Monday, August 17, 2015

To Mother, With Love (at Word Riot)

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Despite my mother’s ferocious objections, I was a child actor. I began in television when I was twelve. She drove me to auditions, and as we sailed over the Cahuenga Pass to Warner Brothers or east on Melrose to Paramount, I ran my lines and we talked.
My mother rarely dispensed advice about career stuff. She’d suffered at the hands of a stage mother. But she did say one thing to me.
“If this is what you want, never give up. In fact, no matter what you want, once you decide what it is, never give up. Don’t lose heart and never give up.”
She told me a lot of stories about men abusing power. She danced on variety shows and once Frank Sinatra wanted a Polaroid with all the “girls” wearing bikinis and lying on top of him.
She said “no.” The producer told her she took herself too seriously. He told her it was only for a joke. He told her all the other girls had “agreed.”
She still refused.
My mother has a pattern. She won’t give in and she won’t give up. She doesn’t lose heart. She doesn’t know it. She thinks she is weak from pain, from life, from being torn down one too many times.
Her mother abused her when she was small. She performed at Rockefeller Plaza and her mother hit her over the head with a hairbrush whenever she missed a jump. The year was 1946 and someone saw it happen. Nobody calls Child Protective Services in 1946.
A massive bleed irrevocably damages a seventy-year-old brain. Astonishing spirit and strident vanity may pull you out of the grave, but they can’t escort you back to full health. Once you’ve tangoed with Death, his cologne stays on your clothes.
For the full essay, please visit Word Riot .
As for the title of this entry, it is a reference to an episode of  "I Spy" on which my my mother first guest-starred in 1966. 
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Friday, August 7, 2015

Don't Tell Mama (at The Washington Post)

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“I’m doing all this to save your ass, when what I really want to do is drop you on it!”
My 3-year-old is standing in our kitchen doorway, and she’s exasperated. She’s pretending to be Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing, in the scene when Baby snaps at Johnny while he teaches her to dance. Frances and Johnny are working on a deadline. They are sweaty and exhausted, and their friend is having a dangerous secret medical procedure. Also, they are attracted to each other. Tension fills the scene like humidity on a summer day.
My toddler hasn’t even a subliminal awareness of the reasons for the scene’s tension, much less of the tension itself. But she has a vague understanding of grown-up discussions and passions playing out on the screen, and I’m fine with that.
Please head over to the The Washington Post for more!
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Monday, August 3, 2015

Don't Tell My Daughter She Looks Like Me (at Mothers Always Write)

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“Mama, can I grow my hair very long?”
“Sure, darling, it’s your hair.”
“Can you cut your hair very short?”
“Um, how short are we talking about? I kind of like it this way.”
“I want people to stop saying we look alike. We look NOTHING alike!”
Ah. Got it.
People love to comment on resemblance between parents and children, even if it isn’t there. My daughter doesn’t look that much like me. But people like patterns; they like evidence of familial connection (even though not all families are genetically related); and they like continuity. Passersby love to smile approvingly at my child and me as we sit on our front stoop. They exclaim, “She looks just like you! She’s your mini-me!”
It isn’t hard to imagine how crummy that feels. Who wants to be a facsimile? Who wants, worse yet, to be a miniature facsimile?
Please continue reading at: Mothers Always Write!
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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Seven Things to Master at Middle Age (at The Mid)

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How do you define middle-age? It can’t be simply being forty, the ripe age I’ve recently achieved, because I plan to be not only alive but kicking—preferably on stage—at the riper still age of eighty.  Middle-age is an abstract idea and it’s begging for a happy definition. So here’s how I think of it:  it’s the beginning of a decade that really counts. If I spent too much of my twenties dreaming and half of my thirties in a fog of caring for a very young child, then I’d like to spend much of my forties doing.

There’s always been a dim buzzing sound in the background of my mind, a noise that has alerted me that time is a’wastin’ and I want to know more, to master more. As I blew out the candles on my fortieth birthday cake, the buzz grew exponentially louder. It’s a bit like having a hacksaw whirring outside your living room window. It’s time to confront these skills that have begged for my attention since my twenties.

Here is the first skill to confront:

Figure out what the hell is going on with A Prairie Home Companion. Is Garrison Keillor pulling off history’s longest practical joke? Is he an emperor-who-has-no-clothes or am I missing the astonishing insight and wit he seems certain he is pouring out with every radio wave? I’m going to get to the bottom of it, damn it, even if I have to listen to hundreds of barber shop quartets singing incomprehensible lyrics about Midwestern brand soap bubbles sold in the 1950s while I wash the dishes every Saturday night. 

For the six others, please head over to The Mid and then feel free to tell me what I missed. 
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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Six Ways My Child is Teaching Me How to Be Forty (at The Mid)

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I’m turning forty in less than forty hours. Preparation has begun in earnest. I’ve purchased night cream. I’ve begun to learn the art of tying scarves. I’ve made a list of disastrous-for-my-health foods that I can no longer eat. I’ve done a thorough examination of my scalp in search of the first gray hair. I’ve started reading faster so I can get though every last book I want to read in my life.

I’ve actually begun to feel wise. Not in a Gandalf sort of way, but in a worldly-urban-woman-hitting-my-stride sort of way. And then it hit me: I am not wiser because I’m (almost) forty. I’m wiser because my three-year-old daughter—for whom middle age is not even an abstract concept much less something she can spell—has taught me a lot of stuff.

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Saturday, June 20, 2015

My Dad and the Art of the Pitch

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My kid loves a good story. She demands impromptu tales with complicated plots involving her dolls and friends adventuring all over the world. Her father got her hooked on them. He’s a screenwriter with a flair for plotting. Now she’s begun the art of weaving a story herself. Her first drafts sometimes run off of cliffs or into mountainsides, but gradually she’s honing the skill.

I have no gift for the impromptu tale. The other day as my daughter giggled at the outlandish feats of a doll who had climbed the Eiffel Tower and was swinging from a pole to reach some ice cream—and as my husband calmly invented a finale on the spot—I envied him.

Then I remembered that there’s more than one kind of tale.

Three thousand miles away from us, in sunny West Hollywood, there’s a man surrounded by 5,000 books. His desk sits in the center of his apartment, an island floating in a sea of mass paperbacks, trade paperbacks, hard covers, first editions, pulp magazines from his childhood, and recordings of old radio shows. (Not to mention his music collection.)

I used to live in that womb of pulp because that man is my father. But the tales I am referring to aren’t the ones in the books—not precisely. The tales are the pitches my father made for them.

I know of only one way to guarantee a twinkle in my father’s eye—confessing I haven’t read a book he loves. With 5,000 or more under his belt, my father loves a lot of books. But there’s one thing he might like even more: making sure other people read them.

“You haven’t read Tono Bungay? You never read Kate Atkinson? Judith Merril’s That Only a Mother? Oh, Leslie! How is it possible?”

My father leans back in his ancient leather desk chair, pressing his forefingers together and smiling—and the sun comes out from behind the clouds. The room crackles; what on Earth is so important about this poem, this novella, that book? But with that smile, he has you hooked.

He establishes the setting. Or he describes a single character in an early scene. He continues, slowly unraveling the ball of yarn and tightening the string as needed, for tension.  When he pitched The Bonfire of the Vanities he began with Sherman McCoy’s desperate efforts to leave his Park Avenue penthouse on a stormy evening so he can go call his mistress and finished with a humdinger of a cliffhanger—the moment when Sherman dials the number of his mistress from the nearest payphone and somehow his wife picks up.

Everywhere in this apartment is the scent of pulp. Everywhere are flashlights, hidden in the darkest corners, next to ladders should you need to reach a book on the top shelf—or even higher. The blinds are usually closed to protect the books from the sun, hence the need for flashlights. It’s like the cabin of vampire Joshua York in Fevre Dream. It’s a weird place, my dad’s apartment, but it was my home for many years.

In that home I learned the art of the pitch. I learned that the planting and harvesting of a good cliff-hanger and another person’s investment in a story—or as William Goldman more elegantly put it: “what happens next”—is a skill born not only of loving books but of loving to persuade. A good pitch is an argument, really. You must marshal every tool in your arsenal: pace, sharp turns, tone, diction and volume.

It’s the thrill of the hunt: can I get this person to give this book a chance? Do I believe in this book as much as I am making this friend believe I do? Am I persuading myself more than the other person?

I pose that question to my father with regard to Tono-Bungay. No sentient being can stay awake through its dense dullness. But with most books, my dad is on the money. And even if you never get to the book itself, the pitch makes you feel as if you have read it, absorbed its essence and understood its historical significance in the timeline of fiction. So many stories, so many novels are firsts. The first vampire story. The first detective. The first female to enter a genre. The story from which a famous author stole a premise. (See: The Parasaurians and then squint skeptically at Michael Crichton, if you aren't already doing so.) 

I have a three-year-old who loves to hear and to tell a good yarn. I wonder—is it heritable, this love of the pitch? What will happen when she can read books herself? Will she, too, care to persuade? I hope so.

As an actor, I love to impersonate the myriad characters in her picture books when we read aloud. This is another form of pitching, and another one I learned from my father. He was not an actor, but he was very much a performer when he read aloud. No one else can inhabit Gollum when he whispers “my preciousssss.” Not even Andy Serkis, as wonderful as he was in the Peter Jackson trilogy, can surpass my father, who bore his impression of Gollum and so many other characters into my impressionable mind throughout years of bedtime stories.

And you’re right, Dad. Judith Merril’s That Only a Mother is possibly the scariest story ever—with the most shocking ending.

No, I won’t tell you what it is! Go find a copy and read it. Let me know what you think.

I hope someday my daughter will want to know what you think, too. 
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Saturday, April 18, 2015

In Defense of Posting Pretty Pictures

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It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day... When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on. -J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
I've been trying to find this description for days. I knew it was from some long-lost book from childhood, but I couldn't remember which one. I'd misplaced it. I loved the image of a maternal figure tidying a child's mind and hiding the nasty bits and sprucing up the pretty ones.
There was irony in having "lost" the guardian angel that J.M. Barrie describes in Peter Pan. I must be my own guardian angel now; I must spruce up my own mind and hide my own nasty bits -- I no longer have any care-giving figure to do it for me.
These days there is much harsh discussion of how people use social media to present their lives in a rosy hue for the consumption of others. Sometimes I feel I'm on trial; I'm not one for posting an ugly photo or a tired photo or a photo of a big mess and goodness knows I have the opportunity to take all of those on every day of my life. I could easily be accused of presenting only "the prettier thoughts, beautifully aired."
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