Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Back from Nawlins

I just took an impromptu trip to New Orleans, city of beautiful antebellum homes, lush greenery, amazing food, and lots of mosquitoes. I have 21 mosquito bites on my left leg. Only 3 on my right; my right must somehow taste different.

I went down for work, strangely enough. My foundation is heavily involved in New Orleans reconstruction, and there was a party to honor the woman who has been the key player/liaison. another key player was organizing it, and she needed help. My foundation sent me.

This is the first "work" trip I've ever taken, and it was a glorious feeling to charge my meals and know they would be reimbursed. Of course, you also have to submit an itemized receipt, and there is a limit on what you can spend each day, but still -- this was a nice thing.

Being a Maughan (anyone who knows my dad will know what I'm talking about) I have to describe the food. It was amazing. Each time I looked at a menu, my first impression was that there wasn't anything on there I would want. Each time I ordered something, however, I was impressed beyond belief. There were the beignets, squares of fried dough mounded with powdered sugar. (Be careful when you inhale.) There were the crab claws in garlic butter. The seafood remoulade. The crab salad. The gumbo. Ah, me.

There was also the private jet. Now, I should state that my company did not pay for me to fly down on a private jet; our consultant is working closely with a woman who owns a private jet. This woman was in New York and flying home to new Orleans that same day, so it made sense I should "catch a ride." When Juliet (the consultant) first used that term I had a fleeting image of being picked up in a car, and thought, "But wait, we're not driving to New Orleans." Then she used the term "wheels up at four," and I thought, "Holy crap, this is a jet we're talking about!"
(and I want to point out that I was using the term "holy crap" long before the late Peter Boyle on Everybody Loves Raymond. This is my reputation we're talking about, here.)

Private jets come highly recommended. I have to add my recommendation to those. One thing that it does for you, though, is confirm a long-suspected but rarely voiced sentiment: air travel DOES NOT HAVE TO SUCK.

We arrived at the small airport in good time. We used the clean, fresh-smelling and lovely bathroom. We went into the waiting area and snacked on apples and popcorn (free) and eyed the selection of coffees and teas. No ID presentation, no security line, no body searches, just a friendly greeting. Then they motioned that the plane was ready, and we boarded a tiny bus that shuttled us the, oh, two blocks distance to the plane. We ascended a small flight of stairs and took our seats, each one of which was approximately four feet from another, in any direction. We could have sat on the couch, or even gone into the back room and reclined on the bed, but we were not that tired. Save that for international flights. Our hostess, the owner of the jet, gave us bottles or water or cans of soda, and candy bars or crackers. She offered us as much as we wanted, and pushed more on us after we'd each taken some. (She was a true Southern lady.) And we chatted pleasantly across the length of the United States until we landed, three hours later. My bag--which had been taken by the chauffeur before we went to the airport--reappeared right next to me in front of our car. Amazing.

All right, that's a long paragraph devoted to the trip down, but I don't anticipate flying privately again any time soon. I had to immortalize it. I flew back Jet Blue with a four hour delay, which promptly brought me back to reality.

I got a "destruction tour" of the areas that flooded and are in the proces of rebuilding. It was eerie to watch the water line get higher and higher as we went further into Jefferson Parish and Gentilly. Many lots are empty, and since this place was densely populated you know that each empty spot is a house that has been torn down and cleared away. Many homes were still boarded up, some with spray paint as to when the rescuers arrived (up to two weeks later) and who they were (eg the California National Guard or another unit) and what they found (one said "Five dead cats in back.") Other homes are destroyed and there's a trailer in the driveway; the trailer is where they are living. And then there are some nice, brand-new homes there too, fresly rebuilt.

I did not see the Lower Ninth Ward; we didn't have time. Jefferson and Gentilly are where the canals flooded and people drowned in their attics. Lower Ninth was destroyed by a storm surge that exploded through the levees; survivors said it sounded like a bomb. It wiped everything right off its foundation. I don't know how much has been cleaned up.

The higher-lying areas look pretty good. My friends said that you could tell there was a hurricane; immediately after roofs had been affected and trees were down, but that is relatively easy to clean. I stayed in the French Quarter, and you would never guess there was anything there. I also saw the Superdome, site of so much disastrousness. (not a word, I know.) And I was told the story of Amtrak calling Ray Nagin, informing him ahead of the hurricane that they were removing all their trains, and should he like to load those trains with those people who didn't have another means of escape, he was welcome...and him not responding to any of their calls. "Buffoonery," was how someone described it. Sigh.

But the New Orleans experience was great. I plan to go back some time relatively soon. It might be the site of a new work-in-progress. We'll see. Meanwhile I'll just entertain my memories of beignets.
I'll try to attach some pictures later. I didn't take very many.

Friday, June 6, 2008


There's a fine line between "low rise" and "falling off."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

In praise of science

It was a fantastic weekend. New York City hosted the World Science Festival, and though I wasn't able to attend most of the events I did go to a play and a reading at Columbia University, my alma mater.

Saturday night's offering was QED by Peter Parnell (who wrote Sorrows of Stephen) about Richard Feynman, a famous physicist who worked on the atom bomb and figured out why the Challenger exploded. It was almost a one-man show (one other character showed up a couple of times, with a fairly limited interaction) starring the legendary Alan Alda. I'll tell you, when someone as distinctive as Alan Alda is onstage almost alone for an hour and a half and you don't think even once of his iconic Hawkeye Pierce character, you know that's good acting. (I saw him in a wonderful play called Art many years ago, and it was the same experience.)

I went to see this play because of the new screenplay I'm working on. I don't want to give a lot of details, but it is based on a famous scientist and a certain time period in that scientist's life. (There will be no "creation of the person" story, even though the childhood merits its own movie!) So while this screenplay focuses mostly on the interpersonal trials of the scientist, it absolutely has to integrate a lot of science in it; we can't have them talk purely about 'their issues,' because science is such a basic part of their everyday lives. The question we're facing, then, is how to go about it? How often, and how much detail? Scientists talking to each other aren't going to dumb it down for the audience; they'll be speaking in terrific, deep scientific jargon that the average person doesn't understand. How long can we do that before we turn the audience off? How much is needed to give it a feel of veracity?

Watching QED Saturday night answered quite a few of these questions. The scientist character, Richard Feynman, talked about many angles of his life: how he learned Russian to be able to travel to a tiny area called Tuva; his bongo playing; his work on the Challenger explosion and how he refused to append a "nice job, NASA" at the end of their report; his work on the atom bomb; the death of his wife; his own battle against cancer. I've only touched the tip here, because this was an incredible man with diverse and fascinating interests and talents. The office set was interesting. He had a messy desk, a couple of chairs, a radio, shelves, and two blackboards, which were covered with equations. I stared at them blankly. In the Q&A period after the play was over, Alan Alda said, "I'm sure most of you recognize this as a Feynman diagram," and the audience (made up mostly of scientists) murmured their assent. I thought, "Holy cow. This is a case in point right here." I understood literally nothing of these equations, but I trusted them. They're over my head, and that's a good thing. The equations need to be correct for the scientists, but they just need to be *there* for the rest of us.

Earlier in my scriptwriting process, I wrote a scene where one of the scientists is teaching calculus to children. As I wrote it by myself, I wrote "Math math math" as a placeholder. "Math question?" "Math answer." Then I went home for a break, and one day grabbed my brother, who's been through several semesters of calculus. He brought in his elementary calculus book (the kind that would be taught to children...very smart children, that is) and we found an equation that could go on the board and figured out the exact questions and answers for the scene. I admit, even after Christopher had explained it all to me, I didn't really get it. (I felt my brain forming a hard, protective shell as he talked.) But reading through the scene after I realized how great it is to have those facts and figures. Ground it in reality!

Okay, so back to the Science Festival. The second night I went to a reading called "Dear Albert," put together by Alan Alda, which was a collection of Einstein's letters to and from his wives and a couple of their friends. He'd had to edit and select sections and tie them together to form the story of Einstein's life. Small factoids: In 1905, Einstein wrote *three* groundbreaking papers, so revolutionary that each spawned its own branch of physics. Max Planck, another legendary physicist, read one of them and said, "The world as we know it has changed." (That may not be an exact quote, but it's close.) Einstein plays only a peripheral role in my screenplay, but again I wanted to see what was done to make him accessible to today's audiences.

It was a terrific piece. He had an unhappy first marriage and an unhappy first wife; both came through loud and clear. And then some of his letters mentioned, in the most offhand way, his earth-shattering work that would change the scientific world. Wow.

After the play was over, people were milling about and Mr. Alda was talking with the audience members who approached him. I generally don't talk to celebrities, figuring they want to be left alone more than they want to talk to me, but he was being kind and talking with anyone who wanted to, so I got brave. I mentioned my screenplay to him, and who it was about, and he got really excited, saying he'd been looking into this same scientist and working on a project of his own. Wow! He asked me what my research plans were, and what sources I've been using, and I told him and he got more excited. At this point, the house managers were getting antsy and asked us all to leave, so Mr. Alda asked for my card. I only had my book card on me (which leads him to my km website, which could lead him to this blog! Hi, Mr. Alda!), and I gave it to him, and then walked out of there thinking, "Alan Alda asked for my card!"

I work at The Rockefeller Foundation, which helped sponsor the Sunday night reading of Dear Albert. Monday I approached Joan, the woman in charge of that department, and told her how thrilled I was that RF was part of that great evening. I told her about my meeting Alan Alda, and she said something I had already figured out: "He's such a wonderful man. So kind and gracious." Yay for good people.

A quick personal note only peripherally about Alan Alda: I am very close to my dad, and this is in a small way due to our nightly viewings of MASH after the ten o'clock news. He and I watched it together almost every night on channel 5. My mom and my siblings never joined us; it was just the two of us together. We watched the entire syndicated schedule, from the earliest Henry Blake episodes to the latest Colonel Potter-and-Charles (and BJ in a pink shirt) ones. It got to the point where we could look at each other within two minutes and say, "Oh, this is the one where Colonel Flagg calls himself 'the wind,'" and then turn back to the TV and keep watching. So I know I'm close to my dad for other reasons than MASH, but the two are very closely linked in my mind.

I am figuring out a few more book promotions, but nothing concrete yet. I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, vive la science!