My super talented, sweet, funny and dynamo friend and fellow memoirist Sara Benincasa is now a YA author with the publication of GREAT, a contemporary retelling of THE GREAT GATSBY. I was so excited not only to see her back in NYC but to introduce my protege Jeaniah to Sara and a few other friends at the book launch party. Sara read from her novel then signed books as the crowd chit-chatted and ate cake that was designed to look like her book. Clever and yummy and a lovely night.
My friends are all comedians, actors, writers and artists so they’re not stiff grown ups and immediately treated Jeaniah like a long lost friend. Here’s the conversation we had as we walked away from the party:
Me: My friends are fun, right?
J: Yeah and funny! I like being part of the conversation.
Me: Yeah, nothing beats a good conversation with friends.
J: I like how the conversation keeps going…like, I make a comment and then they make one and that makes you think of one and then I comment and it goes on and on.
Thanks to my awesome friends for having a lot to say & being so funny and charming while they do it. She really enjoyed meeting you all & we got some good advice about the upcoming state math tests.
And, of course, huge congratulations and continued success to Sara who has more books & TV show pilots coming down the pike than I can shake a stick at.
We don’t have control over many things in life, but we do have control over how we feed our minds and souls. We control the books we read, the movies and TV shows we watch, the music we listen to, the people we choose as friends, how we spend our idle time, and how seriously we take our studies.
You hold a lot of power in the choices you make.
I hope she’ll consider this and refer back to it as she grows older and choices and life become more complicated.
(Read the full letter by clicking on the image.)
I had an especially awesome week leading up to Christmas. I had three separate dates with my protégé which was the biggest treat. We hopped aboard a vintage train (pic at right & at bottom) to Midtown where we shopped at the Disney store and Toys R Us Times Square, and got tickets at the TDF booth for Newsies the Musical. Our seats were pretty high up in the mezzanine but this musical’s set design allowed for great viewing. The choreography was phenomenal and we enjoyed the show very much.
During intermission, Jeaniah pored through the program matching each actor’s headshot and bio with their characters. A few minutes into the second act, the lead male was singing in earnest and Jeaniah whispered, “He has a very pretty voice!” I agreed and took note at how enthralled she was. At curtain call, she applauded politely for chorus, loudly for a few of her favorite supporting cast members, then screamed the highest pitched dolphin squeal that could’ve broken glass when the lead male took his bows, like we were at a One Direction concert. Her unbridled enthusiasm made me happier than any gift could.
On the subway ride home, some boys started breakdancing in our car and could’ve rivaled any dancer in the Newsies chorus. Our car wasn’t that packed so it wasn’t too obnoxious and they were seriously talented, so Jeaniah gave them a dollar.
A few days later, I picked her up after school. She opened my Christmas gifts for her: a bracelet loom, tons of rubber bands and charms for making the bracelets, and a jewelry organizer for her new bedroom. These were met with gasps of OH MY GOSH! and COOL! I also packed her bag with her favorite treats that I normally would put in a stocking like some gummy bears (Gummy bears?! I LOVE gummy bears!) and a bag of Goldfish crackers (Goldfish?! I LOVE Goldfish!). This cracked me up. I’ve known her for two years now, so of course I know what she wants and likes to eat and do and see. Her surprise was delightful.
She mentioned that she had cards for her two teachers but wished she had gifts, so I let her pick two gifts from a shopping bag of heavily discounted Christmas items I had just snagged at Rite Aid. She chose an amaryllis and a candle/holder.
Later that week, I picked her up after school to go see “Frozen” in 3D. We both really loved it and the theme song “Let it Go”. In the movie, it’s sung by Idina Menzel but when then end credits rolled, it’s this Demi Lovato version. Dang it is a catchy tune! I felt so happy from the movie, so the heck with it….I’m gonna SING! We sang what words we knew (not many) at the tops of our lungs and mumbled the rest and bounced around in our seats. I gotta take this girl to a real concert.
A couple of days later Christian and I joined her and her family at the annual Hour Children Christmas party with gifts supplied by the Marine’s Toys for Tots program. We got a few really nice pictures and made some crafts before Christian and I scooted out to LIC for the LIC Flea and the gorgeous view of Manhattan with the ESB decorated in green & red for Christmas with an awesome light show timed with music airing on 106.7. Fun! (Click here for the YouTube video of the light show.)
All in all, it was a great week in the city with all it has to offer, but I was happy to leave it behind for a long “vacation” at our cabin upstate. We enjoyed dominoes, the wood fire, Vince Guaraldi, lots of good home cooked meals, “Cheers” on Netflix, making pomander balls, way too much candy and almost too much laziness. Among other gifts, I gave Christian a pair of Hunter boots and Morrissey’s new autobiography and a bunch of tech gadgets; he gave me a gorgeous vintage tub planter, a much needed wallet and a 3,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. The latter was really a gift to him: I stayed busy and out of his hair for a whole week. ;oP
We rang in the New Year quietly around our fire, writing out our goals, the theme of which seemed based on this Samuel Beckett quote:
All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Onward and upward to us all in 2014!
Had a long but rewarding day at 47 ASL High School yesterday. The students were about 20% Deaf, HoH and CODA and the rest hearing but immersed in a school that embraces ASL. How wonderful.
I met 180+ great teens from all parts of NYC some who shared with me privately about their hopes to be involved with producing, dreams of being a writer, and brushes with domestic violence, drugs & alcohol, mental illness and more. I donated a copy of my book to the library and signed it to the kids. I went home and collapsed –exhausted but inspired– and awoke to this nice email from the coordinator today:
“You are the talk of the town! [T]eachers and administrators who made it to your presentation were touched and impressed by the way you shared your experiences with the students. And, of course, the kids are all going to be reading your book now and they are so excited and honored to have it autographed by you!”
I was honored to share with them. I’d take a repeat of yesterday Every. Single. Day.
I’m seeing my protégé on Saturday, two months to the day since I last saw her.
That’s an eternity for kids but especially when the kid has been through some stuff, when she has seen mentors come and go for others. Even though I keep in touch with postcards and Facebook, there’s always the niggling feeling that this is it. It’s over. She wasn’t worth sticking around for. She wasn’t wanted or loved, relationships don’t last and people will abandon you at any given moment.
The last time I was out of town for this long, I surprised her. Her mom told her to wake up early and be ready to babysit when, in reality, I was en route to pick her up for a day together. When I walked through her front door, the look of shock on her face took my breath away. Think of your most exaggerated jaw-dropped, bug-eyed face and that was her but she wasn’t faking. She was thunderstruck; the textbook definition of blown away.
In an instant she sprang off the couch, bolted across the room and leapt into my arms. She wrapped her legs around my waist and arms around my neck and squeezed.
Squeezed like a tsunami was raging through Queens and if she let go of me, it’d be all she wrote.
I squeezed back knowing I’m not letting go.
We’ll ride this storm together, girl, and I’ll be your tree.
“Are you famous?”
“Nah, I don’t think so.”
“Well, I Googled you, and I think you’re famous.”
“Ummm…really? You Googled? Sooo…what did you find?”
The Internet should be illegal for kids under 16.
My protege made this Facebook voice greeting for me. I’ve listened to it about a dozen times already. Love her!
After kicking off my gardening project, I drove home from the cabin so I could take my protege Jeaniah to a preview screening of “Epic” at the Museum of the Moving Image. When I picked her up, she and the other Hour Children kids were having a craft day with volunteers from the Kabbalah Center. We made jewelry, got professional photos taken and planted some flower seeds which took about 20 seconds. Throw some dirt in the peat pot, add some seeds, top with more soil, add water and voila. Four days later they sprouted.
It was a great reminder of what I said in my earlier post: gardening is much more simple than the Internet would have you believe. Don’t be afraid! Jeaniah wanted me to keep both of our pots so I can plant them at the cabin. I plan to find a special spot for our little flower pots to grow together. It’s lousy with symbolism.
Anyway, on to the movie. We were excited and surprised to learn that the director of “Epic”, Oscar winner Chris Wedge, was at the screening and would participate in a Q&A afterward. COOL! The movie is about a teenage girl who is transported (shrunken to the size of an insect) into the forest where she helps the “Leafmen” battle the dark forces after the forest Queen is killed. The movie itself was in 3-D and, damn, animation these days is simply breathtaking. I got dizzy a few times “flying” with the Leafmen on their hummingbirds that they rode like horses. So clever. Check out Metacritic for comprehensive reviews, but we gave it our thumbs up as did the other kids in the audience.
We also enjoyed the Q&A with Mr. Wedge who was really casual, funny and gracious with his time. Jeaniah seized up with shyness when it came to asking for an autograph, so I asked on her behalf. We wanted to get it mostly as proof to the kids at school that she’d seen the movie before it was in theaters. Last time we did this (a preview of the “Croods” which was okay), no one believed her. So, this time we kept her program and autographed ticket stub for her to use to “show off”. Take that, non-believers!
Christian met up with us at Pizzeria Uno and during our drive home he told her about my undying love for David Lee Roth. When he showed her pictures of Diamond Dave, she burst out laughing and said, “He looks like a GIRL!”
I spent way too much time defending my love and trying to find a better picture. None were to be found. He’s pretty ridiculous in all of them and yet…sigh.
I can’t wait for the day I meet her husband and can tease her about how she wore Justin Bieber perfume.
Growing up, we dug up rows of dirt, plopped in some seeds and had fruits and vegetables a few weeks later. The Internet made it all seem so complicated. After all the research and over-thinking, it was time to get my hands dirty.
I had a few days at the cabin and took the plunge on beginning my landscaping and gardening projects. I spent part of a day gathering rocks that I stacked at the base of the cabin, covering the concrete and creating a raised flower bed. Once it was in place, I filled it with soil from the woods mixed with bags of plain topsoil and two bags of high quality, fertilized soil. Then I planted some hostas that I purchased from Home Depot. Hostas are hearty, low to the ground, spread over time, and are great in the shade. I think this is the perfect spot for them as long as I can keep the slugs away.
Behold the before and after:
I screamed out loud at “Jurassic Park” more than once but so enjoyed seeing it again for the first time in 20 years, especially in 3D. At one point Jeaniah & I were cringing and squirming and gasping so much I said, “This movie is STRESSING us OUT!” She laughed and said, “Yeah, but I don’t get it. If you’re gonna bring dinosaurs back, why would you make meat eaters and poisonous ones? Why not just stick with herbivores?”
I mean, really?
I drove back to NYC for one day and making time to see my two favorite Big Apple ladies. First I’m picking up my protege Jeaniah from school to see “Jurassic Park” in 3D followed by dinner with Jenn Dodd. Then it’s off to the RUBBER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD! That’s Akron, Ohio for three whole days. I’m so excited to perform in my friend Eileen Moushey‘s play alongside some of my dearest, funniest, funnest acting buddies for the first time in about 15 years.
Then it’s a jaunt to Philly to perform 1812 Productions storytelling show raising money for Women Against Violence before I head back to NYC to see my buddy H. Alan Scott & take him to record an interview with Chemda Katg. Follow that up with another week at our cabin, throw in a 5K race, an appearance at the SouthCarolina Book Festival, a 10K race and another date with my protege and holy, wow…
May: I love you already!
Tomorrow is “Take Your Mentee* to Work Day”. Since I work from home and have an unconventional life and schedule, I figured I’d show her a little bit about publicity and the daily newspapers and then spend the day learning about other worthwhile stuff.
Searching for things to do, I was frustrated that so many museums and exhibits are still out of commission from Sandy. I was especially disappointed we can’t visit the “Bodies” exhibit. It is moving to Discovery Times Square so we will hit that soon enough, but the others? Who knows.
Instead, I’ve decided to take her on an adventure through Lower Manhattan focusing on the plight of the immigrant. We’ll ride the subway to the World Trade Center, view the 9/11 Memorial, take the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island up close (both are closed due to Sandy damage), walk through Chinatown and Little Italy as we make our way to the LES for a tour of the Tenement Museum.
At least that’s the plan. NYC is unkind lately. Let’s see how the craptastic NYC weather treats us (cold and biting wind, I bet), how my wallet fares even with the free ferry ride (empty, surely, the Tenement Museum is ridiculously expensive but since Ellis Island is shuttered, it is what it is), and what memories we make (with googly eyeballs and smelly unidentifiable things for sale all over Chinatown, this has got to be a goldmine).
*Protégé. The word is protégé. “Mentee” sounds like an immature manatee or a dental hygiene product. My lady is neither of those things, she is befitting of an elegant word from the 1700s, not one made up in the mid-1960s when people were dropping acid.
My protégé Jeaniah and I had an awesome date at the Big Apple Circus! In fact, I think this was our best date ever. We were both in great moods, excited for the show and had lots to talk about as we rode the subway to Lincoln Center*. The big tent itself was set up in Damrosch Park. We got our complimentary tickets (thanks again Marianne Ways!) and hit the concession stand where we loaded up on drinks, popcorn, Sour Patch Kids and cotton candy.
J asked, “What color cotton candy do you want?”
“It all tastes the same, so what color do we want our tongues to be?”
She and I both looked at each other, smiled and said in unison, “BLUE!”
Our seats were awesome –we were on the aisle just four rows from the ring!– but being in the round and only about 1,800 seats there really isn’t a bad seat in the house.
The theme was LEGENDARIUM: A Journey Into Circus Past and it was spectacular! Every act was cute, charming or downright thrilling, but we definitely had favorites.
One such favorite was Zhang Fan who performed a slack wire act. I’ve never heard of such a thing and was mesmerized. He made the tight rope seem like child’s play. That rope is taut & still. The slack wire is just that and it’s constantly in motion. On this wavy, swinging wire, he carried out spectacular tricks like doing forward & backward somersaults, balancing himself with a ladder, and riding a unicycle. Upside down. On his head. Pedaling with his hands. Can’t believe it? Check out this photo of him I found online. What an incredible athlete. Olympians should train for the circus. Yowzah!
I also enjoyed the juggling tango dancers. A husband and wife team that danced a beautifully choreographed tango all while the husband juggles balls and clubs. I’m not sure a kid can appreciate how much trust must be there for this act to be possible, but I was awed. I wouldn’t trust Christian throwing clubs all around me, let alone while we’re dancing a tango! But since Christian says I dance like a Sims character, we can safely assume this will never, ever be tested.
Our favorite performer, no question, was the contortionist Elayne Kramer. Or as Jeaniah said, “I loved Elayne and her flexibility tricks.” The girl was a jellyfish. She can’t have any bones! She folded herself backwards and on top of herself and even held herself up with her mouth (see photo). That’s what blew Jeaniah away. I was screaming, “NO WAY! NUH UH! GET OUT!” every five seconds but was slack-jawed when it came to Ms. Kramer’s final trick. Turned upside-down (you know, how one does), she shot a bow & arrow with her feet. Yeah. You read that right.
Not only did she shoot an arrow, she was aiming the arrow at a balloon, and hit her mark. Holy. Wow. I don’t have a picture of it but found this one online. Incredible, isn’t it? It’s one thing to be born without a spine, but this is skill, people. Strength, training and skill!
Back in Queens, we stopped at my place. Jeaniah wanted to see our apartment**, meet my parakeet and make geodes. I showed her my wedding dress and she tried on my fascinator and had the dogs do tricks for treats. Before I drove her home, we hand wrote thank you cards to Marianne and the Big Apple Circus publicist who gave us the free tickets. Back at her place one of the other kids in the group home said, “You’re her mentor? She talks about you 24/7!” [Sideways huge smile face.]
It was a day we won’t soon forget. We can’t recommend the Big Apple Circus enough. Thank you to everyone who make the show possible. We are still floating!
**I asked Jeaniah if my apartment was what she excepted. She said, “No. I didn’t think there would be this many rooms and I thought you’d have more…what do you call them?”
She gestured with her hands like she was holding little things.
“Souvenirs, collectibles, trinkets?”
“Yeah! Because you travel all the time I thought you’d have more stuff.”
What can I say? I hate clutter and the dust that goes with it.
But it’s not. It’s today.
Today, I climbed down some precarious steps into a basement in Bushwick to record an indie / alt rock music video. I was there to film b-roll chorus footage of me and two other ASL signers for my pal Mike Doughty‘s music video of the song Sunshine off his new CD The Flip is Another Honey.
Hot and thirsty, I took a quick swig of my drink. Mike saw me guzzling from the bottle and asked, “Is that…chocolate milk?”
Yeah, I guess most 42-year-old women don’t drink chocolate milk and definitely not from bottles with cartoon rabbits on them. But, this one does! MMM! And she signs, too!
I used the rest of my day to run errands and relax with my dogs as tomorrow is going to be a long and exciting day. <Whisper Voice> Don’t tell her, but I’m treating my protégé to a showing of the Big Apple Circus! </Whisper Voice> This is all in courtesy of my friend and superstar booker/producer Marianne Ways and the generosity of the circus. It means a lot to my Hour Children protégé to experience things like this, so big heartfelt thanks to them for the guest passes. We will be sure to write a review.
Hour Children is a non-profit dedicated to supporting incarcerated women and their children. Its founder, Sister Teresa has been nominated for a CNN Heroes Award. The group is also applying for a grant, so I wrote a little note taking a quote from my book and part of my blog entry Life is Fun to craft something new for that purpose. I wish I’d had more time to work on it, but here’s what I sent:
When my father was sentenced to twenty years in prison, I was consumed by shame, fear, guilt, confusion and heartache. I grieved, I presume, as one might for a father who had unexpectedly died without saying goodbye. A father who had been unnaturally stripped away in a swift, deadly blow leaving his family to wonder what had been the last words said. When was the last, “I love you” and had they meant it? This was my father’s due, but I was devastated. Despite everything, I loved him.
I had just turned thirty-one years old, a grown up seemingly capable of handling such a traumatic event. Ten years later, I spent my forty-first birthday with Jeaniah, my ten-year-old protégé from Hour Children, a girl whose parents have both been incarcerated.
She and I were matched last March and have logged many hours together in museums, theaters, bowling alleys, aquariums, parks, zoos and, of course, Chuck E. Cheese.
For my birthday, I took Jeaniah to the Spy Exhibit at Discovery Time Square Museum. The exhibit was interactive, educational and fun. We navigated a life-sized laser maze, took our photos & added wigs, glasses, facial hair and hats to disguise our images. I was surprised that, in spite of all the amusing things, Jeaniah wanted to spend most of our time there reviewing a timeline of major world events. Using a touch screen, we selected a year, which then gave us dates to choose. One by one, we talked about events like the falling of the Berlin Wall, World Wars I and II, Vietnam, Osama bin Laden and the Twin Towers.
Overwhelmed by what she had yet to learn, I thought, “Man! Kids don’t know anything!”
The history lesson led her to ask questions like just why had Osama bin Laden attacked us, followed by thoughtful discussions about various religions, tolerance and extremism. She’s a smart one this girl, quick and attentive. I don’t know how often, if ever, current events and such serious dialogue are part of her life, but I was glad to have been there to answer her questions with patience and honesty.
Afterward, we meandered through Times Square where we saw all sorts of colorful characters: people in costumes, a guy with eight rats dyed a rainbow of colors sitting on his shoulders and a beautiful dragonfly that seemed attracted to me and Jeaniah.
“This is the most fun ever,” she kept saying, and then would add, “Weird, but fun.”
Kids might not know everything, but they know enough.
In some cultures, it is believed that the dragonfly helps one let go of the past and if you see one in an unusual place, it symbolizes a transformation through a spiritual awakening. I’ve lived in New York City for twelve years and have never seen a dragonfly in a park let alone Times Square. It flew with us for over a block and even hitched a ride on J——’s arm.
In my forty-one years of life, I’ve traveled the world, met thousands of people and learned a lot from them. Yet, I’ve never known a single person who also had a parent in prison. Jeaniah is the only friend with whom I have this in common.
Thanks to Hour Children, she and I can let go of our past and transform with each other. And, for a child whose life has been fraught with tumult, Jeaniah can have an occasional break, look around and decide that life is fun. Weird, but fun.
A 21st century birthday is like no other thanks to Facebook giving folks the heads up. Thank you everyone for the emails & comments & phone calls & texts. It never fails to overwhelm.
Christian was headlining in Atlanta, so I chose to spend my 41st birthday with my lice-free, nine-year-old protégé “J” from Hour Children, a non-profit dedicated to supporting incarcerated women and their children. After two postponed dates due to “dem bugs” infesting her head, I took her to the Spy Exhibit at Discovery Time Square Museum followed by ice cream for dinner.
During our subway ride she gave me a birthday card. She could hardly contain her excitement as I opened it and giggled and squirmed in her seat like she might pee herself. If she had, it’s the NYC subway so no big whoop. Pee on yourself all you want little lady. Here is the card:
Man, you could have ended my birthday right then and there before we even got to DO anything and I would’ve been fine with that. What more could I get than the love, admiration and appreciation of a little girl? Tears, people. Gives me big ol’ crocodile tears.
But, we were on the subway on our way to learn about spies! Taking a kid whose parents are in jail to an exhibit about all sorts of illegal activities and the consequences of such was either a bright idea or a really dumb one. But it was interactive, educational and fun. We took our photos & added wigs, glasses, facial hair and hats to disguise our images and there was a laser maze we navigated like Catherine Zeta Jones in “Entrapment”. But my derriere was less like this:
And more like this:
In spite of all the fun things, we surprisingly spent most of our time going over a timeline of major world events. Using a touch screen, we selected a year which then gave us dates to choose. One at a time, I educated her on events like the falling of the Berlin Wall, World Wars and Vietnam. Man, kids don’t know ANYTHING!
I kept expecting her to get bored at the history lesson, but she wanted to know more. Especially about the capturing of terrorists, 9/11 and the killing of Osama Bin Laden. It was his photo on the big screen that had attracted J to the exhibit.
“I’ve seen his picture on TV!” She said as she ran over to the display.
I trailed after her. “Oh, yeah, that’s Osama Bin Laden.”
“He masterminded 9/11. Have you heard about that or the World Trade Center?”
Nope. She hadn’t. She didn’t know about the buildings, the planes, nothing. She wasn’t even born. So with each event on the timeline I explained the whole thing. “I don’t like that man!”
Yeah, me either, kid. Me either. All this talk led to more questions like just why did he hate us so much which led to thoughtful discussions about different religions, extremists, and tolerance. She’s a smart one this girl and quick and thoughtful. I don’t know how often, if ever, current events & such heavy dialogue are part of her life but I’m glad to be there to answer her questions with patience and honesty.
As we meandered through Times Square, we saw all sorts of weirdos, people in costumes, a guy with eight rats dyed a rainbow of colors sitting on his shoulders and a beautiful dragonfly that seemed attracted to me & J. Let me repeat that: we saw a DRAGONFLY in TIMES SQUARE. I’ve lived here 12 years and have never seen a dragonfly in a park let alone Times Square. It flew with us for a block and even hitched a ride on her arm.
She kept saying this was the “most fun ever” then added, “Weird, but fun.”
I told you she’s smart. Life is fun. Weird, but fun.