Mara Wilson Writes Stuff

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

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!

Twenty Things My Sister Has Actually Said

Once a treehugger, always a treehugger.

 

I can remember the first time my sister said something intentionally funny. It was a Saturday morning, I was sleeping in, and as usual, Anna saw it as her duty to wake me up. She bounded into our room and onto my bed, and yelled, “Mara! Wake up! You won’t believe it! It’s snowing!”

It was the first of April in Southern California. It was clearly not snowing. But I loved my little sister, so I played along, sat up, and pulled up the window blinds. Anna jumped up and down and yelled “April Fool’s!”

“Aw, you got me!” I said, even though she hadn’t. She must have sensed that, because immediately after, she yelled, “Mara! Daddy’s coming! You’re going to be in trouble! Hide under your pillow!”

I played along this time, too, even though this joke made even less sense. Why should I hide from our father? I hadn’t done anything wrong, and even if I had, my bed was the first place he would look. In fact, he would probably be more annoyed to find me in my bed, when I could be making myself useful doing my homework or unloading the dishwasher.

“APRIL FOOL’S!” Anna yelled again, so loud that I could hear her through the pillow. She giggled, but when I pulled the pillow off my face, her expression changed. She sat on my bed, looking thoughtful, as the sun streamed through her hair and brought out her natural red and gold highlights. I thought there was no way she could get any more adorable, but then she smiled.

“That was pretty lame, wasn’t it?” she said, and we both burst out laughing.

The youngest member of a family is often ignored or overlooked, but it was hard not to notice Anna. She was a remarkably beautiful child: when we went to Japan, everyone fussed over me until they noticed my much more kawaii, blond-haired, green-eyed baby sister. She looked like a living doll.

Anna was also a natural born artist: when she was a baby, she would make complex, perfectly symmetrical patterns on the floor with her blocks, which was both impressive and uncanny. Once she could hold a crayon by herself, there was not a single piece of paper in the house that was not marked with her scribblings. She drew as well as I could by the time she was six.

Most of all, though, Anna was funny. We could prompt her to say the funniest things: one of our favorites was to hold up our father’s work shirt, with the KTLA Channel 5 Logo, and ask her what it stood for. “Simp-sim trial,” she would respond. 1 As she got older, she didn’t need prompting. After two of my then-fifteen-year-old brother Joel’s friends spent the evening with us, five-year-old Anna announced to that she had something to say: she had fallen in love with both of them. Another time she hid under the bed while playing hide-and-seek, but yelled “I’m in the closet!” Sometimes we heard secondhand what she had done, as when our long-suffering father implored, “Anna, please don’t wipe your mouth on the shower curtain.” 2

Today, March 22nd, Anna will turn twenty. She was funny as a kid, and she’s funny now. Sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes it’s not. Here are twenty things my sister has actually said. The ones she said as a child or a teenager include her age, but the rest are things she has actually said in the past few years.

1. THREE-YEAR-OLD ANNA (Pointing at a Hello Kitty stuffed toy): Take it out of here! It scares me!

My brother Danny remembered this one. I’m sure I teased her mercilessly until someone reminded me of my equally ridiculous and irrational fear of ALF.

2. ME (Seeing Anna walking around with her arm out of her dress’s neckhole): Anna, why are you wearing your dress like that?
FOUR-YEAR-OLD ANNA: Because I want to get a real job!

3. NINE-YEAR-OLD ANNA (To my first boyfriend, on the start of our second date): Her chest is really comfortable to put your head on. You should try it!

He responded, “If she’ll let me…”

4. THIS CLIP FROM FAMILY GUY: You’re a McDonald, not a whore!
TEN-YEAR-OLD ANNA: Ha ha ha ha ha! (To me) What’s a whore?

I never should have left Adult Swim on. My response, after a long silence, was “Um, you remember Moulin Rouge? Remember what Satine did? It’s the bad name for one of those.” She probably thought it was a derogatory term for someone who sings and dances.

5. ME: If God can be anything God wants to be, what do you think God is?
TEN-YEAR-OLD ANNA: A taco. 

6. ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD ANNA (Singing to a jar of olives, to the tune of “You Are My Lucky Star”): Youuuuuu…. are… my tasty… snack! I… saw you… in the back… of the refrigerator. Two lovely olives, at me, they were taaaaaaasty, taaaaaaasty… I… WAS… HUNGRY!

Anna hates this story as much as she loves olives. This was her reaction when I sent her a care package with a note referencing it:

Anna hates me.

Yes, I know she's cute. No, she's not single. Sorry.


7. TWELVE-YEAR-OLD ANNA (tapping on a table): (Knock, knock, knock, knock! Knock, knock, knock, knock!)
OUR BROTHER JON: Who’s there?
ANNA: Death!

She later explained that she was tapping out the first few notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: it was stuck in her head, and she had heard that those notes were supposed to be Death knocking at one’s door.

8. TEENAGE ANNA (Said about me): If I were to imagine you as a cartoon character, I think you’d be a sexy, feminine Squidward.

The sad thing is, it’s pretty dead on.

9. “A – yellow, B – red, C – black, D – blue, E – green, F – purple, G and H – brown, I – none/white, J – purple, K – black, L – pink, M – orange/brown, N – orange, O – none/white, P – red-brown, Q – black, R, S, and T – red, U – none/white, V – pink, W – magenta/red, X – black, Y – pink, Z – red-brown.”

This is how my sister sees the alphabet. Anna has Synaesthesia, which is one of the coolest neurological conditions ever: basically, her senses are cross-linked. It takes many forms for her, but mostly she’s grapheme-color synaesthetic. This means to her, letters and words are inextricably linked with certain colors. It’s cool for her friends, who get to know what color their names are, but can be exhausting for her. She often gets sensory overload in big parties or big cities, and after having a large espresso for the first time, she texted me, “I CAN SEE SOUNDS, EXCEPT MORE THAN USUAL!”

10. ME (Helping her color her hair): Do you have any latex gloves?
ANNA: Where would I find latex gloves? This isn’t Planned Parenthood!

11. ANNA
(Confused over a link I sent her): What is this?

ME: It’s about the Christian Left. You know, as opposed to the Christian Right.
ANNA: Oh! Yeah, I thought the title’s context was like, “We don’t know where he went, dude!”

Smartassery runs in the family.

12. “I am one half diamond dog made of sea glass and one half chocolate lab made of real chocolate.”

She wrote this as a comment on a friend’s facebook status. I have no idea what it means.

13. ANNA: I’m sick! This ruins my whole day!

ME: Well, you’ll just rest up and feel better tomorrow.
ANNA (As if in complete abject misery): But I was going to make kale chips!

14. “People keep telling me, ‘You look like Zooey Deschanel!’ But I really don’t. I just tell them, ‘Yeah, I fit the “white girl with bangs’ look.”

15. “You wouldn’t expect Poison Control to have a sense of humor, but they did!”

She was talking about the time she got oil paint in her eye.

16. ANNA: What does ‘love you long time’ mean?
ME: Um… Google it.
ANNA: It means hookers. Did you know that?

17. ANNA (Regarding the dog): Mom, does Yoko have chronic pain?
OUR STEPMOTHER: No.
ANNA: But how would we know if she did?!
OUR STEPMOTHER: …
ANNA (After a long pause): Mom? Is Yoko Catholic?


The dog in question. I still don't know why Anna named her Yoko.

 

18. “Here’s a fun idea. You can have a codeword like ‘Communist takeover’ or ‘David Flowie’ for when you get your period! Now you can bring up your menstrual cycle in public and NOBODY WILL KNOW BUT YOU! ~Just between us girls~”

Written on a male friend’s Facebook.

19. “uhhh, jump in
oh, it will be awful
and then you refine it
and refine it
and refine it
and refine it
it might take years
i mean, you’re young”

She gave me this writing advice when I was feeling a little lost, and I think it’s good advice for anyone of any age struggling with their creative endeavors.

20. “I wish just wearing undies could make you un-die in real life. That would be neat.”


When Anna was born, I was in San Francisco, starting my life as a film actor. Twenty years later, she is in San Francisco, starting her life as a visual artist. Film did not work out for me, but I have faith in Anna, and I know that no matter what she may choose to do, she will always be an artist. And she will always be funny.

I love you so much, Anna. You were my best friend twenty years ago (when you had no say in the matter) and I am fortunate you’re my best friend now. May you outlive Jeanne Calment.

Notes:

  1. It was 1995, and while none of us were watching the O.J. Simpson trial on a regular basis — let alone letting a toddler watch it! — we did usually watch their morning news show. They would discuss it there, and Anna came to associate the little “5” logo in the corner of the screen with that phrase.
  2. My brother Joel later wrote a song about it.

Brushes With Greatness

A good portion of my adolescence was devoted to channeling my insecurities into a persona. Maybe I wasn’t thrilled with the way I looked or dressed or behaved, but at least I could play up my own awkwardness for laughs. Self-effacement was self-preservation. It seemed to work most of the time, so I was shocked when a good friend admitted “You know, when I first met you, I thought you might be a snob.” I was incredulous. How could I, a proud member of the Idyllwild Arts Academy Geek Club, be a snob?

“I felt like you would name-drop,” she said. “You would say ‘Yeah, I was at Danny DeVito’s New Year’s Eve party’ so casually.”

“Oh,” I said. “But… I was trying to downplay it so I wouldn’t sound like a snob.” I hadn’t been trying to impress anyone, I had just shared what I thought was an interesting story. Besides, as a child, those moments had felt casual. Acting had just seemed like a hobby, and going to parties and premieres hadn’t felt much different than going to my brother Danny’s Cross Country banquet. Celebrities were just people, most of them very nice people, who everyone happened to know. My siblings and I had also been instructed not to act starstruck in public: The correct response to bumping into George Lucas on a dance floor was “sorry,” not “oh my god, we watch your movie every weekend.” Only once we left the party or premiere and climbed into the minivan to head home could we gush: “Eric Idle was there!” “I think that was Courtney Love!” “They were introduced, but I don’t think Mara really understood who she was meeting.” 1

And usually, I didn’t understand who I was meeting. It was only a big deal when the kids at school would know who they were. When I was seated next to Jonathan Taylor Thomas at the 1995 Golden Globes, my mother actually nudged me and whispered, “Well, well, looks like you got lucky!” He was very sweet, and my friends at school were very jealous. 2 He meant something. The wiry, jittery man who had been next to me on the red carpet, though, couldn’t be placed. Everyone was making a big fuss over him, and I had wondered if maybe he was Tom Hanks. When he went up to accept his award for Best Screenplay for Pulp Fiction, I was busy talking to Jonathan about how I couldn’t eat the shrimp cocktail because I was Jewish.

I was constantly working with people whose accomplishments were beyond my comprehension. Not necessarily because they were visionary artists, but because there was no way my parents would let me see their work. It was all too adult for me, and lead to a lot of rude awakenings later on in my life. 3 When I was asked to perform in the Opening Number of the Oscars with Tim Curry, my mom wasn’t sure how to explain to me who he was.

“Mara’s working with Tim Curry from Rocky Horror?” Friends of hers would say, incredulous.

“Yeah,” she would say, looking worried. “I don’t know how he’ll be with children.” Tim and I sang and danced to “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ In The Rain, 4 and from what I remember, working with him was great. I often wondered why my mom had been so worried, until I saw Rocky Horror at a friend’s house when I was twelve, and had an epiphany.

This happened again and again as I grew up: a friend would want to watch a movie, and there would be someone who had once played my parent or mentor playing a mobster or a lothario. I knew they were just playing characters, but it still felt uncomfortable — somewhere between seeing a teacher outside of school and accidentally stumbling onto some detail of your parents’ sex life.

This was never more the case than when Rhea Perlman wrote me into her sitcom, Pearl. It was about a woman in her forties going back to college, and it was one of the best acting experiences of my childhood. Everyone on that set was wonderful: Carol Kane and John Ratzenberger were hilarious, Dash Mihok was a lot of fun, and Lucy Liu, whose character had a rivalry with mine, went out of her way to make sure I knew that she liked me. But it was Malcolm McDowell, who played Rhea’s prickly Philosophy professor, who got the most attention.

“Whoa! You’re working with Malcolm McDowell?” My brother Jon said, in the same tone that people had used to talk about Tim Curry. I didn’t understand his reaction: like everyone else on the set, Malcolm was friendly and funny. He was also very encouraging when I mentioned that I wanted to grow up to be a writer. “A lot of people are actors and writers both,” he had said, and I took it to heart. My role on Pearl lasted only one episode, but I had such a good time on the set that when it was over, I cried for days.

The show was sadly put on hiatus not long after, and while I was sad, I was happy to see the cast again at the wrap party. Like all of the best parties of my childhood, it was in the DeVitos’ backyard, and after hugging Rhea and dancing with Lucy, I found two girls my own age. They either had parents who had worked on Pearl or, more likely, went to school with one of Danny and Rhea’s kids. Whoever they were, we became instant friends. After puberty, a girl had to prove herself worthwhile and trustworthy before she could be considered a friend, but in those last days of childhood, a friend was any girl who tagged along and didn’t do anything painful or dangerous.

The three of us danced and ate ice cream and played games, but soon decided to investigate some of the stranger ongoings, like the Mystery of the Scary Guy Sitting Outside By Himself Drinking a Coke (he was a security guard). After that, one of us noticed something even more bizarre: outside of the party tent, there was a boy jumping on the DeVitos’ trampoline by himself. He was doing some rather impressive flips, but it was the middle of the night and there was something a little unsettling about it.

“Who is that guy?” One of the girls asked. I didn’t know, but I was feeling bold, so I led them outside to do some detecting. When we were about ten feet away, the boy stopped tumbling and turned toward us. He was a handsome boy of about fourteen, and his face was familiar, but I still didn’t know who he was.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he said, and put his hands in his pockets.

“Um…” I decided to go for it. “Who are you?”

“Charlie,” he said, softly.

“OK,” I said. That explained nothing. He must have sensed that, because a few seconds later he added, “I’m… Malcolm McDowell’s son.”

“Oh. I’m Mara,” I said, and we stood staring at each other for a minute. Eventually, Charlie went back to his backflips, and we went back to the party. I forgot about our strange meeting until three years later, when my brother Joel was studying dystopian fiction in his senior English class and had a few friends over to watch A Clockwork Orange. I wandered into the family room on a Sunday afternoon to see a younger version of the nice man from Pearl torturing people and then being tortured himself.

“Mara, is it true you worked with that guy?” One of Joel’s friends asked, wide-eyed.

“…Yeah,” I said, as my relationship to Singin’ In The Rain was once again redefined. “He was… really nice.”

To this day, I have never seen all of A Clockwork Orange, though what I saw that day did more than explain my brother Jon’s reaction. It also explained my experience meeting Charlie on a trampoline by himself in the middle of the night. After all, when I was at a party with a man who so perfectly embodied the innocent and the sinister in one performance, who else’s child could it have been?

Notes:

  1. It was Robert Redford.
  2. A year later, I would accidentally elbow him in the groin at a Disney Adventures photo shoot.
  3. And often a great deal of regret: when I was sixteen and saw The Breakfast Club for the first time, I cursed myself for having lost touch with John Hughes. He understood me! Youth is wasted on the young, and so are Hollywood connections.
  4. I must have watched that movie fifty times. The first ten times were to learn the song, but then my little sister decided, as toddlers often do, that she loved it and had to watch it every day. Eighteen years later, it’s still her favorite movie.

A Birthday Story For My Brother Joel

Preamble: Last year, I posted a birthday story for my brother Jon. He was happy to read it, though I felt a little guilty because I have three other siblings. It’s true that some of them enjoy being written about more than others, but as long as I have their permission — and funny stories about them, which I do — I’d like to honor them. This is one of my favorite stories about my brother Joel, whose birthday is this week. To those who speak the Queen’s English, I will ask you to keep in mind that “pants” means “trousers” here in the States. If my brother had a distaste for underpants, I would not want to know about it and would definitely not write about it.

One evening, when I was thirteen and my brother Joel was eighteen, our father kicked us out of the house. He had noticed that I spent most of my free time on the internet and that Joel spent most of his time playing guitar in his room. While he had tried to hint, on multiple occasions, that we should get some fresh air, this time it wasn’t a suggestion. We were to go out and go for a walk around the neighborhood, and not to come back for at least an hour.

Joel and I left the house and walked a few blocks in silence. I peered up at him and felt a little shy. It wasn’t because he was tall — although, at nearly six feet, he is the tallest member of our diminutive family — or because he was intimidating. Quite the opposite: Joel had always been friendly and gentle. He had a way with animals and children from a young age, and they loved him, too. Not many ten-year-old boys would have played with their baby sisters, but Joel had not only put on a puppet show for Anna, he also came up with additional personalities and let Anna “meet the stars backstage.” Our father once told me, “When I think of Joel, I think of those pictures of Saint Francis: surrounded by children and animals that all adore him.” When I told Joel, he laughed and said, a bit sheepish, “He’s actually not the first person to tell me that.”

No, I was intimidated because Joel was a legend. All of my older brothers were. In the early nineties, my brother Danny had been John Burroughs High School’s answer to Ferris Bueller. Jon had followed, and while he served less time in detention, the Wilson boys earned a reputation for being very smart smart-asses. But by the time I was a rising freshman, most of Danny’s pranks and Jon’s Odyssey of the Mind skits had been forgotten. Joel, though, was in his last year at Burroughs, and his presence was still felt. Everyone knew who he was, and everyone liked him. Everyone thought — knew — he was cool.

Joel was, like all cool teens, in a band. Actually, he was in several: there were The China Dolls, a standard but surprisingly good alternative rock band, the Drunken Frat Boys, who performed songs en español for extra credit in Spanish class, 1 and Argle Bargle and His Magical Ride, a super-group where everyone dressed up and switched instruments after every song. These are just the bands I can remember; I’m sure there were more. Joel was a hot commodity because, unlike most teens in bands, he was actually talented. He had taken guitar lessons at one point but had picked up several other instruments on his own, and would rather nonchalantly record solo concept albums in his bedroom. My favorite was Monkeys In Space: wild guitar work overlaid with a sample of a chimpanzee yelling he’d gotten by putting a tape recorder up against the television while watching Conquest of The Planet of the Apes. When I listened to the track, I pointed out that he must have taped too long, because he had also accidentally included a line about artificial insemination. He shrugged and said, “That just adds to it.”

Joel’s wit was his own. He once walked into a room and said to me, “If Benjamin Franklin were alive today… he’d be really old,” then left. People would always ask if he was stoned, but he wasn’t: it was just his own dreamy, non-sequitur sense of humor. Strong opinions on bizarre and seemingly arbitrary things seems to be a Wilson trait, and Joel took to sharing his eloquently in the school newspaper. The people had a right to know that Planet of the Apes was better than Star Wars, that we should let the apes take over if it ever did come down to apes versus humans, and that pants were inherently oppressive. Joel hated — and still hates — long pants. We lived in California, so it was possibly to wear shorts three hundred and fifty days a year, and Joel would. That Halloween, he had actually gone to school dressed as “The Man With No Pants”: he wore a button-down shirt, a sport coat, and no pants. Any other seventeen-year-old wearing boxers to school probably would have been sent home, but Joel was beloved by staff and students alike. In fact, when I stopped by the high school for show choir auditions, one of the upperclassmen nudged another and said, “Oh my god, it’s — it’s — it’s Joel Wilson’s sister!” I was “famous,” but Joel was famous.

Sibling rivalry is often rooted in envy, not just of parents’ attention, but of all the older siblings get to see and do first. 2 I didn’t feel a rivalry with Joel, but I was certainly envious. Joel lived in his own world, and I wanted to be part of it. Sometimes I would nervously knock on his bedroom door, just to see if he would let me in. When he did, I would sit at his feet and we would talk for hours about music and history and primates and life and relationships and friendship and everything he knew more of than I did. Sometimes I felt like I was interviewing him, getting his perspective on life. But every time, I would leave his room feeling smarter, and feeling special.

It’s possible I’m romanticizing my brother. I’m sure he had his sullen and selfish moments like every other teenager, but to my thirteen-year-old self, he was enchanting. As we walked on that day, I struggled to keep up with his long strides and wondered which one of us would speak first. This wasn’t like our little Socratic sessions in his room: we would have to make small talk. What could I even discuss with him? I was a cynical, awkward, flighty, nervous wreck, while Joel was so laid-back and funny and kind. He was cool, and I was not.

We went past the drugstore and the Taco Bell 3 and the boxy houses. When we came to the first major intersection, Joel crossed, and I crossed with him. He turned at the alley behind the mom-and-pop grocery store, and I followed him. A lone shopping cart with a few boxes and old cans blocked our path, but Joel didn’t push it out of the way. He went over, took out the cans and boxes, then turned to me and spoke for the first time: “Get in.”

I stared at him. Was he serious? I was small for my age, but I hadn’t ridden in a shopping cart in eight years. His expression was neutral; it made perfect sense to him. He had a shopping cart and someone who could fit in one, why wouldn’t I get in?

And so I did. Joel started pushing the cart, taking me down the alley, through the parking lot, and out onto the sidewalk. As soon as we reached pavement I started to laugh, and didn’t stop for the whole ride. He pushed me back past our house, and onto Magnolia Boulevard, the street that connects all of Greater Los Angeles. People watched us, and we watched them, too. Pedestrians stepped aside, then did double takes over their shoulders. A driver at an intersection eyed us, confused, then burst out laughing. If we had been a little older, it might have seemed trite, another set of hipsters trying to assert their individuality by doing something “random” and juvenile. Perhaps it did seem that way, but I didn’t care, and Joel didn’t, either. We were on a joyride! We were a team! We had outsmarted our father! And, for me, there was something more: I had wanted to be let into Joel’s world, and I was. We didn’t need to say anything, we could laugh together.

When the hour was up, Joel pushed me back to the grocery store and helped me out of the cart. We walked home, still laughing, and I immediately found my little sister to tell her what we had done. Our father must have been listening, because at dinner, he said “It sounds like you didn’t get much walking done on that walk.” He was annoyed, but we had won and he knew it.

Joel went off to college that fall, and while he was further away than he ever had been before, we only got closer. When I was fifteen, getting over the stomach flu and my first break-up, I talked to Joel. When I was having panic attacks over my third-year directing project, I called Joel. When I broke up with Exy, 4 I called Joel. Actually, every time I have any kind of major life problem, I have talked to Joel. Each time, he gives me comfort and, even more importantly, gives me perspective. He has taught me the power of being a good listener. And he still has great stories and a great sense of humor. 5 Sometimes I wonder if I come to him with problems more than I should, but when such a sweet, funny, emotionally intelligent person is built into your life, it’s hard not to take advantage.

Last year, I called Joel for one of our regular catch-up sessions. I had just written a post about our brother Jon, and I asked if he would object to being written about.

“Maybe I’ll write about the time we got kicked out of the house,” I said. “Do you remember that?” Usually, when I ask Joel if he remembers doing something, he’ll shrug and say “Sounds like something I would do.” But he immediately started laughing: “Yeah, that was awesome!” It had been one of our last moments together before he went away, and he could still remember it clearly. We laughed together, and then, I moved on to asking about his wedding plans. Joel had just gotten engaged, and he and his now-wife (who he met while working with children) would be getting married that spring. He told me it would be a simple wedding with friends and family, and I asked if he was planning on incorporating any kind of personal touches into the service.

“Well,” he said, “I did ask her if I could maybe not wear pants.”

“What did she say?” I said.

“She said, ‘Yeah, sure!’ She was all for it.”

“Wow,” I said. “You really have found your perfect woman.”

Happy birthday, Joel. I love you. And while it would have been awesome, I’m pretty sure our parents and your in-laws are happy you did decide to wear pants at your wedding.

Notes:

  1. “A, B, C! Fácil como uno, dos, tres! Fácil como gato, perro, peces!”
  2. And, for older siblings, all the things the younger siblings get and get away with.
  3. We used to go there for dinner the nights our father was working late. I once wrote that I wanted two soft tacos in tally marks and Joel came back with eleven.
  4. My college boyfriend.
  5. My current favorite: “We had a squirrel living in our old house — I called it the Jungle House, we had all kinds of animals wandering in and out, sometimes this toad would be in the living room — and I went up to him one time and was like, ‘Hey, you should probably go,’ and he started yelling at me. I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t stop chittering, so finally I was like, ‘OK, man, you know, you’re right, you were here first,’ and I walked away. He won the argument.”

The Time I Met Neil deGrasse-Tyson

Scientists are to me what rock stars and famous actors are to everyone else. One of my favorites is Dr. Neil deGrasse-Tyson. He’s brilliant, hilarious, an eloquent writer, and full of wonder about the universe. He’s the rightful  heir to Carl Sagan, 1 which is a great thing to be, and a true New Yorker. I love him.

When The Pluto Files came out, I made the trek to the Union Square Barnes and Noble 2 to meet him in person. I had seen him at a conference a year earlier, but I was too shy to talk to him. 3  This time, though, I knew exactly what I was going to say.

He gave a quite entertaining talk and then the audience lined up for autographs. The attendant asked my name, wrote it down on a post it, then handed the book and post-it to the man himself.

ATTENDANT: This is Mara.

NDT: Hi, Mara!

ME: Hi, Dr. Tyson. Um, I have a question.

NDT: Yes?

ME: Do you ever… I mean, the universe is so big and sometimes I feel so small, you know, so insignificant, and it can be overwhelming. So I guess my question is, how do you deal with the existential anxiety that comes from studying the universe and seeing it how it really is?

NDT: Mara, may I ask you a question?

ME (Surprised): Um, yeah, sure.

NDT: Have you taken a Philosophy course?

ME (Not sure where this is going): Um, well, yeah. I took Ethics and some other classes… Why do you ask?

NDT (Smiling slightly): Because only people who have taken a Philosophy course ever use the word “existential.”

I don’t blush often, but I did then. He had called me out. He went on:

NDT: I wrote about this in an essay. You should check it out.

He scribbled “Google The Cosmic Perspective” in my copy of The Pluto Files and handed it off to me.

ME: I… thanks. Nice to meet you.

NDT: Nice to meet you, too.

I spent a few minute admiring a fellow audience member’s “Star Stuff” tattoo, and then I left, clutching my copy of The Pluto Files and feeling a little embarrassed. Though I suppose I do have bragging rights: I am officially less down-to-earth than an astrophysicist.

Notes:

  1. Sorry, Brian Cox.
  2. It was not much of a trek, I lived on St. Marks Place at the time.
  3. Though he did walk by me in the hallway, and I think his elbow might have brushed my shoulder. Keep in mind that he is a tall man and I am a very short woman.

LOOK! And LISTEN!

I hope everyone who celebrates holidays around this time of year had some good ones! Anyway, enough general greetings, I have two things to share.

First, I was on a podcast! RISK! is one of my favorite podcasts: think of an R-rated Moth or This American Life. It’s very much for an 18+ audience. My story does not have to do with sex or drugs or illegal activities, but the stories on RISK! often do. Some stories are on there simply because they’re personal (case in point.) I suggest you listen to the whole episode, but if you want to find my story, I’m about thirty-three minutes in.

Also, I now have a list of Frequently Asked Questions! Please take a look at it before contacting me! IT WILL ANSWER EVERYTHING AND MAKE ALL YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE! Or at least keep you from staying awake all night wondering about Matilda 2.

Writing Advice from Auntie Mara

This has been an exciting year for me, full of surprises. Perhaps most surprising is that people have started to ask me for advice on writing. It seems a bit like asking a first-time pregnant woman, “What’s it like to raise a toddler?” I’m only in my second trimester when it comes to writing: I have yet to be published in book form and I still mix up the subjunctive “were” and “was”. Besides, there’s not much I can say that George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, and so many others haven’t already said (make writing a habit, cut any unnecessary words or lines, make every character want something, etc.) But I’ll try to share some of the advice and guidelines that have helped me. 1

Don’t put it on the Internet.

At least, don’t immediately put it on the Internet. Learn how to write first, how to make mistakes and fix them, how to write what Anne Lamott rightly calls “shitty first drafts.” You need to learn to write for yourself before you write for others.

I long resisted getting a blog: friends would read my funny Facebook statuses and ask why I wasn’t blogging. My response was always the same: “Because I want to be a writer, not a blogger.” Pretentious as I might have sounded, I stand by what I said, because I believe blogging is different than writing. Blogging is something one does for instant gratification (and I’m not “above” this, look at how often I tweet), while writing is a long, often difficult process that is ultimately more rewarding for you and the person reading it. Your raw, unfiltered status updates might be funny to you and some friends, but the rest of the world won’t like it or care. Coffee grounds and water do not make coffee: it must be filtered.

As I’ve said, I take a lot of time with each post. I always reread and edit several times before I post, and often I’ll run the idea by a friend or family member first. I have some entries I will never post, simply because they’re too personal or just not very well-written. This has saved me an enormous amount of grief and frustration, and I’m sure the people reading it appreciate it more, too. It’s true that putting one’s writing on the internet can get one “noticed,” but my suggestion is to use the internet as a springboard. (Most of my friends who’ve achieved some measure of internet celebrity have done this, going on to write books or make films.) Let it propel you into real life.

So, learn to write first. Then write something. Then re-write it. Then read it. Then re-read it. Then put it online, or don’t.

Read books.

Read the kind of books you want to write, and read books you would never want to read. Read books about growing up in inner-city Detroit if you grew up on a farm in Texas. Read books about ranching in Montana if you live in Paris. Read C.S. Lewis if you’re an atheist and Philip Pullman if you’re a Christian. Read Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy if your favorite book is Twilight. Read Twilight… well, to know how terrible it really is. You will learn what you like in writing and what you can steal. You will also learn which tropes, cliches, and clams to avoid. And do not write if you do not read!

Read books on writing.

Everyone should have a copy of The Elements of Style. My other suggestions would be Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, and Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit (which is not specifically about writing, but is still helpful). Read what your favorite authors have said about writing,  so you can know what to do, and read what your least favorite authors have said about writing, so you can know what not to do.

Take a playwriting class.

Even if you don’t like plays, even if you’ve never seen a play, 2 take a class.

1.) It will improve your dialogue. You will develop an ear for what sounds natural, and, more importantly, what sounds unnatural.

2.) It will teach you to be economical. In a good contemporary play, there are no unnecessary characters: every character wants something and tries to go after it. If something can be said in one line instead of three, it will be cut down. I have a suspicion that this economical approach started because theatermakers have limited funds and time; however, it always works to the play’s advantage.

Remember that there is no such thing as straight comedy or straight drama.

Comedy, by its nature, has an element of truth and pain in it: the recipe for humor is often said to be “tragedy plus time.” Likewise, I don’t believe it’s possible to write something dramatic that doesn’t have any kind of “comic relief.” 3 It’s like pumpkin: pureed pumpkin by itself is bland or bitter. Add sugar and spices, though, and suddenly it’s rich and delicious and perfectly balanced.

Be aware that fiction writing can be as revealing as nonfiction.

Perhaps it’s even more revealing, because it’s done inadvertently. Nonfiction writers have control over what they are revealing about themselves, while fiction writers are drawing from their own imagination, their own experiences and dreams and fears. I probably couldn’t tell you what David Sedaris’s wildest dreams are, but I could tell you Stephenie Meyer’s. 4

Learn how to give and receive feedback.

This was perhaps the most useful skill I learned in college. My professors (especially Marleen Pennison, Jeni Mahoney, and Tomi Tsunoda) taught us how to give feedback even before they taught us how to write or direct. 5 “Start with what you see and how it makes you feel,” “Separate the form from the content,” “Do not problem-solve for other people,” and so many other phrases became mantras for me, and they remain so today. Learning how to give constructive feedback will allow you to help others, and learning how to receive feedback will make you more efficient at editing your work. Additionally, you will want people reading your work to critique it constructively: receiving feedback and criticism from one who does not know how to give it can be like standing nude in front of a group of strangers and having them go over every inch of your body with a cheese grater.

As important as this is, I have decided to share with you one of my secret weapons — consider it a Nondenominational Winter Holiday 6 gift. With her permission, I give you Jeni Mahoney’s Guidelines for Feedback.

 

PLAYWRITING

GUIDELINES FOR TALKING ABOUT IT

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots. (Frank A. Clark, writer)

WHEN YOU ARE THE ONE GETTING FEEDBACK…

  • Be careful of responding too quickly, or of explaining yourself. This is not an opportunity to explain what you intended, it is a chance to find out what others understood, felt or were confused about.
  • Any critique that starts with the phrase “you know what would be funny…” or “you know what would be neat” can be ignored – unless the person can tell you why it would be “funny” or “neat” and it fits in with your vision.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask someone why or how they got something unexpected from your work.
  • If someone tells you what they think should happen, ask why.
  • Even the most bizarre and hurtful critique may contain a grain of truth.
  • Don’t take anything personally. If the other person gets personal, bring it back to the work.
  • Sometimes strange questions or comments expose places where you inadvertently led the audience down a misleading path.
  • You don’t have to answer anyone’s questions.
  • When you’re talking you’re not listening.


WHEN YOU ARE GIVING FEEDBACK:

  • Avoid phrases like “when you said,” or “when you did” when you’re really talking about what the characters said and did.
  • Avoid generalizing: i.e., “someone wouldn’t do…” whatever. The issue is whether this particular character would do or say something.
  • If you feel like you must give a suggestion of what might happen or what a character might do – give three different ones.
  • If you find yourself thinking you didn’t “like” something, ask yourself – why? Was it the dialogue, the situation, the motivation, the story-line? Be as specific as possible.
  • Questions are always better than statements, but don’t expect any answers.
  • IT IS NOT YOUR JOB TO FIX THE PLAY!
  • Remember: mention what you like.
  • Remember: the purpose of giving feedback is to help the playwright expand and refine her/his ideas about their work.

EXAMPLES OF COMMON COMMENTS:

“I didn’t like it when you said that the cow was too short to play basketball.”

1. Try not to address the playwright with “you said” – remember, the character was talking, not the playwright.

2. “I didn’t like it” – here is an opportunity to ask yourself a question – why? Why didn’t you like it? Was it that you didn’t believe it, or did the story take a turn that you weren’t prepared for. Maybe you didn’t understand why the character was saying what he was saying – and you didn’t like not understanding.

So, how might we say that differently?

“I was confused when the lead character said that the cow was too short to play basketball. I thought the play was about soccer.”

HERE IS ANOTHER:

“Your dialogue was really bad.”

1. Again, we don’t put the character’s words into the playwright’s mouth.

2. Why was it “bad”? What does “bad” mean? Unbelievable? Confusing?

So how might we say it differently?

“I didn’t believe the dialogue between the cat and the moose – I didn’t believe they would know what Pac Man was, and when the moose was cursing I kept having to ask myself if a moose would really use that kind of language so I was distracted.”

AND FINALLY:

“I liked when you made them dance. What did it mean?”

1. Okay, this is a trick example. It’s a fine comment – and bonus points for asking a question, but one might want to refer the play, rather than the playwright…and expand a bit…

How might we say it differently?

“I liked it when the moose and the cat danced, it was touching and funny at the same time, but I wasn’t sure how it advanced the play.”

(Use these wisely. Don’t thank me, thank Jeni Mahoney!)

Notes:

  1. I imagine that this will be something of a series, something like Advice from Auntie Mara (which I also need to update). Thus, this post is not in any way a final list of writing advice: there will be more.
  2. This is possible if you grew up someplace like Los Angeles. I didn’t know the difference between “musicals” and “straight plays” until I was in my teens. Meanwhile, all my college friends who grew up in or around New York City went stage door-hopping every weekend.
  3. And those who try to write something wholly dramatic often find their work slipping into camp.
  4. Though writing skill and lack thereof might have something to do with that…
  5. Though I wouldn’t say they really “taught” us how to write and direct; rather, they guided us. But perhaps I’m getting pretentious again. Where’s my “You’re Being Pretentious” jar?
  6. Or Summer Holiday, for my Southern Hemisphere readers!

Mara’s Kitchen #8: How To Smash a Glass Bottle of Olive Oil all Over Your Kitchen And Spend the Next Three Hours Cleaning It Up!

Welcome back to Mara’s Kitchen! Last time, I showed you How to Toast Bread in a Toaster Oven. (For those who missed it, the trick is to switch the setting from “Bake” to “Toast!”) Today, I was going to show you How to Make Cereal, but I’m switching it up a bit. Here is How To Smash a Nearly-Full Sixteen Ounce Glass Bottle of Olive Oil all Over Your Kitchen and Spend the Next Three Hours Cleaning It Up!

 

1. Open the cabinet and try to get a box of Special K down off the second shelf without your trusty stepladder.

 

2. Realize that a nearly-full sixteen ounce glass bottle of olive oil has been placed either next to, or on top of, the cereal, and watch in horror as it comes crashing down, shattering into pieces and pouring olive oil all over the countertop, floor, and your right leg.

 

3. Yell a swear word of your choice (don’t you love when recipes let you improvise?) at the top of your voice, causing the cat to flee from the room.

 

4. Pick up the bigger shards of glass. Wonder if it was your roommate who put the bottle of olive oil in such a precarious place. Realize it was probably you, and think about the careless things you’ve done in your life. You might take a moment to remember the look on your dad’s face when you broke the screen window trying to get into the house because you were fourteen and locked out and the phone was ringing and you just needed to pick it up because you just knew it was Laurel from Drama Club telling you all about how Tim from Drama Club might like her back, too, and you just had to know the details!

 

5. Run to your room, change out of your oil-soaked pajama shorts, and Google “olive oil spill.”

 

6. Your options, as revealed by the Almighty Google (do not fall under the spell of false prophets, such as Bing), are Kitty Litter and oatmeal. Get the kitty litter and pour it all over your floor.

 

7. Run out of Kitty Litter as soon as you have covered half of the spill.

 

8. Search through the cabinets for oatmeal, being careful not to knock any more glass bottles onto the floor. Realize you only have those tiny instant packets of oatmeal, but open up a few of those anyway. Scatter them around. Enjoy the aroma of maple sugar and apple cinnamon!

 

9. Run out of oatmeal after you have covered an additional quarter of the spill. Worry that the maple sugar and apple cinnamon will attract cockroaches.

 

10. Urawaza has taught you that salt can help pick up spilled egg yolk, so figure it can’t hurt, and go ahead and pour half a bottle of sea salt on the spill, too.

 

11. Try to sweep the congealed clumps off your floor and try not to get agitated when your 99-cent store broom keeps coming undone.

 

12. Get agitated anyway. Put on your “Calm” playlist.

 

13. By now, your broom should be covered in oil, salt, oatmeal, tiny glass pieces, and litter. Throw it away. Switch to using paper towels to pick up the clumps.

 

14. Wet a few paper towels with water and dishwashing liquid and try to wipe up some of the less-clumpy, but still sticky areas. Become frustrated when the “earth friendly” dishwashing liquid does absolutely nothing.

 

15. Run out of paper towels.

 

16. Go to the shower and try to wash off the olive oil. Do not succeed. Take some comfort in the fact that you heard (probably on one of those hippie DIY websites your sister’s always telling you about) that olive oil is good for your skin.

 

17. Go to CVS to buy more Kitty Litter, actual oatmeal, not-so-earth-friendly dishwashing liquid, and an actual broom. Try to pretend you’re not listening to “Somebody’s Crying” by Chris Isaak on your iPod. Get a very limited amount of help from the cashier, who doesn’t understand that carrying a broom nearly your height and a seven-pound bag of Kitty Litter makes self-checkout a bit difficult.

 

18. Walk home, using the broom to pretend you’re Gandalf.

 

19. Slip on the kitchen floor a little. Sprinkle oatmeal all over the floor and counter, then wait a while and sweep it up with your new, functional broom.

 

20. Get a bowl. Pour some milk in your bowl, pour the cereal, get a spoon, and finally eat your goddamn Special K.

 

Alright! You will still be slipping all over your floor for a while, but wear socks or shoes with a lot of friction and be sure to let your roommate know why the floor is so shiny. Thanks for joining us here on Mara’s Kitchen! Be sure to join us next time, when we will discover whether or not putting sour milk back in the fridge makes it taste normal again!

My Enemy

Every day it lurks in the most mundane places. It haunts me, just waiting for me to let my guard down. Then it will strike, and it will rejoice in my reaction, hitting me where I’m weak and becoming larger and more powerful than ever before. It is my enemy, and its name is Nickel.

Some might call me a hypochondriac. I might respond, “Please don’t use an actual diagnosis as hyperbole.” Then, I might add, “But you’re probably right.” As a kid, I had nightmares about Scarlet Fever (damn you, Little House On The Prairie), and as a teenager I stayed awake at night worrying about Toxic Shock Syndrome. I’ve always been a worrier, and I tend to fixate on whatever germ or catastrophe might befall me. When I got to college, my ex-boyfriend — let’s call him “Exy” — showed me Annie Hall, and it was revelatory. “This is who I am!” I told him. “I was that kid who worried about the universe expanding!” A whole culture opened up to me: the world of the self-doubting, self-loathing, secularly Jewish, semi-intellectual, neurotic New Yorker. I didn’t especially want to be the type who thinks “Oh hypothetical god, it’s an aneurysm!” every time she gets a headache, but that’s who I was.

Fortunately, I was relatively healthy. I’m prone to sinus and ear infections and I’ve always had allergies, though I’ve never been sure what I’m allergic to. I know that pollen makes my eyes water, Irish Spring soap makes me break out in hives, and the cleaning products aisle at K-Mart once triggered a three-day-long sneezing fit, but I had never been officially diagnosed with any particular allergy. After all, Irish Spring soap and Fresh Scent Clorox Wipes aren’t on any allergy tests. Aside from those minor problems, for most of my life, I’ve been lucky to have very few medical problems.

Then my junior year of college happened. Suddenly, the burning in my chest when I drank orange juice was diagnosed as Acid Reflux, and a strange, horribly itchy rash kept appearing on my wrist. The sinus infections came regularly, and my immune system seemed compromised. I knew I was in trouble when my friend Ian showed up to our Realism and Naturalism class with a bad case of pinkeye. Poor Ian wasn’t having a very good semester: a few days earlier, he had told me, rather casually, that he had gotten a Staph infection from his gym rat boyfriend. I was shocked. Did he not understand how serious that was? Wasn’t that the flesh-eating bacteria? I told him “I hope you feel better” but moved my desk away from his. Two days after seeing Ian with pinkeye, I woke up with pinkeye, too. I must have gotten it from him. But he also had a Staph infection, and if I got one thing from him, couldn’t I have gotten something else? Was that was caused the rash on my wrist? I tasted something metallic in my mouth. My gums were bleeding. My anxiety and knowledge of The Oregon Trail took over, and I was beyond rationality. I was convinced that not only did I have Pinkeye and a Staph infection, but also scurvy.

Exy stopped by my apartment for lunch and I asked him immediately to examine my back and limbs for any signs of a staph infection. When he said he didn’t see anything that looked like Staph, I brought up the idea of scurvy. He smirked, but to his credit, he did not laugh.

“Mara, what did you have for breakfast this morning?”
“I had some yogurt and some pineapple and –”
“You had pineapple. Scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency. You do not have scurvy.”

I went to the NYU Health Center and they told me that the pinkeye would pass in a few days, and just to put a cold compress in paper towels over my eye. I thought a tea bag would help ease some of the itch, but all it did was turn my dark circles darker. I stayed home from classes that day, but I did go out that evening to hear some guy my friends were all talking about named Barack Obama give a speech in Washington Square Park. He was a pretty good speaker, and I remember clapping enthusiastically at a comment about education reform. A bunch of people turned around to see who was so hot for such an unsexy issue, and saw a tiny raccoon-eyed girl holding a stack of shredded paper towels over her face, jumping up and down about the concept of repealing No Child Left Behind.

To quell my obsession with nineteenth century disease, I went to NYU’s allergist/immunologist. The nurse who took my vital signs told me she would have to test my lungs. “Breathe as hard as you can into the tube.” I did. She looked at the levels and said “No, try again. Breathe as hard as you can.” she said. I breathed out until my lungs burned, and the measurement stayed the same. The nurse raised an eyebrow. “You know you’re breathing at fifty percent lung capacity, right?”

I shook my head. “Is that bad?”

“I’m going to try you on an inhaler.” Did she mean I wasn’t supposed to feel like I was wearing an iron band around my lungs all the time? She gave me the inhaler and checked my levels again a few minutes later.

“Eighty percent,” She read. “Well, the bad news is you have asthma.” The good news was it responded well to treatment and that she would be giving me an inhaler of my very own and a prescription for Singulair. She walked off to fetch it and I marveled at her nonchalance. I had gone in for a simple test and was told, even prior to the test, that I had a chronic illness. This didn’t bode well.

The immunologist could have been a minor character in a Woody Allen film: a tall woman with a very Jewish surname and a thick New York dialect, who called me “Mare – uh.” But she was friendly and understanding, pricking my arm with the utmost care. There were no positive results; only the control caused a rash.

“But I’m allergic to something,” I told her. “I’m having a reaction.”
“I know, but it’s none of the most common allergens. You’re not allergic to cats, dogs, cockroaches, nuts, mold, dust mites… You’re going to need a Patch test.”

This, to a neurotic person, is much more frustrating than getting a diagnosis. When you know what the problem is, you can solve it. When you have to wait, your imagination goes wild. And patch tests are not very fun: a patch full of several contact allergens is applied to your back, and you are not allowed to remove it or get it wet for several days. As soon as I got it, my back started to itch. Was it the control that itched, or something else? Though I wasn’t sure which was worse: the constant itch, or not being able to take a shower. Who knew what I was being exposed to that I couldn’t wash off?!

I went back two days later, feeling filthy, and had the doctor gingerly remove the patch.

“Oh, wow,” she said. That couldn’t be good.
“What is it?” I asked.
“You’re allergic — really allergic — to Nickel.” Nickel?
“The metal?” I asked. She confirmed that yes, it was possible to be allergic to a metal, and I was.
“It’s in a lot of jewelry and the backs of watches… That’s probably what caused your rash.”

She told me there wasn’t much to do besides avoid jewelry and use topical creams if I had a reaction, then sent me off. But this was not the end for me: I needed to know my enemy. So, like every imaginer of the worst case scenario, I turned to the internet.

What I learned is that Nickel is cheap, Nickel is pliable, and thus, Nickel is everywhere. It was actually named the Allergen of the Year for 2008. I have my own celebrity irritant! (Sorry, Gwyneth Paltrow.)

Nickel sulfate is also green in color and used to dye pool tables. When I read this, my first thought was “Now I’ll never be able to have sex on a pool table.” My second thought was “Wait, why do I care?” I had ever entertained that idea and I don’t think I know anyone who’s done it. 1 I don’t play pool or spend a lot of time with people who do, and frankly it sounded a bit uncomfortable and unsanitary. But it was still sad to think that there was something I couldn’t do. I thought this was America, where I could do whatever I wanted if I put my mind to it. 2 What if I had wanted to have sex on a pool table? What then?

Though my symptoms were all external, some sites suggested I consider a low-Nickel diet. This seemed like a good idea until I realized that all my favorite foods are full of Nickel. Canned foods have higher rates of Nickel, and since my cooking skills are at the same level of a Sim who has not yet acquired any Cooking points, I eat a lot of them. Pineapples and raspberries have it. Spinach, kale, broccoli, the few vegetables I actually like, have it. Chocolate and hazelnuts are both rich in it: the thought of giving up either was bad enough, but unbearable when I remembered that by their powers combined, they are Nutella. Like most white city-dwelling Americans, I will only give up Nutella in the face of a complete civilizational collapse. A Nickel-free diet is not going to happen.

The internet and experience have taught me that there’s almost no (inexpensive) jewelry that doesn’t contain a small amount of Nickel. Still, that was not much of a loss: my mother never cared for jewelry, and it appears the Immunity To Shiny Rocks gene is Dominant. However, some people love to give gifts (I know, I’m one of them) and one of the easiest gifts to give a woman is jewelry. There are thousands of tiny stores selling jewelry for under thirty dollars, and that jewelry is always loaded with Nickel. It will be brushed over with gold or silver, but that layer will erode away after time, causing me to itch my neck or wrist every few minutes. Family members and friends (who I thought knew me better) will hand me a box from H&M or some “cute little boutique [they] always walked by, but never went into before,” and inside the box will be some cute but insidious piece of Nickel-tainted jewelry. I will smile and thank them, knowing that I will never be able to wear it.

The biggest problems are belts and jeans. Not a lot of jeans fit me, 3 so I always wear belts, and every belt contains nickel. Before I discovered that there are nickel-free belts, I had a chronic itchy rash on my lower belly. The worst, though, are the back of the jeans buttons. Some fellow Nickel-fighters swear by nail polish. I believed in nail polish once, too, especially since I always had a bottle lying around. 4 But I learned the hard (and itchy) way that nail polish chips off. I switched to using band-aids, but while band-aids stick to skin, they don’t stick very well to metal and cloth. My solution, until jeans companies start making nickel-free buttons and studs, 5 is duct tape. It comes off after a few washes, but it’s better than nothing. I’ve realized that my dependency on duct tape is probably starting to make the people at CVS a little uncomfortable. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only one who sees it, if you’re five feet tall and probably couldn’t be a serial killer even if you wanted to, having a roll of duct tape on your bedside table is creepy.

I know I’m fortunate: Nickel allergies usually aren’t as serious as food allergies or medication allergies, they’re mostly just uncomfortable. Additionally, New Yorkers love to discuss their maladies, so it’s become something of a talking point.

“Why don’t you ever wear jewelry?”

“I’m allergic to Nickel.”

“Whoa. Isn’t it in food? So would you, like, die, if you eat something with Nickel?”

“No, it’s just contact dermatitis.”

“So it’s just a problem if it comes into contact with your skin?”

“Yes. Well, actually, the problem is when it comes into contact with the sweat on your skin. The salts combine with the Nickel to create an irritant.”

“So how do you handle Nickels?”

“Nickels are mostly copper.” I have become a sentient Wikipedia article.

And despite the three new diagnoses, I did get through my junior year of college,. Though, a few months after the patch test, I was back at the NYU Health Center for one of my regularly scheduled sinus infections. I went on a Saturday, because I had classes during the week and am a terrible Jew. NYU allowed us to flash our IDs during the week but required us to sign in on Saturdays. 6 I signed my name, then asked the elderly gentleman working as a security guard what time it was. “Twelve thirty-nine,” he said, and scowled. I thanked him and started to walk away, but he wasn’t done talking.

“None of you kids know what time it is. You all have cell phones now, so nobody wears a watch. I tell you, Miss, I went to college, and it was a good college, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.” I nodded, because that is indeed a good college. “I learned a lot there, but do you know the most important thing I learned came from my fifth grade teacher, Miss Jackson. She told me always to wear a watch, and I do.” He held out his arm to show me. “Why don’t you wear a watch?”

“Oh. Well, I’m actually allergic to the metal they use in watches. The metal backing of the watches gives me a rash.” He shook his head.

“Miss, I served in two wars, Vietnam and Korea. What’s a rash?”

That was four years ago, but I still think about that man. I have many questions (How could he serve in two wars? Is that even allowed? I suppose it is if it’s voluntary, but he didn’t seem too happy about serving, so could he have been forced?) That man obviously has been through a lot, and I feel grateful not to have his problems. I cannot imagine fighting in a war. In fact, there are people I don’t trust or don’t particularly enjoy spending time with, but I cannot think of anyone I have met that I hate. 7 And I’m lucky. Questions of morality are interesting in Ethics courses and Batman movies, but troubling in real life. If I have to have an enemy, I should be glad it’s a chemical compound, not a person.

Now excuse me while I rage against the jeans-button machine.

Notes:

  1. Though I did once have a roommate who, after getting on her father’s nerves, was told “Oh shut up, you were conceived on a pool table.”
  2. At least as long as I was white and middle class.
  3. The only jeans that fit my body are Calvin Klein Jeans. Incidentally, Calvin, if you’d like to send an otherwise frumpily-dressed former C-list child actor turned would-be writer some free jeans for the endorsement, I’m a 26/27 Petite.
  4. I used to paint my nails to dissuade myself from biting them. Then I chipped a tooth while biting my nails, which turned me off nail biting, and I started working with an organization that required me to get paint on my hands on a regular basis, which made nail polish impractical.
  5. I’ve considered starting a petition on Change.org to get some of the bigger jeans companies to use nickel-free buttons. I know I shouldn’t be using social justice websites for something so frivolous, but I know I’ve seen less important issues on there before.
  6. NYU is generally very good about security, though once I got into a building by flashing Exy’s ID. I put my thumb over his face and the security guard didn’t look too closely to confirm that I did not have a Jewfro.
  7. No, not even Ira Glass. Besides, Mr. Glass and I are cool now!