Monday’s marvel: The unsinkable Cynthia Cohen

I started a new Monday thing of spotlighting my talented friends. Check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. Those covered a triple-threat actor, improv artist, and impressionist; a filmmaker, editor, and writer; an artist, writer, and actor; and a dramaturg, teacher, and mentor, respectively. This time around, we’re going to meet an old friend of mine who managed to make her way as a single mother with a career who still raised an amazing daughter.

I first met Cynthia Cohen when we were both practically embryos, right after I joined the Golden West Playwrights, the core group of which is still going to this day. I tell the story of how I wound up there elsewhere, but the short version is that very early in my first serious day job in an office after college, I met a much older woman named Lou Tappon, and she found out I was a writer.

She happened to be a member of a playwriting group that met on Saturdays, and she invited me to check it out. That group was run by an amazing man, Jerry Fey, who never charged us a cent, which is astounding, if you think about it.

He had started teaching playwriting in a UCLA Extension class and while he discovered that he loved teaching, he hated academia, which is why he took his show on the road. Lou was one of a couple of students from that class he invited to come along, and Cynthia joined up shortly after he’d struck out on his own. I’m pretty sure that she’s the only holdover from his first adventures in teaching on his own.

I actually turned out to be the first big success of the group and Jerry got to see my premiere full-length production at a major LORT theatre, South Coast Rep, but, sadly, he didn’t live very long after that.

Cynthia was standing right next to me on the morning we all showed up for class and Jerry didn’t. I was somehow nominated to call him on the lobby payphone, and whoever answered the phone told me, “I’m sorry. Jerry died last night. Liver cancer.”

Now I didn’t have to say a word on hearing that before Cynthia just let out an “Oh no.” She knew me well enough even then to know that I’d just heard really bad news. And yes, all of us in that group have wondered two things since that day.

First, did Jerry know he was dying when he set off to teach for free, and this was his way of giving back to the world in the time he had left? And, second, was it really liver cancer, since a certain other disease was ravishing the artistic community even in the early 90s?

But what his legacy created was the Golden West Playwrights (GWP), a group that kept on meeting and growing without him but in his memory. Although we eventually drifted away from the regular meetings, we kept in touch, and there are about ten of us who are still in contact to this day.

After Jerry died, we all sort of nominated another amazing writer in the group, Babs Lindsay, to take up the leader mantle, and I wound up as sort of her permanent Vice Scribe, or whatever you want to call it. She moved to Seattle years ago, but whenever she comes back to L.A., we try to make it a point to all get together.

Meanwhile… Cynthia and I have been orbiting each other constantly since back in the day. We’ve never lived far really apart physically, but we also have that connection where, even if we lose touch for a few years, reconnecting feels like it’s only been minutes.

I was at her wedding, and I was there (along with the Golden West Playwrights) when she told us that the father of her daughter wasn’t going to stick around. I won’t go into too many details other than to say that this was one of those moments that showed her true character, strength, and resilience.

I know that the rest of the GWP and I just wanted to strangle that asshole for what he did to her. Cynthia, on the other hand, proceeded to do what she had to do in order to raise her daughter, give her an excellent education, and guide her to grow into the amazing, talented, and intelligent adult woman she has become. She is going to be as successful — if not more so — than her mom.

Oh, right. I mentioned that I was the first breakout success from the GWP, but the great irony is that I started at the top and worked my way down. Meanwhile, Cynthia managed to work her way up.

She is, in fact, the person who got me my first TV job, which also led to my one and only actual credit as a TV writer. She wound up working as script coordinator on the original Melrose Place, but when she got promoted to writer, she reached out to me and offered me the job and I said yes on the spot.

That was really one of the best gigs I ever had in terms of co-workers, absolutely interesting work, and really nifty perqs, annual bonuses, and swag.

And all of this fun happened because Cynthia trusted me enough to make the recommendation. The biggest irony was that I’d never watched the show before I worked on it, but that really didn’t make a difference in catching up and catching on.

Hey, I didn’t know shit about Medicare when I started my current job, and look at me now. Yay…?

Our Melrose days were actually before her marriage days, but since then I’ve been around for the birth of her daughter, and that daughter becoming bat mitzvah. I also sat shiva when Cynthia’s father unexpectedly died. And Cynthia has always been around for me.

If you were to ask me what one word I would use to describe her, it would be this: “Survivor.” Life has tossed some weird curveballs at Cynthia, but she has never not taken up her bat and hit them out of the park in response.

And she’s adaptable. I know her work very well from the GWP days, and how her sensibilities don’t always line up with what she’s gotten paid to do for TV, but I’ve been in the same boat.

And something I didn’t know until today. She’s also got some advice for all of you.

Nu! Who knew?

Sunday nibble #31: Two ladies, two bitches (Part 1 of 2)

This started as a “Sunday nibble,” but became an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I’m splitting the story into two parts. This is the first.

Dazé and Shadow

I’ll tackle that choice of title right off, because it is absolutely literal. Today is August 23, and that happened to be the day that I picked — because it was closest to the likely one — for the birthday of two of my dogs late, great, Dazé and Shadow. So yes, in the absolute definition of the word, bitches, but they were my bitches.

Okay, in reality, I was theirs, but that’s why I’m including them here. The bulk of the article is in honor of the hundredth anniversary of women in America finally being given the right to vote — and it is shameful as hell that it took 132 years from the ratification of the Constitution to the Amendment that fixed this major defect.

August was also the birth month of one of the women on this list. I don’t know when the second one was born, but I do know that the third was not born in August.

But I include those two dogs of mine as an example of how nurturing and protective feminine energy as opposed to masculine. In fact, it’s why I will only ever adopt female dogs.

Oh, I’ve known male dogs. I’ve lived with more than a few, interacted with many, and ultimately they are for the most part… well, go search for YouTube videos of “Stupid Things Frat Boys Do,” and you’ll get the idea.

Male dogs are energetic, and goofy, and they’ll hump your leg when you let your guard down, but they clearly don’t really have as much going on upstairs as their distaff counterparts.

I’ve written about it before, but Dazé always ruled the roost, no matter how many other dogs were around and how much bigger they were than her, and she did it without ever showing aggression. She was totally devoted to me, but never submissive. It always felt like an equal partnership.

Shadow could not have been more different in the sense that, while she was totally devoted as well, she was also completely submissive and dependent. Dazé saw it as her job to take care of me. Shadow saw me as the one who was supposed to take care of her.

But it was a pair of valuable lessons that led to a really amazing relationship with dog #3 (not born in August), Sheeba. Dazé taught me what a dog could do for me. Shadow taught me what I could do for a dog.

I guess that Sheeba must have been up on her Hegel, because with her it was a combination of both; a wonderful give and take in which we took care of each other. Dazé never needed my help and Shadow could never give me hers. With Sheeba, it truly was a two-way street.

That’s probably a big part of the reason that she was the only dog whose loss did not immediately inspire me to go out and rescue another, and it’s going on four months now. Sure, current events in the year of several plagues have also had an impact, but I’ve done surprisingly well without. At least for now.

But, to get to the important part: Here are three women who have had an enormous impact on my life.

Gloria

Okay, most people knew her by that name. I knew her as Mom, She taught me some of my most important skills: never put up with anyone’s shit, always question authority when they seem wrong, and cooking and baking are true and enjoyable art forms.

Keep in mind that my mother died when I was fairly young, after a long mystery illness that only seemed to be made worse by medical treatments from male doctors (only) who would never even for a second take seriously my mother’s attempts to tell them how the symptoms changed depending on what part of her cycle she was in.

“Oh, that’s all in your head,” these men who never had periods would tell her in that mansplaining tone. Looking back, I think the whole thing started with a bout of acid reflux that led to hyperventilation that happened (coincidence?) on my 13th birthday.

As I’ve mentioned here before, Mom was brought up with huge amounts of Catholic guilt and body shame, so wasn’t exactly that in touch with things. Looking back, to be honest, I’ve had the sudden “feel like you can’t breathe because your windpipe suddenly shut” thing a few times in my life, but I very quickly learned the cure for it: Hold your breath.

And yeah, I’ve felt guilty that I wasn’t there for her but, then again — I was 13. I was in school, like I was supposed to be. So it was just the next door neighbor there to rush her to the ER, toss her into the hands of the un-empathetic male doctors, and I think over the next few years they managed to medicate her to death.

Since her family all lived on the east coast, I really lost contact with them for a long time, since I didn’t have their phone numbers, or the wherewithal to fly or drive out there, and my dad certainly wasn’t doing it. But when I reconnected to my cousins and surviving aunts not that long ago via social media, one thing became immediately clear.

They were all like her, so they were all like me, at least in all the good ways: Stubborn, opinionated, feisty, creative, and feckin’ clever Irish-Americans.

This was partly what drove her to the west in the first place, because she had a bird’s eye view of her own mother’s hypocrisy when it came to religion. The Catholic Church ruled all! Except… only the church that the Irish people went to. The Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Latvians may have gone to Catholic churches as well, but they were filthy immigrants.

And it was perfectly fine if my mother invited her best friend Beverly to come to Grandma’s church on Sunday, but god forbid that my mother would even be allowed to go to Beverly’s church, because they were some weird, unacceptable Armenian Orthodox cult!

But the real biggie — and the one that actually wound up having the greatest impact on my own life, although I didn’t know it until long after she’d died — was that her first marriage not only sent her fleeing to the west, but it had everything to do with her relationship to me.

Long story short, she’d married her (Polish Catholic) high school boyfriend, George, at 18. She got knocked up (though not right away), he got drunk and violent a lot, and in her eighth month he gave her what we quaintly term “A Catholic abortion.”

That is, he pushed her down a flight of stairs and she miscarried, and there went the woman who might have been my older sister.

She had the marriage annulled (the good Catholic way!) then headed west, to shock her mother by marrying a much older and divorced (gasp!) man with three adult kids who was maybe Protestant (what?) but definitely not Catholic (clutch the Rosary!).

They married, she got knocked up while they lived in a tiny Hollywood apartment, moved to their suburban home when she was about five months in — and then wound up delivering me two months prematurely back in Hollywood and, apparently, she freaked the hell out.

In all honesty, why wouldn’t she? She’d already lost one child in the 8th month, and here I was, popped out in the 7th month and not completely baked, so they had to stick me into an incubator. Somehow, it worked, I survived, and I’m still here and, oddly enough, I also managed to be the tallest member of my family on both sides and among three generations, at least.

Yeah, I don’t know what’s up with that part, either. Apparently, all of my grandparents barely grazed five feet. I topped six, and I only have one nephew who came close.

Anyway, the result of my mom’s life experience up to my birth was that she was ridiculously protective of me. Fearing losing me like she had her daughter, I would never say that she was clingy and suffocating. Rather, she did what she could to keep me close to home.

Good or bad? I don’t know. She certainly kept me from being over-adventurous, something that didn’t change until after her death — but I’ve always wondered: If she hadn’t done that, would I still be alive now, or would I have died in some stupid incident before I turned sixteen?

On the other hand, if she had lived on to a normal age, and if she were still around today (entirely possible), would our relationship be loving, or would she have long since driven me absolutely nuts? I have no idea. What I do have is one childhood incident that, to me, demonstrated her absolute devotion to keeping me safe.

I was in the 3rd grade, meaning that I was about 8 years old, and was out sick for a day. The procedure at the time was for returning kids to turn in a note from a parent at the office excusing the absence — basically, “This is Jon’s (parent.) He was out sick yesterday, but is feeling well enough to return today. Signed (parent.)”

Welp, up to this particular day, my father was always the one who wrote and signed the notes. He was also an architect, so he could writer block letters like a goddamn laser printer, and his signature was in perfect cursive.

Mom? Well… she was born left-handed and went to Catholic school, so what do you think? Yep. They basically tied her left hand to a chair, forced her to learn to write with her non-dominant hand and so, as an adult, her handwriting was even worse than mine at, oh, I don’t know… eight years old?

You see where this is going, right?

Dad forgot to write the note that day, so Mom did, and I took it in. An hour or two into class, I got summoned to the principal’s office (his name was George Linnert, btw, a total dick, and he is probably long since dead by now) to be accused of forging the note.

I tried to tell him that my mom wrote it, and if he just called her, she would tell him.

Nope. He was being a total dick, so he told me to write down, “I did not write this note.” And then he refused to believe me and threatened suspension, plus calling my parents in to tell them what an evil, evil boy I was.

Guess what happened when I told my parents about it that evening?

Yep. Mom went ballistic, and the next morning she did something so freaking amazing that I still remember every moment of it. I was going to walk to school, but she said, “No. I’m driving you.”

Okay, cool. Except that… while Mom has her license, she also absolutely hates to drive and never does it, and is nervous as hell. Sure, it’s not all that far to the school — maybe a mile at most — but I think she wanted to make a point.

So we hope into the Ford, she very, very cautiously backs out of the driveway, then takes the back streets to the school, leads me up the steps by my hand and into the principal’s office, very politely tells me that she’s here for a meeting with Mr. Linnert…

…and then the second we walk in the door, she proceeds to rip him not a second, or a third, but maybe even up to a fourth asshole and all I can do is just stand there in awe of this woman, this powerhouse, my mother, taking the piss out of an authority figure that, up until this moment, all of us had feared like the grim reaper.

I don’t even remember what exactly she said, except that it involved questioning his intelligence, asking if he got off on intimidating little boys, and whether he actually knew how telephones worked?

End result? She marched his ass to my classroom, we all entered, and he groveled and apologized in front of the teacher, my, my mom, and the entire class.

It was goddamn glorious. But I guess that’s why she was named Gloria in the first place.

R.I.P., Mom.