Who Owns the Giant Wrench?

Who Owns The Giant Wrench?

A Discussion on Intellectual Property

wrench pink

My mother is funny sometimes, God love ‘er. When we lived all together, she’d constantly instruct us to put the clothes in the dishwasher and the dishes in the hamper. Throughout my first two semesters at college, she mistakenly addressed my mail to Pittsburgh, New York. (I do this kind of thing now all the time, of course.)

After I moved out and found myself in college, I developed a theory. I said, Mom, someday a lightbulb is going to go off in God’s head and he will realize he forgot something. On that day, a GIANT WRENCH is going to descend out of the sky and tighten around our heads, and God is going to give that one little half twist that has been missing.

For years, when Mom said something non-sensical or couldn’t think of the right word, she’d look at me and say, “The wrench.  The wrench is coming.”

I told my roommates in college. The Giant Wrench became famous, facetiously chasing each of us any time our brains took one of those momentary vacations, as we systematically destroyed gray matter come the weekends.

Decades later, my ex-roommate Susan from college, whom I adore, is polishing a work-in-progress. She says to me, “I wrote about the Giant Wrench!”

I think, wait… no fair.

The Giant Wrench is mine!

But is it?  I think of all the moments I have written about, and am in the process of re-writing, and have yet to write, that involve her. Adventures we had together and things she said to me that have stuck in my mind and thoroughly cracked me up. We had our own language, derivative of only us roommates.

Yet in being my funny and insightful and wickedly witty comrade, spouting intelligent dialog at the drop of a dime … hasn’t she been writing that stuff the whole time? If I borrow her as a character, am I stealing her material?  I recently reopened a copy of On The Road: Did Jack Kerouac plagiarize Neal Casssady’s life in creating Dean Moriarty? What did Neal Cassady have left to write about, then?

What if all the Dean Moriarties and Tad Allagashes and Tyler Durdens of the literati-verse stood up and demanded their own sovereignty?

(Okay, so Tyler Durden sort of did. But still within the construct of the narrative.)

There’s a woman who jogs in a neighborhood near my home.  We see her every year when the weather warms up.  She is suited in tight black spandex from head to toe—including a hood that wraps across her face, even in 90 degree weather.  A long, black pony tail swishes back and forth behind her head.Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

My family calls her the Ninja Jogger.

For years, I thought the Ninja Jogger must make an appearance in a story somewhere, this curiously anonymous, skinny woman who could be Catherine Zeta Jones in “Entrapment.”  Who knows what identity she might employ in her regular life, among toddlers and willow trees and lawn-mowing men in cargo shorts?

A few months ago my daughter, studying creative writing at a university outside Philadelphia, remarks: “I’m writing about the Ninja Jogger.”

I think, Oh shit.

So who owns our mutual experiences? Does the copyright go to whoever writes them down first? In that case, I’m quite behind the game here. Is it whoever coined the phrases in question?  In that case, my husband came up with the name “Ninja Jogger,” comic book junkie that he is. And have I blown the cherry on the concept solely by mentioning her here?

For me and Susan, we’re trying to proactively divvy up our experiences so as not to duplicate each other’s efforts in our works. I can only hope for the best possible outcome: Maybe we will become known as popular novelists who struggled together through a long and reflective kinship. Dare I even mention, like that gaggle of expatriate writers of the Jazz Age, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cummings, Stein, sitting at cafés together in Paris and expounding on their own writerliness.

That would be something worth sharing the Giant Wrench for, even.

We’ll work on that.

Meanwhile, I hope the Ninja Jogger was not an English major, too.

 

“…God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War, no Great Depression. Our great war is a spiritual war…our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars. But we won’t, and we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” 

― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (Tyler Durden)

“Taste … is a matter of taste.”

― Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City (Tad Allagash)

Never Skinny Enough

NEVER SKINNY ENOUGH:

Recalling a Brief Career as an Actress/Singer/Whatever

 

I am reminded now and then that I wasn’t always a writer. A few things happened:  I recently watched the film “Birdman.”  And I read my writer friend Kathryn Craft’s lovely novel The Art of Falling, which deals with a modern dancer who has body image issues. As a big show-off, I loved performing like nobody’s business in my youth. But these two pieces of work reminded of how screwed up it was, trying to be an actress/singer/whatever, especially in Manhattan.

This is what they taught you in theatre classes (I minored in theatre at Pitt, and I later actually went to the Lee Strasberg acting school in Manhattan for a semester, so yes, I actually trained somewhat for this stuff):  They said, subscribe to Backstage and send your headshot for absolutely everything.  Apart from getting naked, take every little thing you can get.

Whatever they ask you to do, say you can do it.  If they ask if you can ride a horse, you say yes.  If they ask if you can tap dance, say YES.  Do you model? Yes. Do you do improv? Yes. Would you dye your hair? Would you relocate to Guam for three months?  Can you bounce on a pogo stick and read the news while eating a yogurt?  Yes, yes! (I can actually do that.)

Then if you get the job, you immediately LEARN to do whatever it is they hired you to do right away.  You learn to tap dance ON the horse if they ask you to.  And you do it in the one week they give you before you leave for the job. So, I took the photos, and I sent out the headshots to EVERYTHING.

I got called for auditions to model shoes, because that’s supposedly what petite girls do.  But I was too small even for that. The shoe models were all size a six, and I was so tiny I was barely a size five. I still had trouble finding adult shoes to fit me at 23 years old. Besides that, two different shoe companies told me that my right foot was bigger than my left; I am sadly asymmetrical. I got one modeling job my whole life (in approximately seven years of auditions), for a Redken hair products industry trade show.  Some semi-famous cosmetologist from London cut my hair live onstage, and I walked his runway in the finale.

tie die adjustedHere’s a rock-and-roll promo shot, taken by a photographer named Michael Haus, who was based in Stony Brook, NY.  I met him at a showcase and he invited me to do a couple of test shoots; he was young and trying to break into fashion photography. Wanted to be the next Francesco Scavullo.  We became friends. He was quite talented, and was responsible for the one headshot I had that everybody called on.  Directors would sometimes hold it up in the air and rather than say, “Who’s this girl?” they’d wave it and call, “Who did this headshot?”  I gave out a lot of endorsements for Michael.

I’ve tried to look him up to see how his career turned out. I hope he changed his name or moved to Milan and is outrageously successful.  At the time, he was trying to drum up high profile projects to kick-start his career, like a “Girls of Long Island” calendar. As a day job, he was the guy who took public school pictures.  When he pulled a few of his backdrop screens down behind me, I recognized them from high school photos.

Tough business.

I was 112 pounds, and the dress I wore to the hair show audition was a Victoria’s Secret size three.

Yet when I asked my friend Michael if I could get involved in his Girls of Long Island calendar, he said:

Do you know what kind of shape you have to be in to pose for something like that?”

This is why young women in the performing arts develop eating disorders. I was one of the tiniest girls I knew.  I did aerobics like a hyperactive machine at least three times a week. I still was not skinny enough for this industry. (Note I have never had an eating disorder, unless eating too much is a disorder. At worst, I could be classified as one of those yo-yo dieters, losing and gaining the same 4 to 8 pounds for 20 years.  But I get it.)

Tough business.

I did some decent, leading roles in regional musical theater, though:  on Long Island, in Pittsburgh, in Florida.  I was good live; I had a big voice.  And when you are physically tiny in theater, you “read” younger than you are, and you fit into the ingénue category. I was still playing 16 year-olds at 28.

As an alto, I was usually a “second lead”; the first singing lead is typically a soprano. But no kidding, second leads have a lot of fun and get good solos, sometimes multiple songs per show. You always get paid better than the chorus. And you don’t have to be as good an actress—it doesn’t require as much dialog as the main lead. I was fairly lacking as an actress, disappointing more than one director, although I might have improved with time had I stuck it out.

I worked hard.  I was all-business on stage.  I got pissed off at the people who fooled around.  I danced on tables and risers and fell off them and got bruised. I stayed at rehearsals until 11:00 at night.

My character was murdered on stage three times a week at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson, NY, during a scene that called for my throat to be cut.

That theater had a miniscule dressing room for the girls, and an expansive one for the men, so I did my make up daily in the guys’ room in protest. When the boys complained about changing in my presence every day, I flashed them, after which time they let me stay.

The joke was on me, however. Once that production got underway, I had such a rapid costume change that I had to stand in the wings and literally jump out of one dress and into another in front of not just the actors, but the entire stage crew.  Two cast mates stood off-stage holding open my next costume, zipping down the back of one dress as I climbed into the other and ducked back on stage before the lights came up. We had about a twelve count to make the transition.

model cropI played a string of ethnic, singing peasants in Brigadoon, Zorba, Fiddler on the Roof. I learned the whole production of Fiddler in only six days, as I was hired as a replacement for one of the five sisters who had quit the show.  I sang at nursing homes, in restaurants and in parades with a roving production of Godspell, led by an aging hippie and ex-heroin addict who portrayed Jesus Christ. I sang with several different cover bands that barely made it out of the garage.

I choreographed a community production of Annie, and my little girls performed “It’s a Hard Knock Life” at the Suffolk County Arts Council Awards presentation. When one of those girls grew up, she reproduced my choreography in her high school production.  I choreographed three numbers at Pitt’s “Greek Sing” for the fraternity where I was a little sister, and our guys won first place.

I was an extra in David Johansen’s “Hot Hot Hot” video, although a magnifying glass is required to identify the blur that is me. People still dance conga lines to this song at weddings. At the time I never imagined anyone would hear it. At a new artist showcase, I lip-synched to a recording of a song I co-wrote, in a little Manhattan joint called the California Club, where I later learned that Sandra Bullock supposedly was a bartender that same year. I hope she was present that night.

I also surprisingly got hired by an improv troupe in New York City. I fell asleep on the train on the way to the audition and forgot to apply eye make-up. So when they called to say I got the gig, I thought to myself, maybe this one isn’t just because they think I’m cute. So I screwed up my courage and got on stage with this bunch of WILDLY talented people who cracked me up every minute of rehearsal. I was by no means the stand-out of that crowd, I was the novice.  But I learned I could think on my feet, and be amusing and spontaneous if I said the wacky things that popped into my head. I held up my end of the skits, God dammit. That was amazing training — for everything, not just for stage work.  Thank you, cast of The Improvables circa the early 1990s. I have put this skill to work in public relations incessantly.

Of course, the parts I didn’t get were much better than the ones I did.

  • I was called to audition as a cable TV talk show host with a fake Australian accent, who was scheduled to interview Bridget Fonda.  For comedic reasons, my male co-host was required to be shorter than I was.  I listened to hours of early Nicole Kidman movies to prepare and showed up in my highest spike-heeled boots. They announced that they loved me and rehearsals started Monday, instructing me to call such-and-such on Friday for details. Then they never got back to me.
  • I auditioned for a Broadway revival of My Fair Lady where the directors looked so bored, one almost dropped off to sleep at his card table. They shouted THANK YOU!!! with fervor in the middle of my song, like you see in the movies.  That shit really happens.
  • I seriously contemplated going to the open call for the original Footloose on Broadway, even though I had just found out I was pregnant with my son.  I figured they wouldn’t realize for a few months.
  • I rocked a Paula Abdul number at an audition for a cruise ship singer/dancer troupe until the dance captain gave me moves to follow in a mirror and I got dyslexic.
  • An executive from Polygon Records described my voice as “wedding pop” in a rejection letter.  Around that time, I was dating a long-time studio drummer who played with the original Broadway company of Godspell.  In response to that rejection, he said to me, “Do you know how long Pat Benatar did weddings?”
  • I stood in line at 8:00 a.m. in Manhattan with 800 other girls to audition for VH1’s “Be a Diva” program, in the pouring rain, my babies at home with a sitter. I got so disgusted after four hours of the line not moving, I gave away my call sheet and number (something like #786) to the nice girl behind me who had temporarily departed to buy dry stockings right before they passed around the sheets. I got back on the train and went home.
  • I was called by the Vanderbilt Planetarium in Huntington, NY, to play 1920s tap dancer Ruby Keeler in a stage biography.  However, they didn’t mount the production until two years after I auditioned, by which time I was about to move to Pennsylvania.  I’d lied about knowing how to tap dance anyhow. I figured I’d learn.

But I really can bounce on a pogo stick for nearly five minutes straight, people. I swear. I inherited one of those from my cousin Valerie when I was eleven. I should have put that on the theatre resume, which also notes that I can giggle on cue.

During the time I was doing stage work, I had several simultaneous careers on the burners. I wrote fiction, which had been my major at Pitt. I did journalism. And I worked at an ad agency in both local broadcast radio production and PR.  I made a pact with myself that I would follow whatever trail panned out first—no regrets.

Hence I became a public relations director.

It’s a hard job, and I’m good at it. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if I continued to pour the same amount of energy and blood and tears into acting.  Or novel writing, from the start. Because if I can be successful at PR, which is a dang challenging profession, maybe I could have been just as successful in one of those other disciplines …

Note that goes against the No Regrets policy, however.

If you were not whatever you are now, what would you be?  Tell me…

See the “Leave a Comment” button above.

Immortalization vs. Exploitation

I realize here that I’ll be borrowing heavily from the lives of people I have cared about. People who entrusted themselves to me in the form of shared experiences that they at no time realized would be open for interpretation and repurposing years later. These people are still out there. And they did not opt-in to my projects.

Before Facebook and Google, it was all nice and neat and easy to forget that the people whose memories I plan to plunder are still functioning and in concrete existence. Now, with a keystroke or two, I can unearth evidence of their ongoing lives. It was easy ten years ago to think that people persisted only in my imagination, for the purpose of making me smile when recalling my history. They were memory-only, suitable for dredging up and reinventing on paper with a disguised name. Or to recreate, transmogrified and composited, sharing facets of a character that draws from several personalities—discrediting all of the source material in the process, as if each person were not whole enough on his or her own. Yet I spent decades learning and traveling and meeting people for the sake of discovering the secrets of the world, with the goal of building a base of experience wide enough to create a new universe of fiction, or creative non-fiction, on top of that.

I was always the type of person, somewhat like my children are now, who attracts others in need of empathy and guidance to support all their dire, f**ked-up idiosyncrasies.

I was the girl that guys came to with confidences, allowing me to glimpse the misfit pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that contrasted with whatever they presented to rest of the world.

Those people innately knew I’d keep their secrets and love them anyway, smoothing over the jaggedness. And they graciously did the same for me.

Those are the moments and relationships I am passionate about. That’s what I want to capture. Yet I can’t help feeling this translates to some kind of betrayal that will necessitate forgiveness. There is a thin line between immortalizing these moments (I mean these people–friends, love interests and charges) and exploiting them. And I’m doing so in order to present a cathartic, authentic, emotionally valid piece of literature for public consumption. For art.

The difference may just depend upon their point of view. And their level of clemency.

To all those people:  I always knew this day was coming. You didn’t.

Forgive me.