I Was a Teenage Candy Striper


Despite the fact that I used to prompt my childhood physician, Dr. Don McDonald (we also had neighbors named Paul & Pauline Paulson with a son named Paul; all redheads. Just sayin’…) Again, despite causing Dr. Don to chase me round and round his office each and every time I needed a shot, the truth is — I’ve always been a medical geek.

I had a Nancy the Nurse doll (she came with a uniform, cape and forceps!) Adored playing the game OPERATION (more forceps!) And I so coveted the full leg cast Mary Elizabeth Devinney clomped into Sister Joel’s third grade class wearing one Friday, I nearly dove out the window hoping to score my own. (Yes, her name was Sister Joel.) But this fascination came to a glorious head the summer I became a candy striper.

I was ready — nearly an adult (eighth grade graduation fast approaching.) And I’d certainly done my homework. Since both the Bookmobile and The Taylor Library had waived their 10 book borrowing limit for me (it saved the librarian time), I was able to devour all 27 installments of the Cherry Ames series, whose titular star was a job-hopping, mystery-solving nurse (oh, yeah!)

…consume the seven Sue Barton novels (where she successfully combined raising a beautiful family with a high-powered nursing career!) 

…and gobble up the biographies of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. (Not satisfied to rest on her White House laurels, MTL worked tirelessly as a nurse tending to wounded during the Civil War. Now we’re talkin’…) 

I was also a dedicated patient of Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, and Marcus Welby, MD —  unquestioningly following their black and white advice week after week after week. (This was pre-HMO, PPO or POS; a much simpler time.) As I said, I was ready.

Alexander Eastman was a low slung building constructed in 1964. Though a small hospital — at the time it had about 26 regular and 6 maternity beds — AE’s candy striper program was legendary. It’s fair to say that in the town of Derry, NH this program was surpassed in popularity and esteem only by the Miss Patti Mills School of Baton.

I feel I should explain. Pinkerton Academy, the town high school, had a champion majorette and twirling squad. As their coach, Patti Mills was on a mission to ensure PA’s continued success. Therefore, in an effort to develop any and all local talent, the Patti Mills School of Baton hosted lessons for just about every girl in town, from kindergarten age on up. Several students rose to a level of twirling that was so remarkable it could have won the talent portion of the Miss America Pageant. I don’t know that this actually ever happened, just saying it could have. Patti Mills was that good.

At the end of each school year, the Mills students presented a twirling recital that rivaled many a state fair. It was easily three hours in length and filled every folding chair that could fit into the Gilbert H. Hood Middle School auditorium. In addition to the rows and rows of smiling parents, the audience demographic included those with a fascination for watching teenage girls in fringed and spangled leotards as they tossed batons into the air and those with a fascination for watching teenage girls in fringed and spangled leotards as they tossed batons with dangerously flaming tips within inches of a velvet theatre curtain. Come to think of it, that activity could have resulted in a visit to the Alexander Eastman emergency room, but I digress…

So you can imagine how honored and excited I was to receive the invitation to come down to interview to be a candy striper.  I know, I know, you thought this was as easy as joining the Girl Scouts. Or trying out for the Chess Team. No, no, no — not just anyone could don that vaunted striped pinafore with short-sleeve white shirt and matching anklets. You had to earn it!

So the next Sunday right after church, decked out in my most serious serious clothes, I found myself downstairs in the Alexander Eastman kitchen/cafeteria, where the floor to ceiling windows overlooked the slopes of Alexander-Carr Park.

[Ed. Note: This is pure conjecture. I do not now, nor have I ever known anything about said Alexanders; whether they founded (or losted) anything and the order in which they may or may not have done so. But in the absence of research, I’m taking a leap…]

At the far side of the room stood two women in white. The sun streaming in behind them caused their starched uniforms to positively glow. I shook hands with Rose Gerard, RN and Patricia Crabbe, LPN then took their proffered seat. I admit, I cannot remember the actual questions, but I do remember they made my hands sweat. This would be serious business, you’ll be dealing with sick and injured people in a hospital, do you think you’re up to the task? The memory puts me in mind of the feeling I get each time I sit in an exit row on an airplane. You know, when the flight attendant locks eyes with you and rotely inquires, “If this plane happens to crash, do you promise not to panic and leave us all here to die?” I may be paraphrasing… Okay now, back in Alexanderplatz-land my responses were as solemn and sincere as the occasion required. Apparently they were also successful because shortly thereafter, I got the call to come to training.

Yes, Virginia, there was candy striper training — a full week of it. It took place over a school break (Easter, I think), but each girl was still happy to be there. This was real. This was exciting. This was a hospital! First we toured the facility, including the one operating room (“Wicked neat!!!) The nurses on the ward smiled benignly as this gaggle of teenage nightingales fidgeted politely in our stiff as candy cane jumpers. We crackled behind the instructor, a line of starched baby ducks, just hoping to absorb, remember and not trip over our shoelaces.

“Always present yourself for your shift clean and ironed with your shoes freshly polished.”

Our classroom was a corner of the cafeteria. We started with a general first aid review. Then a hour on the proper technique for hand washing. Next we met two important tools of our trade, Lady Bed Pan and Mr. Urinal. We shook and shook and shook their hands until nary a giggle remained. We had an actual hospital bed at our disposal. No, not for napping; we needed to make ourselves one with that mattress. First, we made the bed while empty (piece of cake!) Then we learned to strip and remake it while it was occupied by a patient. No, we didn’t use actual patients; their malpractice coverage would not allow. Each trainee took a turn in the bed, which gave you a lot of information about what it would feel like as a patient being wrapped and handed and rolled. And then a turn at the bed, which gave you a lot of information about the mechanics of trying to move dead weight. While playing patient, I recall some of us were much sicker than others. (I’m talking to you, Sue…) Next we reviewed the controls. Head up, feet down. Feet up, head down. Feet down, no up. Oops, that’s the head…If you were going to make the egregious error of sandwiching a live body inside this mechanical mattress, the time was now. Your training partner was young and healthy. But you might just kill a patient…

And the icing on this sheetcake? That’s right, making hospital corners (no namby-pamby fitted sheets for we!) The hospital sheets were sturdy and starched, pressed flat in an industrial steamer. They felt rough against your fingertips as you struggled to make perfectly angled folds and tucks. The hospital mattress was stiff and unwieldy — this demanded some sweat. Then came the scrutiny; not just one corner, but all four. And if even one didn’t pass, do it again. For the final exam (there was a whole deal on the last day) they actually bounced a dime off the blankets (just like in G.I. Jane starring Demi Moore.) It was worth it, cause that’s a skill that never leaves you…

We were schooled in giving backrubs. Taught where to safely place a flower arrangement. Shown the proper way to fluff and stack pillows. Speaking of pillows, to this day I have never forgotten the instruction we received. One should never “hold the pillow under your chin and breathe on it” as you attempt to slip it into the case. (Apparently “unsanitary” and ‘”germ-laden.”) You should balance the pillow against your chest with your arms extended down and attempt to let the pillow slip itself into the case. I usually try to adhere to this behavior. When I fail, my solace is I’m usually dealing with my own pillows, so the cross-contamination possibilities are pretty circular. To be honest, those hard, stiff hospital pillows are a lot easier to drop into a pillowcase that anything a real person trying for a comfortable night’s sleep at home would ever buy. Just my opinion.

Soon we were on the floor, always working in pairs. And I know I’m not alone when I say that I spent as much time as I could in the little kitchenette. In additional to dispensing reading materials, and flowers, and sunny dispositions, we also provided snacks. There was a little cart which we loaded up with soda, and ice cream and saltines. But we liked to push the milkshakes. There was a fountain mixer in this little kitchen, and anytime we could convince a patient that a milkshake was what they needed, we got to skim a little bit off the top. It was a matter of poor portion control on our part, you simply couldn’t fit it all in one glass…

My most vivid memory was of one particular Sunday afternoon. I was working with Sue (she of the Oscar-winning patient routine, see above.) There was a particular nurse who generated fear in my heart whenever I saw her. I don’t recall her name, but she was dark haired, smart as a whip and wouldn’t take no never mind, if you get my drift. She was a big deal, because in addition to working on the floor, she was one of the surgical nurses on staff. So this particular Sunday, she approached Sue and I (starched and pressed and polished, I assure you) while she was dressed in bloody scrubs. This was different, very different. She told us to follow her and down we went — to the operating room!!!!!!!!

Our eyes were plenty big as she pushed the metal swinging doors open. There was blood everywhere. For me, not in a “Gross, I’m going to barf” way. More a “Wow, this is totally cool.” I could see Sue felt the same. Cleary this nurse knew how to read people. Because the next thing she said was, “Wanna’ help clean up? We just had an emergency spleenectomy and we’re short staffed.” You didn’t have to ask us twice.

Before  you say, “Yuck!” I’ll just let you know that Sue wanted to be a nurse and I wanted to be an orthopeodic surgeon. What happened after high school was that Sue went on to become a nurse and I was accepted into a pre-med program.

However, one day that summer before starting, I called the college and asked, “Excuse me, I’m coming there in the fall for pre-med. But I was wondering, ummm, do you have a theatre program?” The answer was, “No.” So, here I am —never an actual doctor, but ready to play one on TV.

But I was a teenage candy striper. An iconic role, indeed. Just ask Barbie.

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This Sponge Is Saturated


As I begin this official ripening process, I need to face down a major conundrum in my life. And leave it to a 1958 Rosalind Russell movie to effectively frame the issue for me.

Auntie Mame:  Oh, Agnes! Here you’ve been taking my dictation for weeks and you haven’t gotten the message of my book: LIVE!
Agnes Gooch: (tepidly)  Live?
Auntie Mame:  Yes, LIVE! Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving themselves to death!

See, here’s my deal. For years now, apparently I’ve been waiting for the right moment to start my actual life. Not consciously, mind you. I’ve been cleaning my closets and paying my taxes along with the rest of you.

Maybe it was the palm reading by that Argentinian folk singer, Nehuseniã, back in college. She took my hand, looked deeply into my eyes and said with great portent and a thick Brazilian accent, “You are an old soul. You will come to prominence later in life recreating something from the past.” Perhaps it was playing all those mothers, maids and matriarchs early in my career [I was tall. What’s your point?] That alone could have thrown me off my trajectory and into an unfulfilled ingénue loop where I’ve sat waiting for the appointed poison apple/wolf/fairy godmother to stop by and release me into adulthood.

Whatever the truth, living the “solitary life” (i.e., no kids, husband or mortgage) is not unusual in my circle here in the city. This scenario can seem poetically free or just plain sad, depending on the weather. But one thing is certain, it leaves everything up to me — the good and the bad. And since I don’t have to negotiate with anyone but myself to make changes in my life, where’s the big deal?

Given the choice [Ed. Note: Didn’t she just say that’s EXACTLY what she has?], I’d take living as Auntie Mame over Agnes Gooch. But for some reason, I keep stepping back into the Gooch’s shoes. To many — sometimes even myself — I am Auntie Mame. Extravagant, flamboyant, creative. Sixteen years ago when her daughter was born, my sister-in-law, Michelle, revealed she’d immediately cast me in that role with my newest niece, Claire. Since my nom de tante was already “Auntie Dee,” the stage was set. All right, I didn’t so much take them all on travels around the world as gift them of books to read. Educational. Enlightening. Infinitely cheaper to ship.

To others — and I head up this list — I’m Agnes Gooch, the faithful, schlumpy, diligent admin support for just about everyone’s life but my own.  I used to trip over myself making sure the new co-worker felt welcome. “Help paint your apartment, neighbor, why sure!!!” More than once on the job I’ve volunteered to take over someone else’s workload just because I could. Ever vigilant in my ear was my Mom whispering, “Be quiet. Work hard. Eventually you’ll be noticed.” But that path hasn’t ended up taking me where I want to go. And I’m pretty sure by the end of her life, even my Mom would have tweaked that advice.

So, who am I? Yes, yes, we all know the answer — I’m both. I’m everybody, as are we all, Amen. I’m Mame. I’m Gooch. I’m Catwoman and Donna Reed. I’m the Flying Nun and Shirley Partridge. I’m Peggy AND Kelly Bundy. I’m even Roseanne, with and without the Barr nuts. [The iconography of my youth. Keep it moving…]

Back to my original framework, most of the time in my world, I feel like Gooch. For years, I’ve been that thirsty sponge of obedience, standing on the sidelines waiting to soak up instruction and excitement, attuned for permission to finally what? Wipe up life’s messes? Ring myself out? Well, ladies and gentlemen, as a manager I once worked with used to keen in frustration when that “one too many” of items was introduced at a team meeting:

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. This sponge is saturated!!”

More of her anon. Me, I’ve reached my tipping point. The time has come to throw down Gooch’s dictation book and whip off the Coke-bottle glasses. I intend to slip into Mame’s opera pumps and toss that ermine-trimmed cape [Figure of speech. ONLY faux.] grandly about my shoulders. I finally have an appointment with the precipice of my own womanhood and I’m not about to be late. Because, in the brilliantly absorbent words of that “femme fatale,” Agnes Gooch:

Can I have an AMEN. And… Scene.

Pennsylvania Six Five O-O-Ohhh…


I would like to thank Michelle Obama for helping me inaugurate this blog.

A few weeks ago, I had one of those brilliant moments –  you know the kind I’m talking about. Time stops, sound dims and you see that BIG IDEA literally hanging right in front of you; crystal clear with a klieg light drop shadow. For me, a previously messy tangle of missed hopes, dreams and opportunities suddenly did an about-face and revealed itself as the perfect plan. And in a moment, I understood EVERYTHING.

By the next morning, however, I’d misplaced the blueprint. I hate it when that happens…

I was having dinner at Nizza, a lovely “Riviera bistro” in my neighborhood (Hell’s Kitchen, NYC.) Gerry and I are recent acquaintances. I met him through my long-time friend John, who’d been singing Gerry’s praises for years. Since I’m an actor/singer/writer and Gerry is a composer/arranger/accompanist, John thought we’d have a lot in common. He was right. And now Gerry and I are having dinner to discuss the possibility of working together on a new show idea of mine, RIPE.

Following appetizers — and one kick-ass Hendrick’s martini — we start to discuss the show. Now even though I’d chewed on this idea for years, I couldn’t yet spit out the PowerPoint version. So while I struggled to explain my premise to Gerry, I found it necessary to pull out all my highlights, history and hopes and set them on the table. Gerry’s an agile guy. He doesn’t trip over the landscape. Finally, I finish. He leans back and says, “Some time ago I made a decision to only work on shows that truly interest me. This idea fits right in my wheelhouse.” It’s agreed. We will work together. Cue the orchestra, the overture begins…

Now, since I’d tossed all those creative balls in the air, by the end of the evening a few were still bouncing. And that was when the magic happened — when everything aligned. And I knew in a moment the way for me to create this new show was to blog about it.

Over martinis on Ninth Avenue the evening before, the idea had sounded clear as a bell. By the next morning, I was Ethel frantically braying at Lucy, “Honey, what was our plan again?” Still, I couldn’t shake the determined feeling that what I’d arrived at over dinner was the way to go. My task now was to locate a creative particle accelerator somewhere inside my brain and get those freakin’ atoms to behave.

The following week, all I did was think. I ruminated. I pondered. I _____ (insert heavy-handed synonym of choice here.) [Ed. Note:This blog will occasionally be interactive. Keep shoes tied for safety.]

“Maybe,” I said to myself, “if I tidy up, sweep some of the administrative crumbs aside, things will start to roll.”

So I secured my domain name (www.ripeproject.com). I registered for a two night “How To Blog” seminar at Gotham Writers Workshop. I Googled “Best Blogs of 2011” and read through the listing complied by Time Magazine. As a blog virgin, I began to fear I needed some mountain-climbing equipment. The learning curve looked mighty steep. Still none of this regenerated the missing blueprint.

So I tried NOT thinking about it. I picked up a book and read it through in one night. It was an okay story, but a lousy book. So I tried another. [Ed. Note: my one bedroom apartment could function as the library for a tiny town. Books will be mentioned.] This second book, LITTLE BEE by Chris Cleave was an aching story by a tantalizing writer and it set everything ringing – my ears, my mind and my heart. Even though it had nothing to do with me, it was all about me. The atoms were stirring again.

Tonight, as I opened my mail box, I saw a letter — a long, elegant white envelope. Where the return address should be, just two words embossed in blue: Michelle Obama, address implied. Now, dear reader, I know this is an auto-generated mail piece. You know this in an auto-generated mail piece. And we both know that the First Lady couldn’t pick me out in a line-up. Even so, for just a second my brain burbled happily, “Oh, I got a letter from Michelle Obama. Sweet.”

[SFX] CUE Recurring Life Tape: Mirror Mirror 

As I gracelessly huff the three flights to my apartment, I stare at the envelope and the diatribe begins.

“Michelle Obama is younger than you are, has a great pair of arms and rocks a sweater set. She’s an accomplished attorney, the mother of two gorgeous, intelligent children and married to the President of the United States.”

The afterglow of Michelle’s postal attention fades before I hit the first landing.

TRACK TWO: Peggy Lee sings Is That All There Is?

“How did she do it? How did Michelle Obama create THAT life while I created — um, mine?”

The compare/contrast is never pretty but it’s a recurring theme for me. Maybe this explains my television addiction. It’s much easier spending Thursday nights with Michael Weston and Sam Axe tactically tripping the matchheads of their scorched Miami lives than actually dealing with my own. Throw in a DVR, I officially cede control.

But as I reached my apartment door, I remembered Gerry and the dinner and my project and suddenly I had a handle to grab on to. And I realize — I see the blueprint again — looking for all the world like a white envelope from Michelle Obama.

So, this project. My project. For several years it’s been little more than a title: RIPE. Evocative, I’m hoping, for me as well as the audience. RIPE will be a journey through story and song investigating what’s involved when you finally step up and live your authentic life.

Near the end of that dinner, Gerry had posited that perhaps this blog could try to illuminate the creative process – something that intrigues and confounds many, even those of us in the thick of it. Just the reflective task I was looking for, explaining me to myself.

So thank you, Michelle Obama, for helping me to launch my first blog and my first post. I haven’t opened your envelope yet, but I will. I wanted to take a picture for this posting (Doesn’t it look significant!) I have a feeling I know what’s inside. A request. For support. And there’s the creative for you, folks. It happens in the everyday. This envelope, seeking support has provided it to me instead. Without even revealing its soft chewy center, it’s helping me uncover mine. This might not have worked for everybody. But it did for me.

So I invite you to tag along for the ride. And now a toast to two women – Michelle Obama and me. We both have some extraordinary qualities. And by the way, I have this funny feeling that just like Gerry, Michelle and I are destined to become good, good friends. Hey, you never know…