Urban Raccoons


Twice in the past week I have ascended from the parking garage to be greeted by the curious face of a small raccoon in the interior garden of my condo building. The first night it happened, I practically squealed with excitement and fumbled in my purse, spilling water from my water bottle on myself as I dove  to retrieve my cell phone.

Honestly, you would think we were Pavlovian dogs the way we all have to record the interesting things we encounter in our daily lives and regurgitate the images onto our facebook feeds for our friends to witness. What ever happened to picking up the phone and calling a friend and saying, “Hey, Jim, you know, I saw the most beautiful sunset on the way home tonight, with a sherbet colored cloud nestling around the flaming orb as it dipped down to the horizon! Gee, I wish you could have seen it. I felt positively serene looking at it and I thought how much I would love to share it with you.” No, now we have to snapchat it or tweet it or Instagram it. Silly.

So anyway, I recovered my phone and the raccoon still stood there looking at me in disbelief, and I got the video going and took it, only to realize afterwards that the conditions were too dark to capture him except for his little glistening eyes. And the clip is so short that if I watch it, it looks like a meme of a demented cat.

Speaking of demented cats, I was taking the garbage down the hall last night to the chute, and when I returned to the apartment, I noticed that our neighbor-at-the-far-end-of-the-hall’s cat was out. This cat is big, and black, with a white tuxedo chest, and two white booties in the front. He frequently sits out in the hall just near their door, but last night, he was about halfway down the hall, and something about his proximity made me want to try to see if he would come any closer. So I bent over and started clucking, and rubbing my fingers along the carpet to make a scratching sound that used to work like a charm to call our cats.
Sure enough, the cat looked intrigued, and slowly started down the hall toward me, his tail moving in sinuous rhythm above his head, his eyes fixed on mine. Now he was only about 10 feet away, and I dropped into a crouch so as to appear less threatening.
I don’t really know what my goal was, but I guess because we have been petless for a few years, I thought it would be fun to scratch his little head, and have him look up at me adoringly like our cats used to do. Then I would return home and report to Jimmie that I had made a little friend out in the hall and we would go and visit him and so have a grandcat experience- you know, the kind of visit grandparents have with their grandchildren- sweet and doting and short- then the kids leave. With a cat, this would be even more ideal- a little purr, no kitty litter to change- you get the picture.
So here comes the cat, and he is now about five feet away, and I lean my right hand out into the chasm between us and smile, meanwhile, scratching my left hand on the floor. He stops, and, this should have been the first sign that my kitty fantasy was to be short lived, his chin went down, his hackles went up, and he bared his little teeth in an open sneer sort of like the leaf blower dog video that I saw yesterday on FB. You know the one?

Anyway, I clucked and said, “come on, kitty, let’s be friends”. Yes, I actually said that, out loud, in the hallway, as I crouched next to the hallway wall.  And I kept my hand outstretched toward the cat. He lowered his body, and came closer to me, until his nose was just about three inches from my outstretched knuckle.  How cute he was! His eyes looked steadily and mesmerizingly up into mine. I opened my hand and pushed it out into the air just a bit more to try to touch his head, when he made that sound, gutteral and breathy, and swatted his paw out into the space between us, clawing my hand.

Little kitty drew blood don’t you know.

At this turn of events, I said, “Well, that wasn’t very friendly,” and I started to get up from the floor. Then, the psycho cat meowed, gently, as if to say, “I’m sorry, new friend, I didn’t mean to hurt you. Come back and stay with me.”

And as I crouched down again, up went his hackles, and out went his paw again to scratch me a second time.

Now I’d had enough, and I stood and turned to go back to my apartment, looking over my right shoulder expecting to see him walking in the other direction.

But now he is in a full crouch, and he is moving steadily down the hall toward my door and I am now moving fast to get to the door and open it, get inside, and close it before this little demented cat can come inside and scratch me and my entire family to death. I feel a cold sweat breaking out and with my back against the door, I find I am breathing heavily.

I could swear I felt the rap rap rap of his paw paw paw on the door as I walked away. I have a new found respect for urban raccoons both interior and exterior.

Now, isn’t that better than a snapchat?

Instant Gratification


I live near the UPS distribution warehouse of UPS in downtown Los Angeles. On the occasion when I venture out in my car to drive westward at 9 AM it is likely that I will find myself in the midst of a phalanx of big brown trucks. They pour from the UPS plant, down Blaine St. and empty onto Olympic heading west like the chocolate fountain I encountered recently at a friend’s baby shower.  On both sides of me in these large brown box trucks, packages wend their way toward expectant customers all over Los Angeles.

Who are these customers who await the men and women in brown shorts?

1) The stay-at-home mom who ordered the cute die-cut mermaids for her Sea World scrapbook? Perhaps she stands at her sink rinsing out the remains of her second cup of morning coffee and pleasantly anticipating their arrival.

2) The slightly chubby 28-year-old single woman seeking someone? She sits on the sofa in her gym clothes, flipping through a fashion magazine and waiting for her diet supplement to arrive.

3) And me, at my desk at USC, awaiting the delivery of the three copies of each of the plays we will produce next fall?

I am constantly struck with the American obsession with efficiency and time saving. Yesterday, as I ordered some more scripts on Amazon, the screen said, helpfully, “Would you like this item in the next hour?” Stunned, I gazed at the screen in disbelief.

Two things: I couldn’t imagine what object I could need in one hour where I would have turned to the internet to find it. Two, would I have been so derelict in my planning to have not ordered it prior to an hour before needing it? Planning is what I do for a living. I can at least anticipate by two Amazon prime shipping days that which I will need. Get it together people!

And, so, as the herd of trucks winnows to three, peeling off to the left or right, a sole truck remains, leading me to my destination, and guiding all of us consumers to nearly instant gratification.


The Attraction of Cults


Tonight, I attended Jesse Mu-En Shao’s play, “The End Times,” a play about  an extremely cultish Christian community. The play had  great resonance for me.

When I was a junior in college in Spring 1981, and still fancied myself destined to be a great actress, I had a friend in acting class named Wendy.

Wendy and I were doing a scene for  our acting class about these two little old ladies who sold lemonade on the side of the road. In the scene  it is eventually revealed that the lemonade is spiked, and the two become hammered during the scene. Wendy and I had the brilliant idea that if we made some pot brownies and ate one before rehearsing the scene, we would achieve the effect of getting high like the little old ladies in the scene. Smart, right? Sounds like a couple of dopey college students – no pun intended.

I had been given some extremely strong pot butter by one of my older brothers, and I brought the green jar over to Wendy’s dorm room, where we made a pan of brownies while discussing our “approach” to the scene.  I had also wanted to talk with Wendy was because I was taking a GE Religion class, the topic of which was Religion or Cult, and I had elected to write a paper about the  E.S.T. movement, by “infiltrating” a training and outing it as a cult. I knew that Wendy had already taken the training.

From Wikipedia:
“The Erhard Seminars Training (est), an organization founded by Werner H. Erhard, offered a two-weekend (60-hour) course known officially as “The est Standard Training”. The purpose of est was “to transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself.” The est training was offered from late 1971 to late 1984.”

So, as the brownies baked,  Wendy proceeded to reel me in, and I prepared to  test my hypothesis that est was a cult, not a religion.

The brownies finished, cooled, and we cut the pan’s contents into 12 squares. We each ate one, and then rehearsed the scene. 15 minutes later, we looked at each other, and shrugged. Nothing. No high. We each ate another brownie. After another 20 minutes, nothing, so we ate a third each. After finishing a third pass at the scene and still feeling no ill or good  effects from the brownies, I left Wendy’s room, having decided that I would attend an est training in a few weeks, and went back to my room, where I proceeded to have a nightmarish  and hallucinogenic reaction to the brownies. Wasn’t pretty, and it was pretty much my last exposure to pot.

In a few weeks, Wendy drove us to the est training, located in a non-descrip industrial park in New Jersey, in a conference room  filled with about 200 chairs. Est ground rules dictated that the trainings were each 12 hours long, and there was one lunch break in the day, and very infrequent bathroom breaks. The philosophy was that difficult emotional discoveries  could not be avoided by a sudden urge to go to the bathroom if you were not allowed to leave the room. As a result, in addition to “getting it,” I have a bladder of steel and can sit through 6 hour meetings without breaking a sweat.

The thing about infiltrating a cult is that you need to do more than one visit to get the full 360 on it, and the thing about doing more than one visit is that you are in danger of getting sucked into the cult. There is intimacy in sharing a spiritual quest with others that binds you to the group.  It makes you enthusiastic about the work and about sharing the experience. That is what cults count on – that the people who come seeking spiritual sustenance are hungry for intimacy, for fellowship, and will gladly share their experiences with others.

When I had taken two trainings, and several workshops with the Werner Erhard and Associates group, I invited my Mom to come to Princeton for a workshop. She was, at the time, getting her Master’s Degree in Journalism at Columbia University, and she drove down to Princeton at the end of a long day of classes. All the poor woman wanted was a Manhattan and dinner with her daughter. But  I had an alternative agenda -to share with her this transformative experience. We went to the meeting, and there, I watched my intelligent, journalist mother look into the hollow and haunted eyes of one of the est participants. Only then as I watched her asking logical questions of them was I able to see the folly of my search for a spiritual identity. It was not going to happen in the bosom of est. Getting away from the group was not easy, again, as Jesse’s play described. I eventually left college and changed my address, even moved to Europe for a year, effectively breaking the bond with the denizens of the “human potential movement.”

The “getting away” was painted in dark hues in Jesse’s play tonight.  Listening,  we felt exhilarated by the religious fervor of the characters, then claustrophobic , stifled by the constraints of the group’s irrational rules; what was the most devastating thing was the limited  alternatives for the  characters who sought to escape the group, and the abysmal success rate of doing so. Kudos to you, Jesse Mu-En Shao. Thank you for sharing your powerful play with all of us.


It was  December of 1999, and as we stood on the crust of a new pie, a new century, a new millenium. I remembered when I was in my pre-teens and I had forecast that in the year 2000, I would be forty years old. Of course, at that point, I never imagined that anything so heartrendingly literal would happen. Like the shortsighted computer engineers of the sixties, I imagined that I would remain forever 19 something, with nary a wrinkle on my brow, nary a love handle on my hip.

And here I was staring forty in the face, reconstructing myself as an adult, trying to redefine myself in my own terms, rather than by the recipe my mother left scratched into me. It’s hard cooking from scratch.

I tiptoed through the hotspots that I faced as a child with my son, who made me so proud with his accomplishments that I couldn’t imagine my ‘little’ criticisms would carry nearly the weight my parents’ did.

Chris and I had been fighting that day over whether he should do the extra credit math problems – six problems, true/false tagged onto the fifty that he was required to do. I tried to explain that if he did the extra six, it would raise his average on the rest of the page, and ultimately, his grade. Try explaining that to a ten year old who hasn’t covered averages yet in school. He did not want to do it. I unsheathed my tools of negotiation: first I cajoled him. He responded by nastily copying my cajoling in a sing-song, head swaggering thrust. I bribed – he called me on it. And ultimately, I threatened.

“Go to your room, then.”

“That’s blackmail,” he parried.

“No, that’s called parenting.”

“I’m not doing it,” Chris parried back again. “And that’s called kidding.”

Touché!  Ultimately, he did the math extra credit work. And the literature extra credit. The whole exercise took exactly 30 minutes, during which we saw the whole array of pre-tantrum warm ups. The banging on the table with the pencil. The whining, the falling out of the chair, the imagined injury and retreat to his bedroom to “recover.” The whole thing left me so exercised and tired that I considered canceling my gym membership.

Then we spent the rest of the evening in the living room, classical music playing, Chris playing his game boy, and me reading the New York Times.  At one point, he asked if he could come sit on my lap and I watched over his shoulder as he mastered this mind-numbing feat of dexterity his generation can do without batting an eye. If you’d told me when I was twelve that this is what I’d be doing on the eve of my fortieth birthday, I’d have called you a big fat liar. Isn’t it swell?
Another morning that week, we had been sitting in the dentist’s office, waiting for Chris to have his retainer removed. Popcorn stuck in the gum had caused swelling. His best friend, Mikey, was with us, and the conversation moved to braces.

“Are you going to get them?” Mikey asked Chris.

“Yeah. In about five months.” Chris said.

“What color braces are you going to get?” Mikey asked. “Silver or clear?”


“But Chris, if you get red, you’ll look like a vampire with blood in your mouth,” I said.

“Cool. Okay, how about blue?”

I wondered that morning if my parents had asked me about the color of my caps. Whether I’d elected to have the silver because of the way the question was phrased? Or had the question been phrased at all? I think not. But there’s a wonderful innocence about Chris’ desire to stand out with his blue or red grin. It was so untarnished, so replete of hurtful memories. Kids are such a miracle. Such a clean slate. You can fuck up so badly if you make the wrong decisions under pressure.

House guests, dentist whose golf game was interrupted, your daughter screaming and crying in front of you. Sunday afternoon, and the dentist’s lab is closed. Dr. Bailey was there all by himself, of course.  Make a decision quickly. You have to get home to make dinner for your husband’s Yale roommate and his family.

“I think silver. It won’t show up under the braces. You can get white caps after the braces come off.”

Did Mom ever regret that decision? Did she ever have a discussion with Dad about the wisdom of having a girl entering puberty with chrome fenders in her mouth? Was it to protect me from being attractive? It certainly stopped me from becoming vain. I could barely stand to look at myself in the mirror. To this day I have trouble looking in the mirror.

That long ago day, December 14, 1999, I had housekeeping issues to discuss with my therapist.

“I can’t make it Friday, because I’m the room Mom and Chris’s class is having their party. ”
“You’re excused,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

“And I’m anxious about going back to work and still being able to come.”

“We’ll work it out so that you can still come, but without hours and specifics, we can’t schedule.” (That sounds much more patronizing on paper than it did in person.)

What I was really worried about, more than scheduling and going back to work, as if that isn’t enough, was that I was stalled in therapy. I told Jimmie on the phone that I felt that I wasn’t “going anywhere.” Which of course is exactly what we’re working on in the analysis. That you don’t always have to be going somewhere. That just where you are is enough for the moment.

“I’m afraid, too, that I won’t have the memories to help me do this work.”

That I’m not interesting enough.

The previous Sunday, when we were walking into the Iceoplex rink, I was following Chris, carrying his hockey bag when my foot slipped off an uneven place in the pavement and I fell to my knees, scraping my left knee. Chris was in front of me, hitting his tape ball ahead of him like a puck with his stick, and didn’t see me fall. When I exclaimed, “Ouch,” he turned around and looked a little embarrassed by my clumsiness. Someone passing to my left put a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Are you alright?” I didn’t meet their eyes (too embarrassed to have fallen) but said, “Yes, thanks. I’m fine.” I told Chris I needed to go get a bandaid – I could feel that I’d broken the skin on my left knee and didn’t want to bleed all over my new suit.

“Go ahead and put your skates on, sweetie. I’ll be right in,” He shouldered the hockey bag and started off, looking back over shoulder.

“Mom, are you okay?”

“Yes, sweetie. I’m fine. I just scraped my knee.”

It wasn’t until the next morning when I was getting dressed in stockings and a dress that I remembered an incident from when we still lived in Pittsburgh that had been unburied by my fall on Sunday.

We were walking home from the church in North Hills, Don, Larry and I. I must have been five years old, and Larry would have been about seven, Don nine. We had to walk through a little patch of trees which separated the back yards of the houses across the street from ours. We were running, me in my black patent leather shoes, which were  slippery to begin with. I stumbled over a tree root and fell forward, my exposed knee landing hard on the ground. Blood immediately glistened on my knee, and began to spill down my white knee socks onto my black patent leather shoes. I began to cry, both from the pain of cracking my knee and from fear that Mom would scold me for messing up my dress. (Blue with a white Peter Pan collar – how’s that for memory?)

Either my cries or my absence made my brothers turn around and come back to me. They helped me home (or as I said to my therapist, “I had them help me get cleaned up.”-important narration, as she pointed out, because it made me responsible for getting help, rather than being helped automatically by my brothers.) and I limped home, blood coursing down my shin.

I don’t have any memory of Mom or Dad in this event. Again, an environment where children are on their own a lot of the time. Coming home from church. Where were Mom and Dad that we didn’t all go together? Probably in the car driving around the long way. They’d probably made us promise to walk home.

“Take care of your little sister, Donny.”

I have a memory of this overwhelming fear of being scolded or punished for getting hurt – I was running in the woods. I should have known better than to run in the slippery shoes. My brothers would have been just about the age that Chris is now, and turned and looked at me with a feeling of helplessness and responsibility for my welfare and disgust at my clumsiness.

So, with regard to this process of analysis, my therapist asked, “Do you think I can help you if you’re bleeding?”

“It’s so complicated,” I said. “I’ve told you so much about myself over the past two years (I said three – Freudian slip) and I know so little about you. It begins to seem unbalanced. It’s not that I want to know details of your personal life, but it is just such a strange relationship.”

“It is a strange relationship,” she conceded. “It’s like no other relationship. I’m happy to answer your questions about me. When patients come, this process that we’re in  is always a surprise. We won’t solve your problems in your life, but we look at the sources of them. We go back and forth between the interior and exterior worlds. As you get deeper into the analysis, we find ourselves more involved in the interior world. And you find that while you have gotten to know me better, it’s really doesn’t matter.”

I’m also worried that I’m not interesting enough.

“What other times didn’t you feel interesting enough?” she asked kindly.

“At the dinner table.”

“At whose dinner table?”

“At my parents’ dinner table.”

“For example? What would have made you interesting enough?”

“There’s really nothing I could have said that would have made me interesting enough. Maybe if I could have said something adult.”

“If you said something adult you would have been interesting to your parents?”

“When else don’t you feel interesting enough?”
“At parties.”

Back to the alcohol. As Joye pointed out, the alcohol helped to erase my responsibility, gave me an excuse to act outside of myself. “To be more interesting.”

I acknowledged that my fear of not being interesting enough was a direct echo of my mom’s own sentiment about herself. She’d come out and visit us and we’d go to a party and she’d be so quiet. Coming home, I’d say, “Mom, you were so quiet. Why didn’t you talk more? She’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t have anything interesting to say.’”
Stalled you say? No, you’re in it, kiddo.

“Can you tell me if you think I’m stalled? If I’m “doing this right?”
“That’s certainly a legitimate question. You aren’t stalled, and you’re doing just fine. The most important thing is that you say whatever is on your mind. If you are feeling stalled, then you tell me. If you can’t tell me, because you don’t think I’m interested, that you tell me that. If you are ever uncomfortable and don’t want to come any more, that you tell me that.”

“It’s not that I don’t think you are interested, because I think you are. It’s that I’m not interesting enough.” (does she see the difference? Yes, I think she does.)

                  The coda was that this particular evening, when I was walking the dogs for the final walk of the day, the sky streaked with pink, I fell again. I had rounded the corner of our street and had begun walking west when my right foot gave way under me. Almost as if in slow motion, I saw myself falling, my hands outstretched to break my fall, my right knee landing with a dull thud on the ground as it had thirty five years before on my way home from the Lutheran church. I heard the air expel from my mouth, “ooufff” like the sound you might hear from a football player going down after a hard tackle. I felt my charms from my childhood charm bracelet under my palm as I landed on the pavement.

I scrambled to my feet, maintaining my hold on the dogs’ leashes and started off briskly down the sidewalk, whispering to myself aloud, “I can’t believe I fell again today. And landed on that knee.” As I rounded the next corner, I looked down to note that my stockings were torn on my right knee, and blood was beginning to come forth through the scrape on my knee. As my eyes raised up, I had a moment of clarity- I heard a dog bark in the distance, a bird flew across my path and the sky was resplendent in its colors. I took a deep breath and found that my chest was free and my breathing relaxed. I padded along happily behind the dogs, not stalled anymore, but alive.