Are You There Linus? It’s Me, Charlie.

nopimpLast week when I was writing the piece called Happiness, you know the one where I promised to stop blogging forever, I went to YouTube to watch videos of grade school and high school kids in productions of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. Because it was my happiest moment, I thought I might learn something from watching videos of another generation poring their hearts and souls into Happiness the same way my 4th and 5th grade co-stars did.

I don’t know that I learned anything, per se. Kids are kids and dramatic kids are dramatic kids. Also no surprise, dramatic kids often grow into dramatic adults.

Yesterday, during my swim, I thought about where life took my friends who shared the stage with me on that hallowed Kansas elementary school production. I am only in contact with two people, one of the Lucy’s and one of the Patty’s. I’m not too sure whatever became of the other Lucy or the other Patty. Snoopy moved away in 6th grade. And I don’t even remember who played Schroeder. (No small parts, you say? Tell that to the person who plays Schroeder.) I do remember, and I’m still sure of this to this day, we were all stars in the making, Broadway ready. As if on the day of the last performance, we could have piled into Mrs. Tideman’s Buick Sportwagon, driven cross country and arrived in New York, ready to take it by storm. We were THAT good, we were Spring Awakening good.

If I overplayed every scene, my Linus, another 5th grader named Derek, deftly underplayed each of his. The tallest and smartest boy in our class, his Linus was nuanced and intelligent and thought-provoking. And the juxtaposition of 6 foot ten year old, holding a blanket and sucking his thumb, made for a pretty funny sight gag, too.

Because I was obsessed with all things Peanuts growing up, I sometimes had a hard time with the character of Linus. Is he a young Socrates or a pretentious asshole? I suppose what is brilliant about Charles Schultz is that he gave Linus his blanket (or his need for a blanket) and his thumb sucking to remind us that Linus is smart and is totally going to grow up to be governor or something but he also has his vulnerabilities. That being said, he isn’t alway the best friend to his best friend, in my opinion. For instance, when he saw that NO ONE was sending Charlie a valentine, couldn’t and shouldn’t he have sent one himself? Not one valentine for Valentine’s day? Poor Charlie Brown. Also, why didn’t he ever tell his sister to stop bullying his best friend? And you know that once CB and Linus get to high school, Linus is going to get invited to all the good parties and he’s not going to invite Charlie to them. “You wouldn’t enjoy it, Charlie Brown, just a lot of jello shots and senior quarterbacks trying to grope sophomore cheerleaders.”

As it turns out, my Linus, Derek Schmidt, is now the attorney general of the state of Kansas. In the last few months of 2014, Derek’s face and words were all over the gay press because of his role in Kansas’ battle to avoid marriage equality. In a google search I did today, I found this quote from the San Diego Gay and Lesbian News, “Gov. Sam Brownback, the right-wing, homophobic Republican, and his equally anti-gay Attorney General Derek Schmidt, are trying their best to fight the order of the court.” And I know the gays tend to make sweeping generalizations, but I had to pause and ask myself, Carrie Bradshaw style, IS Derek Schmidt as equally anti-gay as Brownback?

It’s something I ponder. Yes, his role in this war is clear. He has been awarded the task of being the face and voice against marriage equality in his state. But everything I read that he says, he chooses his words so carefully, one still might wonder what Derek Schmidt truly feels about the rights of homosexual men and women. I wonder, if Derek was the attorney general for the state of Massachusetts, would he imbed himself in the fight FOR marriage equality?

I have seen Derek exactly 2 times in the last 10 years. I saw him the weekend of my 20 year class reunion and actually spent time in his home with a small group and he and his wife were gracious and charismatic hosts. Two years ago, he spoke at the William Inge Festival, and we chatted briefly afterward. He offered his condolences on the death of my father and I thanked him and told him my father was still among the living. If he felt discomfort about being in a room that was comprised of, by Kansas standards, an inordinately high percentage of homosexuals, he gave no indication. Derek has always had an simple, aw shucks, intelligence and graciousness about him. He had it at 10, when he was playing Linus.

I don’t know that Derek and I will have a real conversation about what he truly believes in his heart concerning the rights of homosexuals ever in our lifetimes. I am sure he would be guarded, choose his words carefully, wonder about my intentions. He is no longer Linus, I am no longer Charlie Brown.

I have a hope that eventually the tide will turn in my home state. I get emails from friends in Kansas who are ardently in favor of marriage equality. The last ten years have shown much progress nationally and I don’t doubt the next ten years will show even more of a shift.

As Schultz reminded us when he created the characters of Charlie Brown and Linus and Snoopy and Lucy and Sally and Peppermint Patty and the rest, we all have our vulnerabilites. If you’ve read even one paragraph of my blog, you’re probably well aware of mine. But I always thought there was something weak about Linus and well, I think the same about Attorney General Schmidt too.

This is conjecture. But I don’t think Derek wants to be the face againt marriage equality in Kansas, he just wants to be the face of Kansas. He sees this as his opportunity to advance his political career. It’s not about people, it’s about his career.

But for the rest of us, it is about people and I really want the gay people that live in my home state, a state I love, to have the same rights I have in California, even the same rights Mr. and Mrs. Schmidt have as a heterosexual couple living in Kansas.

Somewhere in Kansas, as I type this, there is at least one (probably more) highly emotive grade or junior high schooler belting his heart out to Happiness in preparation for a school production of my favorite musical. He will grow up in that state and at some point come out of the closet, not that it will be a surprise to anyone. He will hopefully fall in love and maybe decide to live out his life with his husband in Lawrence or Wichita or Dodge City or Independence. And this is my hope: that his best friend Linus from that long ago production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown will be there beside him at that marriage ceremony, that wedding, his best man standing up for his best friend. That’s my wish. And, good grief, I think it’s a sweet one.

Well…



There is some irony that my last blog post, which was intended to be my last blog post, led to me adding a handful of new followers. As if even a stranger just stumbling in for the first time might be able to discern that I don’t always mean what I say. 

I’ll tell you a little bit about what the last couple days have been like for me. First, I must say that my post was not exactly spur of the moment, I had pondered ending the blog for months, more seriously in the last few weeks. I was on a walk on Wednesday and decided, definitively, dramatically, despondently, I am ending Easily Crestfallen.  I went home, sat at the computer for 45 minutes. If I’d had more time before work, I probably would have sat a bit longer and edited more, but I was working on a deadline. From a writing standpoint, I didn’t see it as one of my best.

I published the post and of course, several friends who subscribe to my blog left sweet, concerned, encouraging comments.  And you know, I appreciate those kind words. Most of those friends who commented I only know through blogging and for people to take the time to encourage another struggling artist, is a beautiful thing.

On Thursday, I awoke with a plan to start a new blog, a secret blog. I spent two hours creating two new email addresses, and a blog, called Jouncing The Branch. I hope I still sound humble, but I thought it was a brilliant idea. Based on A Separate Peace, that moment when the title character jounces the branch he and his best friend/competitive nemesis are standing on causing the friend to fall and become tragically injured. I was to explore the darkness within myself and us all. And I was going to feel free to be as unedited and cruel and petty and self-absorbed as I wanted. Also, since I am being honest here, I was going to talk about sex more, since family members would never be able to read it.

But, even before I published my first post, I knew I would always, always fear that someone I love would somehow discover this secret blog and they might be shocked or wounded or angered. Also, I thought, how could I ever promote a blog if I’m not on Facebook? 

Last night at work, there was a bit of chaos for about an hour. God knows, YOU know, I’ve experienced worse, but I did have the standing in the dish room, how much longer can I do this, moment. I’m just so sad, I thought. Waiting tables at 46, creatively stymied, poor, in a fight with one of my dogs. (Ricky. Don’t ask.)  I’m so sad, I have nothing. I don’t even have my blog. 

And this morning, I woke up, made my coffee, had an Entenmann’s chocolate covered donut. I am currently reading a book called Actress to Actress: Memories, Profiles, Conversations by an actress named Rita Gam. She remembers, profiles and converses with and about several movie and theatre legends. At one point, Rita is at her friend Shelley Winters Upper West Side apartment, interviewing her for this book. Rita asks Shelley if she ever had an affair with Brando. Shelley scolds her. “Just read my book. You obviously didn’t even read it, much less memorize it. A good friend would memorize it. I’ll give you a copy: read it.”

I loved the story because I can see it. Shelley and Rita, just eating chicken soup in the dining room of a Central Park West apartment.  It’s no wonder Shelley Winters had the fascinating career she had because she was so tough and strong and still could say, to her longtime friend, that vulnerable, “Hey, please read my book. You’re my friend. Here, read it.”

I realized this morning, I need this blog.  You might like or loathe or love this blog, but I am the only person in the world who needs it. At this moment, it’s my only platform and I have to make the most of it. Might I continue to storm out in a huff, only to return contrite a few minutes later, over and over and over again? Perhaps. 

For as long as I live, I am quite sure that my two literary touchstones will be Charlie Brown and Uncle Vanya. At the end of the third act, Vanya comes into the house, waving a gun, threatening to kill the professor. The gun goes off, no one is injured, and somehow, because he is Vanya, all is forgiven and, mostly, forgotten. As if, everyone in the house just thinks, oh, that’s just Vanya being Vanya.

And I suppose quitting a blog FOREVER and resuming two days later is just Ray being Ray. You’re used to it at this point. So, in other words, I’m back.  

If I have Vanya in spades in me, I also have a bit of Shelley Winters too. More vulnerable than tough, to be sure. It’s a sad little plea, I know, but if you are my friend, please read my book. Here, let me give it to you again. Read it.

Happiness

draft_lens9869081module88838141photo_1268076723Charlie_Brown_SnoopyIt’s a movie star interview staple. He or she is asked by the interviewer when they knew they wanted to be an actor. He or she mines his or her personal history and shares a memory of being in a school play or talent show, how they made the whole school laugh or cry or both and from that moment on, “I KNEW that’s what I wanted to do with my life!”. 

 Of course, it is not only the successful actors that have that memory. This town is full of lost souls trying to chase that high, relive that moment, at 8 or 9 or 10, when they stood on a stage and felt the entire world loved them. 

 The irony that my first great success at anything was my title role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is not lost on me. Playing a hapless failure came naturally for me. Still does. It was 5th grade and I’m sure not more than 500 people saw my star turn, but even today, that high that came at the end, where the entire cast closed the show with Happiness, well, is probably the happiest I have ever been in my entire life.  

I’ve written about my many failed auditions in the last two years or so. It’s been nearly three years since the last time I booked a job. I’ve been lucky enough to have an agent sending me out more regularly than I deserve and yet, nothing.  In every audition, I second guess every choice I make because it feels like every choice I’ve made in the last three years is the wrong one. 

Last week, my friend Michael, because he cares, asked me what I was doing creatively. I told him that I had all but stopped writing and storytelling. It’s been years since I’ve been cast in a play. He asked me how I might be able to think outside the box a little, create my own platform.

I cut him off. “I don’t really want to discuss this. I can’t. I am stuck and I wish I knew what to do to unstick myself, but I don’t. That’s what I’d hoped to do with the blog. But the blog has just ended up being a failure just like everything else I have attempted.”

“We can change the subject,” Michael offered. And we did. We talked about what we were going to have for dinner and then the play we looked forward to attending. 

A couple of days ago, I deactivated my Facebook account. Maybe you are more evolved or just more successful than me, but of late, Facebook has become nothing more than another reminder of all my failures, too. I’d post a picture or a blog post and only get a couple likes. Does one exist if no one clicks like on their FB status update? It should be noted that the only person who noticed my disappearance was my Mother.

I’ve tried acting and sketch comedy and improv and standup and storytelling and writing and blog writing and most depressing of all, social media, to get the world to notice me, validate me. And for the most part, none of it has worked.  

So, the good news is, this is the last time I will bemoan my life on this aptly named platform I created almost two years ago. I am hanging up my keyboard, so to speak.

I came and I tried and I failed. 

I’m going to step away from the social media. Read some books, catch up on Empire. I’m going to feel sorry for myself for awhile and then we’ll see. I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’m done with this blog, but I’m not done. After all, I am Charlie Brown and the eternally comforting thing about Charlie Brown is that no matter how many times he’s down, he is never truly out. 

Thank you to all who read my story!

Free to Be You and Me (for Mrs. Tideman)

8257387187_038ba4cf63_zToday is Marlo Thomas’ birthday!  Happy Birthday, Marlo!  When I think about Marlo, I think about her iconic 1970’s tv special, Free to Be You and Me.  And when I think about that, I remember my 5th and 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Tideman, who introduced that tv show and soundtrack to me and the rest of the 4th and 5th graders in her combined class that she taught back at Washington Elementary.

I don’t remember ever having a creative awakening before Mrs. Tideman’s class.  I’d had good teachers, I’d had bad teachers.  I remember doing fairly well in spelling and math and less well in history and science.  But Mrs. Tideman is the first teacher that expanded the concept of education into things like writing poems.  We had to write a poem every few weeks, and I hope this doesn’t sound like I’m bragging (glory days and all) but I was a pretty good poem writer.  I had a knack for making things rhyme, it came to me fast, in quite little time.  And though my penmanship could have been neater, I even mastered the concept of meter.

At one point during my 5th grade year, Mrs. Tideman announced that we were going to put on a play.  It was called, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”  There would be auditions and rehearsals and two performances in the school gymnasium.  She gave those of us who wanted to audition, copies of the script.  I auditioned for Linus, Snoopy and Charlie Brown.  And while I still contend that I could have played Snoopy, I was actually born to play Charlie Brown.  I was Charlie Brown, and at ten, I always felt that the world was against me.  Plus I was horrible at sports.  So, there is some irony in that the first time I felt like the world was rooting for me, was when I played Charlie Brown.  It was a life changing experience. 

The next year, when by some miracle, she was now my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Tideman brought in the cast album (or maybe the soundtrack) to the musical, “Oliver!”  She announced that this was the play she’d hoped to do that year, but she had to have an operation.  She told us that she loved teaching kids, but she’d always dreamed of having her own child and she’d been unable to get pregnant.  She then explained that she was going to have an operation to increase her chances of getting pregnant.  And then she told us she was going to be gone for several weeks.  And then we listened to “Oliver!” and it seemed even more of a dirge of a musical than even Charles Dickens could have imagined.  And the weeks that she was away were unendurable.  And when she came back, we were all so happy, but also scared because for awhile, she seemed quite vulnerable, not like the old Mrs. Tideman.

As an adult, I think about how she and the administration would have wrestled with just how much to tell her students.  I’m sure there are things they kept from us, as protection.  (There is also the possibility I might be remembering it slightly differently than how it really happened.)  But the experience was one of my first lessons in the frailty of life and how adult life (like childhood life, but with more at stake) did not always turn out the way you thought it would.  I’m grateful that she opened my eyes to my own creative possibilities, but more than that, she opened my eyes to the way life works, like what a mother will do for her unborn, unconceived child.

The good news is that after we graduated 6th grade, Mrs. Tideman became a mother.  If I recall, her daughter’s name was Katie and she’d been named long before she was born.  Katie would be about 35 now.  (Dang, I’m old!)  I have no idea where Mrs. Tideman is today, she moved away and even with several internet searches, I’ve never been able to find her.  I’ve even tried to find Katie.  And for the record: I’m no amateur at google sleuthing.

Getting back to Free to Be You and Me, I’m posting the opening credits here as my little tribute to Mrs. Tideman, a teacher who took my hand and asked me to come along, and lend my voice to her song. Free to be you and me, indeed!