Friday, October 30, 2009

more about summer camp theater and school

I can't believe I didn't include this story when I was talking about plays in school and summer camp. Maybe it's because I felt super-uncomfortable about playing a male role. This was summer camp, and I was maybe 11 or 12, and we were doing Camelot. Unlike the summer before, where I had a good (female) singing part in Peter Pan, I don't think I did well in the singing auditions the Camelot summer, and they gave me the absolute best non-singing role: Merlin. This was bad in a couple of ways. There was a scene where a nymph named Nimue (played by one of the prettiest girls in our age group) had to cast a feminine spell over me -- I had to stand on stage and pretend to be falling deeply in love with this much-prettier-than-I girl. I actually had a bad crush on the (male) drama counselor and somehow could not use that experience in this scene. Did not yet know that I could admire Ann's beauty without it taking anything away from me...except that I was cast as Merlin. And somehow, they didn't get me a beard -- just sprayed my hair white -- as if to say that I looked EXACTLY like Merlin except for the color of my hair. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I wasn't too confident about my looks in the first place, so this one was really rough.

But the story I wanted to tell about that play was that the kid playing Lancelot, a very big part, quit maybe a couple of weeks before the night of the performance. (I think we only put these plays on once or twice.) All of the best kids our age with the talent and desire were already cast. So what they did was this: they cast an *older* kid, maybe 16 or 17, who was a lifeguard. I think I heard at the time that he was very interested in acting and they felt he could learn the lines in time. There was a girl named Helene who played all the leads (she was also Peter Pan), and at maybe 12, she looked kind of silly playing against this 16 or 17 year old guy with bright, bright red hair. (His sister Randy was also a redhead and one of our counselors, one of the nicest and sweetest young women I met there.) Anyway, when I saw our replacement Lancelot again, it was on TV, on Happy Days: Donny Most.

Back to the Peter Pan year: Helene, who was very show-offy about her school theater experience and vocal talents, was clearly the one to beat. And I think I was the closest challenger, because I was a pretty good actress, as 11 year olds go. But there was this nasty, obese girl named Francine who seemed to think *she* was a shoo-in. In the end, Helen got Peter, Francine got Mrs. Darling, and I was cast as Toodles, one of the Lost Boys. (Once more, cast as a guy.) But there was a twist: Mrs. Darling had to kiss the kid playing Mr. Darling, and Francine would have none of it. (I think he had braces.) So she quit, and I got her part. I got to sing Tender Shepherd, which was a lovely song, and kissing brace-face was no problem.

My school, on the other hand, being all for-the-gifted and avant-garde, did not do musicals for the entire ten years I was there. (They did have a good chorus, in which I sang for years, and eventually branched out into a madrigal group and an SATB group.) Here are the plays I remember from school -- I was only in some of them. Moliere's Le Malade Imaginaire in the original French. Benito Cereno, which I think was Melville. The Proposal by Gogol. The Crucible. Gigi (the straight play, not the musical). The Women (we all dressed in sheets wrapped as various kinds of togas, to impart a timelessness). A student-written theater-of-the-absurd thing called It Seems To Be Getting Much Colder Now where the characters spoke in monotones, punctuated their speeches with the word "money", and ended up throwing around shaving cream studded with play money. I think it was some sort of commentary on plastic suburbia, etc. We did Indians by Arthur Kopit. We did Twelvth Night in a circus setting (I was actually one of two banjo players providing occasional music in it, which may be the only time I've ever played in public). We did All The King's Men (the Huey Long role was played by Joe Avellar, late of WNBC-TV News in New York). Golden Boy. A straight-play version of Casablanca (I wasn't even permitted to read for Ilsa, since an extremely tall boy had already been cast as Rick).

Although some other drama teachers came and went, the important and long-lasting ones were Nancy and Maurice. Nancy never liked me, which was a real problem. I think I was way too bourgeois for her, or she was way too avant-garde for me. Maurice actually started as a history teacher, and though most of us didn't much care for him then, we liked him better as a drama teacher and director. I actually ended up adoring Maurice because I felt he somehow really got me and I wasn't sure how, maybe through some of the essays I wrote for him in History.

I once wrote an essay (I think it was actually a three- or four-part essay exam) on Civilization and Its Discontents. I got a good mark on it, or more likely, good comments, since our school usually had no use for A-B-C or 70-80-90 type grades. My mother, a serious psychoanalytic junkie, photocopied it and brought it to her analyst, who was a really big-time guy in the analytic world in New York, as well as being an author and chess grandmaster. (Many years later, I worked for him.) And I swear that every time my mother told about my "essay on Freud," the age at which I wrote it got younger and younger. I seem to remember her saying I was nine. It's not impossible, but I was more likely 10 or 11. (Wasn't that impressive enough?)

The school taught us in a lot of ways that we had no limits, which was good, but skimped on the fundamentals, which was not. Our parents got written reports twice a year and excellent/satisfactory/needs improvement check-off slips twice a year, in lieu of number and letter grades. This was good in some ways but I believe there was an unspoken understanding between the headmaster and the teachers that *all* seniors got excellent written reports. This was because the school was still pretty new and small, and had to make its bones with good college acceptances. I was in a class of 68 students and 66 went to private universities. I was admitted to three excellent private universities but went to a state school because my mother was a little freaked out about my signing myself into a ton of debt at the age of 16. My brother remembers the headmaster referring to my mother as "hysterical." I remember the headmaster didn't speak to me for months after I chose SUNY-Binghamton (now known as Binghamton University).

Oh, and the school forgot to teach me geometry. I took some really interesting advanced math classes (after having to take algebra twice): Logic, Number Theory, and so on. But no geometry. So there was a 200-point difference between my math and my verbal scores on the SAT.

Our school had a really fierce biology program, mostly due to the head of science, Mr. B (one of the few teachers who would not tolerate being called by his first name). He was one of the few teachers who was really really strict and would lose his temper. You had to show up to class and you had to do your work. You had to make a special little black binder just for Bio. Right before the Boards (the achievement tests for college), we actually had a review section at his apartment on Jane Street, which was something like being invited to Superman's Fortress of Solitude. Apparently the exam was particularly hard the year my bio class (which was a year or two older than my grade) took it; I seem to remember a lot of graphs. So, no 800's. (They scored 200-800 then -- don't know if that's still the same.) But we had a few 790s, as I recall, and I was awfully proud of my 730, being only 13. (I was *really* into Bio, and really responded to Mr. B's method of teaching.)

I've mentioned him here before -- Mr. B eventually became head of the high school, and I became one of a little gang of four who hung out there. (I'm glad to say that two of them are now my Facebook friends.) The four of us somehow ended up writing the school's daily newssheet: one page. mimeographed, called The Galley. Denis, who was good at drawing, would make a wonderful title every day, and we typed the thing on (I think) a manual typewriter. It was about half school news items -- play rehearsals, class cancellations, and the like -- and the rest with our in-jokes and a serial someone wrote called The Shadow in The School. We'd take tape and stick copies up all over the walls.

The weird thing is, newsletters seem to follow me around. I have had so many jobs and hobbies that involved working on newsletters, writing for newsletters, editing newsletters. I've also written for college papers (besides SUNY-B, I went to NYU, finally getting a BA in 1993). And in that publishing job, I wrote many really excellent press releases.

The start of all that writing, and all this writing, was a book I picked up in the school library when I was eight: Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. So like every little girl who read that book, I started to keep a "secret notebook," but I never stopped. I wrote years and years and years of journals, and I think that writing about your own life and thoughts is the best practice any writer can have. When I started back at NYU in around 1985, I took a basic writing class to find out what I did and didn't know. My professor was great, the late Bill Decker, very old-school, and he filled in some gaps for me, and taught me not to be too flowery. The latter was achieved by extensive reading of E.B. White -- can't beat the guy for clarity.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

who's crazier, the government or me?

I had applied for social security disability (my friend Robin calls it "crazy money" because her crazy mother has received it for many years), and got my turn-down letter today. What's crazy on their end is that they basically wrote "You claimed to have X and Y. Our examination of you confirms that you have X and Y. Therefore, you are able to perform the job of Z." X is mental illness -- specifically, depression so severe that I can only leave my home once every two or three weeks. Z is administrative assistant, which was my job classification for many years. So they're saying that yes, we agree, based on our examination of you and paperwork from your personal psychiatrist, that you are so depressed you can only rarely leave your home, which qualifies you to be an administrative assistant. I mean, I'm copping here to being badly broken, but I think I'm smarter than whomever's making the decisions for the feds. Just sayin'. I'll either appeal or reapply; my husband's discussing it tomorrow morning with an expert he knows.

I've been under treatment for depression for a dozen years, though I realize I probably had it a whole lot longer. I never knew until a couple of months ago that a strong desire to stay home -- to be in a familiar place and not have to face the world -- is a four-star symptom is depression. In my case, this would have to go back to cutting school. The reason I had so many administrative assistant jobs is in part because I called in sick so often -- and even moreso if it was a high-pressure job and/or I had a difficult boss -- and this was cited in quite a few firings.

My last job kind of broke me, even though it was aforementioned beloved publishing job. It was extremely high-pressured and low-paid and long hours, and most of the people doing it were about 25, which is about half as old as I am now. Still, I was fortunately to have a boss about my age who was very encouraging and lovely to work for. I had a huge success with a book I began working on when I was still a temp, believe it or not, because my boss hated the author and I offered to work with him. After a year, I got promoted out of entry-level (which usually takes two years), and an unheard-of 10% raise. Then my great boss left and a year later, I was fired. The stress during that year was excessive, and I actually saw my depression and anxiety progress. I would have weeping spells during the work day, sometimes for hours. I had begun looking into a transfer into another imprint (this publisher has many), or even another publisher, which I would be eligible to do after the full two years. But I lost my job before that could happen.

I did do some looking for another job, and came close to getting a really good one in Hoboken. But then my husband's father got sick, and as the only unemployed one in the family, I ended up doing a lot of visiting and keeping him company. He was quite old, and what was originally a fall ended up being a urinary tract infection, then breathing problems, then extreme weight loss, and so on, so it was a pattern of hospital, rehab, assisted living, and back to the hospital, until after some months, he could no longer rally and died at 89, just a year after my mother-in-law.

And by then -- we were in a financial collapse! I think this is when I started having trouble leaving home. My husband lost *his* job somewhere in here, and that got me way anxious, because his industry has been gasping for years now, and yet I've been unable to get him out of it. He's been in it most of his working life, and his father was in the same industry, and there just aren't very many jobs at all there anymore. The company that let my husband go went out of business.

So it's been a time of deep anxiety. I've been a jeweler for about eight years and was thinking about selling my jewelry on line, on Etsy or such, and bought a digital camera, but I found out that photographing jewelry is extremely difficult and requires more equipment that we can fit in here. I do write for a national blues magazine that earns me about $15 and a free CD or two every month.

When I lost my job, I thought I could do some freelance writing, but all of a sudden, practically every journalist on the planet is out of work, and some of them even write better than I do. All of them are better-connected.

Right now, we're doing OK on two unemployments, and have managed to buy health insurance (which naturally, excludes mental health care, mental health meds, and chiropractic), and we're managing to pay rent, bills, and my meds.

I understand that mental health, like a lot of illnesses, occurs on a sliding scale. You're somewhat better or somewhat worse, but it's not necessarily about "cure." (There was a good book on this, but I can't seem to find it on Amazon.) So my doctor added a new med which seems to have drastically reduced my anxiety attacks/crying fits and has stopped my suicidal ideations entirely.

I feel a little out of whack lately since we had to do some fast tidying in this apt due to a landlord's visit, and my jewelry stuff is all packed away. This is really bad. Also -- and I hate to say it -- my husband is home too much. He's extremely helpful, but maybe if he were working, I would push myself to get out more.

I hope this all isn't scaring anyone to death. I'm relatively normal, getting good care, mostly fairly happy, and making every effort to get to important events.

Monday, October 19, 2009

decision about Facebook invite

What I decided to do about the Facebook invite from some I did not want to "friend" is this: I've ignored it. My husband "friended" her for some reason, and he did show me a fairly adorable picture of her younger daughter (who has just started college, and who was the flower girl at our wedding). My quarrel is mostly with her husband but also with her. We were close for a long time and I ignored a lot of bad behavior and frustrating situations, but there was a last straw -- then there was one more chance, a number of months later, and he blew that one too.

When I worked in publishing, I worked on a book about narcissism, and when I read it, it rang a lot of bells concerning this male friend. He's someone brilliant and quirky, with an eager inner circle, who plays helpless to get others to do things for him. And I was number one in the inner circle, maybe after his wife, or I was the shadow wife, the one who did the things that his wife didn't. (He was, and is, a performer, and for a long time his wife didn't want to go to his shows, so that fell to me.) Even my husband referred to him as "your other husband." I knew this man, I'll call him V., way before I knew my husband. Coincidentally, my husband also belonged to the micro-cult of V. before we met, so he was really psyched that I was close friends with V.

So what I think happened is this: for many years, I had jobs that I didn't much like, just a lot of boring office jobs, and a lot of my attention went to V. There was a lot of support and advice and running the hellish e-mail discussion list (a couple of really mean people made my life miserable), plus trying to run interference with various people. And I did enjoy visiting with his wife. But then I got that publishing job -- yes, that publishing job again, the one I really, really liked -- and there was finally some Me to bring to the relationship with V. And that's when I read the book on narcissism and that's when I realized that V. was 100 per cent about V. V. didn't really want to listen to how my life was changing, the adventures I was having, the great people I got to work with and meet.

That might be all I really want to say about V. My husband hopes we'll be friends again, and obviously his wife does, too. She has frequently been selfish and insensitive as well, and I think I'm better off without them, period.

Sometimes you have to let go of people, even people you've known a long time. Then again, I'm making some very nice reconnections on Facebook with some of my classmates. I always felt like an underachiever after high school graduation, so I steered clear of most of them for most of this time.

I'm not really sure why I feel so free to be myself, all of a sudden. Maybe I'm judging myself less.

Sunday, October 18, 2009


One of the things I really enjoyed in school and in summer camp was being in plays. And one of the things that was great about being in plays was that it temporarily dissolved the lines between cliques, between the popular and the unpopular (the latter being me). There were some kids I never spoke a word to unless we were in a play together (I suppose because I felt I didn't deserve to assume that I could be even friendly with someone very popular). This was more the case in school than in camp, where I felt less set-apart. I went to the same school for ten years, and I think part of the problem was that we often had fixed ideas about each other that lasted for years and years. I never went to the same camp for more than three years so it was often a fresh start.

Here's what I didn't like about being in plays: although I had talent and got a lot of good parts, I was never, not once, cast as an ingenue or leading lady. The closest I ever got was a three-liner as a sexy maid. I got to be a snooty old aunt (Gigi), the ever-pregnant one in The Women, a quack doctor in Moliere, etc etc. Oh, I also got my share of male roles. Do you know how much that sucks for a pre-teen, or a tween, or whatever the hell you call 'em now?

I had such a poor self-image concerning my appearance. I was a little chunky when I was 8 or 9 but never noticed it when the baby fat fell away. I was actually adorable when I was eleven or twelve, and probably the only reason I didn't get ingenue roles was because I was, and am, short. I'm 5'2-1/2 now and probably had most of my height then. Oh, and I was, and am, flatchested. I'm overweight now and *still* flatchested, which doesn't seem fair at all.

I wish I could have enjoyed those character roles more at the time. I wish I could have appreciated how my various directors, particularly the late and wondrous Maurice Blanc at school, saw my talent and how I could bring it to some of these eccentric roles. He directed a production of Golden Boy and changed the role of the boy's father to a mother, just for me. At camp, the Actor's Workshop (the more DIY alternative to the big Summer Theater) cast me as the mother in Glass Menagerie, for God's sake! That's like, the best role in theater ever! But I was busy being disappointed that I never got a "pretty" part.

So I didn't take it up in college. I felt like I wasn't good enough. (I did, however, partly stage-manage a production of The Good Doctor which featured future comedian Andy Kindler, who may still have my Doctor Dentons from a scene where he played a little kid). It's kind of a shame, because if I had embraced character roles and embraced my particular talents, I might have been a pretty good comic actor. I had a friend from camp who would never be a leading lady -- she was actually very tall, and didn't have the right kind of look -- and I've seen her as an adult on stage in New York, doing her own funny monologues and characters and plays, working with what she had, which was a lot. It just wasn't a lot of stuff that gets you "pretty" parts. And those damn "pretty" parts are often not the best ones, anyway.

I should back up and say that I come from theater/acting wannabes all over my family. I grew up listening to show tunes. My dad probably loves show tunes more than any straight man alive. (My brother is the same way, only with opera.) Supposedly I could sing the score of Guys & Dolls when I was 6. My mother wanted to be an actress, and majored in it in college (she and my father met in a drama class), and did some local theater and TV in Philadelphia after she graduated. My dad always wanted to write the book and lyrics to an old-school Broadway musical (he did team up with a composer for a while on a decent project, but for various reasons, it didn't happen). My brother majored in theater too. (We both went to school with future stand-ups -- his was Colin Quinn.) My uncle directed a lot of local theater and opera in Philadelphia too.

I still love the original cast recording of Guys & Dolls and have it on CD, though I haven't listened to it for years. And PUH-LEEZE don't talk to me about that miscast abomination of a movie! Although I didn't have the pleasure of seeing the original cast, my dad took me to a Broadway revival with Hugh O'Brien as Sky Masterson, Jan Murray as Nathan Detroit, and the original Miss Adelaide, Vivian Blaine.

Monday, October 12, 2009

great dream

Generally, when I'm in the throes of a bad depression, my mind dredges up all kinds of old injustices, slights and enemies, and I dwell and dwell on these. A milligram of clonazepam generally shuts this stuff up, but it does also turn up in my dreams. Two nights ago, I dreamed yet again that I was still working for my last boss, since I apparently still haven't let go of despising her after a year and a half. Usually, the dreams are all confused: I'm working for her, but at NYU, not where I actually worked for her, and in some of them, I've already been let go but am working out my last couple of weeks and being treated terribly. But last night, I finally had one that made me smile: I guess I had already been let go or was on the verge of it, and she was bitching bitching bitching at me about something I supposedly hadn't done or hadn't done to her liking, and for some reason, she chose to explain herself by inviting me to touch her knee (as if trying to illustrate something, though I can't imagine what). Instead, I punched her right in the nose, yelled "I quit!" and stomped out of the building. Very satisfying.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Mitch Horowitz was on CBS Sunday morning today, and you should all buy his new book Occult America. He was the editor-in-chief at Tarcher/Penguin when I worked there (he still is), and I was lucky enough to be the publicist on a lot of books he edited. He really knows his stuff about the history of spiritualism in America, and he's a good guy.

Mohegan Woodlands

On Facebook, I am reconnecting with a lot of people from high school. On my last blog, I gave a shout out to people from Mohegan Woodlands, a bungalow colony where I spent my summers from around 1964-1973. I got a few wonderful responses, but my hard drive has crashed since then and I lost off of your e-mails and phone numbers. There were 30 or 31 families who lived there, half a dozen who were close with my folks (later, my mother and her boyfriend), and most of us kids hung around together at some point. I really am anxious to hear from you folks and promise to call anyone who'd rather talk than e-mail. I know I've done searches for Mohegan Woodlands fairly often and have come up with almost nothing. I'm trying to keep my name off this blog as much as possible, though I know that some of your got here from a Facebook page that does have my real name (ambivalent, me?), but my mother's name was Joan Zogott and my brother's name is Daniel.

Some time when I'm a little less tired, I'll talk some about the place. It is iconic for me. It represented a place to play safely in the outdoors, even when we left the official boundaries of the colony and ventured into the woods. Worst care scenario was poison ivy.

I was in fact talking to my nephew about Woodlands the other day. Walter Jonah Zogott just started first grade and is taking tennis lessons. I told him how his daddy and I used to play tennis until you couldn't see the ball any more. He asked why, which is a fairly good question. The answer is that there was only one tennis court and all the grown-ups liked to play, so they only let the kids play from seven to eight at night, when it was getting dark. (We also got ten to eleven in the morning, when we were almost all at day camp. Thanks lot, grown-ups!)

I'd even like to hear from people who went to the same day camps we did: Laur-Lee and Floridan. I did track down my favorite counselor from Floridan a couple of years ago, who turned out to be someone rather important in some sort of federal government health agency, and seemed weirded out to hear from me.