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Sunday in the Park

It started with the CD I bought to get into the holiday spirit. One of those compilations at Starbucks that features everyone from Frank Sinatra to Elvis to Madonna, singing holiday songs that are secular classics. I played it in the car, loving the mix. I promptly lost the cover so I had to guess at the artist and the order. I decided to stick the CD in my computer where both the artist and order would be revealed. It was a defining moment of my holiday season. None of the songs I was enjoying were listed. Instead, an entirely different group of artists appeared singing entirely different music. "So this is Christmas," I sang along, with maybe Paula Cole, on a song written by John Lennon.

This week I ran away to Los Angeles — Beverly Hills to be exact. A tiny bit of business, but mostly a chance to be part of literary organization, PEN USA and their annual awards. I stayed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, built in 1912, a pink stucco hacienda-style castle, where they like to say every guest is treated like a star and it turns out to be true. Surrounded with the requisite palm trees, all the lemon trees had skirts of red poinsettias blooming around the trunks. After checking in Monday afternoon I made my way to Rodeo Drive before my late afternoon meeting.

The weather was beautiful and there were absurdly gorgeous flowers blooming everywhere. The Baccarat chandeliers hanging from streetlamps were so outrageous I wondered why we hadn’t thought of those here. Rodeo Drive has never been inviting to me. I watched important people with assistants in tow, scurrying around making lists and checking them twice. In a little cafe off on a side street, I sat down for a cup of tea and pastry. When all else fails, chocolate never does. The petit fours done up as fancy Christmas packages is one of the very things I find missing living in a mountain town.

On my way to Wilshire and William Morris Place, I passed the Valentino boutique and an unexpected sadness came over me. Years ago, a dear friend of mine was the manager there. He was perfect for the job. Elegant, attractive with an amazing sense of style and wickedly funny. We shared a lot of holidays together with mutual friends and my kids thought of him as Uncle Tommy. When his long-time lover died of AIDS in the early ’90s, we all held our breath. Tommy got on the new medicine cocktail and lived for nearly a dozen years more. I last saw him at a cafe on Rodeo. The disease had devastated his body but not his spirit and not his twinkling eyes. His memory hit me with a physical presence when I walked past the store. I hurried on to my meeting.

The offices of William Morris are black and white. The couches, the walls and the artwork — huge black and white photos of legends in the music business. I had the full tour and talked about future acts we’d like to book in Park City. Then I headed back to the hotel. Darkness had fallen and the Baccarat chandeliers were all aglow. My driver, from West Congo, admitted after 10 years in the states, the whole Beverly Hills thing was still surreal to him, too.

Everyone said I needed to make certain to go to the hotel’s famed Polo Lounge for a drink. When I approached, a woman of a certain age alone, the hostess did treat me as she had been carefully taught, as if I was the most interesting and important guest she had seated all night. She pulled a reserved sign off a tiny two top and insisted I sit across from the piano player. I protested such treatment. She looked at me, winked and said you want to be right here. When Tom Cruise came in to meet with his new studio investors in the booth next to me, I decided she must have had insider information. When Katie Holmes came over to greet her new husband, after her own meeting across the room, I smiled to myself. And when Robert Downey Jr. showed up with a woman who had real hips, I thought I should overtip that hostess. It was exactly the kind of amusement you would expect such a fine hotel to offer. (Note to Stein Eriksen Lodge, program glitterati on a Monday night when no one would expect it.)

I slept seamlessly in the featherbed and woke to another day of warm weather, fabulous gardens and reading trashy magazines in a bubble bath. By the time my dinner engagement came around I was as relaxed as I’ve been in weeks.

The dinner honored the finest writers in the West in categories ranging from best fiction to best screenplay. The event was held in the hotel’s elegant Crystal Ballroom where the chandelier resembled cabbage roses on steroids in soft pink. Larry Gelbart who wrote "Mash," "Tootsie," "Oh God" and a whole lot of other great stuff was the emcee. PEN USA (which stands for Poems, Essays, Novels) has a kind of double mission, to support the Freedom of Expression and the First Amendment. So while the American piece of this is the cornerstone, the need to support writers trying to tell the truth the world over has been a parallel cause. Speaking truth to power, is something people are still dying for each day.

The night included a tribute to a Russian woman journalist who had been persecuted for trying to write the truth. Honored just two years ago for her courage by PEN, on this night she was remembered. She had been murdered in October. Iraqi journalists who go to the front lines to capture news on film and in word, where it’s too dangerous for Americans journalists to go, were also honored. They are often murdered by fellow Iraqis for trying to tell the truth. We stood in solidarity with them. Ditto the winners of the First Amendment Award, the two journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle, who broke the drugs-in-baseball story (Barry Bonds et al) and are facing time in a federal penitentiary for not revealing their sources. George Clooney and his writing partner, Grant Heslov, won for their screenplay, "Good Night and Good Luck," about the father of modern journalism, Edward R. Murrow and the balance between the public’s need to know and the public’s right to know.

I served as a judge in the literary journalism category and, with two other judges, read more than 90 entries from Atlantic Monthly to Rolling Stone. The winner was Heidi Benson from the San Francisco Chronicle, whose haunting piece on young historian, Iris Chang and her suicide, dealt with gun laws, mental illness and ghosts from World War II. By the time Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jane Smiley accepted her lifetime achievement award with a witty talk, I was on sensory overload. At the evening’s end we were gifted with the five books that had received awards that night. I floated back to my featherbed.

Good thing I slept well. I returned home to find out the fire department had been called to my house, the smell of smoke was from my 30-year-old furnace catching fire. The good news is, only the furnace burned. After a business holiday party that same night I fell asleep at my friend’s elegantly decorated home and woke up disoriented, until I remembered I was at neither the Beverly Hills Hotel nor my own bed. (There was no furnace and hence no heat at home.) I ran off in the morning without even time for tea, to yet another meeting. When I jumped in my car, the raspy voice started singing, "So this is Christmas," and I had to laugh. It is an off-kilter year for me. But I plan to get a tree and into the spirit soon, maybe this very Sunday, in the Park


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