Order of the Good Write

That Magic Feeling When the Words Flow. A Blog by Debi Rotmil


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The Upright Citizen Brigade: Goodbye Roo Roo

 

UCB Improv Team: Death By Roo Roo - Brett Gelman, John Gemberling, Curtis Gwinn, Jackie Clarke, Anthony Atamanuik, Neal Casey

UCB Improv Team: Death By Roo Roo – Brett Gelman, John Gemberling, Curtis Gwinn, Jackie Clarke, Anthony Atamanuik, Neil Casey

Once upon a time, in a city known as New York, I used to spend many many hours in a little theater in the basement of a Gristedes super market.  For this was the place where wonderful things happened. Monologues were spoken and scenes were created out of thin air. This was the fortress of black painted walls and scuffed stage. This is where sweat and theater chairs all came together in the name of long form improv devised by the god Del Close.  Can I get a “Yes, And” and a “Don’t Think?” How about a suggestion?

The Upright Citizen Brigade Theater in New York (Chelsea to be exact) was my home for a few years.  The founders are Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Amy Poehler, who in 1996 broke off from Second City in Chicago to build their own improv company in New York. Over time, it became the spawning station for writers and performers of SNL, 30 Rock, The Daily Show, Conan, Fallon – etc. You could mingle with people doing kicking comedy and then tune in NBC and watch them alongside Tina Fey or Lorne Michaels. I needed comedy back then. Badly. I was juggling the health and welfare of two ill and aging parents. I needed to dive into the happiness of the UCB. I went down to the basement to get over the darkness. The UCB saved my life. (A commentary I’m saving for another blog).

Walking down the long set of stairs to the lobby and box office was a little like heaven. The musty air smelled like my childhood home basement. The photos on the wall showed many comedians who were once part of the nightly fun, playing a game of improv in teams created in training classes or over massive amounts of beers at McManus.  I performed on the UCB stage as a student, having joined my class for graduation performances where we’d use the techniques taught over several weeks to make our friends and family laugh. It was the most terrifying and fun thing I’ve ever done. I miss it from time to time – having moved to Los Angeles where I didn’t get involved with the west coast theater (other than going to plenty of shows) as a student or volunteer. But the only thing I love remembering is the graffiti around the UCB NYC stage entrance, especially one very interesting reminder right near the entrance curtains: “Leave Your Farts Here.”  I only hope that comment was there when Robin Williams joined the Harold Team “Bang” back in 2008 for a show. It would be one thing we would share in the comedy universe.

One of the shows I used to see was “Death by Roo Roo: Your Fucked Up Family”. It’s been a staple Saturday night show at the UCB in New York for years and years – surviving the transfer of their original performers (as seen above) to the west coast where they are all guest starring in prime time comedies and/or writing on cutting edge  shows like “The Walking Dead”.  “Roo Roo’s premise: An audience member with a really screwed up family story comes up on stage to talk about their, well – fucked up family. The team of improvisors glean their improv from the stories told and hilarity ensues.  It’s a great show that would also be performed on the UCBLA stage.

December 13th will mean curtains for Death By Roo Roo. It was ground zero for some very talented people whose stars are on the rise. Time to make way for another generation of improv shows that will have people lining up down 26th street toward 9th avenue.


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The Winning is in the Losing

 

Lauren Hill and her team after a big win.

Lauren Hill and her team after a big win.

There was a tear jerking segment on yesterday’s CBS Sunday Morning reported by human-interest journalist Steve Hartman. It was part of an ongoing update on the latest news of  Mt. St. Joseph University freshman Lauren Hill. Lauren is a star basketball player who has terminal brain cancer.  She has not missed a practice or game, despite her worsening condition – determined to play until it’s absolutely impossible. Last week, when she placed the winning shot against The Hiram Tigers, something amazing happened: The losing team cheered. It’s quite a beautiful story about a wonderful young lady, and how those who lose gracefully can be the biggest winners of all.

It got me thinking about my days in school, when I competed in high school track and cross country.

I wasn’t a great runner, but I was addicted to my daily runs around town and on our school track –  an addiction that would last decades, until age and injury slowed it down.  The terror of the starting line made my adrenaline crackle. The run itself was a thrill. Crossing the line was euphoric. The only thing was – when I crossed the finish line – I always…despite showing up each day for practice and running miles on weekends…always came in last. Sometimes so last, people would have to wait until I finished. I was in great shape. I had a decent pace and gait. I was trim. But I did not have a light runner’s body, and sprite muscles.

Despite all that work…. last. Did it bother me? Yes. Sometimes I’d finish with tears in my eyes. Did it deter me? Never. Just finishing made me feel great in some profound way. But, it’s difficult to put so much work into something you love, only to have nothing to show for your team.

Me! Finishing the Avon 1/2 Marathon, Central Park, NYC - August 1981.

Me! Finishing the Avon 1/2 Marathon, Central Park, NYC – August 1981.

I used to run the 880 yard dash and the 2 Mile relay in spring track.  Despite earning  “Most Improved” on winter track a few months before, I still lumbered in last during meets in spring. But there were some interesting lessons on winning and losing in between the frustration.

Our girls spring track team was undefeated for the first month of meets. We embarked on a meet with our rivals, Eastchester High School, who were also undefeated. So, you can imagine – someone would lose that mantel by the end of the day.

Well, it was us. We lost out to some really fast runners and a few strong field event girls whose size and girth could place a shot-put through your head.

We boarded our team bus nonplussed. A little disappointed, perhaps, but we were laughing at our team mate Becky, who went on about how one of the Eastchester girls reminded her of her dad. (Okay, it’s not nice, I know. But this particular opponent wasn’t very nice.)

Our laughter made our Coach- Mr. Galanka – stand and address us. Uh oh. What did we do?

Actually – we did good. He told us how proud he was of us. The fact that we were laughing and enjoying each other after a disappointing loss exemplified our strong character. He said that we should always remember this in life. And that as strong young woman, we should never define ourselves with superficial things like hair do’s and nails and clothes. That our character in the face of losing is what matters.

What a guy. It was the most meaningful moment of my life – even today.

Yet, Coach Galanka wasn’t done teaching lessons. A few weeks later, we were at home, running against an all girls parochial school – St. Ursula Academy –  a team that was beating us on our own track.

Galanka came to me to prep me for the 2 Mile Relay (which is an 880 yard dash for each of the 4 members of the relay team).  Apparently, he wanted me to be 4th in the heat. If you know relays – usually the fastest person is 4th, because that’s the last runner who brings it all home in the final stretch. I though he was mad. Insane.

“But Coach – I’m the slowest runner. Why?”

“Because I know you can do it,” he assured me.

“But, we’ll lose the whole meet!”

“Yes we will – if you don’t finish this race for us. But I have faith that you can do this,” he said.

I though he was crazy. This must be a joke. My heart was beating in my throat. I thought I was gonna hurl my pre-game Snicker’s bar, eaten ritually before a track meet.

The race began.  My fellow relay runners were KICKING IT!  They worked up a very wide lead, and by the time it was my turn to grab the baton, Ursula was more than half a lap behind us.  It didn’t quell my nerves, but I was ready for my leg as the baton was handed to me – literally.

As I ran the first 440 yards, I gained on the Ursula Academy girl who was in the 3rd leg of their relay team – until I ended up passing her. (Remember, I’m in the 4th of mine). Oh my God… I lapped her! We were now one full lap ahead. I finished the relay – and we won as the Ursula team continued to run out their last lap minutes later.

We won. WE WON! My team was amazing. They created that amazing lead, and I was there… to bring it home. (A big cosmic ‘thank you’ to them.)

Coach Galanka came over to me and said, “I knew you could do it. See? Don’t ever doubt yourself. I did that on purpose. I wanted you to see how you can test yourself.”

I’ll never forget him or that moment. Today, he’s an award winning assistant football coach and woman’s track coach at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY, where he leads young athletes to titles and championships. Lucky bastards.

Yes, he’s one of those coaches – one of those teachers whom you never forget. They teach you lessons in life – like how to be a good loser – how to allow someone to see for themselves that hey can do anything, given the determination and love of the sport.

Much like Lauren Hill and the ladies from the Hiram Tigers – it’s not the winning that’s important – it’s how you lose.


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A Little Bit of the Full Goose Bozo

With the latest results of the toxicology reports in, we now know that Robin Williams was sober when he took his life on August 11th. All this info provides some kind of closure, but it doesn’t help the sadness of losing this great talent.

I found the above clip from his 1978 HBO special “Robin Williams at The Roxy”. He performs a version of himself forty years in the future. It’s so sad. Although he went on to have an illustrious film career, he didn’t quite make it to 40 years hence. However, his brilliance shines through, revealing one of his famous quotes on holding onto that spark of madness to keep you alive. So sorry he let go.


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California Dreamers

jdapartment

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a Kickstarter fundraising page for a documentary on the iconic writer Joan Didion, titled “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live”. Griffin Dunne, the nephew of Joan’s late husband and therefore her nephew as well, is working with a team to bring this film to light.  The day it started, they had an $80,000 goal within a 29 day period. By the end of day one, the collected funds reached over $100,000. Today, with fourteen days to go, they’ve exceeded their magic number in spades, as the total is now over $204,000. It’s obvious to Dunne, I’m sure, and to admirers of Didion –  this film will undoubtedly get made. This is good news. Didion is one of the most thought provoking writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her writing has inspired many. Most writers, owe her a deep degree of gratitude.

The magic of Joan Didion’s work came to me later in life.  Many readings and random selections from “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” had been on my brain, but never resonated with me as it did for others. Perhaps it’s because I’m not of the same generation, nor am I from California. Nevertheless, her prose and intelligent overview of social mores within the turn of a cultural revolution was fascinating to me. Despite not being “in love” with Didion’s work – I thought of her as special – heady – hip, in a retro way.

It wasn’t until a reading of Didion’s staggeringly emotional “The Year of Magical Thinking” when my mind set changed instantly. Although my own personal crisis wasn’t to come for a few years yet, I empathized with the sudden death of her husband, and shuttered over the horrendous illness that befell her daughter Quintana – who sadly passed away after the book was published. The indelible message of how life changes in an instant was stark: Not too long after reading this remarkable work, my father had a stroke. Suddenly, Didion’s words had meaning beyond measure. It’s true. One moment, and life as you know it – is never the same. I’ve read the book again after both my parents passed away. Instead of the simple empathy from my first reading, this time I lived each sentence and moment with her – this time I was standing in her shoes, as someone in mourning, someone who had been through the ringer with the medical world, someone – unlike Ms. Didion – was NOT a “cool cucumber” when the avalanche came down,  and an ER doctor took me aside to say both parents would not be coming home. It’s hard going back to your house – alone – with this news, with things to do, lawyers to retain, and memories to disperse.

When I decided to move to California a few years ago, I began reading Joan on a weekly basis, hoping to slip into her shoes to understand the geography and social outlook on this new state I was to call home for a while. In fact, her famous essay, “Goodbye to All That”, a story about her leaving New York, was a comforting piece, allowing the guilt I felt over leaving my home town for the warmth of the west coast to abate. One story here and there, including the work in “Slouching” fulfilled my Didion-esque view of my surroundings. A new landscape of valleys and mountain, earthquakes and dry spells laid before me as I mined the social aspect of this town. It isn’t all Kardashian and plastic actor wanna-be’s. There’s history and a tired chic to Los Angeles’ underground world of artists, comedians, musicians, neighbors, shop owners, and various historical landmarks.  Reading Didion’s written work is like holding onto a bible of California’s cultural revolution that still resonates today.  It’s lovely to turn to her while navigating this land. Through the bright sun that glares every day in Southern California, I read Joan’s essays through her famous sunglasses, seeking out the soul of this state – not only of its past and present – but of its future.


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Throwback Thursday in Disneyland

dad&meinDisney

The author and her father in Disney World, 1974.

I remember waking up in the middle of the night, excited yet sleepy. Our luggage was packed and loaded in the car from the night before. We bid adieu to our house in Westchester County for two weeks, and drove toward the city, heading to the George Washington Bridge. Route 80 would lead us south to Florida. Still dark, I marveled at the pre-dawn beauty and crisp feel of a summer night as it was about to become a new day. Streaks of orange and periwinkle blue slowly streaked across the sky. We had WNBC AM Radio on and I remember hearing, Maureen McGovern’s “The Morning After”  (not the pill) playing over the small speakers in our Buick Century station wagon. There we were – my dad, my mom and me -finally riding down the NJ Turnpike in the “lonely cool before dawn”.

Sometime after this song played, the DJ, inspired by the idea of ‘morning’, put on Diana Ross’ “Touch Me in the Morning”.  The music continued on during that long drive down to Kissemee, with many stops along the way: Savannah GA,  St. Augustine, Orlando to name a few.  When we got down into the Carolinas, and the thrill of counting down the next Stuckey’s and miles until “South of the Border” became monotonous, the one song I remember the most was The Raspberries’ “Go All The Way”. It  has always brought me back to that first trip down to Disney World. Even today, when I hear the song, I get that sweet, sickly feeling of being in a new, exciting place – away from the sameness of home – ready to see Mickey Mouse and go on plenty of E Ticket rides.

We stayed in the Americana Hotel which had the first atrium styled hotel I’ve ever seen in my life.  The Monorail ran right through it – like you could just step onto a train that brought you to Fantasy Land, Tomorrow Land, Whatever Land…Never Never Land…(I can’t remember all those “Lands” or was it “Worlds”?) within a minute or two.

“Peter Pan’s Flight” (my bright blue shirt glowed in the dark)  and “Pirates of the Caribbean” were my favorites – but the one ride I loved the most was sponsored by the now defunct Eastern Airlines called “The Wings of Man”. I only seem to remember loving it; I don’t remember why.

I have this photo of my dad and me in front of Cinderella’s Castle. I remember that trip, and I’m grateful he took me to the “Happiest Place on Earth”. These are the Throwback Thursdays that memories of made of. I never realized, that despite being teased as a fat kid, I wasn’t really that fat – just bigger than the other children, who would ultimately grow up around me, some in grand proportions.

I never remembered my father looking so young.  I’m a few years older than he was in this picture. That’s a strange concept, especially if you watched a parent grow old and pass away. It makes you value life more than you ever did.


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Marty Love!

MS I must say coverJust a short plug on one of my favorite comedians. Martin Short is not only been one of the most hilarious comedians in the world, he’s an amazing storyteller.  I was chomping at the bit waiting for this book to be released –  and now it’s here! “I Must Say” is very sweet, funny and quite candid – especially when he talks about his wife Nancy’s illness and death in 2010.  I’m in the middle of the book now, and it’s riveting.

Gratuitous photo of Robin Williams and Martin Short at Second City in Toronto.

Gratuitous photo of Robin Williams and Martin Short at Second City in Toronto.

If you love comedy and all the funny people in it – check it out. However, be forewarned that his tales of being in the Toronto cast of Godspell will likely have the song “O Bless the Lord” on your brain for the rest of the day.


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My Resume is My Outline

warjobsforwomenDid you ever think that your resume could be an outline to your life? Imagine the people you’ve met, the places you’ve seen, the cubicle walls that held you and possibly stirred a modicum of insanity. I’m beginning to think that my own CV, filled with plenty of job in lots of high end entertainment firms and digital companies, could be the making of an interesting autobiography.

I’ve always felt odd writing an autobiography.  I’m not famous. Yet, I’ve had a very interesting career doing a very mundane thing: Assisting in someone else’s career. Now, some of you may ask – “How is assisting people in two potentially glamorous businesses mundane?” When you have to set up meetings and conference rooms, gather catering foodstuff for hungry people and deal with various markets, conferences and day to day routines – it can be somewhat uninteresting. It’s a job like any other.

However – I’ve had brushes with greatness, met celebrities, chatted with internet moguls, shook the hand of Mark Zuckerberg in front of my cubicle, took calls from OJ’s assistant when he was in jail.  So, why not write about these things? In fact, looking at my resume, I’m seeing a vast amount of experience and people who’ve given me amazing stories. The thing is – despite being part of some talented team of executives and handling celebrity actors and business folk – you do begin to question you place in life. Especially, if you’re one of the assistants in this world who’ve never married or had kids – like myself.

Singular in every way – only a few decades before – I’d be deemed a spinster, looked upon as the sad old lady virgin (ahem…that boat sailed a long time ago), who wears sensible shoes and cardigans, pining away for their married, handsome boss – chances for love dashed due to her plain looks. Think Mary Bailey of “It’s a Wonderful Life” fame, whose alternative sorry sack fate lead her down the path to fainting at the sight of a man.

That’s not me.  Yet, as time wears on, I look back on how I’ve lived my life and realized that the only thing I really do is go to a job and go home. Once in a while, I’ll work on a self imposed writing project like a blog or music review – perhaps cover a comedy show at UCB or Largo. After a while, I had the realization that life is passing by as I go back and forth to a job that doesn’t really make me happy.  So, is that all there is?

No. There’s more.  Life can be mundane, but in between the boring and the annoying bits, come very interesting morsels of memory, feelings, and human contact that make an ordinary life – extraordinary.  I’m learning that each day, as I write and develop a slate of projects I want to work on in the coming years.  I’m going to say “screw it” to the negative voices in my psyche and, in addition to the SciFi book I’m working on, write an autobiography about my life as an assistant.  I’d like to take a look back on a mundane life to find the interesting bits – and how in writing about it – makes life not very mundane at all.


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Getting That Dystopic Feeling

Ghost in the machineMy book “Hitting the Water” is finished. I can’t believe I’m even saying it. After writing the stories, editing, revising, and re-editing, it took all my strength to finally let it go. With all the nit picking of phrases, words, re-naming characters (to protect the innocent), and fine tuning the introduction and verbage of each entry, it’s a relief to see it through.  The stories are mediations, dreamy vinettes about life and death. It was a book that I needed to get out in order to move on.  Now, it’s done. Time to lighten up.

So, what will be the next project?  Ahhh….(as I rub my hands together with delight)….I’m going into the world of satirical SciFi.  Think Douglas Adams and Terry Gilliam. Think “Brazil”, “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” or “Metropolis”. The vibe of the old Police album “Ghost in the Machine” is humming in my brain – providing the tone for this new work I began months ago before putting it aside to work on “Hitting Water”.

I’m  fascinated with the book “The Writer’s Journey: Mythological Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler. Joseph Campbell also covered this ground in “The Hero Has 1000 Faces”. Both books provide a fascinating pattern of archetypes that sew together the flow of a solid story. You feel the thread in one form or another in every movie you’ve ever seen. Grand stories like “The Wizard of Oz”, “The Hobbit”, “Harry Potter”, “Hitchhiker’s” or “Lord of the Rings” are built on this architecture.  For the first time ever, I’ll be using the blueprints provided in these books to develop a story that takes place in a futurist world.

This will be an uphill climb. But I love this feeling of being uncomfortable and pushing myself to do something new.


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L.A. Rain to A New Yorker

Thank you Nik Adler, whose photo I'm borrowing from -> https://www.flickr.com/photos/whoshotya/4012882645/in/photostream/

Thank you Nik Adler/Flickr whose photo I’m borrowing from -> https://www.flickr.com/photos/whoshotya/4012882645/in/photostream/

It rained last night in Los Angeles, one of the first good, soaking rains the metropolis has had in two years. The air is now fresh and crisp, letting autumn in after a dry, stagnant and dusty spell – summer needed to be washed away once and for all.

Before I moved to Southern California, I was like many non-west coasters mocking Los Angelenos who freaked out over a few rain drops spilling from the sky. But, now that I’ve lived here a few years, I can attest to the over-the-top reaction. The terror is justified.

“It never rains in California, but girl, don’t they warn ya – it POURS…man, it POURS.” I will follow that with a wholehearted “AMEN”.

It hardly rains here in L.A. There is a rainy season in December through February, but with the current drought, it’s hard to call it that now. When the skies do open up (as they did when I first moved here four years ago – I mean – wow – it just rained constantly in late 2010-2011), it’s in torrents of water that never seems to stop. The roads are not ready for the rain. The drainage can’t capture the gallons of gushing stuff, backing up sewer systems, making lakes out of streets. And then guess what you have? Traffic. Traffic upon traffic that is already a horrible traffic jam before the first drop even fell.

Can I be frank? There are a lot of people in L.A. who can’t drive for shit. Sorry – L.A’-ers reading this. It’s likely not you. But adding to the strange fact that drivers here don’t use their signals and like to race alongside your car so they can pass you (because screw you – you’re not going to be ahead of them), people kind of don’t know how to drive in the rain here. They speed down the street fancy free – like they’re going to the beach on a summer’s day, not believing the streets are slick and that a three foot, ten yard wide puddle is coming up hard and fast. Then it’s hydroplane time…tidal waves of water splashed about endangering the passengers of other vehicles, as the dare-devil in the 1997 Honda Civic with the jazzed up engine, takes a spin.

But let’s back it up to the first problem. The dry, oily roads that have baked in the sun for months and months between showers, making the roads slippery with the first light layer of rain drops. When you move here and take the written test at the DMV for your new license, you learn from the handbook that you must drive slow when the first rain falls because the streets can be perilous, causing accidents and then…traffic from hell.

Then, you have the strange firmament of electric transponders in Los Angeles older than the day Claudette Colbert came to town. They’re so fragile, a simple wind, much less an ocean of water dumping on the local power station will cause black outs at any moment – in any given radius of neighborhood blocks, taking with it – traffic lights that don’t work. You know what that means? TRAFFIC. SLOW. TRAFFIC – as four way intersections are a free for all and everyone has to do the “right of way” thing. If you’re one of the unlucky neighborhoods without power…good luck. It may be a few hours or a few days before you see light again, as you watch a freezer full of food turn to rotting, dripping wasted bags of money and your home turns into a new version of 1900 House, where you have to look up how to make dinner out of mushy meat. Oh, that’s right – you can’t because the internet can’t happen without electricity.

So, as a New Yorker who rolled her eyes at Los Angeles’ terror of rain, I take my hat off to you with apologies. Yes, we have blizzards that will paralyze a populace for days, and cold that will turn your appendages blue until the April thaw, but all factors that tie into Los Angeles’ famous perfect weather, is exactly what makes rain dangerous here.

But, I still laugh at news people on television who are on the scene somewhere in Silver Lake showing raindrops on a puddle and freaking out like it’s Hurricane Sandy.