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My Summer with Irma

This is a story about precociousness rewarded, and about being a small, unjaded part of something wonderful. It starts, as some stories do, with caffeine, and a photo of an anesthetized dog.

In the summer of 1990, when I was 10, the Asolo did a production of a camp comedy called The Mystery of Irma Vep, a famously raucous romp of a “mystery” set primarily in an old English manor house, in which two actors play a dozen or so characters. My dad co-starred alongside another longtime Asoloite, the late Eric Tavares. Ma stage managed.

One of Dad’s main characters was Jane, a maid who spoke (according to his interpretation) in British falsetto, sort of like a cockney Julia Child.

Early in the show, Jane goes off on a little monologue about her former master, Miss Irma Vep, and how Miss Irma had a pet wolf named Victor. Jane’s telling her current master, Lady Enid (Eric, in a wig and fuchsia ballgown), that the children of the household used to ride around on Victor, which the wolf didn’t like but tolerated because he was so devoted to Miss Irma.

You see, Jane goes on, Victor preferred relaxing with his master. “His ’appiest hours were spent stretched out at Miss Irma’s feet,” Jane would say, in Dad’s sing-song, H-dropping, East-London-by-way-of-Alabama delivery, “his huuuge purple tongue lolling out of ’is mouth.”

This is the nonsense that pops into my head when I see dogs with their tongues out: “His huuuge purple tongue lolling out of ’is mouth.”

Brad Wallace as Jane Twisden, in her sleepwear. 

It was a fun show, even—or perhaps especially—for an awkward pre-teen, bawdiness notwithstanding. A real hold-on-tight comedy bull ride that used every ounce of its gimmick with no room for neuroses. Everyone got tossed around a bit, in an exuberant way.

That glorious gimmick. Early in the play, after another chat between Jane and Lady Enid, Jane would exit stage left, leaving Enid alone on stage for what seemed like the briefest of moments. Eric had just one line in that moment—a quick rebuke of Miss Irma’s scowling portrait—when from stage right, the tweed-clad Lord Edgar (also Dad) barged in through the manor’s front door with a full-size, taxidermied wolf under his arm: “ROUGH WEATHER!”

Without fail, the audience roared. It’s a joyous gag—not just the stuffed wolf and the sudden entrance, of course, but the sheer hysterical, manic magic of it. A heavy-set, big-bosomed, dark-haired woman in a maid’s outfit had just left the stage, as, it seemed simultaneously, the same person entered from the other side as a posh, bald man in a suit.

Eric greeted him with a kiss.

Dad and Eric kept up this frenzied chemistry throughout the show, a dozen different characters between them, telling a preposterous story that travels from the English countryside to Egypt and back again, with physical comedy and prop gags and Vaudeville jokes and mummies and werewolves and vampires and heaps upon heaps of silly voices.

Rough Weather

With both parents involved in the production, I’d been, as usual, a mindful bystander as the process unfolded. From line memorization and script prep through rehearsals and tech, I’d watched professional adults assembling the meticulous, almost mathematical architecture of broad comedy. But nothing matched the stomach-twisting joy of the performance itself, those months of effort dissolved into an instant seeming easiness, and all of that energy multiplied exponentially in the guffaws of the audience. What fun, when something so ludicrous can be transcendent.

After seeing it from the house, I rushed to ask Mom if I could sit backstage for a performance. It wasn’t too far-fetched a request; I’d enjoyed a childhood of backstage wanderings and knew well to follow the rules (No. 1: Don’t touch the props). Still, I’d guessed that this was a different beast.

The whole thing already felt like a family affair: Mom and Dad and Eric, of course, but also the backstage crew, helmed by head wardrober Hilare, a British expat whose whole family was close with ours, and stagehand Darrell, a bearded, impish 20something who’d often babysat my sisters and me. At least, I argued to Mom, I wouldn’t be imposing on total strangers.

Ma relented, but put me on a short leash. The backstage process for this show was delicate and chaotic, and, it seemed from her concerns, the mere presence of one little fifth grader could easily derail the whole thing.

Her cautiousness enthralled me even more.

She brought me along on the next matinee and set a chair backstage left, a full 20 feet away from the costume racks and wig tables. That was my spot, and I was to stay in it, because she couldn’t stay there to supervise me. As soon as she called places from her booth way back behind the mezzanine, I was to sit in that chair and stay put, hands and arms inside the ride at all times. Silence, of course, was a given.

In the darkness behind the set, just beyond the audience’s view, sat an arsenal of costumes, wigs, hats and props. Hilare and the three other wardrobe women, clad in black and armed with tiny maglites, performed distinct roles for every costume change. The moment between Dad’s and Eric’s every exit and entrance was, offstage, a three-second whirl of choreographed actor-decking.

But from my vantage back by the rigging, it might as well have been a rugby scrum. The chair was not shaping up to be the immersive backstage experience I’d hoped for. Not yet, anyway.

Fortunately, it was summer and I was 10 and both of my parents were at the theater six days a week anyway. Since I hadn’t screwed anything up the first time, Ma didn’t put up too much fuss when I again asked to sit backstage for another performance. And again. And so forth. It became a given that after dinner (and for matinees as well) I would accompany Mom and Dad to the theater and take my spot in that chair. A straight run is catnip for an obsessive little brain. It was easy to go all-in.

As one of the costumers later told it, show by show, that chair came closer and closer to the action. As I remember it, I was very much invited; in fact, I’m sure the wardrobe team insisted I join them—a point I later made clear to my mother. (I was still convinced my mere presence could knock the show’s clockwork akimbo.)

Soon enough, there I sat, arms-length from the ladies as they worked, whirling.

Eric Dad

Eric Tavares as Lady Enid, with Dad’s Jane

The quick-changes relied on precision choreography as well as clever costuming. Both actors wore a base layer of long-sleeve dress shirt, vest, tie, trousers and simple black shoes. To become a be-suited male character, all they had to do was throw on a jacket. And possibly, sometimes, a pith helmet.

The women’s dresses, which appeared complex and luxurious, were in fact all one big piece—heavy beanbag boobs and everything—that velcroed in the back. To become their primary female characters, Dad or Eric would toss off their previous trimmings and dive arms-first into the big dress-frock that was being held up by one of the costumers, as another wardrobe assistant sealed the velcro and yet another topped them with the appropriate wig, perhaps exchanging a feather duster for a meat cleaver in the process.

Then, just to make it extra impressive, the actor often dashed off behind the crossover to make a mind-blowing entrance from the other side.

Brad Wallace as Lord Edgar, with Eric Tavares as Alcazar.

Performance after performance, I kept coming back to my chair, clad in my own kid-size all-black T-shirt, jeans and shoes. This is where Hilare once explained to me that sometimes black dyes were made from a red base, which is why the crew’s black outfits sometimes glowed red in the dim, blue backstage light. Irma Vep is what I think of, even now, when I see black clothing in the dark.

Once I was always over their shoulders, the costume ladies found a fun game in coaxing me out of the chair and coaching me into the roles that were becoming so well worn to them. I had the small sense of being a novelty—a little kid being played with—but participating in the process was irresistibly fun.

They handed me Jane’s heavy maid’s getup, stood me in the proper spot and made sure I presented the costume just so, arms held high, the open back facing away from me, sleeves open and clear.

In a moment, my dad raced offstage, threw off his tweed jacket, and there I was, eyes peering over the frill. He dove his arms into the sleeves, donned his wig, and in a flash was off again. I was left terrified and thrilled, like I’d high-fived a jockey mid-race. No crises, no stumbles. The show stampeded easily on. I picked up the discarded tweed jacket and hung it in its spot.

The team arranged such adventures for me again and again—a gown here, a fez there—and then back to my chair.

These intermittent, three-second, chaotic costume changes constituted only a portion of the time spent backstage. While both actors were onstage performing, the backstage team busied themselves cleaning up the quick-change carnage, readying their stations, and then sitting poised, waiting.

Well, not always. Not quite.

As the run progressed, the whole cast and crew, as happens, went a little mad.

Onstage, Dad and Eric stayed in character for the audience but found moments to catch our eyes, too, and make faces at us. Backstage, the grown women in my midst responded by putting flashlights up their noses.

During one long lull in the show, I’d been sitting obediently in my chair, though the rest of the costumers had wandered off. After a few quiet moments I saw the women returning in a pack behind the crossover, stifling giggles and…buttoning their shirts?

Looking across to the other wing, I saw Darrell, eyes closed, rolling on his back, holding his stomach and kicking his legs in the air in a silent laughing fit.

What did you do?!” I whispered.

Hilare whispered back, “We flashed him.”

And so it went. An absurd, blissful routine seen through elementary school eyes. Charlie Bucket Goes Backstage.

Then one afternoon, trailing my parents, I arrived in the green room to learn that one of the costumers had injured her wrist—not terribly, but enough to hamper her in her duties. And there I was, literally waiting in the wings, a fully prepped, miniature understudy.

At some point in a child’s self-conscious precociousness, inching toward validity, you hit the Uncanny Valley of adulthood: You’re just grown up enough to know that you’re very much not one of the grownups; and you know full well that all of the grownups know this, and no matter what, you’ll never really join them until you’re older. And by then, all of this will be something else entirely.

But boy did they let me play at it anyway.

I slid into the role of wardrober No. 3, by now comfortable with what changes happened when and where; which Styrofoam head held Jane’s wig and which was for Lady Enid’s; when to bust out Eric’s caftan and where to put it when they were done. I could stand confidently on set but behind the curtain during the Egypt sequence, watching Darrell swap out the fresh mummy mannequin for its decrepit counterpart.

The injured costumer, still a lovely supporting angel, stayed and supervised. The chair was all hers.

Every performance ended in triumph for the team. Rightly so, the wardrobers had been included in the curtain-call staging from the get-go. After Dad and Eric took their bows, the two men turned and gestured toward upstage center, where the four women in black appeared, arms overflowing with costumes, to cheers from the audience.

I don’t know quite when in the run it happened, but I still carry this crystal-clear image in my head of the pack of them, heaped with dresses and coats and wigs and shawls, just moments before walking onstage to take their bows. In that moment, they’re turning back, facing into the wings to where I sat, and waving at me, once again, to join them.

I hesitated. More than anything else, this would seem my most egregious violation of the “sit in the chair and don’t bother anyone” command. Plus, I could pretend to be a grownup in the dark, but in full view of the audience I figured I was still just a kid being humored. I was afraid of breaking the spell.

But with a few shows’ coaxing, they got me out there anyway. Holding my own load of livery, standing onstage with the team, looking past my Dad and out over the 400 strangers, awash in applause. Still spellbound.

My poor mom. She’d left me in the chair, safely out of the way, and gone off to do her job. And next thing she knows, moments before the curtain falls, she turns around to see her 10-year-old literally in the show.

You’d think that was the moment. You’d think that was the very best bit. But then you would’ve missed the point of the story: that all the best bits happen behind the scenes.

Another matinee, another routine arrival in the green room. This time, the four women greeted me with a tiny present in green paper. I unwrapped it to find my own little backstage maglite, just like the rest of the ladies in black had: dark blue casing, adjustable beam in a nostril-sized lamp—perfect for finding wayward wigs or taunting unruly actors.

I gushed my thank-yous, slipped it in my pocket, and went on to take my spot in the dark.

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Banana. Hammer.

Yes.

(From this NPR story about things people are doing in the cold.)

For the record: What I am doing in the cold is wearing my Lightning toque at work.

...and looking kind of angry. Need more coffee.

…and looking kind of angry. Need more coffee.

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How I Make the Team Win

When people ask me if I’m superstitious, I answer assuredly, “Nope!”

I played NCAA Division I soccer, and a lot of competitive soccer to get there. (And no, I’m not going to get tired of bringing that up.) Throughout my career, if I didn’t have the right shirt, the right bra, stepped on the sideline or not, whatever, I was ok; I never thought about what order I put my gear on, which shoes I tied first.

And yet, as a fan? I get so idiotic following my temporary, impulsive, newly imagined superstitions. They’re not even legit, consistent game-to-game superstitions; they’re just what occurs to me during the course of a single game. I compulsively follow whatever idea suddenly pops into my had as good luck—and those impulses must be having an effect, otherwise I would’ve learned from logic and stopped trying right?

I think I’m going to call it Helpless Fan Syndrome: You can’t be on the field, so you invent ways to be proactive.

Is anyone else so…Mormon with their superstitions? Just top-of-the-head, “It came to mind, therefore it must be God’s law”? I make fun of it, and then my brain goes all, “For the Bolts to win, you have to wear the same underwear that you wore while eating that really great sandwich you had last Wednesday, and take out your left earring, ’cause it’s an away game,” and I’m like, “OH, SHIT, DUH.” […* dutifully changes underwear, removes earring.]

While it’s obvious that my techniques are still being developed (as of the Bolts/Rays results in the last 24 hours, and the Bucs…well, pretty much all the time), here are some things I did right to cause the Rays to win Wednesday: (And it’s not at all a coincidence, then, that I did none of these things today–hence the blowout.)

  1. Drank out of the same glass I used during Monday’s win. (Unwashed. Duh.)
  2. Refused to let that glass go empty.
  3. Did not wear any of my Rays gear. (One of my longer-standing superstitions deems that wearing team gear—or even using team-branded items like cozies and whatnot—is bad luck.)
  4. Nor did I wear anything blue or yellow or green.
  5. Answered only “yes yes” and “woo” to any IMs I got in support of the Rays during the final two innings.
  6. Kept my phone plugged in throughout the ninth inning, even though it was fully charged midway through.
  7. Knocked twice on my head, wooden TV tray and wooden coffee table (in a random order) with my right hand, then on my head and coffee table (random order) with my left hand every time an announcer said something jinxy.
  8. Made this list eight items long, ‘cause eight is a good number.

When in doubt and your team is down, you can always go to the time-tested and proven “rally shot.” In the best circumstances, this involves the cheapest tequila available at the bar (see: El Toro, Pepe Lopez)*. Among many success stories, this shot’s greatest achievement? The USWNT comeback win over Brazil, during which CCB, the Deelios and I, in an unparalleled moment of patriotism, took one (apiece) for the team. And then this happened:

 

 

In a pinch, you can use whatever somehow detestable shot you have on-hand that you can suffer through without ruining your experience for the rest of the game.

But lastly, a few words of warning for wielding the power of the rally shot:

  1. Never take a rally shot when your team is up or tied. (That means it’s rallying for the other team.)
  2. Be very, very careful taking a second rally shot—you never know if the first one is still working, and you may counteract it and/or die.
  3. And speaking of: Never take a rally shot after midnight. I dunno if it’s bad luck, but I’m pretty sure it’s just straight-up a bad idea.

 

*Holy god with those websites. Now I see where they get their power…

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How To Convince Yourself to Work

Busy week this week. Managed to be decently productive this morning, which was impressive and also a great indicator of just how busy I expect this week to be—I was in panic-production mode from the get-go. (‘Course then I got something done, and had another thing canceled, so the productivity didn’t go too far.)

It’s a full week of writing, too, which is neat—better than a week of meetings and interviews—but also intimidating. Creativity-on-deadline is a stressful thing, even if it usually winds up ok when I just keep putting one word in front of the other. The first sentence is the hardest.

So I’ve got a big feature due (I’m done with the research, which is always a relief but means I need to, say, create a document for the writing, at the very least—considering they do want it this week, and I assured them that that was possible) and another smaller section of a feature (most of which I finished this morning, yay me). Column was canceled due to space restrictions—which is fine by me—and I’m getting frighteningly un-stressed about slacking on my work blog.

Tomorrow is our weekly Tuesday afternoon meeting, but then at 3:30 I’ve got a ticket to a film festival flick about hockey. This is a good thing, but I know missing official working hours panics my bosses about getting my writing done—and when my bosses are panicked, I am more so.

Wednesday I’ll stay home to write. This is a luxurious option for a full-time job, but like I said: Productivity is expected. Come into the office, and I could have decent excuses for not getting stuff done. Stay home to write, and I’m expected to…write.

Thursday I’ve got another film festival flick in the evening, and another film festival thing Friday night. These shouldn’t necessarily interfere with my writing, but they are other things to think about.

This is what my Wednesday will look like, except hopefully with more words on the screen.

This is what my Wednesday will look like, except hopefully with more words on the screen.

 

Saturday looms large with such vast openness and…stuff…that it’s hard to ponder, knowing there are still 1,800 unwritten words between now and then.

It’s just, I have to do tricky things with my brain to get my writing done. And yes, I’ve got a decent amount of experience with this, but it’s still a weird little mental dance. Stress too much, and I’m paralyzed; don’t stress enough, and I won’t bother with it at all. Gotta keep slipping away from the stress while still focusing enough on it to get the document in front of my eyes and my fingers on the keyboard. It’s like a magic-eye picture: Look right at it, but…don’t look at it. Right?

I dunno; I always sucked at those things. I’m better at trying straight-up try-hard than that subversive look-like-you’re-not-trying bullshit. And I’m pretty lazy for straight-up try-hard, too.

In the end, I’ll get it done. What I don’t know is how much sobbing and rending of garments will be involved.

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The Christmas Temp-Job Poem

Looking back, this 10-year-old poem takes a rather harsh look at a post-college temp gig (mostly I don’t hold nearly so much disdain for my coworkers as I apparently did then). But the fact that I wrote this on the job, in my cubicle, is still a work-slacking triumph that stirs pride for my snotty 22-year-old self.

T’was the month before Christmas and I sold my soul
To [redacted]’s data-entry and filing patrol.
The folders were nestled all snug in their drawers
While I entered numbers for all 90 stores.

Stars of David were hung in the kitchen with care,
In rebellion against all the Christmas crap there.
And no one quite knew just who’d had the balls
To write things in Hebrew when decking the halls.

In my cubicle, nestled amongst all the crap,
I’d just settled in for my mid-morning nap,
And lulled by the sounds of those suckers still typing,
I dreamed better jobs in the sleep I was swiping.

And so in the pose of ideal corporate tool,
I awoke in my gathering puddle of drool
When what by my nearsighted eyes should be seen
But errors galore on my IBM screen?

Then up from saliva I sprang with a splash
And heaving computer parts into the trash,
I hopped o’er the cubicle and gave out a yell,
“I’m through with this temp-working boring-ass hell!

“I’ve had it with all of your corporate crap,
Your forms and your filing, your Christmassy pap,
Illiterate workers and mind-numbing work.
It’s time to ask Santa to bring you a clerk

“Who’ll make all the copies and beg you for more,
Who won’t Judaize your Christmas décor.
Call me lazy or stupid or mean or a snob,
But I’m jingle fed up with this holiday job!”

Then floating about me, invoices in shreds
Came snowflaking down upon all of their heads;
In the wake of my tirade a calm so serene
O’er my redneck-filled Chanukah Wonderland scene.

Then I fled from the building in holiday cheer
For I knew the true meaning of Christmas that year.
So now, with my heart set in festive enjoyment,
Merry Christmas to all, and to all unemployment!

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10 Birthday Week Facts

1. I turn 33 on Wednesday. Other notable 33-year-olds include NFL quarterback Drew Brees and “¡Ask a Mexican!” columnist Gustavo Arellano.

2. I was born at 5:30 in the morning, Aug. 8, 1979. Exactly 33 years later, I will be asleep.

3. My father’s birthday is also on Wednesday. So considering us two and the twins, Ma is the only one in the family with her own birthday. I think she did that on purpose.

4. After Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Ma’s birthday, Thing 1’s anniversary, Independence Day, May Day, Labor Day and World Hepatitis Day, my birthday is the ninth most important holiday in the Wallace Family Summer Calendar.

5. Wednesday is also the big-time final proof day for the September issue, for which I supplied approximately 75 percent of the edit (although only four pages of that are actually, like, readable). So I will be celebrating my 33rd birthday by sitting in the kitchen and reading 40 pages worth of really riveting nonprofit listings.

6. The average temperature here during my birthday week will be 33 degrees Celsius. Well, maybe.

7. 33 is a palindrome. And so am I.

8. My 33rd birthday occurs during the 32nd week of the year. Actually, I kind of wish I knew that last year, dammit.

9. On my 33rd birthday, I will weigh exactly 33 times what I weighed when I was born. If I weighed five pounds when I was born. Which I probably didn’t.

10. Since I’m taking Friday off, I’m only working four days this week. And since I’m writing this blog at my desk right now, I’m really not even working that much.

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Doing Work

They say the key to being a writer is to write consistently, every day. Not that I’m one for following rules like that. (I say the key to being a writer is to have someone pay you for the things that you write, heh.) But I do think writing in volume is important to learning how to listen to yourself.

I wrote the previous paragraph on Monday, in my PJs, working from home to finish a feature that I had, as usual, over-researched and under-…started. Volume aside, probably for the best that I concentrated on the feature rather than finishing a blog post that obviously had nowhere to go but tedious.

So Tuesday morning was exhaustion–and trying to write when you’re written out is hard, but fortunately I got tons of practice in college. Like a marathoner. (I mean, I’m guessing.) Push through the pain, there’s a little euphoria in every step, every noun-verb agreement and decisive period. And when you finally get to the end, it feels so good.

That? Is where I’m at now: Today I sent that 2,000-word story to art–a mercifully short turnaround after turning it in yesterday afternoon–plus an 18,000-word database to art. And just for funsies, polished off a 300-word intro and a 250-word department. Write that volume, bitches.

Rushed home in time to make the 6 o’clock workout:

Finished in 43:20.

It’s not boasting, exactly; I’m just psyched. Writer’s high. Wednesday was good to me. I’m-a try to keep it going.

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