The Hummingbird Chronicles, Part 3

August 27, 2013

Things in the hummingbird kingdom are puttering along. The birds now favor the left feeder to the point that they are emptying it within two days to the four it takes for the right feeder to be emptied. IMG_2552

The other day I saw an oversized hourglass filled with sand over at Surplus Sales. I made a remark to the guy at the counter that it must be disturbing to have such a reminder constantly of one’s mortality. Do you remember the Days of Our Lives top of show intro?days-of-our-lives

“As the sands through the hourglass, so run the days of our lives.” This reference went nowhere with the guy, and he looked at me like I was crazy. But once I got home that afternoon and saw that the hummingbird feeders were both empty, I realized that Jimmie and I now had our own little hourglass of sorts. And we are the proud caretakers to about a dozen hummingbirds. They are dependent on us to provide the sugar water and they are drinking it faster and faster each time we put it out. They are voracious little suckers.

Good news – Marcus and Suzy have moved in next door, so I guess if we are to go away for the weekend or something, we could ask them to come fill our feeders, and leave some liquid in the fridge for just that event.IMG_2554

The most active time of the day seems to be about 3:30PM. Jimmie takes his waterglass out and watches them girate and frolic. He loves to watch them as they assemble on the feeder’s tiny red rail – two at a time, then a third, then a fourth, all adjusting the way you instinctively do in an elevator as more people board the elevator – allowing as much space between you as is possible. But the hummingbirds can reach only about 5 before the delicate relationship crumbles. Along comes a high-strung bird who hovers just above their shoulders and then dives in, scattering all the birds to the winds.

They also seem to work in twos, Jimmie noted. One will hover over the shoulder so that the seated bird swivels his head around and then the second bird swoops in and sits down on the rail. The original bird is then startled into a fight with the hoverer and the second bird takes the rail and begins to drink.

There is something so soothing about coming home from a stressful day and sitting and watching the birds. Nothing to do about them, just to enjoy them. Now that my hours are longer and techs will keep me at work long after dark, I am greedy for the time in the morning with my tea and the newspaper and the birds.

Life is good.

Letters from Venice – Part V

Sept. 18, 1982

“Dear Diary” if this isn’t a flight to freedom via occupation – i.e., writing, I don’t know what is. There are these people next to me who are trying to get their baby to coo while Daddy is poised overhead with a camera like a doctor with a microscope over a specimen jar. Mommy is cooing in…yes, baby talk in French – an international bad habit. I wonder, will I coo at my babies? – God, I hope not. Well, here I am in Como, Lake Como, and northern Italy. I was just out on this jetty in the middle of the lake, and burst out laughing at my educational process – this week of solo traveling between Bob and Florence and Dad and Joan in Amsterdam. It all began in Milano, when I waved goodbye to Bob and Lee. Crying (as always these days), I climbed into the train and miraculously, a space opened up in a compartment full of very friendly Italians – (Ed. Note: All this is hence colored by today’s incidents.) While en route to Milan, we spent two of the three hours in discorso, using the Italian dictionario, the map, and all sorts of handy visual aids. They were very nice, counseled me against “bad men,” and with the exception of one of them, kept their hands off me. The one was relatively harmless; he kept offering me a ride to Como on his “macchina” at the station. In spite of his assurances that his wife was coming along, I intuited that it was not terribly safe. One of the men, named Franco, was very polite and sensitive to my discomfort when it occurred. At Milan, he helped me to call Louisa in Venice, and took me to see Il Duomo in Milano Centrale. Beautiful, with 100 carved figures on the outside alone. And hundreds of spires, also. It was great. Afterwards, he put me on the train and I left for Como.

Which was, and is beautiful. Lake ComoI arrived at 6:35 or so and proceeded to the Hostel, which was, yes, chiuso, (closed) since June. There, I met a German fellow with a car, and we ate dinner, and then searched for a place to stay. Ma tutto era completo (All hotels were full). And even in the towns on the north side of the lake, there was nothing. So we parked the car, and with Walter’s blanket, I slept on a beautiful bluff over looking the lake, and Walter (God, that name cracks me up) slept in the car.

LakeComoatNightI was reminded of our alpine location, about 12:30 when it began to become very cold. But god, it was glorious when the sun started to come up, and the roosters at various points around the lake began to crow. I awoke at 6:30AM for the last time, to find three hawks circling over my head – I sat bolt upright and gave them the visual clue that I was alive, even if at that point I did smell like dead meat! Came down to Como proper, saw Walter off to Austria, and sought out a bagno publico (public bath), which I found and used in luxury. On my way out, past the market, a vender gave me two apples, not prime by any means, but surely edible, all was looking up when I went to the Grande Piazza and sat down to soak in the sun. Then comes this “nice little old man,” who sits down next to me and starts talking. So we had a nice conversation – the guy was old enough to be my grandfather. Then he asked me if I was hungry, after we’d discussed how “Couragio” (courageous) I was etc. for the night before. And so I go to lunch and he guy wants wine – first tip. “No, I don’t drink,” says Els, catching on quickly. Well, lunch was fine, though I lost my appetite sometime after he asked me to have dinner ad before he told me it was better if I stayed overnight in his house –It wasn’t safe “solo.” Well, granted, it apparently isn’t safe solo, nor did I want to go near this guy’s house, even for caffe, or cognac or cinema, or anything. I just felt stupid to be part of this aging man’s heart attacks or wet dream –god I sound hard. I really guess it boils down to the fact that I felt stupid and selfish and naïve and guilty and entirely justified in leaving him after lunch. Quite a tasty little psychological soup, that!

So, I’m passing the day solo and trying to remain as inconspicuously so as possible I pity the man who comes near. Old Iron Fists Collins here. Tonight at 11:30PM I’m taking the train to Thionville – will sleep on the train. “Sleep”, a euphemism for remaining on guard. I’m sitting on the edge of the lake, which is no punishment or exile – God, It’s glorious.

Sept. 22, 1982

The evening after my imbroglio, I spent with a beautiful young Italian boy- I say boy, because he was about 18-19, and was refreshing in his playfulness. He approached me by offering me a smoke – of hashish, no less, which I politely refused – images of imprisonment lingered in my brain the entire time we were together, even after he buried his “drogues” in a hole nearby. It was really a lovely evening, spent talking about inanities, really, listening to his ghetto blaster and watching the night settle in. There are certain safeties of being with someone and also a comfort of human companionship, of course.

ThionvilleAt Thionville, after a long night on the train with no sleep (I slept on the floor in the passageway, kicked every five minutes or so) I found L’Auberge, and the propriertaire let me sleep all day long in spite of the fact that the hostel was closed. It was great. There, that night, I met Mikie and Tom, a Finnish woman and Canadian man traveling together and we went out for a beer (coke). It was especially refreshing to speak English in more than the most crude way.

The next day, I spent reading, walking around Thionville, Thionville2 and buying books (when it rained). First French books, and a dictionaire. The next day, the 21st, on to Bruxelles, Bruxellesand finding the hostel gutted and ferme (yes, you guessed, closed), I proceeded to Chab, where I met Jessie James, an American vet who was stranded in Brussels, waiting for his veteran’s pension. Pretty interesting guy – “Jessie James” isn’t far off the mark – has quite a few tricks up his twenty-seven-year-old sleeve. Told me about “doing an American Express” to “double your money.” I had to like him, though he was incredibly smooth to the point of being “glissant.” My roommates at the hostel were fascinating –Oorna, a young Israeli woman – I would have liked to travel with her. She reminded me a little of Jessica, tough, but with a true mirth that comes of having seen some things. She had served in the army two years and was proud of her country, but had problems with the evacuation from Beirut of the Palestinians. It is getting very rough in Europe now, with assassinations of Jews occurring in Paris, Amsterdam. It is not a good time to be Jewish and traveling here.

On to Amsterdam today to get my mail!

Lucky Chris – Part I

My husband and I were married in 1984. We were an unlikely couple- he, an actor in his late 50s, me a young college graduate in my early 20s, recently returned from a year squandered abroad in Venice, Italy, as the au pair for a graduate student in Art History, who was traveling with her six-year-old daughter. (See Letters from Venice- Parts 1-11)

Jimmie and I met at the McCarter Theatre, where I had been hired by my best college friend to work as a dresser for a new Hal Prince-directed show entitled Play Memory. Jimmie was in the cast, playing one in the rowdy group of friends to the lead, Donald Moffat, and our subsequent tour to Philadelphia created many opportunities to get to know each other at drinks after the performances, and as runners in a small group that included a few of the other actors.

But this story isn’t the main story, just a preamble to our subsequent adoption of our son, Chris, who is this story’s headliner.

I feel like I am breaking a long tradition of writing only positive things about one’s children. I also want to say that I am gorgeously and permanently in love with our son Chris, as is his doting father. You see, from a very early time, it has been clear that our son was different from other children. He always took the hard path. He was impetuous, and risk-taking, had an aversion to the usual way of doing things, and an incredible ability to come out of situations smelling like a rose.

I guess you could say he has amazing karma.

We knew it from the moment we set eyes on him, when we visited the foster home where he was staying as a 2 year old. We arrived at the house in Santa Clarita, forty minutes north of our home in North Hollywood. (We had moved there due to the fact that Jimmie had booked a TV show while he was playing in The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Hartford Theatre). We had been married at this time for seven years, and in spite of our very best efforts, had been unable to have a child.

We had an incredible life and love and the potent desire to share it with a child. I had begun a series of tests to determine why I wasn’t conceiving, and the first was so painful that I was pretty sure I didn’t want to continue down the artificial insemination trail. We had discussed adoption but as yet, had not begun exploring the best way. We knew we couldn’t afford to hire an adoption lawyer, and were skeptical of knowing the birth mother and sharing an open adoption.

One day we were at the North Hollywood park with our German shepherd, Jasper, when we came across a fair, with tables and exhibits. We approached the table marked “adoption.” This was not a table for adopting dogs, but one with information about adopting children through the Department of Children’s Services. It was pretty simple to sign up for an orientation for prospective adoptive parents, which we did. Several weeks later, we sat in a nondescript conference room in a decrepit office tower in Van Nuys at a table with four other prospective parents, listening to a bleak prognosis about how long and grueling the process could be.

“It can take up to three years for you to be assigned a case worker,” the woman intoned. “Then there is the distinct possibility that it can take up to five years for a child to be placed with you. You will need to undergo a lengthy and invasive home study process, and you will need to become certified in CPR and first Aid.”

Honestly, I can’t remember a single positive thing this woman had to say about the process and yet we were so intent on having a child that we accepted the application and filled it out that night and mailed it in.

About two months went by. We were both busy, Jimmie with his TV series, and me with my new work as a PA at Center Theatre Group. We were sharing a car, and I would drive Jimmie to the studio in a warehouse in North Hollywood, and then go on to my work.

We got a call from the DOCS saying that we had been assigned a case worker, whose name was Amy Wong Martinez, and the first hurdle of the process had proven uncharacteristically short and simple. We met with Amy in the office at Wilshire and Vermont, and came away encouraged and excited. We had assignments, to attend the CPR and first Aid training at the Red Cross, and yet another form to fill out.

We signed up for the CPR/First Aid training, and a week or so later, we were kneeling over the rubber training dummies at the Red Cross, learning how to give the baby Heimlich maneuver to an infant.

At home, we were filling out the most difficult questionnaire of our lives.

It began easily enough- preferred gender- male or female? This was easy. We really didn’t have a preference.

Race? Again, easy. We had decided that we were enthusiastic and able to parent a child of any race.

Age of child? We thought we could handle anyone from newborn to about two years. How blithely and blindly we filled out this questionnaire.

Acceptable disabilities? This is where the rubber met the road. I found myself face to face with some pretty insurmountable assumptions. Visually impaired? I was okay with a child who needed glasses, but unable to parent a child who was blind in either one eye or both eyes.

Audibly impaired? I was accepting of some hearing loss but not complete deafness.

Lost limbs? How limited I felt. I needed our child to be whole of body.

Learning differences? What were learning differences? I didn’t have a clue. There were things like dislexia that seemed possible to cope with, and mental retardation, which did not. It was sobering, humbling, and so fundamental to confront these limitations in myself, but critical to be honest about what they were. And how fortunate we were to be able to be selective about these things, unlike the birth parents of most children, where it’s really a crap shoot.

We finished the form and sent it back to Amy.

I will never forget the date, October 3rd, 1991. The phone rang, and I heard Amy’s cheery voice say, ” there is someone we think you and Jimmie might be interested in. He is two and two months old, and is currently in a foster home for medically fragile children due to prenatal drug exposure. I drew in a sharp breath, as this could have profound impact on his learning.  She was quick to say that per the DOCS protocol, we would need to accept him as a foster child  sight unseen, because they didn’t have prospective parents meet children and then say no. The process was built to protect the child, and we had understood this when we initially signed up. Accepting this child into our fost/adopt home didn’t mean we had to adopt him- we could just foster him, but I knew that as soon as he came to us we would adopt him.  Just as I had known when Jimmie asked me to move in with him, that it was tantamount to my accepting a marriage proposal. That’s just how I am made, and how I sensed, correctly, that Jimmie was made.

Jimmie wasn’t home at this point. He was at work. I was stage managing a play at LATC with the extremely gifted Iranian director, Reza Abdoh, but hadn’t yet gone to work that day. I asked Amy to continue with the explanation of this child so I could tell Jimmie and get back to her. She went on. “He is adorable- he has curly dark hair and a lovely smile. He lives in a home in Santa Clarita. He has had some feeding issues- he eats quite a bit and gets very upset when he can’t get the food. He had been in two homes since birth- the first a home in Kern County, further north- he was there until he was about 8 months old, and then moved to this home in Santa Clarita. The parents there have another girl who is severely delayed and doesn’t speak. Chris, the two-year-old, has begun using sign language to ask for his bottle, and we would like to get him placed outside of this home so that he can develop more language skills.”

His mother was using cocaine and maybe other drugs at the time she was arrested, and was in Sybil Brand jail at the time of his birth.”

And that was about all we had to go on. I hung up with Amy, and dialed Jimmie’s dressing room at Molly Dodd. We were elated, and happily agreed to move forward with meeting Chris.

When Jimmie returned to the house that night, we celebrated that we would be meeting Chris in a few days. The arrangement was that we would meet him first at Donna and Jim’s house in Santa Clarita, and then would spend a half hour or so with him there. Our next “date” would be a short afternoon trip with Chris where we decided to take him to a nearby park with a petting zoo and then back home. Finally, if all was going well, we would take him home with us for an overnight trip to see how that went.

The day of our first meeting with Chris, sometime in the early part of October of 1991, we drove up to Santa Clarita with much excitement. It seemed so far away which was ironic, because later Chris played hockey with a team for four years that was based in Valencia, near Santa Clarita. But this day, Jimmie drove and I navigated with the instructions Amy had given us and we pulled up to the house a few minutes early and sat together in the car.

At the appointed hour, we got out of the car and approached the front door, where we were greeted by Donna and Jim. Jim was holding Chris in his arms, and he was adorable. He had laughing eyes, and a full head of dark curls; he was soon down on the ground as we sat together in the front living room and met Donna and Jim’s child and their pet basset hound.

Chris was alternatively shy and raucous, bouncing from Jim to Donna, and eventually to us. He was mostly unguarded and naturally affectionate. He eventually let us hold him and carry him outside to show us his playground area in the back yard. He showed us how he liked to swing, and run around the yard. Meanwhile Donna caught us up about his health and favorite things. She prepared a bottle for him and we watched as he sucked on it greedily. He had very few words: ball, jeep ( for all cars), dog, fuck (for all trucks), dad (for Jim, of course).  I think in the first weeks, I counted 11 words in his vocabulary.

We left their house after about an hour and were completely enthralled with Chris. We made plans for our picnic date later that week.

I think it was in the same time that we had our home study, which consisted of a visit to the house, an appraisal of our animal population, which at that time was 2 cats and a dog, and a physical assessment of doors, electrical, heating and cooling, and child proofing, which I had just begun to do.

A few days later, armed with a new car seat for Chris, we drove back up to Santa Clarita and picked him up for the day visit. We felt so nervous after buckling him into his car seat, and driving to the park, armed with the directions from Donna and Jim. When we arrived at the park, we sat briefly on the ground to eat our picnic, then kicked the blue plastic ball around the yard that we had brought along with us.

Again, it was magical. Chris loved the feeding of the goats at the petting zoo there in the little park. We were bonding well, and were excited to have our sleepover date.

But first, we needed to transform the guest bedroom, which had a full size bed in it and had housed my Mom or Dad for visits. It had sliding doors outside, and pretty unappealing carpet.

We went to Ikea and bought some carpet tiles,  which we installed, and then began to put the single bed together. It was a transitional bed, with slats on the one side, and our adoption worker, Amy, was there to help us put it together. Instant parenthood in the span of less than a month. I felt extreme jealousy about the people who have 9 months to prepare for their new arrival.

Chris’ first visit to our house went very well. He loved our two cats and dog, and proceeded to chase them around the house.  We had a big back yard for him to play in, and he enjoyed the experience, as did we. One of the first pictures we have of Chris is sitting on the bench in our back yard, being held by Jimmie and he held a large stick-shaped piece of styrofoam in his hand. He looked like he was being restrained from chasing a cat with it, but he and Jimmie both beamed in the picture.

Our one night stay over went very well, and Chris slept in his new bed, staying there until we came to get him out in the morning. (This was very impressive to me at the time, and now, knowing Chris, even more so).

Things moved ahead rapidly and it was determined that Chris would change households and live with us full time until his adoption was finalized, a process that could take up to 2-3 years depending on whether the birth parents freed him for adoption.

Here’s a story to reveal  j ust how unprepared for parenthood I was. I was or had just finished stage managing the play Bogeyman, at LATC, and so I would have my evenings free. Halloween was around the bend, and we had a very active Halloween scene on our street in North Hollywood, necessitating purchases of candy by the gross for our little visitors who were frequently brought to the neighborhood in large groups by van. There was a steady stream of little gobblins and princesses, and the accompanying cacaphony of doggy greetings by Jasper. it was a little overwhelming even for us.

Also, at the time, there was a new Jean Claude Christo exhibit of the Yellow Umbrellas which was installed in the brown corduroy hills of Gorman, just north beyond Santa Clarita on the Interstate 5.  Image

I had a long love of Christo’s work, going back to my college days where I and my cronies had “wrapped” Blair Arch, a large walkway and ogival dorm with a tower and Arch over a staircase leading down to the bookstore at Princeton. We sewed together 8 large queen bed sheets, after first dying them orange, and then recruited some of the rugby jocks who live in the Blair arch tower to hang the assemblage out their windows and secured it with rope to the windows. It was our homage to Christo, and our team of artistic renegades sat on the grass and watched people come through the arch and remark on it as it billowed across the span.

I think we had left on corner uncovered to allow passage. It was our homage to his canyon in Arizona, that he had wrapped with orange nylon. Image We finally had to remove it after some hooligans took a lighter to it and threatened to burn it down. Another of our artistic happenings was to wrap all the sculptures all over the campus with Saran Wrap, burlap and twine. This would have been disruptive enough, but we did it the night before the all campus sculpture run which was led by one of the faculty members from the fine arts department  and which was very much ruined by our shenanigans.

At any rate, knowing that Chris would be coming to stay with us permanently  on October 30th, I thought it would be brilliant, witty, clever, and appropriate for his Halloween costume to be a Christo umbrella, so I looked until I found pjs that were Winnie the Pooh themed, yellow onesies with feet, and found a little child sized yellow umbrella. My idea as that we would greet the Halloween guests with the umbrella up and hand out candy that way, much to the delight of all the trick or treaters and Chris.

Well, you might imagine how that went. Halloween came and on his second day in the new neighborhood with a new family, we opened the front door to a steady parade of people with scary masks at the door. Great plan, new Mom!

In later years, Chris embraced Halloween as a pirate, and many other colorful characters, but it was a bit much for that second night in his new home.

Letters from Venice – Part IV

Sept. 7, 1982

I am on a train from Edinburgh to London, the beginning of our sojourn to Florence! I really got the travel itch this morning at the train station. Finished off Edinburgh with a bang. After spending all of Sunday in  bed, watching Casablanca, reading Thomas Mann, and eating McVitties digestive biscuits, Monday, my last full day in Edinburgh, I spent at the British Watercolor Exhibition, which was exquisite, and last night went to see La Piccola Scala from Milan perform “La Pietra Del Paragone.” Terrible opera production, but I am perhaps spoiled by the Met’s spectacular shows!
We left the Turkey at the Rat Café, on the door handle – no note. I would love to see their faces when they find it! Great people at the Rat.

(The turkey was a paper mache prop turkey that Bob and I had painstakingly created on the kitchen table back at Princeton, in Edwards Hall, to solve Sam Shepard’s problem of serving a turkey on stage each performance. We filled the cavity of the turkey with sliced turkey breast, on the upstage side and came to love the turkey.)

The countryside is overwhelmingly beautiful. images-5 Such sharp contrasts of wheat and cabbage, evergreens and sheep, old farmhouses and old walls and the insidious new industries, which necessarily bilge blackness into the already overcast sky.


Why is it that writing kills the impulse to write? Observe and learn.

Sept. 9, 1982

Paris! After a very long night au bord du bateau, Channelcrossingwe have finally reached Paris! London was fine – we saw all the sights, Big Ben,images-Big Benjpg

Westminster Abbey,images-Westmin

which was totally impressive, but I feel all a-tingle just being here. We reached St. Lazareimages-Gare St. Lazareimages-GareSt.Lazareextthis morning at 7:00AM, called Hubert, Bob’s French Ami, and are at his apartment now. I am about to take a most welcome shower. Things are going our way also, the exchange rate is at a record high 7.04 F/$. So we are wealthy. Good news. Excuse me. To the shower!


There is something more of a challenge being here that stimulates my sporting impulse much more than English speaking Scotland did. An air of the exotic, even the pharmacists devient plus exotiques!  I can understand most of what Hubert says but am a little reticent to speak. That I am losing fast, however. Off to see the city.

Sept. 11, 1982

Three of the best days since leaving Princeton. Hubert has been a prince, giving us the run of his apartment, and of Paris. The first night we went out to a very nice gay restaurant with Ludovic, one of Hubert’s friends. It was very pleasant. Last night we had dinner at home – Hubert is quite a chef in his own right. Bob and I spent the day going to the Tour Eiffel, the American Church, CiDJ, to find information about jobs and housing for when I/we come back after traveling with Dad and Joan.images-undereiffel

Sitting on the banks of the Seine,images-Seine it is easy to think why Paris has seen so many fantastic artists in her history. At the Beauborg images-Beauborgthis morning (right next to Hubert’s apartment) – saw an exhibition of both Braque’s and Yves Tanguey’s works. They were both very different. Tanguey most closely resembles Dali, with his very heady symbols. I find him not to be terribly accessible, in spite of what he and his comrades chose to call automatic drawings. They seem after a time to have become automatically like their counterparts.

Also saw David Hockney’s photos in an exhibit. He does really cool things with composite images.

Sept. 13, 1982  FIRENZEimages-DuomoFirenze

We arrived yesterday at 1:00PM and ran like beheaded chickens trying to find Lee, Bob’s brother. Losing that battle, we went to the Piazza by the Palazzo Uffizi and Loggia, where we met this great old Florentine gentleman who assured us that Florence was bella, and antica. It was his favorite phrase, and every city that came up in conversation could not rival Florence and Rome. Arriving in Italy actually transpired on the train, where our compartment was peopled by two old people from Napoli and a younger man (40’s) who spoke a little English. Not enough. Because he told us we were 2-3 hours from Pisa. This meant we had time to go to the bar car, which was entirely at the end of thee train. Settling down there to eat our biscotti e bibeti, we pulled into a station which we were horrified to learn was Pisa. We jumped off the train, ran outside alongside and back on to get our packs, while our “guide” said “Pisa, Pisa!”  Thanks, buddy.

The other amusing incident on the train occurred when the Napolites started to breakfast after they awoke. From their huge bag emerged two meatball sandwiches and hot coffee from a thermos. (Bob and I, transfixed, continued to pop pruneaux and almonds into our mouths) and two very going sounding pastries, which they managed to make into the loudest breakfast, I have ever heard. It was all I could do to keep from laughing which would not have been the thing to do.

Last night we decided to splurge and go to a nice Italian restaurant. Lee very kindly sprang with his Visa card, and we found a table-clothed ristorante, and had an incredible spread, beginning with an antipasto of crab, mussels, calamari, etc. and prima pasta of Taglierani con panne e salmone, which was exquisite.

Next boiled salmon and an insalata verde. With wine and acqua minerale. It was great. At the table next to us, while we were wallowing in our shared dishes (probably about normal for two people), a table of five, very tanned and colorfully dressed Italians proceeded to put away the most amazing amount of food I’ve ever seen.

Contrary to this journal entry, there are other things to do in Florence than to eat and watch others do so.

This afternoon, we went to the Boboli Gardens at the Pitti Palace, which were every bit as grand as I had hoped –long avenues of trees lined up to guide you or your eyes to an oasis of a pond, with clay potted orange trees and incredible statuary all over the place. The pergolas make beautiful naturally leaded ceilings over the pathways and it would have been a lovely place to write in.

Later, Bob and I went to Il Duomo, and climbed to the top, sandwiched between the two domes, and the German tourists. It is 460 steps to the top, worth every one on seeing the incredible view from the top. I took two pictures from the top – quite a splurge for my very discerning shutter finger*.images-fromtopofduomo

*Bob and I have designed a first class “camera-first” tour of Europe. Pose in front of every monument you see and take a close-up shot to include only 1 sq. meter of the monument’s wall behind. Ex: Perched atop of Il Duomo, don’t take the obvious photo with the city of Florence at your back, turn around and pin your subject to the Duomo itself. This way you can avoid those difficult landscape shots and record instead only the moment of bliss or horror registered on your subject’s face. And why trudge from monument to moment – you can take all those photos in your pensione room – just choose the most rustic wall, ie. the one having lost the most plaster, and shoot away.

–Your resident tourist and cynic in Florence.

We are staying in a great pensione off the Piazza della Indepencia. It is a huge room and the floors out in the hall are Mosaic tiles. Everything is really beautifully done.

Sept. 17, 1982

It was very hard to leave Bob and Lee in the station in Florence, but also is very exciting to go on alone. It is an extremely different experience to be sure – people are more likely to speak with you when you are alone and that makes traveling very much more pleasant.

It will be very relaxing to get into the mountains for a few days. I can tell already as we had into the mountains that they will be fantastic.

On our last day in Florence, we went to S. Gimignano, a Fourteenth century city atop the hills north of Florence. Though about as full of fellow tourists as Florence, it was still very different. When we arrived, the piazza was full of the market, but by the middle of the afternoon, it had cleared out sufficiently to be able to see the extant town.

We bought our lunch “stuffs” and climbed up into the Parco Publico by La Rocca to eat in the olive orchards overlooking the countryside. All was fine until poor Lee became plagued by his traveling friend, Montezuma (wrong country, right idea), so Bob and I spent the afternoon somewhat languorously amidst the dappled shade and sun of another secluded orchard while Lee visited with his friend. We were secluded all but for the young German hikers who were reading rather loudly from their tour book in Italian.

Letters from Venice – Part III

imagesAug. 22, 1982

The night before last after rehearsal we all trouped over to the Rat Café, which was an experience! At the piano in the back of this tiny little café, were a piano player and a very “Weilian” singer dressed in black with a green scarf looped around her throat. They were singing bluesy songs, accompanied by a poor sax player and some very enthusiastic percussionists whose ranks we joined with tambourines and spoons from the sugar bowls on the tables.  We sort of threw a coup, and the displaced Brits (Scots) joined us in singing songs from bad (& good) Broadway musicals. Except for the lead pianist who sipped his wine and pouted in a corner, confiding in whispered tones to a granny doll made out of apple face and rag clothes, which sat wisely atop the piano.

The sax player would punctuate every song’s finish with a blood-curdling battle cry of “MORE!!!!!” And the fun began again. We lasted with this until 2:00AM, when “The Americans” left, and the place went back to normal?

August 23, 1982 (Monday)

But this was the day to remember. Sunday. Oh, the props hunts we have been on cannot rival the garden spot we discovered. Bill Conley and I found storefront on Cowgate (very near the Rat Café) that was crammed full of junk. Every cranny. And objects like a bear’s head, to a close-and-play. There was everything. We walked in, to discover the two proprietors of this astonishing collection in the back room, amidst the continuation of this stuff, cooking breakfast on a wood burning stove, and watching Star Trek on a color TV. What a trip!

August 25, 1982

Saw the worst show on the Fringe today, “Momentum, A Play in 6 Crimes,”

“Worth getting up for” (1/2 truth) James Madison University.

(I remember being trapped in the first row for this god-awful show, at 9:00AM, and not being able to escape and having to watch the whole thing.)

Also saw Scagnarelle at the Royal Lyceum Theatre tonight- Wonderful! Collection of four Moliere shorts, directed by Andre Sorbonne, incredibly innovative and colorful.RoyalLyceum

Tomorrow AM, I am on the street to peddle our shows at the Fringe Office – also will be a chance to get tickets for some shows. I’m getting greedy to see things now – the bug is setting in! It’s fascinating, because after each show, you ask yourself- was that good? And if you liked something well enough to recommend it to others in the company, why did you like it? All these thousands of tourists and theatre people looking for the one show that Carol put it “Makes me go WOW!” Have yet to find it, and I’m not sure what it would be if I did.

Talked to Mark today on the phone, which was a great booster, yet, also a reminder of the length of separation. He said his show is sold out for opening night on September 10th – I’m incredibly excited for him. I only wish I could be there to see him perform.

Found a great bar that also serves cheap food tonight called “The Circuit.” Had dinner there with Lee and Bob. We talked more about travel plans. At this point I could either stay in Edinburgh for the last week of the Festival, then buy an Inter Rail Pass and travel down to Florence with Bob to meet Lee, or just buy an Inter Rail Pass and travel all over from Sept. 5-23rd. Who knows? Decision by Sunday when Lee leaves. Good night.

August 27, 1982

Went to see “Ethel & Julie” this morning; a show about the Rosenberg’s case. It was very well done, simple with the two Rosenbergs and a commentator figure and two multi-purpose minor characters. That seems to be very common in the contemporary stuff I’ve seen – a lot of doubling of characters. In Scagnarelle, each of the four leads was played by a different one. It really reveals the elasticity of British actors. I think we could take a lesson from these Brits!

Am going to see two more shows tonight – “Brecht’s Women” and a review called “Maidenhead Revisited.”

Sept. 1, 1982

“Brecht’s Women” was fantastic. Highly professional show, with great care obvious in all aspects. I am really glad to have seen it. Since then, I have seen “Lulu”, and “Prelude to Death in Venice” both directed by Lee Breuer of the American Rep Theatre. They were similar in flavor – very New York and slick and both very much vehicles of a highly egomaniac director. The Mabou Mines (Prelude) piece was just bonkers – no plot, but the neurotic rantings of a man through his wooden puppet which he cradled between two American pay phones. Very bizarre. “Lulu”, on the other hand, while being very remote from Wedekind’s German Expressionism, was a production devoted to the sensual exploration of his script – very much in keeping with the spirit of Lulu’s search for pleasure and happiness. Very High Tech, with video and miked to death. Carbone, the “Impressionist Painter” of the original script, became, in Breuer’s production, an anemic fey photographer whose focusing of his telephoto lens was not integral to his shooting but which was only suggestive of “extra-pictorial” effects. [what does that mean, Els?] Every instrument, whether it be actor or microphone was exploited beyond it’s normal uses – totally in keeping with the content of the script. It’s not a kind of theatre I aspire to create or even be a part of. But I would not have missed it for the world.

Today I went to St. Giles Cathedral,

my first really “old” church of a string of them, I’m sure. I was struck by the age of the church the minute I set foot inside. I know that is an incredibly trite thing to say, but it was absolutely my first sensation. Then the glorious color of the windows, muted and far subtler than the screaming modern palette of Twentieth century windows. The content of the windows, some of them, anyway, was Scottish history, something I just haven’t seen before in the states.

Today I really got a sense of the importance of certain images to the integrity of a play. Example. I thought the other day, that when the Xmas lights wouldn’t blink for “Action” (the Sam Shepard play which was one of the Princeton University offerings at the Fringe Festival, and which I was stage managing), that it didn’t really matter – we’d fix them for the next day. But now that I am operating them manually from backstage and I appreciate the regularity they afford to the otherwise entirely volatile and unpredictable world Shepard has created. For all these explosions take place, and there I was, backstage, constantly flicking the fucking tree: On-2-3-4, Off-2-3-4. And the voltage drops, which never seemed too important before, now became the only thing that broke the regularity of my flickering. I don’t know why I record this – it just struck me as interesting.

I’m embarking on reading “Death in Venice” a glimpse of what “Prelude to Death,” meant may be imminent!

“Bozzy,” a one-man show about James Boswell…not worth writing home about. You really have to have both a great script and an incredibly innovative actor to pull off a 1-¾ hour show. David McKail had me for ½ hour tops….

Sept. 3, 1983

Saw the New London Actor’s Company perform “Treatment” a play about London youth last night. The acting was incredible – very strident, but controlled, so that I had the feeling the actors had honestly been directed as weapons – never pointed directly at the audience, but I was always with the knowledge that there was a loaded gun in the room.

The one actor, Roger Monk, had such facility with his face to make himself incredibly ugly, that I was amazed. These actors truly know how to use and exploit their bodies to that effect. The group “always centres its work on the sheer mental and physical powers of the actor himself. The aim is to present a highly disciplined and entertaining theatre.” (From the program)

Stopped in yesterday to see four young London artists’ early works in a studio set up for the Edinburgh Festival. The installation was a combination of wooden sculptures which I would call languorous and paneled paintings composed of 6 x8 panels of slate spaced evenly apart in a grid shape, painted in Gauguin/Matisse-like shapes and bright yellows, reds and greens. I liked the work – the subjects, when not totally abstract, seemed to have been Biblical, from Paradise.

There is a great deal of that subject around. The Cambridge Experimental Theatre did “Tartarus,” a show with three actors and a kitchen table, exploring the “Universe”. Again, highly skilled work, the utmost care and concentration exhibited.

Sept. 4, 1982

We are finished! I have a great feeling of accomplishment, and relief at the end of this project. Seeing people off is a bit scary, as the total break from friends for such a long period is bound to be.

Mark called today – OH GOD! It was great to talk with him. Much less strained than last time, and a better phone connection. He’s talking about a European job possibility and about showing up by January. It would be so great.

The show is apparently not going so well. It opens in five days. I hope Mark is satisfied with his work on it anyway. That’s what counts. Though I know how much more frustrating it can be not to be able to control the quality of others’ work, as well.

Letters from Venice – Part II

NB: What follows here are actual diary entries from 1982. Please forgive my youthful perspective!


            We left for the airport on Tuesday, August 17, 1982, driven by Lee Benson, whose new Oldsmobile Cutlass introduced itself to us as a series of rattles, squeals and clatters. After a somewhat contortionist drive, we arrived at JFK, bought a ticket for Bob, and boarded the 7:00PM flight for London. In elegant form, while waiting in line for the ticket, I crouched down to find a more comfortable position with my 35 pound pack, and tumbled backwards with my jump suited, be-purpled legs flailing helplessly in the air. I knew it was going to be a long trip.

On the plane, we were delayed for an hour and a half, but once aloft, flew quite quickly to London. Our seatmate was a lovely English man named Adam, who insisted on treating us both to bottles of champagne in order to celebrate our trip to Edinburgh.

300px-KingsCrossWithMini.JPGUpon reaching London, we discovered at King’s Cross Station that the train trip to Edinburgh was L32; far beyond our means. Sought out a bus, then settled for the Night Rider, a L12 train leaving London at 10:00PM, arriving in Edinburgh at 5:45AM. Yikes!
Not having slept all night really, we went to nap in a waiting room where there proved to be three extremely loud and drunk assholes who were conducting some kind of “deal” which the entrance of an African disrupted. This interruption created a huge racial contest, refereed by another backpacker who yelled at them to shut up. She was chastised by the instructions – “Shut up, cunt!” Oh, the joys of human interactions.

The taxis are wonderful in London- glossy black sedans sometimes purple or brown, always whizzing by at breakneck speeds.image_mini

There is so much to learn. How to use the frigging telephones. How does one distinguish between a “rapid pip” and an “engaged” signal? Oh, for sleep aboard the Night Rider.telephone

August 18, 1982 King’s Cross

Sign in the Loo:

“Don’t blame the Loo lady for the Price

We work our hardest to keep them nice

Washing pans and mopping floors

Hearing all the banging doors

Clean toilets are our special task

A pleasant smile is all we ask!

Later, saw Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby St. – struck me like a mall version of Soho.

Dinner at Sagamantha, an Indian restaurant, which had a beacon above the front door, which was a rotating red police light, and where Bob and I, passing through Phase 3 of our exhaustion, lost it and started spewing water out in a fit of giggles!

If one thing will drive me nuts, though, it is the number of motorcycles. Every time I see one I think of Mark – and they all ride with leather jackets, which may cause considerable discomfort throughout the trip. I miss him…

Aug. 19, 1982

Edinburgh is delightful. We spent all night on the Night Rider, arriving at 5:30AM to the light of the new rising sun on the age-encrusted city of Edinburgh [ouch].

By our return to the downtown in the afternoon, the place was unrecognizable for the excited buzz of traffic and pedestrians scurrying around.

The tech staff/management at the YMCA, our venue for the first week, is incredibly accommodating and we spent three hours this evening in the space. All props and drops must be fireproofed so tomorrow we will do that.

Had my first spud with cheese (and Bob) at 9:50pm before a 10:00pm rehearsal – I hope to taste more leisurely taters laters…..

Letters from Venice -Part 1

June 2006 -This writing began while listening to “The City of Falling Angels” by John Berendt. The book evoked so many memories of my 13 months living in Venice right after graduating from Princeton in 1982. It never ceases to amaze me how instantaneously an author can tap into your own experiences and start awakening memories of people and places long dormant and unexamined. His book, set in Venice, around the tragic fire at the Fenice Opera House in 1996, covered a time almost thirteen years after I had left Venice, and yet, his descriptions of the city and the politics and the society there unzippered my brain and unleashed my memories. Berendt discussed the curator of the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Philip Rylands, and his wife, Jane Rylands extensively, whom I had met and worked with in Venice. Finishing the book, I was prompted to exhume the letters that my dear friend, Bob Stern had so kindly sent to me recently, saved and sent back almost 20 years later, and having digested those, I dug out my old Journal, “European Ventures!” begun Aug. 17th, 1982 as we left Princeton to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with 5 student-acted plays. We went with our drama teacher, Carol Elliot, and about 15-20 students. Bob Stern, my best friend, and I left for Edinburgh together. I have since gone to the ever-informative web to cut and paste images available to illustrate my adventures of acquiring my post-graduate degree in living. I’ve always been somewhat of an impulsive, pigheaded and fortunate girl – and, now at the age of fifty-three, I am reminded by world events which unfurl around us that indeed, life is only what you make of it, and how your perceive your success at making your life. It is, all too often and too predictably, being in the right place, opening the doors when opportunity knocks, all those clichés which have been drilled into our heads as children.  That time, now thirty years ago, was as magical and unexpected as any moment in my daily life now. Looking back through the miasma of time, if I strain hard enough, I can see in that reckless, twenty-one year old the seeds of who I am now, somewhat manic, terribly critical of myself, willing to take risks – and above all, a people pleaser.

I grew up in the Midwest, in a small rural town outside of Pittsburgh. Well enough outside of Pittsburgh, that the daily commute to the city vexed my father to the point of complete disinterest in making the trip any more, so that he relocated himself closer to work. This happened when I was about thirteen, and was painful at the time, but the seismic shift in our family structure also provided me with the first of many opportunities to come.

Shortly after my parents separated, my best friend, Liz, went off to boarding school in Concord, New Hampshire. Now neither this specific fact, nor the concurrent divorce that my parents were working us all through would normally be considered particularly lucky, but the stressful confluence of events led to my being allowed to follow her the following year, to St. Paul’s School. This was one of the luckiest and happiest doors to open to me in my life, but you will see that it was only the first, and not nearly the last such lucky portal.

St. Paul’s is one of the best-endowed, most beautiful boarding schools in the United States, and this girl from Greensburg, PA took it by storm. I loved the classes, the dorms, the extra-curricular theater events that I became part of. Never a big sports person, I nevertheless rowed intramural crew, and kept generally fit, and overall loved the school.

The most influential teacher I had at St. Paul’s was without a doubt, Robert V. Edgar, English teacher, head of the drama program.  I began my stage management career working with Edgar on “Loot,” where my duties involved acquiring the manikin which appears as a prop in the play. I took this job very seriously, and went into Concord, went to a local haberdashery and somehow cajoled them into loaning the manikin to us, then carted it back to campus in a cab. Mr. Edgar believed in my skill as an actor, too. He supported my performance in Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett, my last year, as an Independent Study Project, buried up to my waist, then neck in a paper-Mache mound of dirt, spouting 60 some pages of monologue, with undoubtedly very little variety of tonal expression.

One morning, in my fifth form year, during breakfast in the large barn-like dining room at Upper Hall, I convinced my friend,Will Schwalbe, on a dare, to sneak upstairs with me into Middle Upper, the dorm where Edgar was a house master, and an all boy’s dorm, to knock on his door to wake him up. I’ll never forget coming in through the door way, and seeing the look of surprise on Artie Z’s face as he struggled wearing only his towel, to get back into his room from the shower. Without even reacting to the illegality of my being in a boy’s dorm, Edgar swung his door open, invited us in for coffee and the “Tutorial” began, a weekly opportunity to meet to discuss world events, or just SPS events, while we listened to classical music on Public Radio, or Mister Rodger’s Neighborhood on the turntable, if we were feeling silly, which we frequently were. The ranks of the Tutorial grew by only a few other students, since we considered the gathering to be elite. We were incorrigable intellectual snobs.  After Tutorial, at 7:55AM, we donned our coats, and all walked to chapel together, either through 5 foot snowdrifts lining the path, or through the verdent spring foliage lining the walkway from Upper.

Bob Edgar made us feel like adults, by valuing what we had to say, by laughing at our inane jokes, and by generally offering a droll, witty, smart role model for who we could be when we were finished with our educations. I really cherish those days, and credit them in no small way to my development into a life-long learner.

Cut to December of my 6th Form year at SPS. I had visited only three colleges in preparation for the application process- Stanford, Princeton, and Santa Cruz. When I sat down to it, I applied to Princeton early admission, with UC Santa Cruz as my back up school. In my typically irrational, impulsive manner, I eschewed Stanford because it was hot the day we visited there, and I didn’t like the architecture of the campus. Ridiculous youth.

My mother’s father had gone to Princeton, and had graduated with a degree in architecture in 1933. I had been successfully indoctrinated to the Princeton family over years of attending the Princeton vs. Yale football game with my Granddad, first taking lunch at Cottage Inn, on the “tailgate” of Grandad’s car, then sitting on the Princeton side of the stadium, cheering our team onto victory. Also, having been at St. Paul’s School’s similarly ivied halls for four years, I felt more comfortable on the campus of Princeton then just about anywhere else. It didn’t hurt that about 30 of my friends from St. Paul’s would be calling Princeton home for the next four years.

I plowed through the next four years pretty uneventfully, starting in the Woodrow Wilson School as a poli-sci major, and after one year, maybe even one semester, switching to the Art History department where I discovered a Friday morning slideshow/lecture on the History of Gardens was a successful antidote for a rowdy Thursday night at the pub. I liked the small scale of the Art History department, loved thinking about aesthetics and brush strokes, and enjoyed reading about the early contemporary artists and the choices they made forging new styles of painting. When senior year rolled around, I had become enamored with early twentieth century painters in the New York circle of Alfred Steiglitz, and was inspired to write my thesis on Georgia O’Keefe and John Marin and Arthur Dove, and their particularly American qualities. What intrigued me most then, and still does to this day, was the idea of a single person’s ability to be a catalyst for creativity, by providing a safe haven for creative thoughts and actions. Patrons of the arts fascinated me.

I also worked actively in the theatre at Princeton, not with the Triangle club, who produced musicals and musical revues, but in the small octagonally shaped bunker theatre in the center of the campus, right next door to the Art and Archeology department, Theatre Intime. There I worked on a number of shows, and the last two years, spent both summers on campus as a co-producer for the summer seasons we produced. It was a natural extension of Edgar’s Tutorial – producing and mounting our own fully realized shows for the paying public. The confidence we had in ourselves was staggering.

To support my academics and extra-curricular events, I had a financial aid package including moneys from my parents and grandparents, a scholarship (arranged through the generosity of my grandfather, from his classmates), student loans acquired through the bank in Wilkes-Barre, PA, where my Princeton grandfather lived, and a work-study job at the University. I had chosen to work in the food services division of the University, and spent my share of time peeling and chopping eggs in the Student Center, and making omelets and sandwiches for students over the course of my four years. However, I discovered that I could cashier, make more money, deal directly with people and occasionally have time to read a book during quiet stretches at the Student Center. So I spent most of my senior year in that capacity.

It was on one spring afternoon just prior to my graduation when I had finished my lunch shift as cashier, and, on the way out of the Student Center, stopped at the vending machine to buy a TAB. I was plunking quarters into the machine when someone tapped me on the right shoulder, and I turned to see Louisa J, a graduate student from the Art and Archeology Department standing behind me.

“Hi, Louisa,” I said as I retrieved my can of soda from the machine.

“Els, hi. I have a question for you.”

“Sure,” I said.

“I was wondering, do you know of anyone who would be interested in going to Venice, Italy for six months to au pair for my daughter, Anna, while I write my dissertation?”

Without missing a beat, I opened that door upon which opportunity had knocked.

“That would be me,” I said. We made arrangements for me to spend a Saturday afternoon getting to know Anna, at the graduate student housing, near the campus, and Louisa walked away. I stood there, stunned, opened my can of TAB, took a swallow, and considered my new trajectory.

Later that week, I met the infamous Anna on the “swim-date” Louisa had arranged for the two of us to get to know each other. We sat on our beach towels on the hot concrete pavement surrounding the small pool at the graduate student housing, I in my one-piece, and Anna, age 6, in her two-piece suit. She sat eyeing me warily, sizing me up, and after some consideration, voiced her question; “Why do you have a moustache?” I didn’t really have an answer. It probably was no coincidence that while in Venice, I began what was to become a life-long waxing regime. Occasionally as the technician wands the scalding wax onto my upper lip, I will see Anna’s innocent and curious face looking up at me, and as the wax zips off my lip, I can see the sparkle in her eye.


It was  December of 1999, and as we stood on the crust of a new pie, a new century, a new millenium. I remembered when I was in my pre-teens and I had forecast that in the year 2000, I would be forty years old. Of course, at that point, I never imagined that anything so heartrendingly literal would happen. Like the shortsighted computer engineers of the sixties, I imagined that I would remain forever 19 something, with nary a wrinkle on my brow, nary a love handle on my hip.

And here I was staring forty in the face, reconstructing myself as an adult, trying to redefine myself in my own terms, rather than by the recipe my mother left scratched into me. It’s hard cooking from scratch.

I tiptoed through the hotspots that I faced as a child with my son, who made me so proud with his accomplishments that I couldn’t imagine my ‘little’ criticisms would carry nearly the weight my parents’ did.

Chris and I had been fighting that day over whether he should do the extra credit math problems – six problems, true/false tagged onto the fifty that he was required to do. I tried to explain that if he did the extra six, it would raise his average on the rest of the page, and ultimately, his grade. Try explaining that to a ten year old who hasn’t covered averages yet in school. He did not want to do it. I unsheathed my tools of negotiation: first I cajoled him. He responded by nastily copying my cajoling in a sing-song, head swaggering thrust. I bribed – he called me on it. And ultimately, I threatened.

“Go to your room, then.”

“That’s blackmail,” he parried.

“No, that’s called parenting.”

“I’m not doing it,” Chris parried back again. “And that’s called kidding.”

Touché!  Ultimately, he did the math extra credit work. And the literature extra credit. The whole exercise took exactly 30 minutes, during which we saw the whole array of pre-tantrum warm ups. The banging on the table with the pencil. The whining, the falling out of the chair, the imagined injury and retreat to his bedroom to “recover.” The whole thing left me so exercised and tired that I considered canceling my gym membership.

Then we spent the rest of the evening in the living room, classical music playing, Chris playing his game boy, and me reading the New York Times.  At one point, he asked if he could come sit on my lap and I watched over his shoulder as he mastered this mind-numbing feat of dexterity his generation can do without batting an eye. If you’d told me when I was twelve that this is what I’d be doing on the eve of my fortieth birthday, I’d have called you a big fat liar. Isn’t it swell?
Another morning that week, we had been sitting in the dentist’s office, waiting for Chris to have his retainer removed. Popcorn stuck in the gum had caused swelling. His best friend, Mikey, was with us, and the conversation moved to braces.

“Are you going to get them?” Mikey asked Chris.

“Yeah. In about five months.” Chris said.

“What color braces are you going to get?” Mikey asked. “Silver or clear?”


“But Chris, if you get red, you’ll look like a vampire with blood in your mouth,” I said.

“Cool. Okay, how about blue?”

I wondered that morning if my parents had asked me about the color of my caps. Whether I’d elected to have the silver because of the way the question was phrased? Or had the question been phrased at all? I think not. But there’s a wonderful innocence about Chris’ desire to stand out with his blue or red grin. It was so untarnished, so replete of hurtful memories. Kids are such a miracle. Such a clean slate. You can fuck up so badly if you make the wrong decisions under pressure.

House guests, dentist whose golf game was interrupted, your daughter screaming and crying in front of you. Sunday afternoon, and the dentist’s lab is closed. Dr. Bailey was there all by himself, of course.  Make a decision quickly. You have to get home to make dinner for your husband’s Yale roommate and his family.

“I think silver. It won’t show up under the braces. You can get white caps after the braces come off.”

Did Mom ever regret that decision? Did she ever have a discussion with Dad about the wisdom of having a girl entering puberty with chrome fenders in her mouth? Was it to protect me from being attractive? It certainly stopped me from becoming vain. I could barely stand to look at myself in the mirror. To this day I have trouble looking in the mirror.

That long ago day, December 14, 1999, I had housekeeping issues to discuss with my therapist.

“I can’t make it Friday, because I’m the room Mom and Chris’s class is having their party. ”
“You’re excused,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.

“And I’m anxious about going back to work and still being able to come.”

“We’ll work it out so that you can still come, but without hours and specifics, we can’t schedule.” (That sounds much more patronizing on paper than it did in person.)

What I was really worried about, more than scheduling and going back to work, as if that isn’t enough, was that I was stalled in therapy. I told Jimmie on the phone that I felt that I wasn’t “going anywhere.” Which of course is exactly what we’re working on in the analysis. That you don’t always have to be going somewhere. That just where you are is enough for the moment.

“I’m afraid, too, that I won’t have the memories to help me do this work.”

That I’m not interesting enough.

The previous Sunday, when we were walking into the Iceoplex rink, I was following Chris, carrying his hockey bag when my foot slipped off an uneven place in the pavement and I fell to my knees, scraping my left knee. Chris was in front of me, hitting his tape ball ahead of him like a puck with his stick, and didn’t see me fall. When I exclaimed, “Ouch,” he turned around and looked a little embarrassed by my clumsiness. Someone passing to my left put a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Are you alright?” I didn’t meet their eyes (too embarrassed to have fallen) but said, “Yes, thanks. I’m fine.” I told Chris I needed to go get a bandaid – I could feel that I’d broken the skin on my left knee and didn’t want to bleed all over my new suit.

“Go ahead and put your skates on, sweetie. I’ll be right in,” He shouldered the hockey bag and started off, looking back over shoulder.

“Mom, are you okay?”

“Yes, sweetie. I’m fine. I just scraped my knee.”

It wasn’t until the next morning when I was getting dressed in stockings and a dress that I remembered an incident from when we still lived in Pittsburgh that had been unburied by my fall on Sunday.

We were walking home from the church in North Hills, Don, Larry and I. I must have been five years old, and Larry would have been about seven, Don nine. We had to walk through a little patch of trees which separated the back yards of the houses across the street from ours. We were running, me in my black patent leather shoes, which were  slippery to begin with. I stumbled over a tree root and fell forward, my exposed knee landing hard on the ground. Blood immediately glistened on my knee, and began to spill down my white knee socks onto my black patent leather shoes. I began to cry, both from the pain of cracking my knee and from fear that Mom would scold me for messing up my dress. (Blue with a white Peter Pan collar – how’s that for memory?)

Either my cries or my absence made my brothers turn around and come back to me. They helped me home (or as I said to my therapist, “I had them help me get cleaned up.”-important narration, as she pointed out, because it made me responsible for getting help, rather than being helped automatically by my brothers.) and I limped home, blood coursing down my shin.

I don’t have any memory of Mom or Dad in this event. Again, an environment where children are on their own a lot of the time. Coming home from church. Where were Mom and Dad that we didn’t all go together? Probably in the car driving around the long way. They’d probably made us promise to walk home.

“Take care of your little sister, Donny.”

I have a memory of this overwhelming fear of being scolded or punished for getting hurt – I was running in the woods. I should have known better than to run in the slippery shoes. My brothers would have been just about the age that Chris is now, and turned and looked at me with a feeling of helplessness and responsibility for my welfare and disgust at my clumsiness.

So, with regard to this process of analysis, my therapist asked, “Do you think I can help you if you’re bleeding?”

“It’s so complicated,” I said. “I’ve told you so much about myself over the past two years (I said three – Freudian slip) and I know so little about you. It begins to seem unbalanced. It’s not that I want to know details of your personal life, but it is just such a strange relationship.”

“It is a strange relationship,” she conceded. “It’s like no other relationship. I’m happy to answer your questions about me. When patients come, this process that we’re in  is always a surprise. We won’t solve your problems in your life, but we look at the sources of them. We go back and forth between the interior and exterior worlds. As you get deeper into the analysis, we find ourselves more involved in the interior world. And you find that while you have gotten to know me better, it’s really doesn’t matter.”

I’m also worried that I’m not interesting enough.

“What other times didn’t you feel interesting enough?” she asked kindly.

“At the dinner table.”

“At whose dinner table?”

“At my parents’ dinner table.”

“For example? What would have made you interesting enough?”

“There’s really nothing I could have said that would have made me interesting enough. Maybe if I could have said something adult.”

“If you said something adult you would have been interesting to your parents?”

“When else don’t you feel interesting enough?”
“At parties.”

Back to the alcohol. As Joye pointed out, the alcohol helped to erase my responsibility, gave me an excuse to act outside of myself. “To be more interesting.”

I acknowledged that my fear of not being interesting enough was a direct echo of my mom’s own sentiment about herself. She’d come out and visit us and we’d go to a party and she’d be so quiet. Coming home, I’d say, “Mom, you were so quiet. Why didn’t you talk more? She’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t have anything interesting to say.’”
Stalled you say? No, you’re in it, kiddo.

“Can you tell me if you think I’m stalled? If I’m “doing this right?”
“That’s certainly a legitimate question. You aren’t stalled, and you’re doing just fine. The most important thing is that you say whatever is on your mind. If you are feeling stalled, then you tell me. If you can’t tell me, because you don’t think I’m interested, that you tell me that. If you are ever uncomfortable and don’t want to come any more, that you tell me that.”

“It’s not that I don’t think you are interested, because I think you are. It’s that I’m not interesting enough.” (does she see the difference? Yes, I think she does.)

                  The coda was that this particular evening, when I was walking the dogs for the final walk of the day, the sky streaked with pink, I fell again. I had rounded the corner of our street and had begun walking west when my right foot gave way under me. Almost as if in slow motion, I saw myself falling, my hands outstretched to break my fall, my right knee landing with a dull thud on the ground as it had thirty five years before on my way home from the Lutheran church. I heard the air expel from my mouth, “ooufff” like the sound you might hear from a football player going down after a hard tackle. I felt my charms from my childhood charm bracelet under my palm as I landed on the pavement.

I scrambled to my feet, maintaining my hold on the dogs’ leashes and started off briskly down the sidewalk, whispering to myself aloud, “I can’t believe I fell again today. And landed on that knee.” As I rounded the next corner, I looked down to note that my stockings were torn on my right knee, and blood was beginning to come forth through the scrape on my knee. As my eyes raised up, I had a moment of clarity- I heard a dog bark in the distance, a bird flew across my path and the sky was resplendent in its colors. I took a deep breath and found that my chest was free and my breathing relaxed. I padded along happily behind the dogs, not stalled anymore, but alive.

The Frog Died

What do you think it means when your fifth grader’s horned frog dies the morning of the first day of school? Do you think it has significance, like the rabbit’s dying in the old pregnancy tests? Does the frog’s passing signify that Chris is going to have a “killer” year in science? Or perhaps that the year is pregnant with possibility? All these and other options paraded before my mind as the two of us stood sullenly in front of the aquarium.

The poor frog’s spindly and dehydrated legs splayed out behind him. The wet washcloth in the sink and the freshly cleaned out water bowl next to the prostrate frog belied Chris’ assertion that “he was alive yesterday, Mom, when I cleaned out his water bowl.” I’m always after him to clean out the bowl. I usually ended up cleaning it out, and this time I didn’t. Just too busy? Or Frog Killing Mom?

“Well, then, it was just his time,” I said solemnly.  “Do you want me to take care of getting rid of him today while you’re in school, sweetie? Or is it something you’d like to do?”

“Would you do it, Mom?”

“How are you going to do it?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll figure it out,” I lied, knowing the frog would go the way all our dead fish had gone, to ceramic bowl heaven.

“I wish I had the green frog. He moved around more.”

“Yeah, this guy was kind of sluggish.”

“How much was the green frog, Mom?”
“Honey, no more frogs.”

“I always feel guilty when I come into the bathroom and the frog’s cage is dirty. I don’t want to feel that way anymore. We’ll move your turtle into the frog’s tank and he’ll be much happier there with more room to swim around.”


“Come eat your breakfast, okay?”

“I’m not hungry.”

As he sat in front of the cereal, bagel with cream cheese and bacon, all of it transformed in his mind to the dead frog. He dramatically took a bite of the bagel, then grimaced and rushed into the kitchen to spit it out in the sink.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Whenever something or someone dies, I’m not hungry.”

“Does the frog’s dying make you think of someone else’s dying, sweetie?”
“Noooooa.” If looks could kill, I’d be a goner.

“Well, I only asked because of your statement, which made it sound as though you’d lost your appetite before when someone or something died.”

“Do you have to correct every thing I say, Mom?”
“Sorry, sweetheart. Eat your breakfast, please.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Well, you will be pretty hungry at around 10:00am, and you won’t be able to concentrate, Chris.”

“Yes I will.”

After one piece of bacon and a small creamer pitcher of milk drunk directly out of the spout, I acquiesced, knowing that the battle was futile. He had one and a half sandwiches in his lunch box, an apple, some green peppers and carrots and a bag of chips. He wouldn’t starve. Besides, he has the power of the sacrificial frog to carry him through.

The Hummingbird Chronicles, part 2

August 3, 2013

After three days of just sporadic glimpses  of the birds, I decided it was time to return to HD to get a replacement fuschia, what seemed to be the only solution to regaining hold of our birds. We had observed the flight patterns of the birds in the recent days and saw that they were diagonally charted from above us to the left, to below us to the right. When I leaned my head over the balcony rail, I could see them stopping at a balcony about two over and two up from us. Someone had stolen our hummingbirds. I think that was when I decided we didn’t have to wait for the fuschia to recover and begin blooming again- we could start afresh with a new plant, bountifully draped in the luscious purple lobed flowers. I announced to Jimmie that we would go to HD after lunch and at about 1:30, we got into the car and drove to the HD nursery. I strode purposefully into the garden area, Jimmie following as quickly as he could. I wanted to dash in and out with our purchase to get back to the viewing platform as quickly as possible. I turned the corner and went to the fuschia area where I had bought the last plant, and much to my horror, the plants were gone, replaced by some ferns and other flower bearing plants. I sought it a young man to help me. I said, do you still have fuschias? No, he said, we are out of the season for fuschias. My face must have revealed my disappointment; Jimmie was standing there patiently waiting and I was loathe to tell him that we were out of luck. I plowed on. “You see”, I said, to the two young men who were now helping me, “we have had hummingbirds visiting our balcony and the fuschia plant, and we went away, and when we returned, the plant had died. Now the hummingbirds have left.”  The eager young man on the left visibly brightened and jumped into action. “Oh, I just took a picture of the hummingbird this morning over near the bougainvillea. And I also noticed a tag on some of the plants just outside that said hummingbird on them. Here, let me show you.” We trotted outside, leaving Jimmie to follow and join us. The young man took me to a table with lantana and some other low flowering plants and gestured over the table like a psychic over a crystal ball. “It was somewhere on this table that I saw the tag on the pot. Or,” he said, moving to his right to a low pallet on the ground filled with lavender flowered drought resistant plants, “somewhere over here. Is there anything else I can help you with today?”

“No,” I said, “this has been very helpful. I will continue to look at these two tables.”

As the young man walked back into the garden cage, I looked over the table and pallet, and picked up the lantana. I figured the bright orange and red flowers would at least visually draw the birds to our balcony. As I made my way back into the garden cage area, after telling Jimmie to go back to the car to wait for me- standing a long time is difficult for him,  froze in my tracks. There at the pallet was a hummingbird energetically and methodically sipping from the hundreds of pink flowers on the status-like purple flowered plant, as well as at the neighboring red flowered plant, similar in type – both looked like they were from the same genus as the Lavender plants we used to have in our back yard in Van Nuys.

August 7, 2013

This morning beginning at 6:45 AM there was a positive frenzy of activity at the feeder. Originally, when I had installed the birdfeeder to the railing of the balcony, I had used metal straps and after attaching the bracket to the banister, there was a 6 inch extra piece of metal that jutted out into the open air be on the balcony. At the time, I thought I should perhaps cut that off because it sticks out and it might catch someone’s attention to the balcony. But as our building ages and the time of its keep painting approaches, I thought I might want to leave that extra hanging there so it’s easier to remove this when the time comes to paint the building. And so I left it. In the past few days, that metal extra piece has become the perch with a male hummingbird who is trying to assert his dominion over the hummingbird guards will sit. With his neck cocked at a 90° angle to his body, he searches the sky for other approaching hummingbirds who might trespass in his domain. His angry cheeps match almost exactly the call that I found on Google when I searched for hummingbird calls. Yes, I did that, too.  And this morning the activity around the bush was extraordinary. One bird would arrive and feed intently at the blossoms of the bush. The second bird would arrive and sit at the feeder and suddenly the first bird would back up from the bush and the second bird at the feeder would back up from the feeder and a dog fight would ensue in the airspace directly parallel to the balcony. The winner of this dogfight would then retreat to the perch and sit there cheeping his success. The other interesting behavior which I observed in this morning was the bird who would come and sit on the balcony and try to feed from the blossoms without flapping his wings. Alas, he found that the blossoms were just out of reach and so he had to begin flapping again from the bush. This thrilling display of avian pride and aptitude is distracting, when you’re trying to read both the New York Times and the LA Times and do the LA Times crossword puzzle before going to work. I’m getting nothing done. It’s become an obsession. And you know what, it’s okay with me.

Saturday, August 10

Yesterday, late in the day, our planters arrived that we had ordered from Home Despot. I had stopped by Home Despot on my way home from work yesterday, only to discover yet again that the plants that I was looking for had already passed out of the season. Again I was pretty unprepared, and so I chose two plants that had bright orange trumpet flowers and some gardenias which I thought would be appealing to the birds. I brought them home and I put them out on the balcony while I took the cart back downstairs and when I came back Jimmie said that none of the birds had gone near the plants. So I figured that I would just take them back the next day to Home Despot. Which is what I did. This morning, I went to Home Despot And lingered in the garden area, looking to see if the hummingbirds would visit any of the plants. And sure enough, the hummingbird salesperson who had helped me the previous week went feeding at the  salvia plants, and also near some  purple plants with heads like Queen Anne’s lace. I put them in the cart and found a hibiscus plant with an orange flower and planter for that plant and went home. My stomach, was growling by the time I got home.  After breakfast I started with the planting process laying them out in the planters and then filling the planters with the soil. I used to do a lot of gardening, when Jimmie and I had first moved out to Los Angeles and purchased our starter home in North Hollywood. The backyard of the house was a vast expanse of concrete. It has little corralled areas which were full of sand and ultimately full of sand and cat poop once our cats have gone in the backyard and anointed the areas. We hired a man whose name was Jack and he came in with a sledgehammer he broke out all of the concrete in the backyard. A friend of ours, had arranged for him to come and we paid him and now I’m thinking seemingly small amount of money to do this incredibly difficult job. I think Jack ultimately died, which put a pallor on the garden. Hopefully not because of our garden project, but uncomfortably close to the conclusion of it. Anyway, that garden and the subsequent garden on our old street have been entertaining to me and also very satisfying. However when I begin working in south Los Angeles and driving back and forth to the valley I no longer had time for gardening, and so I turn the gardening over to professionals. Five years ago, when we move downtown to our apartment on the 11th floor facing the north we gave up our gardeners and pool man and the huge water bill that we paid every other month in the Valley. I think our water bill was more frequently than not in the $675 range. So now I think nothing of dropping 50 bucks at Home Depot for plants to go in the planter and I think nothing of the time that it takes to honeypots some plants and make the garden beautiful. It is a manageable space for me, financially, emotionally and physically.

So this morning, the only problem with my garden project was that the birds were very frantic  when I begin filling the planters  with soil and plants because I was standing directly under the feeder. I could hear their frenzied  chirps as they urged me to hurry to finish my planting.

August 13, 2013

I downloaded the video footage that I took the other morning at 6 AM when the hummingbirds were just beginning to rally. There are images of one and two and three and finally for hummingbirds darting around in the space of the viewfinder. What I realize now two is that my footage hummingbirds sometimes blurry and sometimes clear. I think this might be a result the fact that there is active construction going on but large 22 story building just beyond our balcony. The camera lens doesn’t know whether to focus on that movement or on the hummingbird movement. As result, occasionally I have very sharp images of the birds and sometimes I have blurry images of the bird and sharper images of the construction maybe it’s because of my advancing age, but I seem to be able to see every observation as a metaphor something larger. The footage of the hummingbirds, is a minute examination of a shared hobby with Jimmie. It represents something that is brought us together to experience the sheer and now in a very visceral and satisfying way. We truly take delight in reporting to each other as our attentions turned from the feeder to the newspaper in the morning, that oh, there is one there now. Or here comes Sheriff Sam,  the bully bird that sits on the perch and fights the  others off. The blurry construction in the background, represents a project that may or may not be finished in Jimmie’s lifetime. This is difficult for me to grapple with as I look out the window. It makes our appreciation of the feeder all that more poignant for me. And the images that my amateur camera is able to capture, become a talisman that we can share even after the sun has set and the birds have gone to roost in the trees. When I go off to work in the morning, when I return from work conversation naturally wanders to the success or failure of the future to draw the birds that day. Yesterday I came home from work, and when asking Jimmie when he did that day, he said I didn’t go to the park today. I didn’t want to leave the birds. And I understand that completely.

Meanwhile, the rest of our life proceeds apace. Jimmy goes off to the dentist to get his permanent crown. I go shopping for Chris’s 24th birthday presents. We plan a visit for next June with our dear friend Susan from South Africa. We think about whether to buy Red Sox dodger tickets next week. We watch a series of poor to middling Netflix movies on our new TV. But each day, I get up at six or 6:30, and set my sights on watching out the window for the inevitable return the hummingbirds.