Mara Wilson Writes Stuff

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

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!

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.”