|Into the Belly
by Andrea Kittelson
Actress is in a wig, spike heels and bright colors. She drinks Lemon Drops throughout the show. She performs in front of
ten looping slides, which are photos of family, Christmas, Egypt and more.
Thank you all for coming to my birthday party here on the Queen Hollywood. We will be departing from the dock in
approximately two…oops, poop. There we go. I hope everyone’s on board.
Our captain is John Catanzarro. He’ll be taking us around the bay for a quicky. Then he’ll bring us gently back to shore.
Our cruise director is Lisa. Wave hello to Lisa.
Now let’s discuss safety procedures. As you’ll notice there are only two preservers. Raise your hand if you can swim.
Good. The rest of you, drink up.
So, it’s my birthday. One of many, many birthdays. My surgeon would want me to tell you specifically how many
birthdays; he’s very proud of his work, but he’s not here, he’s in court. An unfortunate mishap with a nipple. But I
really think that particular patient brought it on herself. She was, well, very complicated in the nipple area. Anyhootle, let’
s get back to business. I’ve known most of you for at least thirty years, back since, oh, gosh, I don’t know if I can say,
but, Pat, what an adventure it’s been, huh?
I wanted to celebrate my birthday by sharing some stories about my life, not because my life is so darned interesting, but
because it helps to jar my memory. You know, the noodle goes as you approach my age, which will remain unspecified,
and it’s important to show yourself home movies once in a while to remind yourself of where ya been and who ya are
and that you are still kickin.’ (Kick).
Help an old lady, would ya, would you mind getting me a Lemon Drop? Everybody, wave hello to Steve, the bartender.
Well, his name is Brandon, but I like to call him Steve.
The doctor says that Lemon Drops are good for my hip. I threw it out walking up Machu Picchu in …oh, uufda, it must
have been in 2010. I was too young for hip issues then, technically, I was only 45, but all the action these darned hips
got for the first five years following my boob job, boy I could tell you stories.
Speaking of which, I would like to say that the themes of this evening and the reason for the title Into the Belly – in case
you’re concerned about these kinds of things, you know in case you are a reviewer, a professor, a school teacher, or
someone with obsessive compulsive disorder – for you, the “themes” of this evening are “family” and “fear.” What are
Oh, good. Because we all come from the belly of our mothers, and we all return to the belly of the great mother, if you
believe that kind of hooey, and we all spend every day of our lives, if we are lucky, venturing into the belly of the beast,
which to me is facing fears head on. (Physical action that hurts). Hey, where’s that Lemon Drop?
So, how do family and fear go together? Well, I do believe that your family provides you with your self-esteem. You
might want to take notes. They tell you who you are and what you are capable of. Your family gives you a lens through
which to see the world. And everything that doesn’t fit into what your family says is possible is unknown territory and is
to be feared.
Now, at any point in this discussion about family and fear, if you have any disagreements with anything that I say, please
feel free to keep them to yourselves and have another drink.
So, back to family. In a nutshell mine was nuts. Now, I know that’s nothing new. Everybody says their family is nuts.
But here’s proof: (Pull out stuffed animal with a chain around its neck).
One day when I was, oh, twelve or so, I came home from school, entered my bedroom, or budoir as my mother called
it, and noticed that all thirty-three – I remember that number because that’s the number of years it takes to make a great
Balblair Single Malt Whiskey. Isn’t it? Keep it to yourself. All thirty-three stuffed animals were hanging from the ceiling
with chains around their necks. In my mother’s defense, some of the corpses did have ribbons, but nonetheless, my
ceiling was sprinkled with the bodies of all of my beloved animal friends. And some of them were life-sized.
When I saw the horror, I ran out screaming, “Mom! Mom! What the hell happened in there?!” You saw the picture of
my mom right? The one with the wig and the drink? Good. Well, I yelled, “Mom, Mom! What the heck happened in
there?! This is crazy! Take them down,” to which she responded, “Oh, but it’s all the rage.”
Notice the use of the word “rage.”
See, my mom was a decorator. Or at least that’s what she called it.
I said, “I don’t care if it’s all the rage, it’s sick and twisted and I have to sleep in there.” She said, “Well, when you’re
old enough to have your own house, you can decorate it anyway you choose. But this is my house, and I have a theme,
and it all has to work together…” Ahh, “theme.” No wonder why I am so flippant about themes.
So, I had to live like that, with animals hanging from my ceiling with chains around their necks, and, to be fair, ribbons,
for what felt like a life sentence. I would entertain myself at night by making shadows on the wall with a flashlight.
(Actress demonstrates). I would talk to them and apologize. I would sing them songs. “You are my sunshine…” and
“She’ll be comin’ ‘round the mountain when she comes…neigh, phhh!” And in the morning I would quickly get up and
run to school where it was safe. Where the “rage” was kept to a minimum.
And the day the animals came down? I’m a bit fuzzy on that.
Now, for those of you who are just a little creeped out by the hanging animal story and are now questioning why you are
my friend, and maybe even trying to remember back to how we first met or to when you first realized that I was indeed
“a bit off,” well, there’s more.
My mom, the decorator, married an embezzler. A con man. He was, for the most part, your typical con man. Nothing
too unusual. He had a drinking problem, multiple families and a dog that he talked to when he was drunk. But then again,
he was a bit peculiar in at least one way. He did have this penchant for making pancakes in the shapes of animals while
in his underwear. Usually this one particular pair of underwear that had little devils on them. His naked Johnnie Walker
belly would hang over his devil drawers, and he would speak in rhyme, “Old man from Burning Stump went up the hill
to take a dump…” and “She was only a candy man’s daughter…” and he would tell jokes he learned in the Navy, “Two
elephants walk into a strip joint…” Ahh, the animal theme again. No wonder why I am so leery of animals.
I spent most of my life, until recently, quite frightened of animals, namely pets, for yet another reason. My mom would
always talk to the dog completely differently than she would talk to any of us. Has that ever happened to you? Keep it to
yourself. She would say, “Oh, come here my little doggie…sweetheart…love of my life…want a cookie?” And then
refer to the dog in the third person. Notice the use of the word “person.”
My mom would say things to me like, “Dusty wants you to say hello. Dusty wants to know why you won’t say hello.
Are you mad at Dusty?” I would think, No, I’m not mad, I just don’t… “Okay, fine…come here my little Dusty.” Later
she would even put Dusty’s paw prints on my Christmas cards.
Before Dusty, there were others. Two of them, Coffee and Yogi. What were their names? (Audience responds). Very
good. They both had such poor rectal problems that the floor was carpeted wall to wall with newspapers…that were
covered with poop. We would have to step around the poop heap. Talk about a theme. The newspaper-shit theme
definitely was “all the rage.”
It was so embarrassing. I could never have friends over. I would have to say, “Okay, just ignore the drunk in his
underwear and walk around the poop and you’ll be OK.”
Whoa, did you feel that? Lisa, honey, would you get my “Dramamine.” That’s our code word for Vicodin. And please
feel free to have our cruise director Lisa answer any and all of your questions…at any point…after the cruise. Keep it to
yourself. Follow directions and we will all make it safely to shore. Well, most of us anyway.
(If someone tries to leave) Excuse me, Sir. You can’t leave. We’re at sea. Man overboard! Man overboard! (Blow whistle
My mom loved her pets so much that she even made her kids’ names rhyme with the dogs’ names. I was Andrea Kay,
my sister was Robin Rae and the dog was Café au Lait.
Now, my mom wasn't the only one who spoke to her dog like a lover.
My step dad, the belly-wearing embezzler had his canine confidante. You saw my step father’s picture, right? The
shirtless man dancing with the steak? That picture was taken pre-belly.
Anybutton, every night after dinner, well, after what was left of dinner – Bill would usually throw most of the dinner at
the ceiling: “Where the hell’d’ya get these beans, Minnesota Rubber Company?” (Throw). In fact, on the day we moved
out of that house, I noticed there were still green beans and mashed potatoes with cheese stuck up there in the corner.
Ahh, hanging veggies. They too must have been “all the rage.”
So, every night after dinner, Bill would sit at the table with a bottle of Johnnie and perform monologues for his
confidante, a yellowish mut with human eyes named Yogi. Yogi would sit by Bill’s side patiently for hours listening to
rants like, “I’m the only one who knows a goddamn thing. I should run the joint. All the other morons are pansies who
don’t know shit. I’m the only one who knows shit!” I would watch the scene from the hallway. The lights would
usually be off, either because they had been turned off by the electric company or because Bill had thrown them out. So,
it was dark, and all I could see were their silhouettes. Two comrades on the shore. Sharing war stories over a drink and
a smoke. I was actually envious of their bond.
I have thought over the years about that bond shared by Bill and Yogi, and as I have grown closer to (whisper) death, I
have reevaluated my stance on pets.
I have stopped thinking of them as fashion accessories or extensions of the ego and have thought of them instead as
loving friends that can help open up parts of myself that might otherwise go untouched. Now, don’t get naughty, I mean
my heart. If I am at all worthy of leading a discussion on overcoming fears, then I am nothing but a hypocrite if I don’t
face my own fear of pets.
So, how did I overcome my fear of pets? Flashback to Egypt. 2,024-ish. Yes, it was right before my sixtieth. It was
Christmas Day. See, I prefer to travel at the holidays because seeing how other cultures celebrate Christmas is so much
more rewarding than smelling the stink of too much drink on relatives who are mean.
In Cairo, on Christmas Day, my friend Karen and I were in the fish market. We stood there facing a merchant. A young
boy about seven walked up, and he had a bird on his shoulder. A funny looking bird. One of those birds with a big spot
on his…and a pouch…and a tail. Then an older boy came up and stole the plastic sack right out of the seven year-old
boy’s hand. They were still making sacks from plastic back then. So the bird followed the thief and pecked him in the
head 'til he let go of the sack. Then the bird carried the sack back to the seven year-old boy and plopped right back onto
his shoulder. Now that’s quite amazing. I figure that any pet who can carry my bags and peck a man to death, now that’
s a pet worth having.
About a year or so after the Egypt trip, when my friend Lisa and I acquired this boat, we got with it a whole bunch of
birds. Not birds that we put in cages and assign names, but birds we enjoy nonetheless. Birds we call, as much as
anyone can, ours. They stop on by when they feel like it, and we have a snack and maybe a chat. We haven’t needed
their pecking services to date, but we keep our eyes open.
I’ll admit it. I grew to like animals. I changed. And change doesn’t come easy. We fight it tooth and nail. But without it
we wouldn’t heal. That fishhook that gets caught in your thumb would never ease its way out.
And without change we wouldn’t make new friends. Friends. Nothing to be feared there. The nine friends who lent me
money when I wanted to buy a house - the house I sold for twice the price so I could move to LA and pursue my art.
The friends who changed my drainage tubes when I had that goiter. The numerous friends who are here right now.
Friends assist you. They build you. They nurture you. They become you. All the negative messages you get unwittingly
from your parents are subverted by friends who actually enjoy your company, who laugh at your jokes – most of them
anyway – and who think you are, well, not half bad. But I’ll talk more about friends a little bit later.
I think now we should discuss escape procedures. Raise your hand if you know how to work a schnitz-klamp? Oh,
really, the kind with wheels? OK, how about a fooz-dwelter? Well, gee, this puts us in an awful pickle. Lisa, honey, did
you remember to…Oh, horsefeathers. Well, let’s just hope for the best. (Cross fingers).
All right then, let’s move on to physical pain, shall we? Have you ever felt that you were chosen…picked…by God to
Oh, fudge. You know what? Let’s practice the drill, shall we? OK, everyone please stand up. Don’t be afraid. A little
audience participation never killed anybody. Well, one guy, but he had it coming. So, everybody stand up and (Teach
Russian-esque toast “Look to the dyeva, look to the prava, lift the vadá and say Chokmatza” then gives the audience
simple “dance” moves and tell them that whenever they hear ‘Hit the deck!’ they have to do the drill).
OK, that’s yours. Mine is a bit fancy. (Do a fancy Russian jig with spike heels and drink in hand).
Good job. It looks like most of you will survive. Well I will anyway. (Sip of drink).
So, back to pain. Some people attract it. I don’t mean to brag, but that just might be my dilemma. Crazy tortures just
come my way. They stick to me, like pickle stains to dentures.
Back when I was a graduate student, I utilized the services of a student-run dental clinic. Close your eyes and imagine if
you will a hundred clean-cut hopefuls running around like squirrels with drills. Not a pretty picture. A root canal back
then at the student clinic cost about fifty bucks but each one took twelve or thirteen sessions. Each session would take
about six or seven hours. They would grind and grind and grind…my mouth would be clamped open and they would
grind and grind and grind. And the student dentists would talk to each other about their hangovers and student loans.
Their nonchalance would hang in the air like, well, nonchalance. I would lie there wondering “Why me, God? Why me?”
After my fourth root canal in that place, I surrendered to the thought that maybe I was chosen by God to endure torture
because I am somehow, I don’t know, special? Or maybe in another life I was an evil dictator who ate children. But then
a thought struck me like a tomato strikes a wall. I can choose to go somewhere else. I wasn’t chosen by God to suffer.
I’m just a masochist. So I had my fifth root canal at a private office. It took one hour, and afterward the doctor gave me
orange juice and a free toothbrush. I thought I was in heaven. Sure, I had to sell my collection of Balblair single malt
whiskeys to afford it, but boy, was it worth it.
So, what does pain have to do with fear? I’ll let you decide, I’m too pooped to make it all fit together neatly.
Lisa, how we doing on that Vicodin?
See, I actually have to take the pain meds for a reason. I hit my head on the lido deck and woke up with my mother’s
accent. The pain meds aren’t for the head conk, but to get me through each day with this voice…don’t ya know.
Now, since we’re talking about fear this evening, let’s turn the subject to Christmas.
Well, first, let’s practice the drill. Then we can up the percentage of survivors.
Ready? Hit the deck!
DRILL - Russian toast and jig again.
Excellent. Now, back to the subject of bossiness, I mean overcoming fear. The following fear is not one that I
necessarily overcame, but one that I have successfully sidestepped.
Some people have a fear of clowns. I have a fear of Christmas. It started when I was eleven. The night before
Christmas Eve. My step father, remember the man asleep with the doll? Well, he was drunk and talking to the dog when
my mother decided to engage him in a discussion about why the utility bill had not been paid. She told him they were
threatening to turn off the lights. You know, considering Bill had embezzled so successfully every penny his friend
Vladimir the Russian immigrant had, we should have had enough to pay the light bill.
Well, wrong time to bring up the lights or Vladimir. Bill snapped like a twig and threatened to cancel Christmas. In fact,
he did cancel Christmas. He took the tree with its lights and ornaments and flock and star and threw it in one big sweep
down the stairs and into the foyer. He followed the tree with all four dining room chairs, breaking the mirrored wall
along the way. Now, it’s one thing to steal money from an immigrant or throw beans at the ceiling, but it’s quite another
to desecrate the symbol of Christmas.
Christmas had until that moment been the only time of the year I was truly happy to be me. The only day I could live
peacefully with my family inside my own house. The one day that my family was not only normal, but better than
normal. We always had a beautiful holiday display with tons of presents and a fireplace and background music…and
throwing all that down the stairs, the breaking of everything Christmassy, well, that was the end of Christmas for me.
Forever…but that’s OK. Like I said, I prefer to travel.
(If someone leaves, do the "Man overboard!" thing).
I tell this story, not so you’ll feel sorry for me. Heavens to Betsy, no. In fact, I am proud of all the ways that I have
overcome the events of my tricky childhood, and so much has happened since, but I bring this up so that we can
examine for a moment the notion of living on a daily basis with fear. Living in a house where danger is ever-present.
Where bleach is stored in the refrigerator and kitchen knives hang like warnings.
It’s not just the people who live outside under the billboard lights who live in fear. In fact some people might prefer to
sleep outside under the watchful eyes of strangers than in homes of their own making. I’m talking about the many
people who live inside surrounded by soft pillows and fireplaces and electricity and pancakes. Many of those people fear
for their lives each and every day.
Take for example a woman who was a passenger in my taxi back when I drove for Yellow Cab of San Francisco. It
was winter 1999. Right before the change of the millennium. I picked her up in the Western Addition. She was going to
the Amtrak station in Emeryville so she could take the train to Sacramento because she had no car and was afraid to fly.
“Deathly afraid to fly,” she said.
She was going to Sacramento to spend the holidays with her fiance’s family. Her fiance was going to follow in a few
days. She said that she wanted to go ahead of him and “make nice.” She was eager to make a solid impression on his
Through the course of our conversation, as we inched down Market Street, she asked me if the makeup she was
wearing was too much. If it was too “pancakey.” She was trying to cover the bruise she had gotten the night before
from a scuffle she had had with a mop. She had a run-in with the mop because she was always so clutzy, she said -
clutzy and silly and dumb. Well, as we talked some more, she let it slip. She said, “The last time he did this.” Now, I had
already suspected that she was lying about the mop, but now it was out. Should I say something, I wondered? I decided
to just keep listening. They teach you that in taxi school. A skill I have since forgotten. Keep it to yourself. After she got
out of my cab, I thought how ironic and strange and frightfully sad that she is afraid to fly but not afraid to live with a
man who beats her?
Speaking of living in the grip of someone who beats you…if anyone needs to get up and use the loo, well, hold it until
after this next story, which I guarantee will be uplifiting. And, actually there isn’t really a loo, per se, just lift your seat
cushion. There’s a direct connection to the sea. Just make it number one. We don’t want to attract sharks. We’ve had
problems in the past.
And if you want to go number two, well then just use the newspapers on the poop deck.
Love. Let’s talk about love. Because what is the best antidote for fear if not love?
I first learned about love, true romantic love, in Miami. I was with a boyfriend that I was very close to marrying. We
were at his mother’s house and had to sleep in his aged grandmother’s bed. It was one of those hospital beds with bars
on the side. It was maybe four feet wide. We had to sleep entwined in each other’s arms. At first I resisted. I was itchy
and sweaty and restless. I was used to having my space. But then I forced myself to surrender to the experience.
I curled up in my lover’s arms, and every night he would whisper in my ear a debriefing of the day. He would recap the
day’s events. He would say, “I loved the way you spent time in the kitchen with my granny asking about her life…” or
“I loved the way you played school with my nephew…” or “I loved the way the rain hit your lips when we were on the
beach and you tasted it and you didn’t know anyone was looking. Well, I was looking. I love you so much…”
Every night for a week when we went to sleep in his granny’s bed, he would whisper loving somethings in my ear, and
I, for the first time in my life, felt treasured. And since that time I have held that feeling as a goal to shoot for. I have
known to not settle for anything less. I would rather go to sleep at night with that memory than go to sleep next to a man
who doesn’t love me.
And boy, let me tell you, once that bar was raised, there were some spectacular romances. But those are stories for
Which reminds me: let’s talk about sleeping arrangements. There are only six cabins and well, forty-some of you. So,
we’re gonna have to double up or triple up or rotate. Hmmm, how should we do this? Keep it to yourself. Maybe we’ll
count off…raise your hand if you’d like to sleep with someone new?
All right then, Lisa will take psychic note of all your preferences.
Raise your hand if your system can tolerate the mixing of narcotics?
Raise your hand if you like pizza.
Hit the deck! (Do the drill again).
Let’s move on to Hollywood. Not the Queen Hollywood, this lovely party on the sea that Lisa and I have owned since
2026…See, after we both lost our second husbands to an ironic fish accident in the BT, that’s sailor talk for Bermuda
Triangle, we have found refuge in each other’s company. We have this boat and we get to travel and host cabaret night.
Lisa has a wonderful singing voice. Perhaps you’ll get to hear it later, during the singing portion of the show.
But Hollywood, Los Angeles. I moved to Hollywood in the summer of 2004 to pursue my goal of being a paid
writer/performer. I especially wanted to sell screenplays. For bucket-loads of money. I had been a public school teacher
for ten years. And upon completion of that tenth year, I thought Jesus H. Christ, what kind of example am I to children
if I don’t take full advantage of my own proclivities? If I don’t become fully me, then how can I expect any of these
students to become fully themselves? (Brush it off and takes a sip).
So, on the night of my final drive to Los Angeles – my car loaded with the rest of my crap – after I went over the
Grapevine and began my descent into the lights, I said aloud, “I am driving into the belly of the beast.” To me, seeing if I
could make it “in the business” was facing an enormous fear. I was often discouraged as a child from pursuing my
artistic yearnings, so as an adult I felt it my obligation. “It’s never too late to try,” I told myself. On the drive down to
LA, I got 43 miles to the gallon. 43 miles to the gallon. I was certain of it because I double-checked my math. I was a
math teacher, after all. So, 43 miles to the gallon! Heavens to Betsy. I was sure, then, that God or the Great Mother, or
whatever power mightier than me, had wanted me to move to LA. God was pushing me like a four year-old pushes a
Now, it helps when you are facing fears to have that kind of assistance.
So, I arrived in Hollywood and took classes and wrote and performed and sold scripts. Eventually I directed a feature
that I wrote. It was a story about a woman who adopts a 12 year-old girl. A movie called “One Story.” You remember
that movie, right? Keep it to yourself. Man overboard! Well, this woman and this girl, see on the surface their lives are
very different. They are from two different social classes and two different ethnicities. They walk around the
neighborhood every night after dinner and tell each other stories about their lives. They get to know each other, and as
their individual stories progress, as their stories involve the adoption process and other mutual experiences, their stories
merge and become one story.
Well I directed this movie, and the most difficult part was letting go. You spend so much time writing the script and
getting to know and love the characters, that to let the characters go into an actor’s imagination and come out differently
than you envisioned, well that’s as hard as bone.
I imagine it’s like letting go of your children. They grow and become something other than what you planned. I never
had children, only characters, and they might be just as difficult to give up. Even when you’re getting paid an arm and a
Through my work on that movie I met a man who taught drama part-time to prisoners. He got me in touch with the
rehab director at Valley Sate Prison in Chowchilla. I then started to work with women inmates. I actually taught them
how to put on their own one-woman shows. Yes, I did. The first thing I taught them: perform in a bar. If the audience is
drunk they’ll like you more. Second thing: make ‘em squirm. Pretend the theater is a sinking ship and that they’re all
gonna die. That way they’ll look to you to save them.
In that class there were some amazing women with tremendous stories of survival. One woman in particular…
WE’RE GONNA DIE. HIT THE DECK! Russian jig drill again.
Back to prisoners: people trapped. People who mess up and pay for it by sitting in a bar watching an autobiographical
one woman show. No matter what someone did, is it just reward to…? (Sip drink).
I don’t know much about one woman shows, but I do know about feeling trapped.
When I was fifteen, right after my step father went out for a bottle of Johnnie and never returned, my Mom intensified
her thirst for rage. Maybe she was shocked that a man so cruel and unusual would leave her. The ultimate insult, I
guess. She became so unraveled that she started having exaggerated responses to things. Simple things became
punishable crimes. Like putting Parmesan cheese on potatoes when everybody knows it goes on spaghetti. Or plugging
the hairdryer into the socket by the door instead of the one by the mirror.
But her greatest display of rage came on the day of the Homecoming Dance. It was my first dance. I had my hair
professionally done, and I had bought a lovely dress the color of plums. I was excited and pretty, and my mom said the
unthinkable. I won’t trouble you with the exact wording; it’s not necessary. I’ll keep it to myself. But imagine a
collection of words arranged in such an order as to trigger a swirl of hurt so vast. It was an avalanche of words so
telling and so vile that I moved out the very next day.
See, I would rather go to sleep at night with the imagination of a mother’s love than sleep in a house with a woman who
doesn’t love me.
That’s where friends come in. For the first year following my breakaway, my walk from Eden, I floated on the
generosity of seven different friends. I slept on their couches and ate dinner at their tables. I rested on their hearts until I
could get my own apartment. Once in my own place, those same friends would bring me bags of groceries. One
particular friend brought me a hundred hamburger patties from her dad’s freezer. There was so much compassion and
hope in those hamburgers. Even though I was a vegetarian I ate each one with immense relish. I would fry it up with
onions and steam some broccoli and listen to Johnny Cash’s Boy Named Sue or Patti LuPone's Evita.
The vulnerability I felt during those high school years is evoked to this day when I hear author and good friend Alice
Walker say, “My heart has been broken so many times it has broken open. It is so open I feel the wind blow through it.”
On the theme of friends, one friend in particular who has been a model for me and has helped to whittle away my
defenses is Ramesh. He hails from India. He has been married for over sixty years to the very woman his parents
assigned to him at birth. He has worked at the same San Francisco photocopy shop for over forty years. He just can’t
retire. He has grown so attached to the neighbors and to service and to feeling useful, that even after he sold the shop, he
stayed on and made copies.
He was my landlord for a spell. When I had a terrible leak that rendered much of the space unlivable I went downstairs
all mad and defensive and afraid that he would try to pull one over on me. I demanded that he reduce my rent. He looked
at me with such serenity and said, “Please pay whatever you wish.” He was so unconcerned with material things. In fact
he ended up selling the building for close to $200,000 less than what it was worth. He sold it to nuns, who to this day,
thirty-some odd years later, still work with the homeless and disenfranchised in the SF Tenderloin.
I mention Ramesh because his grace taught me to see the world differently. It’s not about what you can get out of other
people but what they draw out of you. That perspective has helped me face numerous fears. Not head-on, but heart on.
Now friends weren’t the only ones who took me under their wing. My sister Robin, artist, mother, cook, singer, fellow
goofball, taught me how to read when I was three. She taught me my first Spanish words when I was slightly older. She
insisted that I learn stuff so that I would have a chance. She taught me that sanitary napkins were not to be used to wipe
your lips at dinner; she showed me how to forge notes for school; and she took me in when I was a houseless teen.
During my junior year of high school she took me in for two months. She was a sophomore in college at a party school
in Madison, Wisconsin. At a time when she should have been partying it up, not worrying about a runaway sibling, she
took me in. We would spend evenings on the roof of the Edgewater Hotel overlooking Lake Mendota singing La la la, we
didn’t know all the words, dream a little dream of me…and to this day we take each other in, and when she comes to
town we sing.
Friends and siblings can model for us ways to navigate the sea of life. How’s that for an on-the-nose metaphor? And so
can strangers. I saw on Oprah once, back when I had my goiter and was bedridden, a woman who learned how to
parent by watching women in the park. She herself was a recovering addict and survivor of abuse, and after she gave
birth, she had no idea how to take care of her own child. So every morning, or almost every morning, I mean who does
anything every morning? Some mornings she would go to the playground, and she would find a mother who was
particularly adept – someone confident and sweet – and she would copy her. She would write down what the nice lady
said to her baby. She would take note of the ways the nice lady held her baby. She would draw pictures of what the nice
lady’s baby wore. That story struck a chord in me, because that is what I have spent my life doing. Copying people who
are normal. And clearly I have succeeded.
This brings me ultimately to forgiveness. One of the most feared undertakings. Forgiving myself for not being the
perfect teacher, writer, performer, friend, and me forgiving others for not being perfect either. The hardest person to
forgive is no longer here. My mother is but a memory in the way I tilt my head, in the way I hold my drink, in my laugh,
in my bossiness and absurd decorating sense. She is so much in me that if I allowed myself to like her more, I would
like myself too much. One thing that moving to Hollywood did, though, was push open that door toward forgiveness. I
could no longer be mad at my mother for squelching my dreams as a child. I was taking matters into my own hands and
pursuing my talents on my own. Like a phoenix who is borne of his own flesh. And pursuing my desires without my
mother’s direct help made me that much more proud when I did make it. When I sold that first movie script, I was on
top of the world.
And that forgiveness grew. My last interaction with my mother was like this: she was at Fairview Southdale Hospital in
Minneapolis and was deep into the grip of Demerol. She had difficulty breathing. She stared up at the ceiling and swore
that she saw ghosts. She said that people were just hanging around watching her every move and she worried that they
were up to something. I gave her a flashlight and told her they were angels. Then I lay on the narrow hospital bed with
bars on the sides and took my mother in my arms. I debriefed our lives. I said, “I loved the way you made up logic
problems for me to do at the table on weekends. I loved the way you made chicken soup and tuna sandwiches for lunch
when I was in kindergarten and we would eat while watching All My Children. I loved the way you pretended to be a
typewriter during that one particular game of charades…you were so free and unafraid to look silly. I loved the way
you…. Then she slipped away before I could say, “I love you so much.”
Forgiveness comes more easily when you have made an effort to make your own life workable despite everything.
Resentment flies right out the window like a bird.
Now, I’d like to end on an up note. Remember, I did say the captain would bring us gently back to shore. I’d like to tell
the story of how Lisa and I bought this very boat the Queen Hollywood. It’s a quicky. We were having lunch one day in
Del Mar, north of San Diego. We were drinking Margaritas on the rocks with salt. A wrinkled man with no hair on his
head but plenty on his back offered us a sailing tour of the Bay. We agreed. We were retired and widowed, after all.
Well, as we tooled around the water, Vladimir told us about his family. He told us of his father Vladimir who emigrated
from Moscow to Minneapolis and got ripped off by a man named Bill. He told us of his own desire to pursue his dream
of being an artist. All he needed was a little seed money. Needless to say, I felt obligated to help him out. He offered us a
terrific price, and we offered to keep up the safety drills his father taught him. They aren’t really for safety as much as
they are for ritual and to pay homage to the voyage of the sailor.
So, thank you for joining me on my 70th birthday. I can say it now. Seventy. The big SEVEN O. What kind of person
am I if I can’t face the declaration of my age?
The number doesn’t just carry information about the number of days that I have spent on Earth, but it carries with it
markers for the memories that have shaped who I am. The experiences I have had away from the belly.
I’d like to thank Captain Joe for bringing us safely, albeit dramatically, back to shore. I’d also like to thank Steve, I mean
Brandon, the bartender. And, of course, I’d like to thank Lisa for her undying enthusiasm for the sea.
Now, what cruise ship birthday party could end without a sing along. Please find on your programs the words to the
song of the evening, and please sing along at the top of your talent. That is if you can sing. Otherwise, keep it to
yourself. Ready? (to the tune of Dream a Little Dream of Me) La la la la la la la…..la la la la la la la la la la….la la la la la la
la la la…Dream a little dream of me.