#GrownLadyCrush – Sarah G. Epstein

I was driving to get my allergy shot today, an unfortunate but necessary 1.5 hour investment of time in myself, when I heard an interesting NPR Story about why old women are so often the face of evil in fairy tales and folklore. I listened avidly, as scholars from Harvard and beyond dissected our cultural crone-ology, the dominance of scary old women in Disney films and beyond. You should read the article, but at the tag end of the story, listeners were directed to post instagram pictures of women of the generation above us (very PC way to put it) who inspire us. We were to label them our #GrownLadyCrushes.

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Sarah G. Epstein, my #GrownLadyCrush

I thought it appropriate that on the occasion of my stepmother’s 90th birthday, which happens to fall on Halloween, appropriately seasonal for this bewitching topic, I would spend some time introducing you to my #GrownLadyCrush, Sarah G. Epstein.

Girls on the Pier, 1920 by Edvard Munch
Molly Melching, Founder of TOSTAN, another #GrownLadyCrush

I have known Sally for a little more than twenty years, since we traveled to Vietnam in 1994 on a family planning trip organized by my father. Both he and she have had lives deeply involved in bettering methods of female contraceptives, and it was on this trip where their common interests became bonded by affection and eventually love.

They have been married for more than 20 years now, and over these 20 years, I have had the privilege of learning more about Sally and her passions. She is a strong and opinionated woman, well-read and well traveled, avidly interested in helping to solve the world’s burgeoning population problem. Her frequent letters come in recycled envelopes, graced with stickers promoting organizations like “Friends of the Earth.” Frequently, she has sent birthday gifts in my name to Tostan, an organization started by Molly Melching, a young woman who moved to Senegal in 1974 as an exchange student, and began working there, helping to create a model for Community Empowerment Programs which has by now blossomed into more than 7200 communities who have publicly declared the end of FGC and child/forced marriage. Molly Melching, whom Sally provided me with the means to meet, is another of my #GrownLadyCrushes.

In addition to Sally’s powerful footprint in the world and making a difference in womens’ lives, she is a passionate advocate and collector of  the artwork of Edvard Munch. A self-educated Munch collector and scholar, she has written numerous articles and books, and is one of the most prominent American collectors of Munch’s lithographs. She has lectured widely about his life and work, and as a result of this passion, she has traveled the world behind her collection, which she has generously loaned to many museums hosting retrospectives of Munch’s work. Sally has written a lot about the fact that much of Munch’s work documented the three phases of a woman’s life: the virginal young woman, portrayed as a lithe figure in white often looking out to sea; the strong, passionate woman in the midstream of her life, depicted either naked, or clothed in red; the crone, depicted in black.  A powerful rendition of this journey we make as women is seen in his 1895 etching entitled, “Woman.” Munch utilized these iconic  women in white, red and black throughout his work, including in the lithograph depicted above, “The Girls on the Pier, 1920”, which is the frontispiece of her book, entitled “Edvard Munch, Master Prints from the Epstein Family Collection.” Sally thoughtfully questioned whether the artist intended these icons to be chronological (or crone-ological) or layered aspects of any woman at any point in her life. That’s how Sally thinks – she does big picture and drill-down thinking at the same time.

Woman, 1895 by Edvard Munch

Sally and her former husband, Lionel Epstein,  had begun collecting these Munch etchings and lithographs back in the 1960s, when, as Sally described herself, she was young, idealistic, and innocent. She wrote about her own stages of life as related to her collecting in the essay from the book above, “Living with Edvard Munch Images: A Collector in Three Stages.” In another essay entitled “The Expressionist Prints of Edvard Munch and Richard Bosman” which she co-authored with Charles T. Butler for an exhibit at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia, she discussed her life as a collector. In this essay, her youthful enthusiasm about the impact of Munch’s work on her as a young woman is evident. CloseTotheSurface

I have enjoyed our correspondence over the past 20 years. Sally is so thoughtful about finding articles about the theatre that she thinks I might be interested in, and sending me the periodic post card, always jotted with something about a recent trip or experience she has had. She is extremely organized and disciplined, spending part of each day in correspondence with friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if she spent a good part of her time combing the papers for relevant articles just so she could reach out and remain connected with her friends and family. Sally catalogues her friends and associates from all walks of life, collecting information and updates on them, maintaining a detailed card catalogue system which I have long envied. Early noting my interest in Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Sally has sent me dozens of postcards and many books and has always urged me to write about O’Keeffe’s early trips to New Mexico to visit Mabel Luhan Dodge, and her subsequent life at the Ghost Ranch. We’ve talked about what a fascinating play it could be.  Not too long ago, she sent me an article about the hockey great Gordie Howe, and a copy of his book to Chris, because she knew about his love of hockey.

Sally, in addition to her philanthropy and tireless advocacy of many causes, takes time to throw a pot or two. No, not in petulance, but she is an accomplished ceramicist. She makes beautiful natural colored bowls, and vases, many of which grace our home from 20 years as grateful recipients. In addition, due to her travels, Sally always has the most interesting gifts, brough from points far and wide and shared with equanimity. Finding a gift for her, on the other hand, can be quite challenging, though she has never seemed displeased with our presents.

Sally’s life long dedication to others has been noted many times. She was named the Feminist of the Month by the Veteran Feminists of America, in July, 2010, for her Worldwide Family Planning work, and her advocacy of the Quinacrine Method of Sterilization. She was presented with the Emily K.E. Bradley Award in 2010 for her numerous years of service to Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington.

But on the occasion of her 90th birthday, these are just a few of the things Sally has taught me to aspire to in my womanly journey:

  1. A well organized Itinerary is an essential part of orderly travel.
  2. It’s easy to cook a turkey. Don’t be intimidated. Just baste it every 20 minutes or so and it will turn out fine.
  3. Nothing warms the heart more than a nice letter or postcard in the mail.
  4. Aging does not remove the exceptional accomplishments of one’s younger life. (I recently learned that while an international exchange student, Sally had climbed the Watzmann, the third highest peak in Germany at the age of 22.)
  5. Actions speak much more about who you are than words.
  6. By acknowledging other people’s interests, you validate them.
  7. Make philanthropy a part of your daily life. Find organizations you care about and support those.
  8. Keep in touch with your family. Gather them around you on important occasions.
  9. Support the arts. Go to the theatre, opera, gallery openings frequently.
  10. Have a creative outlet. Take time each day to exercise, and to be creative.

As I approach the advanced platform of being a grandmother, I aspire to not be Baba Yaga to my precious granddaughter, but instead, her #GrownLadyCrush. Wish me luck, and thanks to Sally for showing me the Lady Crush path. Baba_Yaga_front

Drone Parenting – Els being Els

I have mastered drone parenting. Not to be confused with helicopter parenting, I don’t swoop in, but assist as possible with drone drops on our son through the miracle of the internet and the immediacy of social media and messaging.


Years ago, 31 to be exact, when Jimmie and I got engaged, I made plans to go home to my grandparents’ for a weekend, to have a fitting of my grandmother’s wedding dress. It was a beautiful ivory, butter satin 1920’s mermaid style dress, cut on the bias, with a two foot long train, and about fifteen tiny, ivory satin-covered buttons beginning at my slim hips and parading all the way up my side.

Theatre artists appreciate the value of previously worn costumes, and what is a wedding dress but a once-worn costume from a very special performance? I felt so fortunate to have access to this beautiful gown, and was looking forward to the fitting.

Jimmie and I had determined that we would be married at the little Episcopalian church around the corner from our apartment. Neither of us was particularly religious, but we found an Episcopalian minister to officiate. We met with her, discussed our vows, and had begun planning our reception at Paulson’s, a local restaurant with a cabaret space above it.

My weekend trip to the homestead in Wilkes-Barre was expressly for fitting the dress, but it was also the first time I had been home since we had announced our engagement. I had attended my brother Larry and his wife Barbara’s wedding in San Francisco with my Mom and grandparents. When I returned, I was flush with affection for Jimmie, without whom I had been almost a week.  The actual asking had been mutual. I was telling him about the wedding, while sitting on his well-worn sofa in the Upper West Side apartment,  draped with a cat in each of our laps. After sharing the details of the wedding we simultaneously blurted out

We should get married, don’t you think? or

Do you think we will get married one day?

Or something like that.  I should remember an important moment like that much more clearly. You probably consider it careless of me to have lost the details; in my later years, this moment may clarify while the details of this week’s tech and opening will probably shuffle off into the mists.

Cut to a month later as we feverishly planned our wedding for September 1st. It was early in June, and having returned from the church after meeting with the minister, Jimmie quietly produced a little velvet box from his jacket pocket, opening it to reveal a beautiful single diamond set in a gold setting.

I thought it was important for you to have this before you went home this weekend, he said, tenderly taking my hands in his and slipping the ring onto my left hand.

How did he know that the timing was so crucial? I didn’t care about the ring, but my Mom and grandparents would see it as an affirmation that this actor  I loved would be able to support me.

The Nehmes – at Define Diamond, 606 S Hill St # P1, Los Angeles, CA 90014 (213) 622-0455

I wanted to do everything I could to help with a similar reveal for Chris and Whitney prior to her return home for the baby shower. Several weeks ago, Chris and I began the surreptitious planning of the ring. We have the good fortune of having jewelers in the family, in our spiritual family. Having a family jeweler beats having a family plumber for sure. Our former neighbors, Hala and Michel Nehme have a jewelry stall on Hill and 6th Street in Downtown LA. Chris encouraged me to be his proxy shopper, so Jimmie and I went over to their shop and perused the rings, sending photos of a few to Chris before returning home to wait to see if he liked any of our options.

Chris selected a very pretty ring and then it was up to me to get it to him in time to give it to Whitney before she left for the baby shower.

Hmmmm. How to package it? I thought about sending it in a box of brownies.

Don’t do that. Whitney likes brownies and she’ll open the box.

What about sending it in a box of your old playstation games?

That sounds good. She’ll never expect that.

So, I tromped off to the UPS store with a quite heavy box of old junk, in the corner of which was secreted this elegant gift box and beautiful ring in it. IMG_5195

The heavily inked UPS store employees didn’t flinch when I insured the box of Playstation parts for over a grand.

There’s an engagement ring in there, I explained lamely.

All was swell, except that as soon as I sent the box, I discovered that Chris was going out of town for the weekend with the hockey team he coaches, and wasn’t going to be home for the box to arrive.

Tell Whitney I sent you a box of playstation games.

It was kinda funny explaining it to whit because she was like “but we don’t have a play station’

I feel like a junkie receiving old games to pawn…

I furtively tracked the progress of the package on my computer over the weekend and found out that Whitney had missed two delivery attempts. Chris, who had forgotten his telephone in his car told me via computer that he had a hard time making her care about the package of playstation parts that I had sent.  Whitney had asked him why I cared so much about the playstation toys.

Oh, she said, is it Els being Els?

This will be one of those things you laugh about in a year, I said.

In the meantime, we’ve droned a stroller, a crib, and some organic cotton diapers their way. Just Els being Els.

Got the Blog – Now, What Do I Write?

MFA Y3 Actor Christian Henley listens to Spotlight on SDA speaker Danny Strong at a recent visit to USC. (Photo by USC/Gus Ruelas)

A few weeks ago, Christian, one of the MFA Y3 Actors approached me to ask me how I had gone about starting my blog. I told him what I had learned when I started it about two years ago, in competition with my son. Chris had figured out how to do it and was soon but very briefly  blogging from the bunk of The Autumn Gale, my brother Larry’s salmon and crab fishing boat, moored at Fisherman’s Wharf. That was back in September 2013, and a quick autodidactic tour of wordpress.com told me I could do it too.

Two years later, I know a lot more about the benefits of having a blog; I love the feeling of sitting down on the couch with my computer open on my lap with the tiniest thread of an idea, pulling and worrying it into 800-1000 words. They are not always noteworthy, but they are always mine, and uniquely so. Frequently, through the action of fingers tapping on the quiet flat black keys of my macbook, I discover and tease apart a knot of worry that resides in my brain from the previous days.

I don’t kid myself to have hundreds of followers. It isn’t that for me, though that might be gratifying.  It’s about practicing writing and listening to what my heart needs to say at any given time. Recently, I’ve elected to write more about my work, to try to shed some light on what a stage manager does. Perhaps I will write about what a production manager does as well one day. And eventually, what a retired person does.

A few days ago, I got an email from Christian again, the greeting of which was a simple “haha”. He told me


I have my blog all set up!

Now just need to know what to write about!

I thought it was sweet that he was turning to me for suggestions about what to write about. I had encouraged him, so felt a sense of duty in cueing him to get him launched. In responding, I admitted that I had hit a dry patch in terms of my writing – hadn’t felt particularly fertile in recent weeks. So I am going to take advantage of my recommendations to prime my own writer’s pump.

Five things you noticed about your practice during a recent rehearsal or performance:

  1. I noticed during one of the last performances of “The Gospel at Colonus” as I looked out the window at the end of the first act, a middle-aged woman, with gray curls, smiling and facing me while blowing me overly dramatic air kisses. I had no idea who it was, until I squinted a little bit more (yes, I need to get new glasses) and saw that it was an old college friend that I had done theatre with back at Princeton. She was always a free spirit, and as an adult, she now works with transgender runaway teens here in Hollywood. I hadn’t seen her for about 10 years – the last time was backstage at the Ahmanson, when she arrived with her charges in tow, to meet Sir Ian McKellon after a performance of the RNT/Ahmanson Co-production of “The Enemy of The People.” Having just gained entrance to the backstage hallway, Norma stood in the hall outside the stage manager’s office, arms open wide, and yelled as she saw me, “CUNT!!!”  (I’m allowed to use that word because I stage managed “The Vagina Monologues” for over a year, just in case you were wondering.) Cut to ten years later, and seeing my old friend Norma outside the protective casing of the calling booth at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, I did nothing more than blow back overly dramatic air kisses and tell my headset pals the tale of our last reunion. I then did a wiggle dance, which is apparently what you are supposed to do when you have made inappropriate headset conversation.  Alas, she was gone by the time I emerged from the booth after the show, so I had no more encounters to report from the lobby of the Holden.
  2. IMG_4447 3
    The cast of The Gospel At Colonus during “Lift Him Up.”

    I noticed the inevitable closing night nostalgia wending its tentacles through my heart during the final moments, as I watched the beautiful cast led by Nicoe Nikki Potts sing “Lift Him Up,” and the entire audience on their feet clapping their hands and jamming to the song. I tried to will that euphoric feeling to stay permanently in my body as it has been the most extraordinary pleasure.

  3. Two of my former stage management students came to visit me this past week. Actually, they made their annual pilgrimage on Jack Rowe’s birthday, October 7th; arriving on campus at around 3:00, they found me in my office and we walked over to the Drama Center, talking about their recent triumphs in work and in life. We paused to take a selfie in the middle of Child’s Way and almost got killed by a Coca Cola delivery van – that would have been a really ignominious end.
    Els, Sue McGrew and Jaclyn Kalkhurst in a near death experience on Childs Way.

    Very anticlimactic. I was, as I always am when former students seek me out, so glad to hear about their lives, and so honored to be included in their thoughts when they return for brief visits to the campus and school. Jack, however, was teaching and missed their visit.

  4. I attended the Wednesday night opening of “Mansfield Park,” sitting next to the parent of one of the students in the play. We were settled in for Act I when all of a sudden bright lights and the ear crushing sound of the fire alarm chirped in the Bing Theatre. Every one of the past incidents where haze had caused the alarm to trip came flooding back to me. I felt the muscles in my thighs tighten as my body prepared to stand and evacuate the theatre. And then it stopped. In my mind’s eye, I could see Jessica, the stage manager, in the booth moving her left hand to the tab on her notebook marked “Emergency Announcements” and preparing to flip them to place should she need to evacuate the theatre. Sure enough, later, when I saw her, she said she had done just that. Eventually, I noticed that my thigh muscles had relaxed as had my brain and I enjoyed the rest of the production.
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    Stacey Wang Rizzo as she works her magic to get an acceptable head shot for Els.

    I had the most exquisite email last week which prompted the need for me to have a new headshot taken. (No, the list of MacArthur Grant recipients came out the week before and I was not on it. Nor is the Nobel Peace prize within my grasp.) Because of that, I was able to capture this model’s-eye-view photo of our fantastic Stacey Wang Rizzo, Director of Print and Digital Media for the School of Dramatic Arts in the middle of doing her job. Yes, the old adage of no good deed goes unpunished comes to mind here.

So, you see, Christian, there are many many things to write about. The world is your subject. I look forward to hearing what you have to say!