New Decade, New Rules. Rule Number 6

2020 has been declared the year of clarity, the year of the stage manager. Leave it to Stage Managers to get up in the business of the new decade and claim it. New decade, both for the world and for me. I’m entering my 6th decade, and have decided that many celebrations are in order. I’m really clear about that. Does that count as decadal clarity? Or just well-developed narcissism? Okay, okay. I have my answer.

Saturday, I threw the first of those many celebrations, an unbirthday party, hosting tea at The Huntington Gardens for a dozen and a half friends. I know that I left important people out and for that I’m cringing as I write this. Know that your engraved invitation is coming for another day and please forgive my brutish forgetfulness while putting the guest list together. Isn’t it always like that, life? Happy events tinged with sadness or regret? I’ve resolved to try to let the negative thoughts go, and I do hope you will, too. We’ll go another day.

So why tea? When I was in my late twenties, or early thirties, I frequently had tea at the Huntington with my starving artist theatre friends. The gardens were much less developed than they are now, but still magical; this was back in the mid eighties and early nineties before the Chinese gardens had been added. For us, the Gardens represented a place to escape to for a few hours of sunshine, appreciation of fine art and books and the embodiment of a slower, more elegant time. The gardens comprise 120 acres of botanical bliss. Still, all these years later, the same sturdy tea house still sits in the center of the rose garden, even today. I was surprised Saturday to see as many roses in bloom as there were, considering it’s January. We gathered just outside the door; they wouldn’t seat the group until everyone had arrived. Under the tree was a display of roses, a wooden table with a chair, and a big banner behind the table that said “Ask Me About the Roses.” As we milled around waiting for everyone to gather, I avoided sitting because I thought someone might approach looking to me for encyclopedic information about roses. Not Michael. He stepped up right to the table and proceeded to instruct my more gullible friend, Cathy, about the several varieties of roses on the table. He indicated delicately with his musician’s fingers, sweeping across the display tray, lingering at each flower:

Oh, that one (pointing to the yellow) is the Eisenhower, and the red one, there, is the Nixon. (pausing for effect)

Cathy took this in thoughtfully, nodding, while the other Michael covered his mouth to keep from laughing. A minute after this picture was taken, Cathy exploded with laughter when she realized what had happened. I believe there was some colorful language, but I pretended not to hear it because I was mentally preparing for tea. Clearly I didn’t get to introducing people quickly enough to have allowed that to happen. Thankfully Cathy didn’t hold a grudge about Michael’s rose bloviating.

Once inside, I quickly dealt out the place cards so that everyone could sit. There was some quick engineering to fix the sunlight-streaming-through-the-window-problem. Leave it to another stage manager to sort out the quick napkin over the door solution.

A few of us had arrived early to take a walk in the gardens. Several of them had complimented me on my new coat. “I bought it for myself for my birthday, online at the Ann Taylor sale. I bought the coat on sale at $231 only to put it in my cart and discover it was $95.” Good story, right? Enough people were graciously complimentary about my new coat so that every time someone commented about it my two friends, Lynn and Rob breathlessly doubled over. And those were the friends I brought all the way to Pasadena in my car and who needed a ride home from the party! Only your friends can remind you of what will be the most important new rule for my 60s. Rule number 6. I read about it in the wonderful book, “The Art of Possibility” by Ben Zander.

Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.

Benjamin Zander

This is hard for a Capricorn. We Capricorns are earnest. We take everything seriously. So this will be a challenge for me in the coming decade. Lynn and Rob and I laughed all the way home as I realized I’d repeated the stupid coat story about five times to different people, forgetting that all around me there were people who’d heard it anywhere between one to five times. Talk about bloviating. They were on the five end of the spectrum. They fell out every time I started in. It was a bonding moment for them, more of a bondage moment for me. Harrumph. Remember, Els, rule number 6!

The tea was spectacular. Being so supported this past year by my friends has been a gift. Speaking of gifts, I very carefully instructed that there were to be no gifts. But you know, some people can’t help themselves. My friend Jenny brought me a beautiful square box with an extravagant crenulated hat on top. “It’s just a box with some padding in it,” she said.

The aforementioned padding is the beautiful scarf wrapped around my shoulders. Not to mention the elegant hat which was on top of the box.

I’m making strides in the new year, the new decade, with the critical new rule. Rule number 6.

Check out the Hungtington when you get a chance!

There will be blog….

Recently, I left my brand new-Christmas lunch box on the Dash F bus. I was on a call with a colleague, and jumped off the bus, leaving it behind, in all it’s splendor on the seat and didn’t realize I’d even lost it until I was leaving the credit union after ordering my widow checks and didn’t have it. I stopped and cursed my luck before continuing back to my office. No lunch box. No lunch. What a terrible way to start the day.

First, you have to know why I became unhinged at losing what others might consider to be a trifle. Over the years I’ve worked at USC, fifteen this January, I’ve received many monogrammed gifts – scarf, hat, umbrella, drink tumblers, coffee mugs, water bottle. I’ve used the heck out of all of these losing the water bottle just last fall in a moment of forgetfulness after a safety training. But this lunch box and its contents was truly special, featuring many more monograms than any self-respecting faculty member deserves.

Ridiculously fabulous, right? And just in keeping with the new president’s sustainability measures.

How is all that branded swag sustainable, asked my very inquisitive friend, Bob in New York.

E: We stop using straws and plastic silverware. My helpful suggestion was to never serve bottled water again, because a few years ago they gave us all water bottles. I am, of course, on my fourth since then, but the habit stuck.

Which habit, you might be asking yourself about now. The habit of not using plastic water bottles? Or the one of buying sustainable products over and over….. I can’t honestly answer that question without blushing considerably.

My friend Susan had already started shopping for a replacement lunch box for me. Where i saw a loss, she saw an opportunity….

I left my lunch bag on the Dash bus once years ago, so I knew they had a lost and found, and walked back to my office not too worried that I’d be able to get it back.

Others of us lucky to have received this gift have lost theirs, too. But I can hardly compete with my colleague Luis, who lost his in an episode worthy of Live PD, or Cops – blame someone else for ransacking his car or burgling his apartment to lose his – way better story; it’s hard to compete with his story of loss. He’s a playwright for Christ’s sake.

Back in my office, I called the Dash office number on their website. I listened to an endless loop of muzak underscoring the announcement, “You’re Number One in line, ” punctuated with “Hi! Your call matters to us, thank you for your patience!” After about five minutes of listening to this hellish loop, I began muttering back at the speaker phone on my desk, “I guess my call doesn’t much matter considering I’ve been listening to this dreck for ten minutes,” Hannah snickering in the background. You know when there’s a particularly real sounding phone interruption that actually sounds like someone has picked up the phone and you might end up talking to a LIVE HUMAN BEING? That’s what the above punctuation “Hi! Your call matters to us…” sounded like. It got me every time. Like two dozen times.

It’s lunchtime, said Hannah wearily, though it was really only 11:45, and it was her polite way of saying, Let it Go, Els.

So I hung up. Tried again at 3:30, 4:30; same thing. They must eat lunch there a lot. So I decided after riding the Dash bus home, I’d jump in my car and go to the bus yard. I asked the evening driver if anyone had turned in a lunch box earlier that day, and he went off on a tangent talking about having seen a lunch box in the breakroom, and I felt buoyed about the prospects of my lunch box retrieval. The address on the website had said 100 N. Main St., but when I got there, it was a rolled down door at a building on Main and 1st, not a bus yard.

Wait! I’d been watching them build the new bus transit station for a year or so on the way to my gym in the arts district! So off I went – it’s on Commercial Street, parallel with the 101 Freeway, just below the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.

Photos of the Dash Bus Depot by Joe Linton

I pulled up on a street behind the facility, parked at the many meters and crossed the street to the guard’s gate. It was about 7:00PM. I stood there until the guard noticed me. Wearing a jaunty tam, he slid open the window to inform me that the parking garage was on the other side of the building, and closed at 4:30PM but then graciously opened the gate and called someone on his walkie talkie to take me to Dispatch. Talk about jobs you don’t want. The Dispatcher was on the phone with a driver trying to take their break. The office was tidy. I could see a pile of what might be lost or found items on the file cabinet to the right of her desk. No lunch box. I waited patiently until she’d finished with the driver. I told her what the driver of the bus told me about someone having seen the lunch box in the breakroom, and she sent someone to look for it. Nope. She let me know that it probably wouldn’t turn up until the end of the night when the bus came back.

I’ll check back tomorrow. But before I leave, do you have a direct phone number?

She jotted it down and handed it to me, and I promptly uploaded it into my phone, triumphant that I’d no longer need to suffer the fates of the muzak.

I called later the next day, about 4:00PM, and sure enough, someone had retrieved my lunch box and it was there. The food is no longer there, she said. She told me to come by dispatch. This time went more smoothly, but Jaunty Jake was still there, still sardonic.

You’re back after hours again.

Yes, they said they’d found my lunch bag.

Back to Dispatch – this time, when the Dispatcher finished with the call they were on, he cradled the phone, shook his head and said, “Drivers. What are you going to do?” He reached up onto the file cabinet to the right of the desk and said, “This it?” Yes!

I signed the clipboard, and turned to my right, spotting Jaunty Jake holding a bag of chips. He escorted me down the stairs to the parking garage.

Well, if history holds true, you won’t see me for a couple of years, but now I know w here to come to find my lost stuff. Thanks for your help!

He laughed, as he headed over to the guard station by the back gate. I cradled my monogrammed lunch bag in my arms, and jumped into the car, pulling out of the LADOT Transit Parking garage to head home. With my monogrammed lunch box.

Speaking of monograms, here’s a million dollar business idea. You remember His and Hers towels? Isn’t it time for Theirs towels? Go for it. Make a million.

Phoenix Rising

When last we left Nana, she had boarded the big green bus run by the South Tahoe Airporter and was speeding her way up from the lake’s edge to Reno, to fly to Washington, D.C., where she would visit her father and stepmother for the New Year’s celebration.

Freshly showered, latest Grisham book in hand, I boarded the first of two flights from Reno to D.C., enjoyed reading a bit, something which had eluded me for the past week. I relaxed into my seat on the United Flight to Los Angeles, which is only an hour, and best intentions falling aside like the book into the crevice of the seat, I immediately dozed off into intermittent sleep. I had promised myself that I’d finish my blog in L.A. while waiting for the red-eye to DC, but found I was quite content instead reading my book and relaxing in the crowded anterooms in LAX. I boarded the 10:45PM Sunday night departure with other bleary-eyed travelers, all of us anticipating a solid 5 hours and 10 minutes of sleep. At least I was, sure that with no nurseling or tot to worry about, I’d soon be out. The flight was full, and all seats and overhead bins bursting with folks heading to the nation’s capital.

The following morning, after a pricey cab to the Northwest district, I arrived at the home of my stepmother and my dad. I entered the cozy foyer, and immediately sat down to have breakfast with them, as though I’d never left since my last visit in July. They have an orderly life, attended by a loyal staff who’ve been with them for about thirty years. There is hardly a metaphoric point further flung from Tahoe than here. Complete tranquility and care for the next four days, which I was very much looking forward to.

I’d finished the Grisham (highly recommend it, too – The Guardians) – and eagerly launched into Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a novel I’d heard people raving about for weeks. Within the first 121 pages, I was struck by a quote which underscored the topic of uncertainty about the future that my coach and I’ve been discussing of late:

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

I stopped and read the quote a second time, a third time, a fourth. It had fallen almost like a love letter out of a long unopened book, and I settled into my chair to consider the happenstance of reading such a missive at this time. Just my recent two weeks of travel, visiting my son and his family for Christmas, and now my Dad and his wife for New Year’s is completely foreign to me. Traveling alone is simple, unencumbered. I would always have preferred the encumbrance of my darling husband, but I now embraced the efficacy of traveling alone.

Over summer, I’d signed up for TSA Check, and this was the first trip I’d successfully used it on. If you can call successful being stopped with a half full water bottle at the checkpoint, which I vociferously denied having, then being escorted around and coming through again for two agents to scrutinize the screen and discover a very sharp work-knife in your purse successful. I do, considering they could have done a full cavity search at that point, and they didn’t.

The five days in D.C. was lovely. I’d told my Dad I didn’t want him to fill up the time with activities, that I knew I’d be exhausted and would just like to hang out, and he followed my wishes. Aside from the three squares we all had together each day, we did a few errands together; I accompanied him to get out some stitches at the dermatologist’s office, marveling at how he knew everyone’s name in the office and used it, causing broad smiles to come over each staff member’s face. Unbiased of course, I’d say my dad is a charming guy, and it was great to see he hasn’t lost his touch with people. He has an uncanny ability to meet someone and to know their life story within fifteen minutes, then to hold onto that story like a pit bull with a rubber toy. This is probably a function of his having been a charitable foundation grantor for years; that work is about making relationships with people and determining if what they do or want to do with your foundation’s money is within the guidelines of that foundation’s mission. He’s never lost that flair for finding out what makes people tick. I’ve always admired it in him.

We took a trip to PetSmart, all three of us, to select two new finches for Sally’s indoor aviary. The zebra finch and society finch hopped about trying to evade capture by the young woman at PetSmart, but when they were inducted into their new home, a good 10x larger than their cage at the store, they tweeted happily and flitted about the aviary with joy.

I took two rambling hikes in Rock Creek Park, the first, where I felt accompanied by my dear friend Susie at my side as I walked through the well-marked trails, slipping on the leaves occasionally in my inappropriate hiking shoes, red leather Clark’s moccasins. On the New Year’s Eve day hike I took, I resolved to do fifty hikes in 2020, so unfortunately couldn’t count that day’s hike, but it felt good to get out and move my legs after a few days of complete lassitude.

On the second day of the new year, my dear friend Liz came up from Annapolis to visit me at the house. Liz and I have known each other since we were about seven and eight, respectively, and lived about .08 mile from each other in Greensburg, PA. Our escapades were too many to recount, but included much creative “free play” on the acreage of her family’s home, flinging Barbies into the tiered ponds to “swim,” serving and drinking tea in the tiny log cabin playhouse, picking so many beans from her father’s vast garden that I once thought when I went to sleep, I would see only beans in my dreams. Like Patchett’s Dutch House, Liz’s family’s house in Greensburg had an almost mythic status for me which stuck with me for years, and I would visit its magical spaces in my dreams throughout my twenties, and even occasionally in my thirties.

Academically, I followed Liz from the Valley School of Ligonier, to St. Paul’s School, but diverged as she went on to Stanford and then back to Pitt to get her medical degree. She’s been practicing Emergency Medicine for thirty years, and that was one of the things we kept marveling at during our spectacular visit – how we’d gotten to be in the sixth decade of our lives in the blink of an eye. Both with families, and grown children, successful in our fields, far away from the little midwestern town where we’d percolated as children.

What’s wonderful about staying connected with a childhood friend is the dissipation of time that happens when you reunite. You’ve come a huge distance, with full lives lived between the 53 years between the time you met and now, but it’s all telescoped into a comfortable understanding of who you are together and apart. There’s no need to try to impress; she knew you when you were nine and stupid enough to slam the door of the pool house, inciting the wasps behind the hex sign on the door to chase you around the pool and back in again to sting you both multiple times before you both realized you should jump into the pool. You’ve attended her wedding, and she’s watched from afar your husband’s life celebration. You’ve both been working mothers and wives, with busy careers and family life. You’ve harbored hopes and dreams for your partner and your children, postponing conscious self care so that at 60 it is an entirely new topic to discuss. And you do discuss that topic with ferocity like how you chatted at night trying to fall asleep during that thunderstorm, lightening and thunder ricochetting off the ceiling, as it split a tree just down the hill from Liz’s bedroom. Fears about real and imagined boogiemen have populated our conversations and letters for over fifty years. How is that possible?

The image that I’ve been thinking of recently is the Phoenix.

…a unique bird that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.

a person or thing regarded as uniquely remarkable in some respect.

The conflagration of the past two years or so is more or less out, smoldering a bit but effectively over. Charred, a bit wounded, I nevertheless feel the upward draft of the fire’s residual flare. Feet charred, I feel willing to rise above the wreckage to fly, like Sally’s finches, to discover new relationships, to listen to the air currents, open my flaps, as it were, to explore who the new me is.

In this next decade of discovery I’m suspended in the golden amber of past discoveries, magical spaces, and the fealty of noble friendships past and present.

Dear 2020, help me to recognize the opportunities as I encounter them to become uniquely remarkable in some respect, and to recognize and perhaps create the thresholds of inspiring new spaces that beckon me to creative inspiration.