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(Sorry! I'd written this during my hyperemesis/hallucination times, and forgot to publish it! Sorry!)                                                  Chapter  49
                                                   “Rolling In the Dough”
                                   Or: “Sam Volunteers To Do... Something”

I decided that, in about the mid or end of July, it was time for me to pitch in, and volunteer to get the other Inmates working on a project. To take their minds off of their pain, or loneliness, or misery at being in this... place.

Alas, I'm good at three things, and two of them I simply couldn't pass on to a bunch of craggy, crabby people (not without reason): The first is, to be utterly unhumble,  writing (books, newspapers, plays). I'm good at it. I also direct, and I'm pretty good at that, too. (The key, for me, is finding the right actors, and most of the time, they take the play exactly where you want it to go.)

And so: A flashback:

Plays: Back in L.A. K and I belonged to an amazing group of writers and actors and directors, called “First Stage”: the company director, Dennis, picked a (usually) 2 act play. Then, he hooked up a professional, or non, director with actors in the company, rehearse once or twice, get some blocking down (“Stand here, walk to this spot, sit on the sofa” etc) and, with scripts in hand (“on-book”) the actors took to our small stage-ish area and let the play go fly and be free. Afterwards, the writer would join the company director (moderator) on “stage” (we called it “The Hot Spot” for a good reason) and the audience would give the writer feedback.

Whoof, that was difficult to do. (I'd written about four pieces, and lemme tell ya:  that Hot Spot? Often one had to either tune out the critic, or suppress the desire to pound them into the floor, but the moderator was there to keep any nastiness from getting out of control. There was also learning from the good comments, too.) So, the reason I brought up this particular talent, directing? Because I have a funny story that goes with it and has nothing to do with “YPO”:

Once a year, the company had a fund raiser called “Playwright's Express”, and what that entailed was a marathon run of playlets (pieces) which would take NO LONGER than 15 minutes to do. W e would give the actors their script pages THE DAY of the fundraiser, and we'd do this from noon on Saturday, to midnight, then repeat the next day, Sunday, with different plays. There was a fee for doing the piece, and a fee for taping it and sending it to the author if they were in Minsk and unable to attend the premiere of their babies.

So, on those two days, in the huge church right down the street from the Hollywood Bowl (the church was nice enough to rent us a nice space above the incredible acoustically designed room where The Hollywood Gay Men's Choir rehearsed) actors and directors were highlighting their lines, and rehearsing like crazy in the lobbys, or the center court where there were cafe tables and chairs, or in the parking lot, or the side streets, anywhere we could, all the while surrounded by stained glass and Catholocism. It was insane. Mostly because we all only had oh, about twenty minutes to rehearse any and all pieces.

But, that one year... the thing happened that we had all dreaded.... the... Play From Hell. It was 10 pages long, and the adorable man who ran all of this madness that was  First Stage, Dennis (real name) had gone through about 22 directors, twice as many actors, and every single one of them turned him down.

Cuz..... there was this tiny hitch in the play: it was a racist piece of shit. It was simple, but sick-making: a white man in a white lab coat was to circle a chair, in which sat a black man, who said NOTHING, and the white man in the white lab coat ranted on to this black man why white people are better, smarter, cleaner, more talented, more beautiful, richer, nicer and on and on like that.

Finally, when Dennis was about to pull out what was left of his hair, he came to me, begging me to direct it. The writer had already paid, and paid for a DVD. I said,  “You went through HOW many directors before you came to me, Dennis?” My umbrage was cooled when he reminded me that I was already directing two plays, and was actually IN three, that day. So, I looked at this piece and boy howdy, people were not far off in judging it: it was the most racist garbage I'd ever read (and I've read “Mein Kampf”). But, I had an idea. I looked into Dennis's pleading, puppy-dog eyes, and said, “I have one question.” He arched a brow. “Ye-es?” he replied, with much trepidation in his voice.

“Can I change the blocking?” He let out his breath and knocked over a potted plant. “Do whatever you need to do, just do it.”

So, I had to find my actors. I picked a slender young man, with minimal experience as an actor, but I talked him into being the man in the lab coat, and I approached Denise Dowse, a gorgeous woman of exceptional talent, and asked her to be the one in the chair.

She looked at me with... derision? Oh, yeah. She'd already been approached, many times, read the piece, and said the equivalent of “Yeah, when pork becomes airborne” to all of them. But I caught her attention with my idea of changing the blocking.

The slender white man and the magnificent Denise and I sat at our little cafe table, and I explained my extremely simple idea (simple to me, anyway; don't know why no one else thought of it) to the lab coat actor, with Denise's approval.

We were up on-stage an hour later. I peeked at my actors from behind a not-quite-closed door. The tension, in the audience, was palpable. Nearly everyone in the audience was also a director, had probably been asked to direct this racist garbage, and they were utterly rapt and nearly vibrating, simoultaneously, at what in the world I might have done with this thing.

So: My slender, white actor man in his white lab coat marched around Denise, who was sittng stiffly on the straight backed chair, as the actor raved and spewed the venom that the writer had done writ. But, here came the change-up: On the last page, I  had Denise stand, and step away from the chair. The slender young white man then sat in the chair, still reading out this despicable trash. Denise gave him a look of pure dismissal, and she walked off.

That was it: Denise stood, walked away, and left the racial eructing actor in the chair, ranting to the air, thus giving her all the power.

We got a standing ovation. I noticed a lotof the standees were directors, but I was well pleased with, really, what I thought was a simple alteration (which we weren't supposed to do to the pieces in “Playwright's Express”. Fortunately, desperation means that there are exceptions to every rule).

Flash to Now: The second thing I could do, and do well, was plants. Inside and outside. I kill my share, sure, but I am more than willing to experiment and lose, and experiment and win. (I was also exceptionally adept at keeping receipts, and if a plant went to plant heaven, I brought it back to the store and got my money back. Still do.) But, plants, pots, dirt.... not such a good thing to teach elderly people with “fragile” stamped on their own foreheads, along with my pots and plants.

That left: Baking. I make bread. I love to do it. (I think it has a lot to do with plants: watching yeast “bloom” in a glass measuring cup was a serious kick for me. I am an odd person....)

Anyway, I got the okay from the Powers That Didn't Give a Shit, and put up signs all over the place that "Bread Baking" would be going on in the "kitchen/family room/game room/private room room on Saturday. I also figured that, what with being here in the middle of the country in the Big Red State, this activity would be something the Inmates were familiar with, and might appreciate the opportunity to do it again.

I saw that so many of the women here had claws for hands now, and figured that getting them back into that most elemental of household chores, kneading dough, would be just the thing to help them stretch their fingers, but for a purpose: dough, which we'd bake and enjoy as delicious bread.

On the day,  I brought flour, yeast and salt to the room in question, which showed a fairly good turnout: 8 women (no men) sitting around the large table (I'd cleaned it a few minutes earlier with lemon juice, baking soda and water: best germ killer there is). I got bowls from the cupboard, and sprayed them with Pam. In a large wooden bowl I'd brought from home (called, oddly enough, "a bread bowl". No, really) I put about two pounds of flour and 1/2 teaspoon of yeast into the flour
(yes, 1/2 teaspoon). I mixed the flour and yeast, dry, with a whisk (amazing things, whisks: you can mix ingredients AND beat the crap out of a burglar with one). Then, I added 1/4th tablespoon of salt. That's all.

Fact: Too much salt can do it's damndest to kill you.

Fact: Without salt,  bread will not rise. (It's a chemical thing, don't ask me.)

So 1/4 tablespoon of salt will give your bread flavor, make it rise, and divided amongst ten people? It probably won't be a party to another stroke.

The last ingredient was water. Warmish, not over 110 degrees, 'cause the yeast will keel over and die if the water's too hot. I got a big spoon, and mixed up a nice batch of slightly overly moist dough (it gets less moist when the kneading process starts). Then I put lumps of the dough into the bowls, and said, "Okay, ladies, here's some dry flour (in yet another bowl) and let's get to kneading!"

Crickets. I had crickets. They were all just sitting there, staring at me.

Know what flop sweat is? I hate flop sweat. But, despite my mouth drying up rapidly, I asked, “Don't you know how to make bread?”

I got a universal head shake. Nope. Not one single woman sitting at that table had ever so much as opened a packet of yeast.

“Well, then,” said a most welcome male voice. Kimit went on, looking at me, “Teach them.” Oh, right, I could do that. Easy peasy.

See one, do one, teach one. I'd show them. I stood and took a small handful of dry flour, dusted the table directly in front of me, plopped my bowl of dough onto the flour, and  began to knead. I pushed, folded, shoved with the heel of my hand, flipped it, and did that over and over. When the dough started to feel too sticky, I'd grab another small handful of flour, and dust the flour orb, and the table, with as little flour as I could. Finally, after ten minutes or so, I had a small, round ball of dough.
I told the ladies to get a'goin', and they did. They grabbed the flour, dusted their spaces, and did their damndest to knead that flour into bread.

Mostly? They were just picking it up and smashing it back onto the table, adding a touch of flour, and picking up and smashing and pounding. WHICH IS OKAY! When you knead, you are encouraging “gluten” to form (you know gluten, it's that thing that not only makes bread hold it's shape, it's also the thing that every tennis player in the world is giving up, as it has an astounding allergy factor amongst athletes. None of these women were going to be playing mixed doubles anytime soon, so on we went).

But one poor lady, who's fingers were just, this is awful, nearly immovable sticks, was just poking at her little dough ball. And she was crying. I moved over to her, and asked her why she was  upset. (Kimit was on her other side; he's incredibly compassionate.) She turned a tear-glazed face to me and said, “I can't do it. My fingers...” and she poked the dough, miserable. I pulled up a chair, sat and looked at her.

I poked her dough. I poked it some more. Then I folded it, into a tiny square, and pounded it with the heel of my hand until it was flat again.

I looked at  the lady, and said, “You were doing just fine. Keep going.” And she did. She poked, and poked and poked, and then I realized that she was limbering up those digits: she needed to to fold the dough into a little square, and she had to clench her fist to pound it flat, and she poked and poked and folded and pounded and suddenly she was a happy little lady who was beating the shit out of a little ball of dough.

Success.

I wanted these to be a dinner-roll type shapes, so I showed them how to do that. (It's easy, but, wow, I'm not even going to attempt explaining it. Suffice to say it involved quite a lot of “folding”, “tucking”, and turning until you have a nice compact ball of dough.)

The women looked, every one of them, as if I had just produced a Budweiser Draft horse, right in front of their eyes.

So, I went from woman to woman, who had pounded, bashed, smashed (and even a few who actually kneaded) their dough, and showed them how to make a neat little dinner rolls.

They ladies in the beginning: nothing but mule-tough stubbornness and me, an outsider from “That Caleeforneeya”, could possibly have this most Pioneer-like ability; 45 minutes later they were delightedly calling me over for help, advice, or just praise at a job well done.

Kinda nice, eh?

So, after we'd pounded and kneaded and shaped, we put each doughball on a greased pan, covered them with some loosely fit saran wrap, and waited for them to rise (which would take about another hour). Just then, Lori walked in, and sniffed. “It doesn't stink!” she declared.

What a compliment. I had to chuckle (I rarely chuckle) and said, “I didn't use five tablespoonsful of yeast, that's why.”

“Oh!” Lori said. “That's why it was so yucky last time?” I said, “Yep. People will insist on 'if more is good, a whole shit load is better'. Wait 'til we start baking.”

She smiled, and went back to patient care.

And two hours later, we were all seated at the table, with the little dinner rolls, smelling like pure heaven, tearing them open, buttering them and eating them.

Lori joined us.

Mmmmmm. Bread. (Made without a ton of yeast, 'cause yeast really does stink if you use too much.)

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