Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Sweet Sixteen

Sixteen years ago, I became a mother for the first time.   My baby daughter Amber was born on June 24, 1996 at Doctor's hospital in Miami on an extremely hot day in the Magic City.    I had gone into the hospital the night before because I started bleeding at 39 weeks.  My wonderful "country Cuban" doctor (as he liked to refer to himself) Dr. Inglesias decided that since I was so close to delivering and they couldn't figure out why I was bleeding that they had better induce me.   All of this seemed to be happening so fast - my sisters and mother had all delivered two weeks late for their first children and I figured that I still had a good three weeks before the baby came.  Damn, I had not even packed my bag.   But as any OB-GYN can tell you, babies have their own agenda and unless you schedule a C-Section well in advance they come when they want to come.  My baby daughter did so in the most dramatic way possible - blood everywhere (pre and post birth) - scaring me and giving her father his first gray hairs.    

The first few days after "baby-gedden" were interesting ones.   I was discharged less than 24 hours after giving birth with this little 7 pound six ounce stranger.   Amber had terrible colic and I had the misguided notion that drinking milk and eating tons of dairy would improve my breast-milk supply.   It was only after two weeks of crying binges that lasted hours (both Amber and me) that our pediatrician told me to cut back on dairy completely and get some Mylicon drops to help with her colic.  Finally, those crying episodes lasted only 20 to 30 minutes at a time (again, Amber and me) and peace seemed to reign in the house.   She would nurse peacefully and her dad would give her the football hold to help her belly.    That time was the "nesting period" when you, your husband and baby settle in and it's just you and them.    I remember those days of just sitting in the rocking chair and holding her as absolute nirvana.  Max would be in the kitchen making dinner while we rocked quietly listen to music or watching TV (only PBS of course- seriously - we didn't have cable then).   Sometimes he would take her in the kitchen in the Snuggely and make dinner while I rested.    She loved falling asleep on her father's chest.  Our world of three would only be interrupted by visits from Grandma and Grandpa who would shower her with affection and offer to babysit while Max and I went out to reconnect as a couple.   

Probably the hardest thing a working mother has to do is go back to work after having a baby.   You have this wonderful schedule set up and now you have to reinvent it so that it works as best as possible so that you can go back to your career life and leave the baby for those 40 plus hours you work in your job.   Luckily, Max was working at home at that time, so I knew I was leaving her in excellent hands - but I would feel a twinge of jealousy as I passed her back to him after our pre-work nursing session knowing that I had to pump at work and freeze the precious fluid in the freezer for her to have later the next day.   Monday's were the worst as I'd nurse her on demand the whole weekend and then return to work only to find myself need to pump three times a day and by the time I got on Metro-rail to go home, my bra cups were running over and the admiring looks from the lonely businessmen were just creepy.  

As time went on, we noticed that Amber was more sensitive than most infants to sounds.  You could not turn a page in a magazine in the same room with her without her waking up and crying - her ears were that sensitive to those types of sounds, but the TV being on was fine.   By the time she was one, she was not talking very much - really not at all - just a few words like "No,"  "Mama," "Daddy" and interestingly enough "e-mail."   We figured that she was just observing more than talking but she was also having a hard time making eye contact and when she was at the park as a toddler at 18 months - she would play on her own - seemingly oblivious to the other children.  When the other park mothers - who were eager to impress each other - would tell how many words or short sentences their children were forming - I would try to change to subject into the blocks that Amber would build.   I knew something was not quite right, but I didn't know what.   She was this beautiful blue eyed and blond haired two year old with rosy cheeks and yet she would barely say a word.  She would run around in circles at the park but had a hard time connecting to the other kids.   When she went for her 24 month check-up our pediatrician asked about her developmental milestones - she was meeting the running, walking and climbing but not the talking.   She would go to the corner and play with blocks and ignore everything else.   He suggested that we go to the Marcus Institute to have her tested.  Naively we asked if it was a place to help her with her speech.  The doctor replied that she needed to be tested for autism.    Max and I both looked at each other - unable to say much ourselves.   "But I thought that autism was a boy's condition," I replied numbly since I had two nephews with autism Spectrum Disorder.   "It's less prevalent in girls - only about 10% to 15% of the cases are girls, but they do get it especially if it runs in families," the doctor explained.   So we took our sweet little daughter to be tested and hoped that maybe they were wrong that she was just not talking and needed speech therapy.   But the diagnosis was that she did have autism but that she was on the mild end of the spectrum.    She would need special therapy and classes which luckily Gwinnett County schools provided once they got that diagnosis.  

And so the world of IEP's (Individual Educational Plans) began.   We would meet with a team of teachers who specialized in learning and behavioral disorders and we would set goals for Amber to achieve.   Mostly it was for verbal skills and socialization - they caught on that she was a smart kid but that she had a hard time expressing things and could be extremely sensitive.   I mean really, really sensitive - empathic which is not something most kids with autism have the ability to be.   She could not take the dull din of a cafeteria or a food court with a low roar, the sound made her very uncomfortable.   I remember being in line at Target getting ready to check out when Amber started to cover her ears.  I looked around trying to find out what the source her discomfort was - I could not hear anything out of the norm.   Then the sound of a child starting to have a meltdown started to drift through the store, but Amber had heard it about 30 seconds before anyone else in the front of the store did.   Her teachers reported the same thing - that she would cover her ears and start to cry and then about a minute later they would hear the cries of a child maybe two classrooms down having a tantrum.   When she got more verbal at three years old, she developed a condition called echolalia in which she would repeat things over and over that she heard - lines from her favorite shows like Arthur, Teletubbies, or Sesame Street.   Sometimes it worked to her advantage like when other kids heard the dialogue they would come over and start talking about the shows.  Other times you couldn't get her to talk about anything else and the kids would get irritated and leave.   I always appreciated those children who stuck around because they didn't know anyone at the park and just wanted to play.  

I remember a group of moms setting up play-dates with the kids in Amber's Special Education Pre-K class.    The kids would have an activity that one parent would supervise and the rest would sit and talk.  I remember one mother just looking distraught and saying that she read everything she could about autism and crying herself to sleep every night.   That comment struck a nerve and I replied "Then stop reading those books - your son is your son - he's not a condition and whatever his journey is with this is for you and him to discover.''   My comment got another mother to interject "But if you don't know the latest research - how can we help our kids?"   "Precisely my point," I countered "you are the expert on your child - the research is great but you need to know what will and won't work and for crying out loud - don't read things that are going to make you sob in the middle of the night.  That's definitely not helping you or him."    I didn't get invited back after that - but what did I know?  There is so little written on girls with autism that for Amber, I literally had to make it up as I went along.  Where other mothers wanted to keep their kids home because it was easy to contain them, my feeling was "Hell, no - I'm not going to be a prisoner with my child.   She's going to have to know how to deal with the real world - stares and all."   So we continued to go to the park and sometimes Amber played by herself and sometimes other  kids would play with her and either way she wasn't really bothered by it.   We went to movies, we went out to dinner, we went to the shopping malls  - we did normal stuff.  I'd learn to know when she was getting too over stimulated and get her into the car just as the magic was wearing off and she was turning into a screaming pumpkin.  

As she progressed in school, her communication got better and her teachers genuinely loved having her in class.    With autism classes in Gwinnett County, you stay with the same teachers for years so they could see your progress.   She handled the birth of her brother really well when she was four years old - just a few meltdowns that first month and we were home free- about what you would expect from a child even without autism.   I have always thought that allowing Amber to have her IEP was a good thing for all kids in general because all kids learn differently.  I felt for the ones who were grouped into classes and had to followed a standard curriculum that they were not being given the opportunity to figure out how they learned best - but Amber got that advantage.    Before she went into middle school, I had one of her teachers take me aside and tell me that she's going to be fine.   She'll be able to live on her own and balance a check book.   She was already talking about being a background animator for Pixar when she grew up - and that was in the fourth grade.     She still wants to be a cartoon animator and she has the focus to do it.   She loves her high school and I pray she gets to finish her career there (sometimes autism programs get cut at one school and combined at another- that happened her last year at middle school but she did surprisingly well with the change).  

I guess as I look back on my first sixteen years as a parent - I've had moments of doubt as to whether I'm really any good at it.   I've had to deal with the guilt that maybe if I had read more research - she'd be further along.   Then I hear my daughter and her brother laugh together and rarely fight (at the most they get a bit annoyed at each other) and I think how lucky I am.  They are truly close and love each other very much.   I've never had my teenage daughter throw a hissy fit and storm out of the room saying that she hates me and wishes she was never born into this family (unlike some of the teen fits that happened in my family during the teen years in the 1970's).   She's sweet, funny, creative and has her own site on Fan Fiction where she posts stories and has followers from all over the country.  I'm actually very grateful to God for giving me the opportunity to love and cherish someone like Amber.  It completed changes how you see the world and how you judge people.    I know now that nothing is ever easy and even parents with "normal" teens have their challenges.   For me, I try to enjoy the moment now and not worry about if she'll marry, or get a decent job or have kids.   I know those things are coming but why worry about something you have very little control over?   

Sixteen years ago, I held my baby daughter for the first time and my life has never been the same.   I'm a much better person for knowing and loving Amber.  I hope one day she'll know the same joy I've felt as a mother.   But for now baby girl, be enjoy your sweet sixteen and blow out the candles - because in a very wonderful way - you very definitely take the cake.  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

My Father's Hands

My hands have never looked like they belonged to a real lady.  They are short, stubby and not very glamorous.   Even when I used to pay good money every two weeks to get my acrylic nails done, they never really looked all that feminine.    Genetically however, they are just like my dad's hands.     They have well earned calluses and little scrapes and scratches because I have a tendency to go full force with my hands, whether it's typing too hard on the keyboard or trying to pull a scared cat out of a bathtub that they accidently fall into and getting scratched in the process.  Like my dad, my hands are also there to hug my children and tell them they are great even if they don't believe it themselves.   One day, I hope that I can give them a hand up as adults in the countless ways my parents have for me and my brothers and sisters over the years.  

When I was a little girl, my dad was a lot like Kevin Arnold's dad on the Wonder Years.   He had a temper but underneath it all he was a guy with a heart of gold who would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.   Like Kevin's dad, he eventually started his own business exporting office products to the Caribbean.   He would go out on business trips - usually one a month.  I remember back in the late 1960's and early 1970's, that he would come home smelling of ink and cigarette smoke.   He stopped smoking before I was born, but because people could smoke anywhere, anytime (yeah, those episodes of Mad Men are pretty accurate -  there was no Non-Smoking section -  you just inhaled that second hand smoke).   He would always bring us back gifts from the places he traveled - the Bahamas, Aruba, Jamaica, and Haiti (back in the days when it was Papa Doc and there was some tourist trade).   I remember his hands giving us small wood cravings, or woven art pieces, t-shirts or hats made from straw.   He would also get samples of pens before any of the stores would - so we could bring pens that had lollypop tops, or flowers to school.   We were the first kids to get fuzzy neon pens that had perfumed ink which in the mid-1970's was quite a coup - Walgreens and Zayre's were months from having them yet.    When he was out of town, it always felt weird.   My mom did a great job holding down the fort, getting us up for school, dressing us, getting us out the door, then fixing dinner, bathing us and getting us back to bed.    She always seemed happy to see him when he came back and he'd help with the "babies" as he would call me and my sister Sharon  - we were the last two kids out of five and were just 16 months apart.    We adored our dad and would sit on his lap at the same time. I remember the both of us putting our arms around his neck and saying in unison, "Aren't you glad we married you?"  Even though the decision for my parents to marry had happened 11 to 12  years before Sharon and I were a glimmer in anyone's eye, we still felt like somehow we had a say in the decision making process.    I remember that he loved the movie Gigi and would sing Thank Heavens for Little Girls to us which we loved - what little girl wouldn't?   I know that my older siblings memories of him are a bit more stern but I think by the time that we came along - he was getting his equilibrium.     I have two kids and have a hard time balancing - I can't imagine trying to do it with five especially if you had a short fuse which my father sometimes had.   

I remember my dad's hands as he held onto the steering wheel while we took summer trips with a 22 foot Holiday Rambler trailer in tow.   I remember him trying to connect the trailer to the hitch on the back of the white station wagon.    He always had the very undignified duty of hooking up the sewer from the trailer to the hole that was attached to the camping site we'd lodge at when we vacationed at Fort Wilderness which was the trailer resort at Disney World or the Red Coconut Trailer Park at Fort Myers Beach, as well as the electricity and the water.   The sweat would pour off his face as he would try to turn the wheel to get the hitch and the bumper to line-up so we could be on our way.    Once we were on the open road, my Dad's hands would relax and he would tap his thumbs on the steering wheel and would talk to my Mom while us kids would read or sleep in the back of the station wagon with the seats down and a flat area where you could move around freely.  Oh those crazy 60's and 70's when there were not those pesky car seats and seat belt laws.  A kid could be the king of the back seat - who needed safety when you were having fun?  

I also remember my Dad's hands when he would try to fix something around the house.    Being a handyman was not his strong suit and yet he wanted to be the go to guy for repairs so bad.    Grandpa Sanborn, his stepfather, was an expert craftsman but Dad just was not but he never was able to admit that until much later in life.   My mother would wait until he was out of town to get things fixed and then when he got back they were magically working again - that was our story and we stuck to it.   Luckily as my mother started working as a realtor, my dad took over the cooking and found out that he was pretty damn good at it.   My mother was a good cook but it was more of a means to get us fed not really anything she had a passion for so when my dad took over, she was more than happy to let him do it.  He would even do all the grocery shopping.  He loved finding new recipes and I remember him sitting in his easy chair with a cookbook in hand reading recipes and asking if he made something with spaghetti squash, would we eat it.   The first time I tried that stringy squash, I thought that is was an impostor for real honest to God pasta until I got used to it and now I love it.   I remember how my dad would fill out his grocery list and then rather than crossing out what he brought, he would tear the side of the list so that he knew he got it and didn't have to carry around a pen.   That always seemed so smart to me and it's a technique I used to this day when I grocery shop. 

As he got older, he would show his love more openly, giving hugs more freely and encouraged us to dream big.   I remember when I produced my first show on South Beach in Miami, my parents would let me use my grandmother's house while she was still in Boston as a rehearsal space.  My parents never felt that theater was a stupid pursuit - they loved it and took us every chance they could when we were kids.  So when I was out of college and decided to start my own improv group - The Eclectic Company - they were right there at almost every show and sometimes they were 40% of the audience.    When Max wanted to do his first movie Gentlemen in Black, my dad was happy to help and wanted to get the title of Best Boy on the credits because that title always tickled him when he saw it in the movies.   He even got a cameo as a prison guard and loved every moment of it.   When my brother Steve wrote his first book, Lying in State, my dad was there to help edit, proofread and offer anything he could to help.   The same thing when my sister Kathy started her consulting business for home healthcare and my brother Bill started as a disability consultant.   He was proud of my sister Sharon's photography.  He was there - ready to lend a hand to his kids - because above all else, he believed in us.   He would always ask if we needed money because it wouldn't do him any good once he was gone.   He was just that kind of guy.  

He loved taking us out to dinner or lunch - all his kids, his children's spouses, their kids, really anyone who wanted to go.  It could sometimes be a zoo but it felt like one big happy family as we navigated the brunch buffet at El Toritos at the Falls.    He really believed in us being close and being together.   But sometimes despite his and mom's best efforts, the kids get older, get married, move away and it's harder and harder to get the family to gather around the same table.   Sometimes their families have complications and things get in the way - pride, disagreements and the kids that he nurtured and loved so much just aren't as close anymore.  I think about my dad's hands and how they would try to fix any problems between us but sometimes love and a good lunch out on the town are not enough.   You see, the last time his kids were all together around the same table was the weekend of his funeral 10 years ago.  He had passed away suddenly from a heart attack.  As shocking as it was, I was grateful that it was so quick and he was not sick or in pain - my heart could not have handled that. It was a tough time, sure but at least the kids were there for each other talking about dad and all the things he did for us.   I remember being at the funeral home with the casket open while we joked about dad trying to fix things and for an instant I thought I saw a smile on his face.   I looked down at his hands which looked so much like mine and realized he would never hold mine again.    We went back to my brother Steve's house and talked some more about Dad.  We released balloons up to heaven with thoughts and prayers so he could read them with the angels - it was something that the grandkids could do to help them grieve for their grandfather.   My mother took a picture of us like it was the old days, but it wasn't really and never would be.  

I guess that Father's Day can bring stuff like this flooding back.   We're trying to do a family reunion to get all of us together for my mother's sake this summer.   She's not in the best health - Parkinson's has taken it's toll but having her kids together in one place would mean so much.   Being able to do that should be a slam dunk, but sometimes that distant baggage can get in the way and now one of us might not be able to be there.   I can imagine my father throwing up his hands and saying - "For God's Sake, sprout a pair and just do it - if someone doesn't like it too damn bad! You need to be there for your mother because the time will come when she'll be with me and you won't have the option - any issues you have you won't be able to work out!"   I hope that message is heard and we can all get together this summer and put our differences behind us.  

It's funny but this week I was going to write on the demise of bookstores and then I thought about Father's Day and my dad and all these ideas came flooding in.   It was like my father was channeling through me to get the message out to his kids who I hope will read this.  My hands are on the keyboard writing furiously - the hands that look like my dad's.   He wanted to be a writer too.   It's interesting that this week his is - inspiring me and asking me to write what needs to be said.   I've never appreciated my hands that much till now.  Today I'm glad that I have my father's hands.  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The SNL Shuffle

Just on the heels of Kristen Wiig's departure from Saturday Night Live, Andy Samberg announced this week that he was leaving as well.    Now everyone is holding their breath to see if Jason Sudeikis will make a hasty exit as well to follow his movie career.   As cries of "It's the End of an Era" ring out from Perez Hilton - you have to put these career changes into perspective.  Since the very beginning of SNL, actors have left the show looking for movie glory.   It's the natural evolution of things.   It's normal - so relax citizens there is another awesome player waiting in the wings just hoping they can get out on stage and show you what they've got.  In August 2005, you had never heard of Kristen, Andy or Jason and now you're wondering how the show will survive without them.   Lorne Michaels, the veteran producer has seen it all before - smart, funny, and talented people coming on the show and smart, funny, talented people leaving the show.   People coming and going - that's life whether you have an accounting firm, a non-profit, a church or a comedy troupe.    It can be painful but fate has a way of bringing new people into your life even if you hate change.    The funny part is, you usually feel richer for the fact that they showed up just when you thought that other person could never be replaced. 

Chevy Chase left Saturday Night Live after about a season and a half.   That seemed like a huge loss - who was going to do prat falls, Weekend Update and Gerald Ford once he left? But Bill Murray came along and created his own world of crazy and it seemed like the show would survive.   It's certainly had it's ups and downs - like the years when Lorne Michaels left in 1980 to pursue other things because he was exhausted from the pressure of producing and writing every week.    When he left, the woman left to pick up the pieces, Jean Doumanian was sabotaged by the writers left behind and NBC slashed the budget by 65%.   The show struggled for a few years until Eddie Murphy revived it and then left in 1983 to pursue a monster acting career. The history of SNL has had it's share of fights, creative struggles and controversial sketches and yet after 37 seasons, it's still one of the longest running TV shows and has over 120 players on the show.   Old farts like me remember the first shows with George Carlin and when the Muppets used to do sketches as well because Jim Henson wanted to something a bit edgier than Sesame Street.   I've seen SNL's evolution since I was in junior high so I guess it's helped me be more philosophical when I've had to deal with things that have happened in the comedy troupes I've been a part of.  

When I performed with Mental Floss in Miami, they had a pretty stable group of players to perform.  In fact it was too stable, a better word might have been intractable.   The male players were gold and the women players were expendable.    As a woman, you had to be twice as funny to be taken half as seriously.  Sort of how I imagine things were in the early days of SNL - from what I understand John Belushi was pretty dismissive of Jane Curtain, Gilda Radner and Loraine Newman.   The men were with the Mental Floss company for years and rarely left to do plays.  It was like they had peed a circle around the theater to keep any new funny guys from daring to enter - girls were fine because we were not a threat.  So the same guys did the same bits for years and years and after awhile, it became very incestuous - creatively they inter-married and the comedy offspring became mutants of their former selves.  I've heard that happens a lot in comedy groups - you have the founding core of four or five actors refusing to move on and not wanting to let new people in for fear that their own status within the group would be compromised.   But as you look at Saturday Night Live and the iconic characters have been created over the years - the ebb and flow of actors has brought in a new cavalcade of ideas and sensibilities.  Let's face it - if Bill Murray and Chevy Chase were still on the show - they would look like tired old men doing the same lounge lizard and prat falls over and over - it wouldn't be fresh - it wouldn't be funny. 

As I've found that out any number of times myself with the OTC Comedy Troupe - people move on and at first it's a blow but then someone new comes along that you had no idea existed before that audition and all of the sudden you're excited by the prospect of them joining the company.   I guess because of my work with Mental Floss that I'm totally cool with people that I cast working with other theater companies - but sometimes it bites me on the ass.   I have the uncanny ability to cast talented people who other theater producers see in our show and then they get approached to do plays thanks to the OTC showcasing their talents - and of course they take the offers.  The holidays are the worst with every theater company in town doing a holiday review or play, so I've actually stopped trying to do performances around then because it gets to be a logistical nightmare to have enough people either not in other shows or in town to do them.   I guess sometimes I bemoan that loss of loyalty but then I've never wanted to hold anyone back either.  I've had actors who've done other projects and been right back after they ended to start doing improv again.   

The one actor I've worked with pretty much since the beginning in 2005 is Adrian who is my "Improv" husband.   We've worked together since early 2002 when we were both in Bric Players - a small improv group that was performing in a theater in Duluth.   We got each other right away and could figure out our own inside jokes like the fact that my butt and a black man's fascination with booty can make for some really funny moments in the shows.  Adrian has his own interests including a really cool comic book named Ms. Johnnie which he took time away from the group to pursue.   I was glad that he took that time because I'd hate to have someone choose something that I'm doing out of duty and turning down other opportunities that they might regret later.  I have had actors come back with theater horror stories about directors from hell, terrible casts and wishing they had saved all that aggravation by staying with the group to begin with.   I always welcome them back glad that they've seen how things could be under someone who might not have their best interests at heart. 

I've also had to deal with my share of egos, divas and total nut bars.   As anyone whose ever produced or directed can tell you - actors are not always the most stable lot.   Most are wonderful team players but some are out for their own personal gain and will screw over anyone to get there - which always amuses me because I'm not the big time.  Screwing me over is not the next step to getting that standard rich and famous contract - it just hurts your karma more than anything else.   I've had actors show up  in the middle of the web show and expect to go on the minute they arrived.  I had one actor who wanted to make fun of handicapped people and then was royally pissed when I told them no.  I had another actor that wanted to do a sketch about pedophiles and was told by the entire cast that it was inappropriate.   I had another male actor who would try to sneak in jokes during a show about smacking women around - really?  Was he not paying attention to who was running the group?   I always found it interesting that they would complain on their way out that I wasn't edgy enough to let a sketch like violent incest with the handicapped into a comedy show.   Another actor wanted to run a workshop by having the group work to exhaustion in 100 degree weather and then try to create when they were dehydrated and near heat stroke because that's where "true inspiration comes from."  When I told him that was a bad idea, I was accused of being a fascist and that I lacked vision.   He later went to another improv group where he felt "totally accepted."   When the OTC was rehearsing out of that group's space - I found out later that he was pretty much impossible to work with and had to be evicted because he got weird and started to live at the theater.   Another player used to come to workshop late, leave early because she was doing stand-up, never helped set up or tear down after shows and was very rude to the sound guy in a theater for a New Year's Eve show we were doing.  I guess the fact that this guy could determine whether the audience could hear her was a non-issue.   All these people were talented but their emotional and creative baggage weighed the group down like an anchor on a ship that just wanted to set sail.  When they were asked to leave privately the thing that I noticed was that the rest of the players never asked me what happened.  There was just this shared sense of relief that they were gone. 

I guess the thing that I've learned the most in doing working in theater and improv groups in general is that no one is irreplaceable.  Every time I've lost a major talent in the group - someone else has managed to show up just in time to fill the void.  Sometimes it's a new actor, sometimes it's another actor who I haven't put in different pieces because those other actors had their signature characters and I stupidly never thought to give them a chance to shine in that piece.  I can count the number of times on one hand that I thought that the OTC was down and out for the count. Then I would hold auditions knowing that if I didn't get a least three or four decent people - the group would just fade away - game over.   I once started doing stand-up because at one point it felt like it was just me.   But then the word get out that I needed people either through audition notices or e-mails or Facebook and I would have the actors that I needed for the corporate gig or performance.  Probably my best advice for anyone whether they are show business or any other business is that you are replaceable but you can certainly make yourself indispensable.  Do crazy things like help out without being asked, go above and beyond and just flat out be easy to work with -it helps.   As Charlie Sheen found out - you can be a major talent but if you are disrupting what everyone else is trying to do - they will find a way to replace you with someone who is a whole lot less trouble.   Even Sheen admits now that his antics and being fired was not "Winning!"  

So for you loyal SNL viewers fear not - season 38 will come along just fine.   They have a talented group of people and writers who have been through this before.   Lorne Michaels has a great eye for talent.  When Tina Fey and Amy Poeler left, they thought the show would never be able to replace them and yet, there was Kristen Wiig, ready to step into the void.   Before Tina and Amy, there was Molly Shannon.  Before 1995, no one had even heard of Will Ferrell.    While I might not be producing on the level of SNL, I have been doing improv comedy since the late 1980's and there are a ton of talented improv actors out there doing their thing - making people laugh and enjoying every minute of it.   They will find the next big talent - hey it might even come from someone who has worked with the OTC - you never know.    For me, the comedy world is unpredictable, fun and one hell of a crazy ride and you don't have to be live from New York see that.  

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mary Poppins, Jeannie, Samantha and Me

I have loved the idea of strong powerful women ever since I was a toddler.   In 1964, the movie Mary Poppins came out with all the pomp and circumstance any three year old girl could ask for.   Forget Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Snow White, Mary Poppins had a bottomless carpet bag filled with coat racks, mirrors, magic and the ability to conjure joy out of thin air.   She could make cleaning your room extremely fun - your clothes practically flew into the drawers.    Taking medicine was loads of fun as long as it tasted like a spoon full of sugar which for me was what Dimetapp used to taste like.   She could sing to the birds and they would sing back.   A chalk painting could be an imaginary wonderland of merry-go-round horse races and penguin waiters.   The dark scary rooftops of London exploded with chimney sweeps dancing, singing and playing baseball with fireworks.    Tea parties could happen in mid-air especially if you loved to laugh.   Mary Poppins could see a situation that needed fixing and would work to fix it but with the realization that the people she was trying to help would have to help themselves.   Mr. Banks had to realize that not paying attention to his children came at a price  - that they feared him more then they loved him.  Mrs. Banks had to be more hands on rather then relying on nannies to fix everything.   In the end, they all learn their lessons even if they lose sight of the fact that it was Mary who guided them to their epiphanies.  She leaves as a true hero - not waiting for a grandiose thank-you but knowing that the "children love their father more than you" is her reward.   She takes her umbrella and flies back up to the heavens maybe to hang out with the other guardian angels that come to earth in human form to help those that need a little divine guidance. 

I remember how much I adored this movie as a wee one.  I bought into the fantasy - hook, line and sinker.   When I got a Mary Poppins umbrella that Christmas, my mother told me that I would stand outside when it was windy and wait for it to take me up to see Mary Poppins.  When it was stormy I was worried that Mary might be blown around and soaked in the clouds.   I would sing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, Spoon Full of Sugar and Chim-Chim-Cheree around the house in my broken little three year old voice until I was hoarse.   I wished that our Miami home had a chimney so we could invite a chimney sweep over, shake his hand and get good luck.   She seemed so practically perfect in every way and I wanted to be like her.   She made me see the world as this magical experience and the flight of your imagination was all you needed to take you places.   I just wished that I had more than that one visit in the movie theaters to spend with her.  Back then, you usually only saw a movie once and there were no videos or DVDs to watch it over and over again - you simply had to absorb it all that first time.  I'm sure plenty of people saw it more than once, but growing up in family of five kids in a middle class neighborhood meant you got one shot at seeing a Disney movie period.  The first video's didn't come out until the 1980's.  I remember getting one from my mother and being absolutely delighted - the years had not dulled my affection for Mary and she was still cool, musical and magical in my eyes - that movie is still my Jolly Little Holiday.   

It was only natural that I would transition to two women with whom I could watch every week on TV who were also taking that magic carpet ride in the mid-1960's.  I saw Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched I knew I had found a pretty blond lady that I also could be like who opened her home and family to me.   She was a witch but not like the Wicked Witch of the West - all green and mean.   She was like Glenda, the good witch of the North, pretty and very patient even when her idiot mortal husband was always yelling at her for being the magical person she was.   Now that I'm a married woman myself, it's harder to watch the old shows that are close to 50 years old without wincing at the constant drinking (Good God Darrin and Larry - another three martini lunch in which your pour your heart out to the running drunk character at the bar you always frequent? - try an AA meeting.)  I mean it's not like you work at a high pressure ad agency like Don Drapper on Mad Men - oh wait you do - scratch that.   At least Don never had a meddling mother-in-law who would literally drop in anytime she wanted to make your life hell.  Okay that might explain Darrin's drinking.   

But some of the other remarks show a lack a huge lack of respect to his magical partner like the time that Samantha had to turn a lecherous client who was making an aggressive pass into a dog who then ran away.   When Samantha explained why she had to do that - Darrin's response was "A client is more important than a wife any day."   At the end of the episode, Darrin finally gets the balls to deck the guy but he didn't believe Samantha at first and the client over the wife comment really gripes me now.   But as a kid, I wouldn't have caught that - it was just a lady who was as pretty as a princess trying to be a mom in a house in a neighborhood like mine.   We also had nosey neighbors like the Kravitz's -Mrs. Cunningham would rat my brother Steve out for popping wheelies with my stroller when he had to take me out for a walk around the block.   My parents would have dinner parties like the Stevens, but without the Witches Council dropping in unexpectedly.  I literally almost got my nose out of joint trying to do Samantha's signature move only to find out later that it was impossible because it was stop motion cleverly edited together.   But still even after switch from the original Darrin to a gay Darrin, Samantha kept on trying to squelch her power to fit in.   Maybe the show was a paranoid fantasy by a bunch of white guys about women being happy to just be homemakers while the feminist movement swirled around them.  "If we can just convince the gals that they are happier at home, maybe we can preserve our way of life," they must thought after a third martini at lunch.  Eventually the show evolved when Elizabeth Montgomery took the producing reigns with her husband and they did take on topics like racism in the episode when Tabitha decided to give herself and her black friend polka dots so no one could tell their true skin color.   Unfortunately, by that time the ratings had dropped off and the show ended in 1972. 

Then there was I Dream of Jeannie a story of a astronaut who finds a bottle with a beautiful blond girl in it.  Even after Tony Nelson frees her, our magical Jeannie rolls her bottle into his duffle back and goes back with him to Cocoa Beach, Florida where he works in the Air Force at Cape Kennedy.   Once there, she works diligently to get Major Nelson to fall in love with her so that she can be his wife and not have to sleep in a bottle all the time (all though the round couch was really, really cute).   She like Samantha is not allowed to use her powers but of course when you try to keep someone from being who they truly are - things are likely to go extremely wrong.   Jeannie spends a lot of time trying to placate Major Nelson who can actually out bellow Darrin (not to be confused with Dr. Bellows who rarely bellowed).  She spends most of the first few seasons in a harem costume and which for censorship reasons does not show her naval - but showing half her boobs was just fine - go figure.    So for four seasons, only Tony's best friend Roger knows about Jeannie.  After a bitter break-up, Tony realizes that he loves Jeannie and offers to marry her.  They finally marry and the plot switches from Tony trying to hide her to trying to hide that fact that she's a genie.  They even get to sleep in the same room together.   She also stops calling him "Master" and starts to call him Anthony.  Once again, little Kelley was transfixed by the pretty blond lady who could conjure up things in the blink of an eye (she magical move was also much easier to master than Samantha's nose twitch).   I even got my older Sister Kathy to do my hair just like Jeannie's.   I never got the harem outfit - probably not the thing for a four year old to be wearing. 

Maybe the point that Bewitched was trying to introduce to a white audience the reality of a mixed marriage- either between cultures or races and the ramifications of what it would be like to have one person abandon who they are to try to please the other person and society to blend in.   To his credit, Darrin does put up with a lot of crap and still ends up loving Samantha in the end - but there are times when he doesn't respect her very much.    For Jeannie, I think the producers saw how popular Bewitched was and created another sitcom with a hot blond but one better - one who was scantily dressed and willing to do anything to please her man.    It was like the Tale of Two Realities, it was the best of times for women's rights and it was the worst of times for how they were treated on TV.  Thank god, the 1970's ushered in Mary Richards, Maude and All in the Family.   My guess is that Darrin and Major Nelson would be lost in this brave new world of women's rights and that they would have to give more to the relationship to even things out. 

Now as a wife and mother, I see how outdated the ideals of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie are.   My kids just don't get into those shows even if they happen to be on.   But when I watched Mary Poppins for the first time with them when they were seven and three, they loved it.   The whole look of the movie appealed them - the fantasy horse race was wonderful, the tea party was fun, the penguins were delightful and they cried when Mary Poppins left and so did I.   I loved sharing it with them and the fact that it's still a smash Broadway musical still shows it's mass appeal.  As a grown woman, I've managed to find a husband who loves me for me and does not try to limit me because he's afraid I won't fit in.   Unlike Jeannie and Samantha's marriages, Max and I have a relationship based on mutual trust.  I would never limit his creativity and he would never limit mine. 

I guess thing that separates Mary Poppins from Jeannie and Samantha (besides an awesome soundtrack) is that she is her own woman.  She doesn't take crap from Mr. Banks or really much of anyone.   Her best friend Bert doesn't try to limit her power - he's fine with it and is happy to go along for the ride.   She does things to help the world around her for the right reasons and not for the love of a man - which for my money is a very empowering message for girls.    She's a woman of the 1900's yet is way more modern then the supernatural girls of the 1960's who were in the middle of the women's right movement.   If Mary Poppins worked at MacMann and Tate, she would have wiped the floor with Darrin and Larry.  She'd then smile sweetly, adjust her hat, and fly out the high rise window with her trusty umbrella as a chorus of executive women sing "Let's Go Fly a Kite" as they smash their own kites through the glass ceiling.  Now that's supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!