New Decade, New Rules. Rule Number 6

2020 has been declared the year of clarity, the year of the stage manager. Leave it to Stage Managers to get up in the business of the new decade and claim it. New decade, both for the world and for me. I’m entering my 6th decade, and have decided that many celebrations are in order. I’m really clear about that. Does that count as decadal clarity? Or just well-developed narcissism? Okay, okay. I have my answer.

Saturday, I threw the first of those many celebrations, an unbirthday party, hosting tea at The Huntington Gardens for a dozen and a half friends. I know that I left important people out and for that I’m cringing as I write this. Know that your engraved invitation is coming for another day and please forgive my brutish forgetfulness while putting the guest list together. Isn’t it always like that, life? Happy events tinged with sadness or regret? I’ve resolved to try to let the negative thoughts go, and I do hope you will, too. We’ll go another day.

So why tea? When I was in my late twenties, or early thirties, I frequently had tea at the Huntington with my starving artist theatre friends. The gardens were much less developed than they are now, but still magical; this was back in the mid eighties and early nineties before the Chinese gardens had been added. For us, the Gardens represented a place to escape to for a few hours of sunshine, appreciation of fine art and books and the embodiment of a slower, more elegant time. The gardens comprise 120 acres of botanical bliss. Still, all these years later, the same sturdy tea house still sits in the center of the rose garden, even today. I was surprised Saturday to see as many roses in bloom as there were, considering it’s January. We gathered just outside the door; they wouldn’t seat the group until everyone had arrived. Under the tree was a display of roses, a wooden table with a chair, and a big banner behind the table that said “Ask Me About the Roses.” As we milled around waiting for everyone to gather, I avoided sitting because I thought someone might approach looking to me for encyclopedic information about roses. Not Michael. He stepped up right to the table and proceeded to instruct my more gullible friend, Cathy, about the several varieties of roses on the table. He indicated delicately with his musician’s fingers, sweeping across the display tray, lingering at each flower:

Oh, that one (pointing to the yellow) is the Eisenhower, and the red one, there, is the Nixon. (pausing for effect)

Cathy took this in thoughtfully, nodding, while the other Michael covered his mouth to keep from laughing. A minute after this picture was taken, Cathy exploded with laughter when she realized what had happened. I believe there was some colorful language, but I pretended not to hear it because I was mentally preparing for tea. Clearly I didn’t get to introducing people quickly enough to have allowed that to happen. Thankfully Cathy didn’t hold a grudge about Michael’s rose bloviating.

Once inside, I quickly dealt out the place cards so that everyone could sit. There was some quick engineering to fix the sunlight-streaming-through-the-window-problem. Leave it to another stage manager to sort out the quick napkin over the door solution.

A few of us had arrived early to take a walk in the gardens. Several of them had complimented me on my new coat. “I bought it for myself for my birthday, online at the Ann Taylor sale. I bought the coat on sale at $231 only to put it in my cart and discover it was $95.” Good story, right? Enough people were graciously complimentary about my new coat so that every time someone commented about it my two friends, Lynn and Rob breathlessly doubled over. And those were the friends I brought all the way to Pasadena in my car and who needed a ride home from the party! Only your friends can remind you of what will be the most important new rule for my 60s. Rule number 6. I read about it in the wonderful book, “The Art of Possibility” by Ben Zander.

Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.

Benjamin Zander

This is hard for a Capricorn. We Capricorns are earnest. We take everything seriously. So this will be a challenge for me in the coming decade. Lynn and Rob and I laughed all the way home as I realized I’d repeated the stupid coat story about five times to different people, forgetting that all around me there were people who’d heard it anywhere between one to five times. Talk about bloviating. They were on the five end of the spectrum. They fell out every time I started in. It was a bonding moment for them, more of a bondage moment for me. Harrumph. Remember, Els, rule number 6!

The tea was spectacular. Being so supported this past year by my friends has been a gift. Speaking of gifts, I very carefully instructed that there were to be no gifts. But you know, some people can’t help themselves. My friend Jenny brought me a beautiful square box with an extravagant crenulated hat on top. “It’s just a box with some padding in it,” she said.

The aforementioned padding is the beautiful scarf wrapped around my shoulders. Not to mention the elegant hat which was on top of the box.

I’m making strides in the new year, the new decade, with the critical new rule. Rule number 6.

Check out the Hungtington when you get a chance!

There will be blog….

Recently, I left my brand new-Christmas lunch box on the Dash F bus. I was on a call with a colleague, and jumped off the bus, leaving it behind, in all it’s splendor on the seat and didn’t realize I’d even lost it until I was leaving the credit union after ordering my widow checks and didn’t have it. I stopped and cursed my luck before continuing back to my office. No lunch box. No lunch. What a terrible way to start the day.

First, you have to know why I became unhinged at losing what others might consider to be a trifle. Over the years I’ve worked at USC, fifteen this January, I’ve received many monogrammed gifts – scarf, hat, umbrella, drink tumblers, coffee mugs, water bottle. I’ve used the heck out of all of these losing the water bottle just last fall in a moment of forgetfulness after a safety training. But this lunch box and its contents was truly special, featuring many more monograms than any self-respecting faculty member deserves.

Ridiculously fabulous, right? And just in keeping with the new president’s sustainability measures.

How is all that branded swag sustainable, asked my very inquisitive friend, Bob in New York.

E: We stop using straws and plastic silverware. My helpful suggestion was to never serve bottled water again, because a few years ago they gave us all water bottles. I am, of course, on my fourth since then, but the habit stuck.

Which habit, you might be asking yourself about now. The habit of not using plastic water bottles? Or the one of buying sustainable products over and over….. I can’t honestly answer that question without blushing considerably.

My friend Susan had already started shopping for a replacement lunch box for me. Where i saw a loss, she saw an opportunity….

I left my lunch bag on the Dash bus once years ago, so I knew they had a lost and found, and walked back to my office not too worried that I’d be able to get it back.

Others of us lucky to have received this gift have lost theirs, too. But I can hardly compete with my colleague Luis, who lost his in an episode worthy of Live PD, or Cops – blame someone else for ransacking his car or burgling his apartment to lose his – way better story; it’s hard to compete with his story of loss. He’s a playwright for Christ’s sake.

Back in my office, I called the Dash office number on their website. I listened to an endless loop of muzak underscoring the announcement, “You’re Number One in line, ” punctuated with “Hi! Your call matters to us, thank you for your patience!” After about five minutes of listening to this hellish loop, I began muttering back at the speaker phone on my desk, “I guess my call doesn’t much matter considering I’ve been listening to this dreck for ten minutes,” Hannah snickering in the background. You know when there’s a particularly real sounding phone interruption that actually sounds like someone has picked up the phone and you might end up talking to a LIVE HUMAN BEING? That’s what the above punctuation “Hi! Your call matters to us…” sounded like. It got me every time. Like two dozen times.

It’s lunchtime, said Hannah wearily, though it was really only 11:45, and it was her polite way of saying, Let it Go, Els.

So I hung up. Tried again at 3:30, 4:30; same thing. They must eat lunch there a lot. So I decided after riding the Dash bus home, I’d jump in my car and go to the bus yard. I asked the evening driver if anyone had turned in a lunch box earlier that day, and he went off on a tangent talking about having seen a lunch box in the breakroom, and I felt buoyed about the prospects of my lunch box retrieval. The address on the website had said 100 N. Main St., but when I got there, it was a rolled down door at a building on Main and 1st, not a bus yard.

Wait! I’d been watching them build the new bus transit station for a year or so on the way to my gym in the arts district! So off I went – it’s on Commercial Street, parallel with the 101 Freeway, just below the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

Photos of the Dash Bus Depot by Joe Linton

I pulled up on a street behind the facility, parked at the many meters and crossed the street to the guard’s gate. It was about 7:00PM. I stood there until the guard noticed me. Wearing a jaunty tam, he slid open the window to inform me that the parking garage was on the other side of the building, and closed at 4:30PM but then graciously opened the gate and called someone on his walkie talkie to take me to Dispatch. Talk about jobs you don’t want. The Dispatcher was on the phone with a driver trying to take their break. The office was tidy. I could see a pile of what might be lost or found items on the file cabinet to the right of her desk. No lunch box. I waited patiently until she’d finished with the driver. I told her what the driver of the bus told me about someone having seen the lunch box in the breakroom, and she sent someone to look for it. Nope. She let me know that it probably wouldn’t turn up until the end of the night when the bus came back.

I’ll check back tomorrow. But before I leave, do you have a direct phone number?

She jotted it down and handed it to me, and I promptly uploaded it into my phone, triumphant that I’d no longer need to suffer the fates of the muzak.

I called later the next day, about 4:00PM, and sure enough, someone had retrieved my lunch box and it was there. The food is no longer there, she said. She told me to come by dispatch. This time went more smoothly, but Jaunty Jake was still there, still sardonic.

You’re back after hours again.

Yes, they said they’d found my lunch bag.

Back to Dispatch – this time, when the Dispatcher finished with the call they were on, he cradled the phone, shook his head and said, “Drivers. What are you going to do?” He reached up onto the file cabinet to the right of the desk and said, “This it?” Yes!

I signed the clipboard, and turned to my right, spotting Jaunty Jake holding a bag of chips. He escorted me down the stairs to the parking garage.

Well, if history holds true, you won’t see me for a couple of years, but now I know w here to come to find my lost stuff. Thanks for your help!

He laughed, as he headed over to the guard station by the back gate. I cradled my monogrammed lunch bag in my arms, and jumped into the car, pulling out of the LADOT Transit Parking garage to head home. With my monogrammed lunch box.

Speaking of monograms, here’s a million dollar business idea. You remember His and Hers towels? Isn’t it time for Theirs towels? Go for it. Make a million.

Phoenix Rising

When last we left Nana, she had boarded the big green bus run by the South Tahoe Airporter and was speeding her way up from the lake’s edge to Reno, to fly to Washington, D.C., where she would visit her father and stepmother for the New Year’s celebration.

Freshly showered, latest Grisham book in hand, I boarded the first of two flights from Reno to D.C., enjoyed reading a bit, something which had eluded me for the past week. I relaxed into my seat on the United Flight to Los Angeles, which is only an hour, and best intentions falling aside like the book into the crevice of the seat, I immediately dozed off into intermittent sleep. I had promised myself that I’d finish my blog in L.A. while waiting for the red-eye to DC, but found I was quite content instead reading my book and relaxing in the crowded anterooms in LAX. I boarded the 10:45PM Sunday night departure with other bleary-eyed travelers, all of us anticipating a solid 5 hours and 10 minutes of sleep. At least I was, sure that with no nurseling or tot to worry about, I’d soon be out. The flight was full, and all seats and overhead bins bursting with folks heading to the nation’s capital.

The following morning, after a pricey cab to the Northwest district, I arrived at the home of my stepmother and my dad. I entered the cozy foyer, and immediately sat down to have breakfast with them, as though I’d never left since my last visit in July. They have an orderly life, attended by a loyal staff who’ve been with them for about thirty years. There is hardly a metaphoric point further flung from Tahoe than here. Complete tranquility and care for the next four days, which I was very much looking forward to.

I’d finished the Grisham (highly recommend it, too – The Guardians) – and eagerly launched into Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a novel I’d heard people raving about for weeks. Within the first 121 pages, I was struck by a quote which underscored the topic of uncertainty about the future that my coach and I’ve been discussing of late:

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

I stopped and read the quote a second time, a third time, a fourth. It had fallen almost like a love letter out of a long unopened book, and I settled into my chair to consider the happenstance of reading such a missive at this time. Just my recent two weeks of travel, visiting my son and his family for Christmas, and now my Dad and his wife for New Year’s is completely foreign to me. Traveling alone is simple, unencumbered. I would always have preferred the encumbrance of my darling husband, but I now embraced the efficacy of traveling alone.

Over summer, I’d signed up for TSA Check, and this was the first trip I’d successfully used it on. If you can call successful being stopped with a half full water bottle at the checkpoint, which I vociferously denied having, then being escorted around and coming through again for two agents to scrutinize the screen and discover a very sharp work-knife in your purse successful. I do, considering they could have done a full cavity search at that point, and they didn’t.

The five days in D.C. was lovely. I’d told my Dad I didn’t want him to fill up the time with activities, that I knew I’d be exhausted and would just like to hang out, and he followed my wishes. Aside from the three squares we all had together each day, we did a few errands together; I accompanied him to get out some stitches at the dermatologist’s office, marveling at how he knew everyone’s name in the office and used it, causing broad smiles to come over each staff member’s face. Unbiased of course, I’d say my dad is a charming guy, and it was great to see he hasn’t lost his touch with people. He has an uncanny ability to meet someone and to know their life story within fifteen minutes, then to hold onto that story like a pit bull with a rubber toy. This is probably a function of his having been a charitable foundation grantor for years; that work is about making relationships with people and determining if what they do or want to do with your foundation’s money is within the guidelines of that foundation’s mission. He’s never lost that flair for finding out what makes people tick. I’ve always admired it in him.

We took a trip to PetSmart, all three of us, to select two new finches for Sally’s indoor aviary. The zebra finch and society finch hopped about trying to evade capture by the young woman at PetSmart, but when they were inducted into their new home, a good 10x larger than their cage at the store, they tweeted happily and flitted about the aviary with joy.

I took two rambling hikes in Rock Creek Park, the first, where I felt accompanied by my dear friend Susie at my side as I walked through the well-marked trails, slipping on the leaves occasionally in my inappropriate hiking shoes, red leather Clark’s moccasins. On the New Year’s Eve day hike I took, I resolved to do fifty hikes in 2020, so unfortunately couldn’t count that day’s hike, but it felt good to get out and move my legs after a few days of complete lassitude.

On the second day of the new year, my dear friend Liz came up from Annapolis to visit me at the house. Liz and I have known each other since we were about seven and eight, respectively, and lived about .08 mile from each other in Greensburg, PA. Our escapades were too many to recount, but included much creative “free play” on the acreage of her family’s home, flinging Barbies into the tiered ponds to “swim,” serving and drinking tea in the tiny log cabin playhouse, picking so many beans from her father’s vast garden that I once thought when I went to sleep, I would see only beans in my dreams. Like Patchett’s Dutch House, Liz’s family’s house in Greensburg had an almost mythic status for me which stuck with me for years, and I would visit its magical spaces in my dreams throughout my twenties, and even occasionally in my thirties.

Academically, I followed Liz from the Valley School of Ligonier, to St. Paul’s School, but diverged as she went on to Stanford and then back to Pitt to get her medical degree. She’s been practicing Emergency Medicine for thirty years, and that was one of the things we kept marveling at during our spectacular visit – how we’d gotten to be in the sixth decade of our lives in the blink of an eye. Both with families, and grown children, successful in our fields, far away from the little midwestern town where we’d percolated as children.

What’s wonderful about staying connected with a childhood friend is the dissipation of time that happens when you reunite. You’ve come a huge distance, with full lives lived between the 53 years between the time you met and now, but it’s all telescoped into a comfortable understanding of who you are together and apart. There’s no need to try to impress; she knew you when you were nine and stupid enough to slam the door of the pool house, inciting the wasps behind the hex sign on the door to chase you around the pool and back in again to sting you both multiple times before you both realized you should jump into the pool. You’ve attended her wedding, and she’s watched from afar your husband’s life celebration. You’ve both been working mothers and wives, with busy careers and family life. You’ve harbored hopes and dreams for your partner and your children, postponing conscious self care so that at 60 it is an entirely new topic to discuss. And you do discuss that topic with ferocity like how you chatted at night trying to fall asleep during that thunderstorm, lightening and thunder ricochetting off the ceiling, as it split a tree just down the hill from Liz’s bedroom. Fears about real and imagined boogiemen have populated our conversations and letters for over fifty years. How is that possible?

The image that I’ve been thinking of recently is the Phoenix.

…a unique bird that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.

a person or thing regarded as uniquely remarkable in some respect.

The conflagration of the past two years or so is more or less out, smoldering a bit but effectively over. Charred, a bit wounded, I nevertheless feel the upward draft of the fire’s residual flare. Feet charred, I feel willing to rise above the wreckage to fly, like Sally’s finches, to discover new relationships, to listen to the air currents, open my flaps, as it were, to explore who the new me is.

In this next decade of discovery I’m suspended in the golden amber of past discoveries, magical spaces, and the fealty of noble friendships past and present.

Dear 2020, help me to recognize the opportunities as I encounter them to become uniquely remarkable in some respect, and to recognize and perhaps create the thresholds of inspiring new spaces that beckon me to creative inspiration.

Off the Grid with Nana

I’ve been off the grid for the past 8 days, spending the Christmas holiday with my son and his wife and their two adorable girls, S, a recently-turned four-year-old, and B, a recently turned 9-month-old. My son and his wife run a beautiful home – chaotically creative – the best kind. There are lots of toys, and lots of entertainment units of the organizational sort to keep Nana busy after the sun goes down. My OCD kicked in in a serious way. I don’t want to get all judgy — in a minute, you’ll see why–they get the job done brilliantly with a minimum of fuss, and don’t let the little things like organizing shoe piles spoil their afternoon. They are Present, yes, with a capital P, at all moments that their children are awake, and they thrive on the triumphs and squalors that constitute growing up well and happy.

I arrived on December 22nd, just in time to assist and attend S’s fourth birthday party, at the local bowling alley, a festive affair, with sparkling Spindrifts and Pellegrinos, and a beautiful fresh fruit platter from the local grocery store, as well as a veggie and dip tray. Perfectly and easily organized. (My producer’s brain noted “Know your audience.”)There were about 20 unicorn themed gift bags. Each bag had a very sparkly beaded wrist wrap which went from straight to bracelet with a quick slap on your wrist. Each one sported a cat or an animal. They ranged in color from pink to Cabaret black. They were a big hit. Also in each bag, there was a bag of Frozen Pirate’s Booty – when I first heard that, I gagged, but then realized that it referred to the Disney movie, not the geothermic state of the puffs; I’ve never really understood the appeal of them when corn syrup packing peanuts are available in any Amazon shipment. Clearly the Frozen Pirate Booty is great because of the product alignment.

Parenthetically, I finally sat down and watched The Movie this holiday as well, so I will no longer have to pretend to know the claw accompanied by the hiss reference when S freezes me. Poor Ilsa. She really had it rough.

Have you ever seen almost-four-year-olds bowl? It’s spectacular. First, there are the adorable shoes, which only begin at kids’ size 10, so the wee ones just wore their own shoes. The ball is larger than their entire torso, and definitely heavier than they can manage. Their proud parent behind them. the toddlers reach the head of the lane and then unceremoniously drop the ball at their feet, where some miracle of physics and floor wax progresses it down the lane at about the speed of a very old demented tortoise. Miraculously it doesn’t stop. However, if one gets impatient, one can just line up the next ball to be ready.

Bumpers UP!

After a few seconds, the tot turns away disinterestedly and resumes animated dance or conversation with their friends as parents and adjacent onlookers wait for the next minute-and-a-half as the ball makes it’s tortured way down to the end before shuttling off into the gutter. If they’re lucky, they might hit one pin. As the afternoon went on, S got a little better and was knocking a few pins down. But it didn’t matter. Bowling was just the setting. Ever so much more important was the giggling and chasing each around the bowling alley.

These Tahoe Toddlers’ parents are nice people in addition to their accomplishments. I met several of Whitney’s school colleagues and their children. My main job was to hold B so that Whitney and Chris could host the big kids and their folks. B is a magnet, so charming and smiley. She has this lovely full-body wiggle she does when she eats something she likes, or if someone smiles in her direction. I mean anywhere in her direction. She must be the happiest baby I’ve ever met. Everyone in her family now emulates the B wiggle when they want to see her smile. Adorable.

S is iconoclastic, a leader in the same way her daddy is. Rebel, comic sense of holding for a laugh and then letting herself laugh with abandon. Her friends all arrived with various packages of Playdoh products, again many of the gifts were this season’s favorite, Frozen. Unicorns and Ilsa are big in the under 5 market.

In addition to coming to spend the holidays, I ended up staying in this beautiful part of the world so that Chris and Whitney could attend a wedding after Christmas. I’d agreed to babysit for the dynamic duo for an overnight trip. When I arrived, I realized it was actually for two days, which was fine. I’m always up for a challenge. Being a Grandparent is a dance. I’ve never been a particularly good dancer, save for the disco competition I won in a state of extreme inebriation in the college pub. It’s harder than it looks in books, movies and TV. My practice unfortunately looks more like George Wilson to Dennis the Menace – you know- the cranky neighbor trope. Four year olds (and fifty-nine-year-olds, for that matter) can be mercurial. We can go from chill to chilly in a heartbeat. One of my corrections to some benign four-year-old action resulted with her responding, “Why don’t you go outside, Nana, and die in a snowbank?”

Beat….

I consider a moment whether this is a witty musical reference to Grandma got run over by a reindeer….Nope. And before you jump to conclusions and decide either that my granddaughter is a psycho or I’m Emily Gone Postal, let’s just say transitioning from a single, urban life style into the afore-mentioned creative home combined with the onset of a serial stomach flu suffered on the 23rd by Whitney, the 24th by Chris, and my hypochondriacal certainty that I would be next on Christmas Day made me less than nimble. And she told me so.

Note to self. Nana’s is to remain chill. Assume the corrective mantle only when necessary when someone is about to die.

On Christmas Day I fell into a slough of despondency the likes of which I’ve not felt since last Christmas, the first without my husband. Leaden limbs, near total disinterest in presents, a need to fall asleep on the couch by 10 in the morning. It was bizarre and I was incredibly relieved (as I’m sure Chris and Whitney were) when I mostly recovered the next day. (And I didn’t get the flu, thank you, Baby Jesus.)

In spite of being somewhat physically and mentally disengaged on Christmas, I still got a charge out of S’s generosity in offering to open everyone’s presents. I had bought S a little robotic dog that pants, barks, growls, sits, wags his tail and runs on command. At one point during the weekend, B and I were sitting with the little cutie on the floor next to the chair and I was patting it, while she depilled it and ate the fluff when suddenly, the dog turned it’s head sidewise and looked up at me in the chair – like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. It scared the bejeezus out of me. Toys are too damn smart.

As stage managers and production managers, we manage logistics. Rehearsals have breaks taken at Equitable times, and we’re trained to track multiple people on stage at any time, and write what they are doing, where they are going and what they are carrying down. Two kids for two days? Piece of cake.

Two days later and I would challenge any Stage manager to take care of two toddlers under four. In fact, I think this might be an amazing training drill. B has her eyes on anything that can be put into her mouth, lint, pine needles, dice. Her favorite is Puffs, little colored cheerios that come in a can. Doesn’t matter if they’re from two days ago and are gummy. In it goes.

The logistics went something like this:

  • 5-7AM Wake up to the baby standing up, holding onto the crib and shrieking.
  • Take her downstairs, change her and sit her on the floor to play. She is happy.
  • 6:30-7:00AM S comes down and wants to make slime. “Nana doesn’t do slime.” The truth is that Slime is my Cryptonite. Bring out a bowl and ask for glue and I start quivering all over and not in the charming way that B does.
  • 7-9AM Negotiate about the slime. S is definitely going to be a prosecutor and a damn good one.
  • 7-9AM Make breakfast while keeping an eye on B so she doesn’t spill out the dog food or water on the floor of the kitchen or find/eat dessicated grapes under the cabinets . Find something that S will eat that has some nutritional value and sit with B giving her some bacon and blueberries. Bacon goes down, Cupid gets fed. Blueberries go down. Nana gets to do some waist bending. That’s my exercise for the day. Did I eat?
  • 9-10AM Color with S while bouncing B on my knee and handing her the lids of the markers to hold for me. This is what we call stasis.
  • 10AM Warm up some milk and bottle it while holding B on my hip.
  • Put on the TV for S and take B up to put her down for her nap.
  • 10:30AM-12:30PM Play with S, again negotiating for a more manageable game than slime…We might get dressed here or we might
  • 12:30PM Retrieve caterwauling B from the crib and bring her down. Change her.
  • Lunch. What the hell will they eat? Did I eat yet?
  • Afternoon activity – walk outside, go to the indoor childrens’ playspace nearby
  • Naps
  • 5:00PM Start dinner while making chocolate chip cookies with the neighbor children. Calculating how much raw dough will make them sick….
  • 6:00PM Eat dinner followed by a brief Gymnastics competition.
  • 6:30PM run a bath. S and B love their bath which they take together. Make sure B doesn’t fall face first into the bath. No actual hygiene seems to take place in the bath but they both look cleaner when they come out.
  • 7:00PM Prepare bottle and take B up to bed after finding something appropriate for S to watch. Kids Channel on Netflix. Oh, here’s the original Grinch movie. I came down after putting B to sleep and saw Jim Carrey in a green suit with maggots or bugs climbing all over his teeth. Slapping hand to my mouth…

Whoa! This is going to give you bad dreams, S!

Yeah, it’s scary.

I thought you told me you’d watched it before.

(Sometimes S uses her debate techniques to persuade you that she is making an actual case when it is really just a very inventive story narrative.) Correction: she’s going to be a prosecutor/novelist when she grows up.

  • 8:00PM Read books or listen to a sleep story with S.
  • 8:30PM Tiptoe downstairs and start playing the Nana OCD cleanup game.
  • 10:00PM Crawl into bed
  • 10:30PM B Caterwauling. I’ve got this! Bottle on the way.
  • 10:45PM B refuses bottle
  • 11:00AM S stumbles into the room.

You’re not going to get much sleep in here, S.

I want my Mommy!

  • Cupid starts barking manaically at something outside the window.
  • Els realizes she’s left the car in the driveway, throws on shoes, then opens the front door and Cupid goes screaming into the night, surely to be eaten by a coyote or a bear. What will I tell Chris and Whitney?
  • 12:30AM B, S and Nana cry themselves to sleep.

6:30AM the Following Day – Rinse and Repeat.

Along the way, I would occasionally pick up my phone and see people wishing each other Merry Christmas! But I didn’t have time to play those reindeer games. I was off the Grid with S and B.

And you know what? I wouldn’t trade one glorious second of it. Happy Holidays!

Early Christmas Present

This Christmas I’ve done better than last, when I had no heart for shopping, for thinking of others. Last year, I licked my widowly wounds, spending the holiday in Seattle with Chris and his family at her Dad’s place. I remember feeling both there, and not – feeling as my friend Bob recently called it, “ashy.” The state of knowing that you inhabit your body but don’t quite know how to make the limbs move, or how to move with intention because you’re without a partner to fuss over, to find the perfect present for, to strive to make the holiday special for. This year, I combined cleaning out the storage unit with bringing the tree supplies up really early – a week before Thanksgiving. I put the tree up, and turned it on, and it hasn’t been turned off yet. No worries – it’s rabidly artificial- not even attempting to look like a natural tree. Yes, it has the familiar conic shape, it’s green, but there the similarity ends. It has sixteen settings of LED lights, the last of which is the one I like – amber static lights. I think there’s probably a karaoke plug-in for the tree if I hadn’t thrown out the manual. Yesterday I mailed all the packages to my Tahoe family members so that I can breeze in Sunday with just my makeup kit like a glamorous Hollywood starlet from the 1950s.

Keeping a journal has been helpful in getting my feet back under me this year. My formerly tamed stationery fetish recently raised it’s ugly head, and as though on cue, my ex-neighbor, Chewy gifted me with a small bucketload of Paper Source journals, of many sizes, all entwined with flowers, a pack of floral pencils and a pen to match last week when we went to see Jitney at the Mark Taper Forum. The journal entry from that night records the richness of our outing, from discovering we were sitting behind Al Pacino and in front of Stephen Tobolowski and wife, Anne Hearn. We ran into many SDA colleagues, and set designer Joe Celli and that was all in the front of house before the play began. On top of those happy reunions, seeing Ruben Santiago Hudson’s muscular production of Wilson’s 1970s Pittsburgh was so satisfying. I know the play well, but from behind the scenes. I ASMed the last time Jitney played at the Taper, directed by Marion McClinton and starring Carl Lumbly (Booster) Shabaka Henley (Doub), Russell Hornsby (Youngblood) and Willis Burks II (Shealy). One of my jobs off stage right was to apply a spot of blood on the cheek of Stephen Henderson’s Turnbo when he ran out the door after being slugged by Youngblood, and then returned with his gun waving it like a mad man. I was so pleased to see Anthony Chisholm reprising the role of Fielding – having his gravelly-throated way with the sartorial sot – the man’s a comic genius. When he tells Becker’s son, Booster, newly returned from twenty years in prison about his wife (22 years gone), he made me laugh and cry again within a span of two minutes.

FIELDING

You got to have somebody you can count on you know. Now my wife . . . we been separated for twenty-two years now . . . but I ain’t never loved nobody the way I loved that woman. You know what I mean?
BOOSTER
Yeah, I know.
FIELDING

She the only thing in the world that I got. I had a dream once. It just touched me so. I was climbing this ladder. It was a solid gold ladder and I was climbing up into heaven. I get to the top of the ladder and I can see all the saints sitting around . . . and I could see her too . . . sitting there in her place in glory. Just as I reached the top my hand started to slip and I called out for help. All them saints and angels . . . St. Peter and everybody . . . they just sat there and looked at me. She was the only one who left her seat in glory and tried to help me to keep from falling back down that ladder. I ain’t never forgot that. When I woke up . . . tears was all over my face, just running all down in my ears and I laid there and cried like a baby . . . cause that meant so much to me. To find out after all these years, that she still loved me.

August Wilson, Jitney, Act I, Sc. 3

So, like I said, I’m filling my days with spectacular events rather than things. I visited at the Posthumous Party for Eddie Jones on Saturday, reconnecting with so many of our old friends from Interact Theatre Company. Tonight I participated in an active shooter drill at USC. My theatre training gets me all the plummy roles – I got to make the first call kicking off the drill, and the primo seat in front of the Campus Center to watch the drill unfold. Better than Christmas shopping, I quipped, down in the ballroom as we awaited instructions.

Busy is better than not busy. In moments like my bus ride home tonight, Carla Bonoff blasting in my ears, reading a book on Leadership, pausing to think about my upcoming Christmas travel, I recognize that I’m jamming it all in to a gaping hole of loss. As a friend recently posted “I need to slow down.” Just a few days until the Winter Recess begins for real and then we can all slow down.

Tonight, after coming home and making a quick dinner, I opened the mail. Not to get too revelatory, but the thing is that when one of two partners passes away, lets just say that the other one is sometimes left with the short end of the financial stick. So I’ve been focussing on events rather than things, too, because funds are more limited this year. In fact, as I sat there eating my dinner, I was strategizing about how to come up with the gift for our building staff at the my condo. I kept opening the mail, reading and enjoying cards from friends, then came upon the familiar SAG-AFTRA residuals envelope. I opened it and out fell a statement for Patch Adams and Seabiscuit and a check for $1,209.63. Gulp. Pause.

The thing about Seabiscuit is that Jimmie ended up on the cutting room floor. You millenials may not know that quaint expression but it harkens back to a time when films were shot on celluloid, which had to be physically cut during editing, and actors would bemoan the fact that their parts of the film would fall in thick tresses onto the floor of the editing room and they wouldn’t end up being in the movie. In fact, now I remember going to the screening of Seabiscuit, all dressed up, hanging like a starlet on Jimmie’s arm, only to realize as the final credits rolled (Jimmie’s amongst them) that we hadn’t seen him at all. We then skulked out of the theatre after we realized he hadn’t survived the editor’s shears. But, good news! I remember from Saturday’s reel of Eddie is that he had a big role in that one, so I hope his widow Anita gets a lovely check this week, too. Anyway, the long and short of it was that I burst into tears when I opened the check, my heart racing, “tears was all over my face, running all down in my ears…to find out after all these years that he still loved me.”

So that was my early Christmas present, and the proof that getting out and about is the best antidote to loss. Thanks, Jimmie, for looking out for me while I learn to look out for myself.

Oh, and I apologize for the tease of a photo. Maybe more on that another day.

The Inappropriate Final and How My Students Made Me So Proud…

This has been a challenging semester for many students, faculty and staff at SDA. However, a definite bright spot in the semester was yesterday’s final with my GESM 111G Theatre Scene class, depicted above.

This is a freshman seminar, intended for non-theatre majors, so it hosts a diverse group of students (not all of whom are depicted above.) Their degree goals range from computer engineering, mechanical engineering, business administration, cinema, pre-med, to narrative studies, and other majors. Not-so-secretly I harbor the goal of “turning” them to the arts, opening them to the riches of our theatrical practice. In the past, I’ve successfully persuaded students to continue taking an acting class, or once, the THTR 130 Introduction to Theatrical Production class, where they were a crew member for one of our productions in the Spring semester. This semester, I had the privilege of teaching in tandem with my colleague, Melinda Finberg, as we guided two discreet sections of the course through our mutually defined syllabus.

We began the semester learning about the World of the Play, utilizing Elinor Fuch’s tactile treatise on the subject. We read several chapters from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, to immediately dispel the notion that making theatre is not rigorous or is somehow loosey-goosey. I had them do an exercise early-on from that book, the creative autobiography, where students shared their first creative moments, both successful and not. I read these, squirreling away some of their creative ambitions and dreams. I was delighted to read that in general, their attitudes to money, power, praise, rivals, work and play were consistent. They seemed to understand that a certain amount of money and praise were to be enjoyed if attained; they universally scoffed at power and recognized that rivals were helpful in pushing one to do their best work. Work was perceived to be necessary, play was “yay! Fun, good, etc.” My goal in having them do the exercise was to get to know them, to have a window into what made them tick. I tortured them by breaking them into groups to talk about how they would take actual steps toward reaching these fantasy creative goals and then had them report back what they would do individually advance their agendas. I’m still not sure how that exercise went. This may ring true with other teachers. Not to pull the curtain back on the wizard, but much that we do is trial and error. Certainly I am always trying to find new ways to open mental doors for my students, to encourage expression of their human aims.

We’ve since been busy, spending the fifteen weeks of the semester learning how to read plays, then how to see them; how to creatively unpeel production elements from the skeleton of the play itself, to determine what design elements serve to better tell the play’s story and which ones might not be in service to that story. They learned how to easily identify the protagonist, or to make a compelling argument for their choice. We’ve detailed the opposing forces of five plays, identified the inciting incidents, the many moments of engagement, the climaxes, the denouements, the larger dramatic question asked by each play in our dissection of the fall productions presented at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. I’ve shared the process of presenting a play, from obtaining the rights, through casting, rehearsing, and how a design team sculpts their work in four dimensions as guided by and supported by individual directors’ visions. Melinda and I’ve been blessed with participating guests in class to help make those collaborations real and tactile. Our visitors were directors and costume designers, artistic directors, directors and scenic designers, directors and lighting designers, and finally, a playwright. We’ve called in a lot of favors of my colleagues and am forever grateful to those student designers who’ve shared their processes amidst time management while juggling both their academic work and designs.

We’ve talked about the timeliness of presenting specific plays now, as in The Cider House Rules, Parts I and II in our current political climate where a woman’s right to choose is threatened daily with new legislature. Why was Jaclyn Backhaus’ play, Men On Boats so powerful at this particular moment? Can we relate to the police state that Mad Forest emerges from?

We’ve touched on the economic realities of programming plays by professional theaters, the notion of theaters’ artistic missions, and the challenges of meeting the costs of producing plays, without self-censoring. We’ve collectively bemoaned the paucity of governmental support of the arts in our country and how that exacerbates the afore-mentioned challenges.

They’ve attended five plays this semester, and written performance analyses about various aspects of the productions, a paper each about Scenic and Lighting Design, Casting and Inclusivity, Dramaturgy and Direction, Sound and Dialects, Costume, Hair and Makeup.

Other papers (yes, this is a bear of a class for reading, writing and creative exercises) included a straightforward dissection of one of the early plays to identify the parts of the play that we learned about through Carl Pritner and Scott E. Walters’ Introduction to Play Analysis, our main text. They had two creative projects intended to better examine the world of two plays, Men on Boats, and Mad Forest, by Caryl Churchill.

Ultimately, as the final project, a paper, they’ve utilized a stage direction from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to examine any one of the five plays we’ve read and seen this semester. This final assignment I owe credit to Professor Oliver Mayer for, because it came out of his shepherding of my fall 2018 class while I was caught in my own “Thundercloud of a common crisis,” while helping my husband in the waning moments of his life. Here’s the quote:

…The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent-fiercely charged-interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from ‘pat’ conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.

Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

So back to my final, which was really a party because the final was submitted by each of them at 2:00PM that day, via Turnitin. Over the final weeks I’d been mulling in my task-grading-saturated brain what would be a fun and celebratory way for the group to spend some relaxed downtime at our final meeting. The night before, I got up off my couch at 10:30PM, after grading papers, and went to Target, to peruse the game aisle to find a game that might be fun. I picked up a game entitled Joking Hazard, from the creators of Cyanide and Happiness. (Here’s where you can stop reading if you are an upper university administrator, please.)

The box sports two cartoon figures, which I guess are familiar to anyone under 20. Had I not been in the aisle at Target at 11:30 when they were closing at 12:00AM, I might have googled You Tube: Cyanide and Happiness and seen this video that would spare me the mortification that ensued. But no, onward I went down the aisle, buying other gifts and some containers of caramel corn for the class to eat while they played the game. Did you know that two tall containers of buttery caramel corn constitutes a party? I did.

Cut to the next afternoon, as I opened the game for the eagerly assembled students. As we had so many other exercises during the semester, we broke into smaller groups of four to five, and I handed each group their “deck” of cards. We read the rules and off they went, my enthusiasm beginning to flag as I watched one young woman turn about 6 shades of red as she rifled through the deck I’d just handed her. I had no idea of how inappropriate the game was. Talk about trial and error. She looked up and asked me if she should filter through the cards and remove the offending ones.

No, I said, brightly, we don’t self-censor, right? This still was in the innocent moments before I looked over the shoulders of each group as they began playing the game. True mortification set in within about three minutes as the really offensive cards came out. I’d say the game is about 80% really explicit either sexually or violence-wise. But the students were starting to get into the game. One student did say, “This is really sexual.” I quickly said, “We can stop playing anytime.”

But even after each group finished a round, they wanted to stay, as they were really enjoying the company of the other students they’d bonded with over the summer through theatrical literature and experiencing shows together, so they continued to play, one group beginning a deck-long story, which they collaborated over, creating a long span of cards telling a dark sexually aberrant tale. Lamely, I stood over them, as they laughed and continued to insert more cards into the invective stream, each one causing gales of laughter. But ultimately, I began to feel proud, as they did a creative exercise completely outside the framework of the game. They applied their knowledge of story, of opposing forces, of forwards, of climax (god help me), of bloody denouement. Moment of engagement took on an entirely different meaning in the context of Joking Hazard. Then a student pulled out their phone and began doing a pano shot of the story which engendered a little roil my stomach. Another student pulled their phone up above and captured the entire story on their table, which snaked three levels deep into the mires of really inappropriate comic frames. The group picture I took as they all assembled around that group’s story, again, other members of other groups inserting comic frames into the tale.

Anyway, this last semester I got to teach before the Title IX case is brought against me was probably the best one I’d had. Through the plays we examined, we caught the true quality of experience in a group of people, the cloudy, flickering, evanescent, fiercely-charged interplay of what it means to be human. At the end of the “final”, I shared with each of them postcards I’d written with the private dream they’d spilled from their creative autobiography, and urged them to reach up and grab at it. What a privilege it has been to share with each of them what I love about the theatre and hope that I’ve succeeded in planting in them the seed of a lifetime of theatre appreciation. However inappropriate their final was.

Up at the Cabin

The phrase “up at the cabin” now rings metaphoric to me. The cabin is a real place, its denizens over the Thanksgiving weekend were my middle brother, Duck and his wife, Bunky, whose cabin it is, my son and his wife and their two children, her Dad, and her best friend. It’s a beautiful wooden house/cabin purchased by Bunky’s Mom and Dad back in the 70s, where they vacationed with their family and friends. I’d call it nouveau rustique – the nouveau parts are rustic, too, so I don’t intend to freight it with the value judgement normally ascribed to nouveau. There’s nothing riche about the cabin, except it’s history, which wears a thick patina of familial experience that still echoes within its walls. A big bookcase in the corner holds brother-in-law Bruce’s AV Extravaganza, which fortunately he had the foresight to write instructions to before passing away a few years ago. Even so, it took several of them to figure out how to play the video of Lady and the Tramp on the DVR, while the picture of Bruce gazed indulgently down at us from the top of the shelves.

The original wood burning stove has been replaced with a propane remote-controlled red stove, which takes a minute to get started, or so said Duck, when I asked him to walk me through the opening instructions for the cabin. This was Grandma Dorothy’s decision, after watching the aging cabin denizens split wood to feed the fire. After a day or so, I suddenly realized that no one had been fetching wood. Duck shared the history of her decision to change out the fireplace and Grandpa Dan, who has one of his own up north, suddenly looked interested. We’d been discussing what people wanted for Christmas, and as his interest warmed, I nudged his daughter with, “sounds like we know what to get Dan for Christmas this year!” Gulp. I love being helpful.

Other improvements to the cabin – a brand new Kenmore range, which did a great job of cooking the turkey, after hours and hours of discussion about the stuffing, much perusing of the Chronicle recipe, calculating the correct time and temperature to cook the 22-lb. bird, and many attempts at inserting the meat thermometer judiciously to get the most accurate reading. That followed on the thesis we wrote on brining the turkey and making the stuffing. Bunky led the charge on both of those efforts.

I should explain that my brother and his wife both have real, parentally-prescribed names, and that the above names are their professional names, being well-established commercial fishermen for the past 20-30 years. Their conversation, especially when they were in the company of my son Chris, aka Duckling, who shares history with them as a fisherman for three years on Duck’s boat, was peppered with colorful names which my failing memory now won’t allow me to retrieve. Names like Blind Bob, Stumpy, Red Ryder, etc. Knowing full well that these names are endowed on fishermen not chosen, I nevertheless made idle conversation asking those of us never-to-be-named to think about what our names would be. I decided mine would be Miss Manners, but the others eschewed the game and it died quickly.

The cabin nestled all eight of us comfortably over the Thanksgiving holiday. It chuckled as we donned the adult-sized onesies that my daughter-in-law had picked up at Target on the drive from Tahoe. Clad as Olaf, she had a goofy carrot sticking out of her head like a maniacal unicorn; her nearly four-year-old daughter sported the bobcat suit, sans tail, and her best friend, Beth, a Bunny; I rocked the Deer. Except for Skylar, our tails all jiggled a lot when we played Twister. One thing I can tell you: Twister is a whole lot different at 60 than it was at 16.

So many times over the weekend, my brother, Duck, covered his eyes with his weathered hands and just shook his head in disbelief at our shenanigans. Then he snapped pictures of the Twister game, which will no doubt become part of the cabin’s voluminous photographic history.

We played the antique ivory dominoes that belonged to our maternal grandfather, which I remembered playing with on the floor of their den on wintery visits; Duck shared how much he loved the game, teaching me to play again, and sharing how much he’d enjoyed playing with Grandma Dorothy, who was apparently killer good at Dominoes. Duck bemoaned his dearth of play since she’d passed away and I remembered the bloodlettings he’d given our older brother Don and I on Christmas morning as we played Monopoly from about 4AM until a reasonable time to get up. Somehow, he’d bank all his thousands under the board then whip them out and buy a slew of hotels just as we were coming around the corner into his zone. He was strategic, frugal, then funded the capital need as it arose. Sort of like he’s become as the president of the San Francisco Community Fisherman’s Association. I understood why no one else wanted to play dominoes, and in spite of fearing for my reputation, I played a few games with him.

The snow fell consistently pretty much the entire time we were there, piling up a foot and a half on the railings of the deck, where I’d spent summer evenings about 13 years ago with our Dad and his wife, and my uncle and aunt and my niece and her boyfriend at the time. Back then, too, Duck managed to feed the troops, while the rest of us recreated and enjoyed each others’ company.

This visit, before I got there, Wednesday, mid day, my granddaughter had built a snowman, made a pumpkin pie, and made two cheese balls, or so went the legend when each of those items was presented and eaten. Ultimately, my granddaughter also cooked the bird. She is turning into quite the little chef. Such is the lore of the cabin. By the time we left, the snowman was buried up to her waist in fresh powder, her eyes and nose gone from her face.

The snowman before the real snows came.

“Up at the Cabin”.

I was so aware while there, napping in the afternoon, pulling up the shade in the upstairs bedroom at the end of my nap to see three full-sized deer (gender identity unclear through the branches of the surrounding trees) gamboling through the snow up the hill, that these are the moments that make up our lives. A phrase resounded through my mind all weekend was one my coach recently shared with me: “How we live our days is how we live lives”. Not that I want to spend my days napping, dressed as a deer, or even watching deer through a cabin window. And god knows I did enough dishes to last me quite a long time, thank you very much. But being in the breast of family is sweet.

“Do you think you’ll want to come up to use the cabin by yourself?” Bunky asked me on the last morning we were there.

Bunky, Yes, I intend to come back up to the cabin. Both alone, and with our family – to sop up the experiences, and to hang out with the people with whom I want to make a lot more memories.

The Turkey Enterprise – A Collaborative Exercise

You know, I used to be a whole lot better at logistics than I seem to have been in the past few weeks. A week ago, I made a car rental reservation for my trip to the family cabin – my brother’s family cabin, in North Fork, just west of the western entrance to Yosemite. I was very excited to reserve a midsized SUV, which sported a picture of a Ford EcoSport. I was unable to ascertain from the website whether the car had 4 Wheel Drive, which I knew I needed because of the major weather belt which was tightening around the entire region. So I googled Ford EcoSport, and discovered to my pleasure, that indeed it did have 4 Wheel Drive. Ah, I sighed. “That’s accomplished.” I’d even felt pretty smug about reserving the car at the on-campus car rental office, located in the parking and housing office just at the end of campus. So convenient!

And then I went on about the rest of the week, which foamed with activities, such as publishing spring design assignments, meeting with colleagues, and planning my classes. Saturday I shopped, gathering the plumpest, most luscious looking 22 lb. turkey at the store, and had a conversation with the butcher because I’d thought I’d be bringing up a frozen bird in a cooler to the cabin. There wasn’t one big enough, so this 22 lb. monster was fresh, and I had considerable trepidation about carrying it in the car thawed. The butcher assured me, as did another fellow shopper, that my turkey would make it salmonella-free to my family. My office mate, Hannah, kindly brought me one of the prop coolers from the props storage, so that Tom and I could make the trip to North Fork.

Tuesday morning began with our wrap up THTR 130 class about collaboration, all the faculty collaborators there. We did exercise designed by Tina, the Costume Design Faculty member. The room was divided up and seven groups came up with seven scenes, which they discussed scenario, characters, setting, lighting and costuming the two characters from what the group was wearing, and final dramatic moment of the scene. The room was quite intense as they worked on their scenarios, huddled over the sheet, writing down their ideas, which were coming enthusiastically, ending after about twenty minutes by naming the scenes. At the end they took turns pitching their shows, freshmen actors, all of them, eager to perform in front of their classmates (in a technical production kind of way). The five faculty members sat in seats in the center, to listen to their pitches.

Here were two of my favorites:

A Quiet Ruckus – 14-year old Russell plays baseball near the barn, finds the dead body of Wrangler. Cue opening song – Finally a Friend!/Lights come up – there are movers and gobos…/3 mice and a raccoon scurry in. /Setting – unit set – Winter inside the barn of Russell’s family farm in the south– pretty realistic setting. /Winter – chilly fog intensifies as the 14 year old boy continues to lose his mind. Sound – 30’s style hoe-down music. Wrangler (the dead man) has a Johnny Cash voice. Basic sound effects – “Danny Elfman-esque” score– wintery soundscapes/Very lighting heavy show – heavy side lighting. Sirens flashing on the duo.

The Not-So-Nice-Pumpkin-Spice– Intern brings boss wrong coffee/Characters are Dean, the mean boss and Samm, the under-qualified intern/Setting – present day in NYC 23rd floor – big sleek black desk, two large windows, big black leather chair, white shag rug. 2 mac books/Low budget student film /Costumes from within group /Lighting – colors of the scenes – black and grays. Using fluorescents from above. Gloomy outside. Not too much warm light/Sound – elevator music in the background (cue played on one student’s Iphone to very appreciative laughter from all)/Shouts and honks from outside/Final scene – sounds are getting louder/Boss throws coffee onto the intern who drips in pumpkin spice as the lights fade to black.

You get the picture. It was a great exercise and we all left the classroom buoyed.

Later that afternoon, I extracted myself from a meeting at 4:15, rolling my red cooler with the big white handle, across campus to McCarthy Quad where the car rental office was. The empty cooler groaned its way across the varied brick and concrete sidewalks, tracing the tracks of thousands of fuller, though hardly less celebratory coolers from game days gone by. The plastic wheels rattling against the pavement was driving me nuts, and people were looking at me as I passed by as though I’d only missed the USC/UCLA rout by three days. I steamed into the office, with my little friend behind me to discover a sign. Uh oh.

The Car Rental Center employee did not come to work today. Please call 213-XXX-XXXX to follow up on your reservation.

There was a young Chinese student in the office on her phone and as I looked blankly at the empty desk, she kindly wagged her finger at the sign, then walked outside to join her friend.

I fumbled my phone out of my pocket and dialed the number, navigating the menu to reach a live person who chirped, “We have someone coming to pick you up.” So I wandered outside and encouraged the other young women to walk with me, again, behind my tethered turkey trolley to the corner of Figueroa and McCarthy Way, where within about ten minutes, an unmarked white van pulled up and a young man named Jamal recited our two cell phone numbers and assured he was with the company. We hopped in.

It was now about 5:00PM, and we arrived at the rental car place near DTLA. I retrieved my cooler from the back of the van. I checked in after the two young USC students got their car squared away. The store was very busy, with a festive air – off for Thanksgiving! I chatted briefly with a man about the drive to Yosemite, which was currently listed as 6 plus hours, and I knew that I’d be racing against the snow.

Finally a clean cut young man with hand held computer walked out to show me my car. The first car we look at was a large heavy looking grey Dodge 2019 Journey. I asked him, “Does it have 4WD?” He didn’t know, nor did the other man in the lot who we went over to talk to. While we were about 20 feet away from the car, another man came over and started to get into that car as my sales rep was showing me a much smaller mini SUV.
“This one is the same size as the other one.”
“But it’s patently not,” I said beginning to see how this was going and beginning to tear up a little that the turkey that weighs as much as my granddaughter was now in danger of not getting to North Fork, or anyone’s fork at this rate.

Eying a large black Chevy Tahoe, I said, “I’ll take that one. That looks like it has 4 Wheel Drive.”

Rep: I’m sorry, but that is reserved for someone for tomorrow.

Me: But what about the Ford EcoSport I reserved for today? Atypically petulant now Scuffing the bottom of my faux-fur-tufted snow boots on the asphalt of the lot for effect. What effect, I’m not sure because it seemed to be having none on the two stressed-out employees.

Rep: We’re in Los Angeles. We rarely have a need for cars with 4 Wheel Drive. And the website says “or similar.”

Me: (I must have missed that fine print.) And yet, here we are, in need of one. Not proud of my attitude, and turning immediately penitent. Softly: Can we please ask about the Tahoe?

The Rep and I walked back into the store where the manager was busy checking out another customer. He informed my customer service agent(loudly so I could also hear and looking back and forth between me and him) that “All the reservations for our customers have been confirmed with them.” (“That’s the way we do it at this fine establishment, lady!” implicit.)

Churlishly, now, I leaned over the counter to my rep: “Tell me, what good is it to be a “Plus” customer?”

Rep: Trying desperately to please a customer who can only be pleased in a way not available to him. “I can still rent you the Nissan Sport that’s outside.”
Me: “But we’ve already established that it wouldn’t be safe to drive it in the snow, right?”
He shrugged.

I felt the hot tears of disappointment resulting from poor customer service beginning to spurt, and I turned from the counter, weakly, over my shoulder, “Never mind. I’ll figure it out.”

Then I toted my turkey cooler out to the sidewalk and plopped myself down right in the middle of the sidewalk in view of the side window of the car rental manager to try to find another rental company on my phone. I was breathing hard, not thinking clearly, angry, upset that I wouldn’t get to see my granddaughter who’d earlier squealed “Nana!” on the phone in her most exuberant voice.

I called Midway, which it turned out was directly across the street from where I was perched on the cooler.

“Hold, please.” The very friendly man came back a moment later. “We have a Ford Mustang.”

“Is that a 4WD?” I asked, imbecilically.

“No, it’s a sports car.”

I stabbed at the Uber app on my phone, and waited three minutes for Hugo to arrive in his Silver Toyota to take me home. I figured going to home base was the smartest thing right now.

Once in my apartment, the sobs erupted, I’m embarrassed to say perhaps worse crying even than when I lost my husband a year ago. Heaving and hiccoughing, I couldn’t think even where to begin. As a planner of the Type A variety, I was absolutely stymied by suddenly not having any plan at all along with the responsibility of the 22 lb. turkey for my entire family snowed in up at the cabin. I envisioned my 4-year-old granddaughter gnawing on the forearm of her baby sister while the adults sat around eating the last of the cheese balls and looking forlorn.

So I texted my son.

Oops. I guess the secret is out. Anyway, soon my phone rang, while I was in the middle of maniacally dialing the rental company again. It was Chris. He said the magic words.

Think further along the line.

Honestly, sometimes he is Yoda-like. Right! If they don’t have 4 WD in Los Angeles, they might have one in Fresno. Then the collaborative exercise began. Through my tears, I opened my laptop, booking a hotel room in Fresno, because by now it was 7:00PM, and there was no way I was going to get to North Fork by the end of Tuesday as originally planned. Chris remembered that his wife’s father was flying into Fresno on Wednesday morning and driving out. In an SUV. We quickly arranged for me to accompany him to North Fork. He graciously said he’d love the company, though if he’d seen me at that moment, I’m not so sure he would have felt that way. So I ate some food, and packed my cart with Tom in the Trolley.

Tom the Turkey in his cooler with all the gear to go in my non-existant rental car….
Tom tucked into his turkey trolley.

The drive to Fresno was about 4.5 hours, and I listened to podcasts, munched on potato chips and stopped once at one of those roadside food courts with the central bathrooms bereft of toilet paper, to pick up another sack of ice to ice down Tom and the other perishable food. I arrived at the very nice Holiday Inn Express in Fresno at midnight on the nose, and after checking Tom, checked in, just as the rain began to come down with increasing ferocity. I fell into the downy white bed and slept hard.

This morning, Dan will pick me up and we’ll go on to put Tom on our forks in North Fork. Picture Norman Rockwell-esque scene, lots of heavy side lighting, steam rising from the golden turkey, the tinkle of children laughing and the fire crackling in the stove. Fade to black.

Jimmy Tomorrow

Today marks a year since the death of my partner-in-life, our son’s father, accomplished actor, life-long Red Sox fan, and so many more qualifying roles he played during his 92 years on the planet. I’ve been warned by many loving friends of the unexpected tsunami of grief we who lost Jimmie may experience today. But throughout the relatively calm day, I’ve been reminded of the power of time as balm, the healing power of our life’s work and the loving remembrances of friends and family whose lives he also profoundly touched.

When I woke this morning, as every morning, I locked eyes with “Jimmy” in the distinctive black and white photo taken during The Iceman Cometh back in Washington, DC. at the Kennedy Center. It is a searing portrait by Joan Marcus, of Jimmie Greene as Jimmy Tomorrow, Eugene O’Neill’s Boer War veteran and denizen of Harry Hope’s Bar he played not just in 1985, but also back in 1967. Pipe dreams and all, Jimmy in the photo has a Rembrandt quality, his face emerging from the surrounding darkness; the photo is slightly water-damaged but still sits in the white matte frame it came in back in 1985.

The morose sorrow of Jimmy Tomorrow is palpable, the angle of the photographer’s lens, just below his eye line, allowing his eyes to follow me around the room. How does that work anyway? Of course when I looked it up, “how to make eyes follow you in a photo” – it’s straight forward – make the eyes or anything face straight out. The other 600,000 links were how-tos for wannabe social influencers. Of course.

Anyway, Jimmy Tomorrow is present, focused, stern and intently loving. I can’t tell you the number of times this year that he’s listened to me as I told him the terrible and wonderful things that have befallen me over this first year flying solo. He’s watched as I stripped our marital bed every two weeks to change the sheets, he’s watched as I sorted socks and underwear on the bedspread, back turned to the portrait, often regaling him with the benign details of trips to the gym, dates with friends, challenges at work and emotional setbacks. I’ve tried not to blame him in these “Jim Sessions.” He watched my back as I packed my suitcases for this summer’s European adventure, and again when I returned to unpack and sort them into laundry and dry cleaning, all the while as I gabbed about who and what I’d seen abroad. Was he glad I was home?

Sometimes before I turn the light off at night, I’ll try to achieve a Vulcan Mind Meld with Jimmy Tomorrow; the other night so successfully that when I turned out the light, I retained the negative image, face silhouette, frame and all in my mind’s eye for a good five minutes. During those intense stares, he almost seems to move, and his gaze responds to whatever cue I’m throwing his way. I know this is classic projection. I know I am alone and he is gone, but somehow it has been comforting to imagine his presence still in the room as he’s very much still in my mind and life.

Its been a busy year, with its share of exciting events and devastating ones. I’ve progressed through the phases of seemingly intractable grief to the promise of more mindfulness in my teaching and in my life. Whatever comes with Jimmy Tomorrow, here are just a handful of photos that remind me of Jimmie Past.

Adding Laughter Back In

I yearn for the laughter of my previous life. Seven months ago, after watching my friend Susie’s show at the Geffen, we met for dinner between the two shows. In the theatre, these interstitial social moments are the ones you tend to remember, not the slog of the eight-show week, but the human interactions that the intimate theatre process allows. Nearly every project I’ve worked on in my life includes these memories. This time, Susie and I retired to CPK in Westwood to eat. Two rawly recent widows, finding our new way in the world. Somehow the conversation came around to David Sedaris – seeing him live has been on my bucket list for years. I knew he was coming to UC Irvine on Nov. 6th, and I offered to get tickets for us both to go.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to go – I might be on a show,” Susie said.

“I know, but I’ll get the tickets and if you can’t go, I’ll find someone else to go with me.”

Little did either of us know that Susie would be unable to go for entirely different reasons. Later that summer, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The last time I sat with her at her hospice bedside, I said, “Well, I guess you won’t be up to going to UC Irvine next week to see David Sedaris.” This probably sounds like an incredibly callous thing to say and in fact, had I known she’d be gone by the following week, I probably wouldn’t have said it; but if you knew Susie, you’d know that that kind of sarcasm was right up her alley. “Sorry, don’t think I can make it.” We laughed easily, the way two old friends do, and the way in retrospect, I now know Susie did with all her old friends.

It’s vital to make plans in your life to keep your family ties and friendships alive. Stage management is an incredibly grueling path. The marquee is always emblazoned with “The Show Must Go On.” And yes, the show will go on, and you need to find ways to jump out to experience your life. This is probably not what you might hear in your training program, but make the plans, buy the tickets, build the future into your current work. When the job comes up that won’t allow you to go see David Sedaris on a Wednesday night, talk with your producer and say, “I’m not available on Nov. 6th. That’s the only day. Do you think we can work around that one date?” Not surprisingly, they will find a way. Your assistant can cover the rehearsal, you may be able to have them hire someone to cover your calling the show. If not, perhaps you don’t take that job. The most important thing is that you communicate your needs. This is part of the negotiation part that stage managers, especially women, shy away from. And God help me, brace me for the onslaught of requests.

So, last night, I went to see David Sedaris perform at the Barclay Center in Irvine, CA. Leaving USC to drive down there with my friend and colleague, Melinda, at 6:00PM was insanity. The freeways were jammed, headlights blazing across the median strip, through the newly adjusted standard time darkness, which lowers the curtains now around 5:00PM. What I know almost a year after losing my foundation with the death of my husband is that my life is still as busy, but I now appreciate more the process of being present. Melinda and I chatted the entire way down, then stopped for some salads at a Chinese fast food place near the venue, risking missing the start of the show. Fortunately, or unfortunately, “traffic is a thing” in Southern California. The show started about ten minutes after its published start time, and with the humorous and disarming grace I’ve always loved about David Sedaris, he emerged from the wings in the most amazing “costume” that we only got a brief glimpse of on his way to the podium. Was that a kilt? Arriving at the podium, he confessed that we were starting late because he’d been doing his laundry down in the basement. “It’s been a long tour,” he drolly intoned, instantly relaxing the audience and providing just what we’d come for, a deep, belly laugh of recognition of one aspect of our shared human condition – when will my event-filled life allow me to do my laundry?

The evening proceeded to deliver more of what I’d come for, deep guttural laughs, incredulous scoffs, gales of the easy kind of tears that swept through the hall from the twenty-somethings who sat to my right to the sea of NPR-loving-graying-wordsmith-appreciating sixty-somethings who made up the audience. Anyone who loves words and their sly misuse can appreciate someone like David Sedaris. He read several of his CBS Morning commentaries, including one which dissected the N-word and reeled through the alphabet, helping us to laugh about our political correctness by shredding it; the face of having the L-word be Love, and the C-word commitment.

His humor relies on the knowledge that we will head full tilt to what we assume he’s going to say, then roar with laughter as he pulls the rug out from underneath us, landing us on our butts. A lot of his material was about his childhood vacation home, in Emerald Isle, North Carolina. His writing is so dry as to almost ignite the pages he methodically pulled and unclipped from a manila folder on the lecturn. His delivery is so divorced from his own wit that sometimes you need to go back a sentence to catch up. There were several times I was puzzled for a good minute before I understood what he’d said.

At any rate, I could go on for days about David Sedaris. Suffice it to say, find the laughter in your life and routine, your own food for your imagination, that which nourishes your soul and consciously, actively build it into your life.

Sometime late in the program, he said something about friends which I can’t even remember specifically what it was, but it full-throttle invoked Susie for me, and I shut my eyes, (forgive me Melinda) imagining her beside me in the dark of the Barclay Center, sharing a moment of respite from the work and the world. Sharing a laugh with a friend.