Ecdysis of Grief- Life Goes Forward

I’m assembling one of my emeals tonight, an orange rosemary pork loin, with gluten-free spaghetti and broccoli on the side. While the pork was reaching room temp, after marinading for a whole day in it’s delicious garlicky dressing, I had thirty minutes to go try on the dress I’m wearing tomorrow to probably the fanciest wedding I’ve ever been to. (No offense meant to the scores of beautiful weddings I’ve attended in lavish settings – this is just a hunch.)

Slithering in a reverse ecdysis into the satiny foundation garment, yes, the one with teutonic cups, (I choose that one over the other that has no escape hatch; ladies you know what I mean, right?), even though the other girdle is softer and a little less confining, there would be nothing worse than having to completely disrobe at the Jonathan Club, to the mortification of the bride’s family and friends.

Next comes the heavily beaded Mother of the Groom dress, which I step my sausage-link-like torso into, raising the beaded sleeves up and over my shoulders. I reach back and start to zip up the dress. Oops. Can’t get there from here.

The last time I wore the dress was, obviously, for our son’s wedding. The last time I wore the dress, I had a husband to zip me up. I say this as much for dramatic effect as for truth. Surprisingly, I’m not emotional about this right now. We widows have discoveries like this all the time, at the most ridiculous moments, while attempting to sheath the body deemed 10 pounds too heavy by the doctor earlier in the week. In fumbling for the zipper, I’m brought back to ground zero. The source of my tsuris. The reason I need to lose 10 pounds, because grief is assuaged by late night snacking while watching the umpteen different series about grief that are we can now stream and binge watch. It’s a classic Catch-22.

By the way, Dr. S., I’m well on my way to fitting into that dress, because just between you and me, the gluten-free pasta was completely inedible. Gluten-free pasta is like near beer. Too close and yet too far away. What’s the point?

Seriously. Have you noticed? It started last November with The Kominsky Method, featuring Alan Arkin and Michael Douglas as two best friends dealing with the death of Alan Arkin’s wife among other things. I found the show sometime in late November, literally right after Jimmie went to the great casting office in the sky. The first episode featured the definitely first-world problem of what to do with Arkin’s dead wife’s Beverly Hills closet full of purses valued way higher than the salary of any random Associate Professor. I’m just saying. I binge watched all of those, laughing through my tears.

Being human and being hurt are the same damn thing.

Alan Arkin The Kominsky Method

I moved on to Dead to Me, starring Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, and the latest, After Life, starting Ricky Gervais, who is prone to considerably worse decisions than snacking at night. Somewhere along the way, a friend told me about the podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking, Nora McInerny’s compassionate, funny and personal answer to life’s challenges. I find myself soaking up these comic voices of doom hungrily – the one thing they all have in common is that everyone speaks the truth with gusto and no small amount of panache, and it’s funny, as the truth often is. It’s healing, too. So now I’m reading Lori Gottlieb’s latest book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone because I heard her speaking on the TTfA podcast mentioned above. I wish I could say I was taking a scholarly approach to my choices of viewing and reading, but if I’m honest, and have we learned nothing but how important that is?My approach is more like watching the slinky on the steps Christmas morning. Each discovery cascading into the next.

I’ve always found solace in books, and find reading especially grounding lately. Tonight, I came home from work, dropped my bag at the apartment, picked up my kindle, and strode out the door to the park to our bench, where I read for a while until it got too cold, then did about five laps around the park, reading, while competitively counting my steps for the end of the workweek challenge. Nevertheless, Christopher won. Oh well, there’s always next week. And wait till I get to Italy!

There are only about three weeks until I leave for my Italian adventure, and the plans have come together. In between now and then, I’ve planned a weekend jaunt to the mountains to practice my grandparenting skills which are just adequate if my three-year-old granddaughter is any judge. And she is, by the way. I loved the Grandmother’s Mother’s Day card which I received after my Easter visit. Chosen with love by my daughter-in-law, and annotated with three-year-old love.

I’m keeping busy, hosted the first Survivor’s Supper last night, with two of my friends recently bereft of their spouses. After dinner, two of us headed over to see the latest work by director Nancy Keystone, entitled A Jordan Downs Illumination. You should check it out; this is the last weekend it’s running. An amazing evening of immersive theatre in R & D over the past two years and presented by The Cornerstone Theatre and members of Jordan Downs, shares the history of Watts and the Jordan Downs Housing Projects now undergoing a massive redevelopment. The work, which strove to retain and share the history even as the construction advances, was personal, fascinating, and also hands on. The audience gets to be actively involved in being witness to history happening. I highly recommend it.

Memories, Manifestos and Mariachis

This weekend marked the final productions of the school year, and the launching of our three MFA Dramatic Writing 2019 graduates, Mariana Carreno-King, Aja Houston, and Gideon Wabvuta via the New Works Festival YIII at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Three powerful plays, dare I say personal manifestos about dystopias: political, mental and war-related, all with plot twists that took your breath away. The festival is a collaboration between The Pasadena Playhouse and USC School of Dramatic Arts. It features professional actors and directors and student stage managers, who get to practice what they’ve learned on campus in a professional venue. Each of the plays perform once, witnessed by an enthusiastic audience, then critiqued by a panel of responders (dramaturges), several local professionals, and one national responder, this year Celise Kalke, who came from Atlanta, Georgia’s Synchronicity Theatre to share her feedback with the three authors. The local responders were Oanh Nyugen, Artistic Director of The Chance Theatre, and Brian Nelson, television and feature writer, Co-Producer and Writer of Netflix’s Altered Carbon.

The directors are equally prestigious, Elisa Bocanegra (Hero Theatre), Jon Lawrence Rivera (Playwright’s Arena) and SDA Associate Professor and Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Anita Dashiell-Sparks.

In years past, the festival has been presented in the intimate Carrie Hamilton Theatre, but due to some scheduling challenges, was moved to the main stage, where the three plays were showcased beautifully against the 1925 proscenium arch erected through the fundraising efforts of theatre impresario Gilmor Brown. Sitting in the house for the first afternoon’s rehearsals catapulted me back to the early 90s when I was a stage manager at the Playhouse. Standing in the green room after nearly twenty years away had a similarly breath stopping effect to the plays going on above me. One of the students who was there this week as our festival’s ASM came up to me on the final night and showed me an antique looking picture she had taken on her phone. I stood looking at the screen, mumbling, “What am I looking at here?” , while Maya practically quivered next to me waiting for it to hit me. Aah. Lower right corner, kneeling on one knee, a thirty-seven year old Els with the cast of Equus.

Many dear friends in this photo arresting a moment in time so long ago. Photographer Maya Concepcion’s silhouette is visible in the reflection.

I learned so much on that show twenty-two years ago. I left the show in the last weeks of the run to assist my mother with her radiation treatments, by driving her to the hospital daily and caring for her for about a month. She had metastatic lung cancer. I was leaving the production in the capable hands of my assistant stage manager, Dan Munson. I remember the difficult conversations with the director questioning my professionalism. It was the first time I stepped away from my job for compelling personal reasons and I think I felt worse about the excision of myself from my work than I did about my mother. The minute I got there I knew I’d made the right decision, of course. When we’re young-ish, sometimes it feels like the show must go on and you’re the only one who can make it so. I’m here to tell you that is definitely not the case. If you’ve done your job well, you are replaceable. And if you haven’t, you are even more so.

The second thing I learned on that show, which featured nudity on stage, was that not all fan mail is welcome. The young man, who played Alan Strang, the boy, received a particularly horrible letter which he opened at or after half hour, and which understandably enraged him. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure what the solution was, because you can’t not deliver someone their mail, but my timing was poorly executed. And fortunately, the fire in the wastebasket was easily extinguished.

Memory is a tricky beast. As I stood in the Green Room and did the pano-shot above of the basement, so many memories flooded into my consciousness. In 1992, when Jimmie was called upon to step into the role of Henry Saunders in Lend Me A Tenor after the opening, due to an injury of an actor, Jimmie and I did our parental pass off of our three-year old son Chris, who came with Jimmie to the theatre in the evening for the show, and I was just finishing up with rehearsals for On Borrowed Time, upstairs in the then third floor rehearsal room. We exchanged hugs and child also in that dressing room. On Borrowed Time was also the first show I did at the Playhouse, and one where our dog, Molly Dogg was featured on stage. Among other things, I learned about how to and not to deal with an earthquake during the run, which makes me particularly attuned to instructions that Stage Managers have about procedures in the case of emergencies.

I will also always associate that corner dressing room with Bea Arthur, her rough directness and sweet affection for her cast mates in After Play in November of 1997, immediately following my mother’s death. There was something soothing about working on that play at that time. The long table hosted so many Saturday afternoon dinners, provided to the casts and crews by the Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse, the volunteer army of playhouse devotees who staff the front of house and provide this important service, too.

So, you’re wondering, how do the Mariachis fit in? They were purely celebratory, serenading us at the opening responder’s dinner for the MFA Dramatic Writing New Works Festival. As the playwrights broke chips and salsa and guacamole with the responders, the friends and family and faculty cheered the process at the adjacent table, and raised our glasses to the launch of their hopefully long and memory-filled careers.

What is Heaven but the Here and Now?

Yesterday, I reaped the benefits of AI as my photo albums coalesced into one giant photo album celebrating all of our summer trips to Chatham, Mass. The timing made sense, being about a month from the date when we usually headed out there. Our annual pilgrimage to Chatham was a usually routine, non-stop flight to Boston, quick overnight in Somerville with Liam and Elliott and now dearly-departed Rex. Early morning departure after a quick stop at Dunkin’ Donuts for sustenance in the form of chocolate donuts and coffee, wending our way down to the Cape, sandy berms rolling by, avoiding most of the stand-still traffic that would have clogged our way by our early departure. We had several lovely cottage rentals over the years, visiting with Jimmie’s sister Kate and many other family who stopped in to take advantage of our extra bedrooms. We’d spend about two weeks there, and this morning’s photo and video montage provided a refresher course in the rituals in which we partook. Fried clams, sitting outside in the Adirondack chairs to feel the cooling evenings filled with familiar crickets, and winking fireflies as the light became dark and our shoulders lowered by many degrees of relaxation.

This morning’s video was shot in just such a moment, cub reporter interviewing distinguished actor after our first seasonal sampling of fried clams- said distinguished actor hamming it up, (only ever seen in my videos, by the way – he was the epitome of professionalism on others’ cameras) recounting the moments with an almost sexual satiation. You can hear me giggling as I record. Then comes the aha moment.

Cub: How’s your first day at the Cape been?
Actor: I think I’m in heaven.

Cub: It’s pretty nice isn’t it?
(Beat) Actor: I think if I had my choice of what heaven should be like, it would be Chatham. (shaking his head) Just marvelous. I’m at peace.

Cub: Yay.

Aside from suddenly rocking me to attention, rousing my napping grief into a bolt upright position, covers off, the video was a bittersweet reminder of perhaps the most important thing we should all know. Life is meant to be enjoyed, savored, made special and ultimately memorable during those inconspicuous moments of friendship and quietude. What I learned from spending long years with Jimmie is probably obvious to anyone over 60. Age forces you to slow down, settle, take those moments for what they can be. It allows you to take stock of all of your blessings, and to work through the other mental detritus, old resentments, regrets, sadnesses. Hopefully the blessings work outweighs the other, though both are important to process as we live.

From one of our impromptu Chatham reunions.

This year, in the middle of June, our usual departure time for Chatham, I am instead heading for two weeks to my favorite place on earth, Italy. Invited to share a summer farmhouse experience in Umbria by my high school theatre mentor and his wife, I will first fly to Rome, then train to their oasis in Umbria. After my stay with them, which I am anticipating like a puppy in front of a puddle, I’m taking the train to Venice, for four days there. I spent the year after college living in Venice, and have always wanted to return. The brilliance of this return is that two of my friends from 1982-83 are still in the area and I’ll be staying with them while there. I’ve been brushing up on my Venice by reading the wonderful book by Jan Morris.

I’ve been avidly reading the New York Times in recent weeks about the Venice Biennale, which will be taking place while I’m there, staking out the pavillions that I intend to see. I just purchased my “Plus” tickets because if one day at the Biennale is fantastic, wouldn’t three be even better?

I keep receiving pointed instructions from the Universe….

I had dinner with a friend, this week, who, at 94, is slowing down, but whose heart and mind are filled with the loyalties and memories of one who has worked tirelessly in his art, for those who both appreciated and early on, reviled his efforts. Our conversation, stilted as hearing loss mandates, ricocheted from my telling him about my upcoming trip to troublesome memories of his last trip to Italy. But the important thing was that we were there, breaking bread, basking in our mutual respect for my recently departed husband, and of each other. I watched his tender appreciation of his caring assistant, Joyce, who has become his bridge to the world, repeating what I said with patience and affection so that he could hear.

Today the rain sheets down outside my window, a surprising development for Los Angeles. Always welcome to our parched corner of the country, rain makes me want to cuddle up with a blanket on the chaise, but today’s events will beckon me out into the mists instead. Last night I pulled my balcony chairs back to the window so they wouldn’t get wet but can see the rain moving sideways across the dark expanse of the parking garage across the way. The sound of the traffic sluicing through the water eleven stories down cues me to get up and warm my tea at the stove, cozy in my urban aerie and thinking about my new definition of Heaven.

Happy Mother’s Day

Twenty two years after losing my Mom to cancer, she remains a powerful force in my life and in my actions as an adult woman and mother.

From happy times at the opening party for La Bete on Broadway in NYC 1991. L. to R. Me, Mom, my brother Don, and Jimmie, our reason for being there

I was struck this Mother’s Day morning as I texted feverishly with son Chris, he in Las Vegas at a Hockey Player Development event, me surrounded by my newspapers at the dining room table. What makes us mothers is a complicated algorithm of events, choices, mistakes and fortuitous synchronicities that have very little to do with our abilities as parents.

There’s nothing more uplifting for a mother than hearing/reading the excitement in her child’s words about something that is going well. Chris’ hockey went well this weekend as he attended with many of his players, the USA Hockey Pacific District Player Development event in Las Vegas. His hard work in skills development and player development over the last four years as an assistant coach shone in his players and their ability to be recruited to the next levels of the game. As one of his moms, I can claim responsibility for starting him on the path to hockey. But it was he who first expressed interest, his five-year-old face pressed up to the base of the glass at Iceland in Van Nuys, a tiny rink run by Russian players, his breath steaming the plastic, as he watched, his mouth agape, as the five-year-old Mini-Mites skated as fast as they could, flinging themselves down onto their bellies before pulling themselves up to continue skating.

I wanna do that!

Without rehashing the hockey history, suffice it to say that as a parent, we need to listen for our cues. I had a long chat with some of my colleagues recently about the difficulties of doing just that.

In light of the recent college admission scandals, which I managed to avoid as a parent by A) not having the funds or moral ineptitude to invest in such chicanery, and B) by listening to the cues about where Chris should be or not be at that time in his life, I’m feeling quite pleased with how he’s evolved. His path was not explicitly academic, though I suspect he will never give up the love of teaching that he brings to his hockey endeavors.

The hardest thing about parenting well is that our children are their own, unique individuals, and often quite different from us. It’s so tempting to try to mold them into little mini-mes, but that can be like trying to shove a round peg into a square hole and serves nothing but friction in the doing. I can attest to that.

My parents succeeded with my two brothers and me by:

  1. Instilling a strong work ethic – our Dad after working long hours during the week, on the weekends had us plant the entire back yard per a horticultural ground plan that would have made Frederick Law Olmstead proud.
  2. Grounding in us an appreciation of family and family bonds through Sunday dinners with our grandparents who were local, and long trips to Wilkes-Barre to spend time with the non-local grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins.
  3. Developing a love and appreciation of the Arts. Believe me when I tell you that I didn’t ever want to go to a museum, nor would I have done so willingly, but because we were tromped off to various arts institutions by Mom, I became so imbued in them that I eventually became an art history major in college, and a theatre practitioner for the rest of my life.
  4. Training us in the prudent use of our resources and generosity to one’s children and others. As a young adult, I watched mom pay her bills each month, knowing that she was being stretched by expenses on her journalist’s salary. Still she managed to send me $100 every month for years, beginning with the year I spent in Italy, and continuing even after I was married and we were financially secure.
  5. Providing us the models of physical exercise and mental stimulation. I remember as a child at the public tennis courts watching our parents play tennis, and later, learning the game ourselves. We swam, ran and generally exercised. Of course, we were fortunate not to be digital natives, so had to keep our minds and bodies active.
  6. Telling us that we could do anything we set our minds to doing. This was an extremely powerful message for a young girl in the 1960s. Not only did they say it, but they backed it up by supporting my education at top notch schools that fortified that message.
  7. Finally, they reveled in our successes, and listened, but didn’t coddle us when we failed. This last one I may have taken too far with Chris but when I see him parenting his three-year-old, I think he’s on the right track. She’s a tough little girl, and fearless, as comfortable on the ice in her hockey gear as she is in her tutu, while coloring at the table.

Those are just a few of the things that Moms and Dads do for their children. So thank you! Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there!

Celebrating Moving Forward

There are few more positive things than the events that transpire around commencement: acting showcases, design showcases, awards banquets, culminations – these things pepper the final weeks before everyone moves forward.

I’ve been holding onto myself or at least my hat last week, as creative events swirled around me:

Monday – A conference of LA Stage Managers for SMA (Stage Managers Association), an association of my peers. Hosted at Center Theatre Group, in the familiar Rehearsal Room C, I met Joel Veenstra, who heads up the MFA and BFA Stage Management programs at UC Irvine and is the Western Regional Director of the SMA. The day included panels on the SMA itself, info on different avenues for stage managers to pursue with their skillsets, how to transition a show from one theatre to another, an informative and extremely sobering panel on safety and security, and a panel of stage managers discussing how they made their way through the professional maturation process. This final session I appreciated, because there were inclusive gestures from the stage about how old I was. Maybe it’s time to dye the old locks….

Wednesday marked the beginning of our portfolio review sessions with undergraduate designers and stage managers. These tabletop exercises demand that designers bring their developing pages and discuss their collaborative processes. They are informative, an iterative process, one that begins with their first one unit design assistant position, throughout to the spring, moments before the final Showcase. Over the course of four years they get quite skilled at presenting their work and defining their interests in design and stage management.

Wednesday night featured the Cabaret performance by Alexandra Billings, a fundraiser to raise money for LGBQT student scholarships. Here’s the link if you’d like to contribute. She is an amazing performer, and brought the house down that night. Another polished performance also by our by-now-beleaguered Theatre Management staff, CB Borger, Chris Paci, and Joe Shea and students who called, engineered the sound by Philip G. Allen.

Friday’s all day 2019 SDA Production/Design Showcase events began at 10:00AM in the Scene Dock Theatre with Faculty and Guest Designer critiques of all ten graduating Designers and TD. Each senior is given a table and a board and they spend about 24 hours decorating and preparing to showcase their work accumulated over four years to an array of faculty, guest designers, directors, and staff.

At 11:00AM, the two graduating stage managers met with a panel of both Alumni Stage Managers (now professionals) and their professor, Scott Faris to review their resumes in the form of a job interview.

Next came our family style lunch in the Technical Theatre Lab at noon, hosted in the shop by Head of Technical Direction Duncan Mahoney and featuring about fifty of our extended family. It’s so wonderful to see alumni coming back to support and give a leg up to our graduating seniors. This year we had an all vegan Indian meal, after several years of BBQ. It’s only fair, right?

At 1:00PM, the Showcase featured a panel of guests who shared their professional journeys. They included small business owner, Madison Rhoades, whose Cross Roads Escape Rooms have become a hit in Orange County; Production Designer and Alumnus Ed Haynes, who works for numerous corporate clients as well as keeping a prominent toe in theatrical design. His work recently graced the Scene Dock via his scenic design for The Busybody. Television and Film Production Designer Michael Andrew Hynes shared stories of his voluminous work with the students, starting from his roots in theatre design, as did lighting design Alum Madigan Stehly, working with Full Flood Lighting and as a freelance lighting designer. Panelist Sarah Borger, Production and Broadcast Director for ESL- Turtle Entertainment spoke about her journey from Stage Manager to Live Gaming Production Management.

SDA Head of Production, Sibyl Wickersheimer kicks off a lively panel discussion with professional guests (three out of five alumni of the SDA Production programs).

In the spirit of the rest of the week, I overbooked myself on Friday, agreeing to attend a 7:30PM Independent Student Performance, directed by a graduating senior. I like the play, Gruesome Playground Injuries, by Rajiv Joseph, not just because it features a young man, a hockey player, prone to injuries. Hey! I have one of those! Directed by Jordan Broberg, the two-hander was performed in the Brain and Creativity Institute, a sleek, cone shaped auditorium with acoustics by the Disney Hall acoustician, Yasuhisa Toyota. Jordan’s cast members are both seniors, Ido Gal, and Cherie Carter, to whom, ironically, I had just come from awarding (in absentia) the James Pendleton Award. As I slipped into my seat, fifteen minutes late, I chuckled as I realized why Cherie had been absent from the banquet. They did a great job with the play. You could hear a pin drop in that hall, which was definitely not in my favor, 14 hours into my day and eager to squirm.

At the risk of promulgating an avalanche of back health ads, recently, I’ve been undergoing treatment for a herniated disk, via weekly chiropractic sessions, and bi-weekly massages. Aside from the fact that last week got too busy to attend to that, a few weeks ago, in the course of an hour long massage, I felt the pain melting away from all areas save for the lower back, where my back remained tightened into a rictus of resistance. The massage therapist and I discussed it at the end of the massage, and he acknowledged that we were definitely working on something there. Later that morning, my WeCroak app message seemed particularly pertinent:

Pain is always a sign that we are holding on to something – usually ourselves.

Pema Chodron (WeCroak)

My favorite gym partner, Lynn and I shared a selfie today at the Sanctuary Fitness Cinco de Mayo festivities.

This right before she shared with me a new podcast, the brainchild of Nora McIlnerny, author and notable widow, entitled Terrible, Thanks for Asking. You should definitely check it out. Here’s a link to her TED Talk. Especially if you are in the business of grieving. And not just to use a phrase of hers, “grief-adjacent.” She is very clever and speaks the truth about loss in an immediate and uplifting way, if you can imagine that combination of incongruities. And after this week of looking forward through the eyes of our talented students, I can indeed imagine the uplifting part.