Mara Wilson Writes Stuff

Hi. My name is Mara. Sometimes I write stuff.

Updates, and a Note on Night Vale

So, once again, it’s been a while.

But can you blame me? (Well, I guess you couldn’t, but don’t.) I’ve been busy. First, I’m promoting and performing my storytelling and comedy show What Are You Afraid Of? It’s all about fears and phobias, dealing with them, and laughing at them. If you are in the New York area and like to see it live, the show is every third Sunday of the month at Union Hall in Brooklyn, and we also will be at Joe’s Pub on August 24th! If you think this sounds interesting and would like to bring it to a theater near you, or a college — and I have done a college show, and would love to – feel free to contact us through our Facebook page!

Then there are other people’s shows. Two of my most recent favorites can be found online: I was a guest on the lovely Katharine Heller’s show Tell the Bartender, where I discussed my pretty terrible first boyfriend, and I did an interview with Keith and the Girl! (Yes, the episode is called Boobs, but it makes sense in context. I’m sorry anyway, Dad.) I talked about OCD, filming Matilda, dealing with my mother’s death, being close with my family, internet harassment, Katy Perry, foot fetishists, my pick-up line, nerds, Alec Baldwin,  Gary Oldman being terrible, The AmericansAmerican Ninja Warrior, and had a great time. It’s probably the most honest and comprehensive interview I’ve ever done, so if you want an insight into what I’m like when I’m not hiding behind my cat-hair covered MacBook Pro, check it out.

There’s also the book, which has occupied a lot of my time. But nothing’s final, and let’s not jinx it. Just promise me you’ll buy it.

 

 

Now, on another note…

When I was little, all I ever wanted was to hang out with the big kids. My brothers and their friends and girlfriends were all so cool, so smart, so funny, and I wanted so badly to be part of their world. I’m lucky to have had them indulge me every so often, letting me come along on their adventures, letting me feel like I was cool, smart, and funny, too.

A year and a half ago, I found a Twitter account that tweeted hilarious, dark, deceptively profound things. I wanted to know more about them, so I listened to their podcast. It was exactly my sense of humor and immediately my new favorite thing. I gushed about it to my friends, many of whom became immediate fans as well. “I feel like this fills a void I didn’t know I had,” one said. I agreed, there really wasn’t anything like it.

Well, maybe there was: I soon found out they were associated with one of my favorite theater groups, the New York Neo-Futurists. I’ve had friends in the Neos, so I was able to meet them and tell them how much I loved what they did. I must have been feeling bold, because I asked them to let me know if they ever wanted or needed a voice-over actress.

To my surprise, they did.

A year ago, I sat with Joseph Fink in a small recording room and tried to be as creepy as possible. A month ago, I performed for 2,500 people at a Broadway venue with some wonderfully talented people as part of the Welcome to Night Vale two year anniversary show. A week ago, I performed in Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa for thousands of people. The show has grown so much in the past year, gathering a rabid fan base, and it’s still dark, profound, and hilarious. Joseph, Jeffrey, Cecil, and Meg, the people who created Night Vale and got it started, deserve all the good that’s come of it. They are the rare people who are as kind and giving as they are talented and intelligent. All the people I’ve met or gotten to know through the show — Dylan, Symphony, Jackson, Hal, Marissa, Lauren O., Lauren S., Kevin, Jon, Eliza, Jasika, Jason, Marc with a C, Mark with a K, all of them — have been the same.

Every time I do a Night Vale show, I feel like I’m once again a little girl, surrounded by the cool older kids, awed by them and their talents. But they have indulged me and taken me along on their adventures. For that, I say thank you. It’s been an honor as well as a blast.

Not quite faceless.

Performing at the Town Hall show. Photo sent to me from someone's tumblr. If you took it, let me know so I can credit you!

Mara’s Kitchen #12, or The Stinging Smoothie

I make really good chocolate chip cookies. After years of trying different recipes, I have finally found one that yields delicious, chewy cookies just like my mom used to make. My cupcakes aren’t bad, either, and I’ve been teaching myself how to make gluten-free, sugar-free, and vegan baked treats for my friends with dietary restrictions and my friends who like to follow fads and complain. Baking calms me down when I’m nervous and makes my friends happy, so I love it.

I’m a good baker, but I am a terrible cook. When I was a nanny, the mom had to tell me to stick to pre-packaged afterschool snacks because I couldn’t make popcorn without setting off the smoke alarm.  I’ve heard it’s a left-brain/right-brain 1 kind of thing: people who like cooking like playing it by ear and improvising, while people who like baking tend to be goal-oriented and want to know exactly what their outcome will be. Cooking is an art, but baking is a science, and I’m probably the most scientifically-minded person to graduate with a degree in Drama from NYU.

Living in New York means lots of take-out, but I have been consciously trying to start making food at home. My crock pot has been a blessing (as has this this cookbook), but I can’t remember life before my food processor. Even when I don’t feel like cooking (which is most of the time), I end up using it at least once a week for smoothies. This past Saturday, after a long day at Publicolor, a smoothie was all wanted. There are several tiny “organic” stores selling juices and blended drinks, but since I’ve been trying to stick to my “at least one new crock pot recipe a week” routine, I decided to buy food for the week and make one at home. 

Now, I was really tired. All day I’d climbed up and down three flights of stairs, and I’d even nodded off on the train ride home. When I got to the produce section, I stood there for several minutes before realizing they did not have spinach. It’s a very small store, but this was unusual and disappointing. Smoothies are one of the only ways I get my vegetables. They did seem to have other greens, though, so I grabbed the first bunch I saw in the section labelled “kale” and put it in my basket. Easy enough. I got some more food for me (and my cats), paid, and left.

Once I got home I got out the food processor and started making one of my favorite smoothies: it has kale, apple, apple juice, a little cinnamon, and tastes like chunky applesauce. Something seemed wrong right away, though, because instead of the usual bright green, the mixture was more of a nasty puce color. The greens had seemed to be yellowing, but I’d made smoothies with yellowing kale before and been fine. The consistency seemed off, too. But it was a smoothie, and I figured there wasn’t any way I could have screwed up a smoothie.

Then I took a sip.

My mouth immediately started to burn. The smoothie tasted the way apple cider vinegar smells, like it’s just singed your nose hairs. Usually the apple masked the taste of kale, but this time there was another strong flavor, something painfully overpowering. It stung my throat as it went down, and tears came to my eyes. How could it hurt to drink a smoothie? What had I done wrong? Too much cinnamon? It had to be. I’d made this hundreds of times, and it was the same every time. “Maybe it’s not that bad,” I thought, and took a larger gulp. No, it was that bad. For some reason, I was reminded of Futurama’s Robot Hell song. Maybe because drinking it felt like a punishment. 2

Whatever it was, it was done now. I dumped what was left in my glass and the food processor (i.e., most of it) down the sink and started up a new batch. This time, I’d pay careful attention to the ratio of cinnamon and apples. I reached into the fridge to get more greens, and that’s when I saw the problem.

 

Not kale.

 

I had not made a kale smoothie, I had made a mustard smoothie. It’s not that I don’t like mustard (though I’m a complete wimp when it comes to anything remotely spicy, the honey mustard at Cosi has made me cry) but it’s not something I want in large doses, and not anything  anyone would want to drink. There’s a time and a place for mustard. Even the Mad Hatter knew that! 3

On the bright side, I unintentionally consumed some mustard greens, which are even healthier than kale. And I finally have a cooking experience that tops the time I was sixteen and put French Vanilla non-dairy creamer in macaroni and cheese because we were out of milk. At some point, though, I’d like to have positive cooking experiences.

Now I just need to find a foolproof crock pot recipe that uses mustard greens.

Notes:

  1. I’ve also heard the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy is a load of crap, but it’s still a fitting metaphor.
  2. Maybe just because it’s a great song.
  3. Am I the only person who always felt sorry for the White Rabbit? They made him cry! He loved that watch, and they broke it! And it was an Unbirthday present!

Notes on a Scandal, or My Only Truly Horrifying Memory from Sex Ed

WARNING: this entry might be disturbing or triggering for some readers. There will be no graphic details, but a crime was committed and will be discussed.

Nobody likes their middle school. But in retrospect, mine was actually a pretty good place. We had encouraging teachers, a nice campus, fun electives, and only one or two bomb threats in my entire three years there.

Sex education came in seventh grade. We spent half the year in science class, where Mr. Allen managed to suck all the fun and wonder out of the discovery of the natural world, and half in “Health” class, where we learned about our bodies. It wasn’t especially comprehensive: abstinence was the rule, and we never learned how birth control worked and or how to put on a condom. But it still wasn’t bad. I learned about the placebo effect, that a fever is actually a defense mechanism, and why contracting herpes is a bigger deal than contracting chlamydia.

Our Health teacher was Mrs. Moretti, a good-humored woman in her sixties. I was glad it was her: our other option was Mrs. Byers, a tough, chain-smoking woman who had taught me Cooking the previous year and yelled at me for using the wrong kind of binder. Her husband also worked at Jordan, teaching Industrial Arts, and both of them looked as if they hadn’t noticed the seventies ended. She had feathered blonde hair, he had an afro, and they dressed like they were in a educational filmstrip. There seemed something uncanny about them, especially after I heard rumors Mr. Byers threw chairs across the room when he got angry.

Still, it was a little strange to have someone so much older talking to us about changes that she hadn’t gone through in years. Mrs. Moretti must have suspected this, because after one exercise where we broke off into single-sex teams 1 and listed everything we wanted in a girlfriend or boyfriend (one boy put “soft hair” as a top priority, and a girl on my team kept insisting we put “big feet”), she invited another teacher to talk to us about it.

“It’s been a while since I’ve had to think about what I want in a husband, so I’ve brought in someone who just got married. Please welcome Mrs. Beck.”

Mrs. Beck was a tall, buxom blonde woman in her early twenties, and I knew her only by sight. She taught sixth grade English and History, but was new to the school and didn’t teach the so-called “gifted classes”. She seemed nice, but I knew nothing about her as a teacher.

“I talked about this with my husband last night,” Mrs. Beck began, “and we decided together on the ten things that matter to us most.”

Her list went from ten to one. Number ten was “attractiveness,” but when one of the girls raised her hand and said “You mean looks?” Mrs. Beck said, “Not just looks. There’s more to an attraction than that.”

Ever cynical, I rolled my eyes. If that were true, if looks weren’t that important, more boys would have liked me. Besides, it didn’t seem like there was much to the boys I knew besides looks. Girls matured faster than boys, so if we wanted someone with a personality, there weren’t many options at David Starr Jordan Middle School — or really, any middle school. Middle school boys smelled bad, were mean, and thought Pokemon was high art. There were a few nice guys, but no one I liked in that way. The romances I imagined always happened with older boys, or celebrities, or boys at another school where “Being Nice to Girls (Even The Ugly Ones)” and “Washing Your Hands After You Use the Bathroom” were part of the curriculum. 2 Mrs. Beck went on to describe some more positive qualities, and while I could see the importance of some of them, I was still skeptical. Maybe she was lying to make herself look good, or maybe she was being honest and I just wouldn’t see it until I got older. Either way, by the time she reached the top three, my mind had wandered to more interesting places, like which brother on Malcolm and the Middle was the cutest. I would never be able to remember what she had said was most important.

Time went by. I finished seventh grade, finished middle school, “fell in love” in high school, fell in love for real in college, and did find my priorities changing. Someone could be gorgeous but a terrible person, and I’d find myself less attracted to them. Exy seemed only kind of cute when we first met, but the longer we dated the more beautiful I found him. Once or twice I thought back to Mrs. Beck, and thought maybe had been telling the truth, and had been right.

Except she wasn’t. She really wasn’t.

Ten years after health class ended, one of my friends posted a news story about Mrs. Beck on Facebook. The woman who told my class what really mattered was trust and communication and intelligence had just surrendered herself to the police for having sex with a fourteen-year-old boy, one of her former sixth grade students. She would be going to jail and registering as a sex offender for the rest of her life.

I couldn’t believe it, and neither could anyone else from Burbank. My hometown is notorious only for being boring. We’d had school scandals before, but nothing like this. There was the unfortunately common response (once lampooned on South Park) that the victim, being a young boy, had “wanted it.” I heard too many jokes from men about how they wished they could have been in his place, or how fitting it was that Jordan’s school mascot was the Cougar. Did these men know any fourteen-year-old boys, I wondered. They’re still very much children, and taking advantage of one is nothing less than child rape.

It was hard to know whether I should be more horrified — she was an authority figure taking advantage of a child who had trusted her — or baffled. What could this woman in her thirties, seemingly happily married, have been thinking? Was there something wrong with her mind, some kind of chemical imbalance? There was no evidence she had raped any other students, so maybe it was less sexual compulsion and more desire. But what could she have found to desire in a middle school student? Surely nothing she had listed that day in Health class.

When I think back to that exercise, the other thing I remember is overhearing one of the boys whispering to a friend that his all-male group had lied. They didn’t care if a girl was smart or fun or nice, they just wanted someone cute. That didn’t seem fair for several reasons, and I brought it up to Mrs. Moretti before I left class.

“Jack said they made it up, they didn’t really want any of the nice things they said they did. They don’t care about anything besides how she looks. They were lying.”

“They could be lying about lying,” she said. “A lot of boys want to seem tough. They don’t want to admit to wanting something nice.”

I now think Mrs. Moretti was right, but I’ll never know for sure. I wondered the same about Mrs. Beck. But I don’t want to know anymore.

Notes:

  1. The Burbank Unified School District was not yet comfortable acknowledging same-sex relationships.
  2. Yes, I know middle school girls are as awkward and miserable as middle school boys. I did not know that at the time, but if I had been a boy who liked girls, I would not have wanted to date someone like me, either.

Seven Things That Happened In The Past Few Weeks

It’s been a busy few weeks. So much has happened that’s blog-worthy, I couldn’t write separate entries for all of them — or perhaps writing for Cracked has gone to my head. Anyway, here’s what’s been happening.

1. San Francisco and Night Vale Live

I have been to San Francisco twice in the past two months, and I want to go again soon. My sister lives there, which is reason enough to visit, but the beautiful scenery, friendly people 1, perpetual cozy sweater weather, drag queen showings of Showgirls, sourdough bread, Mexican food, and memories of being five years old and filming Doubtfire also keep me coming back. I’m married to New York, but the Bay Area is the guy who went through my mind as I said my vows.

While I was there, I was fortunate to have the chance to perform in a live show of Welcome to Night Vale in the Haight. It was hosted by the Booksmith, a lovely little bookshop I highly recommend. The show was funny and creepy, as it always is, everyone loved Satellite High, and while I’ve done all kinds of shows, I have never seen such hardcore fans. So many fans gave me hugs and presents and fan-art, and it was like Beatlemania when Cecil went outside.

Thank you again, San Francisco, for stealing my heart. Just be sure to give it back at some point, I don’t want to hemorrhage.

2. Night Vale Mayoral Debate in New York

As soon as I got back to New York, we started preparing for another Night Vale show: the mayoral debate. My character, The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home, is running for mayor of Night Vale, as is Hiram McDaniels, a five-headed dragon played by Jackson Publick. I like to think we’re the front-runners, especially as our other candidate (played by Marc Evan Jackson) was spirited away for a special mission. (If none of this makes sense to you, stop what you are doing and go listen to Welcome to Night Vale.)

There were two shows, and both went well! In addition to Marc and Jackson, we had Kevin R. Free and Jason Webley perform, and several other actors from the Thrilling Adventure Hour: Marc Gagliardi, Annie Savage, Craig Crackowski, and Hal Lublin. New York fans were as adamant and excited as the San Franciscans, though a little less huggy. 2 Joseph and Jeffrey, the show’s writers, joked that meeting fans and signing autographs must make me nostalgic. It did feel familiar.

The only uncomfortable moment happened at the end of the second show. I’d had a nasty cold for the past week, and as Cecil was starting his last paragraph, I started to feel a familiar tightening in my chest. I didn’t want to distract from the show by having a coughing fit, so I held it in as best I could. My chest got tighter, my throat constricted, and my best was not good enough: I was having an asthma attack, onstage. My vision blurred and I swayed, wondering if I should reach out for something in case I blacked out, and hoping Cecil would do something completely out of character and say his lines faster.

Cecil wished Night Vale a good night and I managed to cough as we stepped away from the mics and the audience roared. My eyes were still watering when Jackson looked over at me and smiled. He must have thought I was moved by the show and the audience’s reaction, but I killed that pretty quickly by mouthing “I’m having an asthma attack.”

As soon as the applause died down, I ran offstage, rummaged through my purse and took my inhaler. My breathing returned to normal and I performed in the second show without any problems. And when I needed to cough, I did.

3. Thrilling Adventure Hour 

A few months back the nice people at the Thrilling Adventure Hour contacted Joseph to say they’d be in town for New York Comic Con, and asked if Cecil and I wanted to be on the show.

I said yes, and I’m glad I did: it was one of the most fun shows I’ve done — an old-timey radio serial — and when I said “the nice people,” I meant it. Paul F. Tompkins is as kind and welcoming as your favorite funny uncle (but a much sharper dresser), Jackson Publick is far cooler than I’ll ever be, but was still a nice guy, Scott Adsit is warm and witty, Paget Brewster and Maria Thayer are as sweet as they are gorgeous, both Paul and Storm are fun and funny, and Jonathan Coulton is friendly with a great sense of humor and was willing to listen to me babble on about my personal connections with his songs. It’s rare to find people who are talented, funny, and kind — I know about three happy and well-adjusted New York comedians — but they were all of those.

I only had initial reservations about one person…

4. Wilson v. Glass, round three

Backstage banter is a big part of live shows, and we got a good head start at the Night Vale show. Craig, Hal, Jackson, Marc Evan, Annie, Marc Gagliardi and I joked around, and they expressed their admiration at Night Vale’s sudden, overwhelming success.

Cecil said “We were number one on iTunes for a while, but This American Life has replaced us again. We knew that would happen, though. It’s like the Meryl Streep of podcasts.”

“Right,” I said, “And Night Vale is more like Jennifer Lawrence.”

Cecil laughed. “That’s exactly right! We’re the new hot thing, but Meryl and This American Life always win.”

“Oh, speaking of This American Life,” Marc Gagliardi said, “Guess who’s going to be a guest star at the show tomorrow? Ira Glass!”

“Oh shit!” I yelled, almost involuntarily. “Really? Oh shit… oh shit!”

Marc looked surprised. “Isn’t that good news?”

“We… have a history,” I said.

Marc, Cecil, and everyone else from Thrilling Adventure Hour laughed when I told them the story, but I was actually nervous all the next day. I had already been thinking about taking that letter off this site. Open letters, as a concept, seem a little passive-aggressive to me now, and I’ve had some bizarre and unpleasant encounters with fans, too. 3 He’s probably just an awkward person, I figured. I understand that: I’m pretty awkward myself.

Still, as soon as I arrived at The Bell House, I kept glancing at the door, waiting for him to enter. When he did, I noticed his suit pocket was ripped, almost literally hanging by a thread.

“That was probably my dog,” he explained. “She’s a pit bull, and usually sweet, but… you know.” Yes, he was an awkward person. But one who rescues shelter animals.

I wasn’t sure what to say when he sat next to me. My friends had suggested I not bring up our past at all, and just try to be friendly with him.

“Sorry about your pocket,” I said.

“Yeah, it was my dog. You look very nice,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I’m Ira,” he said.

“I’m Mara,” I said.

“Have we met before?” He said.

“We have,” I admitted, “But it was under awkward circumstances.” He looked thoughtful, and I went on. “It was at Mike Birbiglia’s show, and I wanted to get your attention…”

“And then you wrote about it,” he said (again).

“Yeah…” I said, but he didn’t seem upset or irritated. It was just an observation. I had written about it.

“I’m really sorry about that,” he said, and seemed sincere. “I was just really distracted.”

“No, I’m sorry, too,” I said, and we both stumbled over our words and laughed. The tension was broken.

“So are you an actor?” He said.

“Kind of,” I said. “I write now, but I used to be a child actor.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah, I started when I was five, and I was in a few movies. But as I got older I found it wasn’t fun anymore, especially after my mother died…” Was I telling Ira Glass my life story? Maybe he just has that effect on people. It is his job.

“But you’re probably not fazed by celebrities,” he said.

“That’s true,” I said. “But I was fazed by you!”

He laughed. “I’m not a celebrity!”

“Well, my friends like to joke that we’re in a feud, that you’re my nemesis,” I said.

“We should take a picture of the two of us fighting,” he said.

“Yes, we should!”

 

And so we did. Yes, that’s John Hodgman photobombing.

I think this means we’re cool now! If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s turning nemeses into friends. Or at least acquaintances.

5. My Cracked Article on OCD

I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder when I was twelve. My symptoms have waned, so what bothers me most now is not residual symptoms, but its misrepresentation in popular culture. The disorder that caused me so much misery for so long is seen as a mere personality quirk or a punchline. I have been so vocal about this on my twitter account the editors at Cracked suggested I write about it.

And so I have. It’s a topic I’m passionate about, and I like to think I’ve done some good with this article. To go a little further, though, here are some good resources if you think you or someone you know might have OCD or anxiety:

* The International OCD Foundation - This has all kinds of information, and a way to find a therapist who specializes in OCD.

* Brain Lock – Reading and working with this book will alleviate OCD symptoms. A summary is available here.

* Panic Attacks Workbook – Get this if you have panic attacks. It’s helped me, and it’s helped several people I know.

* Kissing Doorknobs – A fiction book written by my friend (and Matilda co-star) Kira’s mom! This is another one that helped me a lot.

* GoodTherapy.org – Find a therapist by location and specialty. Psychology Today has one, too, but I think it’s limited to North America.

You can get help and things can get better.

6. Elisa and Paul’s Wedding

Last weekend I went down to Baltimore to see my friends Paul and Elisa get married. Yes, that Paul and Elisa. It wasn’t a huge wedding, but there were enough nerds and internet celebrities there that some started calling it WeddingCon 2013.

After the funny, heartfelt vows, we were told we could dance or could explore the catacombs where Edgar Allen Poe and several hundred citizens of Baltimore were buried. You can probably figure which most of us chose.

The church and its surrounding buildings were beautiful, if a bit dreary. I had expected this of Baltimore. Though, to be honest, all I had known of it was based on my brother’s stories from Johns Hopkins, visiting once ten years ago for his graduation, and what I’d seen on The Wire. I knew it could be a pretty depressing place to live, but figured that was due to corrupt politicians, industrialization, and deindustrialization. Not so, said our cheerfully morbid tour guide. Baltimore was dark and disturbing from the beginning.

“There was a man named Frank,” she said, “And he was a — well, the elementary school students ask me if he was crazy, but I like to think of him as an entrepreneur. Anyway, Frank was a graverobber…”

After the talk of rabies and anti-graverobbing precautions, I took pictures of Poe’s grave for my goth-hippie sister, then went inside for wine and cake. Everyone all stayed up late talking and drinking, and I got to know some wonderful new people. The next day I got a ride up to Pennsylvania to see my brother and his wife and swap Baltimore stories.

I do have to admit Charm City has its charms. A dark and depressing sort of charm, but charm nonetheless. 

7. Ruby the Kitten

For months, my roommate and I have been talking about getting another cat. Our giant ginger tabby, Milo, has been seeming a bit antsy lately, and we wondered if he was lonely. It’s wholly possible we are both soft touches for cute small animals 4 and are projecting our desire for another one onto Milo. But we haven’t done much besides wistfully browse Petfinder and try to pet any passing stray/outdoor cats 5

When I came home from Pennsylvania this past Wednesday, my roommate sent me a text telling me she had found a mother cat and several kittens in a nearby alley. I joined her there, and we opened up a few cans of food for them.

“They look sick,” she said. “I think that one has an eye infection, and they’re all sneezing.”

“Should we try to get them and take them to the vet?” I said. They were eating the canned food, a sign they could live without their feral mother. The tiniest one crawled a little closer, and my roommate picked her up by the scruff. The kitten didn’t fight, she let herself be held. After a little discussion, I ran back upstairs for Milo’s cat carrier, and we took her to a local vet.

The doctor inspected the kitten, confirmed my suspicions she was a girl, and diagnosed her with an eye infection, ringworm, and a respiratory infection that could have progressed into Pneumonia.

“It’s a good thing you brought her in when you did,” the vet said. “She wouldn’t have lasted long on the streets.”

Maybe it was hearing that, or the way the kitten purred and kneaded on us once we got her home, or (more cynically) the sunk cost of her vet bills, but we decided to keep her. She’s looking more lively since we’ve given her medicine, and on my sister’s suggestion, we’ve named her Ruby.

Day six. She's all wrapped up like a kitty burrito.

New friends, new fans, new shows, a new article, and a new kitten. It’s been a good month.

Notes:

  1. Compared to New York.
  2. Which was a good thing, I didn’t want to give them my cold.
  3. I really want to be friendly, but If I’m just through airport security, trying to put my belt and shoes back on so I can catch the plane to my brother’s wedding, or I’m at your Sephora buying concealer because I’ve been crying over a break-up, now might not be the best time to approach me. You’re free to tell your friends about the minor celebrity you saw at work, but you don’t need to keep asking your co-worker if she knows who I am when she clearly doesn’t and couldn’t care less.
  4. It’s not just kittens. We’d consider getting a dog if her work schedule permitted it.
  5. If you live in Berkeley, California and have a gray indoor/outdoor cat named Darwin, you should know he and I bonded when I was last in the Bay Area.

My Romance

It was the summer of 2000, and my sister and I were bored. We had been sitting in London Heathrow Airport for hours, and I had already read and reread my UK copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire twice. We would be there for hours more, and swapping Rocko’s Modern Life quotes back and forth was getting old. We needed to pass the time.

“Let’s make up a story,” I said. We did that a lot. Anna and I had created a talk show called “The Cupid and Angel Show” (she was a wisecracking, cherubic cupid, and I was Angel, the straight man host), and a comic called The Pie Man, which came out of some non-sequitur thought bubbles Anna had added to human characters from a 101 Dalmatians coloring book. The Pie Man was a farce about a man who loved pie so much it got in the way of everything else. We had one issue — where the Pie Man was mistaken for a minister and wreaked havoc while trying to perform a wedding — and we thought it was hilarious.

Most of the time, though, I came up with the story. Anna’s expertise was artwork: at seven, my younger sister had become better at drawing and painting than I was or ever would be. She took a lot of pride in it, and when I was in the mood to be a good big sister, I did, too.

“I have a better idea,” I said. “Let’s make a comic.”

Anna’s eyes lit up. “Yeah! You can make the story and I’ll do the drawings! What should it be about?”

Usually when I wrote something, I came up with an idea in advance. When I had been younger, it was similar to stories by whichever authors I had been binge-reading at the time —  Beverly Cleary, or Judy Blume, or Bruce Coville. Other times it was about whatever was happening in my life, like my pet hamster getting a new cage, or my brothers going to an R.E.M. concert, or graduating from elementary school. As I got older, inspiration came to me at random, and it was a matter of following the most interesting ideas.

This time, though, my thoughts returned to an earlier story I had written. Our brother Jon was a big X-Files fan, and “Bad Blood” was one of his favorite episodes. After maybe the fifth time we watched it (rereading, rewatching, and repeating run in the family), and reading a few bloodsucker stories in Bruce Coville’s anthologies, I started to write a family drama about vampires.

My main character was a young vampire boy who lived a fairly normal life with his sister and mother. They lived in a community of vampires and had two kinds of bites, one that killed and one that would turn someone else into a vampire. But they also reproduced the way heterosexual humans did, and grew up the same way, probably because biological science was hard enough for me as it was and mythological biology would be even harder. The conflict was the boy turning out to have a long-lost mortal father, making him a half-vampire and an outcast. He went searching for his father and bit him so he could come back and live with the vampires. I saw this as a happy ending.

“Maybe something about vampires?” I said. “Like… vampires living a normal life and going to high school and stuff? Just in their own little world?”

“OK,” Anna said, and started to sketch a vampire girl in a sort of gothic schoolgirl uniform.

“Let’s call her something like Dracula, but a girl’s name. Like she was named after him… Like Dracie,” I said, rhyming it with “Gracie”.

“Yeah,” said Anna. “And maybe she has a best friend named… Drusilla? But they call her Dru?”

“Yeah! And let’s have them going to a History of Vampires class,” I said, J.K. Rowling on the brain. “That’s where we can have a teacher talk about what our vampires are like, so people reading it won’t be confused.” Exposition was so much easier when you just told people what was happening.

“What are we going to call it, though?” Anna said.

“I dunno. For now, let’s just call it, like… ‘Fangs A Lot’ or something.” It was our working title, a dumb name, but not any dumber than Gloomcookie.

Anna started on a drawing of Dru, who might have been problematically prettier than Dracie. “Do we want any boys?” she said.

Oh right, boys. “Yeah, we do. But this is high school, so they’ll have to have boyfriends and stuff…” An inspiration struck. “Oh, what if there’s a new boy in school, and his name is Timber or Silver or something, and Dracie really likes him? And he likes her back, but then she sees him walk by a mirror and he reflects! And she realizes he’s not a vampire at all, he’s a werewolf!”

Yes, that afternoon in Heathrow Airport, my sister and I invented teen paranormal romance.

Sure, you can point to Anne Rice or Francesca Lia Block, but I don’t mean decently-written fantasy or magical realism. I mean Twilight or Hush, Hush or Fifty Shades Of Grey (which I consider paranormal, it’s completely divorced from any realistic depictions of sex, relationships, BDSM, the United States, or affluence). Love triangles and secret identities and wars between mythical creatures? Anna and I had that first.

Anna and I never went beyond basic sketches. But if we had, and if we had submitted “Fangs A Lot” before Stephenie Meyer submitted Twilight, that genre could have been ours. People would have come to conventions dressed like Dracie. Teen girls would write fanfiction about the History of Vampires teacher hooking up with Dru on her eighteenth birthday, and it would have been accepted because our vampires are different and aging was canon. There could have been a movie. We would have left Robert Pattinson to live a quiet life known only as “that guy who was in Goblet of Fire”, instead trying to get Joseph Gordon-Levitt to play Timber or Silver or whatever his name was and Evan Rachel Wood to play Dracie. We would have failed, because they’re only in good movies. We would have become billionaires, anyway.

Yes, we could have created paranormal romance. Instead, we grew up.

A Request and a Warning

When I first started dating my ex-boyfriend Algernon, 1 he said, “I should tell you, sometimes I need a little time to myself.” He was a good-natured, philosophical mathematician (read: a nerd), and every now and then he needed time to be alone to read or write or just to think. I immediately heaved a sigh of relief. “Great,” I said, “So do I!” 2

A friend told me recently, “You know, for a person with a lot of friends, you’re pretty introverted.” She’s right, and I’m learning to accept it. I’ve said this before, but I think living in New York does this to me: I was never a shy child, and I’ve noticed my degree of introversion varies depending on where I am. When I went down to Georgia for a wedding, the first time a passing stranger called out, “Hello, how are you?” I froze and thought “What does he want from me?” But within twelve hours I had warmed up, smiling at everyone and overwhelming the local art school students with my cheeriness. As soon I got back on the plane to New York, though, I felt myself tense up once again, ready to become the person who sighs audibly when someone presses the button for the second floor in an elevator, and who screams “YOU’RE NOT HELPING!” when someone honks their horn. 3

After two years of boarding school and eight years of the most populous city in the country, I appreciate my space. There are not a lot of places you can be alone in New York, but there are a few places where you can be ignored. This is why I do a lot of my best writing and thinking on the subway, and why, when a friend asks me which train I’m taking, I’ll secretly hope it’s not the same one they are. I love being around my friends and would gladly hang out with them every night of the week, but my commute is my time. My mind is like a cluttered kitchen junk drawer, and sometimes I need alone time to sort it out.

But because I get so deep into my own mental mess, I have to make a request of everyone I know or ever might meet: do not ever sneak up on me. Ever. Don’t hide behind something and then jump out, don’t come up behind me and grab me, and try not to startle me. Don’t do it when I’m talking to other people, and DEFINITELY do not do it when I am alone.  4

Yes, I know when you say you don’t like something, inevitably, one person will make it their duty to do that thing — especially if you said it on the internet. To the person reading this who will now try to sneak up on me, I say, yeah, I know my reaction sounds hilarious, but don’t do it. It’s for your own safety: I have hurt people who thought they were being funny. Once, when I was in high school, my friend Gina gave me a rather strong, startling slap on the ass as I was walking away. (We were Drama Nerds: pansexual-yet-platonic sublimation was what we did.) Before I could comprehend what had happened, I whirled around and hit her back, hard. She cried out, “Ow! That really hurt!” I said, “Oh god, I’m sorry!” I hadn’t wanted to hit her, but I was not in control of my own reflexes. If you sneak up on me, there is a chance I will hurt you. I don’t want to, but I will.

This still happens today. About a year ago I was walking to my friend’s house for a writing group meeting. It was in an area of Brooklyn I didn’t know very well, and I while I’ve worked all over New York, I still feel a little uncomfortable in any new area. One thing you always want to do in this city is look like you know where you’re going, and with as poor spatial relations as mine, I rarely ever do. As I was exiting the subway, someone came up behind me, knelt down, and whispered “Boo!” I jumped, screamed, and turned around to see my friend and fellow writing group member Chris.

“DON’T DO THAT! YOU KNOW NOT TO DO THAT!” I said, and continued yelling at him until I had regained my stability. By that time we were halfway to our friends’ place, and we spent the remaining half apologizing — him because he had scared me, and me because I had yelled at him. Maybe I shouldn’t have yelled, but I maintain that sneaking up behind a woman who’s already got her guard up is never a good idea, especially when that woman is me.

So, if you ever see me walking around, lost in my thoughts, and you would like to say hello, please be cautious. Don’t touch me or yell at me; instead, get into a position where we can see each other face to face, then say hello. I might still be a little startled, but I will be pleased to see you, and will be glad to talk.

And please don’t ever throw me a surprise party.

Notes:

  1. No, that’s not his real name. Is that anyone’s real name?
  2. This might be part of reason we are still friends.
  3. Tennessee Williams wrote a Southern character who said “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Tony Kushner set a play in New York, and had a character respond to that quote with “Well, that’s a stupid thing to do.”
  4. Some people are jumpy because they’ve been through a sudden, unexpected traumatic event, like an assault or car accident, but, fortunately, nothing like that happened to me. I’m just jumpy. It’s possible it started when I was thirteen: my parents set up the computer so that it faced their bedroom door, and I was always afraid they would open the door and see me messing around on the internet when I was supposed to be doing my homework. Even though I was probably just playing Neopets, not looking at porn, they were very strict and I was very afraid of getting in trouble. After a while, I developed a Pavlovian response and would jump every time I heard them turning the doorknob.

Tales From The First Decadian Simpsonites

It had been seasons since most of them had seen the sun. For years, the MacFarlanders and the Parkerstoners had waged war while The First Decadian Simpsonites huddled in their cave, hoping the bloodshed would soon end.

All they could do was wait — wait and listen. Every Primetime hour, after the daring foragers returned with the day’s provisions, after they had fed and duffed, after the maggies were pacified, the Youngers would sit and the Oldest and Wisest of the Elders, Elderlisa, would tell stories of the past.

Her eyes were white and she could no longer see. She said it was because she had sat too close to the glowing screen as a child. The Youngers had never seen a glowing screen, but they knew she had seen it.

But before telling stories of the fool Homer or the trickster Bart or the wise Lisa for whom she had been named, she said, “Youngers, tell me. Why do they fight?”

The Youngers fidgeted. It must have been the High Holiday of Sweepsweek, if she was to recount history. None of them dared to speak: they knew this was a question she herself would answer.

“Not long after the Simpsonites, there appeared two deities in one, Parker-Stone. Perhaps the deities were brothers, perhaps lovers, perhaps just co-creators.” Parker-Stone had ruled from a stream called Cahmehdee and spoke plainly to the people, often in the avatar of several young boys. “They spoke of freedom and invisible hands,” The Elderlisa said, “and all who disagreed would be sentenced to death by public ridicule.” Their followers were fierce and loud and had once been abundant in villages called “forums”. 

Then came the MacFarlanders. They were not as fierce as the Parkerstoners, nor did they have the strength of beliefs. What they did have, was their speed, their stamina, and their talent for distraction. One would lob a popular cultural artifact at a Parkerstoner, and the other would ambush him. “They were pillagers,” the Elderlisa said. “That has always been their strength: searching through the catacombs for anything they might use to delight and torment others.” On occasion they might change their strategy, chanting or screaming, or fight with a large fowl for several hours before returning to the front. 

Some say they worshipped a large man named for a mythical ancient beast. Some spoke of a small vengeful maggie spirit who would one day grow to kill the large man and his red-haired consort. Others spoke of a creature from beyond the stars or a well-spoken man covered in white fur or of a wicked water-dweller. “This is not what matters to them,” Elderlisa said. “What matters is what they had done with what they pillaged, and the control they yield.”

“Now, why did this happen?” she said. “Why do they fight?”

The Youngers all looked to the youngest to answer, as was the custom.

“It was The Fox,” said the youngest, barely older than a maggie. “The Fox did it!”

The Elderlisa nodded. “He gave the MacFarlanders too much power.”

They continued in the Sweepsweek tradition. The Elderlisa spoke of Gray-ning, the Creator. She spoke of the benevolent many-faced Ullman, and of Conan, a man of immense size, who was led astray by a peacock. Castellaneta, who gave voice to the creatures. Cartwright, who was both a woman and a boy.

But as a Younger was reciting the names of the word-spirits (“Meyer, Swartz-weld-er, Cohen, Jean, Oakley…”), the youngest forager,  his hair as fiery as the legendary Conan’s, burst through the entrance to the cave.

“Elders!” His eyes burned bright. “I have spoken with the Latter-Day Simpsonites. They want us to join them!”

All eyes went to the Elders. The Latter-Day Simpsonites were the First Decadian Simpsonites’ sworn flanders, idolators who had betrayed the creators with their worship of gueststars. On quiet days, the First Decadians could hear their cries of “Yvan eht Nioj!”

“We cannot,” said the Elderabe.

“But what other choice do we have?” Yelled the fiery-haired forager. “Join the Futuramanians?”

The Futuramanians were a small but devoted migratory clan. They were last heard to be living near the Parkerstoners’ channel, but it was rumored they had once again been forced off.

“There are rumors of other communities near the stream–” began the Elderabe, but the young forager interrupted him, “We are as good as dead without the LDS!”

The room erupted into shouts and screams. Some cried “it’s the only way!” while others yelled “blasphemy!” Duffs were thrown, Maggies wailed, all was chaos until the Elderlisa belched for attention. It was a blessing some said she had learned from Homer himself.

“Tell them… tell them they can…” the Elderlisa said. Suddenly, she reached out to steady herself. A stronger elder put his arm on hers, offered his strength, but she whispered “no.” She very slowly pulled herself up, and up more, and a murmur went through the crowd: they hadn’t known she was still able to stand on her own. What would she do? What would she say?

She puckered up her mouth, and she spit in the fiery-haired forager’s direction. Then she broke into a smile.

“Eat my shorts.”

(Special thanks to some  Twitter people for inspiration. I believe @thesearesongs and @DeusExJuice were involved, but let me know if you were, too, so I can credit you.)

Sorry, Blog.

The past few weeks have been a bit hectic for me. My brother got married, my friend/director Max Reuben and I finalized a cast for the FringeNYC production of my play Sheeple, 1 my Cracked article was published, I was on Katie Couric’s show, my Cracked article kind of went viral, I was on Australian TV, 2 I was on NPR, I got my 23andMe test results back, 3 and had yet another of my regularly-scheduled sinus infections. This weekend I’m going to L.A. for some work on special features for the Matilda Blu-Ray, and in a week and half I will be on my favorite podcast, Welcome to Night Vale4 And this is only the stuff I’ve been told I don’t have to keep secret.

In other words: sorry, blog. No, no, it’s not you — I’ve just been busy, you know? There have been things to do and — no, no, I do want to keep working on you, I just… It’s just me, you know? I’ve got my own stuff going on. But you’re still special to me, OK? No one allows me to say whatever I want like you do. And I have a new entry coming soon! Like in an hour or so. So we’re cool, right?

Notes:

  1. We had to do some of it by video, as I was out of state at the wedding. When I showed my sister an auditioning actor’s demo reel, she looked surprised and said, “Why did he put this on the internet? It’s so personal!” She hadn’t realized the monologue he was doing was scripted. He got cast.
  2. I have no idea what the Ewok joke was about, either.
  3. 99% European and likely to develop Restless Legs Syndrome.
  4. Be sure to listen to at least the first few episodes before you listen to mine!

I Want Candy

When I was a child, Saturday was my least favorite day of the week. The Jewish sabbath day is supposed to be a day of rest, but to a child, rest is boring and boredom is death. We couldn’t turn on the radio or computer, and TV was strictly off-limits. 1 We had to go to temple and listen to prayers in another language for hours, which hardly appealed to me: I was a conscientious kid, but apparently not a very spiritual one. There was only one upside, and that was that my mother’s loose interpretation of “rest” meant we could have candy. She was strict about our sugar consumption during the week, but come Saturday, candy, cookies, and sweets of all kinds were no longer off limits. Judaism’s laws against eating milk with meat also meant we were allowed to eat chocolate before dinner. Jelly beans and gelt were given out in Hebrew School, and going to a Bar Mitzvah meant getting to eat the gummy candies that had been thrown at the boy who had just become a man. Every Sunday was spent in a sugar hangover.

There was little I wouldn’t do for candy in those days, and my peers were similarly desperate. We lived for candy-rich holidays like Halloween, Easter, or Purim, and teachers regularly bribed us with Warheads (which were sour until they were sickly-sweet) and Blo-Pops (which were far superior to Tootsie Roll Pops). It was pure cruelty when a substitute teacher bribed my class with two caramels, saying she would give them to the two quietest, most studious students of the day. 2 My parents also didn’t allow me to have candy on set, for fear I’d get too hyped up on chocolate and sugar and then crash when I needed to be focused on acting. This meant that every night, as soon I wrapped, I would raid the Craft Service table. We filmed Matilda an hour away from Burbank, and I often spent the nightly car ride back home in a backseat sugar orgy so shameless and desperate Lou Reed could have written a song about it.

About a year ago, I saw a hipster couple in their twenties buying multiple giant bags of candy. It struck me as odd, and then it struck me as odd that it struck me as odd. It would have made sense if it had been close to Halloween and if they had been in a child-friendly neighborhood, but they weren’t and it wasn’t. I had never seen adults buy that much candy, and I knew I never would buy that much. Yet there had been a time, as a child, when the pursuit of candy was all-consuming. What happened? It wasn’t that I didn’t like candy or sweets anymore — I still love a good Bake Sale, and I’ll sometimes buy a box of chocolates for myself — but there was a time when I couldn’t pass the candy aisle without temporarily losing control of my mental faculties and grabbing everything in sight. Candy used to leave me helpless, and now I could live without it. When did that become possible?

My friends had similar reactions: they remembered candy being very important at one point, but noticed that while it was still a treat, it seemed to have lost its power. I began tracing it back: was candy still a big deal for us in college? It wasn’t, at least not for me. I remembered eating candy as an indulgence on a stressful day, or whenever I was focusing on an essay or project. 3 But it would be purchased on impulse: I never went out just to buy candy. Sometimes Exy and I would bake cookies, but that was more of a fun activity we did as a couple. Candy had lost its luster before that.

At boarding school, my very charismatic Comparative Religion teacher had told our class “Sometimes when I bite into a Snickers, all I can taste is chemicals.” Was that what turned me off candy? I thought back to my days at the Idyllwild Arts Academy campus bookstore, gossiping about who had been suspended and who had really deserved that part and who had been wait-listed at NYU 4 while the cashiers pretended not to be listening in on our conversations. I had certainly indulged there, but I only remember peanut butter pretzels and Amy’s pocket sandwiches, not candy. Besides, if (as my friends had led me to believe), this had happened to others, too, it had to be a more universal experience.

It seemed to have happened before high school. The last time I could remember really caring about candy was when I was about twelve. I would walk to the Walgreens by myself and buy as many Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups as I could afford on my allowance. While I was filming Thomas in rural Pennsylvania, some extras told me they worked for Hershey. I told them about my deep love of Reese’s Cups, and the next day my trailer was filled with Reese’s Cups of all sizes and a Reese’s Cups T-shirt. It’s still one of my favorite childhood memories. Many of the grown women on the set joked that it would come in handy to have friends at such a company when I got a little older and started experiencing certain kinds of “stress.” They didn’t seem to understand: they might have needed chocolate once a month, but as a kid, I needed it all the time.

Somewhere between age twelve and age fourteen, candy stopped being important. I considered that maybe my tastebuds had just changed, and my palate became more refined. But as someone who will still gladly consume a whole bag of Goldfish crackers, I knew that couldn’t be completely it. What else had happened in those years?

That’s when it hit me: we had given up on the compulsive need for candy about the same time we discovered sex.

I do not mean when we started having sex. The timing does not line up, though I am told some people actually do have sex while they are still in their teens. 5 I mean when we discover sex, when it’s not just an absurd or vaguely appealing concept, but something that could potentially happen in real life. Friends confirmed that candy became less important when they realized there was something else to pursue, something much more exciting and stimulating. 6 Sex had taken up residence in our minds — knocking several other things out along the way — and refused to leave. It had become real.

For me and my childhood friends, that happened in eighth grade. We were thirteen and in that window of time after our bodies had begun changing, but before we knew what to do with them. We called the strange tingly feelings we were having “hormone rushes,” and they were far superior to sugar rushes. They didn’t cost money, they didn’t make us gain weight, and all we needed to do to get them started was tell a dirty joke or a flirty line. The physiological connection might have been clear to my male friends for some time, but it was a pleasant surprise to the girls. It was thrilling to have that kind of power over ourselves — we could give ourselves a rush just by thinking! — and was even more so when we realized we had it over other people. A well-timed suggestive line alone could cause a male friend to temporarily lose control of his mental faculties. It was glorious. 7

I don’t recall a single moment when the “hormone rushes” started, and I don’t think my love of candy faded away all at once, either. They must have overlapped at one point, and it’s not as though sweets and sex are a new combination. In fact, the first sexy book I read was Like Water For Chocolate, a magical realism romance in which cooking was a form of sublimation. There were several parts of that book I read over and over again, fascinated and titillated, even though very few of the recipes sounded appealing. When I was in seventh grade, the movie Varsity Blues came out, and all anybody seemed to remember about it was the teenage girl who wore a bikini made of whipped cream (which, in real life, is just a yeast infection waiting to happen). “Sex and Candy” by Marcy Playground had been a big hit shortly before I entered middle school, and Aaron Carter, who was my age, recorded a cover of “I Want Candy” not too long after. 8 These are just examples from my own youth, but it’s a trope that can be found throughout history: two basic human needs, quickly satisfied (though perhaps not in the healthiest manner) at once.

I’ve never been a particularly nostalgic person. Many people would have loved to stay young forever, but I always looked forward to growing up, and I never missed the power candy had over me. 9 The only moment of sadness happened when I was thirteen: the previous year, I had worn my Reese’s Cup once a week. But in the first week of eighth grade, a boy saw me wearing it, made a squeezing motion at chest level and said “Reese’s CUPS, huh?” I gritted my teeth, folded my arms across my chest, and vowed never to wear it in public again. Hormone rushes were exciting and all, but I remember wondering if anything was safe from sexualization.

Probably not. I do think I made peace with it, though. Two years later, when I jokingly asked my friends which they thought was better, sex or cupcakes, they just laughed. Regardless of experience, we all knew the right answer.

Notes:

  1. Any time Gentile friends reminisce about Saturday Morning Cartoons, I just nod and smile until they change the subject. I do remember sneak-watching a few episodes of Garfield and Friends, but that’s hardly something I want to bring up in public.
  2. It felt like a personal attack: no one could ever expect me to keep quiet! Who was she to deny me such bliss?
  3. Exy once ate a whole box of cookies to keep himself awake during an all-nighter.
  4. It was me.
  5. This was not my experience. I avoided teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections by being so awkward no one would have even thought of having sex with me.
  6. I suppose we cannot speak for asexuals or lifelong diabetics.
  7. Lou Reed probably had written a song about it.
  8. Interestingly, Bow Wow Wow’s cover of “I Want Candy,” which is probably the best known version, was also sung by a teenager. Annabel Lwin was only fifteen when she recorded it, and already notorious for having posed nude on an album cover the previous year.
  9. Even if what took its place had even more power.

“Being Matilda” on Theatermania

I usually try to update this at least once or twice month. But in the past four weeks, I was on an episode of RISK!, did an interview with The Daily Beast, have done four live storytelling/comedy shows and have been preparing for three more, and have been busy working on all sorts of upcoming projects. When I did try to start writing a blog post, I was caught off guard by a flulike virus and ended up lying in bed watching Rifftrax’s Reefer Madness for the first time and Dazed and Confused for the fiftieth time.

However, I did get a chance to see Matilda: The Musical, and I wrote an essay about it for Theatermania.com. It’s a piece I’m very proud of (my eighth-grade English teacher told me, via Facebook, that it was “beautifully written”!) and I would greatly appreciate if you would read it.

Expect another post from me in the next week or two!