Crazytown

So. We are here at last. We have arrived at The Rubicon – the point of no return.

The choice for Trumpers – who always blame the victims when it comes to babies in cages, Muslim bans, and sick people – is whether or not they will go over the cliff after 45*, and deny the reality of 3,000+ dead Americans in Puerto Rico from the devastating one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September of 2017.

 

PR Fake Deaths Twee 2

 

Let’s ignore the self-serving ‘I’ statements, and 45*s conflating anecdotes with evidence. Let’s discard his blistering, raging, unquenchable narcissism and refusal to acknowledge a scientific, peer-reviewed study based on in-person interviews with coroners and emergency responders. Let’s be nonplussed at his spurious, utterly fabricated claim that he raised penny one for Puerto Rico, when the facts are that he withdrew FEMA aid 4 months after the disaster, while the majority of the island lacked electricity and running water, and that he reallocated FEMA funds to ICE for the specific purpose of keeping babies in cages who were kidnapped from their asylum-seeking parents.

Instead, let’s take a moment to savor the depth of malignant sociopathy and the bottomless pit of needy victimhood it requires to imagine that tens of thousands of people pretended family members died, and that government officials at every level along with researchers from the most respected institutions of higher education reinforced that lie with the help of every newspaper, radio and television station IN THE WORLD, for the sole purpose of making him look as bad as possible.

No, really. Take a moment to swirl the taste of cancerous narcissism so deep that he imagines the whole world is gaslighting HIM to make him feel bad.

The

World

Is

Gaslighting

HIM

Seven-and-a-half billion people think SO much of him that we all got together to pretend several thousand people died in Puerto Rico – and it was all spearheaded by the evil Democrats, out to make him look bad.

 

 

1984 Essential Command

 

 

Interestingly, half a dozen MAGAts – who up until yesterday blamed the deaths in Puerto Rico on corrupt local politicians – fell silent this morning when I pressed them on whether Trump is lying or crazy, or if they actually believe 3,000 people didn’t die. They ghosted the conversation when I refused to allow them to derail it with Obama and Clinton Whataboutisms. I imagine they’ll be silent until Steve Bannon gets the talking points out via Brietbart and Drudge, and they percolate to Fox and thus directly into the ears of the demented fraud who sits in the White House, and imagines himself the Supreme Ruler King.

I have great faith the MAGAts will cross this river with their eyes closed, and one step at a time they will ease into the frigid water of deliberate insanity, until they finally get used to denying the reality of thousands of dead Americans and convince themselves they thought this all along.

Tomorrow we will be able to watch people we know choose to alter what they believed yesterday to satisfy the whim of a madman today.

This is Jim Jones level shit.

We have crossed The Rubicon and officially arrived at Crazytown.

 

Frowny Face

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It Has Electrolytes!!

Reading 45*s staggeringly ignorant tweet about ‘bad environmental laws’ being the cause of California’s devastating fires made my nose bleed.

California water and Western Water Law were things I specialized in when I was an employed journalist, and I’ve done more stories than I can count on established law, the drought and its effects, farming in CA, and the contaminated aquifers.

The drought is real in California, and all over the west. The need for water exceeds the supply not for lack of reservoirs, but due to lack of rainfall, corporate agriculture’s wasteful irrigation practices and irresponsible crop choice, and Los Angeles’ drinking water aquifer being contaminated with heavy metals, Volatile Organic Compounds, and nuclear waste.

 

Reservoir 3

 

Here is why Trump is so very, very wrong – and not just because he seems to think if there was just more water we could put the fires out:

When the water in the Colorado River was divvied up in the last century it was based on an astronomical water flow projection that had never happened in the history of ever. Everyone knew it at the time, and ignored the impossibility of the figures, kicking the can of how to deal with the eventual water crisis down a few generations.

Metaphorically: Grandma bakes a pie, and 10 people have been told they can all have a quarter of the pie. They all KNOW there isn’t enough for everybody to get a quarter of a pie – but instead of taking less, and all equitably getting a tenth of a pie, everyone keeps demanding their quarter of a pie.

Right now – because of a compact made in the last century, fields in Colorado are dry to water almond orchards in the deserts of California, so that Corporate Ag can corner 80% of the world’s almond supply.

Remember: agriculture and business use 90% of the water in California – not its citizens.

 

Central Valley Billboard 3

 

Now – as to this ‘made up drought’? You can build all the reservoirs you want, but there’s nothing to put in them. They already can’t fill Lake Shasta, Lake Mead or Lake Powell, and building more places to hold non-existent water won’t do a damned thing.

Buying a half dozen dressers doesn’t mean you will magically get the clothes with which to fill them.

Even before the extreme drought that California has faced for the last decade-plus, water boards were unable to fill their reservoirs. There is neither the rain, nor the snow melt in the snowfields of the Sierra Nevada to fill them, and the glaciers of Rocky Mountains have melted. Glaciers that once gave water in July and August have melted forever.

The Sacramento Delta is salinating because there is not enough fresh water to push the delta water to the Pacific Ocean, where it belongs. At the same time Lake Tahoe is rapidly lowering and becoming cloudy. Damning up the few remaining rivers kills the entire ecosystem downstream – look at what a disaster the Colorado River is where it enters the Pacific Ocean as a mere trickle.

 

CO River Reaches Sea

 

The farmers who have those moronic billboards along I-5 have been bitching since the last century that they can’t flood-irrigate their crops – IN THE DESERT!! They have refused to modernize and use underground drip systems because they’ve ALWAYS been allowed to waste water – why not now?

They grow almonds, alfalfa and hay – IN THE DESERT!! Together these crops use 30% of all agricultural water in the state. Alfalfa uses more water than any other thing grown in California, yet makes up only 4% of the state’s crop.

Trust me on this: we don’t need to waste 20% of California’s total water supply to grow cow feed in the sand. I drove past 800 miles of richly producing alfalfa fields in Montana last month, we don’t need to grow cattle fodder IN THE DESERT!!

 

Central Valley Billboard 2

 

The farmers who pretend a finite resource is being withheld from them as some kind of libby-lib-lib plot, are willfully ignorant and propagating the lie that there is some secret water stash somewhere being that’s being withheld from them because they voted for Reagan, or some other such crap (those stupid billboards were up when I was a teen in the late 1970s). They would rather believe a conspiracy, than the rainfall totals, environmental damage from the drought – or their own damned eyes.

 

SFV Superfund Map

 

As for Southern California’s drinking water problems? That’s a whole different issue.

To quote Woody from Toy Story: Somebody’s poisoned the waterhole!

In 1980 the aquifer in the east San Fernando Valley was declared too dangerous for human consumption, and the wells providing more than 50% of the drinking water for the Valley were shut down permanently. Cities were forced to provide alternate sources of drinking water. The California Aqueduct and the Colorado River were forced to pick up the slack.

The San Fernando Valley aquifer is contaminated with industrial chemicals from WW2 airplane and weapons production, post-War auto manufacturing, the electronics industry, the aerospace and defense industries, oil wells, and military bases.

The area where I grew up (near the Burbank Airport) is Superfund Area 1 – a 7-square-mile toxic plume of cancerous pollution. The most polluted well in the SFV is behind my old (still operating) high school, adjacent to a dump that I grew up smelling. In my High School’s zip code alone there were 32 poorly regulated, unlined dumps that allowed unbelievable pollutants to be dumped directly into the soil, which leached into the aquifer. Some of those dumps have been redeveloped into parks.

This is one of 4 of Superfund Sites in the SFV polluting the groundwater. All 4 have been a National Priority Listing since 1986, but dick-all has been done about it. The action plan consists of partially treating the contaminated ground water (never to human consumption level), and allow it to percolate back through to the polluted part of the aquifer. There is no plan to clean up the original contaminants. That’s like trying to fix a leak by putting a bucket under the drip.

The only plan at this point is to monitor the pollution contaminating the drinking water of Los Angeles County, and shut down wells as they become unfit for human consumption.

So, what’s in the water I (and millions of others) grew up drinking, showering, swimming in, and eating food from our garden? What’s silently spreading to all of the wells in the San Fernando Valley?

Hexavalent chromium (Remember Erin Brokavitch’s suit?)
Trichloroethylene (TCE)
Perchloroethylene or Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)
1,4 –Dioxane
1,2, 3-Trichloropropane (TCP)
Carbon Tetrachloride
Chloroform
Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE)
Nitrate
Benzene
Vinyl Chloride
Perchlorate
Tritium

And…. Drum roll please:

Low Grade Nuclear Waste.

If you REALLY want to blow your mind look up the Santa Susana Field Laboratory and read about the largest nuclear accident on US soil that nobody knows about – that happened in foothills above the San Fernando Valley.

The nuclear waste got into in the water during mitigation efforts after the accident. The government scraped the soil from the facility, and trucked it to the unlined, poorly regulated dumps of the east San Fernando Valley – right next to the cookie cutter housing developments of the blue collar workers who kept all of those factories humming, and next to the schools of their children.

The nuclear waste, along with all the chemicals, and Volatile Organic Compounds leached into the soil we lived atop, and eventually contaminated the groundwater.

I grew up drinking that toxic brew, and I am sick – as are many people I grew up with. My old classmates, friends and neighbors have clusters of breast cancer, testicular cancer, MS, ALS, COPD, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Graves’ disease, fibromyalgia, lupus and host of other autoimmune diseases. 40 employees at Poly High School died of Hodgkin’s disease by the year 2000 – most of them in the athletic department, whose fields and offices were built atop reclaimed land from the dump behind our school. The same dump that leached methane into the girls gym, and in 1979 it caused a small explosion, taking the building out of commission. Not only is my old high school still in operation, they built a Jr. High School across the street.

Los Angeles’ poisoned aquifers are California’s dirty secret, and within a decade they will be recognized as the health disaster they are.

In the meantime? State and County Water Municipalities will continue to whistle past the graveyard, and pretend that there’s a non-peeing part to the pool, as the plume of poison continues to contaminate the drinking water for one of the largest cities – and economies – in the world.

After reading Trump’s idiocy about diverting water to the Pacific Ocean, and loosening up the laws on poisoning our water FURTHER, I longed for the wisdom of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, and his simple demand for electrolytes.

 

 

Fighting In A Burning House

After being out of this country for 2 weeks it’s impossible to describe how AWFUL things are here: Americans are at war with each other, and we seem incapable of seeing it.

If people aren’t actively cheering the Russian coup, they are fighting in a burning house because they’re STILL angry that a man who called Roe v Wade identity politics was rejected by DNC voters.

I was blocked yesterday by a man whose opinions on politics matches with mine so closely that a Venn diagram of them would be a damn near perfect circle. But, he banished me over something we disagree about that happened 2 years ago, and cannot be changed.

Rehashing a primary that has passed is *insane*. It’s the spouse who keeps hammering their partner about a long-past difference of opinion, and destroys the relationship because they can’t let it go.

It’s time to face the facts that Americans have fully embraced the lunacy of a death wish that we are accomplishing via gun violence, lack of health care, and a bloodlust for a national fight.

I grew up in a madhouse that was a microcosm of what the USA has become. We WANT to fight. We WANT to inflict damage on the OTHER – whether they’re brown or Muslim or on ‘our side’ but didn’t hew closely enough to the opinion you cradle like a priceless object.

The real enemy in my house were my parents: A narcissistic rageaholic mother, and an enabling, lying, cheating, thief of a father, and they both gaslighted the lot of us: The ultimate ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ scenario, where we children were being played one off the other.

But, that didn’t stop my brothers and I from savaging one another as children AND adults, and passing that generational trauma on to our children.

We six siblings are no different than society at large: Instead of coming together to fight off the attacks, as children we invoked ‘Every Man For Himself’. As adults we did *nothing* to heal our wounds as a family, continuing to nurse our grudges.

As a result? We are fractured beyond repair, and my brothers have angrily cut one another out of their lives, shit talking their siblings, and further perpetrating the anger, the hurt and the war someone else started.

For me? I hold little hope November will change anything. The reason is because the cheating, lying, narcissism and gaslighting from on high won’t stop – and we’ll all be too busy fighting amongst each other to focus our forces and energy against the people who are REALLY hurting us. I’ve watched my family tear itself to shreds for more than half a century without a thought to creating peace.

I’ve seen how this goes – and it doesn’t end well.

Our insisting on fighting in a burning house will be the death of us and the Republic for which we used to stand.

This Is Fine

Heroin Junkies and Trump Humpers

We are in a Constitutional Crisis, and this last week has laid bare the truth that Putin stole the presidency for Trump, with an assist from billionaires who have been buying our government for the last few decades.

Trump’s unhinged Rage Tweets this morning point to dark days ahead. Dare I say the words Civil war?

We’re really already there emotionally, and isn’t this all that matters?

We’re already at war with each other – there’s not a one of us who hasn’t seen a loved one drink Trump’s Kool-Aid. I have a neighbor of 16 years who hasn’t spoken to me since 2015 because I dared to tell her that putting Muslims in internment camps was morally wrong and violated the Constitution.

Quite simply: Trump Humpers live in a reality of their own making where inconsistencies abound and facts are discarded. A reality flush with conspiracies, and where a porn star who was paid $130K in hush money is lying about having an affair with Trump, AND he has every right to sue her for $20 million for talking about the affair they didn’t have.

You cannot reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into, and there is no negotiating with people who aren’t just willfully ignorant, but aggressively wrong.

Trump Humpers delight in cognitive dissonance and nothing makes them happier than calling up down, just to see the look on your face. They will NEVER let go of this new reality. Never. They are too far invested in their flat-earth, fact free existence. They are as hopeless as a heroin junky.

The ideological clash among Americans is intractable – there is no way to compromise: Either you believe in equality for all, or you are actively working to deny people their rights, and turn the clock back to the Reconstruction era. There is no middle ground.

Add to that the reality that Trump is making the office of President into a dictatorship. Make no mistake: Trump does not intend to leave the office, and intends to install Ivanka after him.

His goal is unvarnished and laid bare for all to see. I don’t know if the Presidency will ever recover, and surely not in my lifetime.

I will be surprised if Trump allows the midterms to proceed, and he will likely use the excuse of ‘Russian meddling’ to suspend them – and Trump Humpers will nod with glazed eyes, greedily accepting this new reality like the junkies they are.

It’s time to accept that Trump recognizes no rules or laws but his own. To continue to deny this is dangerous and dabbles in Trump Humper wishful thinking.

It’s time to face the bitter cup before us: The Constitution no longer holds force in this country, and America is now a fascist authoritarian regime.

To make that horrifying reality worse – we are under daily attack by Putin, and Trump refuses to stop him. Putin has control of our power grid, our water processing plants and our aviation facilities -he could cripple us with a keystroke. We are at his mercy – and he has none. Yet, somehow people think he can’t control our voting machines, or he hasn’t been manipulating us to fight each other. Putin is like the villain in Stephen King’s novel Needful Things – and he’s just getting warmed up. Of course Putin was assisted in his role by Roger Ailes and Fox Spews, who tuned up the crowd for a decade and a half.

We were invaded by Russia with GOP assistance. Putin has the GOP’s peckers in his pocket through blackmail via the RNC email hack, and laundered cash from the NRA. He especially owns McConnell and Ryan because they direct most of those monies. That’s why they take no action against either Trump or Putin. We have traitors in all levels of the government.

Putin, the Mercers, the Koch brothers, and about 400 other people are using Trump to Balkanize the United States of America. They are terrifyingly close to getting their wish of having the US be a geographical collection of fiefdoms based on natural resource extraction.

These people produce nothing, and only seek to gorge on the riches of the earth, its people, and ultimately each other – they are an insatiable ouroboros. They’re sick, and they’re in charge. Doubtless they’ve been told they’ll have their place at the Oligarch’s table when America is in flames. I don’t know about you, but I can smell smoke.

Wrap your head around this: Rexxon Valdez Tillerson, the man responsible for unfettered greed and despoiling the planet with his 3 decades in Big Oil was *too liberal* for Trump. A man who raped the earth and built his fortune on pollution and misery was simply not extreme enough for Trump.

That is how far the Overton Window has been pushed to the right.

That we are not meeting in the streets, but are sitting stunned tells me bad things are to come. The fuse is burning, and the backlash will be like a big earthquake instead of 3 mild ones that take the pressure off of the fault.

Trump is fighting like a cornered animal, and he’s even more dangerous now than he’s ever been. He will do things that will create chaos in a way that will make the last year look like comedic relief.

He is capable of anything – and I do mean ANYTHING.

I could see a time in the not too distant future when states like California refuse to remit their federal tax monies because Trump does something to try to ruin them the way he has done to hundreds of people. Think Puerto Rico-like damage on the mainland inflicted by him. He is entirely capable of killing his own people BECAUSE HE’S DONE IT BEFORE.

I think it’s time we review 10 Absolutes About Abusers:

  1. You aren’t human – you’re expendable chattel without rights
  2. Your opinion, wants and needs are punishable offenses
  3. You are expected to follow rules and display manners that they deny exist
  4. You will NEVER get them to acknowledge facts
  5. They will never, ever, EVER admit they are wrong
  6. They will steal from you while insisting you’re a duplicitous thief
  7. They will lie so boldly and confidently that you will question your sanity
  8. They enjoy your pain even more when you tell them how much it hurts
  9. They will not stop until they control you completely and capriciously
  10. Anything they can’t control completely they will ceaselessly try to destroy

It’s crucial for you to burn these into your brain, because things are coming down to the wire. It’s not long until the powder keg blows, and it is vital to remember the value you have to Trump, his Humpers, the 400 and Putin: None.

It is time for us all to accept what is happening to America – for us to deal with the reality we’re in, not the one we want to be in.

Courage to us all.

Duck and Cover, kids!!

Part of the soundtrack of my youth was the eerie blaring of air raid sirens being tested at precisely 10 am on the last Friday of every month. I was 4 when I first asked my mother what the disturbing noise was. “They’re sirens to warn us when Russian airplanes attack,” she answered vaguely, hustling me along the sidewalk to the commercial interview she was taking me to. At my wide-eyed look she assured me, “It’s just a test.”

A month later the same sound sent me outside the house in shivers of fear, scanning the skies for planes (always the reporter), and any bombs they might be dropping. It was only then that my mother thought to explain that the tests happened every month at the same time. Young Reporter Claudia demanded clarification of Exactly When they went off every month, and never forgot it.

I distinctly remember the sounds of the unsynchronized sirens whirring to life – each just a fraction of a second off from the other – and their high-pitched oscillating tones warning of danger. When the test was over and the sirens finally stopped, their wailing echoed for a few lingering moments over the San Fernando Valley. Thinking about the keening, undulating sound long enough begins to put a clench in my jaw and stomach.

Part of the curriculum in the Los Angeles Unified School District in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was repeating the Duck and Cover drills we learned in kindergarten from cheerful films featuring catchy jingles, Bert the cartoon turtle, and calm, well-dressed white children. The films spoke confidently and repeatedly of WHEN The Bomb would drop – not if. 9 months a year for 13 years every child attending school in Los Angeles was vigilant for the inevitable, inescapable flash of our doom, and as air raid sirens howled above us we learned to cower under the magical safety of a laminated Formica desk.  (Link to Duck and Cover propaganda film)

As the sirens warned of impending doom the teachers turned off the lights and closed the blinds, and we students would kneel under our desks on the linoleum floor, our fingers laced behind our necks, forearms over our ears, and elbows shielding our faces. We were told to keep our eyes shut, and our faces hidden in our clothes.

While we crouched with hidden faces, the siren’s mournful monthly tune ended and became nothing but a discordant echo over cheaply built post-war housing. We waited until we heard a long bell being wrung by Mrs. Hale, our Principal, signifying the ‘All Clear’. It was during one of those drills that I first felt the suffocating quicksand of claustrophobia.

The exercise ended with the entire school huddled under our desks, pretending a bomb would explode near us. The bell would ring – and Scene! We would return to our studies, the subtext of the ritual was that we had all just died.

Here’s the unvarnished truth about Duck and Cover: Nobody ever gave us instructions on what we should do *after* the bomb dropped. There was never any talk of what to do when we were done ducking and covering, no warnings about food or water or radiation poisoning. We didn’t even have instructions to wait for instructions.

The inference was that if we ever heard the Russian planes overhead everything was over. ‘Kiss your ass goodbye’ was a phrase commonly used, and most people figured ‘They’ll never try it, and if they do? We’re all dead, but they are, too.’

The drill went on year after year – long past the point of being of any use to the children repeating it – until it became normalized and just more Cold War theater

Whether or not the adults around us would acknowledge it, their unconscious behavior affected how we reacted – we took our cues from them. They knew there was no surviving a direct hit & we picked up their signals.

We were told to kneel and patiently await our fate when we heard the sounds of air raid sirens. Deep inside all of us knew that if the missiles actually flew the lights and the shades and the command to Duck and Cover were nothing more than busy work to fill the time until we were incinerated in a flash.

***

At 6 am on February 9, 1971, the Russians finally attacked. I awoke to the sound of air raid sirens and explosions that were so big it moved the ground beneath me. I heard shouting, and the ground shook even harder – the earth itself was making a grinding noise as books and games flew off of my shelves, raining down on me. Instinctively I hid my face as I sat up in bed. Abruptly the shaking stopped, but the sirens went on. I was in shock as my father hollered “EARTHQUAKE!!! Get out of the house!!” I had no idea what he was shouting to me.

In all their preparations for nuclear war it had never occurred to any of the adults to mention earthquakes to the California kids living on the San Andreas fault. No one thought to tell us the sirens could be used for emergencies other than nuclear war. I mistook a 6.6 quake for World War 3, and awoke certain I was dying in a mushroom cloud. The heaving ground and exploding transformers only served to underline that mistaken notion that the world was coming to an end. It’s not the kind of thing you forget.

It puzzled me as I grew older how so many of my classmates relegated the jolly propaganda films that promised a terrifying death via radiation to the farthest corners of their minds. By the 1980s the drills had ceased, and most folks seemed to forget what the sirens were – they became just another background noise people ignored. Almost no-one noticed when the Los Angeles Civil Air Defense sirens were permanently silenced in 1986.

 

Duck and Cover 1

 

 

I don’t envy anyone with young children right now, because they’re going to be freaked out by what happened in Hawaii – how can they not? It’s utterly fucked up, and in the days to come they’ll be exposed to over-stressed adults and videos of panic and terror. Hopefully they’ll also see clips of parents trying to protect their children, (the video of the father putting his crying children into the storm drain in which he cannot fit is heartbreaking – but also a moment of the purest love and sacrifice) and there will be adults around them who are calm and reassuring.

Keep in mind that children already have their own version of Duck and Cover when they practice mass casualty shooting drills every month. There are seniors graduating in June of 2018 who have been practicing this horror-show drill their whole lives, just like I practiced waiting for the bomb to drop. The heartbreaking thing is that some of these students, and a few of their teachers, won’t get to see graduation day because their lives will be cut short in a flash from the muzzle of a gun. The added burden of the threat of global thermonuclear war between two madmen seems especially cruel.

None of it’s fair, or particularly sane, but it’s where we are as a country right now. This is who we are.

For the moment we are at the mercy of an aggressive, ignorant, rageaholic narcissist who suffers delusions of grandeur, likely has dementia, and is itching to use nuclear weapons. For the moment.

On the bright side: After a few years in this pressure cooker of lunacy and danger we’re bound to have some really good art and music come out of it –  if we can pull together and #Resist long enough to outlast the bastard.

 

99 Red Balloons

Holidays In Hell, Part 3: Moving Past Tippy The Tree

Staggered between burning countless sheets of cookies and the innumerable show business interviews of my youth, my mother would focus on burnishing the Image of the Season with hours of meticulous decorating.

Christmas was Margaret Lamb’s time to shine, and prove what unparalleled taste she had.

I have to give the Devil her due: For someone with no formal training she had an excellent eye for both color and proportion. Her tastes ran to the dramatic, but her affinity to pull a room together could not be denied.

She had an EXACT idea of how the Christmas decorations should be presented, and there were to be no deviations from the plan. She was uncompromising in how each bow MUST be tied and each bough must be hung: Our house at Christmas was a tableaux of her fantasy life.

There’s nothing quite like trying to put up Christmas decorations with a manic, compulsive person. You end up as agitated as they are, and nothing you do will please them. It’s a sucker’s game, and one we were forced to play every year with a silly-assed grin plastered to our faces.

Before we could begin decorating, though, one of my brothers would bring the ladder in from the garage, open the small square opening in the ceiling outside of my bedroom door, and climb into the attic to retrieve the many boxes of decorations and Tippy The Tree. (Cue the sound of a chainsaw)

Every year one box or another would have gotten damaged in the attic, somehow. This would trigger my mother’s unreasonable rage and legitimate sadness at losing a sentimental item, coupled with the certainty that it must be someone’s fault. Sometimes it was the way things were packed, sometimes it was carelessness on the part of whichever brother was asked to put the boxes back in the attic or take them down. More often, though, the culprit was water damage from our perpetually leaky roof. Somehow, it always seemed to be my mother’s art projects that were destroyed

Art Projects.

Margaret Lamb did Art Projects – because crafts were just so unsophisticated and provincial.

I cannot describe her sorrow at losing the Three Wise Men.

I was there the tragic afternoon when she opened the box to find them water stained and moldy. I can still see what they looked like whole: Their monochrome faces (one bearded), with flowing robes and gifts – and their ruin in a box that reeked of mildew.

Mom had constructed the Magi out of Papier-mâché laid over frames of upright cardboard paper towel tubes, and they stood a little over a foot high. Their perfectly proportioned outstretched hands and arms were made of modelling clay supported by toothpicks and Popsicle sticks. Painstakingly laid pieces of muslin and leftover trim gave them the sweeping garments of Kings. She used a tiny Chiclets box for the chest of gold, an old dangly earring for the frankincense censer, and a large bead for the vessel of myrrh. All three Men and their Gifts had been covered with countless whisper thin layers of deep cream spray paint, then sparingly touched with the faintest  of antiquing. Finally, they were finished with a seal of matte lacquer.

She spent dozens upon dozens of hours making them the summer of 1971. It was the rainy season of 1978 that did them in: More than 3 feet of water fell from the sky in our polluted end of the San Fernando Valley, and apparently most of it percolated through our attic and the 30-year-old roof my parents hadn’t bothered to replace during the salad days when I was on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and making the equivalent of $3,500 a week.

The Wise Men were pretty good – really. I have no reason to lie about Margaret’s talents.

The problem was she thought the Wise Guys were gallery quality. She displayed them in a prominent way on an end table. We knew better than to move them, she would know if we had. Just like she knew when we moved cans in the pantry (you think I kid). She would obsessively know exactly where she placed them. God forgive the unlucky soul who disturbed their position. Now here they were: ruined.

Her rage was positively epic, which forced the ‘Merry Fucking Christmas’ blowup to come early, and we got two that year.

“Oh no! No, no, no!!” it began low and began to grow. “They’re ruined! Goddammit, they’re all ruined!” she shrieked.

I began to step backwards, eyes darting, trying to find anywhere to escape.

“They’re all fucking ruined! How in FUCK’s name did this happen?!!!” her voice spiked in fury. “Everything I ever do turns to shit! Why do I bother?” her fury hit a sharp crescendo.

“Why. Do. I. Bother?” her voice a study in staccato fury.

“Oh, oh, oh!!” her uncontrollable sobbing began..

Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior were laid to rest in an ocean of tears and savage vulgarities. Even then I understood her guttural lamentations were about her suffocated dreams, and not about her ruined Art Projects.

I feel genuinely bad to this day how much losing them hurt her.

The problem was that Weepy Mom always preceded angry, hitting, Destructive Mom.

Silly me, I was always sure if I could just calm down Weepy Mom then angry, hitting, Destructive Mom wouldn’t show up. My cunning plan failed every time. At that age I was still convinced it was my fault she was so unhappy. I just knew there was something I wasn’t doing – or something I needed to do more of – that would make her happy. I credit my older brothers for introducing me to the notion that maybe – just maybe – she was the one who needed to change.

 

Lamb Christmas Tree

 

When the annual damage had been assessed, and whatever could be fixed was repaired, my mother would start to assemble The Tree. That we had an artificial tree was due to my asthma, that it was such a piece of crap was all on my folks.

The Tree stood about 6 feet tall, with a base made of 2 giant dowels which were supposed to fit together snugly, but had the stability of a teetering Jenga stack. The threadbare branches were made of plastic pine needles and twisted metal wire, which fit into little holes drilled into the dowel. The whole thing sat in a rickety tree holder, wobbling drunkenly about and often falling over without provocation. For some reason assembling The Tree would flummox my mother every year. The art of sorting the branches from largest to smallest escaped her. Every. Fucking. Year.

“Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit! Why won’t this go right? I don’t understand it.” We would melt off to our rooms, suddenly needing to do our homework.

At least an hour later, after a fist-fight with Tippy The Tree, Margaret would start on the lights – a job that took several hours to get just so. The lights had to be done to the exacting standards that only existed only in her head. This was not a one person job, of course., which meant we all got to pitch in. Lucky us!

Children of the 60s and 70s remember well the exasperation of an entire string of 60 lights not working because of ONE random bad bulb, and how long it took to find it.

You began by plugging in the strings of lights – ALL of which worked *just fine* when you carefully put them away the year before – to find that somehow three of the four strings of small white lights didn’t work. You’d unplug them, shake them hopefully, and then plug them back in again to no avail.

Then came the laborious process of finding the bad bulb by methodically pulling each one out of its plastic socket, and replacing it with a good bulb. When the string finally blinked to life you could claim victory, and move on to the next malfunctioning string.

The tiny, fickle bulbs were clear glass with two thin filaments coming out the bottom that made direct contact with the socket, and were prone to giving you a blast of current as you gently wiggled it free from its seat.

Woe be to the fool who broke a bulb. Bulbs were precious, and it was almost impossible to find spares. You’d be concentrating like a Stanford neurosurgeon as you shimmied the bulb loose, trying to avoid 110 volts, and suddenly one of the brittle wire ends would snap. The haranguing from my mother would begin anew.

Once all of the strings of lights were operational began the next challenge: Hanging four strings of lights on a tree that would fall over if a door slammed across the house. Not just hanging the lights, but making sure they were absolutely, positively, obsessively evenly distributed around that sad tree in a schematic only my mother could see. That tormented woman would hang the lights, get halfway done, rip them off, accidentally knock over the tree, curse, and start over – again and again. It wouldn’t be unusual for her to do this ten or twelve times before she was finally pleased. God knows we didn’t stop until she was pleased.

Dad would come home and tell mom just how wonderful Tippy The Tree looked as it was falling over.

Mom would hang the tinsel garland after dinner, as we were finishing our homework. The garland could be no less perfect than the lights, and we would hear cursing from the other room as she unwound and rewound the tired tinsel. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must be to be compelled to have every light equidistant, every loop of tinsel exactly the same size. I mean I know how exhausting it is to live with, but damn. How relentless that reality must be. She thought it was a reflection on her if the surface things didn’t look perfect. She was convinced that she was being judged by everyone because she was judging everyone else for their petty imperfections.

The sad reality? The Tree wasn’t perfect – not by any stretch of the imagination. Look at that picture of the tree, again. There is nothing remotely perfect in it – but that represents at minimum 15 hours of work. Hanging and rehanging the tinsel and lights was simply a symptom of the compulsion she refused to treat. She would perform an annual feedback loop with them until she finally exhausted herself, and moved on to her next self imposed, joyless holiday labor that compounded her resentment and was just one more step towards the Merry Fucking Christmas Meltdown.

Finally, the tinsel would be just right and Tippy The Tree would be ready to decorate. But, it would be too late that night, and the hanging of ornaments would have to wait until the following evening.

Dad ignored the building mania every year. Instead, he immersed himself in the television, doing it from the comfort of an armchair whose fabric she chose, in a room whose walls were filled with her paintings and collages. Dad may have stopped drinking the year before I was born, but he was still trying to achieve that blackout state of oblivion.

As we went to bed The Tree fell over, unbidden.

 

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While my brothers were at school the next day dear old mom was a busy little elf.

All of my brothers had the good fortune of escaping to school. Not so for me: In 4th, 5th and 6th grade I skipped school for the day so that I could learn the ins and outs of the whole obsessive business of Decorating Madness. Twice she worked it in with a print job – so, you know… Total Win-Win for her.

By the time I was on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman I was never able to escape to school , and I had her neurotic ceremony of season memorized.

There were boxes and boxes of decorations and every item not only had a predetermined place, it had to be taken out in order. Let me repeat that: decorations had to be removed from the box – box by box – in order.

You begin by dusting the tired, dog-eared wreath with the red bow, before hanging it up on the rusty nail between the two front windows. Next, a silk holly sprig would be hung on the front door, and plastic mistletoe would get taped to the doorway between the living room and the hall.

I would be rebuked if I went too fast. Each piece must be reverently unwrapped, dusted, placed just-so, and be glowingly admired before moving to the next object. I was admonished fervently: One must NEVER rush the boxes.

I learned to carefully unwrap the 5 small Santa mugs that were purchased for my brothers by a grandmother I never met, who died before I was born. I would remove the white tissue paper from each, revealing Santa’s smiling face, and take the long pieces of cotton batting from inside the mug, taking care to replace each piece of wrapping and baffling into the box from whence it came. When the mugs were unwrapped, and sitting on the lamp table, I would take a clean tea towel of the softest cotton in hand and gently cradle each cup in the palm of my hand, brushing away any dirt or dust, taking care to never rub the paint. Now, I’d run the cloth inside the mug to make sure no offending particles are left inside a cup that no-one will ever drink from. When I’d cleaned all of my brother’s mugs I’d inspect them to make sure they gleamed. When Santa’s eyes were twinkling I’d place them in an exact semi-circle on the coffee table and look at it from the fireplace, and again from couch. All of the handles wouldn’t match up exactly – and the HAD to be precisely the same way. So, I’d gingerly move the mugs telling myself ‘For the love of god DO NOT LEAVE ANY FINGERPRINTS‘.

Good. It looks good. No – really. It’s good.

As I continued to unpack decorations I would stack the empty boxes neatly against the front door, dead soldiers awaiting their temporary return to the attic. Mechanically, I washed my hands after each box, before my mother could remind me it was filthy.

 

Lamb Christmas Dry Sink (4)

 

The candles of the carolers and the lamppost went on the top shelf of the marble dry sink, between the poor poinsettias that were desiccated from a floor heater that had no thermostat – just an on/off lever that too often got left on. The wax figures had to have the dust rinsed off of them, although they were clearly past their prime. They were of immense sentimental value to my mother, and they partially melted when I was 5 or 6. The heater was left on while we were out all day, and it got so hot inside the house that the candles began to give up the ghost. The carolers took on the shape of Jabba the Hut, and the lamppost leaned hard to starboard, but my mother refused to part with them. She considered them an integral part of the Christmas ambience.

The Christmas cards went in the copper bowl with the handle. The  brass and glass candy jar that was just for show held miniature candy canes that were packed away every year.

The 6 piece wooden angel choir, which was prone to breaking (look closely, and you’ll see an angel’s arm) had an absolute order that began with the conductor – and ended with the tuba.

Finally, we would get to the crèche. The crèche was big doings in my house. The pieces were given to my folks as a Christmas gift from Ciel – an Angel to my family before my big brother Daniel and I stated paying the bills.

The figures from the crèche were hand painted Italian plaster. The whole collection has at least 30 pieces, ranging from camel and sheep herders, to 3 angels and 3 Wise Men, cows, donkeys, camels, sheep, and lambs, and of course Jesus, Mary and Joseph. No pun intended.

Imagine the attendant ritual of unwrapping, cleaning and otherwise revering two-and-a-half-dozen chotchkes, with each piece packed so that the nativity story unfolds as you unpack it. It is so exacting that even the camel driver’s staff is a piece of straw from a particular whisk broom my mother bought for its color. The top-heavy camels had fallen so many times over the years that they all had glued legs, but these Magi would never mold.

Only when plaster Joseph and Mary were in place we were ready to take out peach colored baby Jesus. HE was always the last figure out, and the first one back into the box.  HE was to be taken out as if you are actually handling a piece of God – ignoring the fact that god is wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a dusty box in a leaky, drafty attic for 49 weeks a year. Nevertheless, delivering baby Jesus to his spot every year was a great honor for me, and I took it seriously.

Setting up the whole installation would have taken perhaps 3 hours. I could feel her sadness begin when there was no further fiddling to be done on her shadowbox of Christianity.

Over the years my mother got more and more creative with the crèche in an effort to drag the whole thing out. She moved it from the coffee table to take over the marble dry sink when I was in high school. She found a particleboard manger. She used cotton batting to make snow for the ground and to put on the roof of the manger, although no explanation was given as to why there would be snow in Bethlehem. Her pièce de résistance was the lights. She took a string of fairy lights (no trick bulbs at that point) and made the whole scene glitter. One day when I came home from school I found her cutting slits in the cotton batting to put the small lights through. The lights poked through the batting to create a field of stars, and the cord was hidden by the cotton. The last light on the string poked through the back of the manger to make baby Jesus shine in the otherworldly light of the Star of Bethlehem. She was very proud of her Art Project.

When the crèche was set up everything was almost done. Almost.

The crowning moment came when baby Jesus was taken out of the box and unwrapped. No, Silly. Not crèche baby Jesus, but Baby Jesus baby Jesus.

Baby Jesus baby Jesus was a porcelain fetish given to my family by my maternal Grandmother, Honora Bridgette, on the occasion of my eldest brother’s first Christmas. Baby Jesus was about the size of an actual infant, with blindingly white skin, blond hair, comically large and round blue eyes, blue swaddling clothes that looked like a loin cloth, and a gold metal starburst attached to the back of its skull. Aryan Baby Jesus laid atop a bed of excelsior straw in a crib made out of bent willow. My mother would unwrap Baby Jay-sus last, unwinding the sheer curtain she wrapped him in, and with disturbing care place it on the hearth.

NOW the tree could be finished.

 

 

 

 

The actual ornaments would go up after dinner. We had all done our homework (or pretended we had), the dishes were loaded into the dishwasher, and a crackling fire of newspapers rolled into logs and twisted off with hanger-wire was set in the fireplace.

Each of us would take turns knocking over the tree while putting an ornament on it.

We were allowed to pick any ornament from the box, as long as we picked the one our mother wanted us to pick. We would go to hang it on the tree, one eye mindful of setting the whole thing over and one eye on her to make sure we put it where she wanted us to. “No! It has to be even!” By the time 8 of us went through the agonizing process of putting one ornament on the tree we’d be 10 minutes into it and we were bored silly. After 15 minutes we were fidgeting, and withing 20 minutes we were pushing and arguments broke out.

“Godammit! Is it too much to ask for just one nice evening?” she barked. That brought us around quickly.

An hour later, when the tree was finally trimmed to mom’s satisfaction we were all on edge. The fragile glass ornaments would sometimes break, and Tippy The Tree was threatening bring the whole thing down and raise mom’s ire.

In 1973 Mom decided to invest in unbreakable satin ornaments. At that point Styrofoam balls covered with a fine nylon thread were the height of fashion, and she thought they’d spruce up the tree. As we took them out of the bag the nylon thread began to snag and unwind, leaving the ornaments looking fuzzy. At first she blamed it on us. But, as she took them out of the bag herself it became obvious that they were junk. She tried to trim them in vain, but they’d just keep unraveling, eventually leaving a bald spot worse than a comb-over.

They weren’t a total loss, though. The cats loved them, and would attack the tree to get one, which, unfortunately, would cause it to fall over. It became such a problem my mom refused to put them up the following year, because the cats would fling themselves at the tree, which seemed to be held together by sheer force of will.

After the tree trimming came the carols. We would each pick one, and everyone would all have to sing. The six of us kids would all want Rudolf and Frosty. Mom would insist we all pick a different tune. We would stare at her blankly waiting for her to tell us what we should sing. We would do We Wish You A Merry Christmas and The First Noel. It was with reluctance that my folks finally would sing the 12 Days of Christmas.

If I had to pick a Christmas song that reminds me most of those times it would have been the melancholy song from A Charlie Brown Christmas Christmas Time is Here. Vince Guaraldi’s whole album speaks to me – but that song can bring me back to those days in the first few bars. There’s a tightness to the back of my throat, a sting in my eyes and a deep sigh when I hear it. The beauty of the music is an explanation and a tonic.

When the Tippy The Tree had finally been trimmed and our musical selections exhausted, Mom would take the tape off of a tin of cookies she had put aside for the occasion: Cookies that were too burnt for company, but still edible. We would gobble them up and wash them down with a half gallon of milk.

Every year we’d go to bed wrung out from tension and wired up with sugar, only to wake up to an entirely different tree.

While we were sleeping Margaret carefully removed every ornament, and placed it just where she thought it should be. When we were younger she always denied doing it. When we were teenagers she freely admitted having done so. We weren’t able, you see, to put them where they needed to be. We always had fun putting the tree up, she explained. But, then, it was her job to make it right. You see, don’t you?

She could never accept the gift of a family with whom to decorate a tree. What she wanted was perfection. She needed her illusion so much she could find no pleasure in our expression, only offense.

That’s OK. The Universe paid her back with the tip of its hat. Our many cats knocked Tippy down daily, doing so with running leaps at the ornaments and tinsel.

Although, one cat in particular just loved to climb that poor shaky tree. Cinderella was her name – Cindy we called her. She was a nimble thing, a tiny and gray and white long haired sweetheart who she would skitter three-quarters of the way up Tippy The Tree before it would start wobbling. We’d look over to see the swaying tree and a pair of slightly panicked yellow eyes peeking out from the plastic greenery. “Mew,” we would hear just before the whole thing would come crashing down.

One of my brothers summed up that tree in one word that would ever after reduce us to tears of laughter – even as adults: TIMBER!!!

 

 

My mother’s worst was yet to come – the annual episode that made the season a minefield. It was inevitable – then.

I will recount the story of her yearly break with reality. That deserves to be told.

But not before you know that what she was didn’t define who I am, or how I deal with the season.

I don’t for a moment pretend that I was a faultless mother myself.

What I DID do was allow myself to have limits, and not to punish myself for what I couldn’t accomplish.

I let Eliot put any damned ornament wherever the hell he wanted. I held him up in my arms to let his little hands hang them higher, if his heart so desired. Or, we’d put his favorites RIGHT where his little eyes could see them, and his little hands could touch them.

Later, I blithely smiled as our doofus dog, Buster, swept the tree with his spring-loaded tail, and shed all over it and the floor. Eliot, Richard and I laughed, shook our heads and took 15 minutes one afternoon to move all of the glass ornaments out of the reach of Mr. Dorkus’ slobbery maw the day we found he’d crunched 3 or 4  of them like they were tomatoes.

I wish once – just once – my mother could have known the joy of letting go and simply enjoying the day, be it Christmas, Thanksgiving or the odd Tuesday we trimmed the tree.

How much different would Margaret Lamb have been – would we ALL have been – if she could have let go of the narcissistic notion that everyone was watching her?

How much different would her life have been if she could have loved and laughed just one person once like this?

 

 

 

**Relax, pearl clutchers – it’s water**

 

Milking The Cash Cow

42 years ago today we started production on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and I began playing a character named Heather – a job that changed my life in wonderful and tragic ways.

People are finally accepting that too many child performers are exploited. I hope my story can shed some light into just a few of the many ways we are taken advantage of.

By 1975 I was a cash cow for my folks – I was eleven, and had been in the business since I was three. I held my SAG & AFTRA Union cards from the age of five and seven, respectively. I’d done nearly 60 commercials and a few television feature spots, I’d booked dozens of print jobs and voice over gigs, and was the face of a Mattel toy – not a very popular toy, but, still…

I came to be part of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman at the last possible minute. I went on the interview Wednesday after school, got the call back and job the next evening, and on Friday morning I was sitting dazedly at the first table read. In 43 hours my life turned on a dime.

 

Origninal Cast Call & Photo Shoot

 

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was the brainchild of television legend Norman Lear, his grand statement on how American Consumerism isolates and leaves us unfulfilled, presented as a satire of a soap opera. Sort of. It was his poke in the eye to censors, conventions and Pearl Clutchers.

In a year and a half we shot 325 episodes. MH2 was a 5-day-a-week affair that had a cult following that goes on today. It was the first television show that proved you didn’t need a network to succeed or a laugh-track to be funny. It also introduced multiple positive LGBTQ characters to television at a time when Harvey Milk had not yet been elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It is not overstating to call it ground breaking.

The list of exceptional performers who appeared on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a who’s who of funny and talented people from the 70s: Louise Lasser, Mary Kay Place, Martin Mull, Fred Willard, Dabney Coleman, Doris Roberts, Dody Goodman, Graham Jarvis, Greg Mullavey, Salome Jens, Norm Alden, Reva Rose, Sparky Marcus, Marian Mercer, Gloria Dehaven, Orson Bean, Ed Begley, Jr., Howard Hessman, David Suskind and Gore Vidal, just to name a few. It was just that cool at the height of its popularity.

The reason why even I got the interview to end up in such rarefied air was because my mom had blown up at my agent, Iris Burton, for not getting me any good interviews.

Mind you: I had just landed five commercials in six months – including the fountain-of-residuals Nestle $100,000 Bar spot – but my mother demanded more from my agent.  She wanted better interviews and she demanded readings for movies and television series. There were shouted threats of moving the gusher-of-money that I was to different representation.

A few days after their angry conversation I got the interview for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – and it was nothing less than a grudge interview. My agent had submitted me for the role of a 13-year-old, busty, frizzy haired girl with bad skin. I was 11, and skinny as a rail with no figure at all. I had long braids and glasses and silky smooth skin. Iris had secured an interview for a role I simply didn’t fit, and she was showing my mother not to mess with her or question her judgment.

 

$100,000 Bar

 

When we got there it looked like a cattle call (which is probably why I got the interview), and I was given what was called a ‘side’ to study. A side is a mini scene for audition purposes, usually 2 or 3 pages long. (These days it also refers to the pages of a movie script that will be shot on any given day of a shoot) This side was a piece where the mother (Mary) is trying to talk to the daughter (Heather) about sex, and the daughter manipulates her mother by redirecting the conversation to make it seem as if she’s virginally pure, which relieves the mother to no end.

I read the side to myself, and then read through it with my mom, ignoring her coaching. I sat on the floor in the too-warm hall waiting for my interview, as the actual waiting room was overflowing with girls who looked nothing like me.

There was nothing special at all about this interview, it was one of fifteen or twenty I went on every month. My time was never my own – it was more an all-consuming continuum of school, auditions and work.

When I was finally called in to the interview I turned ‘on’ like a light switch. I knew how to look the casting director in the eye, say hello with a smile and hand my litho forward, with my name at the bottom. I had literally done this 1,000 times before.

 

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The casting director introduced herself as Jane, and the Director as Joan. There were other people to whom I was not introduced, and who watched silently as I read the scene with Joan. Joan nodded when we got to the end of the scene, and asked me to do it again – this time miming the orange juice I was supposed to be getting out of the refrigerator. We did the scene a second time, and I a saw the a ghost of a smile from Joan.

Jane asked if I had any other auditions that afternoon, or if I could stay to watch the two pilot episodes of the show. My mother was retrieved from the waiting room and taken to a writer’s office. She was the first and only parent I saw that afternoon to do the walk of ‘My Kid Is Better Than Yours’ through a sea of angry parents and dejected children. I’m sure she was graceless.

We two sat on a couch in a cold office looking up at a monitor on a large metal rolling stand. The screen flickered to life and the episode began as a nearly sepia-toned video of  kick-knacks on a table came into focus, and with it the swelling of over-dramatic music saturated with high-pitched violins. Out of nowhere a voice screeches, “Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!!” so shrilly and gratingly I physically winced. Then came a gush of overwrought music heavy on the strings, parodying the soundtrack of really bad soap operas.

It is a distinctive open. Oh, so distinctive. I was tormented in High School with people shrieking it at me as I passed them in the hall. I’ve had grown-ups shout it in my face at parties as if I’ve never heard it before. I’ll bet you I’ve heard, “Mary Hartman! Mary Hartman!!” ten thousand times in my life if I’ve heard it once. But, I get ahead of myself.

Torture yourself here with this link, if you must.

Mary Hartman Opening

 

As I watched the pilots I clearly remember not understanding all the jokes. The episodes were strange and my mother didn’t know what to make of it, either. The lack of a laugh track threw her off, and I remember her saying later she didn’t know if she was supposed to be laughing at things or not.

It was late when I read for the folks in the room a third time, and they thanked me as I left. We drove home in the dark, and – exhausted – I didn’t get my homework done again.

The next day after school I was in my bedroom, sitting on my bed unsuccessfully trying to figure out what my algebra book was saying. It had been a bad day. 10-Week Grades had come out and mine weren’t the best from never having time to do my homework. I was struggling mightily in math and had gotten a D, and my mother’s answer was to verbally and physically abuse me. I was  grounded (as if I ever had time to go anywhere), and sent to my room to magically figure out integers and angles I couldn’t decipher before.

Suddenly, my mother burst into the room making the door crash against the wall. She never knocked once the entire time I lived in that house – and I was not allowed to ever fully close my door at that point. Crashing doors usually meant more verbal abuse or hitting, and I cringed, throwing my hands up around my head to protect myself from the expected blows. But instead of being wild eyed mad, she was wild eyed excited. Rather than getting mad at me for protecting my head, she laughed it off and said, “Get dressed! You’re late for a callback! They want to see you back from yesterday, but they forgot to call Iris. Hurry!! We should be there now. Where are your clothes?”

She was no longer hurling invectives, telling me how stupid and worthless I was. She seemed to have forgotten the head blows she had delivered minutes before, and was telling me to get ready.

My clothes from the day before had been stuffed into my laundry bag, and they were wrinkled. Manically, she threw them in the drier to tumble out the wrinkles, and brushed and braided my hair, while having me hold a cold compress to my face to erase the swelling and redness from my sobbing.

“C’mon – you’re not really going to go in there looking like that! Where’s your apple pie smile? Smile like you mean it – smile with your EYES!!” she encouraged/threatened.

She was so focused on getting me to look exactly as I had the day before and rushing out the door, that she didn’t run a comb through her hair or change out of the dirty black slacks and grubby sweater she had on – a point that would torment her to the end. Before I knew it we were out on the road in the middle of rush hour traffic, heading over the hill on the Hollywood Freeway.

We’re trapped in the car with maybe an hour until we got there, and my mom is vibrating she was so excited, drilling me on how to do it her way. It was a complete 180 from half an hour before, and as I rode in the car I was on an emotional roller coaster. I was still feeling shitty from how my mother screamed at me and hit me, plus the bad math grade I had to deal with. Add to that the need to psyche myself up for an important read  that I was very late for, and my mother was trying to force me to do her way. But beyond all that detritus and noise, there was euphoria about getting a callback for a Norman Lear series.

When we finally arrived we were waved on to the lot to park and I was rushed into Norman Lear’s office where he, Louise Lasser, Director Joan Darling, producer Al Burton, and writer Gail Parent were waiting. I made eye contact and gave them my apple pie smile, pretending my head didn’t hurt where my mother had been punching it 90 minutes ago.

I read the same side as I’d read the day before, only this time instead of reading with the Director I was reading it with Louise Lasser. Suddenly the scene was done, and they told me ‘Thank you, you can go’.

Thank you, you can go? But – we’d only read it once. How could it be ‘Thank you, you can go’?!

In less than 5 minutes I was in and out, and I found myself heading toward the elevator in dismayed shock, not understanding how I had failed so completely and astoundingly fast when it felt like a good read. I knew it was going to be a long, ugly ride home.

We were getting on the elevator in silence when Al Burton called my name down the hall. When I heard the smile in his voice I knew I had the job. My heart hit my feet as I stuck my hand out to stop the heavy elevator doors.

Al caught up to us and said they all really liked the way I read the part, and then he asked if I wanted to join the cast. “The job yours if you want it,” he said, smiling and looking me in the eyes like I mattered.

That moment was awesome in the truest definition of the word. I was validated for all the times I wasn’t chosen, and felt special because this time I was the best. It felt like winning. It was a very long time before I had another feeling that good.

I remember gasping and jumping up and down. I remember saying, “Yes!!” and bear hugging Al, and then hugging my mom as she beamed and rocked me back and forth in that elevator.

I remember being happy – happy in a way you can only be when you’re too young to have the filter that adults have, the filter that stops you from showing what you really think.

I don’t think that there was ever a time my mother was more proud of me than that evening in the hallway outside Norman Lear’s office.

 

Mary Hartman Letterhead 2

 

That moment in the elevator outside Norman Lear’s office changed my life completely. One day I was attending Junior High school in the most polluted part of the San Fernando Valley, and the next I was at a long table on Stage 5 at KTLA studio meeting my cast mates and production people.

We were given our scripts for episodes 3, 4 and 5 and did the first, last, and only table read we ever did for the show. There was never time after that initial day for the luxury of such a thing. There was a lady there who took care of timing out the scenes and continuity named Susan Harris who had the patience of Job with me. I was absolutely fascinated by the cigar box full of gum and mints (wow! Tic Tacs!) that she kept with her at all times. I must have looked like a chipmunk with all the gum I shoved in my mouth that morning. She was kind to an antsy, nervous kid.

I was bored stiff by the time we were done reading the 3 scripts. Somehow something as simple as reading words printed on paper turned into a thing. It felt like everyone was making a bigger deal out of it than it needed to be. I know now that everyone was staking out their territory, planting flags and trying to establish a pecking order. It was grueling, and finally it ended.

We all went down to Stage 5 where a luncheon was held for the cast and the production people. It was catered by Chasen’s – a perennial favorite of Norman Lear. There were place cards, and all of us had goody bags on our plates. They were a bunch of kitschy things. My bag had a draw string and was sewn to look like a pineapple. It had a plastic charm, 4 tickets to the children’s show Sheriff John which were 5 years old, a pack of stale gum, some ribbons, an Oscar Meier Wiener whistle and some other junk. Everyone else had similar stuff. Although I didn’t fully grasp it at the time, it seemed to signify the budget we were working under.

I watched as the adults who seemed familiar with each other laugh too loud at inside jokes, and I tried too hard to be part of group. I saw Louise again, and spoke for a while with Greg Mullavey, the man who would play my ever-adolescent father. I met my meddling grandparents, Dody Goodman who was charming and welcoming, and Phil Bruns who was grumpy and had the sour smell of an alcoholic. Debra Lee Scott played my oversexed Aunt and seemed to be the social butterfly. I barely spoke with a quiet Victor Killian, who played my great-grandfather, the infamous Fernwood Flasher. I was delighted by Mary Kay Place and Graham Jarvis who played the neighbors – an unlikely crazy-in-love couple where she was a smoking hot aspiring country-singer and him a balding middle-aged man who would give you the shirt off his back – they were both down to earth people. In fact, they were all as kind as they were capable of being to the stranger they’d just met, a child hired play a smart-assed, angst ridden teen who was wiser than her years and called out the adults for inconsistencies and hypocrisies. I may have been my family’s Cash Cow and had a giant weight on my shoulders, but I was still just a kid they’d just met – and I’m sure they were more focused on how to make this show that was so different than anything else on television work. They knew we only had 10 days to get ready for the grind of memorizing, rehearsing, blocking and filming 125-150 pages of dialogue PER WEEK.

It never occurred to me that Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was going to be anything other than a smash hit.

After lunch we were prodded by a strange doctor so that insurance could be taken out on the production. We all got into our wardrobe, and went to hair and make-up for our cast publicity shots. My wardrobe consisted of the same pants, shirt, belt, bracelet, braids, barrettes and glasses I sported on the audition and callback. (I can actually say I created Heather from the ground up) The photo we took that afternoon is iconic – and a giant blow-up of it sits behind Norman’s desk, a profound tribute given the sheer number of shows he has produced.

 

Cast Picture

 

 

My new-found station in life brought with it a well deserved bonus -a little something something – some frosting on the cake, if you will.

For signing a contract on a daily AFTRA television series my parents saw their way to giving me the princely sum $5 and dinner at Diamond Jim’s.

That’s right. I got a Fin and a Steak for landing a Whale.

Moo

The break down was $1 for a print job, $2 per commercial ($1 extra if they make 2 spots out if it), and $5 (American!) for a series. A series. I didn’t get a regular $2 a week allowance until I was 12-years-old and I was making $750 a week. I’ll do the math for you: that’s me getting just under $9 allowance in today’s dollars on a weekly paycheck of $3,350.

The Cash Cow was getting milked raw.

Double Moo

I remember feeling so grown up and proud the night we went to Diamond Jim’s, a past its prime cocktails-and-red-meat establishment on Hollywood Boulevard. As we were led to a high-backed leather booth, I boasted to the server that I’d gotten a series, and he kindly kept my Shirley Temple filled all night (extra maraschino cherries, please!). I’m sure my parents thought “Great! Now we have to tip.”

I wanted this to be a grand evening, but, the place was stuffy and filled with smoke, and didn’t have any food for children – it was a disappointment after the build up. The truth was that this was a restaurant for my parents, not a place for me. I was just tagging along on their celebratory dinner because I was footing the bill.

My whole family should have gone to Shakey’s or Piece O’ Pizza, followed by a trip to Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor for a Zoo. Instead, my parents isolated me from my brothers and created resentment where none ever needed to exist.

Beyond the Politics of Envy, I ask you – Which was more insulting? A $5 payoff for landing a union gig, (Oh, irony! Thy name is Unionized Child Labor!) or the 3 of us celebrating the impending plunder of my hard-earned money?

Assholes.

That night I felt like I was a successful grown up, and in a way I was. I may have only been 11, but I had a 26 week guaranteed Union contract as a regular on a series. With that contract and my commercial residuals I would earn more than double in 6 months than my father would ever make in a single year in his whole life. He topped out in 1985 at $33,500. You bet your ass I was grown up.

My parents stole almost every penny I ever made as a child. Had it not been for the paper-tiger Coogan Law, I’d have lost everything that I would earn over the next 2 ½ years of working for Norman Lear. This larceny was unchecked by the State. Hell, it was APPROVED of by the court, who left me with the paltry sum of $20,000 when I turned 18. A sum that was further chipped away by the $2,000 delinquent tax bill I received as an Eighteenth birthday present.

How much did they steal? There is no way to estimate the true figure, because they claimed I made different sums to the IRS, the Courts, both Unions and ME.

Also? (And this is VERY important) Commercials were not covered by the Coogan Law. Parents of someone like me, who made between $175-$200K (today’s dollars) between the ages of 3 and 11, weren’t required to ensure that the money went to the person who earned it.

How comforting to know that my parents were equal opportunity thieves who ran a racket and a half, and managed to get away with it.

Funny thing was, they lied to the Unions less than they lied to the IRS. I guess they were more afraid of running afoul of SAG and AFTRA, but not too afraid to have me do an appalling number of non-Union jobs that were never declared to anyone but my mother’s secret bank account and my father’s bookie.

Let’s look at some of the numbers, and I’ll run the abacus. Have some Pepto Bismol and a barf bag ready.

Here’s what my parents told the IRS I’d made by age 11:

 

IRS Earnings to 1975

 

That’s $28,324 they claimed I’d earned by the age of 11.

Indexed, I’d earned $159,966.31 in today’s dollars by 1975. (I used handy this inflation calculator provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

By 7th grade, and before getting booked on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, I’d made more than a sixth-of-a-million dollars in cold hard cash. According to the IRS.

Let that sink in for a moment. $160K Cash. Not invested, nor saved and earning interest.

This is a snapshot of my SAG earnings up to 1975 – note how it matches to the dollar with my IRS earnings report.

 

SAG Earnings to 1975

 

Looks good. A $2.92 discrepancy over eight years is absolutely acceptable.

But, wait! What’s this? Looks Like Ma and Pa Lamb were lying about my earnings to the IRS from my very first job. They claimed I’d done no work until 1968 – but here are my first ads from 1967, and my photo and credits from 1968 listing 2 big shoots here I don’t have the proofs for. I wonder where that money went?

 

 

 

They never claimed to the IRS any of of the multiple calendars, print ads or voice-over work I did before I had to join Screen Actors Guild in 1968, when I made $156 on my first union commercial – a long lost spot for Alpha Beta Supermarkets.

My parents pretended I did no work and earned not one dollar in 1969, despite the continuing print work, and me having been the face of Ford’s Tot Guard (their first child safety seat) and doing a non-union Gain Detergent commercial that played so much during the daily soaps I was recognized for the first time while in the grocery store.

Under-declaring my earnings? It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for them.

Looky there – it did. Because, in 1970, when I had to join the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists at the age of six, they were so far on the take they never reported any of my AFTRA earning to the IRS through 1975:

 

AFTRA Earnings to 1975

 

That’s $2,368 worth of work they didn’t declare to the IRS – that they claimed and paid dues on with AFTRA – is worth 11,404.74 in today’s cash.

I will never know how much I really earned by the time I’d gotten on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. A conservative guess would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 250,000 of today’s dollars. That was a metric shitload of cash and my parents did their very best to make it disappear.

By the time I started MH2 in November of 1975 my folks were in full swing, and had theft down to a science. Penn and Teller couldn’t make greenbacks disappear as well as Herb and Margaret could.

Everybody got a different story.

 

 

In 1976 my parents declared to the IRS that I made $15,300. Asking the IRS to believe I’d made less than $300 per week as a main cast member on a screaming hot television show was ballsy – and they were up to the challenge.

In 1976 I spent the full year employed under an AFTRA contract at a $750 weekly guarantee, and there were summer residuals and voice over promos for the show. The parents declared to this union I’d made $22, 775.

I was getting SAG residuals for the 5 commercials I’d shot the year before – including the aforementioned $100,00 Bar (Link) spot that was gushering $1,500 dollars a month, as Nestle wrapped Type-2 Diabetes in a pull of melted caramel and a catchy jingle a dozen times an afternoon on every cartoon show. My parents told Screen Actors Guild I made $32,442.36.

The mind boggling shell game went on until the show ended in 1978.

I made a few useful charts to outline the thievery. ‘Index’ indicates what that money would be worth in 2017 dollars. Remember, this is earned income – not what it could have been had it been invested with a reputable money manager.

 

Table 1 68-75

 

You have to admit they had game when it came to stealing money from innocent children. By the time the real money was rolling in they had more hiding places than a pack-rat.

Table 2 76-79 (2)

We were living large in the poor part of the San Fernando Valley in a house built in 1947 inherited from my father’s maiden Aunts, rolling The 101 in my mom’s 1974 Chevy Monza. Step back, bitches!

I can only imagine what that fortune would have been had they done the right thing – but that wasn’t an issue and what ever figures you see here are fake. There are no records for the dozens and dozens of non-union, off-the-books jobs that disappeared into my mother’s pocket  without my father ever seeing a penny he could piss away at the poker table.

 

Table 3 Totals

 

By rights I should have been a wealthy young woman when I tuned 18. It seems that for a lifetime of work and foregoing my childhood I should have had more to show for it than $1,000 a year.

Perhaps I’d have blown it had I gotten all of my money, but I doubt it very much. I never even tried cocaine, even as it sucked in so many of my contemporaries I was horrified. I SAW what coke did for loved-ones, co-stars, and roommates. If ANYONE says they’ve EVER seen me do a line of coke they’re lying, and I’ll take a polygraph test to prove it.

Among other things, that remaining $18,000 from my childhood paid for tuition for 3 years of college. Although I did have a full-time job at The Palace in Hollywood to pay rent. Yes – I moved out at 18 – what did you expect?

My Coogan account – such as it was – also allowed me to move to Colorado in 1984, at the ripe old age of 20. For so many reasons I needed to leave. I took $1,000 (just under $2,400 today), and set out towards a place with mountains and skiing where my parents couldn’t visit me unless they called first. I brought the idea of moving up to them, but I distinctly remember my mother losing her shit over me ‘moving to a jerkwater town with no future.’ God she was supportive. What did I expect? I was offered a full ride for 2 years at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado and she acted like I wanted to join a cannibal cult.

Picture this – It’s 7 am on the first Saturday in June, 1984. *Knock Knock* “Mom, Dad – don’t get out of bed. I’m moving to Colorado. No – really. Don’t get out of bed. My car is packed and I’m leaving. I’ll call when I get there.” I was out the door like my ass was on fire. Within 2 weeks of leaving LA I had a job that covered all my bills – I was teaching acting in Denver.

I also used the money to buy my first Subaru – a Brat that I adored and defined the new person I’d become when I left Los Angeles.

Finally, I used the remainder to put a down payment on my first home.

I remember my mother wistfully opining in the waning years of her life, as she lived like the Merry Widow and denied the single request for help I’d made as an adult at Christmas in 1999, “It’s a shame you wasted your money from Mary Hartman.”

There are times when I think back to that night at Diamond Jim’s… That night, THAT dinner meant something really special to my parents. It was the validation of all of their hard work at marketing their children and what they’d been working toward: One of their kids was good enough to land a national television series.

It meant a spigot of money like nothing they’d ever seen had just turned on. The family income tripled in one fortuitous afternoon. What’s not to celebrate? They were kicking up their heels.

At least that night I didn’t know my parents were stealing from me, and I thought the celebration was for *my* accomplishment. That was one small mercy the universe extended to me.

 

 

On November 18th, 1975, Joan Darling handed us all a small blue box before rehearsal. From the gasps of the folks around me I knew it was something special. I untied the thick white ribbon. Greedily I opened the tiny box to find a felt bag emblazoned ‘Tiffany & Co.’ Inside was a key fob with a charm that said ‘MH, MH’ on the front and ’11-18-75′ on the back, the date when we all set to work to make the best goddamn television show in the history of ever.

My parents stole an unconscionable seven-figures from me without the bat of an eye – and stole my childhood as well, and there is no way to forgive that. None. People keep cheering on children in show business with no oversight.

I will always be grateful that I was so terrifically lucky that my bondage was in the company of greats – I know not every child actor gets that. I learned comedy at their feet. I know that the IBM Selectric typewriter Norman Lear made sure arrived in my schoolroom has meant all the difference in the world to me.

In the end, all I was paid for 15 years of hard labor amounted to a Venti Latte a day – no extra pulls.