The Business of Gratitude

Did I mention that  I started my own business this week? Well, truth be told, it was several weeks ago, but the paperwork has been arriving in the mail from various state and federal entities. There’s a gravitas to the arrival of these tax notifications, etc. that is quite overwhelming and sobering. I am most definitely having buyer’s remorse.

Most people probably have an idea for a business and start baking cupcakes, let’s say, in their kitchen, and then share them at work, where a lot of people tell them how yummy they are. Then they ramp up their cupcake production, children and friends helping to ice them. Then they start selling them for their friends’ children’s birthday parties, then to the PTA meetings, then, and only then, when they’ve established that there is a market for their cupcakes, do they start a company.

Not me.

My business was borne of a gift. A gift sent to my school on my behalf, in honor of me by my high school theatre mentor.  It was a beautiful gesture, one which caused me to write an email of thanks to him and his spouse. I chose to write a silly affectionate email in a style evoked by their foundation’s name.

Dear Grand-père and Grand-mère,

Yesterday, I received the most wonderful email alerting me  of an unexpected and delightful grant in honor of me! It was so generous of you, and here, after all this time of not even paying you a visit to your Berkshire home. Our ill-timed trip to your neck of the woods resulted in no time sitting on the porch basking in the beautiful buggy breezes, no chatting and sipping from a high frosty glass of lemonade, though, as you know, Grandparents, I prefer my Arnie Palmers after a bracing game of lawn croquet. It doesn’t seem I deserve such a gift.

Seriously, though, it was the nicest thing that’s happened to me since last week when I received the painting from Tante Irene. I am apparently emitting the “Els needs gifts” juju and the wealth of the world and you, dear Grandpere et Grandmere, has been extraordinary.

I do have some concerns that our mutual admiration philanthropy may result in that kind of ridiculous exchange of gifts where I send my brother an Amazon gift card of $50 on his birthday and he sends the same to me on mine. Or, god forbid, an escalation of competitive philanthropy resulting in one or the both of us ending up in the poor house. But for the time being, I am basking in the complete satisfaction that he that inducted me with the vow of theatrical poverty hath also given me riches to squander in its pursuit. And those are riches indeed.

I thank you so much, Grand-père et Grand-mére, and reiterate that though we don’t have the bucolic porch on which to sip our frosty lemonade, we have a skyline facing view with hummingbirds in the foreground awaiting your visit. In the meantime, Thank you, Thank you, Thank you for your thoughtful gift to my students.

If I could see you I know you would be rolling your eyes. Maybe even guffawing. I talked with my husband tonight about how ridiculous it was. But at the time, the previous weeks had been about the three GRs – Grit, Gratitude and Grace. I owed most of the inspiration for my recent scribblings to Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, but I credit the events of weeks past for the Gratitude part; the Grace factor, well that’s the elusive thing we all strive to achieve.

As I was cleaning our apartment that morning several weeks ago, dusting, changing the sheets, dumping the trash, so enthused was I with my gratitude and my own wit, I thought,

AHA! What if I started a business where I would write thank you notes for people?

No one likes to write thank you notes. My dear departed Mom was so insistent about writing thank you notes that even now my hand starts to twitch toward the nook on my writing desk anytime anyone even threatens kindness. I can’t ever leave a stationery store without scoping out the thank you note section. Vroman’s is ruinous. But maybe I’ve come up with a way to underwrite my addiction.

My new company is called Gratitude, and will utilize writers to pen thank you notes for the Average Jane or Joe who wants a really special thank you note sent to someone for a gift he/she has received. Need a thank you note? Here’s all I need to know:

  1. Gift Recipient’s name and address
  2. The Gift Giver’s name and address
  3. What the gift was
  4. Date you received the gift
  5. A few lines about what your relationship to the gifter is
  6. Maybe one fact about where you grew up for flavor

STYLE: Choose your thank you note style

  1. Sincere
  2. Funny
  3. Irreverent
  4. Duck Dynasty
  5. Victorian Lady’s Letter of Thanks
  6. Raymond Chandler

OUR TEAM OF WRITERS (because this business will take off really fast, requiring the additional writers to the team – and I have already selected you, you can be sure) are either randomly assigned the notes, or, you, the gift recipient, can hand pick your writer.

HANDWRITTEN? TYPED? Do you want to let the giver know how much you cared? You didn’t sit down at your kitchen table, push the dirty dishes out of the way and pull out the notecards, brow furrowed, sweating over the notecard to write your thanks! No! You commissioned a thank you note of merit to reflect your profound appreciation for their gift. Think of it as a work of art.

TIMELY GUARANTEE! The note will go out within 24 hours of the order being placed and you will receive a copy of the note.

WHAT DOES THIS SERVICE COST? You tell me. What would you pay for someone to write your notes for you? $5.00 a piece?

So I did it a little out of order.  I didn’t don my apron and head out to the kitchen to start practicing writing delicious thank you notes. I went directly to my computer and typed in, where I started my company. Took about 15 minutes. For which I will be eternally grateful.

Gratitude is now easy.

Thanks 2

Elk Confidant- Wapiti Whisperer

At the end of May, Hannah was offered a gift from a local theatre which shall remain nameless. It arrived early in June, and sat on the end of the work table in the production office for two months. A trophy Elk head with a beautiful rack of antlers, 10 point by my amateur count. I say amateur because a brief query about how to refer to his magnificence reminded me that there are experts in everything, and you can find them within seconds on your digital devices. Just typed in “How do you count an Elk’s antlers?” and within moments learned that there are several considerations to this question.

Regional: Are you western or eastern?

  • If western, you only count one side, so Mr. Big Head (our temporary but affectionate name) is a 5 point elk.
  • If eastern, as in east of the Mississippi,  he would be a 10 point elk.
  • But wait! Whose region? Mine or the elk’s? Where he is now? Or where he was when he lived with his “gang” (yes, that’s the nomenclature).
  • I prefer my region and now his as it sounds more impressive.  I can also refer to him as a 5×5, which sounds like the type of big-ass truck complete with the gun rack in the back that I might have driven while hunting this beautiful beast had we not acquired him in a more peaceful theatrical hand off.

Size of points

  • In order to qualify as a point, the projections need to be at least 1 inch out from the main “beam”, and longer than they are wide. (Mr. Big Head is clearly and proudly a 10 point. Hey, I’m from Pennsylvania. Don’t know where he’s from originally, but he’s western now!)


  • There are professional scorers who can score them (sets of antlers) for you. I guess if you want to sell your antlers.

Like I said, there are experts in all fields.

Mr. Big Head sat on the work table, nose pointed blithely to the sky all summer long. I ate lunch with him every day; the production and design faculty had curriculum meetings with him listening from the comfy chair near my desk where he’d been moved to make room for our meeting. After that meeting, he spent the rest of the summer lounging in that big leather chair. His big eyes gazing across at me were comforting throughout the summer as I assembled the fall pre-production materials. I caught him looking at me and would wink at him conspiratorially when on the phone. Michael, our Assistant Technical Director, swears that he overheard me talking to Mr. Big Head several times during the summer when he worked in the theatre.

I smugly demised that his tenure in our office was short-term, because of his size and the low heights of our ceilings. Hannah and I texted over the summer about the ideal spot for him (was there one?) and decided that maybe over the couch would work, though one of his 5 or 10 points might put some poor student’s eye out, which would be antithetical to our mission. So that was a problem.

When Hannah returned a few weeks ago to work, it didn’t take her long to swing into action in mounting the elk head. She found the perfect spot, directly over the comfy leather chair, which sits directly across from my desk. Even during the installation, people flocked to Mr. Big Head, sharing intimacies with him, joking and stroking his wise chin and neck for comfort.

Mr. Big Head is a good listener. He doesn’t judge. He is so kind, and allows those he meets to stroke his neck which isn’t even too dusty. He models amazing counseling skills – listen a lot, speak a little. He let the advisee craft his/her own solutions without butting in. After all, he’s wise enough to know that it’s dangerous to butt in when you have a 10 point rack.

So in the last week since the mounting of Mr. Big Head, I have begun taking portraits of some of  his fans.

Hannah reading fall play scripts as Mr. Big Head looks on.

I wonder what he thinks of the plays? But he is the soul of discretion. He would never say anything to make us question our season.

He’s also modest, but we’ll see how long that lasts. Hannah, his agent is already brokering possible appearances in a few shows in the fall schedule. He will be a little more obvious on stage than Lea’s white squirrel was, who made appearances in all her SDA shows after her first all-white set, as set dressing, through to his final SDA appearance in A Little Night Music last spring. Mr. Big Head will inevitably command attention, as he already does in our office setting.


IMG_6809Here’s my selkie. In this shot I inadvertently caught a hint of approbation in his gaze. I think he might have objected to the angle with which I shot the photo, but really my chins look much worse than his. And still, in spite of the look he didn’t criticize me. And besides, the shot accentuates his beautiful antlers.  This photo got me in trouble when I posted it on Instagram. We were busted by the local area theatre PM, who noted that it was one of their gang. Hope I didn’t get anyone in trouble.

The rest of the photos which follow are some of our distinguished faculty and students who have sat with our Wapiti Whisperer, Mr. Big Head. You too can make an appointment to take counsel with him. You can see from his banners that he’s ivy league educated, and likes to drink champagne. And he’s very orderly – note the file drawers. I’m so sorry that I ever thought he wouldn’t/shouldn’t be a permanent member of our team. I think he’ll forgive me because that’s the kind of understanding elk he is.

Keeping Us In Stitches

A few years ago, shortly after our son Chris returned from a year long sojourn through Europe, living the dream, as it were, I joked that he and I should write a book. It would be an adult Mommy and Me book, the format of which might be text, as in traditional text, alternating with texts, as in the sporadic digital conversation he and I have had over the last five years via our phones as he has attained maturity. And I do mean attained. It has been a bit of an uphill slog at times, but he has arrived at what I’d call the tree-line of adulthood. If he stands there, he can turn back and see the forest, mysterious and dark and dank; looking forward, a path more clearcut, less encumbered with obvious trip hazards, but now a matter of planning his next steps, footholds and handholds, avoiding gravel slides and icy patches.

Over the years our texts have been personal, confessional, irreverent, insulting, loving, funny, heartbreaking. We have hiked through the woods together in a continual conversation about loss and redemption, self-sacrifice and self-sabotage.

Chris has, since the time he was about five, had an impulsive side, which resulted in a parade of random events and many many trips to the ER. We’ve been to the ER more times than one family deserves to go. I joked with Chris that our book should be entitled “Scar” featuring on the cover a full body photo of Chris, with little arrows pointing to all the scars on his body, annotated with post-its

Image cropped to minimize the “yuck” factor


Last night he added another one to his collection. During the adult hockey game after the adult hockey game he went to play (a decision he derided as the reason he’d been injured -“I could have been on the couch at home, Mom”) , he made contact with his inner left thigh and his skate, resulting in about a 2 inch gash on his inner thigh. In typical gritty form, he called me on the way to the ER, then texted me the before and after pictures of the wound and stitches. I’ve become sensitive to any nocturnal conversation with Chris that begins with the words

Mom, you aren’t going to believe what happened…

I had just plugged in my phone to charge for the night, and when I picked it up, Jimmie’s eyes followed me back over to the couch, tracking my worried looks and listening intently to my subtle repeat of the gory details to fill him in.

It may seem creepy, but this is a ritual of bonding that the three of us have practiced for 24 years. Looking back over the years, in more or less descending chronological order:

  • 1 gash on the left inner thigh- hockey accident, age 27 (8/24/16)
  • 1 left shin gouge from pole on the dock – fishing accident, approximate age 24
  • 1 cut on the inside of his left arm – the broken glass had “nicked” a small artery which required a small surgery. He had a cut under his right eye requiring 3 stitches and another one needing 2 stitches on the top of his head. June 26, 2012 Barcelona Beach Bash
  •  1 tear of left hand between thumb and fore finger, car accident, age 17
  • 2 broken collarbones – hockey accident, age 15
  • 1 left wrist laceration requiring extensive hand surgery – hockey accident, age 12
  • 1 right pinky laceration causing damage to nerve – razor blade incident, Age 8
  • 1 injury to legs from jumping off the roof, age 5

See what I mean? That’s a hell of a lot of bonding. We are probably lucky to have not been called before the Department of Childrens’ Services for child abuse.

Some of our texts veered toward discussions of automotive injuries. The car I gifted to Chris did not take so well to the Fisherman’s Wharf environment resulting in many many trips to the Automotive ER. I considered at one point buying stock in Honda just to increase my ROI.

But the most important texts have been about the discoveries and growth in Chris’ life, including his pursuit of and discovery of his birth Mom in March of 2015, the gestation and birth of his own baby, and the flourishing of his daughter Skylar and fiancée, Whitney.

March 2015 text to Chris (edited somewhat)

Me: I was just filling up the feeder when a spider crawled over my hand in the sink.

Me: dropped half of the stuff in the sink

Me: Even worse I don’t know where the f—ing spider went

Me: I had an epiphany today in spin class – I know, how SoCal of me; but it was this; why would a mother disclose in the first conversation with her newly discovered son such dark details about his parents’ misfortunes? (Both Jimmie and I had asked ourselves this question when Chris told us about his first conversation with his birth mom.)

Me: But the more salient question, I realized, as I sweated and strained up the “hill” today, was “Why would Chris share that information as the very first information we received about his long lost family?”  “Wasn’t that really the question he had asked us a dozen times over the years with decisions that were reckless and dangerous and self-sabotaging of his own life path?

Me: The question was  – will you (adoptive Mom and Dad) still love me if I show you what I’m made of? What darkness and depths I am capable of reaching? Will you have my back? Legally, medically, financially? How much do you really love me?

Isn’t that the question we all ask ourselves in our life journeys? How true to us will our parents, friends, spouses, children remain? How much will we allow ourselves to cherish our bodies and psyches?

And the answer is, we are in it for the long haul. Thick and thin, we’ve got your back, son.

I Should’ve Studied Piano Harder

When I was 6, and my parents built a beautiful colonial on a rural corner at the bottom of my paternal grandfather’s property, a green rectangle of field in Southwestern Pennsylvania that sloped down to the road. We were living at the time in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, in a neighborhood that had plenty of kids and close access to our elementary school. It was also a time when it was okay to open the front door of your house and kick your kids to the curb for the afternoon, calling them home only when it got dark and dinner was ready.

While the house was being built, we piled into the station wagon and  traveled out every weekend to look into the big construction site, initially a hole ringed by cornfields, later traipsing through the wooden framing, then watching as the windows with their stickers were installed, scraping those stickers off, watching the movers load in our furniture and getting to pick my own wallpaper, (probably my first design assignment). I chose an extravagant flourish of blue birds on branches. Even then I had a yen for birding. A quick search on the internet yielded this BlueBirdsimage which wasn’t too far from it, I think. And forgive the dank recesses of my memory if I’ve mistakenly given my six-year-old self an important design decision such as this. My mother might have waited until I was 10 to charge me with choosing the wall covering for my bedroom.

Aside from launching my design career (and ending it, I might add), the other thing my young brain fixated on was the notion that I would learn to play the piano. Now with a larger house and a convenient family room just off the kitchen, my parents quickly provided me the means to do that; I’ve talked a bit about that in another blog so I won’t bore you here again.

What I really want to tell you is that if you are young enough to take up the piano you should. I am currently searching for an accompanist or two to support our classes and our fall production of Side Show, and finding one that isn’t already engaged is harder than finding a good electoral candidate. Sorry, too soon, isn’t it?

At any rate, I want to assure you it isn’t for lack of trying. I have a list of about 25 good solid accompanists who come endorsed by colleagues I respect and whose contact info resides in my magical computer rolodex. They are all working. I have had good friends who are revered musical directors try to help. One invited me to a special group on FB for keyboard artists in LA. Who knew such magical nether worlds existed?

I finally worked up my courage yesterday, or my desperation worked my courage up to post the job announcement both to the carefully curated list of accompanists recommended by two musicians whom I have worked with on several projects. The responses from my outreach prompted the responses below:

I’m on a cruise ship until November! Sorry!

I’ve moved to the NY area so I’m not available. Sorry!

I’ve moved to Sheffield, England. Sorry!

I’m in NYC now and not available! Sorry!

I’m MDing a show in Milwaukee. (this after a brief tease indicating interest) – you know who you are and I love you in spite of yourself….I mean myself)

The immediacy of their responses was cheering until I realized they were really telling me NO! by geographic location. Don’t get me wrong. They were doing it really nicely. I love accompanists, who are the true service branch of musical theatre. They are critical to the success of a rehearsal process. A good accompanist is definitely an asset to the process. And I can’t blame them for growing their skills and following their hearts to more advanced assignments, leaving town and leaving me with my ongoing search. So the recommendations of the elders for young accompanists coming up is gold. (Hint, Hint)

PianoAll of these signs indicate to me that long ago, in the bucolic recesses of the Pennsylvania countryside, I should have practiced more. Instead of choosing wallpaper for my bedroom, I should have been down there pounding the ivories. If I had, I could be in New York or even England now, taunting some poor, desperate production manager in Los Angeles.

SDA Rodeo

Today marked the start for our new class of freshman at USC School of Dramatic Arts. Sergio Ramirez, Director of Academic Services, along with Admissions Counselor Ramón Valdez, planned an extravagant theme, which Marissa Gonzalez, Director of Special Events executed with her usual panache. The theme, SDA Rodeo.

I’ll admit, I groaned audibly when Marissa told me I would have to wear something appropriately festive for the lunch. All my cowboy boots (remember the 80s?) are long gone, and the only jeans I own are more Mom jeans than Dude ranch. Marissa confessed that I was not the only one who complained. But once we arrived, given the opportunity to humiliate ourselves with silly costumes, we embraced the moment.

The apron of the Bing stage was garnished with two stacks of rodeo-themed props downstage left and right.  The ubiquitous crates which multiply in the Shrine basement when we aren’t looking were stacked up artfully, a homey picture frame chalked with Welcome SDA! sitting atop another pile of barrels and other Rodeo-themed props near the podium.

Marissa instructed us to enter through the lobby, where we passed the new students checking in at the box office window, then gathering in effervescent groups just inside the door. You remember what it was like those first few days of college? Where everyone you met held the promise of being your next best friend? When you were terrified of not knowing anyone, and worried about seeming unsophisticated, or clumsy, or unfashionable? Or all three? When you weren’t sure who you would go to lunch with? The angst! The butterflies in the stomach!

Dean Bridel talks with Christopher Shaw and Dan Fishbach

What could be more brilliant than to give everyone goofy costume pieces so we all looked clumsy, unsophisticated and unfashionable? And then feed us lunch together? Two problems solved! Ramón thrust a large rectangular frame toward me, and I took it, fitting my face inside and smiling broadly. He snapped a picture. Then I turned the frame around, read “Wanted” across the top, and made him take another less animated photo. I wandered over to see what goofy costume piece I could try. I grabbed a red bandana, tying it to my Mom jean belt loop, then added a silly paper cowboy vest. Dan Fishbach wandered by, a teeny cardboard cowboy hat perched jauntily on his head. His hat was dwarfed by Sheriff Bridel’s massive headgear.

Dean Bridel welcomes Stand-Up Comedy Instructor Jude Shelton

The faculty and staff greeted each other warmly with hugs, taking private moments to acknowledge our shared loss of colleague Paul Backer. But this was not the time for grieving. We entered the Bing, the students were herded into the center, the faculty and staff corralled off in the back forty (okay, it was house right).

We have several new faculty this semester. Christopher Shaw, above, will direct George F. Walker’s play, Escape From Happiness;  director VP Boyle (below)  is directing Side Show, book and lyrics by Sam Russell, music by Henry Krieger. VP was rocking a terrific hat today. Later I saw him talking with students at lunch, who were leaning in to hear his thoughts.

VP Boyle, director Side Show

After a slide show of photos and captions sent in by the incoming students and edited by Sergio and Ramón, and welcoming remarks by Dean Bridel, we lined up for delicious food, burgers and salad, roasted corn on the cob, and ice cream.

Paula L. Cizmar, author of the upcoming MFA Rep production of Antigone X and I hung out in the lunch line, this photo of Paula (looking rather skeptical) taken by Sara Fousekis. We then scattered to eat with the students at gingham cloth-covered tables, pulled up the antiqued white folding chairs like we were at the county fair. The students were having a ball, and by the time we got our food and joined them, they had bonded with each other so really had no use for us. FullSizeRender 10

At 1:30, the students all assembled on the steps of the Bing for their class picture and we wandered back to our offices to continue prepping for the start of the semester.

Time to buy your tickets for our upcoming shows! Click on this link and check out our season.

And Marissa, you threw a great party today! Thank you for making us all feel at home.



Writing With My Best Friend -Rejection

Today Jimmie and I celebrated our first rejection letter. No, I’m not being callous.

I took a vacation day from work not because all the work is done and I’m ready for the start of classes, but because it seemed like the last gasp of summer and I didn’t want to miss it. We had planned to have lunch at home with our friends MichIMG_5470.JPGael and June, and had made a dinner reservation at our favorite Cape Cod throwback spot, Connie and Ted’s in WeHo. There you can get a good set of full-bellied clams and some real homey coleslaw. I love watching Jimmie’s face as he enjoys his favorite food in the world. Who needs ambrosia when you can have fried clams?

We were on our way out of the building at about 5:30PM; the mail had just arrived. Mike, one of the new guards, held up a manila envelope with the familiar stickers that I had printed. It was just the shape of the envelopes I had mailed off the day before yesterday and yesterday.

Wow, that was quick. This is really a brutal business!

I reached for the envelope and there was the SASE that I had prepared for the return of Jimmie’s manuscript. It was definitely his book winging it’s way back to us, and seemed to have been mailed properly from a post office, because it had a tracking sticker on it. See? I thought, the system worked.  I turned and handed the envelope to Jimmie.

I’m sorry. I’ll bring the car. You open it to see what the letter says.

When I drove back up to pick Jimmie up, he didn’t look upset. He was waiting patiently for me on the concrete bench near the elevator, script in hand. As I approached him, I looked to see which of the two publishers had returned the script so quickly, secretly fuming whichever one it was really hadn’t given the book the attention it deserved. I was silently outraged, taking the manuscript from Jimmie and looking down at the cover letter.

Wait a minute. What?

Clipped to the manuscript was my letter to the second publisher. The one I had quickly put together on my way out the door to work yesterday, rushing a bit so as not to be late to my morning meeting. What an idiot! I had taken two envelopes both with To and From addresses to us, driven them to the post office and paid for and affixed postage on each of them, mailing the book…back to myself. My rage dwindled to sheepish embarrassment as I folded up Jimmie’s walker and put it into the trunk of the car. I started laughing at my idiocy, wondering if there was ever another writer who had done what I had done. Probably not. Well, at least it’s a deductible expense. And I got this confessional blog out of it, right?

I frequently think there are just not enough hours in the day. Just when I am more or less sure of it, the universe mails me something to drive that point home.

I’m glad to have a few more days to get organized before school starts. IMG_6767

Writing with my best friend – Submission

It must have seemed like my husband’s writing project had moved to the back burner, but since July 17th, Jimmie has powered through to finished the first draft of his book, an event I had the lack of grace to acknowledge with a bouquet of flowers, or a box of See’s Candy.


Instead, I started fussing about the editing process and how to do the index. Really, Els? I’m lucky he’s still my best friend.

I have learned so much about indices. It’s true that you can learn how to do anything on the internet. I have in this month alone learned how to order parts to repair my vacuum cleaner, my lamps, make a chicken tetrazzini, and how to build an index. Our forefathers and mothers may have had more grit, but I bet they didn’t know how to repair a Dyson vacuum cleaner while they made a cheesy casserole. And no, I’m not speaking metaphorically.IMG_6718

And now, I know how to make an index. Just select the name, highlight it, pull down from Insert the “Index and Tables,” click on Mark Entry and then hit Mark all. Then every time you encounter that name again, you can see it’s been marked for your index. Scroll to the end of the book to the index, right click and select “update field” and the index populates in beautiful alphabetical order. It is a magical thing.

Er. Wait. My index is now alphabetical by first name, not last. Oops. I guess I didn’t learn everything from the video. I did learn however just now the right word to use for the plural of index. Always indices unless you are using it as a verb, as in “Els indexes all her husband’s books.” See what I mean? And yes, you salivating hordes, the casserole was delish.

There are so many things I don’t yet know about in the field of publishing. First, are you allowed to send your submission out to multiple people at once? I assume you must have to because otherwise you’d wither and perish before you ever got a book published. And remember, we have a really tight deadline of December 1st.

But what if I triggered a bidding war on Jimmie’s book by sending it to multiple publishers? Jimmie and I have already decided that we will take the several hundred thousands he makes from book sales and put it in a college fund for our granddaughter, Skylar. (Bad news, Skylar, you may be going to Podunk U.)

Second, do writers really wrap up their books in manila envelopes and drop them into the mailbox like Jimmy Stewart, the undernourished bathrobe clad writer in ComeLiveWithMeCome Live With Me did? Come to think of it, I think I’ve always looked a little like Hedy Lamarr. And Jimmie does sometimes write in his bathrobe….

I always thought writers mailed off their manuscripts like that until I went to the post office yesterday with two copies of Jimmie’s book, along with the charming letters that accompanied the manuscripts and the necessary self addressed stamped envelope. Here’s what I learned since it’s all about the learning these days.

The book weighed 16 oz. and you can’t drop an envelope (even with the correct postage on it) that weighs more than 13 oz. into a mailbox. You have to hand it to a clerk. This helpful clerk, Audrey, informed me of that. I thought, surely publishers deal with this every day. Jimmie’s book isn’t a hefty tome like they receive and reject frequently. And besides, there must be some eager young literary life liver wannabe who takes the rejected SASEs to the post office once every few days. They won’t just toss it in the mailbox. And, I thought, giggling into my sleeve, if they did, it would come back to us anyway because the return address is the same as the recipient’s address! I’ve got it all figured out. Do people submit books on thumb drives? Much easier to mail and get mailed back. Hmmm. So many questions!

This literary business is hard work. Glad I can do it for someone else besides me. I can figure it all out for later when I actually have something to write about.

Then, Audrey had the keen idea of saving me forty cents by unwrapping the book from the manila envelope and putting it in one of those white postal envelopes. This was easier said than done, which provided us time to talk about good books we are reading and how people who read live longer. You saw that study, right? You can live 23 months longer just by reading 3.5 hours a week. Audrey got the packages all set and off went two envelopes – one to the Library of Congress Copyright registry, and one to a potential publisher. Cross your fingers!

I’m so proud of Jimmie and the work he’s put in on the book in the last few weeks. I know there’s still work to be done, but this is an extra special moment. Even our granddaughter Skylar thinks so. She got dressed up for the occasion. She is very proud of her Grandpa Jimmie. As am I.IMG_6754




Last week it seemed the universe was not in alignment. A week ago, we memorialized our fallen academic and theatrical comrade, Paul Backer. There were, it seemed, few things to be grateful for, aside from the epiphanic reminder that when our students graduate, they don’t disappear, but blend into a larger fabric that USC marketers call the “Trojan Family.” Until last Friday, that wasn’t tangible to me, but now it is. For that I am grateful.

This week, the universe seemed aligned to bring me karmic gifts every day. Here’s what the week has brought me and what I’m grateful for:

IMG_6698Sunday – Dear friends, Marykate and David, for coming to dinner and bringing beautiful vegetables from the community garden that Marykate cultivates in North Hollywood, as well as a beautiful bouquet of bright yellow lillies, which I’ve been spaying all week as their luscious petals unfold to reveal their stamens. I’m so grateful for them. Our friends, not the spayed stamens.

Monday – The beginning of a week nurturing the creative rumblings of our new fall Directors, each bringing the excitement of investigative researchers into our school, each challenging me with questions that exercise my budgetary brain, the ‘no’ spasms that my budgetary brain sends while my creative center is shouting, ‘YES! YES! YES!’ I know that there is a happy medium and I am grateful for the challenge to find it.

Tuesday – The bully hummingbirds on our balcony who have, by their fervor in guarding the two feeders, reduced my time cooking Hbird syrup by 90%. A less positive person might be angry to see that they have also reduced the number of birds that visit in a day, but I am impressed by their determination to not let anyone else get to the water fountain.

Wednesday – The arrival of a surprise gift – a book called Grit by Angela Duckworth, which my friend and colleague, Jeff sent me after telling me about the book last week. I dove in and read about 10 pages and it’s excellent. I highly recommend it. Grit’s premise is that success is not based on intelligence, or wealth, or education, or genes, but on that elusive thing we call ‘grit,’ or ‘sticktoitiveness’ or ‘gumption’ or ‘spine.’ Ms. Duckworth should know. She was one of the first female cadets at West Point, and in addition to her 5 terminal degrees (I’d have to go look them up and I don’t have the gumption to right now) she is a good writer. This book came out of the blue, completely unexpected. It made me aware that gifts from our friends are like that. They come unasked for and joyful as a result. I’m grateful for Jeff and our friendship.

Thursday – This day was so rich with gifts it is almost an embarrassment. It started off not looking so great. My trip to the gym in the morning was a downer. To get up at 4:45 is a testament of faith, but I chose the bike in the front row where when you “tap it up” even a quarter turn, it goes to the hill setting. As my friend Sophie said,

“Oh, yeah, that bike is like dragging a dead body up a hill.”

So I was puffing and sweating more than Jane Curtain and Chevy Chase in that famous SNL sweaty anchor sketch, for the entire half hour in spin, and falling over out of balance the entire half hour of yoga. All I could think of was the fact that I lacked Grit. I’m grateful for the reminder that some days aren’t as possible as others. The second gift of the day was a pop in visit from former student Liza Jane, who happened to be downtown to buy fabric, and returned to campus to say hi. What a pick me up! She updated me on her life; she lives in SF and teaches at a private school. She has the most adorable first graders, which she proudly showed me pictures of on her phone at their science fair. Amazing. I’m so grateful for her and alumni like her. The third gift was a late afternoon cookie break with my friend and colleague Mary Joan, who stopped by my office at 4pm and we solved the problems of the world.  Mary Joan and I used to be on the opposite ends of a hallway in the CWT building, which suffered a horrible death as many USC bungalows are wont to do. We have missed our opportunities to dash down the hall to share ideas and yesterday’s mind meld was long overdue. Talk about grit – Mary Joan has more of it than almost anyone I know. She instills it in her students, too. I am grateful for her. When I got home, I was exhausted from so many gifts, and picked up Jimmie and went out to dinner at Public School. Brilliant concept, good food, too loud. Enough said. I’m grateful for Jimmie’s ability to laugh about his hearing loss. We observed a couple there who had a similar age difference to us. They were on the beginning of their journey. We laughed as we exited the restaurant, my getting Jimmie his walker, that they must have looked horrified as we retreated from view. I’m grateful for my best friend and partner in life, Jimmie. When we got home, we had received the fourth gift of Thursday, a mysterious box from my Talented Aunt Irene.  It was one of her ink paintings, rolled up, and we were overwhelmed with gratitude. Entitled “Lip Sync, 22″x 28″, 2011”, it was inscribed on the back in pencil:

For Darling Elsbeth and Jimmie, just because you both are so dear to me! xooo, Renie

Friday – I received two gifts today. The first, frankly, I’d been asking for all week, but finally got it late iIMG_6705n the afternoon yesterday, but there was too many gifts to report that day. My friend and colleague Phil has this charming gesture which he does with great humor when he can’t believe the rest of the world isn’t as adept at adapting as he is. Sounds obnoxious, but it’s really not. He slaps his head with mock exasperation as if to say, “Will you people never get this?” It had happened a few weeks before in a meeting and at the time, I thought, “This would make an amazing GIF. Phil’s slapping his head over and over.

I could play it for myself to amuse myself when the world and it’s inhabitants disappoint me. Which would be almost always at least until November. In fact, I could leave it running in the corner of my desktop to amuse myself!

So yesterday, as I was talking with my friend and colleague Duncan, Phil requested a face time session, and during that, I was able to convince him to do the gesture so I could at least get a picture. I don’t know how to make a GIF, but I do know now that it’s pronounced with a soft G. Thank you, Phil. I’m grateful for your ability to always be ahead of the curve. Today’s second gift, and friends, it’s really early in the day, so I am well aware that much more is possible, was my spin class led by Hector, with his usual Fiesta Friday theme. I was able to join my pals Sophie and Christina in the front row, and they got me going so that I did not have a Jane Curtain moment, but triumphed during the 45 minute ride. Sophie, I’m grateful for your encouragement of my exercise and diet regime, your gifts of face masks and your jumps on the bike – they are all so helpful in keeping me going. I have lunch with a former student today, Sarah, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m so grateful for the riches in my life.