------------>[versione in italiano]Steve, a psychotherapist friend of mine, maintains we choose our parents. I like that idea.
Joe and Robin, my dad and mom, met in Michigan and shared a common love for the theatre (they are co-authors, with David Letwin, of a great book on the Theatre, "The Architecture of Drama." My father has also written a novel, "Taking Tennessee to Hart" and his memoirs, entitled "Stages"). At 16, Joe knew what he wanted to dedicate the rest of his life to: acting and directing. Robin was a talented and attractive actress who ended up raising five children.
I had one child, Michael. That was tough enough. I once asked Mom how she did it with five kids. Her reply: “I wept.”
I was the third child, after Laurel and Joe III, before John and Larkin. It was February 13th, 1956, 7,27 a.m. My Dad was working at the University of California at Santa Barbara at the time. We moved East when I was just six months old and eventually settled in the Midwest. I've continued in that tradition, living in New York, studying for two years at the University of Bologna and eventually settling in Italy.
I grew up in West Lafayette, Indiana. That's between Chicago and Indianapolis. Chicago is one of the great Blues capitals of the world and John Hiatt was born in Indianapolis. Need I say more?
Actually, we're talking about Purdue University, where my father taught and directed theatre for 25 years. An engineering school. He brought in talent from out of town. I remember James Earl Jones (Lenny in his production of “Of Mice and Men”), Francis Farmer and Anne Revere. I had some bit parts in musicals like Gyspy and Oliver. It was great.
Dad was at the theatre most of the time, but always home at the right moments, like on holidays and for supper. At least that's how I remember it. We went to the cinema together. I recall cutting Christmas trees and taking them home, the smell of pine needles, him giving me driving lessons at 14 or pulling our sled in winter with the VW out on an isolated, country road.
He once confessed not being a good father because the theatre had always been his first love and the family had come second. I couldn't have disagreed more. Funny how we all see those things differently. I suppose it helped that Dad was “different”, but that wasn't everything. What I liked and feared most about him was his Gibraltar steadiness, with an energy far beyond that of the average mortal.
He used to declare “quiet hour” from 5:00 to 6:00 p.m. We all had to sit around, listen to music and “relax” without making a sound before dinner. There was everything from musicals Dad had directed or was thinking of directing to Blues, Latin music, classical, jazz… Barbara Streisand, Herb Albert, Brazil '66, “McArthur's Park” sung by Richard Harris, “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha, “Where Is Love” from Oliver, songs from “Porghy and Bess”, “Hair”, and an old, odd-sized record by Josh White with “Motherless Children” and “One Meatball” which I sang for years.
When it wasn't quiet hour, I was listening to the Beatles in the living room, mimicking playing the guitar and singing. Music was the greatest thing in the world to me. Still is. I had an old portable radio I tied to the head of my bed and listened to at night. It must have been my father who bought my first guitar, a Silvertone from Sears. I played around with other instruments, too, like the violin, piano and flute. As if my mother didn't have enough to do already!
Everyone loved my Mom. The life of the party, she was (and still is!) witty, sociable and unique in her way of thinking. She could dance on the table with the best of them (don't know about that now…) and read like no one I've ever known. A book a day sometimes. If it weren't for spell check on computers, we'd all still be calling her from different parts of the world to check our spelling.
Back in the 60's, she used to say, “Policemen are our friends.” Very strange. Most everyone else in our entourage who had anything to do with cops referred to them as “pigs”. This was a new and fresh perspective. And it stuck with me. She had other interesting ideas, for example that anarchy meant non-violence because an anarchist could only live without government by respecting and loving his/her neighbour.
Once when I was very young, I used to swear a lot. So Mom pulled me aside and said, “I understand your need to swear but swearing is not good because it offends people.” To alleviate the problem, she proposed I “swear into her ear”. The idea was to exhaust my desire to do it but of course the end result was just the opposite. I don't remember how long I kept it up. Days, weeks, months... I knew every bad word in the book. Finally, exhausted, she said, “I've had it! Enough is enough! You can swear around your f****** friends but I don't ever want to hear you swear around me again!”
So much for theory.
Like me now, Mom once taught in an elementary school at Pine Cobble, Massachusetts. My father was on leave from Purdue, teaching for a year at Williams College. I was too busy getting into fights, sitting under my desk and eating glue paste to help out. However, I was one of the “no neck monsters” in Dad's production of “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.” I had one line, “That's mine, you give it to me!” I always said it during rehearsals but never in front of an audience!
Years later, when Mom became a Republican, I wondered if this choice wasn't the result of a devil's advocate approach to maintain her dignity in a “liberal” world. Whatever, it sure kept my dad on his toes!
I haven't been ill in years, thank goodness, but disease was a big part of my memory of growing up, and that of both my parents. It seems at least one of us kids was always sick at Christmas, usually with the flu. My mother had terrible teeth and bone problems and Dad once had an “attack” in the back yard we attributed either to sunstroke or to a bee sting (he's allergic to bees) in which his eyes bulged out and I thought he was going to die.
At 13 or so, I went into the bathroom to pee and was startled to see I was urinating blood. I ran to tell my mother. That was the beginning of a long bout in the hospital with acute nephritis. They were sure I was going to die and used a new drug on me called Imuran. Thanks to a great man, Dr. Carl Trigstat, I survived the experience but only after my parents had signed a waver saying if all my hair had fallen out and my sex organs had stopped developing, the hospital would not have been responsible.
I got some sort of an idea of what they must have gone through when doctors found an angioma in my son's head in 1999 and had to operate at Besta Institute in Milano. Michael survived the experience although he lost control of his left hand for several moths after the operation.
But I want to end this bio on a more humorous note. Getting back to my nephritis, my poor parents had to put up with urine samples in the fridge for years. I don't know whose bright idea it was to use apple cider bottles for this purpose but on more than one occasion we risked drinking the urine and sending the cider to the lab!
It is now fashionable for men to be hairless, so loosing my hair wouldn't have been so bad. However, contrary to what a few ex-girlfriends will tell you, my sex organs did eventually develop, just in case anyone out there was wondering!
The Dalai Lama suggests we live our life in such a way so that when we are old and look back on it, it is worth re-living.
Thanks for sharing this time with me and all the best to you!
photo by Luca Laureati
For more information, please write: e-mail