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Friday, September 15, 2017

Yahtzee With Mrs Wallace

When I was a little girl I lived in a big apartment complex with over thirty  units. Because of the close proximity, most of the neighbors knew each other, or at least knew of each other. One of our neighbors downstairs was an old woman around seventy-eight who my Mom always referred to as Mrs Wallace. If you looked down and to the left from our large living room picture window, you could see inside Mrs Wallace's living room window downstairs. There were a lot of plants in the window with crochet hangings in shades of brown, orange and yellow. At some point when I was six or seven years old my mother told me that I should go down and visit Mrs Wallace. I'm not sure if they had arranged some sort of babysitting/get Renée out of the apartment for an hour deal, or if my Mom just thought Mrs Wallace could use some company.

My childhood apartment building on Penobscot Street in Augusta, Maine. 

Looking back over twenty six years later, Mrs Wallace's face is just a blur in my memory. But what I do remember vividly are the hundreds of owls that covered almost every surface of her apartment. As she opened her door and led me into her dim apartment the smell of perfume and moth balls overwhelmed me. Looking around I saw huge crochet owls hanging everywhere, owl paintings, ceramic owls, framed owl cross stitch, owl candles, owl tissue box covers, a big owl afghan on the couch and much more. The shades of brown, orange yellow drenched and devoured the apartment like a tsunami wave.  Just outside of her tiny kitchen was a sturdy hard wood table with a glossy finish and ornate legs. In the middle of the empty table laid a red Yahtzee box all by it's lonesome. "Do you want to play Yahtzee?", Mrs Wallace would ask me. I always said ok. Mrs Wallace would get me a diet Pepsi while we played Yahtzee games that sometimes went on for hours. I remember her being soft spoken and kind. Often my mother would come knocking at the door to make sure I was still downstairs since it had been so long. I don't remember what we talked about during the games, if anything at all. I just remember that while I was in her apartment I felt a sense of calm and relaxation that I never felt in my own with my mother.

I must have gone downstairs to play Yahtzee with Mrs Wallace four times a month for at least three years. I don't remember how or when our Yahtzee games declined into none. As I got older I would still see Mrs Wallace around the building and visited her a few more times before hearing that she had gotten sick. In my teenage years, I would notice that the light in her downstairs apartment stopped coming on at night. I heard she had been moved to a nursing home. The brown and orange owls remained hanging in her window with plants that started to yellow and die from lack of water. Eventually the window hangings disappeared, the curtains dissapeared and all I could see were a few lone remaining owls on the wall. One day soon after,  my Mom told me that she had heard Mrs Wallace died. I remember looking down and seeing a lone pair of owl eyes staring back at me from her empty apartment.

Everytime I see a pair of dice to this day, i'm transported into that warm, safe, dim room, covered in owls where i'm playing Yahtzee with Mrs Wallace without a care in the world.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

I Miss America

I haven't written a blog here in forever. When Donald Trump got sworn in on January 20th, it felt like the world was going to end.
In a way, I feel like America as we knew it actually did come to an end on January 20th.
I cried that day and felt a deep sadness as I mourned for my country.
I cringed as I saw this sexist, chronic liar, who had spread so much hate put his hand on a bible and take our nations highest honor. How could "we the people" have done this to ourselves?

What we are left with are the smoky remnants of a place that used to be respected. An America where fighting between different races, religions and political parties has reached an all time peak and is boiling over. It seems like everyone is filled with hate and rage toward each other more than ever. Maybe this has been here all along. It's just now that a man with such little regard for others is in power, that people feel more free to express their sexism, hate, racism and bigotry in big ways.

The Trump fans seem like lost souls to me-fearful of anything and anyone they think is different than what they think is normal or ok. They wanted change from the establishment, but didn't realize they were hurting themselves in the process. Change can be good. But not this change. This change is like trading a fresh organic burger for a smelly rotten beef patty, covered in mold, that will make you shit blood.
I'm sure soon enough the ones who haven't already admitted that they voted for a total train wreck will see the light. This isn't about political party anymore-this man has embarrassed our country and tarnished the reputation of the USA so badly that i'm not sure we can ever recover. It's time that the GOP jumped ship and turned it's back on Trump & Co. The Republican party will destroy itself from the inside out if they don't soon. Everyone working in the government has committed to a life serving the USA and its people. There is no question that this President is not doing that. Why is no one taking a stronger stand? It makes me feel very helpless to standby and watch. It's like a building is burning down with people inside and the firemen are just watching You Tube.

It boggles my mind that Trump has yet to be impeached, with more and more evidence coming to light regarding the treason which I firmly believe he committed.
I hope we can look back on this and laugh someday, but right now i'm scared that we won't have a country to even look back from. This idiot is going to get us all killed with his irresponsible tweets and reckless political decisions.
Given that it has been confirmed the Russians interfered to elect Trump it seems like we should have a redo of our election. I know this is a pipe dream, but this has NEVER happened before in the history of our elections, so why is no one fighting for it? (It was also a pipe dream for a reality TV star with no political experience to be elected President and THAT happened-so why not?)

As a women in my thirties, I have always felt like America would be ok, but i'm not so sure anymore. It feels like everything our founding fathers worked for and what so many men and women have served and died for is being destroyed before my eyes.

I miss America. This is not what we stand for. We are better than this man.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Legally Changing My Name In NYC

Just like the girl in Mamma Mia, I grew up hearing about how I had three possible Dads. Yep, my Mom got around.  So when I was born, I was given the same last name as my unmarried mother for obvious reasons. To make matters more complicated, that last name wasn't actually her family (aka maiden) name. Confused yet? 

The story goes, my mother had gotten married at sixteen years old and changed her last name. The guy turned out to be crazy, and ended up becoming extremely abusive to her. She left him a few years after, and at one point he showed up and put a gun to her head telling her he would kill her if she didn't go back to him. My mother says, she told him to go ahead and shoot her-but he didn't. She never saw him again. 

That relationship ended in divorce a few years later in the late 60's, but my mother never changed her last name back to her birth name. When I was born many years later, I was assigned that last name from her first husband, which was completely meaningless to me family wise. 

Growing up, I would often try to come up with different last names that I liked better. My diary entries as far back as age seven show me signing my last name in over eight different variations. It was very, very obvious that from a young age I was unhappy with my name. Growing up, I hated always having people ask if I was related to so and so who shared my last name, and always having to say no and explain my awkward situation.

By the time I was a teenager I had decided on a few different "stage name" options, but had never thought about legally changing my last name. The process seemed daunting and expensive. So, just like my mother had for so many years, I lived with this last name which had no connection to me.

I did eventually get to meet my real Dad in my early twenties before he passed away, but I didn't feel the relationship was strong enough to change my last name to his. And since I am very against the patriarchy of women changing their last names at marriage, that was never an option for me to look to in the future. 

So there I sat, over thirty years old and still pining away with this last name I hated. 

Through my years of searching for a random last name to replace my own, I had never found anything that fit or felt just right. The day my new name finally came to me, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was going to change my middle and last name to become Renée Nicole Gray. 
Gray felt more right to me than any of those other last names I had thought of replacing mine with over the years. Because Gray is my actual blood family. My grandparents on my Mother's side were Gray's and it was my mothers birth last name. I had been looking everywhere for something that was right in front of me all along. I knew that if I ever make a mark on the world it would be most meaningful to me to have it be with my actual family name. How had it taken me so long to figure this out? 

Because my old last name was a variation of Nicole, everyone had mistakenly called me Nicole my entire life. Heck, I even answered to it sometimes. It felt natural that I would replace my middle name with Nicole since it already felt like my name, as well as an homage to my old one.

I started using my new name on social media and non legal documents for about six months prior to making the legal change. In an odd way, I felt like "me" for this first time in my life. I finally felt proud of my last name because it actually belonged to me. I could finally say, "MAYBE!" when someone asked if i'm related to a Gray. I was also happy to find that the email, Twitter, Website, Instagram etc were all available with my new name. Something I didn't even have with my old one.

So after my six month trial, I knew I was ready to make things official.

I gathered all of my documents and made my way to Brooklyn court where I submitted my application to the clerk and paid the fee. Changing your name in NYC courts is exactly what you would expect. The staff is rude and doesn't give a crap, so you have to be patient and make sure you have documents you think you might not need. There were a few things needed like utility bills for proof of address that they did not list on the website as requirements. I had brought it all just incase. The clerk actually seemed disappointed and annoyed he couldn't send me home like he had the four people ahead of me. The big surprise was, I thought I would be told to come back weeks later, but apparently in NYC seeing the judge happens immediately. I nervously sat in the court room for about an hour waiting for my turn. The judge glanced over my paperwork, signed it and handed it to a clerk for me to sign. I didn't even have to answer questions. My application was now stamped and approved by the judge. But of course the process couldn't be just that simple. There were a few more hoops for me to jump through before I could legally be myself.

The next step was going to a clerks office to submit my judge approved papers. The clerk gave me a list of five places I would need to send certified mail notifications of my name change to (including my mother, The DMV, Passport and SS Office). I would also have to pay $35 to publish my name change in the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. Once this was all done I would need to come back with the photocopies as proof. This would make my name change legal.

I immediately went to the newspaper office across the street to get the ball rolling. While waiting, I met a young man who I had just seen at court. He was overflowing with excitement about his new last name. He told me that his family was from Egypt, but since 9/11 they had suffered extensive discrimination because their last name sounds Muslim. He was only 21 but said he had trouble getting job interviews just because of his name. He told me he was sick of getting pulled aside every time he flies. When I asked him what his new last name was going to be, he beamed and said "Lucas. Because I love Star Wars and it sounds very American." After finishing our paperwork, we wished each other the best with our fresh starts and went on our way.

About a week later, I hurried back to court with proof of all of my missions completed. A few lines later I was sent to another floor to get my certified name change papers which I would need to change my Passport and all ID's. I had survived the many levels of bureaucracy and was finally officially, legally a part of my own family! 

But it didn't end there, the next few weeks of more bureaucracy to change things like my insurance, bank account, Social Security number, license and Passport were also tedious, but very worth it.

When I look back at my 2016, being handed those papers with my new name was by far the most memorable moment of the year. For the first time in my life, I can say that my last name matches my blood, and I now write and say it with pride and meaning.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Secret To Carrie Fisher's Famous Hair Buns

As we say goodbye to beloved icon Carrie Fisher, the one image which we have been seeing the most is that of her as Princess Leia in Star Wars, her most famous role. 
Not only will her image live forever in film history, I don't know if I can think of a single more iconic hairstyle in film than Princess Leia's hair buns. 

When asked about the inspiration for Leia's look, George Lucas stated; "In the 1977 film, I was working very hard to create something different that wasn't fashion, so I went with a kind of Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look, which is what that is. The buns are basically from turn-of-the-century Mexico." 
"A Hopiland Beauty" 1906
You've probably never heard of the woman who turned George Lucas's hair vision into reality, but her name is Patricia McDermott. Sadly, she isn't even credited in the first film, but she continued as the chief hairstylist for Return Of The Jedi. 

Upon first glance, the famous Princess Leia hairdo is something many people think they can recreate by splitting the hair into two pigtails, twisting it and securing with bobby pins, but that is anything but the case. 
Typically when done with real hair the result looks more like a mini donut than the voluptuous hair we see in Star Wars. It is practically impossible. In order to accurately replicate this hairdo, a woman wouldn't just need thick hair down to her knees. She would need a lot of fake hair. This is because every Princess Leia look was created with human hair hairpieces. These were two of many hairpieces seen throughout the film. 

Let's take a closer look at Carrie's famous hairdo. 

And a snapshot of Carrie's actual hair on set: 
Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in Star Wars
Carrie Fisher's short hair during filming
As someone who styles wigs, my complete theory on the creation of the buns is this:
The buns are made of perfectly matched human hairpieces to Carrie's natural color. Her hair was parted and secured, with the long pony tail piece attached at the base of the elastic, possibly even clipped in for extra support. Each bun piece was probably close to three feet long to account for the width, and extremely thick for volume. As the hair roll continues to build clockwise, many, many pins would be used to secure the buns into her natural hair giving them a sturdy support network. These woulds then be sprayed with wig net for extra hold and shine spray to help blend the texture of her natural hair. And there you have the secret to Princess Leia's famous hair buns. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What I Learned At My First Protest

As I watched the election results roll in on November 8th, my emotions went from optimistic, to hopeful, to completely speechless and horrified. A thick sense of dread came over me when it was announced Donald Trump was officially our new President-elect. It felt like I was drowning. I cried as I watched Hillary's supporters stream out of the NYC Javits Center, glass ceiling still intact. I hardly slept that night. I felt like I was watching the death of the America I love. I woke up the next morning blearly eyed and hoping I had just had a nightmare. That I would wake up and everything would be normal again. But that wasn't the case. My fears about this inexperienced man who had done nothing but incite fear, sexism, violence and hatred came crashing at me like a ton of bricks. I felt physically ill. George Washington once wrote in a letter, "May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under own his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Donald Trump and his followers had already succeeded at doing just the opposite of that. Making Americans fear and hate each other. 
When I heard about the first anti Trump protest being held in NYC the day after the election, I knew I had to be there. I ripped up a cardboard box that was lying around and hastily made a sign. It said "Love Trumps Hate" on one side and "Not My President" on the other.  I had never been to a protest before & I was the farthest from a "professional protestor" but with everything I love about America at stake and my heart breaking, it was the only thing I could think to do. 
Still decked out in my "i'm with her" pin from the day before, I tied an American flag scarf in my hair and rode the subway to Central Park with my small sign in hand. As I got to the meeting area, it was raining slightly and I could already hear the voices in the distance, chanting their hearts out. I followed the voices until they grew louder and louder. I walked until I was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of like minded people, a sea of faces of every color shouting exactly what I was feeling in my heart. Their brave voices united and rose up as one into the night sky. It was such a beautiful thing to witness. It took my breath away. 
As we began to march through the streets of NYC to Trump Tower with rain falling around us, it felt like the universe was crying too. People stopped what they were doing and came outside on balconies, fire escapes and sidewalks to witness this massive stream of humanity rising up. They cheered along with us, gave us thumbs up, beeped car horns, and applauded. Some even cried. The energy of the crowd was contagious and palpable.  I felt like I was living history. I walked for almost five miles chanting my heart out until I nearly lost my voice. As we approached Trump Tower the march came to a halt. Some silently held signs and many continued the protest chants. The protest that night was extremely peaceful and I saw no violence whatsoever. There was a mutual respect between the police and crowd. The media likes to portray all protests as violent but that was anything but the case.

My first protest gave me hope that the majority of Americans will fight for good over evil and slightly restored the faith in humanity I had lost the night before.  When I headed home that night I was still grieving over the results, but all the yelling had sure as hell made me feel better. I felt proud to have used my first amendment right and freedom of speech to stand up for what I believe in. A freedom that my own father served to protect in the military. I am aware that change doesn't happen from a single protest, but it also doesn't happen when you sit on the couch and attempt to normalize an incredibly screwed up situation. Donald Trump's America is not great. It is already giving hate, Antisemitism, bigotry and racism a stronger voice than ever. 
Change starts small. It may take years. America may never be the same, but we will overcome, and I'll continue to use my right to peacefully protest as long as this nightmare continues.

Monday, November 07, 2016

I'll Be Proudly Voting With My Vagina On Election Day

I'll never forget election day 2008. As I stood in line to vote in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, I witnessed such raw emotions on peoples faces as they voted for the first African American president. There was such a palpable sense of pride and joy in that gymnasium that it was contagious. At one point while I was in line, an elderly woman hugged her neighbor and started crying, saying "I never thought i'd see the day." Later that night when Obama was declared the winner, a party erupted on the streets of NYC. People started streaming from bars, cheering, crying, popping bottles and hugging each other. Obama promised hope, and we were all overflowing with it at that moment. It was like nothing I have ever seen, and I am so glad I was alive to witness that historic day.

Tomorrow, we have the opportunity to witness another equally historic moment by electing the first female President in history. As much as people try to argue that gender is not an important factor in this election, it truly is. On August 18th, 1920 the 19th amendment granted all women the right to vote. On that day we gained the right to no longer be voiceless housewives. Tomorrow, 96 years later, we could finally elect a female President, but it took us 96 years to get on a major party ballot, and that is a long damn time.

Though I believe she is the best candidate for the job, voting tomorrow is about so much more than just Hillary Clinton. It's about helping to shatter that glass ceiling, not just for my generation but for the women before me who fought for equality, and the baby girls who are too young to even remember this election. While visiting a museum of Presidential portraits recently, it stuck me that the walls were lined with the faces of man after man after man, and we just accept it as the norm. It may be what we all grew up seeing, but it's time that little girls have someone in those rows of Presidents that looks like them.

We still live in an America where gender inequality and discrimination is alive and well. We still live in a America where women have to fight for equal pay, the right to choose, and many face the difficult task of juggling a career with motherhood while facing workplace discrimination. The fight for equality is far from over, but electing a women who fights for it to our highest leadership role is a damn good start. As I check that ballot box for Hillary tomorrow, i'll be thinking about how lucky I am to be alive in an era with another progressive, historic election at hand. I'll also be thinking about Susan B Anthony, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the thousands of women who spent their lives fighting for equality so that we could see this day.

"Look at where we are, look at where we started."--Hamilton 

So let's all stop trying to act like gender doesn't matter & electing our first feminist, female president isn't a really big fucking deal. It's a huge deal. Tomorrow is bigger than any of us for so many reasons. I hope women across the world are as excited to live through, and celebrate this momentous moment in history as I am.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How I Became a Woman On Live Television

The Lithgow Library, Augusta Maine
As the child of a broke single parent growing up in Maine, I had to find every free outlet I could to perform. When I was eight years old, my Mom ran out of money to keep me in tap and jazz lessons, so I decided I was going to dance in the local Lithgow Library Talent Show. Not only was the talent show attended by about 100 people live, it was also taped by the local TV station and broadcast several times a year. The other best part about being in the show was that it cost no money. The biggest challenge for me since my mother didn't drive, was going to be how to get to the library and TV station to perform in the shows. But since I wanted it so much, my Mom figured it out and took me to the library on audition day via local public bus. With my cassette tape that had my recital music in tow, I marched into the basement of the library (which was the children's floor) ready for my audition.

Tucked in the back of the children's room resided a tiny raised carpeted stage with thick red curtains that opened and closed. I put on my purple recital costume from that past Spring, and my tap shoes, and did the best version of the Elvis "Hound Dog" routine that I could remember. I had two major obstacles to overcome during this audition. #1: I was tap dancing on carpet which really defeats the purpose. and #2: I was morbidly shy.
But when my song started, for those three minutes onstage I felt like I was where I belonged, and my shyness didn't matter at all. I was never a good dancer, but somehow I still had the confidence to get up there and do my mediacore solo.

When I was done dancing, I instantly reverted back to my extremely shy persona. I looked down at the floor and told the children's librarian Jane "Sorry I messed up a bunch, but i'll practice more and do better if you let me in the show." Jane was the kind of woman who radiated kindness. She had long white hair that she kept in a single braid down her back, and the most beautiful smile. She told me "I think that you did a very good job. For the show we should get a hard slate to put down onstage so everyone can hear you tap dancing. I would love to have you in the show this year."
I went home that day overflowing with excitement and proudness that I had gotten in the talent show. Though in reality, this was Augusta, Maine. I'm sure EVERY kid who auditioned got in the talent show.

A month or so later, after practicing so much on our hard kitchen floor that our downstairs neighbor knocked one night and asked if I could shut the fuck up, I was ready to slay that children's library room.
The day of the show all of the talent gathered in the wings as the stages thick red curtains closed. The Emcee, who was a ten year old boy introduced the show. The crowd who showed up that day was lively and the room was overflowing with people. Halfway into the show, when the Emcee announced my name and the music started, I switched on my performer mode and tap danced my heart out. I felt so happy happy while I was on stage. Probably the happiest I had ever been. Performing live gave me the kind of high could never be duplicated, but I would spend the rest of my life chasing down. After the show ended, Jane gave me a big hug and told me how pretty I looked and that I had shined onstage. Some of the audience members even told me I had done good too. My eight year old self was busting with pride. My mother however, looked at me with a frown. She said "Well, I can see where you messed up some. You kept pushing your hair back too, which showed them how nervous you were. One time you made a face that made you look ugly. You had better not do that on TV or everyone will notice." With her words my pride and happiness instantly turned to embarrassment. I spent the rest of the day worried that everyone thought I was horrible.

Later that week the whole cast went over to the TV station to film the show for live broadcast. My Uncle Jesse had given me a ride over with my Mom, which solved my transportation problem. As I sat through my first TV studio experience I was fascinated by the control room, the camera operation and stage manager who did the cues. As the show went on, I noticed one thing in particular. This ten year old Emcee guy was getting a SHIT TON of TV time. Way more than any of the talent in the show. I got up to perform my dance but instead of having as much fun as I did the first time, I had my mothers voice running through my head. "Don't mess up, don't show them you are nervous, don't make that face that makes you look ugly, don't touch your hair." Despite that I did good for my first time on TV, and had a great time seeing myself on the show the times it broadcast.

The following year I couldn't take dance lessons anymore due to money, so my tap dancing progress came to a screeching halt. Throughout the year, every time I visited the children's room at library Jane was there to great me with her warm smile and positive comforting words. Something I severely lacked at home. When it came time for the next years talent show, I asked Jane if I could be the Emcee. In my mind, the Emcee was the real star of the show and I wanted all that TV time. Jane was surprised I wanted to host (especially considering how shy I was) and said "Ok! You will be the first girl to ever be the Emcee! Let's call you the Mistress Of Ceremonies."

My cue card from 1996-I was 12. 
I hosted the show that year and had my first taste of reading from cue cards and public speaking. I loved it as much as dancing. Everyone said I was a great emcee, except for my mother who of course lectured me about how I messed up and could have done better. Jane later told me that after I had performed my recital dance on TV the year prior, a sudden influx of kids from my old dance school had entered the talent show. I was such a trailblazer.
As the years went by, I continued to work with Jane on the talent show as the Emcee. When I got older, I was able to help her with the auditions and other planning aspects. She became a positive mentor in my life, who I always looked up to. Over twenty years later we still send each other Christmas cards.

On my fifth year doing the talent show, I was twelve years old.
We had another successful live show and headed to the local TV Station to film it. I had been feeling kind of funny the whole day. I was really tired and a bit light headed but didn't know why. As I stood for a few hours under the hot tv lights, they felt hotter than ever before. I started having really bad lower back cramps and was so uncomfortable. After we wrapped the show, I went to the bathroom. When I looked at my underwear there was a small nickel sized red blotch. I had just started my period for the very first time ever. I was too embarrassed to tell my Mom with other people around, and since the situation looked pretty minor I rolled up some toilet paper to line my underwear.
Once I got home and told my Mom, she made a big deal out of it and called my grandmother to tell her the news. My Nana got on the phone and joked "Well Renée, now you are a woman!"
If that was being a woman, I already hated it.

I continued to host the Lithgow Library Talent show until I "retired" at thirteen years old. Jane moved away and retired soon after that, and with no one there as passionate as she had been to organize it, the talent show ended forever.

I have so many great memories from my time doing the talent show, but the one that stands out the most will always be the time I "became a woman" on live television.