To Hemingway’s, come hell or high water

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When you live in a place where you can literally paddle your kayak from your backyard to a downtown bar, it seems silly not to. Especially when one of your band of three mermaids is going back to college in a place where the only gators are on T-shirts. But a funny thing happened on our way to Hemingway’s last night. The tide was in our favor, seducing us into thinking we wouldn’t have to paddle too hard. Our journey to send off Susan in style would be more like a float. There were dolphins following us, a perfect excuse for a champagne toast on board our kayaks. What did it matter that the bubbly blew back in our faces? It was just a little head wind. We’d just have to shout louder to hear each other’s tall tales. It was a beautiful evening, didn’t even feel like the 95 degrees the thermometer said when we set out. For a three mile tour. Sing it with me. A three mile tour.

The weather started getting rough. We were still laughing. Susan held onto her hat. Lolita told some friends from her church, who passed us in a motor boat, that we were on our way to Hemingway’s and bless their hearts, no, we didn’t need a lift. Another friend of hers waved from his long dock stretching into the Beaufort River. A true Southern gentleman, he asked if we needed libations for our journey. We laughed, and kept paddling. It seems Lolita knows all the owners of homes with docks along the Old Point. We could have tied up at any of them, but it seemed unsportswoman-like. We told each other we’d never hear the end of it. There was only one little bolt of lightning in the distance. We just needed to hurry up. It wasn’t until I took my sunglasses off that I realized the sky over downtown Beaufort was black. It was about that same time that Susan noticed white caps under the bridge.

I was about to pass under the line of a fisherman standing on the seawall of Waterfront Park when it occurred to me that he was struggling to keep hold of his rod in the wind. I turned to shout at Lolita. We should go back to her friends dock and tie up. That’s when my kayak flipped. I have no idea if it was a burst of wind or a wave just caught me broadside – all I could think of was that fisherman’s hook flailing around in the same water as me. I was worried for nothing. Susan had her trusty knife and cut the line before the wind blew her back toward the bridge. One nice thing about 95 degree days is that it keeps the river warm. I was treading water and trying to flip the kayak upright, but it kept flipping over and over in the wind, away from me.  When I finally caught up to it and pulled myself up, I realized my paddle was halfway back to Pigeon Point. Along with my shoes, and hat and bobbing red cooler.

Cheers, to the survivors

We still made it to Hemingway’s – by foot instead of kayak. We left them under the bridge in favor of the kind of hospitality the South is famous for. Our menfolk had already combed the waterfront and given Hemingway’s a heads up to keep an eye out for us. And Lolita’s boating friends called the bar to make sure we arrived. The bartender gave us thin green tablecloths to use as towels, and after a few shots of rum, to wear as sarongs. We didn’t even need the first-aid kit; we just thought it made a good prop for the photo.

Tablecloth chic

Lolita, of course, had the most practical take-away from the whole adventure. “That’s why it’s always a good idea to label your things. Just in case they float away.” Three cheers to that!

Here’s hoping genes can be inherited – by osmosis

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It’s not that my own family has bad genes. Okay one prominent member of it is a lowdown scumbag but I won’t name names. I consider myself lucky that both of my grandmothers are still alive, and the one I call my “modern” granny even says she’d consider running for disgraced Oregon Congressman Wu’s seat if she weren’t so damned old.

But, at 87, Nellie is a spring chicken compared to the sassy old hens I met at my father in-law’s 90th birthday bash. I’d never met any of the extended family before – even Gary hadn’t seen them in decades. It was hellishly hot and humid for a Wisconsin outdoor event, but for Joe they all showed up in wrinkled glory.

Aunt Emily

Check out the pose that comes out whenever Gary’s Aunt Emily sees a camera. She’s 92 and pushed herself around the tent-bedecked yard in a walker like she was skateboarding. The youngest aunt there was 88 – and she still knocked back her fair share of Miller Lite – all poured daintily into a plastic cup of course.

Birthday Joe and Angie

The birthday boy himself still looks like Errol Flynn, drives, loves his Kindle and I-Pad and shovels snow in Wisconsin’s other season – hellish winter. On top of those good genes, he married into a hardy Slovenian family. Angie, my 87-year-old mother-in-law, is still so fit she complained about having to stay in the hospital overnight after a heart stent. Her older sister Annie looks like she’ll easily match the family longevity record (the matriarch they all called “little Granny” lasted a century.) Annie whipped out photographs of people I don’t know and probably will never remember, yet when all the beer was gone and the party faded into night, she still remembered my name.

So I think I’ll go pop open a made-in-Milwaukee beer and sit out on a hot and humid porch. Seems to work for all my inherited relatives. Cheers!

Joe and Annie
Carmen, the youngest aunt

Three cheers for low-budget screenplays

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Back again from a whirlwind trip out to Burbank for a screenplay pitch fest. I had to share the funniest part about InkTip. Some 300 companies came to hear pitches — fabulous. They have great names — like Flying Wong Productions, Twisted Pictures and No Suck Comedy, Inc. It’s just that some of them ask for ridiculously low-budget features. For example, in this line you could pitch to three companies at once.

Wong, on many levels
Flying Wong, if you look closely, wants thrillers like Nolan’s Inception – with a $200,000 budget! That’s a dream worth stealing…just add another three zeroes when you wake up.

Another alternate reality at work this time was the age differential. Most working writers in Hollywood are around 30 years old. The average age of writers pitching scripts at InkTip? Their fathers. Or grandfathers. Maybe all the younger writers were on summer vacation from film school, but it made for lots of discussion about World War 2 films in the cattle lines.

no time to waste

Many of you cringed at the speed-dating format of the last pitch fest I blogged about, so how about a sequel? InkTip takes pay-to-pitch to a new level. You get the same five minutes of face time in a cavernous hotel ballroom but you pitch to three or four companies at once. Now I know what an American Idol audition must be like.

This format is actually better, once you get the eye contact dilemma down. If you can tell your script isn’t right for one exec (as in, they text while you talk or munch on candy the desperate writer before you left on their table) you just ignore them and find a face with alert eyes. I did miss the cowbell though. This time they just dimmed the lights at four minutes and thirty seconds into your pitch and had bouncers drag you away if the producers were still asking questions. Which happened to me several times. Which is a good sign, I guess. I had requests to read three of my four babies – even the drama I thought Hollywood had given up on.

In the end, that was the best part about InkTip. At my first pitch fest, last year,  I got the message that “Mask of the Innocent,” and “The Scarlet Registry” are too dark and gritty. Drama was a dirty word. But films like Winter’s Bone and Frozen River are breathing new life into production companies – or at least a new willingness to read scripts that aren’t “tent-pole” or “high-concept.” Three cheers for indie producers with big dreams! They end up making Oscar-nominated films and hopefully one day mine will be one of them.

What Teresa and Gary learned from a homeless teenage father

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Our education started Sunday, after grocery shopping. It was already 100 degrees and not even noon. A teenager with his arm in a sling and his nicely-dressed girlfriend staggered down Highway 21 in Beaufort with everything they owned in a stroller, two suitcases and a dozen Bi-Lo plastic bags. The luggage included two babies – a four-month old girl on the mother’s hip and a twelve-month old boy in the stroller sucking on an empty bottle.

I asked the father questions that elicited half answers. I was only half listening anyway – wondering how long the little boy would survive in fuzzy, all-in-one, zip-up pajamas. I heard something like Oregon was home. South Carolina was where they dropped off their nephews. Staying with a sister in Beaufort until her boyfriend got violent. We pieced it together. A fight; ahhh — the bandaged arm. From Oregon; ahh — the out-of-place, too-warm pajamas.

Only the mother and the babies could fit in our car – babies who drooped like sacks of rice in my arms. No crying. No blinking. No squirming. They needed cooling off, a respite from the heat, a chance to figure out a plan. Gary saw the turquoise water of the swimming pool at the Quality Inn, pulled up and checked them in.

The next day our education continued. We learned that there are no homeless shelters in our county and that churches take turns housing women and children but they’re all full. We learned that if you are a homeless teenage father whose mother got married after you were born, the last name on your birth certificate doesn’t necessarily match the one on your social security card. And if you’ve never had the chance to drive a car, you don’t have a government issued photo ID. Identification would come in handy when your mother sends you on a four-day bus trip from Oregon to South Carolina to return two five-year-old nephews she can’t or doesn’t want to raise anymore. It would really come in handy when your money runs out and you apply for emergency assistance for your girlfriend and your two infants. All three of whom came along on the four day bus ride across the country to return the five year-olds nobody wanted.

It’s not that we thought getting a photo ID for a homeless teenage father from out of state would be easy. We’ve read the articles about low-income, elderly black voters in South Carolina who can no longer go to the polls because they’ve never had a government issued driver’s license or photo ID. What we learned, from helpful clerks at the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, is that this ID problem is easy to fix. If you’ve ever been arrested and have mug shots and fingerprints on file. The homeless teenage father from Oregon didn’t.

We’ve learned many things since Sunday. Like how free emergency room treatment for a knife wound is great but it doesn’t mean you can fill the ER doctor’s prescription for antibiotics and pain medicine. Maybe that’s why the lies started. The homeless teenage father probably was in pain. But he also had what he thought was an open-ended stay at an air-conditioned hotel with a nice TV and a separate bed for the babies. That was more appealing to him than following through with social services. Sleeping in until three each afternoon was more important than filling out paperwork to get a free bus ticket home to Oregon.

After three days of rides, meals, wake-up calls, advice, explanations and encouragement we gave up. Our feeble attempts were too little, too late. We know now that good judgment isn’t part of the day-to-day survival skills of an eighteen year old homeless father. A kid whose own mother would put him on a bus across country to dump nephews off to other relatives simply responds to whatever happens. He doesn’t plan. Even if it means he’ll be back out on highway 21 with a bandaged arm, pulling a suitcase and a girlfriend and two babies behind him.

Neither one of us wants to be one of those people who turns a blind eye and rationalizes cold-heartedness with examples just like this one. I’m a writer; I hate clichés like leading horses to water. To a certain extent, these too-young parents are playing games and exploiting every opportunity to delay responsibility. But their babies aren’t – which is why it broke our hearts to see the cop cars pulling up in front of the hotel we stopped paying for.

This story isn’t over; we don’t know what happened or if those little babies have found shelter. Every thunderclap makes me jump. We watch the thermometer each day with dread, hoping the web of lies includes family members the homeless teenage father never told us about.

It’s doubtful though. If we learned anything from him it is that there are no miracles. Isolated concern, however well intentioned, can’t solve problems like his. That’s why in a civilized, ethical society there is central government funded by taxes we all pay, no matter our ideology of personal responsibility. That’s why we need more money for social services and education, not less. It takes more than feeling sorry for infants hauled around like luggage. It takes more than a handout. A safety net that does its job requires shared, ongoing commitment and predictable funding.  A thousand points of light, however bright, won’t lead this teenage father home.

Thrift store treasure

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Summer slips up on you in the Lowcountry. You have to know how to pace yourself. It’s too hot for doing too much. After a day’s writing, there’s nothing better than sitting on the porch and thinking of summers past. Summers when I would sit on the porch with Byrne Miller, both of us drinking wine and gathering up our skirts way past ladylike to keep cool.

How like a summer’s dream then that I stumbled on a souvenir of my life with Byrne. It came by way of a woman who, had she lived in Beaufort during Byrne’s era, surely would have been one of her many adopted daughters. Byrne would not only have approved of Lisa Rentz’ one-woman drive to publicize the arts in Northern Beaufort County – she would have capitalized on it. And she would have loved the fact that a decade after her death, Lisa left me this note in the mailbox of the house I bought from Byrne.

“Hi Teresa – thought you’d enjoy this. Found it in the pocket of a man’s blazer at a local thrift shop.”

It’s a ticket stub for a performance by the Oberlin Dance Collective – a company Byrne adored so much she convinced them to add Beaufort SC to their tour back in the year 2000. This is a San Francisco-based company that has performed for more than a million people in 32 states and 11 countries.

Their dancers and choreographers have collaborated with artists as varied as Robin Williams and Wayne Thiebaud. Beaufort must have been the smallest town they’d ever heard of, or danced for. They didn’t know the man in the audience wearing the blazer that wound up in a thrift store a decade later.

What they did know was that an amazing woman sitting in the front row set a chain of events in motion that led to that man putting on a blazer and paying $15 to see the one of the best modern dance companies in the world. Right here in a small southern town where summers are so hot you sit on porches with your skirt up and think about these whispers from the past.

When Horror Presents Itself…

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I’m on a comedy-writing roll. Mostly because I love it, but also because all the screenwriting gurus say you need to pick one genre and stick to it. Or as a manager I met at a pitch fest told me “You have to be in a box before I can get you out of it.” – Christopher Pratt.

Still, I’m tempted to try horror next. Purely because of a shoot I just wrapped in Muscatatuck, Indiana. Don’t get all insulted, Hoosiers, this isn’t a statement about your state. It’s just that one of the premiere military training centers in the world also happens to rent out its facility to filmmakers. The Muscatatuck Urban Training Center, which used to be a state mental asylum, is literally a 1,000 acre Disneyland of Disasters. All the old, art-deco hospital buildings double now as “embassies” and other “assets” military types need to train to defend.

They call it a full-immersion contemporary urban training environment. Which means they’ve built things like parking garages that collapse on command, to practice difficult urban search and rescue techniques. There’s an oil refinery that can explode at the push of a button, a pre-flooded suburb, and 1,866 feet of tunnels dug under an old prison.

While we were there shooting a project for FEMA, so were the Israeli Defense Forces. That’s how cutting edge it is. But what fascinated me the most was the creepy factor. There’s a haunting, man-made reservoir on the border of the property, surrounded by deep woods and FEMA trailers. Yes, the post-Katrina kind rejected for mold issues and now deemed toxic. We four-wheeled through the woods on Kubota go-carts only to find a trailer graveyard, doors swinging open with scary creaks.

Then there’s the Mental Hospital Museum. We used it as headquarters for our shoot, trying to ignore the 1950s–era instruments hanging from its walls. Hard to do when your laptop is set up under a straight jacket, very Silence of the Lambs. Even better is the automatic spoon machine used to feed the patients in the jacket. I couldn’t resist this photo.

The director says when he was charged with curating the collection, it looked as if all the patients up and left in the middle of the night. (note – there is an unmarked cemetery right off base…hmmm) He says you could get the place up and running again in a couple of months – if there was ever a need to return to mid-Reagan-era mental healthcare. Which is, of course, when mental patients all over the country  were booted out to fend for themselves. See, I wasn’t kidding about the horror part.

Only if it was a movie, you could happily munch popcorn while you scream. Even the logo works. “Defend the homeland. Win the peace. As real as it gets.”

Why Jokes Choke

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While I’m waiting to hear back from producers who requested to read my R-rated comedy “Free Corona,” I keep tweaking the screenplay. All writing is re-writing — I know this — I’m just not as sure when it comes to jokes.

I’m pretty confident most of the scenes in “Free Corona” are funny. Either that or the 14 people who staged a table read at my house are easily bribed. Full disclosure: there were gin and tonics; this is the Deep South. And I did promise everyone a dip in the creek when we got through. But here’s why I think the laughs were earned honestly: one joke completely choked.

Bruce Doneff – a PR exec who does Shakespeare on the side, was gamely reading the parts of four horny old retirees. At one point near the end of the second act, they try to shame a hapless maintenance man into admitting that he’s knocked up the girl, Corona, they all drool over. The dialog went like this:

Herb: It wasn’t me, that’s all I know.
(He pretends to stroke a bulging stomach.)
Herb: Big bee like mine would make a much bigger sting.

Bruce tried reading it one way, then another, using different pacing, until the whole room was rolling with laughter. The unintended kind that gives writers nightmares. He finally gave up.

“What the hell am I supposed to be saying here?” His glasses slid down his nose. I got the “honey this doesn’t work” look loud and clear.

I tried to explain. I really did hear this joke, out of the mouth of a Beaufort judge. Only it was in the 90s, and it was at a hot-tub party (no lie) and gossip had turned to how hugely pregnant a mutual friend looked.

The judge said, “Oh that’s nothing. You should have seen my wife when she was pregnant.” His wife was a little Southern belle, hard to picture hugely pregnant. So he clarified. “Guess it just goes to show. The bigger the stinger the bigger the bee sting.”

I still think that’s funny (I can’t speak for his now ex-wife) But where the joke died was in the re-write. I backed into it, got the timing tangled, basically butchered it by trying to steal it.
Hmmm…there’s a lesson in there somewhere. I’m just not sure if it’s for me or the judge.