[Boys Off Sobbing] Bouts of Sobbing –

Here in California, and at USC specifically, we recently practiced for “The Great ShakeOut,” a state-wide Earthquake Preparedness Drill. Under the guidance and leadership of the university’s Fire, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, we performed the drill, each school setting up it’s Emergency Response Team and executing well-defined plans.

Thursday, October 17 2019 began with a triage drill at the Health Center. My overacting ended me up in a neck brace, but I was next to a guy who had “lost his hand”. We were sitting waiting for the “ambulance to pick us up to take us for further care,” he holding his hand in a bag, me wearing my brace. (Though his right arm had been treated, he carried a left hand in his left hand, which made us laugh for a minute. I had to be discharged early from the drill so I could join my team to set up our Departmental Operations Center to be ready for the 10:17 Earthquake. While the idea of a scheduled earthquake is absurd, the scheduling of practice for the inevitable earthquake is anything but. It offers us a way to get it into our bodies, so that when the real one happens, we are ready.

At 10:17, we dropped, covered and held under the flimsy table which was our Departmental Operations Center, where you can see me ready to enter the data collected from our Emergency Response Teams and our Building Emergency Response Teams on our Status board. We use WhatsApp for that communication.

Also on my WhatsApp chat list is the chat group composed of just myself and my two dear college friends, Susan and Bob. That Emergency Response Team is entitled “Loving Jimmie and Els” and was started by Susan about a year ago when my husband had a fall that ultimately quickly ended his life.

We started it in the days after we’d returned home for hospice, a brief three-day period that was insular and emotional, of course, as brief hospices are, and over those days, my friends sent me so much love via this emergency friendship group. Unlike messenger, WhatsApp allowed me this morning to roll back to the beginning of the chat quickly, and to see the real-in time responses to what we were going through right at the end of Jimmie’s life, including a photo of Jimmie in the hospice bed which I’d impulsively deleted from my photos because it wasn’t how I wanted to remember him.

Over the past year, Bob and Susan have supported me on every front, nearly every day via this Emergency Response Team message platform. My earthquake was personal, one that we’d prepared for through many many iterations of hospital care over the years. But critical to the success of surviving the actual incident was having people to share it with immediately and in the aftermath. Looking back on our messages, we shared pictures and memories and plans for future travels together and past travels. At one point, I referred to the chat as a “life feed for me.” We arranged Skype chats to check in and see how each other were doing. Like typical digital tourists, we spent a good five minutes at the beginning of each of our chats figuring out the technology. Honestly, it was ridiculous. But hey, that’s why we practice. To get it right when we need it.

On the other coast, Bob and his son just concluded a similarly quick hospice for his partner and his son’s father. We used the same Loving Jimmie and Els chat over the past ten months as he tended to his loving partner, Mitchell. In honor of Mitchell we need to change the name of our group to Loving Bob and Mitchell. Otherwise it’s hard to be helpful all the way from Los Angeles. I’ve been thinking about him and their son Nate, and also reflecting back on our own hospice with Jimmie as we approach the year mark.

The waiting is the easy part. That’s not to say it’s emotionally easy. Of course it’s not. But while you are in the cocoon with your loved one, you have supportive nursing staffing (if you’re privileged to have health care and resources) and most likely you have family visiting to pay their respects and to say goodbye. You have a solemn intimacy couched in the shared love of your partner/parent/child. I remember on Jimmie’s last day, one of Chris’ best childhood friends, now a cop, dropped by to pay his respects. The two of them laughed at the foot of Jimmie’s bed about all the trouble they’d gotten into when they were younger, and under his watch. Having him visit normalized the process of dying.

Those visits are so critical to the family as they grapple with their emotions. Tugged by the undertow of their loved one’s leaving, it is easy and normal to want to follow them into the afterlife. The visits by friends and family remind you that it isn’t time for you to die with your loved one even though you feel like you want to. There is more life to live and loving family and friends to support you on your first unsteady steps away from the tumultuous surf.

The end of life scene is different from other social settings where people come to visit. It’s purer, somehow. No one expects you to serve up food for them. The visitors do that for you. They are there because they want to be there. Why? To let the person who’s dying know that they love them, and care enough to come and sit facing their friend’s death, but also their own mortality. Because you can’t sit with someone who’s dying without thinking about your own exodus and the remaining purpose of your life were you to be in their position.

Sitting with your loving and dying friends where you all know that time is running out, frames everything in this context. I’m a pretty touchy feely person, but even with repeated experiences, I find my words choked and unavailable. How do you summarize a twenty-five year relationship in a fifteen to twenty-minute visit? This is part of the earthquake drill I still need to rehearse in order to be ready.

What happens immediately after is a frenzy of arrangements, people coming in to what had been a few minutes or hours ago the hallowed ground of your loved one’s departure. Now, your home is the workspace for mortuary workers, hospice care personnel clearing out their equipment. Then there is the silence. The part where no amount of sobbing or screaming or pounding your fist into pillows or walls can bring your loved one back. After you’ve tired yourself out with expressions of anguish, there follows a cavernous silence, an emptiness of loss that feels insurmountable. Simply, what was is no more. The love you had for them is still there, but it echoes back at you in terrifying starkness. Thirty plus years of intimacy and friendship and love gone in an instant. When it happened to us, Chris and I had to get out of the house. We went for a bike ride, of all things, grabbing metro bikes and riding from our condo to Little Tokyo, where we ate sushi, then walked miles back to the empty apartment. And the feelings were epic – guilt (did I do enough? Why didn’t I spend more time at the end at home?), fear (how will I survive without him?) rage (against the disease, the loneliness which you already are beginning to feel, the pain), and eventually, exhaustion, as all the days or months or years of staying vigilant collapse onto you like weighted plates, threatening to crush you. And frankly, you sort of wish they would. Then you wouldn’t have to deal with all of the niggling details of death – the acquisition of dozens of death certificates, of stationery to respond to people who will write in sympathy, the faces of the people who come to see you expressing their love and sorrow for your loss. And may continue to do so far after you need or want them too. Bob expressed it well in one of the messages – Bouts of sobbing – which Siri had helpfully translated as Boys off sobbing. Equally appropriate.

This year, on the anniversary of our return home from the hospital to hospice, I have two tickets to see David Sedaris at UC Irvine. I can’t imagine a more comforting place to spend the evening. I’d booked the tickets a year ago intending to go with my dear friend. During my recent visit, we talked about the fact that she wouldn’t be going with me. It was a bittersweet moment to acknowledge the rapid change in our fortunes.

Not to sound like a modern Cassandra, but like the catastrophic earthquake in Southern California, loss is coming to all of us. How we prepare ourselves to weather those losses is a personal choice. I’ve preferred to suit up and practice going through the motions of it with others. My recommendation to you is that you create your Emergency Response Team now, utilize the tools of communication we are so lucky to have to do it.

Amsterdam and Venice – Canals, Water under the Bridges and Tiny Steps

I drove my friend Caro to the airport where I bade her goodbye as she went off on the next leg of her trip to Sidney, Australia. We’d had an amazing five days visiting; the last two, she’d accompanied me twice to campus, where she observed a production meeting Monday evening, a quick dinner in the Tutor Student Center courtyard, then a workshop on Post-Dramatic Theatre with our Israeli guest director of Amsterdam, Lilach Dekel-Avneri.

Caro lives in Venice, Italy, where I visited her and her husband, Alberto, for about five days this summer. Over those days, she patiently helped me to reconstruct my geographic synapses of a city that I had known well enough to make it home late at night intoxicated, but which thirty-three years later, greeted me as a bewildering maze of indiscriminate streets and courtyards. The canals teamed with water buses and ambulances as we strode around, crossing the arching bridges to stop at shops and galleries sampling the fruits of the Venice Biennale. One of our favorite stops had been at the Lithuanian Pavilion, where we voyeuristically drank in the performance of the actors romping on the faux beach while singing the modern opera about life’s vicissitudes in a warehouse near the Arsenale.

And we laughed. We laughed about the silly things, Caro’s bright Australian accent piercing through the afternoons and evenings. I marveled at how she’s managed to keep her youthful sense of humor and life appreciation even as she’s matured into a wise, insightful woman. When I left them in Venice, we made tentative plans for her to stop in Los Angeles on her way to Australia to see their daughter.

Between then and now, classes resumed, the seven undergraduate plays were cast and rehearsals began, designers collaborated, directors directed, and we already have closed one of the shows and opened the second. The fall has been a blur of activity, and the impending anniversary of my husband’s death has begun to rattle my cage.

The other night, the night of October 3rd, I had a dream, where Jimmie and I were traveling. We were at the airport, which was clean and modern, white shining subway tile in a hallway leading to the bathrooms. Jimmie emerged from the bathroom, standing tall, no walker or scooter, shock of neatly combed white hair. I walked to his side and we began walking, but I couldn’t keep up with him and said, “Hey, I can’t keep up with you. You’re walking too fast.” He turned, and with the twinkle in his eye I always loved, he said, “I owe it all to you.” And with that, he was gone. It was only later when reviewing some photos and some writing I’d done that I realized October 3rd had been a momentous day for us. Nearly 28 years before, it had been the day we had the call from our adoption social worker, with the news about our soon-to-be son. Also, last year, Chris had been visiting us and I’d snapped this picture at home, before our last dinner out together before Jimmie’s rapid decline. October 3rd had returned to remind me of its power and the power of our love for each other. Later that morning, poor Chris called me to say hi, and I blubbered for about ten minutes.

It was in this emotional period, when I picked Caro up at the airport on Friday afternoon, the beginning of the only weekend of the semester when I didn’t have a tech rehearsal. I marveled at how we’d somehow scheduled her visit for a pocket of my life when I could pull in my PM shingle and just play for three days. We’d opened Amsterdam just the night before, and I was giddy about getting to spend time showing her around my city.

From Amsterdam. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Amsterdam has been an unfettered learning experience in mounting a non-hierarchical production. Working with Lilach has been challenging, and exciting and instructive as to how to create a play and environments through the sheer creative drive of a team. You should try to get over to USC to see it this weekend. It plays three more times this weekend. It closes Sunday 10/20.

Friday, after kidnapping Caro from the airport and driving her to Malibu, we had dinner at Gladstone’s, sitting outside, smelling the seasonal fragrance of the local fires, and watching the blood-red sun sink into the Pacific Ocean as we waited for our dessert and coffee to arrive.

There’s truth to the idea that the friends you make in your twenties are the ones you keep closest. As we looked out over the sand, I reminded Caro of the silly game we used to play at the beach at the Lido – find your physical twin. I remember my eternal body dysmorphia and how I always selected someone who looked well…. hmmm… sort of like I look today. Not as we looked then, svelte, and carefree and…twenty-two. I feel so fortunate to have managed to keep my friends close at hand.

Tonight, as I sorted through some of Jimmie’s residuals, finally made out in my name after almost a year of back and forth with the lovely folks at SAG-AFTRA, I thought about my new competencies. I’ve learned out to grieve as I need to, to pull it together when life calls for that. I know how to weigh the value of time spent with dear friends versus an extra hour of preparation for work. I’ve learned how to calendar my time to do the things that matter to me, and to keep committing to the forward actions that will make my future. I’m learning that I can be quite satisfied with a fried egg for dinner and I don’t need to beat myself up for not cooking. Or cleaning, or tidying the pile of mail before I sit down to write. When someone says they’re coming to stay, I don’t need to launch into a worry-fest about how I’ll manage house guests in the busy days of November, including November 9th, the anniversary day. Instead, I’ll think about how wonderful it will be to be surrounded by family at that time, fantasize that they might have dinner on the table when I come home, then proceed to take it one day at a time rather than drifting into a miasma of martyrdom.

I’ve spoken to several students this week who suffer from depression, anxiety and OCD. And the cold or the flu that’s going around relentlessly. I want to tell them it will be okay. Emotions are emotions. They won’t kill you. You have the power to control them. And even if you can’t for a moment, this too shall pass. That’s what they made Kleenex for. Lord knows I’ve developed a competency with Kleenex this year.

This fall, I have an amazing class of GESM 111G students. We’re learning how to read plays together, how to look at plays, how to sit and experience each dramatic outing and then come together and share our more and less favorite parts. They’re so enthusiastic and willing to share. I tortured them with an exercise this week. I’d had them do the Creative Autobiography from Twyla Tharp’s terrific book, The Creative Habit weeks ago, then carried around their little bits of heart in my bag for weeks until I finally read them. Each of them shared their creative successes and failures and aspirations with me. Across the board they all want to make a unique contribution in their field that helps people. So I thought that was worthy of some torture. I had them write what they thought that unique thing might look like, and after several iterations of sharing their ideas with each other in small groups, I wrote on the board what the tiny steps that they could take to get moving toward the goal would be. (Can you tell I’m working with a life coach and trying to emulate her? Good guess.)

Amsterdam, Venice, friendship, creativity, supporting each other. These are the tiny steps that make a life. In the end, it’s all water under the bridge.

From Amsterdam. photo by Craig Schwartz

Strong Solo Voices and On Being Carfree

Last week was an amazing theatre week. Wednesday night I attended “On Beckett” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, starring the incandescent Bill Irwin, sharing his life-long love of and relationship with Samuel Beckett’s texts. Sitting in the center of the Kirk Douglas Theatre before the show, uncannily close to where I sat for opening night of Endgame, I cracked open my program to discover the Dramaturgical pages filled with pictures of Beckett performers, including my darling Jimmie, in the ashcan next to Charlotte Rae’s, circa 2016. (Scroll through to page 4/8 to see the page of which I speak. ) I continued to think throughout the ensuing evening how much Jimmie would have enjoyed this production.

Irwin is a master, his affinity with the distinctly Irish voice of Samuel Beckett so clear; his training as a clown made Beckett’s humority (do you like my new word?) powerful and immediate. Irwin removes all distance between himself and us with his personal narrative through the work. The fact that he shared texts most of us probably weren’t familiar with was also a bonus. The not-so-nutty professor, complete with gag podium.

Thursday evening, Sarah Jones was in the house, performing Sell/Buy/Date at USC as part of Visions and Voices in the Bing Theatre, packed to the rafters with appreciative students and faculty. Her play, which had appeared a little over a year ago at the Geffen Playhouse, is a complex jewel. Avoiding spoiler alerts, let’s just say her framing device is brilliant; positioning herself in a time frame about thirty years hence allowed her to skewer our behaviors and sharply direct our attention to the topic of sexual exploitation. On Sunday, the front page of the New York Times was a chilling reminder of how this show, originally performed in 2016, is maybe even more relevant today. Framing is everything. I told my freshmen seminar students that this is why the theatre has the power to change society.

Last Friday, I took the Dash bus to USC from my DTLA home, went to the Transportation office to turn in my parking pass in exchange for the EZ-Metro Pass. The pass allows me to take the Bus, Metro and Dash to and from work, something that I’ve not done in recent years because of my caregiver need to be able to get home quickly. This is a big step, given the fact that we’re heading into “winter” and there are, God willing, bound to be rainy days and late nights after tech where I’d probably appreciate the comfort of my private car. But the $110 parking vs. the $40 EZ-Pass is compelling, as is the lightening of my carbon footprint. And I can still listen to my favorite podcasts and spend time thinking and decompressing from work before I get home, regardless of the hour. I spent the first few days feeling a little dependent on forces not aligned with my fervent desire to get home right after work, until last night, at 10:49PM, I walked up to the bus stop at Jefferson and Figueroa, under Felix’s watchful eye, pulled up the timetable for the 81 bus to discover it only runs one bus per hour… but due to arrive in about 1 minute! Which it did. I got onto the bus, found a seat, and was home by 11:05, feeling oddly privileged.

Under the watchful eye of Felix the Cat

You see, it’s all in the framing. I’ve decided this old house needs to be reframed, and I’ve begun the work. I still have the car sitting at home. If my legs give out from walking the 11,000 steps I’ve proclaimed I want to do each day then I can always get my parking pass back. But on the eve of Free Ride Day on LA Metro (Oct. 2), I’m happy it’s not just a one day choice, but feels like a shift in my lifestyle.

Saturday, I attended the life celebration of one of the former deans of the School of Dramatic Arts at USC, Robert Scales. It was a moving tribute to a man who as many people noted, would have hated the attention. Speaker after speaker talked about what Bob had done for them, either through introducing them to someone who could help them, or by helping them himself. His acts of kindness or opportunity or financial support were laid bare for all of us to see, yet again, reinforcing his legacy. I’ve been thinking a lot about who memorials are for and they’re a chance for us to take notice of each other and the impact we can have on others’ lives.

I’d spent Thursday running around in our new van, picking up loaner ghost lights to decorate the Bing to celebrate Bob, who’d made the witty little lamps as a hobby. In my travels, I got to visit one of Bob’s Los Angeles homes, the 24th Street Theatre, where he had been a constant support to that theatre. You can read more about Bob here through the words of Jay McAdams, one of the theatre’s Artistic Directors. Jay handed me two boxes of the whimsical lamps to use at the Bing. Here are a few pictures of some of the celebrants at Saturday’s event. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the ghost lights.

I just want to take a moment to shout out to our amazing Theatre Management staff, CB Borger, Chris Paci, and Joe Shea, who gracefully shuffled the week’s events into an already loaded deck. At the time, we had Men on Boats in tech, and our upcoming productions of Amsterdam and Cider House Rules, Parts 1 and 2 waiting for their attentions for hangs and focuses. And yet they powered through, making the School look great as well as our guests, Sarah Jones and the spirit of Bob Scales.

It’s been a busy week and no signs of getting less so in the coming weeks. I feel lucky to have had such wonderful support in this difficult transitional year. Don’t know where I’m transitioning to, but I feel the psychic and emotional shift from looking backwards to looking forward. A few weeks ago, I removed the slim silver bracelet depicted below from my wrist because it no longer seemed a funny and encouraging exhortation but instead a petulant wail of sadness I like to think belies my natural optimism about the future.

Interesting I hadn’t noticed the timestamp in this picture, but six months later, the bracelet no longer feels encouraging.

It’s all about the framing.