December, 2003

Pardonnez Moi

December 30th, 2003 December 30th, 2003
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I’m learning to speak the lingo, a little bit every day. America is pronounced “Mericuh” and rhymes with “duh!” around these parts, I’m reliably informed. Today I consciously noticed that Americans (or at least, midwesterners) say “Excuse me,” when they want to get past you in the supermarket or need your attention. They do this on occasions where I find myself saying sorry. I need to stop apologising and learn to let people know, politely, that I’m here.

Yes, we were taught to say excuse me when I was a child. Mum taught us that it was polite and well-mannered. Manners are a dying art now in the south of England, as far as I can tell. Most people would rather drop a door in your face than wait a few extra seconds to hold it for their fellow human. At least, that’s my impression. I was rather stressed what with crazy shift work and all.

Then again, they sell ammo here in the local superstore. Yes, the same nice people who say “Paper or plastic?” at the checkout and bag your groceries for you can load you up with live rounds too.

I’m kind of glad that the people buying and selling these things are all so awfully friendly and polite. I can just imagine what would happen if the inhabitants of Watford or Hemel Hempstead were able to shop for bullets along with the groceries. Something along the lines of, “Are you tawkin’ t’ me? Are YOU tawkin’ t’ ME?” Blam! Blam! Blam! “Excuse me.” “Excuse you? Sure, I’ll excuse you! With this!!” Bam Bam Bam Bam Bam!

England, I found, was very stressful.

I’m Dreaming

December 25th, 2003 December 25th, 2003
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snowpicsmall.jpgIt’s snowing here in Michigan. There’s been two inches over night and it’s still falling. Last night, we went to the candlelight service at the First United Methodist Church. I have no idea what all these denominations mean but I enjoyed the service, which was like a full-on production with a beautiful choir, bell-ringers, carols, candles and a fine sermon on the nature of being saved.

The pastor used a line from Titanic to illustrate his point. It was the line where Rose, in her twilight years, says of Jack Dawson, “He saved me, in every way that a person can be saved.” For me, that film–and perhaps that line in particular–have made me reflect every time I’ve enountered it. So often, I’ve felt myself turning a corner, rediscovering what’s important and what’s not after watching it. It’s about the nature of who we are and what are we doing with our lives. What makes life important, worth living?

This year, so much. So much has happened. The trip to California, driving down Highway One at the end of February, staying at Deetjen’s in Big Sur. Seeing the mist roll in from the sea leaving trees in stark relief against this silent backdrop from an many-windowed art gallery up on the cliffs. We drove to the soundtrack of James Bond, watching the sea from the rocky shores of Monterey, walking on the sandy shores of Santa Monica, seeing elephant seals basking on the sand, connecting with friends in CA and sitting in the sun listening to drums at Hermosa Beach while the world passed by.

proclaimers.jpgIn June and July, there was our trip to Scotland. We drove down to Kent to see Mum first. Then we were off on our pre-marital honeymoon. Narrow winding roads with passing places through the farms and along the shoreline of Kintyre. Our cottage by the seaside. A view of Arran, re-christened Mordor because of its appearance rising out of the fog on our first day. The Proclaimers live at The Pavilion on the Isle of Bute and discovering Craig and Charlie were staying at our hotel. Ah, the Proclaimers. Music that I’ve found makes me very happy. They’re playing now while Laura fries bacon and sausages for breakfast.

Two visits to Toronto thanks to America’s strange immigration laws. Seeing Niagara Falls that first time in mid May. My first baseball game, the Bluejays playing Texas in the August sunshine at The Skydome, fast-pitching, easy-going, beer-in-hand spectator sport. Two visits to Ann Arbor in the Spring before that. The Ann Arbor Film Festival and seeing Fate & Fortune projected on a big screen with an audience who’d chosen to be there. Winning a scriptwriting prize and having a work performed.

Quitting my job and selling my house were big steps. In some ways, they actually felt bigger than moving the USA. I’ve thought more than once that I should have left the BBC sooner, probably after the first six months. But I didn’t and what can you do? You can’t go back. I keep going forwards. Finishing The Car and having the screenings at Soho House was yet another step in the right direction.

atpetes.jpgLiving with Pete for a month was fun. And kind of a re-birthing process. Sorting out the accumulation of a lifetime. Several visits to the dump, charity shops, car boot sales. Giving away some things to people who I thought would like them and could use them. So much Stuff. Purging. Whittling everything down to about a third of what I had built up and arranging for that to be shipped to the USA. Now it sits on the dockside in New York where it’s been for nearly a month waiting for the US authorities to get their act together.

Happy days hanging out with Mike and Julie, the evening of cocktails, the carboot sale, their wedding in May. That was a great day. So many others. My friends in the UK. Introducing them all to Laura and Laura to them. Sitting out in the garden at the White Hart Tap. Getting free drinks at the Lower Red one evening during their annual beer festival. Filmstock festival in Luton and meeting Martin Ayres again having got in to the opening film on a free ticket. Meeting up with Mike Wright later in the year for a few beers. Many many good meetings, happy times.

Then driving up to Morecambe to see my sister and my mum. Seeing mum for the last time, as it turned out. Sad. Mum so frail. Finding out now that she knew she was dying, didn’t have long to live and her not telling us. So brave. Such a kind dear mother, a kind dear person. Jaffa driving me to the airport on October 31st. Laura meeting me dressed as Trinity. A dream within a dream. Halloween. Walking around Ann Arbor in fancy dress, sitting out at the Diag in the centre of campus.

November and December. Meeting with Geoff Glover’s cameraman friend at Stratton Camera in Farmington Hills. Robin Browne. Such a friendly, nice man. Very down to earth. Then the driving test, the student films, the Michigan Theatre and shooting American Short Film on DV. More lessons learned. Mum’s passing away in the middle of all that. The service of remembrance for her. Quiet. Peaceful.

Evelyn-Keith-Laura.jpgAnd now it’s Christmas. There was more, much more. Theatre, cinema, music. And there were friends, good friends. And my family. And today there is Laura. Keith and Laura, warm and snug as the snow falls gently outside. A lone squirrel ventures out to forage then vanishes again. Peace. Gentleness.

I wish you all a gentle, peaceful Christmas with the ones you love and happy memories. Memories of a year well lived, lived to the full. That was the gift Jack Dawson gave to Rose and I can wish to give no other.

Burning Twice As Bright

December 24th, 2003 December 24th, 2003
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It’s Christmas Eve. I can hardly believe it. Since I got here, my feet have barely touched the ground. I’ve networked like crazy–joined this, visited that, touched base with so many people–and spent quite a lot of time acquiring the bureaucratic stuff needed for life in America. In the past six weeks I’ve achieved getting a social security number, a bank account, a US driving licence (which involved taking a road test and a written test) and an American Express card (which gives me a credit rating, even though I have no job).

My latest project is putting together an application to the University of Michigan for a job teaching film and video, which would be really fantastic. This has involved writing a philosophy of teaching, which I may post here once it’s done. That all came about because I was a judge at the end of term student film screenings. And that came about because I met up with a nice guy called Shrihari Sathe, who is president of the student film and video association.

How did I meet him? Well, in between working through a Photoshop training manual (now completed–it took a month) I volunteered myself at the Michigan Theater to run something called Cinema Slam, a bi-monthly programme of short films which used to be run by my friend Amelia Martin, who has since moved on to work in New York. Cinema Slam seemed like a good way to network as well as an opportunity to see lots of shorts. Yes, by the way, we really did go out and film a fifteen minute drama last week, American Short Film, on DV equipment.

Now, as I say, I’m doing the UofM job application and this requires me to get a number of reference letters, which I’ve been chasing up in the UK. So far, so good, although trying to get anything sensible out of BBC Human Resources is like trying to get blood out of a stone. One of my former managers thought I had my standards too high for what I expected from them, but I think to myself that surely the BBC itself sets the bar when it calls for a four page application for any job then makes you pass a board.

In between all that, I’ve been watching the currency rates go up and down. Mainly up, as far as the dollar-stirling rate is concerned. Last week it hit $1.76 to the pound and I finally had the all important social security number which meant I could open a bank account, so I bought a goodly amount through an online site. If this works out, I’ll post the link.

All well and good, you might think. But no. Mercury is retrograde, so purchases, internet and communications in general all go awry. First we discover that there is a transaction limit of 10,000 for online banking with LloydsTSB. Because the internet is unsafe? Hmm. Then why are they letting me access my bank account at all? Hmmm. So, I transfer 10k amounts until I hit the second wall–a 30k daily limit. Good grief.

In the end, I transfer the money over more than one day using online banking. So far, so good again. But no. Again. Today, the whole lot is back in my account with “rejected” on the statement and can I find out why? No. LloydsTSB is no longer a bank but a number of call centres, none of which can help me directly by simply moving the cash from my account to my currency dealer’s bank. Good grief again. I waste 45 minutes in phone calls and then set up the payments again with a different sort code. Maybe it will work this time.

Candle.jpgI am stressed. I read my emails. There’s only one new one and it immediately slows me down. Simon has been to light a candle at St Albans Abbey. He’s not the first–Mike and Julie went the other day. Yet it’s another reminder; I have friends and they care. Simon has taken a couple of photos with his mobile phone and sent them to me. Mum’s candle is the one in the middle. Despite all the hassles of the morning, I am filled with a sense of peace. I come here, write my scribbles, pause and drink my tea. People. That’s what’s really important. The people in one’s life.

Thank you to everyone who lit candles. It’s appreciated. You folks are all the best.

A Life Less Ordinary

December 22nd, 2003 December 22nd, 2003
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We held a memorial service for mum on Sunday. Quiet and informal, just seven of us and the pastor, Marsha, at the church. Marsha lit the advent candles and got me to talk a little bit about mum with the lighting of each one. They were happy memories. Holidays abroad, Christmas. I had good parents. Marsha read some scripture and I left with a feeling of peace.

My sister, Elizabeth, told me today that mum had been receiving some kind of benefit for care. She already knew about the benefit. What she didn’t know before was they only give it to people with six months to live. Apparently mum knew how long she had, more or less. That makes me feel sad. Although immensely proud too. Mum knew. And she didn’t want to burden us. What can I say? She was a fantastic person and a wonderful mother.

Elizabeth also told me that the cards for mum haven’t stopped coming. Dozens of them, every day, addressed to us, in sympathy. Elizabeth is going to put aside a wooden statuette of Don Quixote which we brought back from Spain one year. My parents took us to Spain when everyone else was going to holiday camps. Dad learned to speak fluent Spanish.

Don Quixote reminds me of so much. He reminds me of those happy times, on the beach, drinking Coca Cola, sun, sea, sand. The statue, roughly hand carved, reminds me of the artistic talents and craft skills my parents passed on to me and fostered. The story, Cervante’s classic, reminds me of the love of literature my mum gave me, nurtured by frequent trips to the library.

Then there’s Man of La Mancha, still one of my favourite films, so heartrendingly tragic, which reminds me of the greatest gift my parents gave me: to dream the impossible dream. My everyday striving to achieving something, something more. Finally, there he is, Quixote, fully armoured with the pie tin on his head and that bite mark in it. And I remember the joy of simplicity and laughter.

Peace and joy, fond memories and inspiration to carry me forward on this winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. And yet, it isn’t really dark at all, because sitting over there is my Laura, my light, who mum was so pleased I’d met, so pleased to meet herself and so happy for us both. Mum said, “She’s like the girl next door when you get lucky with the neighbours.” No matter how dark the sky, the women in my life make me smile.

And then…

December 17th, 2003 December 17th, 2003
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Mum died on Monday. Elizabeth phoned, tearful, to tell me. She passed away peacefully in the morning. Sad. I’ve been too busy, almost, to grieve but I wanted to keep busy. Keep moving. Now I can stop. Pause. And feel sad.

We’re having a memorial service in Ann Arbor on Sunday afternoon as I can’t go back to the UK for the funeral. Well, I can go back but then I’d have to apply for another visa to get back. And that could take six to nine months, like the last one. Painful. Sad. But at least I can do something here.

Doing something. Why is that important? I’m not sure. Life goes on, I guess, and doing something affirms that.

I’ll go back to Britain when I can and hope that my friends will light a candle for my mum in the Abbey. I don’t know why the candle works for me, but it does. A symbol of spirituality, a mark of someone passing on from when Grandma used to take us to the Catholic Church in West Hampstead.

Last night I spoke to Uncle Owen in New Zealand. It was so good to talk to him without the several second phone delay you get in England. He’s quite a character. One day, we’ll go out to see him again too. Now I can pause. And feel. And feel sad. Mum’s gone.

American Short Film

December 14th, 2003 December 14th, 2003
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First day of filming. We have a DV camera. Just. A Canon ZR40. Detroit Film Coalition loaned us one for five days for $75. After a night of being plugged in, I can now confirm that the battery doesn’t actually hold any charge so we will have to run it off the mains, even for exteriors. That, however, is the least of our worries. Two of the main actors have flaked out on us in the past two days.

Laura’s friend Mark might be able to play one of the roles but he’s not available weekdays. We don’t seem to have enough extras but only three people came to the audition. I recruited another actress last night at the end of term student film awards for the University of Michigan. (I was one of the judges–it’s a long story and I haven’t blogged it yet but the standard was exceptional.)

DFC (located in a less than savoury part of the Detroit–okay, that’s pretty much any part of Detroit) is closed for the holidays now until January 12th but I’ve arranged to get lights and camera kit back to them on Thursday as a special favour. This means we only have until Thursday to complete our 15 page parody of American Movie.

The crew consists of myself (director/camera), Gordon (a student and writer who is doing sound and lighting), Janet (our production assistant who is partway through a gender change) and John the producer/writer/star. John has a mains adapter for his car so we can run the camera outside otherwise I think we would be… oh, what’s the phrase? Stuffed. Yes. But we’re not. Not yet.

Oh, and to add to the insanity, it’s snowed overnight. Just a light dusting but it’s still falling. The forecast is two to four inches. The temperature outside is 28F (that’s -2C) with a windchill bringing it down to 22F (-5C). Today we’re filming a barbeque scene. I’m looking forward to getting that shot where someone goes to pour a Coke and nothing comes out because it’s frozen.

In other words, same old same oh.