TOMORROW...MAYBE - My Obsessions with Annie, Acting, Singing & Dance
--CAT SCRATCH FEVER - My Oldest Obsession
...you have noooooo idea how much I confine this kitty-cat obsession to the colorful little place I call my mind, because it had been made clear by about second grade that cat shenanigans were cute for a four-year-old, but not by seven.
That's all right. In 1982, everything changed because THIS happened:
I was nine years old. A family friend's grandmother brought me and her granddaughter to the new movie, Annie. Thereafter, I played the spunky redheaded orphan in my mind until my mom got me the record. Then I got obsessed. In fact, I played that thing so often she had to hide the vinyl to get a moment's peace.
No matter. I knew the songs by heart, especially after she got the sheet music for piano so we could sing together. At Christmas I received the floppy coffee table book. It was the Broadway version, so the storyline, actors, and a few of the songs were a bit different and Annie looked barely red-haired, but I loved it pretty well. (Mostly I rewrote it in my mind to look like the movie version, just like I rewrote Sandy as an orange stray kitten named Pumpkin, and I still rewrite Star Wars I-III to this day.)
My Annie obsession lasted from May of fourth grade until my transition to junior high in seventh grade. At that point, cheerleading took over, but until then I yearned to be Annie.
Annie was a redhead. You remember how my neck of the Northland woods felt about redheads, right? Well, as a misfit, she was my poster-child. Annie stood up to bullies. Ohhhhhhhhhhh, how she stood up to bullies. Le-swoon...le-purrrrrr...kneading biscuits all over herrrr... She not only stood up to the bigger, older, meaner Pepper, she stood up to packs of street-boys, outsmarted dog-nabbing cops, saved strays, and motivated entire swarms of jeering girls. She got the best of crotchety, mean Miss Hannigan, and she escaped from the evil, dastardly Rooster. She also went from being poor to rich, from homely to pretty, and she won over her growly, scowly Daddy who had zero tolerance for rambunctious children, wet strays, and girls in general.
At nine years old, all these things were extremely important to me.
Annie did all the things I yearned to do. She said all the things I yearned to say and she knew how to back it up--which I did not. Best of all, she unhesitantly expressed her angst and loneliness and loss and outrage through my favorite-of-favorites: song and dance.
And ohhhhhh the dances! I mean these girls were trained! They did gymnastics on beds and balconies!! They did aerial cartwheels!!! They twirled in laundry carts and did feats of awesomeness up and down steps!!!!
In the entire soundtrack, Hard Knock Life was my greatest fixation. That song burned in my mind, heart, veins, and guts to such an extent that anyone who wanted to play with me pretty much had to get onboard with learning, singing, and dancing it.
(I've mentioned that, in addition to having hypersensitivity, I can also get hyper-fixated, right? When I'm in that zone, getting me to un-fixate is like trying to turn the Titanic. As such, I tend to be hyper-annoying to anyone who isn't as obsessed as I am, unless my fixation can be used to a group's advantage, like acquiring gold medals and producing flawless, anal-retentive results. But as a playmate assumed to be neurotypical because the word "neurodivergent" did not exist in my world? As a teammate when I wasn't in cheerleader-nurturer-kumbaya mode? Mmmmph.)
Once upon a time, there was a fifth-grader named Itsy. (Short for Bitsy.) She went somewhere. We don't remember where. She met someone. We don't remember who. They taught her a song. To this day we still cannot get that friggin' ear-worm out of the mind:
That spring, Itsy and four of her classmates did so well in Future Problems Solvers of America that they were invited to the State Bowl. (No. Not THAT State Bowl. However, that horrible avalanche of incidents in eighth grade may have been influenced by this one and others like it where Itsy and the Brainiac Contingent of Queenie's Court were forced to work together. It's a theory. Go with me.)
So Miss Hyper-Fixation could NOT get this Humpty-Damn-Dumpty song out of her mind. She was capable of memorizing song lyrics, movie lines, and entire plays as easily as breathing. In fact, sometimes it was impossible not to memorize and endlessly parrot worms--I mean words stuck in her head. As such, when it came time to create the final skit after analyzing all the problem solving data, Miss Budding Actress, Miss Musical Theater Fancy-Pantz just KNEW that their skit needed to revolve around a problem-solver version of this song.
And let me assure you, if Itsy KNEW it must be done, she had twenty-thousand, eight-hundred-and-thirty-seven reasons backed by logic, gut feeling, and forty-four pie graphs why it needed to happen. Itsy is also a Fire Sign who was born with a loud mouth, an inexhaustible fuel supply, a super-big obnoxious grin, and a flame containment unit far too itsy-bitsy for her oversized rocket thrusters.
Once those fuckers got ignited, it was easier to just let her have her way.
Especially if she had an ally agreeing with her, which that year, she did. This meant that our 4-6th grade team wound up unenthusiastically performing this skit (okay, two members were super-duper enthusiastic, whereas three were dragged along in the prop wash, glubbing their angsty way to the bottom of the lake) at the State Bowl.
Our skit sucked. Itsy's teamwork skillz sucked. That event sucked. It may have also contributed to the particular searing hatred that ensued in the Wizard of Oz Fiasco which happened amidst the fallout of The Trench Wars a few weeks after the State Bowl.
Make no mistake. I am fully aware that there are reasons why some of this stuff happened. Back then? Itsy couldn't have told you why to save her glubbing life while tangled in the weeds at the bottom of Lake Social Catastrophe.
Back to our regularly scheduled program - The Annie Obsession:
My dad's box of old paint and work clothes made the perfect costumes for Miss Hannigan's School for Angsty Grrrls. We raided it multiple times a week. Or, at least, I did. If I could have gone to school in my Orphan Wear and added a red sweater on top, I would have. Anything to pretend I was as brave as Annie, rather than a mouse scurrying from one covered location to the next.
Alas, I remained a super-squeaker, so instead I did Hard Knock Life multiple times daily to vent the pressure-relief valve. My friends and I did it in my back yard all summer. We did it for the fifth grade talent show. When I started babysitting the neighbor's daughter in sixth grade, I acquired the perfect Molly to my Annie. We did that song with my dad's wooden scrub brushes so many times that we rubbed our knuckles raw on the concrete of my basement floor.
Now, I knew full well that I didn't have the same hard knocks these orphans had. I had both my loving parents, period. I also didn't have to labor in the orphanage equivalent of a sweatshop--although at nine, I was beginning to earn a full set of household chores for which I was responsible, and that chafed. It really, really chafed, and it rudely interrupted my obsessions in a way I wasn't used to. I did NOT like it.
I also had way more than cold mush to eat, so it wasn't the setting or the entirety of the lyrics that called to me. Rather, it was the sentiment. The expression of girlish outrage to an intolerable situation she hadn't yet figured out how to escape.
🎶 'Stead o' treated, we get tricked. 'Stead o' kisses, we get kicked... 🎶
I did get tricked. Often. I also knew what it was to be ridiculed and treated cruelly by the adult female who was supposed to be watching over me in place of my mother. As the butt of cruel jokes, as the target of constant bullying or, at best, social isolation (and now we all know what that does to brain chemistry, don't we?), those lyrics lit a fuse beneath me and gave me the voice with which to express my outrage. I had experimented enough with a rebellious personality to understand that if I didn't keep a lid on that shit and conduct myself "like a little lady" that I would literally be kicked in the ass. Or other bonier places when I darted and he missed.
That chafed, too. I was infuriated by no longer being Daddy's Girl. I'd started losing that around three when I became mobile and started trying to enact my will upon my environment--my way. Since I didn't really like the highway, I capitulated. (Except in my rebel-princess mind and whenever he was at work.)
As an adult I now understand that this loss of Sweetie-Cutie status was mostly because my dad had been raised in that old-school 1950s patriarchal strictness compounded by military discipline, and I was way too much like him. I was a tomboy with all his stubborn, unyielding fire about how things should be done. Yet my way of doing things was the artistic, sentimental HSP way my mom did, not his practical, nose-to-the-grind, Airforce spic-n-span, Minnesota emotional-stuffing way.
It was an issue between us, and by nine I was already supremely pissed off about it.
I needed the driving rhythm and the obnoxious, roaring blats of Hard Knock Life. I needed the voices of angry little girls who clenched their fists, kicked walls and buckets, hurled towels and piles of dishes, gritted teeth, snarled, sneered, and said, "This sucks!" Because I certainly wasn't allowed to express these things as myself--not unless I wanted the Hammer of Doom to descend upon me, and I'd already seen around the neighborhood what happened to openly rebellious kids.
They got slammed into walls. They got called "pieces of shit" and "worthless" and "no-good" with huge, adult male faces growling half-an-inch from theirs. They got the crap beaten out of them, and I was very uninterested in experiencing that.
So I became sneaky with my rebelliousness. Since Hard Knock was a song and a dance, I could mime these movements as ferociously as I felt and not get in trouble. Nope--innocent whistle--I was just a really good actress. You remember one of the foundational roots of great acting, right? That it's not pretending something fake, but accessing genuine emotion?
I had that in droves, along with a pressure-cooker of need to express it.
For those blissful moments before my dad came home and I had to straighten up, quiet down, and put everything away, I could slam the door on my shark-infested neighborhood, drop the mask, and flip my childhood equivalent of middle fingers at my bullies and the adults who kept letting it happen. I could stomp, thrash, bash my fist into the ground, shake it in the air, and let it all come blazing out of me in the way I didn't dare to show in front of my father. Not a hint. Not even in my eyes. Certainly never in my voice.
You know the revolving record of that era's old classics. It's just the way it was done:
"Don't you look at me that way!"
"Don't you talk back to me!"
"Look at me when I'm talking to you!"
"Wipe that look off your face, young lady, or I will wipe it off for you."
"Pick up your feet! Walk like a lady."
"Sit still! Stop fidgeting."
"Lower your voice!"
"Stop crying or I will pull down your pants and give you something to cry about."
Yeahhhhh...we remember the insane, hurricane-child terror-monster I became when anybody pulled my pants down and bent me over, right? Repressed toddler sex-trauma will do that to a person. I reacted so violently that my parents eventually stopped even threatening to spank me. Instead, punishment and threats became more subtle.
I've actually deleted an entire section here because right now, my dad and I are actively repairing our relationship in the most wonderful way. I know I swore I wouldn't censor myself and redact important things, but there are a few special circumstances that warrant extra tender handling. This is one. To give any more details feels like a betrayal of this fragile, precious trust we've been rebuilding.
And who ever gets to heal their childhood trauma WITH the actual people in question? I don't know very many, so I'm going to leave it at that.
Because once my transgression was rectified, then my fun-loving, doting Daddy would return, shining that brilliant smile on me and bending over backwards to ensure I knew how much I was loved. And I was. No doubt about it.
Unfortunately, that made things more confusing, and it kept me neurotically chasing those approval and affection carrots while looking over my shoulder, wondering when the clouds would darken and crackle. Because no matter how bright and shiny a day started out, it could spin on a dime.
I think this is the saddest thing of all: that my beloved father was raised by my beloved grandparents to believe that this is what a responsible, protective, engaged parent does when their kid gets out of line. That if you didn't do this, you were a negligent father--and mine loves me to Betelgeuse and back, just like Grandpa loved us all. But they were taught that this is the way to make children into good people, and this is the way to make sure that adults continue conducting themselves like good people.
Respect, courtesy, conscientiousness, communal cooperation, service, discipline, discernment, dignity, appreciation, gratitude.
And yes, it worked. I cherish these qualities my old-school upbringing taught me. They are some of the best things about me, and about the members of my family.
There's damage there. I'm not sure what the answer is--where the sweet spot between lenience and discipline lies. This was one of the many reasons I did not want my own children. I didn't want to have to do to someone else what had been done to me, but I also saw what happened to the kids who weren't disciplined. They ranked among my least favorite people, so I couldn't begin to imagine a solution to the issue.
Now in hindsight with today's theories of punishment vs. discipline based in psychological experiments, I see that my mom really knew what she was doing with all that. That's another reason why the loss of her attentive instruction was so devastating to me when her illness set in. But at least the seeds had been planted.
Our social explosions over the past years are the macrocosm of my micro-experience. I wonder how far back in my family it goes, this iron-fisted rule.
In addition to inheriting the oppressive cultural mindsets we've discussed previously, my grandparents' generation had immense generational trauma--two World Wars, some national wars, a flu epidemic, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust. So much of this control-freak, hypervigilant, explosive conduct can be explained by one simple acronym: PTSD. And you didn't have to have gone through combat to have it. It makes me wonder how heavily some of those fists in my patrilineal line descended upon the people who gave me their genes.
But I also inherited my mother's genes. Since I was hyper-empathetic, hyper-compassionate, hyper-cooperative, hyper-sensitive to yelling, loud noises, jarring motions, manhandling, pain, shame, fear, guilt, embarrassment, I became an avid rule-follower and checkbox ticker. Not only did I want very, very badly to be a good person, but everything I did was motivated by trying to control my environment so I wouldn't walk through life shell-shocked.
I was anyway. Being a traumatized HSP meant I was long-tail cat in a room full of rocking chairs. Combined with being a "weirdo" who had baffling obsessions about stuff nobody cared about, liked, thought about, or wanted to do?
Social kiss of death.
My weirdo nature got me ostracized and attacked. My hypersensitivity made me shrink and stim. Shrinking into stim-world tends to be done by prey, so that also got me bombarded with attack, which made me shrink more and bury myself into my special interests as though I was wearing headphones and horse-blinders in my attempts to self-soothe. I certainly wasn't allowed to melt down so I shut down. Constantly. I spent much of my childhood checked out in my fantasy world with my imaginary friends or hyper-focused on getting those gold stars to keep my environmental waters calm and give me a shred of self-esteem. This made me even more clueless about reading social cues, which got me more attacked.
It was a vicious cycle.
It still is.
One specific incident at Christmas Eve Mass when I was three or four finally broke the trust I had in my dad. I was self-soothing my crippling social anxiety that prevented me from walking alone through a roomful of strangers and hostile kids by pretending that I was a Big Kitty prowling the undergrowth.
Unbeknownst to me, this is apparently not appropriate conduct in an overstuffed church where parking had just been a nightmare five minutes ago.
After that night, things went downhill quickly. You need trust for a healthy relationship, and I had lost it. Once I became old enough to start exhibiting a personality, it clashed with my dad's and I was severely outgunned. For the first years, I was pure terrified of poking a toe out of line. By nine, I was silently enraged about it. By twelve, I was bitter and done with it. All I could do was wait until I graduated. Then I could leave Hell High and the Hammer of Doom behind.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I moved back home and got a job at my dad's office. The drive to work gave us forty-five minutes twice a day to do nothing but look at the scenery and talk. Like...you know, as people. Right at the end of college, when I'd moved permanently to the Big City and he was transferred to the office there, we began having weekly daddy-daughter lunches which sealed our budding bond. Unfortunately, that only lasted a year-and-a-half before I moved to Minneapolis, and four months later to Colorado where I lived for seventeen years.
Now that we live in the same city again, my dad and I have returned to our weekly dates--breakfast now, plus a bunch of other practical, spic-n-span type projects that bond us more closely with every one we complete. I'm finally getting to learn a bunch of the stuff that would have been valuable for me to learn in my teenage years and twenties, but that I boycotted and rebelled against because I was hurt and angry.
Getting some separation between my living style and his roof changed so much between us. We're still figuring it out. Now that I'm in EMDR, we occasionally have to schedule a meeting of the minds to understand each other more deeply and update the way we interact with each other.
Being Daddy's Girl again makes my heart glow. I had missed him for decades, since those long-gone days when he used to pick me up and hold me over his head while lying on his back on the shag carpet of our living room. There are pictures of us in that position--itsy-bitsy me with Daddy in his 70s sideburns and longish hair, eye-gazing in the purest love and trust.
At least once a winter, when the snows would pile up over the roof and trap us indoors for several days, we always hauled out the old slide projector and the popcorn, so I saw those photos regularly. It's what I kept clinging to, in spite of my broken heart and my child's rage.
He used to dote on me. He still loves me somewhere deep down, but I don't think he really likes me very much. Someday...tomorrow...maybe...
As such, there was one more song from the Annie soundtrack that I sang religiously. By the time I was twelve, my mom was already exhibiting signs of her imminent collapse, so when she played the piano and we sang Maybe together, that song dredged up a different set of emotions that I needed to disgorge like emotional vomit. I was just as heartbroken over her, but in a different way. Watching my favorite person in the world, this once-vibrant force of nature slowly disintegrate before my eyes...
I had no idea how to explain to anyone what I was feeling. I mean, I wasn't an orphan. My mother hadn't died. She was right there, less than a foot away, playin' piano. My father was in the next room, payin' a bill. 🎶
And yet...I was alone.
Those three songs from Annie were some of the only ways I found to cope with it all. I didn't obsessively play the whole movie out. I didn't want a dog, even though I had a tendency to "pick up strays" as my mom called it. I didn't want to be taken in by some rich billionaire. I just wanted my own father to soften, and to look at me with affection the way he had when I was his Little Darling. I really wanted my mother back. So I sang it and danced it and sang it and danced it and sang and danced until I could breathe again. Day after day. Obsessively for years.
This was one of the biggest reasons why I wanted to be an actress. This was why I wanted to sing and dance stories, on the stage or the screen. It's why I wrote them myself. The words from the soundtrack weren't perfect to describe my life. My scenario wasn't the same as Annie's, but the emotions were. In a room full of other little girls, Annie is an orphan, but not like they are. She believes her parents are still out there somewhere, thinking about her as much as she thinks about them.
I knew what it was like to sit in a window ledge, staring out at the night, unable to sleep for the loneliness. I knew what it was to be in a room full of other little girls and feel...different. I knew what it was to cling to dreams amidst misery, and I knew what it felt like to comfort other miserable girls with the songs we sang.
When Annie sings about her longing and the pain of being separated from her parents, all the other orphans listening from their beds have different experiences. Some remember their parents and others don't. For some, the loss is fresh; for others, it happened before they have memory. It doesn't matter if the description Annie has in her mind coincides with what the other girls remember or dream about. They are all touched in that place where music and story bypass specificity. Some of them don't even like Annie. That doesn't matter either. For this one moment, in the hush of nighttime, they are all the same thing: little girls who dream of having the love and comfort and safety of a family.
In playing out this window-sill scene over and over, I came to understand on an instinctual level how important stories are. When we find the ones that resonate, they allow us to connect with each other in ways we normally wouldn't, and they allow us to better understand ourselves. They can foster understanding between each other, too.
For those of us who don't naturally flow with social rhythms, they can teach us how to mimic them--a necessary survival skill, in spite of the damage that masking can cause. But they can also, with time and practice, teach us how to truly understand them, or to be understood through having our experiences told in the safer, more digestible medium of story rather than educational articles or lectures.
Why do you think I tell you about my life more often than I write traditional blog posts about Topics?
Song lyrics and show lines allow us to express the things we feel like we can't say or that we've never known how to say. So does written fiction and poetry. Instrumental music gives voice to even deeper emotions that words cannot convey. Dance lets us move in all the ways our bodies long to, but that society punishes us for if we do. Dance also allows us the safety of expressing ourselves through an ambiguous medium that can be interpreted a myriad ways. For those who become engrossed with the visual arts, a picture, sculpture, or cartoon can be worth that renowned thousand words.
This was why I became obsessed with theater, dance, music, and writing fantastical fiction as a kid. Beyond my talent for these arts and the way they make me purr, I needed them. They healed me. They saved my life again and again.
They still do.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: ENTERING THE ARENA - Gladiators Hijack My Life
--OR: If you want to read about how I stumbled into the obsession that struck me between Annie and Gladiators, that's here in the tale of how the class nerd became a cheerleader.
--OR: If you missed how I bombed my Theater Major--that original life goal I'd had since before I discovered Annie, you can find that tale HERE.
--OR: There are many other SHE-ROES, VILLAINS & SIDECHICKS who made me.