Tuesday, April 28, 2009


In the film "Just Between Friends," Mary Tyler Moore, playing a new widow, is showing her mother around the business she has just bought to support herself and her children. As they talk, the elegant mother (Jane Greer) reaches up and tucks a long wisp of Moore's hair behind her ear. As they continue talking, Moore reaches up and quietly pulls her hair down where it was.

Socio-linguist Deborah Tannen could write half a book about these two gestures. So could I.

Tannen in fact has written an op-ed piece in the L.A. Times on just this subject.(http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/tannend/latimes012406.htm) Titled "My Mother, My Hair," the short essay explains why mothers of even middle-aged woman so often comment on and criticize their daughters' hair, and why the daughters are driven thereby to teeter on the brink of matricide.

"Where the daughter sees criticism, the mother sees caring. . . making a suggestion, trying to help, offering insight or advice. Isn't that a mother's job? Both are right, because caring and criticizing are bought with the same verbal currency. Any offer of help or advice — however well-intended, however much needed — implies you're doing something wrong." Just so in the scene sketched above: Greer is, in her mind, tidying up Moore's hair, but to MTM, the move is a criticism, refuted with her defiant gesture.

Tannen further explains that while mothers and daughters get on each others' nerves about all sorts of matters--clothes, childcare, careers, cooking--the topic she hears most about is hair. Her book on the overall subject is called You're Wearing That?Mothers and Daughters in Conversation.

Hair and heartache. Most women are, in their DNA, in their bloodstream, in their bone marrow, disappointed in their hair. Ninety-five days out of one hundred are "bad hair days." Sinead o'Connor, shaving her pretty head, was simply one of the first to act out the discontent. Oh, I know--it was supposed to be about politics and all that. Humbug!

Our life stories could be written in the tales of our tresses. Go ahead; think about it. I wager any woman reading this blog could recite a dozen stories, off the top of her head, so to speak, about her hair crises, and especially those in which her mother plays a sinister role.

My hair was a source of antagonism for my mother before I could even talk. My father had had a love-hate relationship with his older sister, who bossed him relentlessly, even sitting on his chest and pouring medicine down him. His favorite word to describe her was "pugnacious." He always grinned as he said the word. Bossy, pugnacious Harriet had long auburn hair, naturally curly. "She'd wash her hair, then go outside and shake her head like a dog, and the hair would ripple down her back. She dint even need ta touch it!" When, as a toddler, I grew golden curls, Dad was hopeful I'd eventually become some variety of redhead. Mother (thinning, plain brown hair) thought I was quite enough like her dismissive sister-in-law already, thank you.

Shirley Temple didn't help the cause one bit. Like thousands of other little girls of that era, I endured having my hair put up in rags every night and then combed out into fat sausage curls the next day, just like Shirley's, and the devil take the painful snarls. The crowning ribbon arranged on my head was exactly the size of the bow on Aretha Franklin's Inaugural bonnet.

When I was seven, we moved, leaving my grandmother's house. Nanny had been the one to roll up my hair each night and then comb out the curls next morning, as I sat on a footstool and yelped about tangles. No Nanny, no curls. Mom worked at a defense plant and had no time for attempts at the Shirley Temple effect. My hair, no longer golden but "dishwater blond," went straight. About that time, Toni hair products came out with the first home permanent. Mother, busy but desperate about my hair, alternated between letting me go to school au naturel or forcing me to have a smelly perm. Au naturel, my hair looked like shredded wheat; permed, it resembled lumpy oatmeal.

There was a brief, idyllic period around age 10 when I got to wear braids. I remember the braids with great fondness, and had I the hair to do it with today, I'd wear braids atop my head like Irene Donne as Mama in I Remember Mama.

Mother backed away from hairdresser duty once I hit my teens, and I was grateful. Ill-coifed but grateful. Hair styles came and went, and I was always a slow learner. I did the tiny pin-curl routine long after you could even buy hairpins any longer. By the time I mastered putting up my hair in the fat brush rollers, they were gone and ironing one's hair was in. Several serious neck burns from that era, as I recall.

But after spending a couple of years in Europe, I returned home (aged 30) to find Mother waiting, once again eager to "do" my hair. I don't think I could have been more bewildered had she offered to bathe me in the tub. The tension was as thick as Brylcreme. I was pretty much past the mouthy, smart-aleck stage, but I was mystified as to her motive, and I actually moved north to a summer job some weeks earlier than planned largely because of this event.

A season or two later, wigs were in fashion, believe it or not. And on a quick duty-visit, I was again faced with Mother and the hair question. Actually, it wasn't framed as a question: she was going to buy me a wig. Egad! But I went shopping, to preserve something (I wouldn't call it peace). Grumpily I tried on several wigs and finally agreed to something or other. Mother beamed at the clerk, and announced, "Mother's paying for this!" Insult to injury, and I felt a very cranky thirteen.

Why was I so resistant and unhappy about these incidents in my presumed adulthood? Yes, of course they implied criticism of my status quo, of whatever I was doing with my hair at the time, but then what didn't? Mulling it over as I have been writing, I realize that touching another person's hair, taking it into your custody so to speak, is a very personal act. It presupposes a level of connection and intimacy that, alas, was never there with my mother and me. I think each of these was an effort on her part to make connection. I wish I'd really understood that, wish I'd been less suspicioous of her motives at the time.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Here's the last in my series of blogs called "ONSTAGE SUITE" ( written sporadically, yes; erratically, yes). This one deals with a very minimalist performance, if you can call it a performance: no costume, no set, one stage manager, and no audience present. There are times I wonder if there ever will be an audience. If so, I'll probably never know who or where, or if they enjoyed the gig.

A couple of years ago, Nancy and I decided to volunteer at the Oklahoma Library for the Blind. Since then, we've been recording books on tape. Except that I don't think they're actual tapes any more; they may not even be CD's. For all I know, they could be crystal tubes like those that showed up in the frosty Marlon Brando segment of Superman. The technical end is not my job. I just go into a small booth, clap on big ear-phones, adjust the mike and start reading. Nancy, at the control desk outside, does the rest.

("The rest" includes giving directions through the earphones: "Did you just burp?" or "Stop gesturing; the listeners won't see any of that, and you keep clunking the lecturn." Also, "Better read that over; you just said 'gentle football' instead of 'gentle footfall.'" Editing also includes going through the tapes afterward, closing up long pauses, snipping out "lip smacks," and generally making the results presentable.

I've always loved to read aloud. I almost flunked kindergarten, being SO not up to grade level at making paper chains, using scissors, and pasting A onto B. There were no tutors available for Remedial Pasting: my mother checked. But when Mrs. Howell had us pull our little wooden chairs into a semi-circle and take up our large-print readers, look out! Dick and Jane suddenly sounded as lively as the radio show of "Terry and the Pirates."

And for the most part, people like to be read to, I think, sighted or not. That surprised me--that adults would enjoy being read to. In several of my college courses, I experimented with reading aloud a short story or poem, perhaps to illustrate a theme or a technique we'd been discussing, or just to change the pace. No one fell asleep; no one even seemed to space out. Instead, the class appeared to drift into the alert but relaxed Alpha state that probably prevailed thousands of years ago when one of our ancestors pre-empted the campfire to tell stories of the Woolly Mammoth That Got Away.

In today's world, what with TV and I-pods and cell phones and the rest, I wasn't sure that the blind would still be interested in books on tape (or crystals). But apparently they are, along with physically impaired folks who can see but can't hold books or turn the pages. So the Oklahoma Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped makes books on tape available to the state's citizens, along with the machinery necessary to play the tapes. No charge. Not for the machinery, nor the tapes, nor the postal service needed to receive and return the tapes.

My first assigned book was a dandy: That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx. She has written, among others, The Shipping News (made into a fine movie) and "Brokeback Mountain" (ditto). That Old Ace is set in the present day in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma. Beautifully written, it's a lively, funny tale chock full of odd and wondrous characters. Lots of them. And therein lay my first mistake.

I decided, before I knew what I was doing, to give each main character a distinctive voice. The central figure, Bob Dollar, got a rather ordinary, bland voice. His quirky Uncle Tam got a nasal, high-pitched sound, befitting one who adores the Keno Brothers on Antiques Roadshow. (Well, I adore the twins also.) Bob Dollar's no-nonsense rancher-landlady ended up with a loud Texas twang. (Proulix has her say, "ray-road" for "railroad." Easy to catch her sound.) But there are a whole passle of characters.

The problem became evident in about Chapter 10. Here, after an absence of 100 pages, comes Bob Dollar's old buddy, the Fat Boy, who has spent a spell in the clink, during which time he lost tons of weight and gained an amazing new career. But what in thunderation does he sound like? What kind of voice did I give him, five recording sessions ago? Jim Dale, the marvelous voice/voices of the audio Harry Potter books, keeps tapes so he will be consistent as he vocalizes all the Muggles and monsters, wizards and whatevers. All I can do now is hope that the listeners forget what Uncle Tam's boyfriend Bromo sounds like when he reappears.

Currently, we're doing Gypsy: Memoirs of America's Most Celebrated Stripper. Yes: Gypsy Rose Lee, central figure of the musical Gypsy. She wrote her book more than fifty years ago; today, the stripper-act that Gypsy Rose Lee did for burlesque shows pales when compared with what one can see any night of the week on TV or cheering on the sidelines of any high school basketball court. We are recording the book at the request of a deep-pocket donor of the Library, himself blind and desireous of hearing Gypsy's life story.

How is the book? In a word, long. In several words, topheavy with unjuicy details. Except that Rose Louise had no formal education at all, I'd think she had been frightened by some schoolmarm scribbling "BE SPECIFIC!" all over the stripper-to-be's little essays. She's specific, all right: the map she draws with words is almost bigger than the territory covered. We're three-fourths of the way through the book, and Gypsy (Rose Louise) is still only sixteen and just trying on her first pair of heels. As a successful stripper, the Gypsy differed from all her competition because, while promising so much, she left almost everything to the imagination. Oh, that she'd brought that strategy to her writing!

So, in the snug soundproof booth, beneath the earphones and emoting to the mike, am I performing? Or simply translating printed words into spoken language? Only those who hear the tapes could say. Hello, out there!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


(See earlier blogs for background on "Aunt Patty Remembers.")

As I took the tented stage in 1984, traveling around the West portraying Aunt Patty Sessions as part of a NEH touring company, perhaps my keenest pleasure was meeting descendants of Aunt Patty.

Aunt Patty (1795-1892)had ten children in all, most of whom died very young. But three adult children figure prominently in Patty's now-famous diaries: Peregrine, David, and Sylvia (married to Windsor P. Lyon). Peregrine, an important leader in the early Mormon church, had a full cast of wives and enough children to fill a three-room schoolhouse(fifty-something). In our six weeks in the Rockies, our performing group visited five states and twice as many little towns. And in every hamlet, however small, out came several people, clutching genealogy sheets with one hand and a line of children with the other, to announce proudly that here were yet more of Peregrine's progeny.

In Loveland, Colorado, rain kept us from performing outdoors under the little striped tent, so we did our time-travel gig back into the 19th century on the stage of a beautifully restored old movie theater. The plush auditorium was large and rather dark inside, and the audience didn't begin to fill all the seats. It wasn't quite the same casual atmosphere as we enjoyed when the crowd sat on the grass in front of the tent, waving to each other and drinking root beer, their offspring cart-wheeling around the park or ballfield. But in the theater, after we'd finished, a young mother shyly came up with three beautiful girls, ages 4, 6, and almost-8. Could she take a picture of them with "Patty"? Oh, my. Their shining blonde hair gleamed in that dusky theater, their blue eyes looked at me, in my tacky, make-shift "pioneer outfit," with the innocence that is reborn every generation, and I looked and looked at them. Flesh of her flesh. Diaries are one thing, histories, pictures, genealogy charts. But here, in their bright faces, Patty became a reality.

Later, in the middle of Wyoming, the tent was again outside, and smack on the front row sat two fellows in Levis, good Wyoming dust thick on their handsome boots. A generation separated them; everything else tied them together--hairlines, large, sad eyes, creases down the cheeks, the same slope to the shoulders. When they came up afterwards, I could see that the older man had lived a long, long time. The younger man introduced his father and himself. He explained that they had driven most of the day across Wyoming to get here.

"And are you descendants of Peregrine Sessions?" I asked, almost as a formality. Why else drive the high plains to West Boot to see some academic types do their thing?

"No," said the older man. "No, not Peregrine. We're from David's line." A pause. "M'boy here,"--the balding "boy" grinned wryly--"so far's we know, he's the last living descendant of David Sessions, Jr. David Junior, he didn't have so many, um, children as Peregrine. And this fella, he's my only child. No grandkids. End of the line now." And he softly punched his boy on the arm.

The Sessions descendants are a proud lot, and deservedly so. One evening in Utah,a couple of years after the summer tour, I was scheduled to do a solo performance of "Aunt Patty Remembers." That afternoon, in the hotel I got a phone call.

"Are you the lady who's going to talk about Patty Sessions?" asked a man. When I said yes, he replied, "Well, I am an ancestor of hers!"

I took a breath, then asked, "And where, sir, are you CALLING FROM?"

Now as to Patty's daughter Sylvia: It was Sylvia, back in Nauvoo, Illinois, who gave her mother Patty the birthday gift of a small notebook which became the diary of the trek and a treasure carefully tended today in the LDS Church archives. Sylvia married Windsor P. Lyon, a pharmacist and doctor. Sylvia had a daughter named Josephine Lyon Fisher. Josephine Lyon Fisher's progeny included George Fisher. George's daughter Emily graced some of my classes in my professorial days, and later became a cherished friend. Our Corgis have romped together. Among the many reasons I owe large dollops of gratitude to Emily is that she first suggested I become a blogger. (I thought she was saying "blocker.") She set up this blogsite for me, and bails me out when my technological know-how flops. As I write, she is preparing for a West Coast biking marathon and fundraiser. She's a legal-aid lawyer, an amazing poet, a musician, clearly a Renaissance woman. Emily and I exchange information about new books of interest.

Speaking of which, there is a recent book titled Miss Alcott's E-Mail. In the book, the writer, Kit Baake, imagines that she can send e-mail to Louisa May Alcott, the 19th century writer, who then pens back replies, somehow. Now, folks, if anyone patents that technology, will I have some news for Aunt Patty! And I'll start with Emily.