Christmas Els

When I was growing up in bucolic southwestern Pennsylvania, my grandfather, a Renaissance man, former bank president, developer, Christmas tree farmer,  and skilled craftsman with his own woodworking shop, lived with his wife, Betsey, on the crown of a hill.  My father and mother built a home on a 1/2 acre plot of land at the bottom of the hill. It was a lovely corner lot, and we faced out onto Harvey Road, with rolling hills and dales all around us, and very few neighbors. We moved out there from North Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh, in the mid to late 1960s when I was about 6.

One of the things we looked forward to most as children, or I did, anyway, was the day when we would go to pick out our Christmas tree. Usually there was snow, and we would put on our snowsuits, tramp in our boots up the hill to Granddad’s christmas tree farm,  where we located the perfect 6′-7′ tree, and, with a manual saw, felled the tree, then dragged it behind us through the snow down to the bottom of the hill. There we cut off the bottom boughs, and evened up the bottom, if necessary, wrestled it into its holder, and turned it up on its end in the living room. We all had prescribed duties for this day. Mine was basically to look cute and help pick out the tree (mind you, I was not adept with saws at age 7 or 8, nor am I now). My dad and brothers had to saw the thing down, and then lug it back to the house, so their memories of this ritual might not be as rosy as mine, which always ended with a hot mug of cocoa.

From there, it was Dad’s job to put the lights on the tree. This was his clearly prescribed duty and resulted in the predictably clenched teeth of a hard-fought victory. Then we would all put the decorations on the tree, ending with the annual ritual torture of single strand application of tinsel. Mom’s job was to make sure the tinsel was dutifully applied strand by painful strand until the tree shone with its unhealthy but fashionable tinsel gleam. No doubt it is a universally shared experience, that moment  when the tinsel watcher leaves the room and those left begin hurling untidy nests of tinsel at the tree.

As an adult, I eschewed the tinsel right from the start, but my husband and I kept up the practice of driving to the tree lot, and picking out our tree, tying it to the top of the car, and driving home,  wrestling it into its holder and upending it in the corner of our living room. At the beginning, Jimmie would help with the lights, and then we would decorate the tree together. There was always that moment when the lights were plugged in and one was out, then tracing which one was out and replacing it. We learned, over the years, to test the lights before mounting them on the tree. As bulbs went from the clumsy C7 sized lamps to the elegant little LED lights, this became imperative. Heavy ornaments went on the bottom of the tree, where the cats and children could bat them around.

The first year that I decided to use an artificial tree,  I remember feeling  guilty about my tree transgression, but with time, that guilt passed. 

When we moved downtown about 6 years ago, and downsized everything, including  the full-sized tree to a  tabletop version, my guilt dissipated – how much time and energy was I saving when I could whip that tree up and out of its box, decorate it and plug it in in about 30 minutes? A lot!

Then, sadly, after about 3 years, that tree, when it wouldn’t light up anymore, went the way of all cheaply crafted Christmas trees, into the trash. I ramped up the Christmas stakes by buying a full 6′ high tree, complete with lights incorporated into its boughs. I was careful to choose one that advertised that if one of the lights went out, the rest of the tree would work. And work it did, that is until today.

Here’s how far my Christmas tree tradition has come from bucolic SW PA.  I went to look for the key to the padlock for our storage area in the garage. It was missing. I remembered that our son had borrowed the key when he was home last, and had not returned it. I grabbed a small screwdriver, thinking I could jimmy it open and not have to replace the padlock.  This is what I saw when I went to the storage area.

My storage unit is the third one from the left, right behind that pile of trash

I reported back to the security desk that we would need to cut the padlock off my locker and move the stuff that had migrated in front of it. Then I made a trip to Home Depot for a new padlock before cutting the old one off the storage unit.

I had texted my son  that we were missing the key to the storage unit and when I emerged from Home Depot with the new padlock, my phone pinged with his response:

Shit, I’m pretty sure it’s on my key ring.

My response was a snotty little selfie video from the parking lot of Home Depot – something snarky and very anti-Christmas-spirit-

Thanks a lot for my trip to Home Depot this morning.

As I lowered my camera, my gaze caught the dirty pickup truck idling in front of me waiting for my parking space. I couldn’t even make eye contact with the driver, but ducked into my car and backed hastily out of the parking spot.

I got back to the apartment, and down to the storage unit I went with the guard and the bolt cutters. Took us about 5 minutes to move the pile of stuff away and replace the lock with the new padlock. Because there wasn’t a cart to carry up the Christmas stuff, I came back up with the guard, then got the cart and eventually wheeled my Christmas supplies up to the unit.

I assembled and plugged in the tree –IMG_3318 the bottom and top worked, with a dark band of no lights in the middle.  Crap.  I dove back into the prickly artificial pine, cursing as I unplugged the lights and with the directions in hand, replugged, until a third band of lights came on. How far from my bucolic child hood memories was I now? I was sure as tooting going to tame this knock off tree into submission. I replaced the fuses in the offending section of tree’s plug. Two different times. Still not working.

My poor husband had watched my odyssey under the tree, and remarked at one point,

I’d rather skip the Christmas tree than see you so upset, dear.

To which I grunted and fanned myself with the instruction manual for the tree.

Off I went on a second trip to Home Depot. Which, by the way, is my average number of trips any time I undertake a home improvement project. There is no such thing as a single trip to Home Depot. That’s why we have taken to calling it Home Despot, right?

The necessary tools to tame the tree.

I was back in about 20 minutes with an extra set of fuses – I couldn’t accept that the string of lights was not fixable. The road to Christmas is paved with the carcasses of the men and women who refuse to accept that the product they bought was disposable.

Pre decorated tree. The Lighting phase is complete. Hallelujah.

The cheat fix worked. The 50 lights inserted in the center of the tree elicited the necessary light for me to go on without chucking the whole thing in the trash. Phew. Christmas saved. Now for a cup of hot cocoa.



Losers on Thanksgiving

First, a few caveats.

A. I am not looking for a lifelong invitation to your Thanksgiving Table.

B. Nor to invite you to our small but fierce Thanksgiving gathering.

Okay, phew. Glad I got that off my chest. Now, on the eve of Thanksgiving, one of the most important American holidays ever, these are the embarrassing admissions of one who claims to live her life with intentionality.

I have not invited anyone to dinner tomorrow. It will be my husband and me.

We are not invited to anyone’s home for dinner tomorrow.

Our son, the commercial fisherman, is off on Thanksgiving, but is in San Francisco, about 7 hours away with a work start time of Thursday evening at 10PM. They call it Black Friday Crab Fishing. So he will not be coming. Can you blame him? He doesn’t even like turkey.

I am a vegetarian, though I will use this forum to out myself. NEWS FLASH!!!!

Last night, hungry and tired after a long day at work, I came home and reheated the stuffed green peppers I had made for my husband on Sunday and we ate them. Yes, beef and rice and tomato sauce. I was not happy, but I was less happy about eating a lean cuisine from the freezer. It’s all about choices, people.

Monday night, after dinner, I determined two things with intentionality.

1. That we would be home and eating food on Thanksgiving Day.

2. That I would choose to create a memorable meal for us both. That I would honor my husband’s carnivorous inclinations and would make a turkey. My path to pure vegetarianism is already splattered with the carcasses of chickens and green peppers stuffed with beef, and of course, bacon, the condiment. So, I figured one more day this week of eating turkey flesh wouldn’t kill me.

I picked up my plastic shopping bags and crossed the street to Ralph’s and in about 15 minutes, acquired all the things that every good red-blooded carnivore grabs at the grocery store in the week leading up to Thanksgiving:

An 8 lb. fresh turkey – (it felt amazingly like the frozen bird in the next case, but hey, I had three days to thaw it out)


Green Beans

A Pumpkin pie to bake in the oven that day

A can of Cranberry relish

An appealing box of generic cube stuffing

Fresh herbs – tarragon, Thyme, Sage and something else seasonably appropriate

1 large white onion

I was feeling pretty smug as I crossed back to the apartment and loaded the makings into the fridge and pantry. I calmly folded the bags and put them in the closet, returning to the couch where Jimmie sat watching the Lakers lose. Again.

Yesterday, I talked with friends at work about what their plans would be and everyone seemed to have managed in spite of their work load, to cough up a festive holiday plan or at least one that sounded much less lame than my own.

And, to add insult to injury, this morning, I picked up the New York Times Food section and found two articles to make me feel even worse about my planning skills:

“Framing the Feast With Style” by Sam Sifton, NY Times  and “A Script for the Role of Guest Star”, by Pete Wells, NY Times

Funny stuff, right? So here’s the thing. It is highly unlikely that I am going to spend a lot of time making the table look like the one depicted in the NY times. I do not have a prop stylist to make the organic brussel sprouts and adorable little pumpkinettes cavort up and down the table runner. For crying out loud, I don’t even have an appropriate Thanksgiving table runner. I feel like we will be lucky to have the living room vacuumed and the turkey cooked to the appropriate temperature. My yams will be orange and hot and steaming. The green beans will be cooked, and buttered, and probably not in some delicious green bean casserole, but some way which my subpar internet connection will elicit from the unending recipes available online. And you know what? It will be all right anyway. Because it is about giving thanks, right? Not about whether my napkins match my tablecloth – which they will by the way, just because they generally do every day. My mother raised me right. And besides, white paper napkins go with just about anything.

So, here’s the important message I take away even if I’m a loser party planner. Tomorrow, on Thanksgiving, I will be with my husband whom I adore and who adores me. Thank you. I am in good health and so is he. Thank you. Our son is gainfully employed and loves us and we love him and give thanks for him every day. Thank you. I am gainfully employed in a job and occupation which feeds me every day. Thank you. My husband has worked his whole life to do the work of an actor and has supported us with his work both now and in semi-retirement. Thank you. We both have loving families with whom we happen not to be celebrating Thanksgiving this year, but with whom we have in the past and will in the future. Thank you.

I hope your Thanksgivings are rich and as full of thanks as ours will be.

Siri and Pearl

New Rule- if I ever go out of town again, I need a travel agent and maybe a driver. When faced with a recruiting trip for my college this weekend, I went online to Cheapoair, my internet travel site of choice. In about ten minutes, I had managed to secure the most fatally flawed itinerary imaginable because online, there is no one to tell you you are an idiot. I take that back- no one reliable.
My itinerary:
Fly Long Beach to SF, pick up a car from an agency called NuCar that even said it was a non airport location in south SF, and drive to the hotel in Burlinggame.
My events were in Oakland.

When I realized that, with not too much trouble, I managed to change my hotel to one in Berkeley, but the car reservation didn’t come clear as a disastrous mess until I had taken the blue train to the car rental hub at SFO only to be told that the car rental place was actually in the South SF. Really, Els?

The LA equivalent of my Bay Area travel debacle would be to fly into LAX, book a rental car at Rent-a-Wreck in downtown LA, a hotel in Valencia and then have meetings in Glendale.

And because idiocy reigned supreme on the day when I booked my own travel, I also booked the return leg at 6:00AM, necessitating the reverse trip to begin sometime around 3:30AM.

So I got to the car, a very cute, pearl gray Fiat 500, a car that I have admired since seeing it out and about in various interesting colors. The very kind man at the Avis counter at the airport, who deftly steered me to the Budget counter, sealing irrefutably that car rental companies are one big monopoly, gave me an upgrade, in addition to the car. I had been feeling pretty good about my $40.00 NuCar Rental until Mr. Avis/Budget told me the best deal for the 40 hr rental period was $125.00. (Hey, recruiting ain’t cheap.)

Exhausted from having come directly from tech rehearsal to the airport, it was a small price to pay to get me on the road. I got in the little Fiat, which is actually quite spacious, and after checking all the mirrors, lights, etc., and getting Siri to give me the directions I needed to get to Berkeley, I backed out of the slot and started out of the car rental garage.

The car, with an automatic transmission, actually has two little symbols to the left of the D. A plus sign and a minus sign. It was groaning and straining when I pulled the stick to the left so those were lit up.

About now, you are thinking, “what college does she recruit for? Why is she such a moron?” Wait, gets better.

The drive to the Doubletree Berkeley Marina is pretty straight forward until you get off at University Avenue and have to do a Uturn at Seventh to get going the right direction. It was early, but dark enough that as I approached Marina Avenue. On what is essentially a very poorly paved road, my thoughts were beginning to go toward a James Ellison novel. Siri told me we had arrived when clearly we had not, but Pearl and I just kept driving until the warm and welcoming lights of the Doubletree chocolate chip cookie inn appeared on the left.

The auditions went very well. The school had extremely talented students in production, and we got out just at 4:00pm as promised. I bid my colleague, Sergio, goodbye, and toodled back to the hotel.

The good news about the trip, aside from getting to meet about 17 interested production students is that I was able to arrange to have dinner with some college friends whom I just seen a few weeks earlier when they traveled to USC with their two children to see the campus. So I figured I would head back to the hotel and just kick back for a while before heading to their house, also in Berkeley.

Siri told me to take the 580 W and I tried to, but misinterpreted her directions to stay on the road I was on at a critical juncture- the Bay Bridge. Before I could even say “Els, you are an idiot,” I found myself approaching the toll plaza for the Bay bridge, fast track off to the right, cash lanes to the left. Panic time. But no, Siri was telling me in her so calm and authoritative voice, to take the first exit, West Grand Ave., which I could see ahead up to the right. The last exit for Oakland. Off I veered, rather too dramatically for my own tastes, and the Pearl and I were suddenly on some bypass road, completely bypassing the toll plaza. And yes, that blue flash was the camera taking my picture to send me the ticket. I was going as slowly as I could, and off to my right, there was a CHP officer ticketing someone else who had done exactly what I did. Maybe Siri gets a kickback from the CHP for guiding lost tourists onto the FastTrak bus lane at the toll plaza. But there was nothing to do. I even slowed down in case he had time to finish his ticketing process and turn his attention to me. Now Siri had me get back into the bridge traffic. People around me were clearing for me as they knew I was the worst driver this side of Kansas, and Siri told me to get over to the left lane and get off at Treasure island. Which I did, doing the Uturn she told me to do. Another CHP officer watched me from his car at that ramp entrance. It seems pretty clear that either Siri doesn’t know wtf she is doing in giving directions, or there are a whole lot of U-turns necessary to drive in this part of the world.
Pearl started groaning conspicuously, and was flashing her red “check transmission” sign on the dash. I exited at University Avenue again, did a uey at Seventh, this time in rush hour traffic, and soon glided into the parking space at the Doubletree Chocolate Chip Inn.

While I was more than a little worried about my drive to my friends’ home, Pearl made it and we had a very pleasant evening talking about days long gone by I know that it will be worth it to spend the evening with them. I just hoped that Pearl could manage the drive back to SFO in the wee hours.
She did, and now I am happily ensconced in the safety of my tech rehearsal.

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

Did anyone else find the juxtaposition of the two top news stories today weird?

Philae the Robot
This picture from Rosetta’s Osiris instrument shows the Philae lander on its way to the comet

A scientific satellite that was launched ten years ago over 300 million miles into space, with the seemingly  absurd intention of landing it on a 2.5 mile wide comet hurtling through space at over 34,000 miles per hour successfully touched down on the comet’s icy surface without sustaining damage.

BBC Story on The Rosetta Mission


NY Window Washers (NY Times)
Photo by Fred R. Conrad, New York Times

A pair of window washers in New York City, tasked with cleaning a brand new state of the art building with a brand new scaffolding rig ended up cattywampus on the side of the new 1 World Trade Center building, dangling perilously 69 stories above Manhattan’s streets. Coverage was provided by some guy in a hotel on his cell phone who started tweeting about them and ended up talking on the air on CNN for a good 5-10 minutes.

New York Times story about the 1 World Trade Center Window washers

It was a surreal day in the news.

A Week of Theatre Fit for a King or a President

LA Stage Ovation Award Statuettes raise their arms enthusiastically prior to the award ceremony
Ovation Awards Nominees
Karyn D. Lawrence, Cricket Myers, Tom Buderwitz

It’s been a whirlwind week. By the end of the week, I will have seen six different plays. The week began last Sunday night when I attended the Ovation Awards, where about a thousand more or less inebriated but completely zealous theatre artists raised the roof of the San Gabriel Playhouse in celebration of the LA community’s theatrical triumphs. LA’s theatrical royalty gathered. It was great fun. The photo to the right shows the three guest designers, nominated for Ovations, all of whom are working at USC on Cat Among The Pigeons.

Austin Humble, Mikael Mattsson, Katie Baker in the USC School of Dramatic Arts production of “Cat Among The Pigeons,” directed by Michael Keenan, Costumes by Howard Schmitt, Scenic Design by Tom Buderwitz, Lighting Design by Karyn D. Lawrence, Sound Design by Cricket Myers

Monday night I attended the first dress rehearsal for Cat Among The Pigeons. This week will end with our seeing the last performance before striking the show.

Tuesday night, which was also election night, or as I refer to it, The Night of the Long Knives, took us to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica to see the touring production of “King Lear”, a condensed 8 actor ensemble version of the play visiting from London’s Old Globe. The players changed costumes a vista within the neutral wooden framework of Jonathan Fensom’s set. All sound was actor generated, from the music, created on three different accordions and a concertina, and a guitar to the thunder created from shaken tin sheets. The actors, who started the evening schmoozing with the audience before being called to the stage for the opening number, were varied in age and ability. Joseph Marcell as Lear had amazing stamina and the vocal power for the role, but much of the dialogue seemed unheard between characters, his delivery a bit overblown to my ear. The audience enthusiastically responded to the show; my standing ovation motivated more by my restless leg syndrome than by my real appreciation. I couldn’t get up fast enough. How’s that for ingratitude.  Nevertheless, I was pleased to see the company perform.

Wednesday’s fare was the national touring production of “Pippin” at the Pantages Theatre. Truly entertaining,  this production marked a full circle in my theatrical life. As a 12-year-old, the first Broadway show I saw in New York was “Pippin,” with John Rubinstein playing Pippin opposite Ben Vereen’s Leading Player. Since that time, we have worked with John both at USC and at the Interact Theatre Company. John is now playing Charles, the King,  in the current tour.

Jimmie Greene and John Rubinstein
Two wonderful actors – James Greene and John Rubinstein backstage at the Pantages Theatre, Nov. 4, 2014.                           Photo by Els Collins

After the show, he graciously greeted us and several other USC colleagues like visiting royalty when we tramped backstage. Even after bounding about the stage for two hours, his zest and generosity in greeting us was pretty amazing and inspiring. We were so happy for his current success and his clear enjoyment of it.

Thursday night we stayed home, having dinner with Chris.

William Jefferson Clinton and Dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, Jim Ellis on the stage of Bovard Auditorium

Friday afternoon, I attended a speech at Bovard Auditorium by William Jefferson Clinton. I have never had the privilege of hearing or seeing in person a US President, so I was thrilled to be able to attend his speech on Friday. He spoke with hope about the next twenty years; about the power of technology to do good work in health care and education and research, and noted that much good was accomplished in the last 6 years of his presidency in spite of the Republican Senate. Made me feel a bit better about Tuesday’s election.

That night, we attended “Painting in Red” a world premiere play by Luis Alfaro based on Calderon de la Barca’s El pintor de su deshonra, at the Greenway Court Theatre, a production of Playwright’s Arena, Jon Lawrence Rivera’s Los Angeles based playwriting theatre collective. The play shows great promise, dealing as Luis’ plays seem to, with historic  high stakes events, transmogrified into more familiar territory. Two of this play’s characters, Joe and Elisa, San Fernando Valley denizens,  initially enthralled with Granada Hills for its “spanish” roots, now yearn for the dirty immediacy of downtown LA; their speeches were seasoned with references to and nostalgia for the foods we can eat downtown and in it’s environs. Anyone who knows and loves Luis can identify with the cadence of his character of Rodney’s sardonic wit, or Elisa’s appreciation of the bao in a bag that she later admits to have smelled way before Olivia gave it to her.

Today,  Saturday, we went to the work light rehearsals for two of the three MFA Year 3 Acting students Rep plays in a rehearsal room at USC. “The Servant of Two Masters,” by William Goldoni, in a translation by Sylvie Drake, and “Blood Match” by Oliver Mayer, after Federico Garcia  Lorca’s Blood Wedding. A company of 9 actors, a total of 5 hours of text between the two plays, and an astonishing array of talent. I love these worklight rehearsals. They are, as MFA Acting program director David Bridel said in his intro to the first run through, a celebration of the rehearsal process. In the room, in addition to the MFA 3rd years, were the MFA 2nd years, and the MFA 1st years. There were also returning alumni from the earlier years. The diverse  faces of the students at all stages in the program beamed as they laughed and took enjoyment and pride in the work of their fellow students. You could see them thinking about the rep process in their futures,  the wonder of their own potential learning.  I loved seeing their stamina and energy, their physical strengths of voice and movement, the comedy and commedia dell’arte and their mastery of the texts, which are complex and vital to the clear conveyance of the stories in both plays. It was exhausting even sitting there in the room. I can’t imagine what they were feeling like afterwards.

So, all in all, an excellent week of theatre. Fit for a couple of kings and a President.


Itinerancy – A Life In The Theatre

This weekend, during the School of Dramatic Arts faculty retreat,  Oliver Mayer, one of our Playwriting faculty members used  a wonderful word in the context of our School’s need for a shared space.

Itinerancy (as defined by Merriam-Webster) n. A system of rotating ministers who itinerate.

Itinerate is then described as “to travel a preaching or judicial circuit.”(Crossword fans remember Iter is Latin for road, right? Well, itinerans is Latin for to travel.)

This Moebius strip of a definition seems fitting because an itinerant is always itinerating, yet the action seems defined by the iter and not what it is that the itinerant does while he/she itinerates. I would also take Merriam-Webster a bit to task for the limiting the defined parties only to the  ministerial and judicial spheres, but given that the word came into being in the 1789 when those professions may have been more forward in peoples’ minds, I guess it is excusable.

As a life long member of theatre’s itinerant tribe, I feel a complete comfort and  affinity with this lifestyle. In fact, Itinerancy is one of the most appealing things about a life in the theatre.

We are on the go a lot, which while tiring, perhaps, is always invigorating. I don’t mean necessarily being on the road on tour, either.  I recognize that  unique theatrical productions provide islands of community from which we hop to and fro. I tell anyone who will listen that “there are only 100 people who work in the theatre,” because that is what it can feel like when you find yourself in the room at a theatrical opening, or indeed, at a first rehearsal of a play. We experience warm reunions or sometimes cool nods of the head with people we may not be so pleased to see or be seen by. My life itself is not itinerant in any significant sense, but I welcome my daily work jaunts to these theatrical islands not as vacations, but as the norm.

Being itinerant requires a blend of flexibility, spontaneity and extreme planning . We theatre artists blend these into our  lives and work.  I talked a few posts ago about the kleptomania of theatre artists who steal anything and everything from their daily encounters for use in their current work. Well, we also find pleasure in the constant encounters happening in the intensely human interactions of rehearsals or techs. We add these feather weight talismans to our psychic suitcases like pretty travel stickers of trips gone by.

Travel stickers

This week provided the perfect illustration of the beauty of itinerancy.

When faced with an over scheduled week, I am  not relaxed, or pleased or without stress. This weekend was shaping up something like this:
Friday – 11:00-5:00PM           Faculty Retreat (Hotel on the westside)

Friday 6-10PM                             Tech at the Bing (Shift Rehearsal)

Saturday 9:00-5:00PM            Faculty Retreat (Hotel on the westside)

Saturday 6:00-10:00PM         10 out of 12’s at the Bing

Sunday 10:30AM                          Walk through of area needing painting at my condo

Sunday 12:00PM                         10 out of 12s continue at the Bing

Sunday 4:30PM                             Strike Set for Summer Brave

Sunday 6:00-11:00PM              Attend LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards (Black Tie event) (San Gabriel)

This schedule with all its geographic breadth is a macro version of what we do at USC all the time – walking all over the campus to visit the spaces in which we work. Hence the use by Oliver of the word itinerancy. You have noticed that there is more than a hint of martyrdom in any good self-respecting itinerant. I or others of my tribe might list a schedule like the one above to impress with how busy we are, the subtext of which is “Look how much more I can fit than is humanly possible into my schedule.” You know the boring old cliché of human doings and not human beings? See above.

Well the beauty of my schedule was that sometime around 2:00PM today, after leaving the house ready to trudge from assignment to assignment,  I was suddenly free to return home for 3 unscheduled hours! I was positively giddy.


And now, in the luxury of that unexpected island of time, I can prepare myself to attend the LA Stage Ovation Awards. It will be like stepping onto a tropical island, filled with other itinerants drawn to the sandy, sunny, and familiar shores.

Pass me the sunscreen, won’t you?