Travels with My Annette… or Planes, No Trains and Automobiles.


It was a big project — the biggest I’d ever worked on.

Everyone on the production team traveled to DC for four days and three nights. Our sheer number had us scattered around town at five different sleeping hotels. But every morning we taxied and shuttled to the venue hotel, where it all happens.

Working a corporate event (which was why we, the production team, were there) is a tiring venture. You spend months preparing the show of your client’s dream (their corporate, not necessarily personal dream.) As a team you propose, create, write, build, assemble, print, proof-read, film, record and word process, all in the service of making it come alive. Then you go do just that — travel to the pre-chosen city for the birth of a bouncing, beautiful show!.

So four days and three nights later, we’re ready to go home. Really ready. Annette and I are traveling together. We grab a cab, wave good-bye to that Grand Dame of Connecticut Ave, The Mayflower Renaissance (where, incidentally, the first night I flooded the entire bathroom floor as I tried to take a relaxing bath. I did not find that relaxing) and taxied to Ronald Reagan National Airport.

A little backstory: Annette had shared her habit of curb-side check-in, which required having a boarding pass. Eager to join, I’d printed my boarding pass at the hotel. It hadn’t been easy. I had my travel info on my phone in an email. Somewhere. After 10 minutes of searching, I found it. I went to the concierge station to the complimentary boarding pass printer and selected my airline – USAir. I put my confirmation number it, but was told although my travel info said I was flying USAir, American (with whom they merged last year —  which merger kicked-off, incidentally, on the very day I was flying USAir back home from another event in Phoenix — it’s own story…) Anyway, although ticketed to USAir, my actual plane was being run by American and I needed to go to their website to check-in. I tried. But they wanted my ticket number on the American site, not my confirmation number. My ticket number was 225 emails down on my computer (too far back for my phone), already packed, back up back in my room. So, elevator up, unpack and start the laptop, locate the email, note the ticket number, run back down, print out the boarding pass, gather my things — now, we’re back in the cab (everybody with me?)

We reach Reagan. The taxi driver drops us at the American Airlines gate. We step up to do curbside and the sidewalk attendant starts to do the standard kiosk “check in” routine. We say, “No, no, we have our boarding passes, we want curbside check-in.” He looks confused. We point to our bags. He points at the door to the terminal. We look at each other and start walking. We get in side and see the luggage drop off conveyer just inside the door – yay!

We get to the attendant, he points to a small sign — Virgin Airways. We say “American?” He gestures further down the hallway. We start walking and dragging and fuming. We see another luggage conveyer – not ours. We ask an airport employee. He indicates to keep walking, past two more stations. I’d like to remind readers that we’d exited the taxi at the door that said “American Airlines.”

Finally we find our luggage drop-off. We step up to the attendant. She checks our paperwork, then silently points. Although this is our luggage area, we need to walk around, through a construction cordon, to the back of the structure to actually hand off our bags. The fuming had continued and the temperature of the terminal had risen to a humid 89 degrees inside my mohair sweater coat.

We hand the bags in and finally, we’re luggage free. Except for handbags and rolling carry-ons. Next we’re pointed down the escalator to find our gate. Let me mention here that I have trouble with escalators, it’s a balance thing. They always fill me with trepidation. So an escalator with a big handbag and a rolling carry-on while sweating in a fussy mohair coat — the highlight of my week! Or so I thought…

We found the security line for American. When we reached the security guard, she pointed over her shoulder all the way down the huge arched hallway. “The red flag,” she piped then looked past us to the next person.  Annette trundled off and I followed. I kept looking for this red flag. Far, far down, at the end of the airport tunnel I saw a huge Stars and Stripes. “Where’s the red flag?,” I asked Annette. “There,” she pointed in front of us. “I can’t see one,” I said, “I don’t have my glasses. I only see an American flag.” We stumbled to a halt. Just as we were trying to decide whether to continue or turn back, that same airport employee who’d helped us upstairs happened by. “We have a stupid question,” I whined as sweat dripped down my nose. Annette continued, “We’re looking for American Airlines security?” He gestured back from whence we came. “See that woman…” He pointed right at the lady who’d sent us packing. We both started to sputter, then acquiesced. The man stayed surprisingly polite, considering at that point we must have looked like the Golden Girls minus one on holiday without a map.

So we trudged back to the same security attendant. I hadn’t noticed her marked island accent the first time, but this time it was clear as day. “You silly ladies are back? I told you — the red flag, all the way down!” She smiled a bit indulgently but shook her head at the same time, which put a definite crimp in the niceness.

Back down the hallway we rolled. And walked. And sweated. Well, I sweated, Annette, wisely, was wearing a more breathable fabric. Finally, we see way at the end, by the big red (and white and blue flag) another American Airlines security line, handling passengers for our specific gate. And I mean finally. It was at the very, very end of the hallway, essentially taking us back in the direction where we’d originally entered the terminal. So, in essence, I guess the American Airlines door where we’d exited the taxi was technically close to where we had to enter to catch our American Airlines flight. If you looked at this in a very three-dimensional, as the crow flies, shortest distance between two points, way — had we been able to walk in the door and slide down a chute.

The hallway. THE flag.

The hallway. THE flag.

Annette sailed through as a pre-TSA. I went through the hard way. Finally, we were in. We walked a ways and found our gate. There were even seats available. The first thing I did was take off that damn coat.

We had plenty of time. While Annette watched the bags, I hit the bathroom and bought a huge bottle of water to replenish my sweating, dehydrated body. Then she did the same, minus the sweating. Shortly, the announcements started, informing travelers on flights leaving before ours. “When your flight number is called, please take the escalators down one floor and line up at door (insert appropriate number here.) There will be a bus just outside the door on the tarmac to take you to your plane.”

Suddenly we both noticed the double set of down escalators twenty-five feet in front of us.  I turned and looked at Annette. She was looking at me. “Are you kidding me?” I squealed? “Nope.” she said, but it was her face that really said it all. We started to chuckle. Then laughed right out loud. We toasted with our water bottles and waited.

Soon, they called our flight. We jumped up and joined the line to the escalators. I was relieved to see it was the model where the four top steps cycle on the same level. I can almost get on those without needing a tranquilizer. And a drink.

In a minute, we’re downstairs in line. A short wait, then they opened the doors and there it was, our bus. The line snaked out of the terminal and into the back door of the bus. It was a bus such as you take to the car rental place; some seats, some open spaces. The back door area filled up quickly, so I stepped around to the front, entered there and snagged the last seat.

But the people kept on coming. We sat there for at least 15, if not 20, minutes, as passengers continued to load. Eventually we had to start playing subway chess, that game where everyone starts scooting over, backing up, turning sideways, shuffling to the left, shifting knees and bags, until everyone can shoehorn into the sardine can. One of the bus passengers, a flight attendant who was flying deadhead on our plane, started berating whomever was in charge, yelling loudly “You guys need to make this two buses. There is never enough room.” No one listened. Instead they shoved a few more people onto the bus.

Finally, slowly, the bus started rolling. We traveled for about 1 minute and 45 seconds. Okay, maybe it was two minutes. The bus stopped and the doors opened. I was incredulous. I turned to my seatmate and said, “Seriously? We could have walked that backwards and single-file twice in the time we sat there!” Had she been drinking, she would have done a spit take.

We were herded slowly up a covered, climbing walkway, the awning snapping in the wind. It felt a little like you were online for a ride at Six Flags Great Adventure. Finally, I came to a very scary piece of what looked like wooden shelving. It bridged the gap between the end of the walkway and the lip of the flight door. I crossed my fingers, stepped on, ducked and was finally inside the plane.

It was one of those commuter specials, with two seat rows down one side and single seats running down the other. Mine was the last open single seat. In the back. By the time I reached it, there was no overhead room left, except where someone had placed their coat; their raincoat, their very light, easily hold-able raincoat. Luckily another deadheading flight attendant was nearby and jumped to my aid. “Is this your coat?” she inquired of the woman sitting directly in front of me.” She got an affirmative, but annoyed nod of the head. The flight attendant continued, chirpily, “If we can just carefully move your coat over here…”  As the flight attendant gently transferred the coat to the adjoining bin, the woman reached out as if to stop her newborn from being tossed off a bridge — “then we can fit this right here.” The flight attendant patted the coat reassuringly. Then she helped me to slide my computer bag into the newly de-raincoated half of an overhead bin. She snapped both doors closed with a smile. I smiled in return. The passenger hissed at me with her eyes.

It was finally time to sit down. I’m not small and airline seats are always tight. But this was ridiculous. I stuffed myself in, thinking “I’m going to have some damned interesting bruises when I get home.” Then a truly wonderful thing happened. Because I was already tired from being on-site for a show, which is always exhausting. And because I was tired from huffing, puffing and sweating through our Airport Iron Man Event, I dropped right off to sleep and didn’t wake until we landed.

Ah, travel! What a joy, what a wonder. That was just two weeks ago. Tomorrow morning, Annette and take off again. This time it’s six days, five nights in Orlando. We’re booked into a family hotel. In Orlando. A family hotel. With four pools. In Orlando.

Your honor, I rest my suitcase.

Advertisements

Angie & Ethel & Me


For a woman without children, I’ve played an awful lot of moms.

Back in eighth grade, I should have seen the writing on the wall when the girls in my class (all 13 of us) banded together to “let’s put on a show!” We decided to mount a production of SLEEPING BEAUTY in the school basement. I wanted to play the Princess (natch!), but Linda T.won that crown. I would have settled for the Prince, but the cape was tossed around the shoulders of Cindy D. (she had very short hair.) Me? I was chosen to play the mom. Yes, I know, she was the Queen, but a sting, nonetheless.

The show now cast, our all female production began unsupervised rehearsal in the St. Thomas school basement — a whole hour after lunch during school time; for two entire weeks. Unbelievable! A fierce baker’s dozen, we blocked and rehearsed with the zeal of a David Merrick. When the moment finally arrived,  my performance as Queen for a Day was a royal success.

Throughout high school, I snagged a series of support roles. occasionally I was up for the lead, but my natural jack-of-all-trades ability kept me smack in the middle of character land. Any baseball coach worth their salt knows you never waste a good utility player. When our ingénue contracted mono during rehearsals for THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT… I was plucked from the chorus to stand-in for “The Girl.” My heart swelled with excitement! But, she recovered before Opening Night. Not my Peggy Sawyer moment after all.

The summer following my sophomore year, I was in a production of West Side Story (see earlier post, MR SMITH GOES TO HIGH SCHOOL.) It was the most exciting thing that had ever happened in my life. Cast as Riff and Bernardo, the leaders of the rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, were two very hot, very popular guys. They had just graduated from the nearby boys high school, Bishop Guertin. I’d seen them perform on stage and swooned from afar. And now they were going to be treading the boards — with me!

These boys weren’t just cute, they were talented. I was beside myself. Twice.  As rehearsals got underway, even in my smallish role as Rosalia, one of the Puerto Rican gang girls, I garnered a bit of attention. Oddly not because of my decidedly non-Puerto Rican coloring (this was summer stock, folks,) more because unlike half of our cast, I could actually sing and dance. In fact, I ended up choreographing several of the musical numbers. As far as I was concerned, this was turning out great!

To look at them, Bob and Joseph were pretty much opposites. Bob, a wiry ball of energy with a curly mop of dirty blonde hair, was perfectly cast as Riff, the cocky New Yorker longing to rule the streets. Joe, slightly quiet with a romantic sweep of dark hair, easily convinced you he was Bernardo, the smooth Latin lover — mysterious enough to have been born in another country. A little bit foreign, a little bit rock and roll.

When they started chatting me up, I was ecstatic. I knew it was more in the little sister than the “Gee, I’d really like to take you out” vein, but that didn’t stop me from hoping. One day, our conversation took a surprising twist.

BOB: “Hey, I know who you remind me of!”

ME: (almost afraid to ask but too thrilled not to) “Who?”

BOB: “Vivian Vance. You know her?”

Though at that moment I wished that I didn’t, I knew exactly who Vivian Vance was. We all do, I LOVE LUCY’s stalwart side-kick, Ethel Mertz.

JOE: “Yeah (shaking his head in amazement), you do look like Vivian Vance! Crazy.”

I tried valiantly to keep my face looking pleasant, but my smile stretched pretty thin. Here are these two hunky guys for whom I have, at minimum, an artistic crush, at maximum, a full-out heart flutter, telling me I look like a 45-year-old landlady.

BOB: “Of course, a younger Vivian Vance.”

JOE: “Way younger.”

I bit my tongue. Did they seriously think that helped? Apparently I was a better actress than I was aware of as neither picked up that my 15 year-old self found this comparison devastating.

From that day on I was “Viv,” clearly a term of endearment. After a while, I decided what the hell. She was a pretty funny broad. Then one day Bob came up with another one.

BOB: “Hey, I was thinking, you know who else you look like?”

About now I was wondering, “Couldn’t it just be me?” Instead —

ME: “No, who?”( silently praying that he went a little younger this time.)

BOB: “Angela Lansbury! Do you know Angela Lansbury? Hey, Joey, doesn’t Viv look a lot like Angela Lansbury?”

JOEY: “Oh, yeah. Definitely see that!”

I considered the statement. At that moment, I wasn’t exactly familiar with the actress. I had seen her on TV when they’d broadcast her movies, BLUE HAWAII and THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE. A movie actress versus a sitcom second banana (admittedly, a classic sitcom) — things were looking up.

As time went on, I learned much more about Miss Lansbury. One interesting tidbit, in both of those films, she was cast as the mother of men very close to her in age. In the MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, Angie was only 3 years Laurence Harvey’s senior and just 10 years older than Elvis Presley in BLUE HAWAII. I’m sure playing Mom to these gentlemen on the big screen made her feel totally sexy and alive. I can relate.

A few years ago, here in New York I found myself in an acting class with Brian, a guy I’d been very friendly with and pretty hot for in college. (Ed. Note, total lack of interest from his perspective.) We hadn’t been in touch in a while. As Brian got ready to perform a big dramatic scene, he asked that I sit in a special spot in the audience, front and center. I was touched, until he went on to say, “…because I want to make sure my Mom can see me!” The words were no sooner out of his mouth than his face said “oops, didn’t mean to say that out loud.” But there was no unringing the bell. I may have looked like I was watching Brian’s big scene, but I was really looking back on our 20-plus years of friendship to see that the guy I’d had a crush on in college viewed me as his Mommy substitute. Oh, goody-goody. Break out the pasties and grease up the dance pole, cause I’m feeling sexy now…

Over the years, I’ve heard a few more comparisons. Back in high school one night I received an excited call from a girlfriend. “Turn on Channel 5,” she panted. “Hurry up, turn it on. There’s a girl on Mannix tonight who looks just like you.” I was a desperate 14-year-old, eager to see herself through someone else’s eyes. I sprinted to our portable black & white and switched it on. “Are you watching yet? “Yes, yes, ” I assured her. “There she is…” my friend screeched, “…right there. The blonde. Doesn’t she look like you?” I held my breath. This girl was 1970s pretty. I stayed glued to the end of the program and digested the credits. The actress was Carole Lynley and I though I didn’t really believe what my friend had said for a second, I was entranced at the possibility. I floated on that for days.

Many years later, in 1986, I got a call one evening at my apartment in New York. It was another friend from college, Tommie. “Hey, have you seen the new Bloodworth-Thomason series?” (Tommie lived in LA and, working in television, she was on the inside with the breaking news and patois.) “What new series?” (I didn’t, and therefore, was not.) “Designing Women. You have to catch it. There’s an actress on there looks just like you. The two of you could be sisters.” I was ready for this. “Carole Lynley?” I smoothly inquired, the 15-year-old memory still fresh. “No, her name’s Jean Smart. New to me — tall, blonde, funny. My first thought when she came on-screen was, she looks like Dee.”

At this point in life I had a firmer grasp on me, so though I was definitely curious I wasn’t counting on a glimpse of Jean Smart to magically define me. But it’s still a kick to take a glimpse at how you appear to others. Guess what, Tommie was right. I do resemble Jean Smart. In fact, from then on she’s served as a professional touchstone for me. She’s fashioned a terrific career. I think she’s great.

Starting with that experience during West Side Story, I learned more and more about Angela Lansbury and her monster talent. I regret I missed her revival of GYPSY on Broadway but I know the cast album by heart. I came down to New York from college specifically to catch her in SWEENEY TODD. But her standby, Marge Redmond (Sister Jacqueline in the 1960s Sally Field TV series, The Flying Nun) went on for the matinée. I was terribly disappointed until the show began. Then, I was just in awe. Marge wasn’t Angie, but she was fantastic. Since then, I’ve been lucky to see Angela live on Broadway several times and have always marveled at how brilliantly she commands a stage.

When SWEENEY TODD was first making the rounds in summer stock, I was plucked out of the crowd during several cattle call auditions for Sweeney for no reason other than I reminded them of Angela. As a legit soprano, I couldn’t give them the sound they were after, so this resemblance never quite got me cast.

Later in life I chanced to read the biographies of both of my dopplegangers, Misses Vance and Lansbury. It was there I recognized a shared experience. Quickly skipping over ingénue to mother/matron/side-kick in short order was sometimes a painful career pill for all of us. I learned that Vivian Vance was a singer and accomplished stage actress (who knew!) She was almost too attractive for Lucy’s comfort, hence they dressed her down. Angela found leading lady status on Broadway but never managed to be the star of her own film. Just a bit later, bet she laughed all the way to that quaint little bank in Cabot Cove.

But here’s the truth, I’m totally delighted that as a 15-year-old, two hot guys thought I resembled these lovely ladies. Because I’m finally smart enough to appreciate that Angie and Ethel were real, sexy women living vital, creative lives. I can only hope I find as much joy, success and satisfaction as it appears they both managed to embrace.

I do confess to still harboring one Angie fantasy. For years I’ve wanted to pitch a film about three generations of women, with Angela as my mother, Drew Barrymore (another look-ish alike) as her granddaughter and, in case you haven’t done the math, me — the one in the middle. So any producers out there looking for a golden indie opportunity, Facebook me.  I’ve got a couple of script ideas percolating.

Good old Carole Lynley? I lost track of her and her hot pants right after The Poseidon Adventure. But Jean Smart, she’s as busy as ever. And all I can say is “Rock on, baby. You remain an inspiration!”

Oh. My. God. Jean, I just had the most fantastic idea!! You and I could play sisters in a new cable series. What do you think? Comedy. Drama, you call it cause you do it all. And we know there are networks just begging for good programming and someone with a solid TV-Q. (That’s you, not me. But I’ll get started on mine as soon as I can.) I’m so inspired, I’m going to start the treatment tonight. So drop me an email and we can do lunch. I like the Olympic Diner around the corner. They know me so I can always get a front booth. And they make an awesome gyro platter — see you there?

[Ed. Note: Look what I have to look forward too!]

Carol Lynley Paperdoll

Grieve. Then Live.


The Boston Marathon bombings. I sat watching the coverage of streets I know, stunned that another place familiar to me was the victim of mind-numbing violence. Prior to 9/11, I had worked on the 96th floor of World Trade Center Tower One.

The recent events in Boston have me thinking about death. And life. I grew up near Boston. It was my ‘big city.’ The first day I had a driver’s license, I snuck down Route 93 in my parent’s Pontiac Le Mans which I drove smack into Copley Square, an area just beyond the finish line of Monday’s marathon. I never told them, they thought I’d driven to the mall. It’s a bit late to confess. I lost both parents in 2009, three months apart. They were fairly young, only 77 and had been in pretty good health. Except that last year, which was tough on them and our family. But at least we had the chance to prepare, we knew it was coming. Unlike in Boston.

Every day, as I step out of my bathroom I notice a picture of my Dad and me. I’m proudly holding up a cake I’d baked for him. It reads “Happy 56th Birthday and 3rd Anniversary.” After 20 some years in AA, he’d had a small lapse. But he’d climbed back on the wagon and was now celebrating three years sober.

Each day when I see this picture my first thought is how crappy I look in the shot. Yesterday, I suddenly realized, in this picture my Dad is a year younger than I am now. And, he’s gone.

I cannot begin to imagine how the bombings in Boston have affected its victims, families and friends. I only know that, even though we knew death was imminent, dealing with the passing of my parents was still paralyzing. After they died, the oddest realizations cropped up. Can you become an orphan at age 53? Where is Mom’s pot roast recipe?  I forgot to ask Dad how to rewire a lamp.

My parents didn’t leave an inheritance, as such. They’d taken out a reverse mortgage (which we all encouraged.) After settling that and the medical bills, there wasn’t much left to go around. But the contents of their home, which were very much the essence of my parents, were ours to share. Mom and Dad had lived to decorate — it was their hobby and their passion.

For the past four years, I’ve been surrounded by the physical remnants of their lives. Boxes and huge Rubbermaid containers have been stacked in my living room. The roll of an oriental rug lounges in a corner of the room. My grandmother’s china is still safe in the packing boxes.

Until yesterday, these items remained untouched. Finally last night, I opened the first box. Inside I found my Mom’s coffee cup. The two beautiful cereal bowls they used every morning. A pair of cake pans that baked every birthday cake of my childhood. I smiled at finding two commemorative plates I’d gifted them one Christmas. They were from The Greenbriar, the hotel where they spent their honeymoon.

I thought leaving all these boxes sit there for years was just lazy or disorganized. Now, I realize that — perhaps unconsciously — they provided a sort of wall keeping real life at bay. A wall that I needed until I was ready to accept that they’re really gone. And me, whether technically an orphan or not, I’m still here.

After Boston, it’s been underscored for me not to waste a moment. We cannot control things. Life will do what life will do. Our task, just live it.

Boston

Mr. Smith Goes to High School


I’ve been a theatre afficianado since I can remember. And like every little girl whose dreams of theatrical success were filtered through Busby Berkley turntables and tap shoes, of course I wanted to be the STAR.

It started early. I logged more hours in front of our little black and white portable than the rest of my family put together. My creative guardian was my Dad, frequently heard pronouncing he could have been the next Fred Astaire. The man could dance. When I was five, he taught me how to jitterbug to Lester Lanin records. It was HIGH SOCIETY right there in our living room as the orchestra thrummed You’re Sensational. No Crosby or Sinatra for this Grace Kelly, my practice partner was the kitchen doorframe. But the biggest deal, the most exciting experience was the afternoon he came home from work and announced (duh-duh-DUH). . .

“I’m going to be in a show!”

I stopped breathing. Seems his boss, Mr. Wright, had a wife, Mrs. Wright, who was to star in this community theatre production. And they’d asked my Dad to be in it! Of course, now I understand this was predicated on that basic truth of amateur theatre, grab every available man then lock the theatre doors. But at the time, I thought we’d won the let’s put on a show lottery. There was Judy and there was Mickey and now — there was my Dad!

This extravaganza was entitled THERE’S NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS (I know, so bad it’s good!) and I attended every rehearsal. By week two I knew all the dances, each piece of music and everyone’s lines. I have three distinct memories of this production: my father sang Stouthearted Men as part of a cowboy quartet; Mrs. Wright — looking exactly like Gypsy Rose Lee — sang Let Me Entertain You to a hand mirror while wearing a black corset and fishnets and I nearly plotzed when I observed Mr. Wright devouring a McDonald’s hamburger before curtain on opening night — a Friday. I thought the hand of God was about to come down and slam the box office shut. As I pointed, my Mother quickly mumbled something about different rules and made a “don’t you embarrass me” flap of the hand.  I snuck a Sign of the Cross and went back to my peanut butter sandwich.

Well, my father was a success. A year later, the next show was called CIRCUS DAZE (cross my heart) and this time I had a part. Well, two parts, actually because the savvy director double-cast nearly every role. My Dad played a magician (we got to foster the little white mouse who was his prop) and a trapeze artist. I was cast in the pivotal roles of “circus guest” and (wait for it) tightrope walker!

It was deep into the evening when it came time for the circus grand parade. We entered from the back of the house, down the center aisle. I greeted the crowd from high atop my Daddy’s shoulders, in a get up I remember to this day: Peter Pan green tights and my Mother’s sleeveless black velvet evening top trimmed in rhinestone. This fell below my hips and was belted with patent leather to keep it on my 6-year-old frame. With arms thrown wide to the crowd, you could have mistaken me for Degas’ “Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers.” As an onstage experience, it set the bar pretty high.

By the time I got to high school I’d sung Buttons and Bows at a Ladies Sodality Luncheon, choreographed several seasons of summertime shows (the concrete floor in the basement was perfect for tap dancing in my Mother’s old high heels) and played the Queen in Sleeping Beauty. I was jonesing for top billing. What I got was a series of support roles. Okay, occasionally I was up for the lead, but my natural jack-of-all-trades abilities usually kept me smack in the middle of character land. Any baseball coach worth their salt knows you never waste a good utility player.

When Nancy Roux contracted mono during rehearsals for THE ROAR OF THE GREASEPAINT… I was plucked from the chorus to be the ingenue stand-in. My heart swelled with excitement but, sadly, it was not be my Peggy Sawyer moment. It didn’t seem to matter that I sang and danced the role of “The Girl” to perfection (much better than Nancy, everyone agreed.) Nancy, she of the sparkling blue eyes and long blonde hair could have stepped right out of the Grimm Brothers fairy tale and she recovered just in the nick of time. [Ed. Note: See “Sleeping Beauty”.] So, high deedle-de-dee, the urchin gang for me…

Well ito my first year of high school, I became frustrated that my TV-honed talents were so clearly being overlooked. So one evening, I decided to confront my drama teacher (and de facto director/producer of everything), Mr. Smith and get things straight, once and for all. 

Allow me to set the scene: Immaculata High School — an all girls Catholic institution of some size. Christopher Smith — twenty-three and fresh out of the University of Chicago in his teaching debut. Mr. Smith taught English and Drama and we all adored him. He had a dark, neatly trimmed beard, wore corduroy jackets with suede elbow patches and spoke to us like adults. There may even have been a pipe, it was all very young James Mason.

One day in drama class (that is what we called it) he addressed the room to ask had anyone read “Ghosts?” My hand shot up. It was the only one, so he turned to me and said (tres, tres entre-nous), “Of course, you agree it’s a treatise on morality using syphilis as a thematic instrument, right?” I knew immediately I was screwed. Later I realized he meant the Strindberg play. Howeve, my “Ghosts” was a completely unrelated historical pulp fiction novel I’d devoured the week before. (Although, in my defense, it did have a very serious looking cover.) Self preservation kicked in. I was not about to lose this moment of personal connection with Chris Smith, heart-throb to the theatre community at large. “Oh, yes,” I nodded, “absolutely.”  The end. [Ed. Note: That was the day I learned about Strindberg, venereal disease and when acting like I know what I’m talking about, keep it short. Who says theatre doesn’t educate.]

By his second year at Immaculata, Mr. Smith had a veritable harem of female fans, of which I was one. We were all totally in love with him, blindly passionate as only a group of naive Catholic girls of a certain age and era could be for a clearly gay man. When he first arrived at the school, Mr. Smith resurrected the drama department with an energy and enthusiasm that was contagious. My freshman year saw an impeccable production of BLITHE SPIRIT, complete with staircases, gramophones and a flying Elvira. Even though Barb Ashooh did fall from the Foy Flying Harness and break her leg on opening night, we reopened two weeks later with Elvira in a walking cast playing to a sold-out house. Now, that’s show biz!  

We did Anoulih and Shakespeare, conducted a formal ceremony to initiate our own International Thespian Society (Troupe 1055 – see above.) We took bus trips to Boston and New York to see live Broadway musicals. We’d return to class sounding like so many Gene Kellys — “Gotta’ dance, gotta’ dance!” So we did. We staged the prologue from WEST SIDE STORY (that bit with all the whistling and finger snapping) and the Harmonia Gardens scene from HELLO, DOLLY (because we just happened to have a grand staircase lying around) and we loved every bruising minute. Our costumed bodies slid across the floor and descended the stairs — and all this during regular school hours. I do admit I had a leg up here. I could sing. I could dance. And I could steal choreography off the stage or screen like nobody’s business. But I still hadn’t managed to capture that elusive spot light…

INTERIOR.  IMMACULATA HIGH SCHOOL.  NIGHT.

We’d just wrapped our final performance of THEATRE OF THE SOUL by Nikolai Nikolaevich Evreinov, a 1915 monodrama in one-act translated from the Russian. This was full-on theatre of the absurd,  involving endless black drapes, jazz hands and multiple tubes of Ben Nye clown white. (I know, you’re sorry you missed it…) Frustrated by my role — silent in silhouette behind a scrim — I took a deep breath and decided this was the night. I would approach Mr. Smith.

In the darkened hallway outside his classroom, Room 165, my heart was pounding like a drum. Framed in the doorway and backlit by the streetlights below, he looked positively Humphrey Bogart on the runway in Casablanca. I took a breath,  “Excuse me, Mr. Smith?” “Yes?” he smiled and leaned in. Pregnant pause. Finally, “Ummm (polite cough), why don’t I ever get cast in the lead?”

Maybe I surprised him. Perhaps he found my blatant self-promotion unseemly for a Catholic school hallway. Whatever the reason, for the first time in our acquaintance his face darkened. He drew himself up to his full 5’9″ height, glared across the inch between us and said,

As the great Constantin Stanislavsky has said,
“Remember, there are no small parts, only small actors.”

With a jut of his bearded chin, he huffed away. It was a frustrating answer and not the one I’d hoped for. In time I realized Mr. Smith had an impossible task, distributing role after role to his hungry Catholic constituency while trying to maintain a semblance of fairness. As time went on, I also realized that a couple of the girls who had seemed to be his favorites — Sue and Carole — were just more natural Graces to Mr. Smith’s Will.

Luckily, he did not hold a grudge. That summer, Chris Smith realized what I believe was one of his life’s dreams and also fulfilled one of mine. He mounted a production of WEST SIDE STORY. It was my first taste of summer stock and still dazzles my memory. Chris was both producer, designer and star. In truth, his performance as “Tony” was neither the best acted nor the most musical, but it was certainly heartfelt. And he called in every favor and connection he had to get this show up. He secured the Practical Arts Auditorium — a beautiful 1,500 seat theatre; assembled a conductor and orchestra for the recessed pit; and rented the actual road company sets.

Although the rest of the cast were locals, he jobbed in a “Maria.” Noel Fratterigo was a soprano from the New England Conservatory of Music. She truly could not act but she sang the shit out of those high notes, which went a long way when you got to the Quintet. But my favorite move — in tribute to the legend of Jerome Robbins choreography, Mr. Smith had hired four dancers from the Boston Ballet. Our very own ringers — Chita Rivera and George Chakiris would have been proud.

So of course I was cast as a Puerto Rican. My Irish Catholic Consuelo looked perfectly natural next to Maddy Williams Episcopalian Rosalia. Strictly a musical decision, vocal coach Marty Battista declared. She needed us in I Feel Pretty since we were the only two girls classically trained Maria wouldn’t sing right off the stage. Fine with me!

And guess what? Remember that crazy habit of mine, stealing choreography? It came in quite handy on this production. [Ed. Note: Please remember this was way before DVRs or DVDs or even VCRs. WSS was truly event television, broadcast once a year. And I’d seen it every time.] As an unbelievable cast-building exercise, Mr. Smith announced he’d rented the entire downtown movie theatre for the evening and was hosting a private screening for the cast. It was the fanciest thing that had yet happened to most of us.

So of course, the next day at rehearsal I taught everyone the choreography for America and that lovely cha-cha sequence in the gym (you know, when Tony and Maria meet cute and dreamy-like.) Why, yes — the production did have a choreographer, a Miss Evelyn Howard. Her bio mentioned she’d entertained the troops in USO and Red Cross shows, and my guess was WW II. We’d been rehearsing for weeks and she was still blocking the prologue. I was impatient. I decided she was too old and slow, so I took it upon myself to fill in the gaps. Yes, she did notice. But instead of whacking me with her ballet stick, she offered me a scholarship to her dance studio. I dismissed her. (Oh, the ignorance of the young.) I still regret that decision. At the time I was convinced she had nothing to teach me. A few years later when I started to study dance seriously, I realized I’d missed the boat. Had I accepted her offer at age 15, I may have had a fighting chance at developing genuine technique. By 20, it was too late. Hubris, we have a problem…

Mr. Smith did not return to school the next year, no word as to why. I realize in writing this that I never really got to thank him. Not for paying me the compliment of assuming my fluency in Strindberg at age 13. Not for insisting we see the original production of FOLLIES during it’s pre-Broadway run in Boston when Yvonne DeCarlo was still singing Can That Boy Foxtrot before it was replaced by I’m Still Here. And certainly not for tossing a bucket of cold Stanislavksy in my face during the hour of my discontent.

If I could, I would thank him for the passion. The passion he instilled in me for the craft and the business of theatre. He taught us to build actual flats. He introduced us to costume plots and spirit gum. He explained all about Actors Equity and IASTE and Local 1. I’d thank him for the passion he bestowed with equal measure on the dramatic, the scholastic and the musical aspects of theatre. And I’d certainly thank him for the endless hours and I can’t imagine how many personal dollars it took to mount that fabled production.

But most of all I’d thank him for the passion he stirred in the hearts of that group of incredibly lucky girls. In the moment, we all thought we were in love with him and in a very special way, we were. Because Mr. Smith was the magic that is theatre.

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.

I Fired Aaron Sorkin

Quote


Technically, true. I did fire Aaron Sorkin.

It was sometime in the mid- to late-80s and we were both working for a concession company, bartending in Broadway theatres. We were far from friends, but certainly acquaintances. I distinctly remember one night, working the Jackie Mason show at the Brooks Atkinson with Aaron because as soon as the show started, he handed me a script to read. It was his first play — a one-act called “Hidden in This Picture.”

The Brooks Atkinson is an old, small theatre — no cushy lobbys like some of the other houses. You work out in the open with the audience and must remain quiet throughout the performance. So as the show got under way I sat down on one of the theatre’s “antique” settees and quietly began reading Aaron’s script. It wasn’t long before I was beating my hand on the cushion in an effort not to laugh out loud. To this day, I have never experienced anything as funny as the moment when the cows appear on the hill in “Hidden in This Picture.” I don’t want to ruin it for you so I won’t explain how he managed to write cows into a stage play and make them funny, but trust me — he did. Soon there were tears running down my cheeks as I continued to choke down the laughter. I wasn’t wholely succesful and a few audience members turned around to give me the stink eye. Thankfully, Jackie Mason didn’t notice.

A while later I was working with Aaron again, this time managing the bar at the former Alvin Theatre — newly renamed in honor of playwright Neil Simon. Matthew Broderick was reprising his role as Eugene Morris Jerome, the somewhat autobiographical stand-in for the playwright himself. This go round featured BILOXI BLUES, the middle child in the Simon Trilogy. Earlier at this same house, I’d worked the run of the trio’s first-born, BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS. The baby of the family, BROADWAY BOUND, came along soon after.

Bartending on Broadway was a nifty little gig. Not a whole lot of money, but then it didn’t require a whole lot of time. You showed up 90 minutes before curtain, set up the bar and leisurely served drinks before the show (in industry parlance, the “walk-in”.) There was that 15 minutes of human chaos known as intermission, but it wasn’t long before you got to break it all down and say good night. What made this gig different, the delicious cherry on this bartending sundae was you got to watch Broadway actors in Broadway shows—for free!

As this was a cash business, a representative from the concession company made the rounds every night, you know, giving everything the once over: Was your bar set up properly? Are you wearing the correct uniform? Are you keeping your hands out of the till?

Now I was a good manager from the standpoint that I was honest, hardworking and responsible (not to mention incredibly quick, regularly serving 75 people overpriced drinks in the span of 15 minutes.) That, cashing out for the night and inventory was usually all that was required. But one week, Ida (from the office) stopped at my bar after the walk-in. She leaned on one elbow, sucked hard on her cigarette (this was the 80s, remember) and with all the gravity of Edward G. Robinson in LITTLE CAESAR, pronounced,

“Aaron’s not wearing his tie.”

I smiled pleasantly, but when she blew a steady stream of smoke past my ear, I realized she was expecting more of a response.  “Oh, okay.”  She still didn’t move.  “I’ll speak to him?” She nodded silently and was gone.

Now, at this point in my life I could barely confront myself, forget about anyone else. If you’d asked me, “Hey, what do you do?” I would have replied “waitress” or “bartender” despite the years of music and theatre training. Sure, in my heart of hearts I thought of myself as an actress but I wasn’t going to tell anybody about it. That would be forward. That would be gauche. I would wait silently until somebody else told me I had earned my chance at the spotlight…Cue John Houseman, my mother and the Catholic Church. So the thought of disciplining anyone, let alone someone daring and creative enough to write one of the funniest plays I’d ever read, presented a definite challenge.

Aaron Sorkin, on the other hand, did not appear hampered by similar self-doubts. That evening after the show started, when he walked down to the lower lobby to relax until intermission, I took a deep breath and quickly said,

“Aaron, you’re not wearing your tie.”

He barely looked in my direction as he settled onto the sofa with his newspaper. Slightly uncomfortable pause. Well, it was uncomfortable for me.

“Aaron, excuse me, but you need to put on your tie.”

“I don’t have a tie.” He didn’t even look up.

Had he done so he might have seen me smile — not a happy smile, more a facial tick to cover my panic and confusion over what to do next. Crap, you’re the manager. This is part of your job. You need to—

 “Aaron, Ida said you have to wear your tie.”

So there.

There was an almost imperceptible pause. “Well, Dee,” he said casually, “I don’t have a tie.” He turned the page of his newspaper and continued to read.

Bob — the understudy for the role of Eugene Morris Jerome’s Dad, who sat with us in the lower lobby every night until intermission on the off-chance the actor he was covering would sprain an ankle, choke on prop cornflakes or mistakenly walk off the front of the stage — watched me out of the corner of his eye. Seconds seemed like hours. “Well, Aaron,” I finally replied, somewhere between a whisper and a choke, “I guess you’ll just have to go home and get one.” Bang. Zoom. To the moon, Alice!!!

“If I go home, Dee, I might not come back.” He lazily turned another page. [Ed. Note: Aaron lived a 3 minute walk from the theatre. This stand-off was purely academic and may have served as an influence for the tone of THE WEST WING, specifically any scene involving President Bartlet.]

Bob’s eyes clocked back to me like he was watching the final volley at Wimbledon.

“Well. Aaron…If you’re not wearing your tie you — I guess you don’t — I mean, maybe you shouldn’t come back.”

Okay, not exactly an ace. But as passive aggressive shots go, it at least cleared the net.

So Aaron Sorkin slowly folded his paper, tucked it under his left arm and left the theatre, sans neckwear. And he did not return. As I envisioned his chastened journey home, chest emblazoned with a scarlet “A” for arrogant, I scurried to the payphone (again, this was the 80s) to report in to Ida. I was nothing if not the dutiful schlub. So they sent me a replacement bartender and that was that.

A few months later, ME AND MY GIRL opened at the brand new Marriott Marquis Theatre. My good friend, Eric Johnson (yes, dear readers, that Eric) was in the original Broadway cast. (Check him out as the Pearly King with Robert Lindsay and cast at the 1986 Tony Awards. He’s the guy with all the shiny buttons and spoons.) As I was invited to attend the opening night, I walked into the theatre feeling like a million bucks. And who should I see blithely managing the bar in this brand new palace of pleasure, a gig that turned out to be the golden calf of Broadway bartending, raking in unprecedented tip money as a monster Tony-winning musical hit? You guessed it, Aaron Sorkin. Big as life, not a shred of shame or embarrassment at his previous comeuppance, but this time — I noted — wearing a tie. I side-stepped to another bar and ordered a stiff drink.

It took me years — and a few more Aarons — to process the complexity of the life truth it’s as simple as doing what you want. No, I mean actually doing it. After his success, when someone learned that I’d crossed paths with him, their inevitable “What’s he really like” was met with, “He’s an asshole.” After a while I was amending it to, “He’s an asshole — but that’s why he is where he is today.” And I mean that as a compliment.

I have always been his fan, for a while albeit a reluctant one. But now I understand that despite how he appeared to me, and despite the fact that he has been so incredibly successful doing what he loves, he probably has as many insecurities as the rest of us. He just didn’t use them to plan his TripTik.

So should I happen to run into Aaron on the street again someday, and should he happen to inquire, “Dee, how are you? What have you been doing?” I’d reply without hesitation, “I’m great. Still an actor. And now a writer, too — a little like you.”

However whether he’s wearing one or not, don’t think I’ll mention the tie.

She’s Back…


To paraphrase the iconic Carol Anne, she’s back…

No, I don’t mean me — although it is true RIPE and I are finally on the move again. (Yippee!) I’m actually talking about my new BFF. You all know her. I’ve mentioned her here before. The woman I would most love to sit down to lunch and talk low-cal, high fiber recipes with. The gal whose opinion I am curious about — does she watch the THE GOOD WIFE primarily as a law procedural or more for the character-driven drama? And more importantly, is it BREAKING POINTE or BUNHEADS? Or both? (There’s no denying the lady likes to dance, right?)

Of course I’m talking about that first lady of sweater sets, the one who lately has graced every taping from LETTERMAN to LIVE! with KELLY (and dig that co-host of the week), where she actually jumped rope with aplomb. I’m talking about your friend and mine, Michelle Obama.

I’ve been hearing from Michelle quite a bit lately, we just haven’t managed to connect. There was another letter this week. And few recent emails about a lunch get together. But we ran out of time. She’s been busy. I’ve been busy. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.

I haven’t written back yet, but this won’t sully our friendship. Nope, cause I know she’s got my back. Well, strictly speaking that’s more feeling than fact, since we haven’t actually met. But everything about her points toward the positive. It’s almost like we’re having a conversation when I read OBAMAFOODORAMA, the Blog of Record About White House Food Initiatives, From Policy to Pie. And you all know my food focus of late, so I relish the good info.

Last fall, when I received that first letter from Michelle — the one that helped inspire my first post on THE RIPE PROJECT — it was totally unexpected and just the kick I required. Actually that reminds me of the time I just couldn’t get my head around cleaning and organizing my apartment. I procrastinated. And procrastinated. Then finally, when I could stand it no more, I cleaned my apartment. [Ed. Note: For those of you who are home – not apartment – dwellers, this reference may lack a certain punch. Here’s a little game: take at least half your furniture and belongings and move them into two contiguous rooms of your house. The rest of the space is off-limits except as a storage facility for the overflow, for which you pay $225 a month and can only enter from 8 am to 6 pm. Now, go ahead: live and be neat about it.] Anyway, once I finally broke down and just cleaned the place, you know what happened? It wasn’t that big a deal. I had a much more enjoyable living space and I found a $100 bill. No, it wasn’t magic. I’d always had the money. I’d simply lost track in all the self-created chaos.

My point is, same thing with Michelle. There I was last August struggling for clarity, trying to locate the lost kernel of my idea for this blog when — voila!!! Une lettre de la Première Dame des Etats-Unis! It stopped my in my tracks. At first I was stumped. Compared to Michelle Obama, why should I even try. But a moment later it became just the creative compass I needed. As I compared the map of my life to the map of Michelle’s, at first the differences seemed insurmountable. Eventually Michelle helped orient me to who and where I am and where I want to go.

So take a few lessons in living from our First Lady. Eat healthy. Stay active. And write a letter to a friend. Help keep the US Postal Service in business (it’s nice receiving something other than bills.) Now that we have the Forever Stamp and you can buy them online, there’s no excuse. And won’t your Grandmother be proud?

Ran into a little Interferon-ance…


Well, it’s been a while. To my vast coterie of followers — all 13 or 14 of you — apologies. Best laid plans and all exploded when I received an early Christmas present, a diagnosis of perianal malignant melanoma. I’ll skip the details and let the name tip you to the salient facts. My friend Bob’s response upon hearing was, “So, you’ve got ass cancer.” And there you have it. Shit happens.

If I had to share something with Farrah Fawcett, I would have preferred the hair. It was a surprise find during a routine surgery for (polite cough here) hemorrhoids. Unlike the melanoma we all know — skin cancer — this particular delight accounts for only 0.2% – 0.3% of the disease. Thanks, but I’d rather win the lottery. Being an internet whore, as soon I my surgeon called with the news I jumped online and read every mention of the disease I could find. And the internet, being a bit of a whore herself, generously served up both the possibility of complete cure and a “Ho, ho, ho — you have three months to live” super-size value meal. Merry Last Christmas. God bless us, every one.

Now I’m your basic dreamer/pragmatist, so of course after a day of anger and desperate panic, I immediately began eating a healthy, anti-cancer diet. Yeah, I know. I stopped dairy and red meat. I bought tons of fruits and vegetables and no longer let them just rot in my produce drawer. I started each morning with a fruit and veggie smoothie (finally putting that $300 Montel Williams juicer to use.) Gluten didn’t pass my lips. I vitaminized, mineralized and visualized. In two months I lost 50 pounds (Ed. Note: There’s plenty where that came from, so not as drastic as it sounds.) The phrase ‘eat to live’ became more than just the title of Joel Furhman’s very informative bestseller. It was my new directive. And guess what — pretty quickly I began to feel like a million bucks.

Luckily this wasn’t an instance of that famous last gulp of life before kicking off. I’m still here and, as of my last PET scan, technically disease-free. Apparently, this is what it feels like to eat well and take care of yourself. Guess some of us just need a bigger foot in the butt to pay attention. (Had my mother, the dietician, not been cremated, she’d be turning in her grave…)

Now back to the villain (or hero?) of this piece — perianal melanoma. The logistical reason this was even discovered (because there are virtually no symptoms until it’s usually well on its nasty way) was because I was unhappy with my healthcare situation and wanted to return to my previous physician. That required changing my health insurance, which as a freelancer was actually up to me since I pay out of pocket. (Ed. Note: This would still be on my to do list had there not been SERIOUS effort on my friend, Annette’s part. She would not stop bugging me until I did the paperwork. Lesson here: It’s always Nike time. )

Once on my new plan, even though I’d had one only 4 months prior, as a pro forma gesture I went in for a physical. Dr. Painter, being the thorough physician she is, noticed a few things, sent me to a few specialists who ultimately discovered my early Christmas present thus securing the truth that my decision to change back to Dr. Painter was one of the best of my life. [Ed. Note: See image above.]

Okay, we have the pathology report — what next? Dr. Nandakumar, my colorectal surgeon had never run across this particular melanoma. My brand new oncologist (and who doesn’t thrill to speak those words?) was in the same boat. So they presented my case to the surgical review team at Weill Cornell, seeking opinions on a treatment protocol.  

The group decision: a second surgery (when they used the words ‘wider’ and ‘deeper’ I was ever more grateful to the inventors of general anesthesia) followed by weekly interferon shots — for up to 5 years.

Flashback here to my initial oncology visit with Dr. Popa (a delightfully intelligent woman with great experience and a generous sense of humor.) She gave me the lowdown on standard treatments for melanoma – one of which was interferon. As she outlined the nasty side effects (suicidal ideations, anyone?) she promised it would be prescribed only as a last resort.

Returning to the land of happy treatment news, I looked across at my friend, Eric who’d been a brick, attending every doc visit with me since the diagnosis. He was masking the same “Oh, shit” expression on his face as I had on mine. “But,” Dr. Popa chirped, “It’s the fancy interferon!” Well — I don’t usually go in for labels, but as long as it’s tasteful…

She explained that my prescribed treatment, Sylatron, was pretty new having just been approved by the FDA in April of 2011. Developed by Merck, it is a pegalated (coated) version of the traditional drug. Interferon is the general label for naturally occurring proteins which are released in response to pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria or tumors. So strictly speaking the method of action for Sylatron is to boost my immune system so that my body would target cancer cells and eradicate them. Faster, pussycat, kill, kill!!

I’d like to take a moment for a little life irony here and point out that my freelance job for the past several years has been developing training for pharmaceutical companies. What this meant was suddenly I was uniquely qualified to read and understand the Prescribing Information for my own cancer drug (you know, that multi-folded piece of thin white paper with the tiny, tiny print that you get inside every prescription box. Yes, Virginia, I actually read mine.) Ain’t life a kick!

I chose Friday as my weekly injection day, so I would have the weekend to deal with the promised side effects (fever, chills, nausea — the usual cocktail crowd.)  As I was the first patient to receive this treatment at Weill Cornell, they wanted to observe me at the infusion center for the first 10 or so weeks. Pat, my regular infusion nurse, was the personification of experience, humor and grounded intelligence and would make anyone feel safe. So I happily offered up my arm week after week for my Sylatron dose.

Upon receiving the shots, there was an immediate reaction. First, a noticeable band of pressure developed around my head. Then, according to Eric who was always there to watch, I would sprout a pair of red “Spock” eyebrows while a flush traveled down my face, sometimes ending as a scarlet goatee. My blood pressure would spike and I definitely felt strange. Within 10-15 minutes, the reaction would lessen and once my blood pressure returned to normal, Pat would send me on my way.

I won’t lie. That first night, with a fever of nearly 104 degrees, as I hugged a huge surgical ice pack and struggled to lower my temperature while attempting to keep the top of my head from flying off, I wondered if I could handle this treatment. Luckily a combination of the cold embrace and a Bob Newhart rerun (“Life is a Hamburger,” the one where Carol announces her engagement to Don Fezler, an unemployed would-be poet) at least got me to sleep. When I awoke in the morning, things were much more manageable.

After the first eight weeks, the dose was cut in half. The benefit was some of the side-effects lessened. By week twelve I’d graduated to shooting up at home. Giving myself the needle was the easy part (it’s just like a sub-Q insulin shot) but mixing the drug properly required really paying attention! Luckily it all comes in a sweet little package with instructions and syringes so now it’s just what I do on a hot Friday night.

Well, that’s it. I’ve got cancer? I’ve survived cancer? I’m living with cancer? I’m not sure what my label of choice — if any — will be. What I do know is that a little sense of urgency can be very effective at driving the dramatic structure. So RIPE and I are back on the boards. Countdown to opening night.

So I invite you to stay in touch, and perhaps raise your glass in community each Friday evening as I’m having cocktails for one (on the advice of the manufacturer, not shaken. Just gently turned.) Hear that, Mr. Bond?

Like the Landfills of My Mind…


Recently, I made a casual remark to my current boss, Joanne, about my being organized and detail oriented. Her immediate reply,

“I don’t think of you as organized and detail oriented.”

Now before the swell of that big, collective “Ouch,” she didn’t mean it like that. Well, actually she did. And what’s more, she’s right. That’s one benefit of working with an effective communicator. Because without her pithy observation, I might not have seen the truth peeking out from under the comment.

Throughout my life, I’ve slapped on the name tag “Good Girl.” Rule follower. Drawer organizer. You get my drift. I could have a religious experience at The Container Store — all that possibility makes me weak in the knees. But as soon as Joanne muttered her simple, declarative sentence, everything changed.

I grew up in a household where order and convention were key. My parents were incredibly successful at branding us for public consumption. Everything — the house, the yard, the kids, themselves — were coordinated, tasteful and ironed. Especially ironed (see below.) 

Even our playclothes matched. Around child number three (brother Mark), Mom did relax her grip and allow jeans. For the boys. This is not to imply I popped from some plastic personality prison. In truth, both of my parents were fun and incredibly creative. Just very focused on the visual.

Mark and Jan were both amateur painters who always colored within the lines (i.e., more still life than Jackson Pollock.) Their two biggest passions were landscaping and interior design and they excelled at both. They had many palettes. Every house we lived in (there were four) eventually resembled the tear sheets from an issue of House & Garden (that Condé Nast bible was always artfully displayed on our tasteful living room coffee table.)

In our house, at any given time at least one room was in the process a makeover. I can mark my childhood years by the changing bedroom decor. The primary colors and cinderblock bookcases of kindergarten (much more successful than it sounds!) The middle-school girl’s fairytale four-poster, all violet and viole (even then, a bit much for my tastes.) High school brought sophisticated green toile wallpaper and antiqued wood — very English country garden. We Kenna Kids learned all about restaging, long before the advent of HGTV. (M&J’s favorite channel, by the by. Scripps missed the opportunity of a lifetime not having them host their own show.)

And the decorating didn’t stop at the front door. We had more decks and patios, pools and pathways, arbors and stone walks than the Gardens at Versailles. But never too many or much. My parents had taste. In fact, I believe my mother deserved the Pulitzer Prize for Rock Garden Design (what do you mean they don’t have one?) Or maybe for that bi-level herringbone brick patio she laid by hand over several summer weeks. I’m sure it continues to provide respite for the current residents of that colonial garrison on Birchwood Drive.

And while it appeared to everyone (including me!) that we were loaded, this was all done on a dime. (Hittin’ the HGTV sweet spot again – PING!) Is there anyone out there who also played the cherished childhood game “To the Dump, to the Dump, to the Dump with Dad?” Nothing was more exciting that piling into the car for a trip to the mountain of misfit joys. My Dad was a genius with other people’s cast-offs. A chair, a broken lamp, an injured table. He’d strip, sand, apply his magical brushes — et voila! True beauty and purpose revealed. A favorite memory is his transformation of my grandparent’s broken-down RCA Victor combo TV/Radio cabinet. He tricked that baby out as a liquor cabinet so fine that, when first revealed, it prompted me to order a whiskey sour straight up. I was seven. They declined to serve.

And Jan — no slouch — was a demon on the Singer. She tailored slipcovers and draperies, complete bed ensembles and table linens, then kept on going. Throughout our early childhood, my mom designed and created coordinated Easter outfits for herself, my sister, Gina and me — right down to the hats. That’s right, we greeted the Easter Bunny dyed to a family palette. Go ahead, call Tim Gunn. We made it work.

But perhaps their biggest joy, the bond that kept them closest, was worshiping at the Cathedral of Clean. My parents were zealots with their own front pew. And the true saints in our little Catholic household? That holy trinity: bleach, ammonia and an old toothbrush.

Anything that could be laundered, was. There was rinsing, and hosing, and scrubbing and the ever present bar of Fels-Naptha brown soap. Shoes stood at attention in every closet, hangers saluted like Marines. To this day, any time I use a bath towel, I have to snap it sharply before folding it and placing it back on the rack. (Any hotel maid worth her salt knows if you plump the pile, the towel dries better…) Need I mention this terry cloth was color coordinated? Didn’t think so.

So of course, I grew up assuming those were my natural inclinations. Guess what, THEY’RE NOT!!!

I admit: I can meditate while folding clothes warm from the dryer. I delight to freshly laundered sheets. And not to make you blush, but washing dishes in hot, soapy water can be positively orgasmic. Yes, I can organize a closet within an inch of its life and rearrange a room in a heartbeat. But I’m finally embracing the truth. My truth. My natural tendency is to plop. To place. To let it all pile up. Read any TO DO list I’ve authored in the past 30 years. GET ORGANIZED stands near the top. Oh, there’s a message there, girlie…

Joanne’s comment tapped me on the shoulder, so I turned and looked back. Despite my childhood of artistic alignment, I live in a land of creative mess. I have architected a virtual archipelago from the landfill of my uncloseted sweaters, buildings of books and incomplete projects. Be they physical, mental, emotional — these dumpsites have grown to demand their own zip code. Every so often I haul out the garden implements and prune the jungle foliage. Occasionally I manage to release a few of the smaller islands back into the sea. But always they remain, firm as bedrock.

Hauling this around for years has been exhausting. So my thanks to Joanne (with the requisite nod to Oprah) for my “Aha!” moment. Seems I’m not detail oriented. But I’ll eagerly dive into piles of detail and roll around in the lint. I am organized, just not in the linear sense. I like to chunk my stuff. In different ways and in multiple locations. I’m not my parents, but I am their daughter. I appreciate the sleek, but I dive into the eclectic.

And that, I’ve decided, is not only okay, but FANTASTIC! Because you know those islands I’ve been dragging around behind me all these years. Those little mocking mountains of mayhem? Guess what!!! I suddenly realized, they’re mine to use as I wish. That’s right. So I’ve decided I’ll drop anchor and sit back and relax on this— my personally crafted beachfront. It’s all bought and paid for. I’m finally a property owner!!!

So with thanks to Joanne I think it’s time to say —

“Yoo-hoo, cabana boy!! Fetch me a chaise lounge and umbrella, please. ‘Cause this water’s looking mighty fine!”

 

iHeart iCarly


I’m not their target audience (a single, childless woman of a certain age), but I confess. I love iCarly.

This Nickelodeon show is random, funny, smart, silly, clever and it makes a ton of interesting points. I’ve learned stuff watching iCarly. Well, maybe it’s more accurate to say this kaleidoscopic series has provoked in me some interesting and curious thoughts. What’s the nature of friendship? Can you be anything but a victim to your first true love? And why do we always listen to the grownups?

iCarly puts me in mind of a 30’s screwball comedy, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in and a snarky ABC Afterschool Special, all at once. You can tell adults are writing this, and not just because few showrunners are still in high school. (I don’t know for sure, but I’m hedging my bet here.)

iCarly is found on Nickelodeon. A lot. Which is how I even know about it. A few years ago I stumbled across it channel surfing. (I couldn’t help but.) It held my attention for a few minutes. The next time, even longer. Eventually I’d just put down the remote.

I’ve come to love the characters because I see myself in each and every one – which is exactly why I believe this show works. Were he still alive, I’d bet five bucks Joseph Campbell would be a fan — if only for the archetypes.

Mrs. Benson is the definitive Threshold Guardian for everyone, not just her son. Poor Fredward (I know! Perfect, right?), despite his continuous challenges is really quite the Mentor. His technological dazzle supports the tent post of this premise, the titular webseries. Freddie’s maturity, in spite or because of his mother’s continual babying (who knows), never fails to shine through.

Carly’s big brother Spencer is an absurdly perfect Shapeshifter, available to inhabit any story requirement to full-size. And BFF Sam (whom I adore) does awesome double duty as both Trickster and Shadow, pushing Hero Carly’s very cool and flexible envelope while contributing mightily to her edge.

The stories are simple but complex, their progress telegraphed for miles. But still I delight in seeing them through. It’s a chance to relive my formative years with quick-witted friends making more creative choices than I did.

So thanks, iCarly, for finally showing me just who the cool kids really are. They’re me. (The tall one, on the right.)