Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday Reruns: Pat and Vanna: Saints in the Making?

(original post-date: December 1, 2010)

When I was at my mom’s in Virginia recently, we got into an evening routine. We’d have supper at about 6:30, and after a brief time of eating, followed by my cleaning up a bit, we’d settle back in front of the television, just in time for the game hour: Wheel of Fortune at 7:00 and Jeopardy thereafter.

While I’ll admit that this is not a routine I would get into here in L.A., I also am not averse to indulging. I particularly didn’t mind indulging in Wheel. I am a consummate “word person,” and I also am competitive. So I enjoyed racing my mother to the puzzle solutions. We didn’t keep score, but I’d guess that each of us beat out the other a handful of times.

And I must say, too, that while I was working to solve the puzzles, I took notice of something else. Maybe this is just a reflection of the current economy and the challenges I face on a monthly basis, but here’s what I’m thinking: Pat Sajak and Vanna White have got to be laughing all the way to the bank.

I mean, come on, think about it. They’ve both been at this for well over 20 years. Undoubtedly, they each get seven figures a year (and I’m guessing that, certainly for Pat, “1” is not the first number).

And what is it they do?

Pat introduces people. And, working with a bit of information on a notecard, he adds a few ad-libs. Then, during the course of the half-hour show, he throws in more ad-libs, such as:

“Oh, the wheel is really not working with you.”

“Don’t anyone breathe!”

“That was a tough break.”

“You want to try to solve?”

“Sorry, but you’re going to have to pass me that Wild Card, too.”

As for Vanna, boy, does she have a gig. Until the show has come to a close, she doesn’t even have to say anything! She just walks to the lit-up letter, and she touches it. (As if her touch, and only hers, will make the “M” appear.)

Now, I don’t mean to be putting down either of them. Personally, I find Pat charming. As for Vanna, I could never do what she does. (Unless they’d let me do it in clogs.)

So, here’s what I’m wondering: how did Pat and Vanna get to be so lucky? What did they do? Was it something in a past life? Have their spirits been around since time immemorial and did they just keep coming back and overcoming incredible odds. Did they suffer adversity in past lives, fighting off some horrible evil through truth and justice? Were they heroic figures who came to the rescue, saving entire communities from some threatening plague?

And if this is how far they’ve come, what’s next for them? Will their spirits return, or is a game-show gig the end of the line?

I don’t know.

Strange, the hands that get dealt.

… Back in the late 80’s, when my then-husband and I were living in Brooklyn, I was poking around my neighborhood Christmas bazaar, looking for potential stocking stuffers. I immediately glommed onto a cassette tape of Vanna Speaks, the letter-turner’s autobiography. (She was in her late 20’s at the time, and for some reason, she had been compelled to record a memoir.) I handed over the two or three dollars and knew I had a stocking stuffer.

On Christmas Eve, I decided the Vanna tape would go to my father, and the next morning, as we opened our stockings in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, he seemed quite amused by the novelty item (though he hadn’t a clue which Santa had delivered the amusement).

Later that day, after we had gathered around the tree and unwrapped presents, we had some unplanned time before the afternoon’s leg of lamb. Dad went upstairs and returned to the living room a few minutes later. He was carrying his portable cassette player.

He also brought with him the recorded Vanna memoir.

Silently, he placed the cassette player on the coffee table and loaded the tape. Then, as we all looked curiously at each other (but did not otherwise make a sound), he hit the Play button and took a seat.

Within minutes, we were listening to Vanna tell her own story.

Within minutes after that, we were all doubled over, laughing.

We decided the memoir should have a different title. And we came up with this: Who Gives A Shit?

… Okay, I’ll admit, that was really rude of us. We should not have laughed at Vanna. She’s had her life and she’s had her difficulties, and well, we just really shouldn’t laugh so hard.

But, boy, I sure would like to understand the karma of it all. I’d love to know why Vanna sits pretty on some serious bank while I wonder about next month’s bills.

Hmm… maybe we should have listened beyond Chapter One.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Reruns: It's A Thursday in November - Enjoy it!

(original post-date: November 24, 2010)

Last night, I spoke on the phone with a dear friend of mine who keeps following me around the country.

That’s a joke, by the way… the reference to being followed. It just happens our paths have crossed in three states. Diane and I knew each other at prep school in Virginia (when she and my sister were good friends). Our lives intersected again in New York. And in 1998, eight years after I had made the cross-country trip with my then-husband, Diane moved to L.A. If she weren’t an actress, I might feel as if I were being stalked, but I know better than that. Anyway…

When we spoke on the phone last night, Diane talked about her decision to spend Thanksgiving alone, and she also shared how a former co-worker had responded to her plans. He was aghast, apparently. He couldn’t believe she was planning to spend Thanksgiving alone.

And what that tells me is that this friend of hers would feel like a loser if he spent Thanksgiving alone.

It’s interesting how people respond to the days when society and tradition tell us we should be with others.

I shared with Diane a story I’m sure I had already shared with her. But, I haven’t shared it with you, so here goes:

When I was living in New York, I enjoyed a variety of Thanksgivings. And one year, I decided not to make any plans. When I woke up that morning, I recognized the day as time off. And quite spontaneously, I got into major cleaning mode.

I scrubbed this, dusted that, and vacuumed all over the place. And between those chores, I dealt with loads (and I mean, loads!) of laundry.

My apartment was on the 4th floor, while the laundry room, which had all of two machines, was in the basement. So I was in the elevator quite a lot that day.

The rides amused me. Every time I went down or came back up, I shared the small moving cubicle with several others, and I didn’t glean a good mood from any of them. Whether they were coming or going, their energies seemed the same: what a hassle; what an obligation; why are you wearing that; I hated sitting next to so-and-so; it’s your fault we were late; why did you say that to my uncle; I know I’ve forgotten something; we should have gone to a movie; I bet we won’t get a cab; I ate too much …

And there I was, in the middle of it all. Whether I was carrying a dirty load to the basement or a clean load back up to the 4th floor, I kept getting the same impression: Of all the people in this elevator, I am having the best day!

Have a good Thanksgiving… whatever your plans.

[2011 post-script: I'm taking a short holiday break from posting. Will return next week with a Monday rerun and a fresh post on Thursday. Happy Thanksgiving!]

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Lately, I’ve been feeling a lack of drive. I don’t want to write anything new. I don’t want to pull out the beads and make a necklace or bracelet. And beyond that… well, I sure as hell don’t want to clean the dust that’s gathered between the curtain folds.

I also don’t want to organize the mess inside those drawers in the desk.

…or those drawers in the kitchen.

…or that drawer in the bedside table.

I don’t want to! I just don't!

Were I thirty years younger, this situation would probably throw me into an existential crisis.

Were I thirty years younger, I’d think that I had no motivation whatsoever.

I’d view myself a loser with no future.

I’d see myself as lazy and useless.

I might even crawl into a hole for a while.

… Actually, crawling into a hole for a while doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, and maybe that’s what I’ve been doing. And maybe that’s okay. And maybe it’s okay because I know: I do have motivation. I am not a loser. … Nor am I lazy or useless.

Maybe I just need some downtime.

I am so glad I’m not in my 20’s anymore. I’ve had three decades since then to learn of my capacity to produce and create. I’ve had three decades to learn that life is a series of personal phases. I’ve learned that we should never judge ourselves by any one individual phase.

I’ve also learned that this perspective holds true for the world around us…

When my sister and her husband made the decision, in late 2008, to move from Scotland to Virginia and so to be closer to our mom, there were lures for them (or at least, for my sister) at the Virginia end. Primarily, there was the theatre community with which we had been raised. That community – The Oak Grove – was founded by an amazing couple named Fletcher and Margaret Collins. And “the Grove” – a summer theatre under the stars – had been a hub of creative and intellectual talent for decades.

When Martha and I were kids, we accompanied Mom and Dad to rehearsals and performances. One of our parents' earliest ventures as actors in the company was in Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. While watching rehearsals, Martha and I both developed instance crushes on Francis Collins, one of their fellow castmates. Then a goofy late teen with amazing musical talent, Francis – who is one of Fletch and Margaret’s sons – is now the head of the NIH.

And a decade later, the musical accompaniment at Grove cast parties was regularly provided by Robin and Linda Williams, who had recently settled into the Valley. If you listen regularly to A Prairie Home Companion, then you will have heard of them. Robin and Linda are old friends of Garrison Keillor and regularly perform with him.

So that was the Grove back in the day, and then there is the Grove now…

When Martha returned to Virginia in 2008, she’d no doubt sung the praises of the Grove to her British husband. And so, they anxiously approached the theatre’s upcoming summer season.

A few months later, Martha shared with me her extreme disappointment.

“It’s just not the same anymore!” she said, despondent.

My capacity to relate was remarkably fresh.

“I know,” I replied, answering from my quiet apartment.

Because of what I had been through in my L.A. building – because I had experienced the ultimate in love-between-neighbors and then had been left with a more typical renter’s scenario – I could empathize with her response to the Grove.

“It was an era,” I told her, thinking of both the Grove and my building. “What we experienced? Just an era. And it’s over.”

… Were I thirty years younger, I might not have seen it for that.

Were I thirty years younger, I might have seen the change as something that was wrong with me.

Were I thirty years younger, I might have felt that I needed to fix it in some way, and I would have wasted my time trying.

… We can’t change eras. They are environmental phenomena, and they happen whether we are there or not. As to phases (such as the one I am going through now), they are absolutely personal. But, like eras, they are also absolutely temporary.

Nothing lasts forever.

Neither the good nor the bad.

Neither the productive nor the non-.

Neither the group activity nor the solitude.

is temporary.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday Reruns: Acting Out

(original post-date: November 17, 2010)

For a few consecutive years, beginning in early 2002, my neighbors and I had a routine. It took place on the stoop in the courtyard of our apartment building. It involved Heinekens and raucous laughter. And it would go on and on, into the wee small hours. My then-boyfriend was part of the mix, and he’d occasionally add his guitar to the scene. So there would be strumming and… singing.

Often until two in the morning.

We didn’t care that we were loud. We were in our own world. And so, we only smiled and shrugged when we were scolded by those older, quieter neighbors whom we had woken. (Okay, we also said “sorry,” but doing so never prevented a repeat performance.)

It took me two or three years to step away from that self-involved behavior. It took me that long to realize how it had come on the heels of 9/11. It took me some perspective to believe that we were simply acting out.

I remember a thought that would occur to me during those years: I miss my country.

And by that, I meant that I missed the country I thought I knew.

… When I was in the first grade, we were let out of school early one day. And the mood was somber.

It was November 22, 1963.

I remember walking down the blacktop toward the parking lot. I remember embracing that sense of somberness, but not really knowing why. I remember hearing one third grader whisper to her peer: “Don’t tell the first graders,” she said. “They won’t understand.”

I resented condescension even before I knew the word, and so what I overheard that day will always stay with me. I’d also love to track down that third grader. I’m guessing she’s now 55.

So tell me, whoever you are at 55: how do you explain the Kennedy assassination? (From what I overheard that fateful day, you understood.)

… Last weekend, I took myself to the movies, but not because I’m a great date. I just felt like getting out, and I’d been intrigued to see Inside Job, the documentary about what led to the financial crisis of 2008.

So I took advantage of my local theatre’s still-reasonable matinee price and I forked over $6.50 for my ticket.

As I took in the film’s message, I can’t say that I was shocked. Rather, I was informed.

(And frankly, nothing shocks me anymore. I’ve done my “acting out,” thank you very much, and I’ve come to accept that we are all totally screwed.)

Watching the movie, though, I came to understand a bit more about the “derivatives” that NPR has talked about for the past year. And I saw how those bundled packages helped to create the mess that’s led to so many foreclosures. I also got a sense of how “credit default swaps” contributed to the meltdown.

As to what really brought on the meltdown? Well, it isn’t news that the groundwork was laid by Reagan, when he green-lighted deregulation. The first Bush kept it going, and Clinton was right there, too, cheering on the banks as they successfully lobbied against any suggestions for oversight. During those years, the game sort of worked. There were some minor financial crises, but we bounced back until…

It all began to really come apart after 2001, and here’s my theory: The banks were acting out. Located on Wall Street, where they lost their people and their towers, they just freaked. They didn’t know what hit them, but they realized their world was not the same. It would have to be every man for himself. And so, because it was their modus operandi to pursue the almighty dollar, they began to pursue it with a vengeance and with no regard for who might get hurt (or lose a job, or lose a home) in the process.

They didn’t care. They had watched colleagues leap to their deaths from fiery buildings, and they just didn’t care.

Acting out.

… Today, the same people who were there for the meltdown – and who let it happen ­– are still in charge of our government’s financial dealings. The Treasury Department and Obama’s circle of economic advisors are filled with guys (and a few women) who were once the “deciders” at such failures as Goldman Sachs and AIG. They were there when Bush II was our pitiable president, and they are still there. According to Inside Job, they’ve been kept on because it’s “too complicated.”

It’s too complicated, they say.

I feel like that first grader again, with the third grader whispering, “they won’t understand.”

Screw you, third grader!

I don’t believe it’s too complicated. It’s simply too inbred.

And until we start over with completely new leadership (something I hoped for, when I voted for Obama), we will continue to be treated like first graders.

I didn’t like it when I was six, and I don’t like it now.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I *HEART* David Levinson!

Never heard of David Levinson?

Truth be told, until I read yesterday’s Op-Ed piece in the L.A. Times, I hadn’t heard of him either.

But what I learned from the by-line that accompanied his piece is this: He is the founder and executive director of Big Sunday, an annual weekend project that brings together more than 50,000 volunteers to work on 500 charitable projects.

Impressive? Absolutely. But, that’s not what’s driven me to write about him. Rather, I am in love with how he used the Op-Ed section of the Times to address the great economic dichotomy that is Los Angeles.

Levinson’s piece, which is a wildly humorous, open letter to Kim Kardashian, lauds her for her capacity to make serious profit from some very basic rites of passage -- e.g., having sex; getting married. He goes on to suggest that she parlay some of the profits from her divorce proceedings into philanthropic donations. He even suggests that she could up the ante by falling in love with the divorce lawyer and – if it is possible – steal him away from Jennifer Anniston!

Go, David Levinson! Dude, you have nailed L.A.

… More than 21 years ago, I moved from New York to Los Angeles with my then-husband. Leaving behind an administrative job at the Ford Foundation, I was focused on a goal: make it in television writing. I had scripts to back up my dream, and my tenacity was not to be messed with. It could happen.

Once Ben and I had “landed” (in our 15-foot rental truck), and once we’d forked over some money for our first pre-owned car, we did a lot of driving. A lot of driving.

I remember one area of Beverly Hills that we explored – it was a residential street, north of Sunset Boulevard. It was a street that followed a curve.

There was this house there – this house that began at the beginning of the curve.

And then, this house just fucking continued.

And even after the curve of the street landed into its ultimate horseshoe formation, the house was still there.

It was in that moment that we caught eye of the house’s entry point. Easily 15 feet tall and at least as wide, the double-doorway for this particular house was absolutely golden.


I don’t know if it was Ben or me, but one of us posed the question: How big does your fucking house have to be?

… While Ben and I continued our exploratory drives, I pursued the Hollywood television writing scene. I also looked into day jobs. Soon, I landed a gig at a local nonprofit. And within a few months of landing there, I was directing a mentoring program for locked-up youth.

And it filled my heart.

As I got to know the kids in the program, and as I learned more about their experiences in gang-infested neighborhoods, my response to the Los Angeles scene became more defined. There also was the New York perspective I brought to the equation (I'd lived there so long): In New York, we were all in each other’s faces. We would ALWAYS be in each other's faces.

Los Angeles – then and now – doesn’t force that face-to-face experience on people.

Los Angeles allows Kardashians and their like to live in their own worlds.

In the meantime, there’s the rest of L.A.

… Before Ben and I left for Los Angeles, and while I still was focused on my television-writing dream, I’d made a connection through a dear friend. Her cousin (whom we’ll call Joe Smith) had been successful and was well-entrenched in the Hollywood writing scene. Among other things, he was teaching a night course at UCLA. Thanks to my tenacious inquiries – and before I’d even left Brooklyn – Joe invited me to one of his lectures. And this invitation was particularly enticing. The guests that night were two guys whose names were well-known to me, as they had contributed regularly to M*A*S*H.

I attended the UCLA session, and after the guest lectures were over, I approached Joe and handed him a copy of my latest spec script – an offering for Designing Women. I then drove home, thinking I was quite lucky to have such a connection.

But those dreams of fame and fortune were too-soon replaced by my sense of responsibility. I became deeply involved in the nonprofit that had hired me on staff and ultimately put me in charge of the juvenile justice mentoring program. Soon, I was deeply involved with the program, its mentors, and through those mentors – THE KIDS. Phone calls were frequent, and I loved hearing from the awesome volunteers who made the program work. I loved the sense of camaraderie that was developing among us.

One day, while I was on the phone with one of the mentors, the receptionist chimed in, indicating that I had a call on Line 4. I quickly put the mentor on hold and switched lines. After my saying “Hello,” a secretary said to me, “Joe Smith is on the line to speak with you.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m in a conversation right now.”

… And it was in that split second that I chose sides.

It was in that split second that I assessed all I’d learned of Hollywood and all I’d seen of Los Angeles.

It was in that split second that I gave my heart and time to the people and causes who need some attention.

… Joe Smith will just have to wait.

I don’t need a big house with a golden door.

Maybe he does, but I don’t.

P.S. Here's a link to the awesome Op-Ed that inspired this post.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Monday Reruns: Red Flags at Work

(original post-date: November 10, 2010)

It is perhaps an understatement to say that I have always approached employment with a certain amount of fluidity. The fact of the matter is, I have never really worried about it. Within that context, I’ve had two primary “careers.” The first was in the restaurant world of New York City, and the second has been in the nonprofit sector, beginning in New York, at the Ford Foundation. The nonprofit work has lasted quite long – it’s now been 23 years. Ironically, had I not been sent to Ford as a temp, I may never have discovered the sector.

Regardless of my good fortune in that assignment, I’ve always contended: you don’t necessarily need to know what you want to do for a living; just be really clear about what you don’t want to do. And be prepared to run like hell when things don’t work out.

I’ve run like hell on many occasions. And regarding a few of them, I distinctly remember the red flag that pushed me into a new job…

One of my two dozen waitressing gigs was at a Hungarian restaurant on Manhattan’s upper west side. It was more lucrative than anything I could have imagined then, but that income came at a price. The work was nonstop, Mondays through Saturdays. I amassed a weekly average of $350 (in the early 80’s, mind you!), and I didn’t reach that total because I was serving high-end entrees to parties of well-dressed theatre-patrons; rather, I was running my ass off, collecting $2.00 tips here and $3.00 tips there. Do the math.

There were three of us “on the floor” at that restaurant: the two Hungarian waiters and me (me: the native-born; born, for that matter, in Connecticut and to a pair of WASPs). The kitchen was run by guys from the Dominican Republic, and the owner and owneress were Hungarian. As you can imagine, I learned several Spanish and Hungarian phrases while working there. And as you also might imagine (particularly if you are familiar with restaurants as a workplace), most of what I learned contained words that children should not hear.

One morning, about eight or so months into my Hungarian stint, I woke up with one phrase in my head: bazd meg. This, my friends, means “fuck it.” In a language I do not speak.

Red flag: if you wake up in the morning thinking “fuck it,” you are in a bad psychic place. If you wake up thinking “fuck it” in a language you do not speak, consider a job change. Seriously.

…Years later, after I had moved to L.A., I accepted a mid-management position at an area nonprofit. Having done some consulting with them, I thought it’d be a good fit. It wasn’t. I was becoming increasingly unhappy with the administrative details of my responsibilities, and the bureaucracies of the organization disturbed me particularly. I think I had to fill out about three forms to request a legal pad, and six weeks later, I remained without one.

At the same time, this organization’s mission statement included the following phrase: “the elimination of racism.” I became bitter as I watched what was going on around me. All I could think was this: if it takes six weeks to get a legal pad, then good luck with racism!

One day, as I was driving to work, I took a quick glance at my speedometer. I was going eight miles per hour.

Red flag: if you are holding up traffic while driving to your job, it is not the right job for you. Make a u-turn and find another gig. It beats being rear-ended.

About a half-dozen years after that slow drive to resignation, I was once again settling into a new staff job. This time, I had gone through an arduous interview/writing sample process as I vied to become a certain nonprofit organization’s first-ever development director. I landed the job and a nicely competitive salary.

But the challenges became apparent early on. The executive director, who was a lovely person and passionate professional, had some issues with delegation. Issues? Okay, I’m being kind.

As an example: one day, she said to me, “Send an email to the program officer at XYZ. In the subject line, write ‘introducing myself,’ and then tell her who you are and let her know…”

And on it went. I was being told how to write an email. I was being dictated the entire contents of that email!

A week or so later, the executive director was away on business, leaving me to put together the type of funder report I had been responsible for five years earlier, when I was the next-to-the-lowest paid person in a development staff of six. Which is to say, it was an assignment I could have done with my eyes closed.

I put all the documents together and then set out to write the cover letter.

I began by typing, “Dear.”

Just then, the cartoon paper clip appeared on my screen.

“Looks like you’re writing a letter!” its balloon said. “Can I help?”

I practically leapt from my chair and stared down the paper clip. Then, using my outside voice, I screamed, “I KNOW HOW TO WRITE A FUCKING LETTER!”

Red flag: if you are audibly yelling at Microsoft icons, you are wasting your time. And if that yelling has been incited by the micro-managing behaviors of powers-that-be, your time is being wasted. Move on.

And that was the last staff job I ever held.

Go figure.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

It's About Time

When I was in my late 20s, I read a novella by Jerzy Kosinski.

Steps, I think it was called.

And what’s interesting is that I don’t remember anything about the plot of that novella. Rather, I remember two very distinct anecdotes from Kosinski’s 4-5 page preface.

Anecdote One: Kosinski had planned a trip to L.A., where he would be staying with his friend, Roman Polanski. Something happened along the way – something about baggage. Lost in London maybe? I forget the details I read. Suffice it to say, though, the airline’s fuck-up was a gift, as it delayed Kosinski’s arrival. Had he landed in L.A. when he was supposed to, he would have been in Polanski’s home during the night of the Manson murders.

Timing is everything.

Anecdote Two: Kosinski sleeps between 4:00 and 8:00. That is his ritual.

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. Four hours sleep! That isn’t enough!

But before you get all concerned about what he was doing to his body, you need to remember, the four-hour span that exists between 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock occurs twice a day. And… they add up to eight full hours of sleep. Which was exactly what Kosinski pursued.

… When I read what I am calling “Anecdote Two,” I smiled broadly. Because, I totally relate. And I have related to that since I was a kid. I always feel tired around 4:00. Whether it's PM or AM, 4 o’clock is pretty much the time when I need to lie down for a while.

As a self-employed person, I realize that I’m lucky. I can answer to my body and soul’s unique circadian rhythms.

I also appreciate that other’s can’t.

Much of the world exists on a 9-to-5 schedule, and so most people must align with that clock, regardless of their own personal inclinations.

If you are doing that against your will, then I am sorry.

AND: if you are doing that against your will, then may I also encourage you to use this coming weekend to your advantage.

On Sunday, at 2:00 AM, we are supposed to set back our clocks, which means we get an "extra hour."

I’ve always been amused by this directive. Mainly because I think the timing is crazy, bogus, and driven by The Man.

But here’s the deal, people. Here’s what’s really happening: THIS WEEKEND, you are being given the gift of ONE HOUR.

And so, for God’s sake, if you don’t need that hour at 2 o’clock on Sunday morning, then save it!

Seriously. Use it when you need it!

As an example: do you have people coming over Sunday night for supper? Maybe due at 6:00?

Okay, then, save that hour! Save it ‘til 4:00 on Sunday afternoon. Turn back the clock then. Cool, right? Suddenly, the guests who are two hours away are actually three hours away!

The gift of time.

Seriously, don’t do it when The Man tells you to do it.

Take that hour when you need it.

Me? I always, always save that hour for Monday morning.


…Life is a gift.

A gift of time.

And once a year, we’re given an extra hour.

Personally? I don’t want to spend that hour sleeping.