Monday, February 28, 2005

Hello, square one

The snow is coming down tonight, hard little crystals that blow into your face like sharp, cold sand. I just came from an impromptu dinner with my ex, who is in town for a few days. It's been over ten years now since we broke up (I just had to do the math in my head, and was quite surprised to discover that it's been that long.) We're good friends now, although our paths only cross sporadically, when he comes through New York on his way somewhere else.

We met in Montana, where I had gone for a summer job. We didn't meet properly until the end of the summer, but it turns out that he was the actually the first person I met there: when I was first dropped off at the dorm where I would be living, he was on his way out from having worked the pre-season show. He showed me around. My head was spinning a little bit from the newness of it all, and didn't recall this first meeting until much later.

This was the summer of 1990. I had had a very bad spring; I had been living in New York for about seven months, and someone very close to me had died. I had been on the waiting list for graduate school, but hadn't gotten in. My life felt chaotic and fractured, and I needed to escape.

By chance, a girl I knew from undergraduate school in Arizona called me up in New York. She and I had become friends over the last couple of years in Acting! school, and she had made endless demo tapes for me of a one act musical I'd written. She was originally from Montana, and had worked at this theater the summer before. They were suddenly in need of a music director, and she had recommended me. It was a dream job for a music director - I didn't have to accompany rehearsals, I only needed to conduct and do vocal coaching. It couldn't have been more perfect. They interviewed me over the phone, and I was hired sight unseen. They sent me the scores to the four shows we were doing (Pirates of Penzance, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and 42nd Street), and I set about learning them backwards and forwards. Then, a few weeks later, I was on a plane to Montana.

I had never been to Montana, and had only a vague idea of what it might be like. Northwestern Montana (this was about 60 miles from the Canadian border) turned out to be one of the most gorgeous spots on earth. It was green and lush, chilly in the summer (just how I like it), and set on the shores of Flathead Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country.

I needed to be in a place where no one knew me, where I could re-invent myself. I didn't realize it until later, but for most of that summer I was in the grips of grief and depression, still dealing with my friend's death. It would wash over me at night like ocean waves, a slow pounding that held me under water.

The one obstacle to my being able to completely escape my past was the presence of a another actor I'd gone to school with in Arizona; somehow he had been hired for the company. He also ended up as one of my three roommates; I tried to spend as little time in my room as possible (not hard to do, as we worked from 9 am until 9 pm every day.) To his credit, he didn't say anything at first when I started a summer romance with one of the girls in the company (I've mentioned her before: my last gasp. As it turns out, it may have been one of her last gasps as well, as she is now a glamorous lesbian.) He was gay, almost Young Harvey Fierstein gay. This was a theater that tended not to hire super-obviously gay people; it was small town Montana, after all. Plenty of people were gay, of course - some of the directors, designers, a stage manager or two, a few of the actors - but nobody was as out-and-about as Harvey. Montana has a strong live-and-let-live ethic - much more so than, say, Wyoming - and I always felt comfortable there - but the keyword was subtlety.

Young Harvey once confronted me dramatically in the men's bathroom - he was all up in arms about what I was doing dating a girl, when he knew that just a year before I had been living with a man. What I was doing, of course, was just trying to escape myself and live another life for a while. I don't remember what I said, but I'm sure I bit his head off; he was already having difficulty fitting in, and I'm ashamed to say I probably didn't make it any easier for him.

Luckily, I had my work to immerse myself in. I had music directed before, and always enjoyed it. I ran vocal warmups, taught the music, re-worked the vocal arrangements when necessary. The level of musical ability of the company that year varied widely - there were some very strong, solid voices in each section, but also a few in-between singers who had a difficult time holding a harmony. It was a challenge, but I managed to squeeze a credible Pirates of Penzance out of the chorus. It felt good to accomplish something; when I wasn't working, I was a complete blank.

Our life in this small, beautiful Montana town was the same every day: gather in the theater bleary-eyed at nine a.m. for company meeting and warm up. Then, rehearse all day and all night; then retire to the bar, where beers were 75 cents and shots of vodka were a dollar. Get roaring drunk, stumble home, pass out. Repeat, repeat, and repeat. That's theater.

There are many stories from that summer, and the summers that followed. The bonds forged in that theater were incredibly strong; I have many lasting friendships that began there. But it's interesting to think back and remember that feeling of escaping, running away to somewhere no one knew me, someplace where I could begin again, go back to square one. Of course, your past always follows you, and eventually you can't help but revert to your true nature, your most essential self. Instead of a past-erasing transformation, I found growth and evolution. I found a new family in that place, and returned every summer (except one) for seven years. The far-away land I had hoped to hide in became a second home. Eventually it became just another place to escape from, a place where I had stayed too long, a still-beautiful place whose magic had inevitably worn off.

Tonight, at dinner with my ex, catching up on the details of our lives and mulling over the distances we have traveled, I was seeing how the pattern repeats and repeats: the arc of my summers in Montana was remarkably similar to the time I spent working at a theater in Minneapolis over the last seven years. A triumphant arrival, establishment of a new network of friends, great success, followed by a waning, a chipping-away, a slow drain, staying too late at a party that is long over.

I'm wondering what the next cycle will be; I'm feeling that it's a time of transformation and forward motion in my career, even though there are big question marks and blank spaces in the months ahead. I only hope that this time I'll be able to sense the ebbing tide sooner, and move on when the time is right.

Square one: it's nice to be back. I see you've been waiting for me.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

The Whirled

When my family first moved to Arizona in the early 70s, my father put his green thumb to work, and magically created an oasis in the middle of the desert. The house had just been built, and the backyard was nothing but dirt; he built a patio complete with a small fountain, and a small lawn that was perfect for running around on. There were blue and green floodlights which gave the backyard a cool, hyperreal-moonglow look at night.

On summer nights, my brother and sister and I would play with our father out in the yard. I was probably 8, so my sister and brother would have been 6 and 4. Our favorite games were Blindman's Bluff, and Spinning Statues.

What I remember about Blindman's Bluff was the handkerchief we used for a blindfold; my father had some large (silk?) handkerchiefs, with printed patterns of black and gold. I remember the feel of the silk tied over my eyes, stumbling around with the grass under my bare feet. There were patches where the grass was scratchy (it was the desert after all) but it was still cool and soft. It was a little green island in the midst of dusty brown.

As for Spinning Statues, I'm not sure what the point of the game was, except to be silly. Whoever's turn it was gripped my father's hands, and then got whirled in a circle, faster and faster, until they lost their balance. Then, you had to freeze as soon as you could, holding whatever odd position you ended up in. I don't know if there was anything beyond that - deciding what the statue was? I'm not sure.

There were two speeds for spinning: "salt" (fast), and "pepper" (even faster.) It was always fun to take a chance on pepper, getting whirled around and around, losing control, spinning away and landing on the soft lawn, laughing all the way through a warm late summer night.

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Bing! of Judgment. Judgement? Judgment.

I'm sure you wouldn't be surprised to learn that I was a spelling bee champion. Well, only at the county level.

David and I just saw the new Off-Broadway spelling bee musical (a friend of ours is in it, and very good, too.) It didn't induce post-traumatic-bee-disorder as I thought it might. (I couldn't bring myself to see the documentary Spellbound for this very reason.)

You can participate in spelling bees from fifth grade to eighth grade; my first year in, I wound up winning my way to the Pima County spelling bee. There I was, a fifth grader - this would have been 1977 I believe - vying to be one of the four winners who would progress to the Arizona state spelling bee.

I don't know why it's called a "bee." Quilting bees, husking bees ... those are the only bees I can think of. These days I'd rather participate in a wine bee. A snacking bee. Or how about a laying-around bee. A Googling bee. A TiVo bee.


When you're a contestant, you're given a little booklet with words that are likely to be in the contest, divided into levels; each round in a bee gets progressively more difficult. But the smart contestants know that you can't just learn the words in the booklet. My parents went and got one of those giant unabridged dictionaries which we used for training; there are still little pencil marks next to words my dad quizzed me on, as we sat in the back yard of his condo.

I was raring to go at the county bee. I had somehow made a friend (Brad? Brandon?) who was in fifth grade at another school. Maybe there was a lunch for contestants beforehand, I don't know. Anyway, we hoped we would both win, but we vowed that if one of us had to spell the other out, there would be no hard feelings.

Because here's how it worked once they were down to five contestants: if someone missed a word, the next person up had to correctly spell that word, plus the following word. If they missed the original misspelled word, then it was cancelled out and the round continued. I believe if they missed their additional word, then the person up next had the chance to spell them out. It was when tensions got high.

The Pima County bee, like so many other things in Arizona, was not terribly well-run. My father was going crazy, because the "master list" of words apparently contained misspelled words. One word (aileron?) was an aviation related word; my father the pilot couldn't believe that the judges would not listen when he told them they had it wrong. This wasn't a word I was given - some other poor kid got knocked out with it. I don't know why they couldn't just flip open a dictionary, but apparently the master list was considered infallible.

When you came to the microphone and were given a word, you could ask for a definition, and also ask for the word to be used in a sentence. These days, you can also ask for the language of origin, but that wasn't one of our options then. It was down to the final five, and I came up to the mike.

"bi'zâr" the pronouncer said. I asked for a definition - "conspicuously unconventional or unusual." No problem. I knew that one. "B-I-Z-A-R-R-E."

The judge shook her head. "That is incorrect."

What? What? What? Did I accidentally say the letters in the wrong order? I swore I knew that one.

The next kid up took a wild shot, even though the definition did not match what he was thinking. "B-A-Z-A-A-R." He was also deemed incorrect.

It turned out that the "master list" had the word as "B-I-Z-Z-A-R-R-E." Yes, how ironic. And bizarre.

I don't know why none of the adults in charge recognized that simple word, but play continued. I was still in. Finally, Brad-or-Brandon missed a word, and I spelled him out. I don't remember what the word was. He most likely does.

There was a little article in the paper about it: "Friend betrays friend for spelling-bee glory." Or something like that.

So, it was off to the state contest. I went back into training, burning through that enormous blue dictionary. It was consuming me.

At the state level, they use a bell like you would find on a hotel desk to indicate that you have spelled your word incorrectly. You sweat your way through your word, hoping you do not hear the dreaded Bing!



Down they went, one after another. I was still in the contest after quite a number of rounds, one of the few fifth graders left. Then, I was done in by poor pronunciation.


Definition? "The power to coerce."

Again, these days they let contestants ask all sorts of things: is there an alternate pronunciation? How many languages did it pass through? If I had been able to ask either of these, I might have had a better shot; but I didn't recognize the word, so I was going to have to guess.

P-U-E-S-C-E-N-C-E. I went off the pronunciation, hoping that the word might be related to "adolescence."


No, it was "puissance," normally pronounced PYOOisuns. Ah well, I was ninth. A good showing for a fifth grader.

I didn't enter the bee the following two years. The contests had made me very self-conscious and anxious; my mother eventually sent me to a hypnotherapist to learn how to relax. Considering that this was the late 70s, that was pretty far-thinking of her. The therapist tape recorded the session, so that I could use it any time I needed to; that little "relax tape" kept me from turning into a complete nervous wreck.

By eighth grade, I was ready to take on the bee again. (Maybe this is why I feel so bad for Michelle Kwan at the Olympics; always so close, and yet so far.) I sailed through the county bee with no drama this time; they had apparently cleaned up their master list.

Then came the state bee. In one of the early rounds my word was "quarterdeck." Easy. Easy. So incredibly easy.


I spelled the word as pronounced by the Kennedys.

Bing. Binnnnnnnnng!

I couldn't believe it. I was the first person eliminated. I slunk to my seat. Okay, I cried. It was ridiculous that I had missed such an easy word. Rather than leave, I stayed through the whole bee, watching. I knew every other word that was given, all the way up through the final round.

It's just as well that I didn't go on to nationals. The pressure there rises to an incredible level of intensity; David and I happened to catch the televised national finals a couple of years ago, and I could barely watch. A girl squirmed as she faced a word she didn't know.


She asked every question she was allowed, and seemed to be on the verge of beginning to spell many times. This dragged on for minutes.

"Trudy, you must begin spelling now."

She took her shot: eplustere. It was aplustre, an ornament on a ship's stern. I couldn't bear watching. I cried a little for her. I also woke David up several times that night, doing my impression of the girl pronouncing and re-pronouncing the word.

Me-as-Trudy: "Eh-ploos-te-ry. Eh-PLUS-tre. Ay-PLOOS-tree."

David-as-himself: "Go to sleep!"

If you've ever been in a spelling bee, I bet that you remember the word you lost on. I will never forget "puissance," and I have "quarterdeck" burned into my brain with shame.

And you will forever be haunted by the Bing! of Judgment.

("Judgement" is British, like "colour" and "cheque"; "Judgment" is the American spelling, as decreed by Noah Webster.)

Puesence. Quaterdeck. Puesence. Quaterdeck. Puesence. Quaterdeck.


Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Sun king

The sun and I don't get along very well. (I was trying to work in some sort of "flaming ball of gas" joke in here, but I'll leave it to you. Have at it.) Thanks to all my pale and wan ancestors, I can get a sunburn if I stand in the light of the open refrigerator too long. So naturally, the southwestern desert was a perfect place to grow up. Indoors.

I think my first encounter with the true strength of the desert sun was when we were first living in Arizona, swimming down at the local pool (where I was a proud member of the Oracle Heights Otters swim team.) I would have been about seven or eight; my mother had some sort of coconut oil that she slathered on us before we spent the day splashing around with the other neighborhood kids. By the end of the day - due to either the sun or maybe something strange in the oil - I had a giant raised blister on top of each shoulder the size of a silver dollar. Ouch.

My mother is Irish, but she, like a few of her many brothers and sisters, has the "black Irish" coloring. "Black Irish" generally just means Irish with dark hair and eyes, although they are sometimes supposed to be descended from survivors of the Spanish Armada. She tans with no trouble at all. My brother and sister and I got more of our father's German coloring: red hair, pale, some freckles. Did I mention pale?

When I would stay with my grandparents, one of my uncles would be out in the backyard tanning to a deep, dark crisp (this was the 70s, so tan was in, and we hadn't yet chewed a hole in the ozone layer.) I wanted so badly to be tan. I also wanted my hair to feather, but that was another impossible dream. If I worked slowly, I could gradually get tan over a whole summer, to the point where I had an actual tan line, but it was a challenge.

There was Coppertone, and there was baby oil. They didn't have SPFs; I don't know what was actually in all that Coppertone lotion I was using. I always refused to put zinc oxide on my nose, so my nose was generally peeling all summer. When they finally did invent sunblock with SPF, 15 was as high as you could go. I was still on a quest for a tan - by this time it was the early 80s and I was in high school. I would climb up on the roof of my father's house and lay out for as long as I could stand it. I would have put lotion on evenly, everywhere except my back. Not being able to reach, I would haphazardly squirt the lotion down my back, resulting in some Pollock-like patterns of burned and not-burned skin. I probably had Sun-In in my hair, too. The 80s. Yeah.

So on I went, every summer trying to get a little bit of a tan, but mostly giving up and staying indoors. When I inevitably did get a sunburn, it always looked far worse than it felt; my skin became lobster red very easily. I finally resigned myself to wearing long sleeves in summer, swimming with a t-shirt on, and generally glowing pink from April to September.

In the early 90s I was working in Montana for the summer, and decided to lay out with my shirt off in the sun during lunch one day. No sunblock, no towel over me, no nothing. I fell asleep. Sound asleep.

An hour later, I woke up with the worst sunburn I have ever had. It was beyond lobster red; it was beyond brick red. It was the sort of red that caused people to go "Jesus Christ!" when they saw my back. It was very, very, red. Jesus Christ Red.

My girlfriend that summer (this was my last gasp on the other side; a confusing time) did her best to help, rubbing aloe on and keeping me sprayed down with Lanacane. After the first day, it didn't hurt so much. Perhaps I had burned off my nerve endings, I don't know. It hurt, but it was bearable ... for about two days.

Then came the itch.

I woke up one day in my bunk with an itching feeling all over my back. Unbearable itching. I couldn't scratch my back - it hurt too much. But the feeling was overwhelming - itching, itching, itching. I could barely talk. I was whimpering. I didn't know what to do. I thought I might actually lose my mind.

I stumbled to the cinderblock shower room and stood under a cold spray. It was the only thing that stopped the torture (while the rest of my body froze.) Every time I stopped the water, within thirty seconds the itching started again. I almost cried. The feeling was only getting stronger.

Then, back under the shower, I tried to relax, breathing deeply, concentrating on the sensation. I told my mind to reinterpret the itching as pain instead - pretend it was a pain like pins jabbing me instead of an itching feeling. Pain I could handle. Itching, I couldn't.

It worked. When it only hurt instead of itched, it was bearable. I wore loose shirts and kept my back covered in aloe (thanks Lisa, wherever you are.) After another day, the itching/pain subsided. Thank god.

You would think I had learned my lesson, and I mostly had. Except... not. Flash forward a few years, when my good friend Julie had moved to New York. She and I and another friend took a quick weekend trip to Atlantic City during the summer. Atlantic City, if you've never been there, is fun in its own way, but is generally like Las Vegas' sad chain-smoking cousin. It's a cigarette butt in the sandbox. It's Grandma's half-empty can of stale Pabst. Of course, I love it.

We traipsed in and out of casinos, and finally went and sat on the beach. My inner warning system shouted out Get a hat! Use some sunblock! But the lazy part of me thought, ahhhh, we won't be out here that long. How bad could it be?

The next day, I woke up as the supervillain Tomato Face.

This would have been fine - I could have dealt with people going "Ow! Got some sun, huh?" "Bet that hurts!" and again "Got some sun, huh?" (I always want to say I was just watching the microwave too closely.) But this was a few days before I was supposed to work at a festival assisting a friend of mine who was giving a keynote speech and facilitating a "town meeting" event. I was going to be very visible. And I knew what happened after a burn like this: peeeeeeeeeeeling. So, I thought, once I start to peel, I'll just help it along with some gentle exfoliation.

Here's a tip I have for you. If you start to peel, do not help it along with some gentle exfoliation.

Now my face was partly burned and partly peeled, covered with small cuts and scabs where the skin broke after my adventures with apricot scrub. And I was going out in public, meeting various Mr. and Ms. Big Pantses of my field.

And every time I met someone, I saw that "Jesus Christ!" reflex pass over their face. It wasn't until I ran into an old friend that I heard the truth.

"Jesus Christ! Did you get dragged over a gravel driveway?"

In a way, yes. Yes, I did.

Given what we know now about skin cancer and premature aging and all that, I'm thankful now that I was forced to stay inside out of the sun during all my years in Arizona - where you can bleach your sheets just by hanging them outside. My father, fond of gardening shirtless outside, discovered skin cancer on his back. Countless women in Arizona who tanned their way through the 70s later found themselves with decolletage resembling cracked Naugahyde (I've noticed that these are the women who keep the turquoise jewelry industry booming.) I have (hopefully) been spared all that. I'd probably look weird with a tan, anyway (although seeing all those spray tans that they dish out on Queer Eye has made me think...)

So, if our paths ever cross in the summertime, you'll see that I dress appropriately and safely for the sun. And forgive me if I don't notice you right away. It's hard to see out of this beekeeper's helmet.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Howling at the moon

When I was a kid, I thought that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was about werewolves. I think I'd seen part of the movie on the late-night movie; at the beginning there are shots of mysterious clouds passing over the moon, so maybe that's what planted that idea in my head. I didn't see the whole film - I think I thought that Elizabeth Taylor turned into a wolf somewhere towards the end. Well, she does, but not literally. I just knew there was something scary about it. I think I also mixed it up in my head with another movie I'd seen where a boy finds out about werewolves (his parents? his neighbors?); this was probably a TV movie in the 70s.

Then came the king of all werewolf movies, An American Werewolf in London. I saw this when it came out, and it scared the bejeebus out of me.

I was at an unusual sleepover; I was in my sophomore year of high school, and my girlfriend was a senior (that was always the case, that my girlfriends were older. Don't know why. Another story for another time.) I hung out with my girlfriend's whole circle of friends, who were having a sleepover for one of the girl's birthdays. It was decided that it would be all right for me to be a guest as well, as long as I was quarantined in a bedroom far away from everybody else. Considering that this was a Catholic school and all the parents were fairly conservative (except mine), it's a little surprising in retrospect.

The girl whose party it was (who would shortly become my next girlfriend, later that year, once we did a production of Dracula in which I was Dracula and she was Lucy) wanted to see American Werewolf, so off we went. I haven't seen it lately, so I don't know if the effects still look frightening or if they look cheesy. But I remember the transformations as scary, the dream-within-a-dream sequences to be really really scary (those weird Nazi creatures?), and the chase at the end to be the scariest of all. It was punching my buttons square on - I always found the Big Bad Wolf to be scary, even in the ViewMaster "Little Red Riding Hood" that I had when I was a kid.

When we got home, we were all suitably freaked out. Then the birthday girl, a David Bowie fan, put on the "Diamond Dogs" album, which has cover art depicting David Bowie as a sort of weredog. This was adding to my freaked-outed-ness. Then it was time for bed; the girls got to huddle in sleeping bags in the living room, while I went to the bedroom alone.

The birthday girl's house was on the edge of town, with windows looking out on empty stretches of the desert. In Tucson you don't have to go very far before you're in coyote territory; you see them all throughout town, and you can't let small dogs and cats outside unless you want them to end up as snacks. This particular night, it was a full moon or close to it, and the coyotes were howling. I was used to the sound - ordinarily it was just mournful and gentle, but tonight of all nights it was creepy.

I woke up sometime in the middle of the night. Everything was quiet and still; the girls had gone to sleep, and the howling had stopped. The bedroom window was large, reaching almost from floor to ceiling. Moonlight was pouring in, illuminating the thin window curtain with pale blue-white light. For some reason, I got out of bed and went to the window, and pulled the curtain aside so I could see how bright the moon was.

On the other side of the window was a coyote. Just standing silently, staring in at me.

I think my heart stopped. I didn't move. I didn't breathe. The coyote stayed there for a moment, then turned and trotted off into the desert. I stayed at the window for another five minutes. Or an hour, I'm not sure. The moon was moving through the sky; the saguaros and the palo verde trees cast shadows in the harsh white light. The wind began to blow, and clouds moved over the moon, softening the light, blocking the stars. I don't know how long it was before I got back in bed.

I heard howling in my dreams.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Stars falling from orange skies

I've been away from the city this week. The skies in New York are orange at night, when the clouds and haze reflect the city lights, but here you can see the stars. Even so, nothing can match the night skies of Arizona, where I grew up, or Montana, where I spent a number of summers.

I was fascinated by stars when I was a kid; my father got me a little telescope that I could use to look at the moon (and with the proper filter, the sun.) I learned to tell the planets from the stars; I seem to remember that it had something to do with whether or not they "twinkled," but thinking back, I'm not sure that's right.

I had one of those little compact paperbound books on stars and constellations. I loved knowing the classifications: red giant, white dwarf. Everything was arranged by color and size - I liked knowing that there was order to everything. At one time I knew all the major constellations and their primary stars, but I've since forgotten. I can still spot the Big Dipper and also Orion (David's favorite), but the others, I don't know.

In Arizona, there were a few times when I saw meteors fall close enough that you could see them "flame out," sparks flying off them as they disintegrated in the atmosphere. In Montana, I had my first experience seeing the northern lights. Walking home at night, it was as though someone was shaking out phosphorescent bedsheets, whipping them like you would making a bed. They glowed the faint greenish-white of glow-in-the-dark plastic. I'd never seen anything like it.

One night at three in the morning, some friends and I went to a field behind the place we were staying. We lay on our backs watching the lights; it was as though the sky were opening up some sort of celestial gate, with billowing clouds that were glowing and churning. It was absolutely hypnotic and transporting. I felt very small, lying on the cold wet grass, completely supported by the earth, my eyes filled with the beauty of the lights.

I remembered that moment years later when David and I went in the early pre-dawn hours to lie on a rock in Central Park and watch the meteor shower. The night sky in New York was as clear and dark as it can get, although the lights of the city still drown out most starlight. Still, we saw a few falling stars; usually one of us would spot one and call out, while the other would turn too late to see. But sometimes we would see one together, and just squeeze each others hands tighter, both lying looking up at the sky, looking out into the universe together. Very small, very cold, but still together.

Friday, February 18, 2005

The tower of foil and vending machine sandwiches

Over the last six years or so, I've worked out of town for about three or months of every year. I always enjoyed these times away, living (temporarily) in a new place, free of the Dr. Seussian piles of books and papers that were taking over my New York apartment. It was an opportunity to start from scratch, however briefly.

During one of my sojourns to Minneapolis, the theater I was working for had me staying in a high-rise building, which was a new experience for me. All my New York apartments had been in brownstones, usually in fourth or fifth-floor walkups. In Minneapolis, I was staying on the twenty-eighth floor, in an apartment that was vaguely reminiscent of the one on the Mary Tyler Moore show, when Mary moved out of Phyllis' building.

(A sidenote: I was happy to find on the streets of downtown Minneapolis a statue of Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards ready to toss her hat in the air. It doesn't look so much like Mary Richards as it does a slightly melted grinning bronze zombie, but what can you do.)

The first night that I slept there, I kept hearing a haunting humming or whistling. I finally figured out that it was the sound of the winter wind blowing past the building, which had no tall buildings neighboring it. It contributed to the slightly spooky feeling of isolation that this building had; it felt hollow and deserted.

I knew there had to be other people in this building - at least thirty floors of them. But I never saw anyone else. I wasn't working particularly odd hours; but whenever I came home the lobby was empty, the elevators were empty, the zig-zagging hallways leading to my apartment were empty.

The view was beautiful. I actually looked down at one point and saw a helicopter flying by (it was a medical helicopter on its way to a hospital landing pad.) But the windows let in an ungodly amount of light, especially in the morning, and I couldn't sleep once the sun was up.

I've gotten more sensitive to light as time has gone on; when I first met David I had to confess that I sometimes sleep with a towel wrapped around my head to block out the light. Using little Zsa-Zsa Gabor sleep masks doesn't work for me, as I always claw them off my face during the night. But in the Tower of Blinding Sunlight, even the towel trick wasn't working; once the sun was up, it felt like lightning bolts were shooting into my retinas.

Finally the sleep deprivation started to get to me; I bought several rolls of aluminum foil and started covering the bedroom window. If you wipe the window with water, the foil adheres to the glass as though it had been glued. These windows were huge, so it took a few rolls of foil to sufficiently darken the bedroom. In the mornings, you could feel the solar heat radiating through the foil - and when I was walking outside, I could look up and see my silver window, proudly trailer-trashy among all the others.

This building had a room of vending machines that fascinated me. There were the usual soda machines and snack machines, where you could buy Cokes, chips or cheese crackers. But there was also a Snapple machine, in which the glass bottles, once selected, fell down the length of the display window but somehow never broke. There was a machine which sold bologna and cheese sandwiches, half-pints of milk, and half-dozen boxes of eggs.

Of course, once I saw that, I had to buy vending machine eggs. Once you put your quarters in, a little shelf levitated to the level of the eggs; the machine carefully scooted the box off its perch onto the moving shelf, which then descended to the door in the bottom of the machine.

Once my groceries ran out toward the middle of rehearsals and I had no time to go shopping, I was living on Snapple, peanut butter crackers and vending machine sandwiches.

I would sit in the apartment (where I set out pans of water in every corner to combat the aridity of the building's processed air,) listening to the relentless wind, watching for helicopters and wondering where I would land next.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Take this survey

If you haven't taken this survey, please do. You could win something. And you'll make David happy.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Devil child

My mother came from a large family, so I have many cousins on that side. I used to spend summers in Florida with my grandparents, where I was the oldest in a swarm of grandchildren. One cousin in particular was - well, how shall I put it? A demon.

I'm sure she's turned out to be a delightful person - and if she's reading this, Hi!

It was not inaccurate to refer to her as "Rosemary's Baby," as her mother was, in fact, named Rosemary. She lived up to her name. If someone was screaming/crying/wailing, it was either Devil Child trying to thwart Those Who Opposed Her, or else it was one of the other grandchildren screaming/crying/wailing because D.C. had inflicted some kind of injury, and then made off with her victim's toys.

My grandmother and I were both insomniacs, so we'd often be up late watching television together, if we weren't doing crosswords or reading one of the thousand back issues of Reader's Digest that were lying around. (Nature-versus-nurture debaters, start your engines now.) We shared a love of late-night horror movies. At least once or twice a summer, Nana would gas up the station wagon, we'd slather ourselves with mosquito repellent, and we'd head off to a swampy Florida drive-in to watch a triple feature of bad Italian-made horror movies. I'm talking fine films like Beyond Evil featuring Lynda Day George and John Saxon.

Anyone who knows my writing can clearly see the influence this had on me.

One particular summer, six year old Devil Child was determined to go along. She demanded it. She shrieked. She would not rest until she was included. I, on the other hand, had dug in my heels. These drive-in trips were something special that I shared with my grandmother, and I would be damned if anyone was going to tag along. Finally I realized, however, that it was going to be easier just to give in and take Devil Child to the movies. Damn it.

We all ritually sprayed ourselves with Off, and bumped along in the station wagon: me, fuming in the front seat, Devil Child delighted with herself in the back. She had achieved her goal: we had Done Her Bidding; there would be no stopping her now.

We got to the drive-in, and parked Devil Child on top of the car with a bag of popcorn, while Nana and I settled in to watch the movie. The movie was Dawn of the Dead.

At the end of the movie, we retrieved an ashen-faced Devil Child from her perch, where she had been frozen in terror. She was silent the entire ride home, except to ask in a tiny voice if the bad monsters would come and get her.

I said they might.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Temper, temper

I rarely get angry. Apparently this is a typical Taurean trait; slow to anger, but when sufficiently provoked, can explode with rage. I suppose that's true, although the number of times I've allowed myself to become furiously angry is very small.

I often don't even know I'm angry until much later. I used to describe my delayed reactions like this: if someone whunked me on the head with a frying pan, it would be 24 hours until I went, "Ow. That hurt."

I've often wondered why I don't get angry more often. It's not that I'm a simmering volcano of suppressed rage - at least, I don't think I am. There are some people I know who are clearly boiling with anger underneath a calm surface; that negative energy suffuses everything they do, and they are hard to be around. Sometimes I have been in situations where I couldn't directly express my anger, and had to swallow it. But at least I was aware of it.

A good friend introduced me to the Enneagram, a system of personality typing. In reading about the nine types described by the Enneagram, I came to the conclusion that I am a Five; the delayed anger reaction is characteristic of Fives, I learned.

Here's a little summary of Type Five, taken from this web page:

Type Five: The Intense, Cerebral Type:
Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated

Basic Fear: Being useless, helpless, or incapable
Basic Desire: To be capable and competent

Healthy: Observe everything with extraordinary perceptiveness and insight. Most mentally alert, curious, searching intelligence: nothing escapes their notice. Foresight and prediction. Able to concentrate: become engrossed in what has caught their attention. / Attain skillful mastery of whatever interests them. Excited by knowledge: often become expert in some field. Innovative and inventive, producing extremely valuable, original works. Highly independent, idiosyncratic, and whimsical. At Their Best: Become visionaries, broadly comprehending the world while penetrating it profoundly. Open-minded, take things in whole, in their true context. Make pioneering discoveries and find entirely new ways of doing and perceiving things.

Average: Begin conceptualizing and fine-tuning everything before acting - working things out in their minds: model building, preparing, practicing, and gathering more resources. Studious, acquiring technique. Become specialized, and often "intellectual," often challenging accepted ways of doing things. / Increasingly detached as they become involved with complicated ideas or imaginary worlds. Become preoccupied with their visions and interpretations rather than reality. Are fascinated by off-beat, esoteric subjects, even those involving dark and disturbing elements. Detached from the practical world, a "disembodied mind," although high-strung and intense. / Begin to take an antagonistic stance toward anything which would interfere with their inner world and personal vision. Become provocative and abrasive, with intentionally extreme and radical views. Cynical and argumentative.

Unhealthy: Become reclusive and isolated from reality, eccentric and nihilistic. Highly unstable and fearful of aggressions: they reject and repulse others and all social attachments. / Get obsessed yet frightened by their threatening ideas, becoming horrified, delirious, and prey to gross distortions and phobias. / Seeking oblivion, they may commit suicide or have a psychotic break with reality. Deranged, explosively self-destructive, with schizophrenic overtones. Generally corresponds to the Schizoid Avoidant and Schizotypal personality disorders.

Key Motivations: Want to possess knowledge, to understand the environment, to have everything figured out as a way of defending the self from threats from the environment.

Examples: Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Georgia O'Keefe, Stanley Kubrick, John Lennon, Lily Tomlin, Gary Larson, Laurie Anderson, Merce Cunningham, Meredith Monk, James Joyce, Bj_rk, Susan Sontag, Emily Dickenson, Agatha Christie, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jane Goodall, Glenn Gould, John Cage, Bobby Fischer, Tim Burton, David Lynch, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Trent Reznor, Friedrich Nietzsche, Vincent Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, and "Fox Mulder" (X Files).

The Fox Mulder comparison is apt, since I am fascinated by all elements of the paranormal. (There will be more posts on that subject shortly.)

You can take a test to determine your Enneagram type here.

Googling "Enneagram" will bring up a zillion pages, but some favorites are the Enneagram Institute site,, and also this site.

Let me know what you find out. I'll be over here, being intense and cerebral.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Cause of Death: Linda Lavin

I am not an actor. Thank you, Linda Lavin.

Actually it's not all Linda Lavin's fault. I just had an unfortunate experience with her - and really, who doesn't know what that's like? Dying a hundred deaths while being humilated by TV's "Alice" - we've all gone through that, right?


I was in my junior year of Acting! school. I was also working as a waiter, so I was perpetually short on time. Linda Lavin and her then-husband Kip Niven had come to our university so that Mr. Niven could direct a production of a play in the summer arts festival. Linda Lavin offered to do an audition workshop for the students on a Saturday.

I had to work later that day, so I asked the student stage manager who was arranging it all to put me first on the list. I had no time, so I did what I usually did in those situations: I pulled something out of my ass and hoped I could skate through. We were supposed to do a monologue and a song; looking back, I know that my choice of material was spectacularly wrong. I also hadn't worked on them all that much. I figured I would go first and it would all be overwith quickly.

Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

I went out onto the stage, with the stage lights on full; Linda Lavin was somewhere Out There in the black void. I shlepped through my monologue. I did the song.

Silence from the void.

Then she began peppering me with questions. What did I think about my training? I sort of rambled through an answer - I liked school, I enjoyed my classes, blah de blah. She interrupted me, and asked again. What I realized was that she was saying something more along the lines of, "Do you think you have any training? Because you? Suck."

I don't remember how long I was up on that stage. Eons passed. Tectonic plates shifted. Crops grew and were harvested. Seasons passed in time-lapse splendor. Dynasties sprang up and were overthrown. And still I was there sweating under the stage lights, sitting on a stool, being lectured by Linda Lavin. Dying. Dying. Dying. Dying.

Dying. Dying. Dying.


After I was reduced to a small tidy pile of ash, the stage manager came out from the wings, swept me neatly into a dustpan, and deposited me backstage.

I learned several things that day. I began to realize that acting, while I enjoyed it, was not my passion the way writing was (side note: though I sucked that particular day, I wasn't bad in general.) I would crawl over broken glass for my music; as for acting, it was fun, but I didn't have the fire in my belly.

But more importantly, I learned that going through life with blinders on, it's tough to see. I had to get up, get out from under and look for me. There's a newwwww girl in town...

And the most important lesson: don't try to fake it by pulling something out of your ass. You can't fool Linda Lavin.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Hanging by my toes

For a change of pace, I'll write about something that happened to me today instead of five or ten years ago. When I began this blog, I decided I wouldn't write about anything pertaining to work. And here I am, breaking that rule already. Bad, bad crumblord.

One of the highlights of my year is taking the graduate students from the program where I teach to a week-long artist's residency in a small village about three hours from New York. This is the sixth year we've done it, and by now I've got the planning down to a science. Which means, of course, that this year it would have to begin with a minor disaster. Well, not a disaster. A schoolbus.

You see, ordinarily we pack ourselves into a coach - a large, comfortable bus like you might ride to Atlantic City. There were only 20 of us, but there were enormous piles of luggage, computer equipment, musical instruments and snacks. The trip is usually uneventful and pleasant. It was a gorgeous day. Everyone arrived more or less on time.

If only we knew.

Somewhere just north of the Bronx, the bus stalled, and the driver pulled over to the side of the freeway. He waited for a few minutes until the bus started up again. The same thing happened again; we drove for ten minutes, and the bus overheated and stalled. Being in a bus careening without power on a crowded New York highway is a delightful, relaxing adventure. Oh, yes.

The driver managed to get off the thruway and into a small main street of a town near White Plains. He went into the hardware store and bought some antifreeze, thinking that might solve the problem. He refilled the oil and water as well.

We made it another half-mile before stalling again.

The students were all very laid back and relaxed about it, for the most part. They slept or chatted; we had the DVD player on the bus playing Napoleon Dynamite. We waited while the driver called his bus company and they decided what to do. A mechanic could not be found. They were searching for another coach which could come and pick us up.

By now, hours were passing as we were stuck on the side of the road. I had eaten a good breakfast, but by now it was becoming late afternoon, and my blood sugar was plummeting. Although there were other faculty members on the bus, I was in charge; I was feeling like Julie Andrews in charge of the von Trapp children, while having been stranded in a plane crash in the Andes. We joked about who would be eaten first. Liesl can't run fast. Get her!

I kept my sense of humor. Barely. The driver reported that the only bus they had available was a school bus, or a "banana boat" as he called it. He finally figured out what was wrong with our bus, having called a cousin of his who was a mechanic. There was a leak in the air line that cooled the clutch, so the bus would never go more than five minutes without overheating.

Faced with the choice of a schoolbus or no bus at all, I opted for the schoolbus. The students joined in to transfer our mountains of luggage to our new ride, which appeared after another hour by the side of the road. We all squeezed in to what was clearly an elementary-grades bus - I had to sit with my knees sideways, as the space between seats was so narrow.

Dark was falling and although no one was stressing out, we were tired and hungry. We arrived in the village, offloaded the luggage, and immediately climbed back aboard the bus to head to the grocery store so that the students could buy the food they'd need for the week. The driver hadn't bargained on this extra trip, so he wasn't thrilled, but it had to be done. Our hosts in the village had suggested that we could wait until the next day to make the grocery trip, but I knew that I personally would begin digesting my own stomach if I didn't get some food soon.

I held it together even while trying to stand up at the front of the lurching bus on the way to the store, trying to address the students while whipping around like a cat with bent knees, giving directions to the driver as we barrelled over the hills.

We were all having a good time, considering the chaos. Once upon a time I might have morphed into Controlling Tour Guide mode, tight-lipped and bossy. But I made an extra effort and allow everyone the time they needed to wander the aisles in the store, without rushing anyone. We clambered back onto the bus with our bags and bags and bags of groceries, and finally arrived back at the village. The students settled in to the various old houses they were staying at - very Harry Potter-esque in this tiny New England village - and I suddenly crashed from the release of tension. I had been hanging by my toes all day, suspended upside down, trying to keep my equilibrium. I wondered if, had I been the sort of person to lose his temper and start having a tantrum, would we have had a new bus sooner, or if that would have just destroyed the ready-for-anything mood we had established. I too often let people and situations slide, not wanting to be a jerk and press the issue or ask for what I really need. In this case, I felt like I was acknowledging the good faith efforts of our driver, and also trying to undertand the reality that another coach was not going to magically appear. I didn't see the value in getting angry. Does anyone ever respond in a useful way to tantrum-throwers? I don't know.

So now everyone is tucked up in their houses. I've had something to eat. It's warm. It's silent outside in the frosty night, and the big old house I'm in is creaking comfortably, settling down to sleep. We avoided the fate of the Donner party; thank God we had snacks.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Strength in numbers

Tell me your number. I'll remember it.

One of the minor abilities that I seem to have been blessed with is the ability to remember phone numbers easily. David would say that the part of my brain that is busy remembering numbers is the same part of the brain that is customarily used to remember to close cabinet doors and turn off lights. Well, you can't have everything.

It's not some photographic memory thing; I don't remember every number I've ever seen, like some sort of Rainman. I have to consciously imprint it in my brain. Then, it stays there, stuck. I can still remember the phone number from our first house in Tucson, Arizona, where we lived from 1972 to 1975-ish. (602) 297-4891. We had an aqua colored telephone. I can see the typewritten number on the label in the middle of the rotary dial (And don't go ringing up that number. Come on.)

I resisted putting people's numbers into my cellphone's memory, because if I haven't dialed it, I won't remember it. Sometimes I remember the pattern that it makes on the phone keypad (my last apartment's phone number danced up and down the middle row, and ended with a little box in the right corner.) Other times I'll identify numerical patterns, or else make some other kind of connection. Living in New York, I will sometimes associate numbers with streets. For instance, a friend recently told me his cellphone number, which was [X]86-9423. My brain broke it down into the first digit (which I have oh-so-cleverly replaced with "X"); then 86th Street, which is a major cross street in Manhattan; 94th Street, where one of my favorite restaurants is; and 23rd Street, another major cross street (and the upper border of Chelsea. In case you're interested.) This just happens automatically in my brain. How fun to be me.

They say there is an association between math and music. Besides the fact that music is concerned with numbers (scale degrees, intervals, chord progressions, all reduced to numbers), I'd say that the connection lies in how you visualize things. When I sit down to write music, it's like seeing with x-ray vision or something. You see in another dimension. You understand things in a different way that is non-linear. Math is like that, too.

I was always good at math, but I could take it or leave it. My father made it fun; when I was ten or eleven he would sketch out basic algebra problems on a napkin and show me how to solve them. My father is a great teacher, and can get you interested in anything. By the time I got to junior high, I was all about solving for X.

I know I won a math award at some point - junior high? No, that was the science medal. Maybe freshman year of high school. Naturally, these are things one doesn't run around advertising ("Hey! Look at my math award! Hey, that hurts! Ow! Ow! Ow!") I found algebra and geometry interesting, but wasn't sufficiently thrilled with math to progress onward to calculus. And somehow in college, I believe I managed to sneak away with no math at all, or else a very basic algebra course.

As far as my idiot-savant-ness goes, the number memory occasionally extends to longer numbers, like phone card numbers or bank accounts, but not always. Just phone numbers. Oddly, my memory for numbers is in inverse proportion to the speed with which I manage to call people back. So, if I haven't returned your call, it's not that I forgot your number. I just forgot what day of the week it is, what city I'm in, and also my name.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Wheel! Of! Fnordblog!

I used to force my family to appear as celebrity panelists in "Match Game 76." I set a card table on its side with barstools behind. I would use a tinkertoy version of Gene Rayburn's strange skinny microphone, and intone things like, "Dumb Dora was so dumb..." They would dutifully write their answers on cards. I think they had to take turns being the contestants.

I had of course studied the show intently - with scary drunk Brett Somers, flaming Charles Nelson Reilly, half-asleep pre-Family Feud Richard Dawson, and Fannie Flagg bringing up the rear, dishing up cornpone. I learned that in order to win the game, you had to stick to the three answers the cluewriters were hoping you'd give: "Tinkle" "boobs" or "whoopee." That was the level of naughty humor Gene Rayburn presided over with his gaunt-scary-uncle leer. It was best if the slightly dumb contestant blushed a little when she had to flip her Aqua-Netted hair out of her face and lean to the mic to say "Boobs." Oh, they got a lot of laffs out of that. Brett Somers, with dark glasses on and vodka hidden behind her podium, croaking out in her whiskey voice: "I said BOOBS, Gene." Ding!

When I wasn't soaking up "Match Game," it was "The Price Is Right." Again, I had the home version of the game, which my family was compelled to take part in. I used to augment the home version with products from around the house ("Which costs more? This can of Comet, or this bottle of Wesson Vegetable Oil?") The best parts were the showcases, in which you could win a set of livingroom furniture from the livingroom that you were actually in.

The best gameshow on television, though, was "The $10.000 Pyramid" (or $20,000, or $25,000, or $100,000 Pyramid. Pyramid prices are always going up.) To this day my heart starts racing during the Pyramid round. I'm usually leaping around the room if the contestant manages to win.

For those of you who have led sheltered, quiet lives under a rock, here's how the Pyramid works: two Ordinary Contestants are paired with Celebrity Players (Patty Duke turned up on a regular basis, as did Anita Gillette, Loretta Swit, MacClean Stevenson, Barbara Feldon, Sandy Duncan, John Schuck ... the B-list is endless..) First you compete by having to get your partner to guess seven related clues in 30 seconds. It might be a category like "Things You Find in an Italian Restaurant," or "Things with Buttons." Not too difficult. If you won, you and your celebrity trotted off to the winner's circle, where the game was reversed. You were given a category and had to reel off a list (only a list! no descriptions! no using your hands!) of items that fit that category. "Things that are square" ... "What a clown would say" ... "Things you inherit" The categories got tougher as you went up the pyramid, and it was usually quite difficult to make it to the top. That's what made it so exciting.

There's an apocryphal story that in the Pyramid round Sandy Duncan suddenly trailed off from giving clues (the celebrities almost always gave the clues in the Pyramid round), letting the clock run out. When Dick Clark came over to ask what had gone wrong, she said, "Did you know there's a catwalk up there?" I suppose when you have only one eye, it's easy to get distracted.

I don't believe that one actually happened, but I did like the fact that the show revealed which celebrities were smart and could think quickly. If you weren't the sharpest knife in the drawer, you would sink like a stone on this show. Some celebrities who came on clearly hadn't been prepared well for the game. I remember watching Jimmy Stewart on the show in the mid-70s. Whoever he was paired with lost miserably.

Jimmy Stewart: Ahhhnh, we'll take "Lions and Tigers and uh, uhhh. Bears."

Dick Clark: Okay, describe for your partner these things you find in a zoo. Things in a zoo. Thirty seconds. Go!

Jimmy Stewart: (seeing the first answer, which is "A Zebra") Ahhh, ahhh, it's the thing, there in the zoo, it's like ahhh, ahhhh...

Frantic constestant: An elephant! A polar bear!

Jimmy Stewart: No, it's got the, the, ahhh, on the sides there, and uhhh, it's black and uhh...

F.C.: A rhino! A gnu! A wildebeest!

Jimmy Stewart: No, it's aaahhh, not a, a, a, it's got four legs and ahhh, ahhh...

F.C.: A cow! A donkey! A sheep! An antelope! A warthog!

Time's up. Every round went like that. The contestants looked like they wanted to strangle him, but of course, you couldn't do that. He was Jimmy Stewart.

Another celebrity who didn't understand the way the game was played was Lucille Ball. The essence of the game is using words to get the right response.

"Salt and..." "Pepper."

"You come to the house and ring the..." "Doorbell."

"A horse with black and white stripes is a ..." "Zebra."

Unfortunately, Lucy thought she was playing charades. Given the answer "Pepper" she went into an elaborate mime routine where she sprinkled it on her food, inhaled it, sneezed, tasted it, got it in her eyes, cried, sneezed some more, lost control of the pepper shaker and got it all over the place.

The contestant was mystified. Time's up.

Joanne Worley, on the other hand, whipped through every category in record time. She kicked Lucy's ass in that episode.

The modern remake (is it still on?) with Donny Osmond fails to capture what made the original Pyramid so addictive. They made the set look like every other ripoff of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, with the black screens and the swiveling spotlights, while misunderstanding the types of categories and clues that work best in the game. I tried to like it. Didn't.

The show I never liked - in fact was mystified by - was Wheel! Of! Fortune! (And, by the way, am I the only person on earth who remembers that Chuck Woolery was the original host of this show, before Pat Sajak and Vanna White came along?) The basic premise of the show is fine: I like word games, I like playing Hangman, that's all good. I like that giant wheel: in fact, it fascinated me in the same way all the giant gameshow apparatus did. The pyramid, the showcase wheel, the giant slot machine arm on "Joker's Wild." The wheel, with it's blinking pointers and satisfying clickety sound as it spins - that, I loved.

It was the contestants: so incredibly dumb. More than once, I have seen someone get down to only one blank left in a puzzle, and then blow it.

Imagine the giant letterboard, lit up like this: GOLDEN GATE _RIDGE.

Contestant: I'll solve the puzzle, Chuck.

Chuck Woolery: Okay, go 'head. Read it out for us.

Contestant (proudly): Golden. Gate. Fridge.

Then the next contestant guesses the one remaining letter but only wins $100 or so. It's that kind of agonizing stupidity that I can't take. When the whole country was mad for The Wheel and Pat and Vanna, I was left cold. I was still watching reruns of "Pyramid," watching Patty Duke and Marcia Wallace kick ass. I once was working in California and the show happened to be on three times a day. I watched every episode I could, inventing elaborate excuses to be home at 11:00, 3:00 and 6:30. You know, Della Reese is a damn fine Pyramid player.

Okay, here's an easy one for you: "What a maniacally obsessive person would say."

Ready? Go.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

In the hermitage

In another life, I'm sure I was a hermit. Living in a cave, avoiding contact, maybe making obscure prophetic pronouncements to those who tracked me down. You know, being weird.

It wasn't until I moved to the Upper West Side that I ever really lived alone. I had roommates all through college, and for the first five years that I lived in New York. Jeannette, my first NYC roommate, and I moved from Arizona to a tiny apartment on the Upper East Side. We had known each other for a few years, but had never actually lived together. Among our friends it was well known that Jeannette was organized to a surreal degree; we used to joke that everything in the apartment was arranged alphabetically.

"Have you seen my keys?"

"Your keys? Hmm. Did you look between the kangaroo and the kiwi?"

"Uh ... no."

"That's where they go."

It was only her amazing neatness which allowed us to survive in a small space. I was more of the clean-kitchen-but-messy-bedroom type, so it was an adjustment for me. I came home one time to find my nice wool work pants stuffed willy-nilly into our tiny metal built-in bathroom hamper.

"Hey," I snotted, "these are dry-clean pants. They don't go in here."

At this point Jeannette's head sprouted cobras and asps. "WELL, THEY DON'T GO ON THE CHAIR EITHER!"

How to Always Remember to Hang Up Your Pants, in One Easy Lesson.

From that apartment I later moved to another slightly larger place which accommodated three. At first it was me (in my first year of graduate school) and two lovely girls from Montana who were new to the city.

I would sometimes call home from my part-time job, because I sensed that Colleen, the more open and vulnerable of the two, was probably upset right about then. Sure enough, she would be having her afternoon cry. She missed Montana so much; she missed the fact that you could say hello to people on the street there. I had taught her that you had to walk with purpose, don't go goggling up at the big tall buildings, always look tough, and don't smile indiscriminately. One day she was particularly upset.

"I was walking home today, and I saw myself in one of the store windows," she said through her sobbing.

"Yes? What was so bad about that?"

"I saw myself and ... I'm one of the angry people."

Goodbye, Montana.

After the Montana girls, it became me living with my partner Jonn and a rotating series of third roommates. That's how precious space is in New York; you can actually sublet your tiny second bedroom with a loft bed to people who will be glad to move right in and live with a couple. We tried occasionally going without another roommate, but I was still in school, and there was a lot of rent to pay.

Finally, there was an upheaval; I was out of school, my relationship ended, and I had to find a new place to live. I wound up on West 84th street, in a tiny apartment that was a perfect bachelor pad. I got it almost by accident; the realtor showing the place confessed it was her first day on the job. She had a Lisa Kudrow-esque sense of humor; when I was filling out the apartment application, she said "Put your daytime contact number on the sheet."


"Oh, just anywhere."

(As I go to write) "No, not there!"


"Just kidding. That's fine."

So there I was, single and in a new apartment, living alone for the first time. I had no furniture, and was sleeping on fold-out foam futon-chair, snuggled under a terrycloth bathrobe.

It was about a year or so after I moved there that I left the corporate world to try pursuing my writing career. I was working freelance doing desktop publishing, working odd shifts, never working in the same place too long. Once I got used to the "playing hooky" feeling of being home during the day during normal work hours, I enjoyed the freedom. Third shift was difficult, as you feel that you're just living one long day with no divisions, and start to lose track of what day it is. But second shift was perfect for my night-owl-ness.

I was spending a lot of time alone, more than I ever had before. I had always had roommates or boyfriends; I was always very comfortable with that. Living alone was a new experience, and it was good. I was never lonely; I read or wrote music or wandered around the neighborhood. I learned the truth of the saying that New Yorkers are so often alone in a crowd. I noticed the other people like me who ate alone in diners, involved with their newspapers or books; people who went to the movies alone, as I enjoyed doing. My next door neighbor had lived alone in her small apartment for thirty years. Living alone required a sort of ascetism that I learned to appreciate. It made me at ease in my own skin, listening only to my own thoughts.

There was a time when I was on the phone all the time, keeping up with my friends across the country, running up huge long-distance bills. Now I began to change; I wasn't so conscientious about keeping in touch. I was drifting into the rituals of alone-ness. I saw friends, I went out, I socialized, but in the end I could return to the cocoon of my apartment.

Of course, solitude has its perils. On one occasion I had been in Chicago, working on a show; on the day I arrived home, worn out, I returned a few phone calls, and then crawled into bed. I didn't get out of bed for almost a week, struck down by illness brought on by stress and exhaustion. Since I didn't really need to be anywhere, I wasn't missed.

The little hermitage on 84th street seemed to be a perfect reflection of my life during the nine years I lived there; just room enough, and no more. For a long time I never thought I would want to live with someone. I had probably gotten too far into my idiosyncracies, entrenched in my own habits. I came and went as I pleased. I liked the silence.

But of course, things change. Not long after I met David I seemed to be always at his apartment. It was easier to cook dinner there, as he had more of a kitchen space than I did. He also had a way of making an apartment an inviting space, where after eight years in my little apartment I had gotten lax. Then, little by little, we were living together. The transition happened magically, invisibly.

My little monastery no longer felt like home. It was time to move on.

The hermit had come out of the cave.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Just ice

I have always been an ice chewer. It seemed like I was always thirsty; I could slug down a glass of water or soda quickly, and then would chomp on the ice. I loved going to Straw Hat Pizza just because they had crushed ice in their sodas. Give me a little root beer, and lots of ice. In fact, give me just ice.

Sometimes when I was a kid I would sleep over at friends' houses and discover that they had those refrigerators that dispensed ice from the door, crushed. I would find a way to get endless glasses of ice, sneaking into the kitchen over and over.

Much later, when I was working at a theater in Montana, I became friends with one of the directors. He hated the sound of someone chewing ice. Hated. It. To him it was like nails on a chalkboard. I was so addicted to the behavior that I would do it without even thinking. He found that the only way to stop me was by letting out a blood curdling shriek at an impossibly high pitch, like the aliens in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." He would do it full voice without embarrassment in the middle of a restaurant.

Me: Slurrrrrrp. (pause) Chomp. Chomp.


Me: Jesus! Sorry.

During the days when I hung out in bars (hi Mom), people often used my ice chomping as a way to, uh, get to know me better.

Me: Chomp. Chomp.

Random person: You know what chewing ice means, dontcha?

Me: Chomp. No, what? Chomp.

Random person: It means you're, heh heh, sexually frustrated.

Me: Chomp. Chomp. No, I don't think so.

I always used to hear that it would destroy my teeth. I scoffed at this. At least I did until last year when one of my teeth split in two and had to be yanked out. I blame that on some sort of seed, not on ice. Delicious, delicious ice.

I always wanted a Sno-Cone machine, too. There were the kind where you put an ice cube in a plastic snowman's stomach; there was the kind that looked like Snoopy's doghouse; there was the "ice bird" which basically had a blade on the bottom which made shavings as you slid it across a block of ice. I lusted after them with my eight-year-old soul.

Somehow I never ended up with any of those contraptions, although we did have these cups that made slushes. The cups were in two parts: a white plastic liner that was filled with some sort of antifreeze-like substance, and a colored plastic outer part, with the handle and all. The white part went in the freezer; you took it out, put it in the outer cup, poured juice, soda or Kool-Aid into it, and then hacked away at the liquid as it froze. Eventually some of the antifreeze type stuff leaked through the plastic liner, which was weakened by vicious attacks with a kitchen spoon. The antifreeze didn't taste too good.

Of course, if I was using Kool-Aid to freeze, it had a pretty bizarre taste to begin with. My mother (hi Mom) was a pretty staunch about not feeding us too much sugar, fairly remarkable in the 70s. Of course, we begged for Kool-Aid, so she would get the kind in the small packet that you were supposed to add sugar to. She would add liquid saccharin. Yum!

It had that strange, plastic-y, chemical-ly taste that kids just love. It was the taste of "sweet" as interpreted by aliens who had never tasted anything sweet. It was ... ok, disgusting.

Our friends would come over and ask for Kool-Aid. At our house, they only asked once. Then they learned.

With Kool-Aid a treacherous substance (I look like candy, but I taste like bleach!), maybe it was no wonder that I turned to ice. Ice was just ... ice. Cool and crunchy and thirst quenching. And in the desert, I was always thirsty.

Postscript: When I thought to write about this delightful habit of mine, I did a little Googling to see what charming links I might add. Imagine my surprise when I found out that compulsive ice chewing is a common symptom of iron deficiency, or sometimes zinc deficiency. This behavior (eating non-food substances) is apparently called pica, and the particular craving for ice is pagophagia. Who knew? Why didn't anyone ever tell me that?

Me: Chomp. Chomp.

Random person: You know what chewing ice means, dontcha?

Me: Chomp. No, what? Chomp.

Random person: You're into, heh heh ... pagophagia. Heh, heh.

Me: Chomp. Chomp. No, I don't think so. Freak.

Apparently sometimes people who chew ice also chew paper. I never really did that. Well, maybe a little.

I don't chew ice as much anymore. Part of it is a conscious effort, after the Tooth Explosion of 2004. Or maybe I'm finally getting enough iron. Or maybe ... mmm excuse me just a sec...


Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Yes, Chariots of Fire

I don't really have a car right now. I haven't really had one for years, since I moved away from Arizona.

Oh, yes, I occasionally drive the trusty Mazda 6 around, blundering my way to my chosen destination (There's Towson Town Center) and calling up David with questions like, "Hi honey. I'm on a bridge. Where am I?"

But the car I liked the most was our family's 1967 Ford Galaxy convertible - ours was light metallic blue with a white top. It had a 390 engine, with cool chrome buttons on the radio, a streamlined gearshift knob, and a gigantic steering wheel. It was like being at the helm of an iron boat.

My family moved around quite a bit when I was very young - my father was in the Air Force - but when I was around five, we headed for Arizona, where we would stay put for many years. We made the cross-country journey in our two cars: a VW bug, which would expire from the exertion, and the sturdy Ford.

The Ford had a space behind the backseat that the top folded into when it was down. There was an automatic mechanism for putting the top up and down; gears would grind away while the roof would rise majestically like a white sail. Once fully extended, you would clamp it onto the frame around the windshield - a challenge if it hadn't seated itself exactly right.

We kids called the space behind the backseat "the well," and my brother and sister and I would clamor for the chance to be the one who "got the well" on long trips. You could climb back into a cozy pile of blankets, with books and toys and whatever else you wanted, and have your own private nest. I loved riding in the well.

I don't know if it was on the drive to Arizona, or on a different road trip (we always seemed to be hitting the road to visit relatives somewhere), but on at least one occasion, I felt comfortable enough back there to divest myself of my clothes. Hey, it was snuggly, but it could get hot there under the back window. I think we had stopped at a gas station; I was sleeping away, sprawled out, enjoying the freedom (I would have been seven or eight.) Apparently the gas station attendant informed my mother that the kid in the back of her car was naked.

This was not news to her.

The Ford had a comforting, solid feel to it; it was a good car to fall asleep in, leaning against your siblings in the back seat, while your parents drove you home from a party or a family night out. We would also go to drive-ins, dressed in our pajamas and robes, with a grocery bag full of home-popped popcorn, ready for a double-feature of whatever Disney movies were in re-release, top down, drive-in speakers perched on the window ledges.

This was before the days of videos and DVDs, kids. Drive-ins were the thing.

At one of the multi-screen drive-ins, my sister and I sometimes would scope out the other movies playing. Instead of paying attention to The Aristocats (I'm a Disney fan, but that one is a bit of a snoozer,) we would surreptitiously try to watch Jaws out the back window. It seemed very frightening, catching forbidden glimpses of it in the dark distance. My father did eventually take us to see it (at that same drive-in,) and gleefully scared the crap out of us by shouting "Aaaah!" at the moment when Richard Dreyfuss discovers the floating head. Ah, Dad. He liked doing stuff like that.

When I grew old enough to drive to school, I would sometimes take the Ford, although more often I would wheedle my way into driving my mother's Zephyr. Yes, yes, I was cool. I liked the Zephyr because of the booming sound system, which came in handy when making out with my girlfriend while the soundtrack from "Chariots of Fire" was blasting away.

I'll pause a moment to let the snickering subside.

One of my favorite things to do in Tucson was to drive the Ford with the top down to the far west side of town, over Gates Pass to the other side of the Tucson mountains. There most of the lights of the city were blocked, and you could see the stars clearly in a dark black sky. I would go there with friends sometimes, or else alone, parking in one of the pull-out areas, turning off the car and just leaning back to stargaze. The car was wide and solid and comforting. I felt secure there, grownup and adventurous, sitting in the open-roofed car in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night.

The car had its problems; the gas gauge was stuck reading just below half-empty, so you had to just remember to gas it up every so often. It was a gas-guzzler, so you had to fill it often. I remember it having an enormous tank - twenty-five gallons or so.

It was this broken gauge that actually saved the car. At one point, it was stolen; in Tucson, stolen cars are usually quickly driven to Mexico. If the thieves make it over the border, the chances of ever seeing the car again are next to nothing. But as luck would have it, the police found the car at the side of the road, abandoned: the car-nappers had run out of gas. We never repaired the gauge.

I grew up reading Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (for those of you who have only seen the rather bizarre movie, I recommend the book - it's entirely different.) In that book, the car has a truly defined personality - protective, strong, sometimes stubborn. I liked to imagine the Ford Galaxy having a personality, since we had grown up in that car. I can remember the feeling of being hidden in the well, the rumble of the tires against the road, the wind rushing past the windows, falling asleep to the sounds of the car.

Naked, of course.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Love goes ka-boink

I'm in New York, and David is in Baltimore. I'm realizing we're going to be spending a lot of time this way; we both knew this was going to be a challenge. I'm just finding it very hard to sleep without him next to me.

Okay, okay, get your eyerolling and sheesh-ing out of the way now, because here comes one of those stories. You know, a little pre-Valentine's Day story. I'm just warning you now, in case you want to come back at another time when it's not so gooshy around here.

So here goes.

In the summer of 2001, my sister and I were driving up to spend some time at our father's house in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It's in a little town called Eagle Harbor - sort of Maine-like, both in the terrain, and in the fact that events worthy of Stephen King have taken place there.

But that's another story.

We had started out from Milwaukee - it's about an eight or nine hour drive. To pass the time, we had audio books by Margaret Cho, and also David Sedaris. I think there were some murder mysteries mixed in there, and possibly some Stephen King as well.

We timed the visit so that we would spend some time with our father, and then have about five more days after he left to go back to Arizona. We could bum around, read, swim, poke around the little town, whatever, before closing the house up for the winter. We've found that it works better if planned that way, with a little downtime for ourselves. My sister is the perfect person to spend a lazy summer's end with.

We always joke that the village has all the elements to make a good Shirley Jackson story, like "The Summer People." A lighthouse casting its white and red beams over the tiny harbor; mysterious monks in the woods who sell cakes and preserves; and the graveyard. Did I mention the graveyard?

We would sometimes ride our bikes over to the little graveyard in the woods where our grandparents are buried. It's a good spot for blueberry picking. (Don't ask me why the berries grow so much better there, I don't want to know.) One of the first times when I went up to Eagle Harbor, I had forgotten that my grandfather's grave was there (this was before my grandmother died.) I was poking around in the cemetery - berrypicking, probably - and had a very Scrooge-y moment when I came upon a gravestone with my own name on it. Gaaaah!

Yes, yes, named after my grandfather. I don't know why I hadn't known he was there. But it was still creepy.

Okay, away from graveyards and onto the romantic bit.

After I'd read late into the night one night, I turned out the light and lay there in the silent, silent dark. A thought came into my head - not in a grand way, just in the way that you acknowledge a fact - like, oh yes, tomorrow's Tuesday. The thought was, you're going to meet the man you're supposed to be with. He'll make you laugh, he'll remind you of David Sedaris, and his name will be ... David.

Well, nice try, psychic powers. I rolled my eyes. I mean, come on, I had David Sedaris on the brain, obviously. I had been enjoyably single for a few years by that point. I wasn't especially hunting for a husband, although I had been wondering if I would ever fall in love again. But this little flash of clairvoyance - I chalked it up to listening to David Sedaris' audio book. I certainly wasn't going to fly to France and wrest him away from Hugh. Besides, he smokes.

So, flash forward to November of 2001, when David and I are on our second date. We're still getting to know one another - as all of you who know and love David are aware, he can be mysterious and hard to figure out. And there's his wit, which can be dry as a bone. We were sitting in a diner, and he said something that made me laugh out loud. I started to say something about how he reminded me of --


I immediately flashed back to that night in the summer when I was lying in the dark, having my little ordinary premonition. It freaked me right out. But in a good way.

I don't think I told David about it right at that minute. That might be coming on a little strong. "Hey, that's really funny whatchoo just said, and by the way, I just realized I had a psychic premonition that we are soul mates! Hey! Hey, whereya going?! Why ya running so fast? Hey!"

But it lingered in my mind for a long time. The way the information presented itself so simply and unassumingly. And actually, that's how David came into my life. Just showed up on the doorstep, simple and unassuming and handsome and funny and full of love.

Thanks, psychic powers.

Sunday, February 06, 2005


Is it weird that I went to school dressed as the Pope?

Don't answer that.

I went to a Catholic high school. Not that my family was especially Catholic (although my family is Catholic, more or less, on both sides. Irish-Catholic, German-Catholic with a dash of French-Catholic. Getcher Cat'lics here.) No, my mother sent me to Catholic school because, compared to the public high school, there was less of a chance of being knifed in the hallway. Although, among the super-competitive group I found myself in, I might have been knifed by someone trying to improve their class ranking by eliminating the competition.


I didn't want to go to this school; I wanted to go to Amphitheater Public High School where all my friends from reformatory school, er, junior high would be going. I would have probably ended up as a band geek had I gone to Amphi, instead of the more well-rounded geek I became. My mother said that if I stuck it out for one year and hated it, I could go to public school. Of course, within two weeks, I was hooked.

I loved school (geek! geeeek!); I loved the competitive side of it. I had a teacher in an advanced writing course who would lay out everyone's graded papers on a table, so you could see how you did compared to everyone else. Today some parents would probably go off about "damaging Timmy's self esteem" but in Mr. Feragne's class, self esteem took a regular walloping if you didn't pull yourself together quickly.

But somewhere around my senior year, the academic side of it had become less thrilling. I suppose I was the classic case of "If only you applied yourself more." (My mother likes to remind me that I stuffed my National Merit Scholarship application in my backpack and forgot about it.) I was involved in the theatah then, and was writing music, and was very absorbed in all that. I was already in an advanced-placement track - called the "E-group." This meant that I had class with more or less the same small group of brainiac kids all four years. But senior year, instead of going for calculus or Spanish IV like the rest of them, I decided to take a semester and sign up to work in the office.

All together now: geeeeek!

Little did I know that this would be the first of many office jobs (leading eventually to International BrandCorp, BoozeAnne, and CrazyCo-Hellkins.) Back in my day, we didn't use computers. We used IBM Selectrics, and whiteout. And dittos! We still used dittos.

So, I clacked away in the office, answering the phone, and typing memos for the assistant principal, Father Pseudonym (there's another story about when I spotted Fr. Pseudonym out on the town in a surprising place, but not now.) I was probably also typing up some script or another, too. Who knows.

I think I felt only semi-Catholic in school. I took classes in religion in high school, and attended Mass. I always appreciated the rituals involved in Catholicism. I liked the fact that there were prayers for everything, and they were already figured out for you. The Act of Faith, the Act of Hope, the Act of Charity. You could look it all up. There was the big book that told you what would be said at Mass every day of the year; there were lists of saints and lists of feast days. There was a line of popes stretching back all the way to the beginning, all named and numbered. I appreciated the organization.

When Halloween rolled around, we were allowed to come to school in costume. I don't remember if I dressed up every year or not. This was the 80s, so half the time what I wore to school could be considered a costume (knit ties! skinny satin ties! unstructured jackets!) But senior year, I decided to come to school as the Pope.

The odd part is, I seem to remember that I already had a Pope costume lying around. White satin robe, cardboard mitre, the whole deal. I think there were sequins on the mitre. Or glitter. I might also have had a staff of some kind. File that under "Big Giveaway."

I thought that maybe there would be a little consternation at school, a little turning-up-of-noses, a little scandal. Nope. They loved it. All the faculty and staff came to the office to check out the Pope at the typewriter. I freely dispensed my blessing. I think I got my picture in the yearbook.

Many years later, my mother gave me a handy Pope bottle opener. You know, for when you're thinking, "Christ, I need a beer."

Friday, February 04, 2005

I'm not a Sundance winner

People often recognize me. The problem is, they think I'm someone else.

If I'm in the theater district, I'll occasionally run into someone I know. It's a cliche that New York is actually a small town, but it's true. I'm talking about something else. People I don't know at all will recognize me. It may be that I have that kind of generic face that people mistake for their cousin/their pharmacist/that guy they went to high school with. Or - this is the more likely theory - I have an identical twin running around New York (just as often happens in Pine Valley and Llanview and similar places.)

Perplexed person: "I know we've met ... have we met? I know we have, I just can't think where."

Me, trying to jog Perp Person's memory: "Lord of the Crumbs? King of Stains? Emperor of Disarray?"

"No... no, that's not it. Did you go to high school in Manitoba?"

Here's the best example of this: I used to hang out a lot at a place called Drip, which was on Amsterdam Avenue and 84th Street. I remember when it opened; I had lived on the Upper West Side for about a year, and one summer night it seemed to magically appear. It had that sort of retro-coffeehouse feel, with mismatched couches, chairs, dinette sets and high school desks. They sold coffee of every sort, along with cookies, cakes and Rice Krispie treats. At night they became a bar. It was crowded from about seveon o'clock onwards, but during the afternoons I could almost always have some quiet time to sit and clack away on my laptop. After I met D., we would often go and clack away on our matching laptops, like the computer-geeks-in-love that we were.


One day I had ensconced myself near the window, ready to write some article or another on the laptop. I went to the counter, where a Lisa Loeb-esque girl waited on me. She seemed oddly disconcerted and nervous. When I pulled out my money to pay for my giant cup of coffee, she smiled.

Lisa Loeb: "Oh, no, Sundance winners don't have to pay for their coffee."

Me: "Oh ..." (bewildered, pushing money at her) "No, no, no."

I took my coffee and walked the two feet to my chair. I had been thrown off-balance by her comment, and I hadn't had the presence of mind to say something like, "That's nice, but I don't think I'm who you think I am." Instead, by smiling, shaking my head, paying and then tipping generously (as I always do) I inadvertently became "Big time Sundance winner who still pays for his coffee like a regular guy - and still tips, because he remembers the Little People."

I could tell she was talking about me with one of her cohorts behind the counter. Whispering and pointing - "don't look! don't look! That's him." I was hoping someone would set her straight, although then it was possible she would think I was a fraud - someone who went around pretending to be a big time Sundance winner so he could get free coffee - which he still paid for like a regular guy.

I considered never going back there again. Or waiting until there was more staff turnover (which would not have been a long wait.)

Of course, I became obsessed with finding out who she thought I was. Maybe this person was the person that people kept mistaking me for.

Sadly, there is no handy website to consult with a photo gallery of "Sundance winners," whoever they may be. (Okay, there might be now, but this was a couple of years ago, and believe me, I tried to figure it out.)

There have been a couple of times when I've actually been recognized by someone I didn't know, who actually knew who I was. Just the other night in fact - "Excuse me, aren't you ?"

"Yes, yes I am."

"That'll be thirteen dollars."

I wonder if Sundance winners ever get free rum and cokes.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

BoozeAnne and the kitten drawer

BoozeAnne was briefly my boss, in between my years at International BrandCorp and my stint at their competitor, CrazyCo Hellkins. She recruited me into her agency, where I lasted about three months.

Sadly, we weren't secret agents, or double agents, or high-powered talent agents. No, she ran a one-woman temp agency, and I was going to help her expand her business. It was my Big Chance! I'd be in on the Ground Floor!

I got in on the ground floor, and also got off on the ground floor.

I don't remember exactly how I met BoozeAnne; I did occasionally hire temps while I was working at International BrandCorp, but I tended to hire them from the agency which had originally placed me in that job. But BoozeAnne came into my life somehow, and somewhere along the line convinced me to come and work for her. If I remember correctly, IBCorp had undergone its biannual bloodbath, where a new creative director would come in and all the executives would depart in haste. It had gotten to the point where only the receptionist, the office manager and the computer guy had been there longer than I had. We held the bottom rungs of the ladder firmly in place. So, going to an exciting new start-up must have seemed like a good idea.

BoozeAnne represented certain types of computer programmers and also graphic designers. The CD-ROM field was just taking off, and everyone was looking for people. My job, since I was a Macintosh guy, would be to find and interview more Mac-oriented types. At that time I was very proficient in most of the desktop publishing and presentation software for the Mac, so I would also do training for those who didn't have Mac experience.

I should have known that there were problems ahead when I realized there wasn't actually a Mac anywhere in the small office I shared with BoozeAnne. I could have one, she told me, when I had "grown that side of the business" enough to the point where she could afford one. But ... I wondered how I was going to train anyone, with no computer to work on?

That was negative thinking, she told me. Okay.

BoozeAnne had had a very colorful life. She had been some sort of an agent for the artist Peter Max, and had clearly fried her brain to a crisp in the seventies or eighties. It took a while for me to learn how to decode what she said: she spoke in sentences composed of words, but it wasn't always clear what those words added up to. True to my core belief that somehow I can understand and communicate with any person, no matter how crazy, I hung in there and somehow bonded with her.

She had been a top agent at a very fierce temp agency. I didn't quite understand the details of the falling out she'd had with them, but there was tension there. Her agency was in some way related to the Fierce Agency - we were in the same building, and the phone system was connected to theirs, although I didn't know the specifics. I got paid through that agency as well.

She did a lot of things for me; when I took the job with her, I was in the process of getting a new apartment. She wrote me a great recommendation letter which clinched the deal and convinced my landlord to take me. When I had no furniture at all, she gave me a lightweight foam-futon couch (only slightly stained.) She was always interesting. She was planning an empire. She would be the Empress. I would be Captain Important. The world would be ours!

But soon the stresses began to show. After one long day, she popped open a beer and sat by the window.

"It's five o'clock. I should be able to have a beer at the end of the day, right? I mean, I'm the boss."

"Sure. Beer is good."

"I really need to smoke. Is it okay if I sit by the window and smoke?"

"You do what you want, I don't mind."


"Can you run down to the corner and buy me some rolling papers?"

I did run down to the corner and buy her some rolling papers. She rolled a joint and smoked it by the window, sipping her beer. She was the boss.

Part of the job involved carrying a beeper, since we had several clients who operated around the clock, and might find themselves needing someone at 2 a.m. We took turns taking the beeper home. On the nights when I had the beeper, BoozeAnne began developing the habit of drunk-dialing me around midnight, just to "check in."

"You're the only pershon who really understands me. Why izh that?"

Oh my god, if I knew that, my life would be so, so, so different.

I came in one day, and BoozeAnne, who was normally on the phone engaged in an all-day series of hyperanimated calls trying to drum up business, was sitting silently. She motioned to me.

"Don't use the phones today."

"Are they broken? Do I need to get a repair person here?"

"No, no. Don't use the phones. They're listening in."

I assumed by "they" she meant her enemies at the Fierce Agency. She was convinced they were trying to sink her by any means possible.

So, I stayed off the phones (with a great sigh of relief, since I hated making cold calls.) I played a lot of solitaire that day.

I was quickly finding that the part of the job I wasn't so good at was the salesmanship and the hucksterism. I quickly developed relationships with all her existing clients - they preferred dealing with me, since I could actually string words together to form sentences that contained meaning. I had a hard time whipping up new business though, which she constantly pressured me to do.

I also found that I was good at interviewing; having been through so many horrible interviews myself, I wanted to offer people a better interview experience. What I was realizing was that the top level of talent was not likely to sign on with such a small agency unless they really liked us personally. I found that I could manage to get people to really want to come and work for us, because I didn't put them through the interview bullshit power-plays that every other agency liked to torment people with.

One day, I had a woman coming in who had a really strong background in CD-ROM design. We were trying to fill a position at one of our client firms, and if we got this woman in there, we could land a huge commission. So, it was crucial that we get her to sign on with us.

I came in that morning, trying to straighten up the place and make the place look a little less desperate. While I was tidying up:

"Um... BoozeAnne? Why are there ... kittens?"

There, in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, was a mess of mewling kittens. BoozeAnne had unexpectedly come to be the owner of a litter of kittens, and she certainly couldn't leave them at home. They were very young, just separated from their mother. So why not bring them to work? And hey, why not slip them into that drawer? It was their little cave. They loved it.

Yes, a drawer full of kittens.

Well, I certainly love kittens, and I would have loved to have been on the floor playing with them all day. But first, I had to convince SuperDesigner that we were an agency who could land her a great deal, and that we were not actually two insane people with kittens in our filing cabinet.

The interview comes. The kittens seem to be sleeping, and are tucked away in R-Z. I am forging a bond with the designer. She has had some offers, but is still looking for the right position. I'm describing the job that we're trying to fill, and she seems interested. I'm painting the picture for her, reeling her in. She leans forward, interested, crossing her legs. Then:


Suddenly, hanging off her expensive hosiery, is a kamikaze kitten.

I try to explain that, well, yes, we're a little untraditional around here, ha ha (this was before the dot com boom when every office was running amok with pets and so forth.) And doesn't everyone keep kittens around? Who doesn't love kittens?

I plucked the kitten from her leg; her hose were ruined but no blood had been drawn. She was polite. It was no problem, don't worry about it, it's fine. Who doesn't love kittens?

That was the last we heard of her.

BoozeAnne was spiraling downwards. I occasionally went to the men's room to hide. The midnight calls were more frequent. No Mac ever appeared in the office. I came to find out that the couch that BoozeAnne had given me was, in fact, not really hers, but was in the apartment she was housesitting for a friend who was in Europe for an extended time.

Finally, one of our clients began to secretly try to convince me to leave BoozeAnne and come and work for them as a production manager. I tried not to act like a desperate rat leaving a sinking ship, but the minute I could decently leave, I ran.

Once I was in the new job (at CrazyCo-Hellkins), I hired a few temps from BoozeAnne just to make sure there were no hard feelings. I believe her agency finally folded. I ran into her on the streets of the Upper West Side maybe a year later. She was doing something else then, and we chatted pleasantly, the alcoholic midnight calls forgotten, the pot-smoking at happy hour a thing of the past.

Of course, she had a cat in her purse.