Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Getting By - With A Little Help From My Friends

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 

Never has Dickens’s opening to A Tale of Two Cities seemed so apt as it has for me during the past week. Writing about how I blew a fortune and face losing the house I worked so hard for, I felt exposed and vulnerable seeing the piece in print. 

On Thursday, I went into meltdown, took the batteries out of my cell phone, unplugged my landline and took myself off Twitter and Facebook. I e-mailed a friend making reference to throwing myself off the Brooklyn Bridge. Have no fear: I am way too much of a coward to do anything like that and, in any case, didn’t have the money for the subway to get me there. Instead, I went to bed and hysterically cried myself to sleep mid-afternoon, emptying my body of even more tears I found it hard to believe were still there.
But now to the best of times, because that is undoubtedly what the past days have brought me. If ever I needed a wake-up call as to the nature of true friendship, this past week was it. I had expected derisory comments, a lack of sympathy, schadenfreude by the bucketload; I had, after all, been very stupid in throwing money around in an effort to alleviate loneliness and buy happiness. I won’t pretend that my spending hadn’t brought me pleasure, not to mention pleasure to the people on whom I lavished gifts, but I had been reckless with money. 

I don’t resent spending one penny, by the way, on the true friends (and they know who they are) who benefited from my one-time good fortune; they repaid, and continue to repay me, in ways that money can’t buy, and I would not hesitate to spend on them again, if – no, when - my fortunes turn around.
The overwhelming compassion I have been shown has restored my faith in human nature. Generally, I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, anyway, and I believe that the majority of people do not set out to do a bad job in life. No matter what our circumstances, most of us share pretty much the same emotions – love, grief, happiness, sadness, jealousy: our bodies, minds and souls are, at grass roots level, the same. I won’t go into what leads some from the basic human blueprint into the paths of criminal activity, but I believe at any one time we are carrying a complex body of emotions that we all, in our varying ways, are only trying to make sense of. 

We just want to get by. Anything else is a bonus.
Longstanding friends were the first to reach out, including my oldest friend from my schooldays, who has not been without her own troubles in recent years. Offers of places to go to have a break were overwhelming – Scotland, Yorkshire, Ireland – as well as offers of food and drink (tea, wine, coffee), not only from friends, but people who know me only from Facebook and Twitter.
Carolyn Hitt, the brilliant, award-winning journalist on the Western Mail, wrote about me in her column. I did not think I had more tears to shed, but they plopped onto my keyboard non-stop as I read. Witty, poignant, sensitive, understanding – it was an extraordinary column about the nature of loneliness that the piece I wrote appears to have brought to light. Because, at the end of the day, what she absolutely got was that I wasn’t writing about money, but about an emptiness in the emotional coffers that no amount of cash can fill.
The line that struck me most in her piece was this:  “When you live alone you may always have people to do something with but you don’t have people to do nothing with.” And that’s it, in a nutshell. When I fantasise about having a partner in my life, it’s not parties and nights out that I think about; it’s lying on the sofa, hearing someone’s key in the lock, kissing them hello and hearing about their day, or, in reverse, me coming in and their hearing about mine. The joy of the nothingness.
Not that I think that having a partner is the answer to everything. I would rather feel lonely by myself than lonely in an unhappy marriage from which there is no escape. I am happy in my own company and I work alone. But, as you get older and see your friends clock up decades of togetherness, it gets harder – especially for women, for whom going out socialising alone is still not as acceptable or easy as it is for men in the same situation.
I have been humbled by the outpouring of understanding both from friends and strangers since the piece appeared. I have tried to respond to everyone, to whom I will remain eternally grateful. I finally got out of bed, set about putting the finishing touches to my book, and have written 12 pages of my screenplay. 

I’m back on the horse, albeit at a slow trot.


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

StereoPomics - My Music Hell

The troupe of scaffolders that follow me around the world with their chisels have now been outside my window for five months. The construction on which they are working goes up by two floors per week, which sounds bearable, until you realise that there might be another 100 to go. Claims that it is going to be the tallest apartment block in New York do nothing to alleviate my stress. Add to this the car horns, fire engine sirens and cruise ship foghorns on a daily basis, and the Hell’s Kitchen area in which I live becomes more hellish by the day.
None of the above, however, compares to the hell within my apartment block, where, shortly after I moved in, a couple with a Pomeranian arrived next door. My area is predominantly gay, which is great, as I feel very safe, and the guys everywhere are so friendly. Most of the couples have dogs and, interestingly, very small dogs, on whom they lavish affection I have rarely seen them bestow upon each other.
So, the two guys who moved in next door are the very proud owners of Mr Winston, a black Pomeranian who does not like being left alone. I know this, because every time the owners go out, Mr Winston scratches at the door and barks and barks and barks. It can be half an hour, an hour, or, on Saturday night, 90 minutes. It was probably longer on top of that, as I had to go out when I could no longer stand it, but later discovered that the guys had returned an hour after I left.
I have been around small dogs all my life Рtwo poodles, a Chihuahua and a Bichon Fris̩. I love them. But all four together could not make the noise that Mr Winston does. I have complained to the management on several occasions, but they seem powerless to do anything about it, despite having asked the residents to get a dog-sitter; I have even offered to look after Mr Winston myself, with no luck.
And now, “What fresh hell is this?” as Dorothy Parker said. In the apartment opposite Mr Winston, another couple have arrived, with their bundle of joy – another Pomeranian. Worse, another Pomeranian who also doesn’t like being left alone, and so, when all the owners are out at the same time, the dogs bark to each other across the hallway from their respective prisons. My fresh hell is the StereoPomics.
This week, I finally flipped and requested that the management move me to another apartment. At first, they wanted to charge me, saying that they would be left with an empty apartment, but after I pointed out I would be moving to another and that they were in breach of my lease in my being unable to enjoy my apartment in peace, they relented, and I will be moving up six floors, where I will be closer to the scaffolders but further away from the music of the StereoPomics.
I never thought I would get to know so much about US real estate law. Having successfully sued a landlady in Los Angeles for partial non-refund of my deposit when I left, I have had to start over with New York law. Every state has different laws relating to every aspect of American life, so while in LA I would be allowed to buy medicinal marijuana (not for myself, but to feed to noisy dogs in the form of cookies), in NY, where marijuana is illegal, I am reduced to shouting “Shut the f**k up!” in my corridor.
I have always had sensitive ears, and I recently went for hearing tests where I was told that I have the hearing of a dog. So, for all I know, Mr Winston, his new lover and I are all on the same frequency and they are barking to each other and saying: “When will that damned woman stop talking to herself?”
Having lived in big cities all my life, I am used to traffic noise, and I have pretty much become immune to the sirens and horns in NY. But there are certain frequencies that still resonate badly on my nerves. I was having lunch with a friend recently at an outdoor restaurant on 9th Avenue (a very noisy place) and I heard a woman talking loudly into her cell-phone as she crossed the road. 

“Why do people have to talk so loudly?” I said. My friend was incredulous that I was sitting outdoors, amid traffic, sirens and all manner of other noise, yet tuned into one human voice. There are just certain pitches that are louder than others.
Anyway, I am moving apartments over the next few days and have checked out the dog situation on my new floor – just one, and not a Pomeranian. There is a very nice Japanese couple next door and, as far as I know, the Japanese are a quiet race. Apart from their love of karaoke, of course. That certainly won’t bother me, as I’ll be straight in there, hogging the microphone. 

Maybe I’ll sing How Much is that Doggie in the Window? Very, very loudly, through the air con unit that will resonate six floors down. 

Let’s see how you like that, Mr Winston.

Ghosts of Birthdays Past - Thoughts on my Birthday

Today is my birthday and, at 56, I am closer to 60 than to 50. It feels very strange. In my head, I’m still in my thirties; my body disagrees. Heck, this morning, I had to shave my big toes. When did I get so hairy?
I’ve always enjoyed birthdays, apart from one small thing: being born on Guy Fawkes’ Day meant that my childhood parties were dominated by a bonfire and fireworks in the garden. I hated the noise of the fireworks and didn’t like being out in the cold, huddled around flames, so I spent this part of the proceedings hiding under the dining room table while all my guests frolicked outdoors. 

Worse, I lost out on presents as a result of my birth date. While some kids brought me a present and a box of fireworks, many brought just the latter. When you grow up with people bringing you explosives as gifts, it gives you a slightly warped view of the world.
My baby book catalogues just my first five birthdays. There are “frou frou pants”, nylon petticoats, shoes, a bonnet and muff, a cookery set, mittens, and money. Lots and lots of money. Every year.  If only that pattern had continued, I might not be in the financial mess I am now. As it is, I am more likely to develop a penchant for blowing things up rather than opening a savings account.
I was a great party organiser. As my guests arrived and I recovered from my “sad face” as I unwrapped another box of Standard Fireworks, I would line everyone up in order of height. Quite what this achieved, I have no idea, but it clearly spoke to my need of order that continues to this day.
I was very good at party games but, being the host, was never allowed to win. I could never understand this. Having always been very competitive, even on my birthday I needed to prove that I was the best at everything – musical chairs, musical hats, pass the parcel. In retrospect, I think I would have been happier having no guests at all.
I recall my ninth birthday very clearly, as my parents had given me a cream plastic tea-set, decorated with brown leaves. I can see me now, taking it out of the box where it sat among the other presents on the green dralon armchair, and wishing that everyone waving sparklers in the garden would hurry up and go home.
My 18th birthday took place in Bridgend, where my parents had moved because of my father’s job. I wore a turquoise pant suit and had my hair whisked up into the kind of bouffant that could cause a total eclipse of the sun. Mum and Dad gave me a gold bracelet, and I thought that life had never been so glamorous.
On my 30th, I was living in London, and my (still) close friend Liz, let me take over the lower floor of her restaurant, Chalk and Cheese. I insisted that everyone play “The Shoe Game”, which involved singing “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go” (passing pairs of shoes one at a time in one direction), and then, at the line “and a walking stick” changing direction. 

Honestly, it’s really easy, but I suppose you have to see it. I threw a shoe at a friend who was chatting up my on/off manic depressive boyfriend (female friends “stealing my men” has been a recurrent theme throughout my life). Then, the journalist I was crazy about and who I hoped would turn up finally arrived at 1am and I was in tears. To top it all, a waiter stole most of my presents.
My 40th was the happiest day of my life. Held in the private members’ club, Soho House, I felt blessed to be surrounded by wonderful friends and family. My mother and brother both made speeches, and I recall cries of “Hear! Hear!” when my mother said how loyal I was to my friends (I was and still am).

My brother tracked down my favourite singer, Ricky Valance, and played a recorded message from him before giving me a framed signed photograph. We struggled with the many bouquets travelling back to my Cardiff home the next morning. “Still, it was a lovely funeral,” I said, getting off the train.
I had three birthdays for my 50th. The first, a dinner for close friends (many of whom had been at my 40th, and some at my 30th) was at The Bleeding Heart restaurant in London. 

For the second, I cooked for 60 guests in my Cardiff home. 

The third was at my Paris apartment, where I cooked for 30, and the last guest was taken away, unconscious, by les pompiers (basically, the fire brigade who have to deal with all manner of emergencies). They were not happy and shouted at me. I knew enough French to understand they were saying that taking drunk people away was not their job. Hmph. Don’t go to Cardiff on a Saturday night, I thought of retaliating, but thought better of it.
Last year, I was with friends in Los Angeles; this year, I am in New York, where I will again be celebrating with friends – all of them new ones. It’s hard to believe that when I came to the city in April, I knew no one; but on a daily basis, in the most friendly city in the world (don’t believe the myths about horrid New Yorkers), I widen my social circle.
It’s a long way from Bridgend, and there won’t be any fireworks, but far from feeling depressed about my age, I feel grateful to have lived a life that has involved so much travel, adventure, great friends and family, and work that I love. There has never been one day I have woken up and not felt incredibly lucky that I have been able to do not only what I do best, but retain a passion for: writing.

Well into my sixth decade, I continue to make many mistakes. But I learn from them – and then I make different mistakes. But that’s the way it should be: none of us gets it all right. So, on another birthday, I’m going to celebrate simply being human. Because, for all its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, there is still so much, so very, very much, to feel happy about. 

Other humans, being top of that list.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Wang Hamm, Thank You Ma'am

One of the great hypocrisies of our age is that while men who talk about women’s breasts, or ogle them from near or afar, are criticised for being sexist, women do not suffer the same treatment when it comes to talking about penises (or should that be penii? Anyway, that’s another linguistic discussion altogether).
I have never made any secret of my fascination for the male organ, whether I have been writing about it in print, admiring it close up, or even groping it when my hands should have been better employed elsewhere. Despite growing up in a sexually repressed country, the reticence that should have been inbred somehow passed me by. I suspect I am a gay man trapped in a woman’s body.
I think about penises a lot. And I mean a lot. I suspect I think about some of my male friends’ penises more than they do, which, for someone who has never had one, nor is ever likely to, is probably a bit strange.
If I go to a concert, poetry reading or lecture, I am listening to the music or words, but all the time I am wondering what lurks behind the flies of the men on stage. Is it circumcised or uncircumcised? How active is it? Is it large or small, thin or thick? Is it any good? Does its owner like what it sees in the mirror? Where has it been? Where might it be going? Does it fear death?
I’m not sure if this is penis envy or penis admiration, but I wish I had a penis just to know what it felt like. Actually, I have double penis envy, because, in reality, I would like two: a circumcised one and an uncircumcised one. Is that being greedy?
This week, at Michael Sheen’s brilliant recording of Under Milk Wood in New York, one of many events to celebrate the centenary of the poet’s birth, Jon Hamm, who plays Don Draper in Mad Men, was in the audience. Everyone who recognised him underneath his cap and glasses was desperately excited; he is a fine actor. But much of the whispering was about one thing: “Do you think it’s true?”
Because, you see, a piece published online in May this year, headlined “Jon Hamm’s Wang” revealed that the actor likes to go commando (without underpants, for the innocent out there). It was accompanied by a picture of said wang, albeit behind a zipper, that appeared to reveal that Mr Hamm was a gentleman of considerable substance. And I mean considerable. It became the talk of Los Angeles, where, it is now believed, he holds the curious accolade of being the grand owner of the biggest wang in Hollywood.
Now, I confess to not having worn any underwear for over 20 years, but nothing in my external attire would ever give an indication of what mysteries or horrors lie beneath my clothing. Not so, with Mr Hamm, whose nether regions are a veritable sweet shop of delights to which the door is always ajar.
I can’t decide whether this knowledge has improved or lessened the impact of Mad Men. On the one hand, when the show’s story gets a bit slow, I can always think “Yes, but it has Jon Hamm’s wang in it” and distract myself, or I can . . . No, I lie; I really can’t and don’t think of anything else now.
I think the real reason I would like a penis is because it is so much easier a tool to navigate than the Google Earth that is the female anatomy. I mean, you could probably multi-task with a penis in the morning, cleaning your teeth at the same time as you are doing whatever you are doing with it (What would I know? I don’t have one. Did I mention that?). 

As a woman, you have to schedule appointments with yourself, because you never know what mood your bits and pieces are going to be in. A penis, by comparison, is pretty much always up for it, and that’s another reason I would like one.
Because, at the end of the day, I have a penis mind, but a woman’s body. 

And that’s really, really not fair, God. It just isn’t. 

I want a refund. Or, better, an exchange.