Fountain of Money

43 years ago today we started production on the groundbreaking television show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I played Heather, Mary’s angsty tween-aged daughter – a role that forever changed my life in many wonderful and tragic ways.

I was incredibly fortunate to be on a cult hit with whip-smart, hilarious actors who expected me to work as hard as they did. I was beyond lucky to have an extraordinary tutor who actually educated me and broadened my intellectual horizons, while protecting me to the best of her abilities. There were many adults in the crew who allowed me moments of pure childhood fun on a super-adult show whose mission was to violate the entire Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters.

Even with all of these well-meaning adults looking out for me, my parents exploited me, as is the case with SO MANY child performers.

 

 

Imaginings 2

I was the face of ‘Lively Lines’ – it was part of Mattel’s first art-educational toy line, called Imaginings.

 

In 1975 I was an 11-year-old Fountain of Money, and my parents had been stealing my paychecks since I was 3. I had done so much work that I was able to get my Screen Actor’s Guild union card when I was 5, and my AFTRA card at age 7. In 8 years I’d done nearly 60 commercials and a few television feature spots. I’d booked dozens of print jobs and voice over gigs, I was on a candy bar wrapper, and I 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 before production got underway. I went on the interview Wednesday November 5th after school. I got the call back and was offered the job on the evening of Thursday the 6th. On the morning of Friday the 7th I was sitting dazedly at the first table read on the lot at KTLA, on Sunset Blvd.

In 43 hours my life had turned on a dime.

 

Origninal Cast Call & Photo Shoot

Our first Call Sheet

 

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was the brainchild of television legend Norman Lear. Presented as a soap opera, MH2 was Lear’s grand statement on American Consumerism, and how marketing isolates us by targeting our fear of inadequacy. It was his poke in the eye to conventions, censors, and Pearl Clutchers.

In 2 seasons we shot 325 episodes of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. It was a half-hour show that aired 5 days a week, and had a cult following that goes on to this day. When Louise Lasser left the show left we continued on for one more season, filming another 130 episodes under the name Forever Fernwood – the name of the fictional town where the series took place. In total we filmed 455 episodes in 28 months.

MH2 was the first television show that proved you didn’t need a network to succeed or a laugh-track to be funny. It challenged sexism, racism and prevailing morals. 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 MH2 and unprecedented and revolutionary television show.

The list of exceptional performers who appeared on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Forever Fernwood is a who’s who of funny and talented people from the 1970s: Louise Lasser, Mary Kay Place, Martin Mull, Fred Willard, Dabney Coleman, Doris Roberts, Dody Goodman, Graham Jarvis, Greg Mullavey, Salome Jens, Ed Begley, Jr., Howard Hessman, Shelly Fabres, Shelley Berman, Richard Hatch, Tab Hunter, Sparky Marcus, Marian Mercer, Gloria Dehaven, Orson Bean, David Suskind, Gore Vidal – just to name a few. It was just that cool at the height of its popularity that a cameo or a brief story arc was sought after by the biggest names in the business.

At one point Steven Ford, President Gerald Ford’s son, wanted to just come to visit Stage 5 to watch us film. Everyone was atwitter about such an important visit, until we found out not enough of the cast or crew could pass an FBI background check to allow Ford to visit the set for even one day.

 

Mary Hartman 1

 

The only reason I ended up in such rarefied air on the set of MH2 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 a Nestle’s $100,00 Bar spot that was a gusher of residuals (and would be for the next 6 years). But my mother demanded more from my agent.  She wanted better interviews and she demanded more readings for movies and television series. There were shouted threats of moving the fountain-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 who was overweight and busty, a frizzy haired girl with bad skin. I was 11, 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 was simply unsuited for as a way to show my mother not to question her judgment.

Two grown women were using pre-pubescent me as the badminton birdie of their avarice and rage.

 

$100,000 Bar

 

The interview for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was not-quite a Cattle Call, but there were dozens of young women ahead of me – not a one of whom looked like me. I was given a ‘side’ to study after I signed in, and glanced at it. (A side is a mini-scene for audition purposes, usually 2 or 3 pages long. These days it can also refer to the pages of a movie script that will be shot on any given day.) This side was a piece where the mother (Mary) is trying to talk to an unwilling daughter (Heather) about sex, and the daughter manipulates her mother by redirecting the conversation to make it seem like she doesn’t even understand what sex is, which relieves the clueless mother to no end.

I completely understood the piece the first time I looked at it. I got the joke.

Unfortunately there was a long wait, and my mother was determined to coach me death, as she did with every audition. She would drill me again and again on how I should say my lines and move my hands, and I every time I went through that door to an audition I ignored all of her terrible advice and did it my way.

There was nothing special at all about this interview, it was just another long afternoon with my mother, and I had no idea how it was going to change my life. It was simply one more of the fifteen or twenty auditions I went on every month. My time was never my own – it was more an all-consuming continuum of school, cars, auditions and work.

When I was finally called in to the interview, after at least an hour’s wait, I turned ‘on’ like a light switch. I was a pro. I knew how to look the casting director in the eye as I was crossing the room and saying hello with a smile and a slight nod, and to keep eye contact as I handed my litho forward, right-side-up 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. Hearing that I was free the rest of the afternoon, Jane sent me to get my mother from the waiting room. Mary Margaret Lamb took a long moment to fold her knitting project and stow it in her bag before doing a positively graceless ‘My Kid Is Better Than Yours’ sashay through a sea of angry parents and dejected children.

We were led to a cold office, and we sat on a couch 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 that could cut glass 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 if I’ve heard it once.

Torture yourself, if you’ve never heard it.

 

Mary Hartman Opening

 

 

As I watched the pilots I clearly remember thinking, “This is weird.” 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 – especially the inappropriate subjects.

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

The next day after school I was crying 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 my algebra marks were poor 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 my room without knocking, making the door crash against the wall. Privacy didn’t exist in my home as a child – and at that point I was not allowed to even fully close my door, lest my mother not be able to keep an eye on me at all times – and crashing doors usually meant more verbal abuse or hitting. I cringed, throwing my hands up around my head to protect myself from the expected blows. Instead of being wild eyed mad, she was wild eyed excited. She didn’t get angry at me for protecting my head like she usually did, and ignoring my cowering she said manically, “Get dressed! You’re late for a callback! They want to see you back from yesterday, but they forgot to call Iris to set it up. Hurry!! We should have been there at 5 pm. Where are your clothes?”

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

My clothes from the interview the day before had been stuffed into the red laundry bag my mother had crocheted, and they were wrinkled. Frantically she snatched them from my hands and threw them in the drier to tumble out the wrinkles. She brushed and braided my hair, while having me hold a cold washcloth 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!” she admonished, catching my eye in the giant round mirror above her sink, “Where’s your apple pie smile? Smile like you mean it – smile with your EYES!!” she encouraged/threatened me, as she pulled my braid too tight.

She was so focused on getting me to look exactly as I had the day before that she didn’t run a comb through her own hair, and she rushed out the door without changing out of her dirty black slacks and grubby sweater. For a woman so defined by façades my mother’s slovenly appearance that evening when she first met Norman Lear and Louise Lasser would torment her for the rest of her days.

Before I knew it we were out in the middle of rush hour traffic, heading over the hill on the Hollywood Freeway. It would take at least an hour to get there, and I was trapped in the car with a woman who was vibrating from excitement, drilling me over and over on how to do the scene her way.

Such was the Emotional Roller Coaster of my youth: Half an hour before she was screaming at me and hitting me about a bad math grade that might keep me from renewing the all-important California Work Permit, and now I was running lines her way and being told not to blow it because this could be The Big Break.

But beyond all that detritus and noise, there was euphoria about getting a callback for a Norman Lear series.

 

 

heatherhartman09

 

 

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. I heard the smile in his voice and 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.

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 be wary and you don’t have the adult filter that stops you from showing what you really feel. In that moment I was validated for all the times I wasn’t chosen, and I felt special because this time I was the best. I was going to be on a Norman Lear TV show – and it felt like winning.

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

 

Mary Hartman Letterhead 2

 

Being cast on MH2 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 sitting at a long table in a conference room at KTLA, 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.

We started in on the table read, and I was bored stiff by the time we were done reading the 3 scripts several hours later. It was an excruciatingly long exercise, and somehow something as simple as reading words printed on paper turned into a thing. Everyone was making a WAY bigger deal out of it than they needed to, and many hairs were split. I know now that everyone was staking out their territory, and planting flags for their characters, but it was painfully long and ego driven. That table read became the template for the rehearsal and taping of nearly every episode of the show.

After the water-torture of the table read 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 of Beverly Hills, a perennial favorite of Norman Lear. There were place cards, and I was seated up at one of the front tables next to Debralee Scott and Dody Goodman, while my mother was seated far in the back where I (thankfully) could not see her.

All of us had individual goody bags which were filled with 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 cancelled children’s show Sheriff John, 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.

The adults all seemed to know each other, and as they laughed too loud at inside jokes 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. Dody was charming and welcoming, and she and Phil Bruns (a grumpy man who had the sour smell of an alcoholic) played my meddling grandparents. Debra Lee, who played my oversexed Aunt Cathy, was a social butterfly who swore like a sailor. I spoke very little that day with the Victor Killian, a quiet man cast as my great-grandfather, who I would come to know and love as the grandfather I never had. Mary Kay Place and Graham Jarvis were delightful, down-to-earth people who played the neighbors: an unlikely crazy-in-love couple, where she was a smoking hot aspiring country-singer and he was a balding middle-aged man who would give you the shirt off his back.

After lunch we were prodded by a strange doctor so that insurance could be taken out on the production. As each of our physicals were completed we got into our wardrobe, and headed off to hair and make-up. 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.

We gathered for the cast publicity shot in the Shumway kitchen set, and as each new person arrived in character there was laughter and camaraderie. At that point in the afternoon we were giddy from it all and the slightest thing would set us off in gales of laughter.

The photo we took that afternoon is iconic, and a giant blow-up of it sits behind Norman’s desk, a profound tribute to our show, given the sheer number of them Lear has produced.

That afternoon all of the adults were as kind as they were capable of being to the young stranger they’d just met who had been hired to play a smart-assed, cynical tween. I may have been carrying the weight of being my family’s Fountain of Cash, but my cast and crew mates couldn’t see that. I was a child they’d just met, and they were more focused on how to make this show work when it was so different than anything else on television. They knew we only had 10 days to get mentally ready for the start of production, and the grind of memorizing, rehearsing, blocking and filming 125-150 pages of dialogue PER WEEK.

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

 

Cast Picture

 

My new-found station in life brought with it a well deserved bonus. Some frosting on the cake. A little something something for signing a contract on a daily AFTRA television series.

As an atta-girl for being cast on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman my parents saw their way to granting me a one-time bonus of the princely sum of $5 and dinner at Diamond Jim’s.

My break down was: $1 for a print job, $2 per commercial plus $1 extra if they make 2 spots out if it, and $5 (American!) for a series.

$5 for a series!

I didn’t get a regular allowance until I was 12-years-old, and even then it was only $2 on a $750 weekly paycheck. I’ll do the math for you: In 2018 dollars that’s me getting $9 a week allowance for a paycheck of $3,350.

I was truly a Bellagio Fountain of Cash.

 

Diamond Jims 2

 

I remember feeling so grown up the night we went to Diamond Jim’s, a past its prime cocktails-and-red-meat establishment on Hollywood Boulevard. Proud of my accomplishment, I boasted to the server as he led us to a high backed red leather booth that I’d ‘gotten’ a television series. He kept the celebration going with an endless stream of Shirley Temple’s (extra maraschino cherries, please!), while I’m sure my parents thought “Great! Now we have to tip appropriately.”

I imagined this would be a grand evening, like a supper club out of a 1940s musical. But the place was filled with smoke, there was no floor show, and they didn’t have any food for children. Diamond Jim’s was a stuffy disappointment after all the build up. My whole family should have gone to Shakey’s Pizza, followed by a trip to Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor for a Zoo. Instead, my parents isolated me from all of my brothers and created resentment where none ever needed to exist.

The truth is that this was a restaurant for my parents, and I was just tagging along on their celebratory dinner because I was footing the bill.

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.

 

heatherhartman10

 

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 what my father would make in the single highest earning year in his whole life – and that wouldn’t happen for another decade, when he topped out 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. An amount that was further chipped away by the $2,000 delinquent tax bill my parents hadn’t bothered to deal with that I received as an Eighteenth birthday present.

There is no way to estimate the true figure of how much money my parents stole from me because they claimed I made different amounts to the IRS, the Courts, SAG, AFTRA, and to me.

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.

Something that abetted their theft was that commercials were not covered by the Coogan Law at that time. So the parents of someone like me, who made a ton of money, weren’t required to do anything with the money but spend it on whatever they wanted.

My parents were more inclined to lie to the IRS than they were to lie to the Unions. They were more afraid of running afoul of SAG and AFTRA than they were of an audit, 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.

My parents were bold about their lies to the IRS. In fact they lied about my earnings to the IRS from my very first job. 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. It was only then they finally, reluctantly, filed taxes for me.

But here is my first ad from 1967:

 

 

Aero Jet 1

My first job, 1967

 

 

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) during its test run, 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 when I was 5 years old.

They continued to lie to the IRS, and were so far on the take they never reported my first 5 years of AFTRA earnings.

I will never know how much I really earned by the time I’d gotten on to Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. A conservative guess would be somewhere in the neighborhood of 250,000 of today’s dollars, if they had simply put it in a savings account and given it to me at age 18.

 

Mary Hartman Shirt

 

 

By 1976 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.

In 1976 I spent the full year employed under an AFTRA contract at a $750 weekly guarantee, there were summer residuals, as well as voice over promos for the show, which netted me upwards of $50,000. My parents declared to AFTRA I’d made $22,775.

My folks told Screen Actors Guild I’d made $32,500 in 1976. I was getting residuals for the 5 commercials I’d shot in 1975, with the Nestle’s $100,000 Bar spot itself bringing in a tidy $22,000.

Yet, it was declared to the IRS that in 1976 the grand total of my earnings was only $15,300.

They’d declared more than $55,000 in earnings to the Unions on who-knows-what actual earnings, and somehow I wasn’t audited for my parents asking the IRS to believe I’d made less than $300 per week as a main cast member on a screaming hot television show.

This mind boggling shell game continued until the show ended in 1978.

Using my tax returns I can see that my parents admitted to stealing $750,000 from me. Remember, this what they admitted stealing, and is only the earned income that I would have received at age 18. I would have had so much more had it been invested with a reputable money manager starting with my first job at age 3, in 1967.

What about the money my folks stole over and above what they declared to the IRS? Your guess is as good as mine. They consistently under-reported my income by 50%, sometimes by 100%. It would be reasonable to say I earned 2 to 4 times the amount they declared for me. Somewhere between $1.5M and $3M 2018 dollars, and not a dollar of it invested.

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. I can only imagine what my fortune would have been had they done the right thing.

All that was left of my meager My Coogan account allowed me to pay for 3 years of college tuition, while I worked to pay rent on my apartment. It also allowed me to move to Colorado in 1984 at the ripe old age of 20, and set out towards a place with mountains and skiing, far away from my parents.

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 leaving for Colorado. No – really. Don’t get out of bed. My car is packed and I’m on my way. Buh-bye.” I was out the door like my ass was on fire.

Happiness was Los Angeles in my rear view mirror.

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 from my Coogan Account to buy my first Subaru – a Brat that I adored and that defined the new Claudia 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.

 

heatherhartman14

 

My parents stole an unconscionable amount of money from me without batting an eye – and stole my childhood as well, and there is no way to forgive that. None. The healthiest thing a child performer who has been cheated can do is come to terms with it through therapy, or it will eat you up.

Every generation has child performers whose parents treat them like nothing more than a Fountain of Money. No matter what the law intends, every generation of greedy Stage Parents will find a way to steal from their children by exploiting loopholes and the lack of laws. My heart goes out to current child performers whose every move is being documented for Youtube fame, in hopes they will become the next Fountain of Cash, and their actual childhood is being monetized with absolutely NO oversight.

There are times when I think back to that night at Diamond Jim’s. That dinner really 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 cash. like nothing they’d ever seen had just been turned on. As far as they were concerned their income had nearly quadrupled in one fortuitous afternoon. What was not to celebrate? They were positively 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.

 

 

November 18th, 1975, Joan Darling handed us all a small blue box before rehearsal. The gasps from the folks around me let me know it was something special. I untied the thick white ribbon, and greedily 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.

I will be forever grateful that I was part of that amazing company of actors, and that I had the privilege of learning comedy from them, and performing with them. Fortune was on my side when I think of the kind members of the crew like Susan who shared her gum, and Billy and Rick who taught me to operate a boom, and Harold who used to hide treats in the prop room for me to find.

I am thankful my teacher Joan indulged my love of reading, and made me actually learn and think about my future, and she took me to museums and to Star Wars and decided that watching Bob Hope rehearse with Donny and Marie one afternoon was a fine education.

Most of all I know that the time I was on Mary Hartman was where I began to write, and that writing was instrumental in every job in my adult life. The IBM Selectric typewriter Norman Lear had delivered to my schoolroom was a magical beast that allowed me to put my thoughts down faster than I could write by hand, and it opened up a whole new world for me. The classes I was able to take with writer Oliver Hayley when I was 16 convinced me that I could tell a story.

It has been a long and interesting path since then, and all of these people and their kindness helped me lay a foundation to build a path to get out and away from my toxic parents. I remember selling my first joke, opening the mic on my first full-time Talk Radio show, publishing my first article, anchoring my first newscast, and winning my First Mark Twain Award for excellence in news.

It’s wonderful to think that the path away from the biggest abusers in my life began 43 years ago with the people who would forever change how I laughed and cried and looked at life.

Love is marvelous that way.

 

 

 

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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

Endless Thoughts and Prayers

Who can honestly say they’re surprised that America had yet another mass shooting? It’s simply a way of life here to log on to social media and find out about the latest massacre, numbly check to see if it is near anyone we love, and watch the body count and the number of injured rise as the reports come in.

In a twisted way I’m getting used to the massacres from domestic terrorists, but what infuriates me now is how the GOP incessantly invokes Thoughts and Prayers after each fresh dose of hell.

Praying is a highly personal thing between you and your God, and is not a replacement for doing your job – whomever you are. Hiding behind God while you refuse to do your duty is an affront to truly spiritual people who do not use their religion as a prop.

For most people Thoughts and Prayers is shorthand for, “I’m powerless to stop this from happening, and I’m asking the Omnipotent Being of my choice to show mercy on this untenable situation.”

But Congress isn’t powerless to change the situation, and they CAN change the law to require the stricter background checks that 90% of Americans are demanding. They could make gun owners responsible for not securing their guns, or require liability insurance. But, they simply refuse to take any action because there’s too much money gushing in from the NRA.

So, when the GOP offers Thoughts and Prayers it’s just weasel-speak for: “It’s out of my hands because I’m going to keep taking contributions soaked in the life-blood of kindergartners and concert goers – but I will ask my God to keep you in His thoughts.”

For the GOP to proudly proclaim that they’ve given a Thought – they’re THINKING  – about something the rest of us can’t get out of our heads, is *stunningly* self-absorbed.

But, I can’t even wrap my brain around the unmitigated NERVE it takes for the GOP to demand God do the heavy lifting when they refuse to vote on bills that have been introduced. How DARE they pretend God has ANYTHING to do with their addiction to Russian blood money laundered through the NRA!

The GOP’s Thoughts and Prayers about domestic terrorists who mow down classmates, co-workers, and worshipers like an edger takes out errant weeds is an infuriating waste of time. Republicans cynically conflate praying with actually doing something, and pretend they aren’t blocking legislation that would prevent future massacres.

Logical people can see that these massacres aren’t happening in other developed nations on the scale that they are here. Look at Canada, Australia or the UK: We speak the same language, have roughly the same religious demographics, the same number of single parents, and marriage equality. We share television content, video games and music. Yet our murder-by-gun rate is 30 times higher than the UK, and our overall murder rate is higher than all three other nations combined. What’s different? The ease with which one can obtain a gun, and the number of weapons of war available to the general public.

The USA is only 4.28% of the world’s total population, but owns 30% of all the guns that exist. There are 1.20 guns for every man, woman and child in the good old US of A. At the same time we hold nearly 1 in 3 guns on the planet, only 1 in 5 Americans owns one. In fact, gun ownership is concentrated into hands of so few people that only 3% of Americans own half the guns in the country

Let me repeat that: 3% of Americans own half of the guns here.

9.8 million Americans own 130 million firearms; which means .001% of the 7.5 billion people on this planet own 15% of its private firearms.

If that number seems out of whack, take this into consideration: Only 1% of Americans belong to the NRA. The murderous gun policies the GOP backs are nothing more than a ruse to fill their coffers with dark Russian cash, while pretending a dismissible fraction of our population should have their fetish codified into our laws.

 

Homice Rate USA UK AUS CAN

 

So, really, when ANY politician (Democrats, too) takes blood money from the NRA and offers the mealy-mouthed phrase “Thoughts and Prayers” about the inevitable NEXT GODDAM SCHOOL SHOOTING, what they’re really saying is, “There’s nothing I will do. Ever.”

Frankly, I’m done debating the indisputable facts that a vast majority of Americans want tighter background checks, or that we have a glut of guns here, or that school shootings don’t happen in other countries like they do here.

I’m tired of people re-framing the need to reduce our gun violence with the notion we must stop all other forms of murder or violence before we tackle the dumpster fire of our gun laws.

I’m sick of answering disingenuous arguments with, “Yes, certainly, vehicles can be used for mass murder. They are also regulated, and insured, and their primary function is for transportation, not for killing people.”

I have precious little patience for those who unironically screech about their ‘god given right’ to the 2nd Amendment, while never comprehending the word amendment literally means ‘change’, and the word god is not in the Bill of Rights. There’s a reason ‘Well Regulated’ comes before ‘Shall Not Be Infringed’, and it’s not that difficult a concept to grasp that Americans are solidly behind weapon’s of war being ‘Well Regulated’ by a margin of 9-1.

I’m SURE as hell over those people stupid enough to argue for anarchy with, “Why pass laws when criminals won’t follow them?” They seem unable to grok that since the police manage to take so many of the white male mass murderers into custody, it’s super helpful to be able to prosecute them, and make them pay for their crimes.

In short: I’m over the excuses for why our schools are war zones, and we have more than one mass shooting a day in America.

Thoughts and Prayers are all well and good as a means to spiritual fulfillment, but they do nothing to change the very real gun crisis in this country. The only way we can break the endless cycle of Republican Thoughts and Prayers will be when We The People force change through activism and elections, and not by demanding God cure the illness we created ourselves.

Screw Thoughts and Prayers – You need to VOTE, dammit.

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.

Earthquake Imaginings

Feb 9, 1971 – 6:00 am and 55 seconds. The ground begins to move.

I was 7-years-old, and fast asleep in my bed, having stayed up past my bed time watching The Wizard of Oz the night before. I awoke to the house moving violently, while the earth was making a terrible groaning noise.

At first I was convinced that – like Dorothy – my home was flying through the sky. I quickly looked out the window to see if things were going by my window, as they had in the movie, but there were no screen doors, or flying rowboats, or angry old women riding a bicycles who turned into the Wicked Witch.

A moment later I could hear my father yelling from the other end of the house, “Earthquake!!”

In the distance I heard a giant explosion – which unbeknownst to me was the $110 Million electrical switching station going up – and then the air raid sirens began to wail overhead, the eerie keening which I had been told time and again meant a nuclear attack.

I wondered: Was an earthquake part of the Russian’s attack? During all the air raid drills in elementary school no-one ever thought to mention California was prone to earthquakes.

I had no idea what to do. I was paralyzed in fear.

So, I simply sat in bed watching things fall off of a 6 foot tall, heavy oak shelf on wheels that my parents called a Chifforobe. Games flew this way and that off the shelves, and books launched across the room – one hitting my nose. My bird cage fell onto my dresser and I heard the sound of shattering ceramic, as my precious collection of figurines from Disneyland took a direct hit.

The shaking got more violent, things were breaking all over the house with terrifying crashes, and the earth began to make a whistling noise to go along with the groaning.

Muffled by sound of the grinding earth and crashing glass I could barely hear my father yelling, “Get under the door!!” and I wondered if my father was stuck under a door and this was making the whole house shake.

There was a tremendous crash in the kitchen, and now things were breaking all over the house. There was more yelling – but I couldn’t tell who it was.

I sat up in bed, positively frozen in terror, watching enormous blue and white Chifforobe buck from side to side, scooting across the room on its wheels, and the water in the goldfish bowl sloshed over the lip. Had my bed and the Chiffarobe been aligned north/south, and not east/west, the giant shelving would have doubtless fallen and crushed me. Instead, I was transfixed as it jumped across the floor.

And then the shaking stopped, just like that.

My father was suddenly in my room yelling at me to get outside – and put on shoes. “Is it war?!” I shouted. “It’s an earthquake! Get out!!” he answered.

I slid my feet into the slippers by my bed, and dashed out the front door, putting on my robe under the oak tree in the front yard, in the gray, predawn light. My brothers were already outside, as they’d been folding papers for their early morning delivery routes when the quake hit.

The air raid sirens continued to wail, and I noticed water running down the street with red hyacinths floating on top. I found out later it was from the neighbor’s pool.

Then the air raid sirens stopped just as suddenly as the earthquake did, and as their echos died away I could hear the sounds of fire truck and police car sirens coming to life all over the Valley. In moments there more emergency sirens screaming than I had ever heard at once.

The whole neighborhood was in the street – everyone nervously talking and agreeing it was about the most frightening thing ANY of us had ever dealt with. We shivered in the damp, none of us quite knowing what to do, when the earth began to heave again.

The panic set in people’s eyes right away – a few threw their arms out to steady themselves, while some yelled and others screamed.

The aftershock ended just as suddenly as the quake did, and there was some uneasy laughter mixed in with the tears and prayers.

The aftershocks were a form of torture: You knew they were coming, but not when. And even though they weren’t as strong as the original quake they were only degrees of magnitude smaller. In short: It didn’t FEEL like a smaller quake, and there were hundreds that happened that day and for weeks to follow.

The neighbors who’d barely spoken to one another for years began to earnestly compare notes and trade stories about what they were doing when the quake hit. A portable transistor radio appeared and we gathered around to listen to KGIL, and Sweet Dick Wittington, who was on the air when it hit. Reports were that the damage was severe in the San Fernando Valley. As the sun rose, the gathered parents collectively agreed that school was not going to happen that day.

When it seemed the worst of the shaking was over, people began to cautiously reenter their homes to asses the damage.

The inside of our house was a hot mess. The living room looked as if someone had swept my mother’s precious nick-knacks off of the shelves where they had been carefully placed. A white ceramic bust of a nearly featureless woman she’d haggled for at the Simi Swap Meet lay in pieces, halfway across the room from where it had been perched on atop a two-tiered coffee table.

The kitchen counters and floor were strewn with broken dishes and crockery, topped with shattered glasses and mugs.  But, the worst of it was an unsecured 8-foot-tall metal pantry shelf unit that had fallen over on to the stove, denting it mightily, and creating an unholy mess. Besides ruining hundreds of dollars in dry goods, a giant bottle of cooking oil broke, along with a 3-pound jar of peanut butter and a 2 pound jar of honey, which then mixed with my mother’s entire spice collection, 5 pounds each of flour and sugar and coated the burners on the gas stove, which never worked right ever after.

Somehow we still had electricity and running water. We turned on the television to find out the extent of the damage. A terrified male news anchor provided us with the grim information, in between panic attacks every time an aftershock hit.

It took only 12 seconds, but that was all the time the Sylmar Quake needed to kill 64 people, leave more than 2,500 hurt, and cause more than half-a-billion dollars in damage. The 6.6 quake left thousands of homes in danger of being washed away should the cracking Van Norman dam not hold. The Veteran’s Administration Hospital was a complete loss, and the unreinforced concrete wings built in 1926 collapsed, killing 44.

My father got a call from the nursing home where his Aunt Margaret lived – the facility  was being evacuated because it was downstream of the Van Norman dam, and my father had to come get her NOW! My father got in his car and drove toward the failing dam to rescue my great-aunt.

The morning wore on as we waited for the return of my father. My mother began the laborious process of cleaning the kitchen and the stove, while my brothers and I wandered around in shock. We numbly cleaned up our rooms, each of us discovering treasures that were dear that were forever broken. My eldest brother went for a walk and returned with the news that the liquor store had every bottle in the store broken, and all the windows were broken at the corner grocery store. We heard there would be no school for at least 2 weeks.

My father finally returned home, along with a white haired lady in a wheel chair who stared at us with blank eyes. My father wheeled Aunt Margaret into the living room, which we had cleared of glass and ceramic fragments.

All the while the aftershocks hit, and when they did one of my brothers would race to the nearest doorway, bracing himself for the worst. The man on the television said we shouldn’t drink any water from the faucet: The only water we could drink had to be boiled or bottled. Bottled water wasn’t so much of a thing in 1971.

The phone rang again, and my father answered it. He listened for a moment and then handed it to my mother with a strange look on his face. My mother took the phone, and I remember her saying, “Today?! I just assumed…” she trailed off. “We’ll get there as soon as we can.”

She turned to me after she hung up the phone, “You need to get ready. They’re doing the Mattel shoot today, after all.”

I had completely forgotten about the photo-shoot I was booked to do that afternoon – but the clients clearly hadn’t. In fact, they were in a state of high dudgeon that I hadn’t showed, thus the call.

We drove through the San Fernando Valley and over Cahuenga Pass into Hollywood. The streets on the way were deserted, there was broken glass on the sidewalks and there were toppled walls and chimneys everywhere across the Valley.

Hollywood hadn’t taken nearly the hit Saugus, Newhall, Sylmar and the Valley had, because the fault line was far enough away. The windows were intact at the location, and the crew had done a good job cleaning up inside

The client’s nerves were stretched as thin as they would go, and I remember every time an aftershock happened there were several of them who freaked right the hell out. One client refused to stay inside, and would dart in and out of the building to check up on the photo-shoot of Mattel’s newest toy line. He demanded from a distance that the show must go on, and expected a little girl to do what he couldn’t.

I put on the red shirt and apron they had for me, and we set up the shot as the ground continued to heave and pitch. A make up man applied pancake and lipstick, and wisely waited for the aftershocks to end before quickly swiping at my eyelashes with the mascara wand. A hair stylist used a curling iron on my hair and cemented it with hairspray. The lights above us all shivered as the building moved.

The toy line was called Imaginings: It was Mattel’s first shot at educational toys, and the toy I was modeling for was called Lively Lines. The idea was to draw a picture with special markers on special paper, and then drop water on it to create a watercolor painting. The problem was the markers and the paper were expensive, and no kid could recreate the picture on the box, because it was done by a professional artist.

During the shoot I was instructed to hold a several different pictures, and pretend I’d done each one myself. We were working in the days before Photoshop, so that drop of water you see quivering at the end of the eye dropper is very real. I also remember the very real director very really threatening me NOT to let that very real water drip on the artist-painted picture, lest I ruin it. A feat that is so easy for ANY 7-year-old to do – especially while the earth below is doing its best Bronco Billy impression and the lights above are swaying and creaking.

I was forced to wait out the temblors without complaint and then turn on my apple pie smile when they were done. The Director was determined to get that cover shot TODAY!! and all he wanted to do was get on a plane and get the hell back to New York.

The photographer was a sweetheart, trying so hard to make it easier on me, engaging me, and talking me through the worst of it. But, it was utterly terrifying being forced to smile while aftershocks are happening and adults around you are freaking out.

Finally the shoot ended, and we wearily made our way home, me shaking in the passenger seat from the exhaustion born of fear, and feeling miffed that I hadn’t gotten to take any swag. Why – they had hundreds of sheets of paper and dozens of pens, and I hadn’t gotten to take any! It never occurred to me they were proprietary and Mattel wouldn’t want the competition seeing the product before it came to market.

There was no hot water at home to wash the heavy pancake make-up off, or to wash out the stiff hairspray that kept the curls in my pony-tail nearly bulletproof. The water heater went to meet it’s maker during the quake, so I sat shivering in a tub of tan colored room temperature water, feeling the grit and dirt that had settled on bottom of the tub. It was glorious when my mother rinsed me off with water she had warmed on the stove. But, I could still feel the grit on my skin as she rubbed me down with a towel.

I went to bed accompanied by the aftershocks that would last until the following month.

The Imaginings line was released that November, just in time for Christmas and toy lust. Ultimately, the marketing folks at Mattel went with a very serious face on the box: You can see a little girl creating a masterpiece, carefully holding the picture, eyedropper in hand, lost in thought. I’m certain the straight-to-the-camera smiling shots taken that afternoon had a distinctive Crazy-Eyes look from the fear – which is just perfect for selling toys.

It’s been nearly 50 years since the earthquake – and back then animals had greater protection in Hollywood than children did. Will you be shocked to hear that a half a century hasn’t changed the dynamics much, and that Lassie still gets treated better than Timmy?

Imagine!! Why – it just shakes me up.

 

Imaginings 2

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, you 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.

 

JPEG A 0053

 

While my brothers were at school the next day dear old mom would be 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 the 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 and gently cradle each cup in the palm of my hand, brushing away any dirt or dust, taking care to never rub the paint. Afterward I’d run the cloth inside the mug, to make sure no offending particles were left inside a cup that no-one would 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 the first time – and they 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 they were 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 the lead angel’s arm on the marble dry sink), 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 – a real-life Angel to my family, before my big brother Daniel and I started paying the bills.

The figures from the crèche were hand painted Italian plaster. The whole collection (which came to me after my father died) 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.

Imagine the attendant ritual of unwrapping, cleaning and otherwise revering two-and-a-half-dozen tchotchkes, with each piece stored 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 their glued legs gave them the appearance of being afflicted with polio. 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 old 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.

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.

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

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. Your hand would hover over a branch, and you would hear, “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 and fidgeting. After 15 minutes we were pushing each other, and before 20 minutes had passed an argument broke out.

“He’s looking at me!!”

“He touched me!!”

“Godammit! Is it too much to ask for just one nice evening?” Mom barked. That brought our attitudes 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 if they were dropped, and Tippy The Tree was wobbling about like a woozy drunk. We just wanted to escape to our room before something raised mom’s ire.

In 1973 Mom decided we’d broken enough of ‘her’ good glass ornaments, and she invested in unbreakable satin ornaments. Styrofoam balls covered with a fine nylon thread were the height of fashion in the swingin’ 70s, and she thought they’d spruce up the tree. As we took them out of the long, narrow plastic bag the nylon thread began to snag and unwind, leaving the ornaments looking fuzzy. At first she angrily 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 with her sewing scissors (touch them and die), but the thread just kept unraveling. She would trim the ornaments every few days, and eventually it left a bald spot that looked like 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.

 

Vintage Satin Ball Ornaments

 

After the tree trimming came the carols. We would each pick one, and everyone would have to sing along. The six of us kids would all want Rudolf, Frosty and The Little Drummer Boy. 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 sing 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 the most of those times from my childhood, it would have to be the melancholy song from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ Christmas Time is Here. There’s a tightness to the back of my throat, a sting in my eyes, and I sigh deeply when I hear it. There is beauty in the sadness and loss expressed in the tune. Vince Guaraldi’s whole album speaks to me – but that song can bring me right back to those days in the first few bars.

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, acting as if we had never seen cookies before, and wash them down with a half gallon of milk.

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

While we were sleeping Margaret had 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 exactly where they needed to be. We always had fun putting the tree up as a family, 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, any more than she could be appreciative on Thanksgiving for having an abundance of food and people to share it with. Ever thus it was.

What she wanted was a perfection that only she could define. She needed her illusions so much that she could find no pleasure in our expression, only offense at crowding her vision.

That’s OK. The Universe has a way of taking care of these things, and paid her back with the tip of its hat: Every day one of our many cats would knock Tippy The Tree down, doing so with great running leaps at the ornaments and tinsel. We would come home to find the tree leaning against the wall, or flat-out on the floor.

To mix things up, one of our cats just loved to climb that poor, shaky tree. Cinderella was her name – Cindy we called her. She was a nimble thing, a tiny, 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, inevitable episode that made the season a minefield. 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 Mary Margaret Lamb have been – would we ALL have been – if she could have let go of the narcissistic notion that everyone was watching her all the time?

How much different would her life have been if she could have let go of superficial things, and loved and laughed with just one person like this, just once?

 

 

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

 

Happy Birthdays To Me

As a child my folks gave me the everlasting gobstopper of birthday gifts: They forgot what day was I was born.

I didn’t find out until I was 17, when I was getting my first driver’s license, that my birthday is actually December 3rd and not the 4th, as I grew up believing and celebrating. Why, on the Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman set there were several of us who had the same birthday and we all called each other December 4th, like a club. Now, I was finding out that it was all a lie?

I’d sent away to get my birth certificate, which took forever (turns out when you ask for the wrong day it takes oodles more time to get the damn thing). But, it finally arrived in the mail. I grabbed it without glancing at it (who the hell checks to see what day they’re born?) and snatched up the paperwork as well, and begged my mother to take me down to get the coveted and all-powerful driver’s license

The place was packed, and it seemed to take forever to get to the front of the line. I gave my paperwork to the overworked DMV employee and waited for him to hand me my written test. It seemed to take too long as he stared at my paperwork. Finally, he looked over his bifocals and asked, “Why do you have December 4th as your birthday on all these forms?”

“Because, that’s my birthday,” I answered, confused.

“No it’s not. Says right here it’s December 3rd.”

I stopped for a moment. Then I became was certain this was a regular joke he must play on teenagers getting their license for the first time. I laughed.

He spun my birth certificate around on the counter, with his finger on Date of Birth.

Stunned, I stared at the paper and could only say, “Mom?”

She looked over my shoulder and muttered, “What the hell?”

But, there it was in official purple ink with the raised seal: December 3, 1963.

“Mom?!” I asked again. “You got my birthday wrong?” I demanded.

There was a beat, just enough time to see the people in line breathlessly leaning in to hear the answer, like the old EF Hutton commercials. (link for those not a fossil, like me)

“Well,” she shrugged, “there were so many of you I lost track!” she said with a ‘what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it?’ chuckle and a splay of her fingers.

I was positively floored. I took the written test in a stunned fog. Somehow I managed to pass the driving portion without ploughing into a curb. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I felt like I didn’t really know who I was.

Later that night, and ever after until the day she died, my mother vehemently insisted that my birth certificate was wrong, and that what she said at the DMV was a joke, waving off any questions. I was born so close to midnight, she said, they must not have changed the date on the birth certificate stamp. The 4th, she insisted, was my birthday, and that was the day my family continued to celebrate it. My father, uncharacteristically, kept his own council. My parents washed their hands of it and that was that.

 

Claudia and Dad Birthday

 

Everybody else, though, needed my legal birthday. A fact I didn’t know. Hell, at that age I had no idea how it all worked. I was on my own in that department, and my parents pronouncement that my birth certificate was wrong was enough for them. Which meant that I over the next few years I had to change the information on file with the Social Security Administration, the IRS, Screen Actors Guild, AFTRA, both schools I was attending and just about everything else that uses your birth date for registration or as an identifier. Up until last year the AFTRA retirement department (for some unknown reason) STILL hadn’t changed my birth date. It was one of dozens of such changes I’ve made over the years.

The first and hardest change to make was with Social Security. I finally got around to it after my 18th birthday, when I could put it off no longer. I waited for hours in an uncomfortable plastic chair, to find myself sitting in front of a surly clerk trying to explain my situation.

“I have to change the birth date on my Social Security card.”

“Why?”

“I got a copy of my birth certificate to get my driver’s license and it turns out that my birth certificate was wrong.” At her confused look I continued, “See, my birthday’s really the 4th , but the hospital put the wrong day on my birth certificate because they forgot to put the stamp forward. So now I have to change my birthday on my social security card, even though they made a mistake.”

After a long, expressionless look she said, “The hospital got your birthday wrong?”

“Yeah, so even though my birthday’s on the 4th I have to change everything because the stupid hospital made a mistake.”

She held her hand up to stop my inane chattering and got to work. The instant she opened my file and saw the 2 pages single spaced of jobs I had done she sputtered, “When did you get your card?”

“When I was 5”

Instantly I became a novelty. She was happy to help, and interested in my story. Now, remember that it was almost unheard of at that time to have your social security card at that age. For my part I was amazed that they knew how much money I made each year. I wanted to know if I could see how much money I had made. I clarified: I wanted to know if I could see, but my parents couldn’t find out. She raised an eyebrow, and said, “Sweetheart you have the right to see this. They don’t, anymore.” I was floored.

I knew I’d made a lot of money, in a vague sort of way. I knew I worked more than any of my immediate peers, and had done so since I was a toddler. But I was never allowed to know how much. That was strictly forbidden. I was in the dark about everything to do with the money I rightfully earned, and it was a beating offense to ask where my money was. The notion that some stranger could print this up for me was dizzying. Simply dizzying.

An hour later when the paper work was done, I stood thanking the woman. I left clutching a 2 page print-out of the work I’d done since I was a toddler – it was a list of how much money I’d earned. I sat in my car, opened the envelope and gasped. My hand was shaking so hard I could barely hold the pen as I added up the columns. The heat was monstrous, but the sweat that ran down my back was cold. I remember the sick feeling I had looking at the total. More than three-quarters-of-a-million in today’s dollars. I added the figures again, and then again. They were the same every time.

That day, in those moments, sitting there in the blistering heat staring at those 2 sheets and all those zeros changed everything. I was 18 years old, but I finally had irrefutable proof in black and white (from the government no less!) that I was being robbed by my own parents.

Sitting in the shitty car my parents forced me to buy, roasting in the Southern California heat and looking at the figures my parents had forbidden me to see, I began to get angry. Really angry. A deep rage began that day that came calling for years afterward.

It was the beginning of the end of their hold on me, and a major catalyst for my quitting television and leaving Los Angeles.

In the years to come I found that even these figures were false. I had made more than a million dollars, and my parents lied not just to me, but to the IRS, Social Security, The Unions and my agents. You can read about it here if you want to know the gory details. (link)

The irrefutable facts are this: Their birthday fuck up had the unintended consequence of giving me my freedom.

And it was a fuck up, to be sure.

Although I wanted to believe that my parents hadn’t forgotten which day I was born, the evidence began to pile up.

I wasn’t born in a log cabin in the Appalachians and recorded in the family bible. I was born in one of the biggest hospitals in Los Angeles.

I wasn’t born anywhere near midnight, when there would be some plausibility of the hospital not changing the date.

In the 37 years since I found out from a public servant that my birthday wasn’t really my birthday, I’ve never met one person who had a hospital get their birth date wrong. Not one. I’ve never even met someone who knew a guy’s uncle’s cousin that it happened to. I never met a doctor who had heard of such a thing.

But, it wasn’t until after my mother died that I discovered the truth, hidden in the mountains of boxes in her home I was going through.

In a box of pictures and mementos I found a pile of paperwork and magazines from the hospital. There was a certificate of live birth from the hospital for a girl, dated December 3rd. I have an official looking piece of paper from the hospital with a gold seal and stamp, dated and signed in Sister Christine’s copperplate handwriting, welcoming said baby girl to the world on December 3rd, 1963. My mother kept these, yet never told me about them. All this paperwork she kept says I’m born on the third and she insisted to the bitter end that she was right. The hospital, the nurses, the doctors, the priests and nuns were all wrong. Everybody was wrong; everyone but her and my dad. For a guy who didn’t know when to stop talking he positively channeled Harpo Marx on this issue.

So, the truth is, I just never did enough to differentiate myself from the rest of the crowd and that my parents cared so little about me as an individual that they just lost track. No matter how many fortunes I made they couldn’t remember who I was. They really DID lose track.

My birthday and that craptastic tale was always part of the Ho-Ho-Horrible Christmas that was my youth. As a young adult it pissed me off to no end that EVERY YEAR I would have to explain this screwed up story to anyone who knew me before I turned 17.

Friends made after 1981 call me on the 3rd, to this day my brothers only ever call me on the 4th,  and childhood friends are always confused.

This afternoon I fielded my first query of the year: Is it the 3rd or the 4th?

I have one friend I’ve known since I was 11 who – without fail – EVERY year asks the same question. Every. Year.

“Now WHAT day do you celebrate your birthday?”

“ARGH!!!!!”

Then it hit me: How lucky am I that people give enough of a damn about me that they would ask – that they would care enough about me to want to wish me a happy birthday WHENEVER it may be.

The date isn’t important: I’d been carrying around this anger baggage about my parent’s lack of parenting and was missing the love sent my way.

So, I made the decision to change the whole dynamic, and grabbed that bull by the party horns, and made it my own.

My birthday? It’s December 3rd AND December 4th – and the 7th, too, if you want. It makes not a whit of a difference when I celebrate another ride around the sun. What matters is that I made it, I’m still kicking, and I have people who love me.

THESE are the Everlasting Gobstopper gifts and promises I gave myself:

To move beyond the realization that I wasn’t anything but a paycheck to them

To never treat my son as a revenue stream or inanimate object with no voice

To break the cycle of their abuse, and let it end with their death

To speak up when I see abuse – wherever I see it

And – most important –

To accept the love I am deserving of from the wonderful people in my life

 

Happy Birthday Typewriter

 

Two birthdays used to be SO grating – now it’s just great!

This weekend as I’m lounging on the beach in Mexico I will tell them it’s my birthday on Sunday and then again on Monday. Hell, yeah – I’ll admit it: I’ll start milking that cow tomorrow at the airport, and be trying to use it on Richard as we’re driving home from the airport when we get back.

I plan to be here this time next year, writing about how 365 days and nights reveal their treasures and sorrows.

I will feel all my feelings deeply and keenly – It’s my life, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to waste a minute of it.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more around the sun.