i'm a white writer. in new york. original, no? i've been blogging since october 2002. this blog picks up in october 2008, when i moved from DC to NY...(and then I moved to Maine in 2012)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

This Is Not a Memoir

The phone is huge, as if seen through a zoom lens. It’s the color of Silly Putty, and I like the pattern the numbers make on the dialpad beneath the handset cradle. It’s unclear why there are no numbers on the 1 key. Following a familiar trail, I dial what I’m pretty sure is the same pattern I've dialed before, 4s and 6s and 8s, and sure enough a polite voice answers.

I never learned her name. She sounded lonely, but I may have been projecting. The chats weren’t long, as I really didn’t have much to offer, seeing as I was only eight. I never told my mother about these phone calls, because I knew it was an odd thing to do.

Rewind one hour.

The bus drops me off down the street from the white, three-story building where we live. I poke my tongue in the space where my tooth once was, and set off for home. No stranger approaches, and I remember not to talk to any, though I probably wouldn’t have heard one over the slisk of my purple snowsuit. I climb the stairs to the third floor and let myself in. I’m careful with the key, because if I'm locked out, I'm locked out. We don’t know our neighbors.

She’s at work. I call her at Montgomery Ward, where she’s managing two departments, to tell her I made it home safe. I lay out a paper towel and fix myself a sandwich—Wonder bread with Kraft American cheese and Hellmann’s real mayonnaise. We’ve recently graduated to name brands from the food we used to get each week from the church basement down the street. Sometimes we even have bologna, and when we do, I peel the stringy side off of it.

Post-sandwich, in the hour or so before my babysitter arrives, I pull out the bottom drawer of my dresser and organize my comics. My parents bought the dresser in a fire sale in Atlanta when they were still married, before we moved to Maine. Or maybe I sing along to the Beatles, torn between wanting Paul to be my dad and wanting him to need me when I’m 64. Or maybe I count Barbie’s shoes. Or force doll clothes on the kitten while he’s still too small to defend himself.

The random phone-calling is for special.

Before I know it, my babysitter’s there, and we watch the Beverly Hillbillies embarrass themselves while we work on her gum-wrapper and pop-top chains. She agrees Paul's the cutest Beatle, but then pulls the rug out from under me by telling me the Beatles broke up years ago. This upsets me enormously. If she has homework, she lets me brush her hair while she works. She tells me what must be impossible, that she irons her long, blonde hair on an ironing board.

My mother comes home and the babysitter leaves. We’ll eat beans and franks, or maybe American chop suey and a salad. She asks me to wash the lettuce, which I think is very strange. Halfway through the meal, I learn that because I used Ivory Liquid, I’ve wasted a lot of her hard-earned money. We’ll fold laundry during commercials for “Little House on the Prairie,” and afterwards she asks what the moral of the story was. I have no idea, and eventually I’m crying so hard over my Jell-O that I can’t even make anything up.

Lights out. I try to fall asleep to the hum of the fan in my room, but I can’t take my eyes off the orange glow leaking under my bedroom door from the living room. I’m convinced it’s a fire, a very slow fire that burns in our living room each night. I listen for tell-tale crackles and remember that, when the time comes, I should feel the wood of the door and not touch the metal handle. I know which window is best for escaping, and I know where the rope ladder is for doing so. Despite all this knowledge, I’m rigid with fear. Then the light goes out.

Now I’m in the ocean, the same ocean that’s on my mother’s paperback book, Jaws. I wonder what I'll die from, drowning or the shark. And if it’s the shark, will I be swallowed whole and live like Jonah in an air pocket? Or will I be chewed up? And if I’m chewed up, what will it feel like and how much blood will there be? Then I’ll wonder what it feels like to die of natural causes. I’ll hold my breath, then let the air seep out ‘til it hurts, then keep myself from inhaling as long as possible.

Then the ants come. I’m in the desert, and the fire ants are climbing all over me, stinging or biting or whatever it is fire ants do to people who are tied to cartoon logs, and I know three things for sure: 1) that I am sweating, 2) that I'll most certainly die this very night, and 3) that death by fire ants will surely be the longest, most painful of all my possible eight-year-old deaths. When I finally fall asleep, I’m too tired to have nightmares.

In the morning, I lie about how well I slept, put on my glasses, eat my oatmeal, brush my teeth, and dress for school. I try to sneak a few small rips into my lace anklets. I want her to notice the holes and buy me more grown-up socks, but instead she just buys more frilly ones. Some days I get to wear my Brownie outfit, my beanie on top of my fuzzed-out, week-old braids that I insist on wearing to further my waking fantasy of living in a one-room house on a Kansas prairie. Anywhere but here, in this apartment with the green shag rug, the gold curtains, and the velour floral sofa.

This was the apartment where I learned she wouldn’t be marrying her boyfriend after all because he wanted to send me to a private school and she couldn’t bear that. This was the apartment where I learned that sharing how fun it was to call my dad's new wife “Mommy” was quite possibly the worst thing I could ever say to my mother. This was the apartment where she told me where babies came from, a story she clearly had rehearsed in advance, and which left me with an inability to ever look at a hot dog the same way again.

The last time I picked up the phone and dialed my secret friend, I either pressed the wrong numbers, or she wasn’t home, because no one answered. I was calling to tell her we were moving. This apartment was the fifth or so I'd lived in so far. There would be eight more before I graduated high school, ten years later.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Mother's Father's Wife Put a Curse on Me

My mother never met her father. She has a black-and-white photograph of him, handsome in a white suit, and a few cherished details that her mother doled out grudgingly, one of which she told me when I was 13.

We were in the car on an overlit Florida afternoon, and I had just gotten my first dental fillings. My mouth was still numb and I was saying "plum" over and over, enjoying sounding like an 80-year-old stroke victim while I picked at the stitching on my pink, thin-wale corduroys.

My mother had a knack for telling me stories I wished she wouldn't, mostly about my own birth and the consequences of it. Stories from the generations before my arrival were generally mythic in scope and fatalistic in tone. Who knows what it was that afternoon--the events of her own doomed love life, the nostalgic slant of sunlight through her Marlboro smoke, or the simple fact that I'd added the word "purple" to my loud, plummy litany--but out of the blue my mother decided to tell me the Story of the Curse.

The first part of the story, I already knew. It went like this. After my grandmother, Margaret, was told she couldn't marry the French penpal she'd fallen for in high school, she married her neighbor Ralph. They had a son. Then she met an older married man, an Albanian Jehovah's Witness, who allegedly raped her. Nine months later, my mother was born in Reno. Margaret was divorced the next day, and Ralph took his son, my mother's half-brother, back to Maine to be raised by his family.

My mother was supposed to have been adopted by a wealthy, childless couple who lived north of Los Angeles. Lawyers had drawn up the papers, but when the nurse said, "It's a little girl," my grandmother said, "I'm keeping her." She had had one son, stillborn, and had lost another in the divorce.

On this particular afternoon, the story took an occult turn. Shortly after my mother's birth, something strange started happening. Each morning, when my grandmother rose and went to my mother's crib, there was a long, black hair on my mother's infant self. Each night, my grandmother inspected my mother's crib, and each morning, a new hair would appear, as if it had been carefully placed across my mother in the night.

My grandmother feared this hair business was the manifestation of a curse. When my mother's father's wife learned her husband had been unfaithful, she found and cursed my grandmother, her unborn child, and her unborn child's child, that we should never know love. My grandmother consulted an expert in such matters, who recommended she take the next morning's hair and burn it while saying assertive, curse-breaking things. She did as she was told, and, sure enough, the long, black hairs stopped appearing.

I fingered the tiny, gold-thread swan on my Gloria Vanderbilt cords as I listened. I knew it. I knew it, I knew it, I knew it. There was a reason Tommy Shoemaker had not loved me back in the 4th grade. There was a reason my father never answered my letters. We were all cursed, my grandmother, my mother and I. The fact that my grandmother and mother were both alone seemed proof that the curse existed, not proof that they sabotaged relationships.

Years later, once I'd learned about self-fulfilling prophecies, I tried to pooh-pooh this whole curse idea, but my own botched attempts at love seemed only to confirm its existence. I flung myself from crush to idealizing crush, like a frantic love monkey swinging from vine to vine over quicksand. I only have my profound social awkardness to thank, not morals or good judgment, for saving me from becoming an object lesson in teenage promiscuity. Line up twelve men in a row and I will unerringly choose the one whose mother kicked his teeth in, or who is addicted to narcotics, or whose father shot the family pet to punish the children.

To finally break the curse, I had to let go of the vine.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Follow-Up to the TCG Teleconference on Using Twitter to Build Audience

Some of you may know that last Thursday I gave an hour-long talk to 150 theaters on how to use Twitter to bring in new audience as part of Theatre Communications Group's Leadership Teleconference Series. The talk went great--I had a terrific time, TCG seemed pleased, and the response from participating theaters was overwhelmingly positive. LISTEN TO THE WHOLE TALK HERE. [Seems not to work in IE on Vista. I had to use Firefox.]

If you search Twitter for the hashtag #TCGCall, you can check out some of the comments people were tweeting during the call. I could have talked for another hour, easy-peasy, and there were a couple of questions that I couldn't get around to, so I thought I'd share some more info here.

Twitter is uniquely helpful to performing arts organizations because you can identify people in your ZIP Code who maybe don't even go to the theatre, but maybe they would if they felt welcomed, if they felt it would be fun or interesting or relevant to them. You can identify, reach out, and build relationships with people who can become invested in your mission. I don't have hard numbers (if you do, please share in the comments!), but I know that theaters are bringing in audience members via Twitter who are completely new to their organization.

Now, some questions.

@theatredude asked if a theatre should follow its own employees.
Every theatre has its own unique culture. I can't really see why you wouldn't follow everyone affiliated with your company. (If an employee would rather keep her tweetstream private, she can adjust her profile settings accordingly.) It's fun for followers to hear the back-and-forth when people share what they're excited about behind the scenes.

@leehenderson asked if the idea is to grow new audiences with Twitter.
Absolutely! That's one of the main differences between Twitter and Facebook. Facebook is about cultivating the audience you already have, while Twitter is about finding new people in your area who might come to your theatre for a Tweetup, see a show, and then become lifelong fans.

@htyweb offered that instead of searching for your name on Twitter to keep track of what people are saying about your theatre, you can set up automatic searches that will go right to your email. @htyweb mentions TweetBeep as one such tool.
I ran out of time on the talk, but indeed there are a slew of tools (called third-party clients, or apps) that you can use to manage your Twitter account. I'm not recommending any one of these tools over another--you should explore and make your own decisions.

For Your Desktop or Laptop

Tweetdeck is a downloadable third-party client that a lot of people use on their desktop computer. Also, I've heard a lot about Seesmic. It allows you to group your messages and the people you follow. It's helpful to use one of these if you plan on following hundreds or thousands of people. There will naturally be some people you want to make sure not to miss anything from.

HootSuite is one of many tools that allow you to track your company's Twitter account, DMs, @ replies, and even assign some of these things to specific people in your company. CoTweet is a similar product. These are useful if you want to have several people tweet on your company's behalf from one main account.

For Your SmartPhone

There are several apps you can download--Twitterfon, Twitterrific, Twittelator Pro, Tweetie, and Twitterberry to name a few.

To Track Statistics

You can use hit-counting clients like Statcounter to track how much traffic comes to your website from Twitter.


Out of all the URL-shorteners, many people favor bit.ly, because you can track how many times that URL is shared. Others are tiny.url, and tr.im.

Here's how I access Twitter:
During the work day, I'm at a desk, so I use the regular Twitter web interface. I have Twitterfon on my iPhone. (I keep meaning to upgrade to Twitterfon Pro.) Instead of using Tweetdeck to group tweets from certain people, I use Google Reader to collect RSS feeds of the Twitterers I follow who I don't want to miss a single tweet from, and then I can check out the tweets on my computer or iPhone when it suits me. I'm leery of using too many third-party apps that require sharing my Twitter password--the more you share your password, the more hackable your account is, and everyone has a different comfort zone with that.

Feel free to leave questions in the comments, or share success stories. Also, please pass around this information--the insights and ideas discussed on the recorded talk aren't limited to theater companies, but can be useful for other arts and nonprofit organizations.

One last thing. While I was flattered to be introduced as a "Social Media Expert," social media is evolving so rapidly, with so many discoveries still to be made, that I don't think anyone is an expert. Once you guys are comfortable on this new platform, you'll be able to teach me things! Let's keep sharing the information so we can make sure the performing arts get a strong foothold in this new arena.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

So, the Other Day, I Got Some of This Free Money I've Been Hearing So Much About

Remember this? When I had to move out of my first NY apartment because my massage table was stolen, and I rented a van and a friend to move to the new place where the ceiling is now caving in?

Remember how I had to pay my pal with an American Express check because my NBC paychecks were not coming through week after week?

Remember how AmEx lowered my limit to $2K without telling me first even though I had never had a late payment in over 15 years, so that the check was declined because it would've been $24 whole dollars over?

Well, I simply vented here and haven't used the card since, because I pick my battles and my battles at the time were bigger than the declined check.


The other night, I received an apology from American Express, and a check for $160. Apologies are so much better when they involve money. I don't know if there was some sort of class action suit pending, or what, but American Express and I are now on speaking terms again.

I thought you should know.

I also thought you should know that sometimes really good, unexpected things can happen.