurry Curry to find that you were still three people from the front of the queue.

It was rather impressive, though. I was immediately asked what I would like to drink (the five star SLS hotel took 20 minutes to ask me last week), and a waiter helpfully pointed me towards the “light” meal of half portions – clearly I looked way too slender at my new weight to be able to handle the bucket-sized portions of Vindaloo I used to consume in Cardiff at three in the morning.

The food was terrific; the clientele less so. People in a hurry wolf their food down so quickly, they belch a lot – at least, they do when that food is curry.

I sat among people who were hurrying their curry at such a pace, it was as if it had decided to bypass the throat on its route to the stomach. The evidence of its arrival repeated in the atmosphere like a space shuttle returning to earth and breaking the sound barrier (which I also had last week, funnily enough, so I know what I'm talking about here).

Barely had I finished the last grain of rice than my bill was on the table. I said that I wasn’t in that much of a hurry, an explanation that was greeted with much mirth, incredulity, and even gratefulness, when I asked for the menu back.

But I couldn’t be persuaded to stay for the lychee sake martini, as I had to get to the gym, which I had been putting off in favour of my curry lunch. I managed a few miles on the treadmill, plus 30 lengths in the pool and a three-mile walk back to my apartment. Hurrying a curry is easy; it’s the exercising it away from your hips afterwards that takes the time.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Credit Where Credit's Not Due 9/12/09

Here’s the dilemma. I can’t afford it, I don’t need it, and waving a bit of titanium around in Beverly Hills 90210 just because I can, won’t impress any of my friends.

So: do I shell out £1800 pa for the new, all-singing, all-dancing American Express titanium black card that I currently pay £650 pa (black plastic) for?

It’s a brilliant marketing ploy. Ever since I was promoted to be a holder of the exclusive black Centurion card over ten years ago, I have spent month after month whingeing that I don’t get my money’s worth from it.

Retailers in the UK don’t like Amex, anyway. Invariably, they charge customers 5% on top of what they purchase, as opposed to Mastercard’s 2%, because Amex charges them more in the first place.

When the Centurion book comes through every quarter, my friends and I spend hours on the phone, laughing about the dozens of things on which we have no intention of spending the hundred million points we have managed to accumulate.

The new deal arrived in a box the size of a multi-storey car-park, though a hundred times more beautiful. There were ribbons and recesses that kept me occupied for hours while I read through all the wonderful things that, as a Centurion card holder, Amex had decided to offer me.

Just off the top of my head: Gold membership to enable me to use the Virgin Atlantic lounge at Heathrow (which I get anyway, as I travel with them so much); Eurostar lounge access (which, again, I get anyway, with my Carte Blanche Eurostar card); Priority Pass membership to other lounges (which I get with my Coutts World card); travel insurance (ditto); Starwood Preferred Guest membership (free to anyone, online).

So many things I already had, or didn’t need, or want. And, here’s the rub: as a result of all these great new redundant services, Amex was putting up the price from £650 pa to £1800 pa. Disgraceful.

So, naturally, seeing no benefit whatsoever, but recognising that the card I didn’t want was suddenly even more exclusive than it had hitherto been (ie even fewer people wanted it than they did before), I had to have it.

I got in touch with some friends who had the old black card (plastic – so passĂ©!) and discussed our options. We all spend a lot of time in the US, where you have to spend about a million dollars a year just to get a black Amex, so wouldn’t we be improving our social status on the other side of the Atlantic if we had the new one?

If we travelled Virgin Premium Economy, we could save about a grand a flight, and given that we only paid Upper Class in order to get the lounge benefits at Heathrow, wouldn’t the annual fee be cost-effective?

Then there was the automatic travel insurance: up to £5 million. So if you got too drunk in the lounge and wrecked it, injured a couple of passengers and hospitalised yourself in the process, the card would cover everything.

In southern California, the cards you carry mean far more than they do to people in the UK. I have it on good authority that Sir Richard Branson, for example, has only a green, no-fee Amex, but then he doesn’t have to lie awake at night worrying about whether he is going to make it past security into the Heathrow Virgin Upper Class lounge.

But when you produce any kind of credit card in LA (and the Centurion card isn’t even that – you pay up at the end of the month, or you’re out of the club), it is examined along with the rest of your attire.

Anything blue guarantees you mediocre service; gold means aspirational but unable to afford platinum (ie good service, but you are made aware of your relatively lowly status); platinum gets you terrific service, but is laughed at (everyone knows the benefits are no better than gold – except the platinum card holders, who live under the delusion they are going to the Oscars next year with 2000 points); and black gets you anything you want. In theory.

I am very grateful to the Centurion staff who have been counselling me through this difficult decision, and as I don't have to pay my new fee until March, they have managed to get me to book a flight that also provides a limo service from the airport the next time I fly into LA.

But will I have to tip the driver who, knowing he is picking up a TIT (Titanium Idiot Traveller), will be expecting ten times as much money in a tip as I would have paid in normal cab fare?

Who needs the stress. Who needs the card. Call me a TIT, but I do. The pain of knowing I wouldn’t have it is far worse than the pain of calculating how much I need to spend to make it pay its way. That’s why Mr Branson is rich – and green – and I’m not.

See you in the lounge, Richard. I'm the tit waving the £1800 bit of metal.