Chez Pa-niece

I lost interest in cooking and eating after Jimmie died. It felt like the natural progression – he stopped eating, I stopped eating. Eating afterwards felt disloyal in a way as it’s such a confirmation of living. And grief has a weight of its own that I hadn’t remembered. It draws you down and convinces you that you need less to survive. Once you eventually get hungry, you realize that it’s also not as much fun to cook for one as it is for two, which is an added disincentive to cooking and eating.

So when Jimmie’s niece, Niki, asked if I could help her out by having her stay for two weeks with me, I quickly agreed. Not only is Niki an accomplished chef, but she is a creative and intelligent woman. I knew that she would be busy with her own outside work while she was “in residence,” but I also knew having her there would be a tonic. And it was. 

When I say Niki is accomplished I mean she’s really accomplished. She studied at the Culinary Institute, worked for six and a half years with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in the Bay Area, being sent to the American Academy of Rome as one of the first visiting cooks as part of the Rome Sustainable Food Project. She has built a healthy resume as a personal chef for many distinguished clients. Through these clients as well as through her many residencies at Salmon Creek Farm, she manifests a passion for sustainable and healthful eating, and an appreciation for interesting artists and people in general. She’s got a healthy skepticism about the trappings of wealth and a facility to hold her own amidst her clients. I have no doubt that Niki is as interesting and talented as any of them, but with a quirky self-deprecating twist, and an insatiable curiosity about the world. She extrudes confidence in the kitchen as easily as she presses garlic, and watching her in my humble kitchen zone was a privilege during her two week residency.

I first met Niki when she was about six; she and her sister Gina came to New York with their Grandma Claire, Jimmie’s sister. Their visit coincided with the early days of our courtship; in fact, they arrived the morning after I’d spent the night at Jimmie’s Upper West Side apartment for the first time. I remember this with the clarity of smell-o-vision because I’d draped my jeans over the living room chair and one of Jimmie’s cats, Flicka, had sprayed them to make them hers; when I rose to get dressed in the morning to meet his nieces, the pants reeked. Chagrined, I’d borrowed a pair of Jimmie’s jeans, which were way too big for me, and my corroding memory loops a rope belt around my waist a la Ellie May Clampett to meet Jimmie’s sister Claire and Niki and Gina for the first time.

The weekend was wonderful, getting to know Claire and her two granddaughters, by the side of the boat pond in Central Park, and walking Jimmie’s scholarly German Shepherd, Jasper around the Upper West Side. I had no idea at the time how accomplished they would both become. Gina has become a landscape architect of great renown, and Niki a top flight chef.

This Niki demonstrated many times during her two week visit: the morning she offered to take over the scrambled eggs task I was just beginning, presenting me about ten minutes later with a beautiful french rolled omelet with fresh broccoli and onions. I think she had noticed my morning regime of Ninja smoothie, and however healthy it was, it clearly wasn’t holding me over. There was the Sunday night she prepared us swordfish and potatoes. And the fresh chicken soup, with home-made broth, an array of perfectly-cooked vegetables, with separate gluten-free quinoa pasta deftly added after microwaving the soup and a parsley pesto oil to put on top. Or one of the last nights she was there, cleaning up the fridge and making a delicious curry with chick peas, carrots, celery and tomatoes.

In between the cooking, we puzzled together over the woes of the world, the challenges of surviving a catastrophic loss, and how to make people value your work more. Our life seminars played out over the pieces of several puzzles over the two weeks. Here are some of the pictures from our favorite, Reader’s Paradise. As we worked the puzzles intricate bannisters, we fantasized about dropping into the library once it was assembled on the gold tablecloth.

 

We geeked out over the carpeted stairs, the array of different types of bannisters, the stacks of children’s books. We stayed up way too late, figuring it, and all the issues of the world, all out.

Niki’s visit was perfectly timed in my early weeks of grieving. She provided a dash of modeling independence and courage, a splash of silliness, a rasher of empathy, and daily affirming hugs which telegraphed that my emotional ups and downs were normal and welcome. We happily whiled away the two weeks leading up to both of our departures for the Christmas break. In the last day, we started on the 1500 piece Kodak hot air balloon puzzle which now sits on the dining room table, ready to take me into 2019 still puzzling about this new world I find myself in. Over the break, I demonstrated a bit of what I’d learned from Niki about chicken soup to my son and his family.  Thank you, Niki! IMG_1409

The Grieving – Early Days

The second weekend was over, and behind me were  two lovely lunches with caring friends, Saturday at Fundamentals with Ellen, my neighbor and former spin friend from YAS, and Sunday, at Vespaio, with Rob, my fellow-theatre buddy which was followed by a visit to MOCA to see the exhibit, One Day at A Time, Termite Art.

This exhibit was particularly useful now. It featured the work of Artist and Cinema Professor Manny Farber, who created the term“Termite Art” to describe art that isn’t an identifiable stylistic school  focusing instead on the quotidian objects that shape our perceptions of our lives. It reminded me of the 17thcentury Memento Mori paintings, not at all stylistically, but metaphorically.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/a/ae/StillLifeWithASkull.jpg/1920px-StillLifeWithASkull.jpg
Photo by Zak Kelley from the current MOCA Exhibit

Farber tips his 21st Century table tops up so they become flattened surfaces, but persists with three dimensionality in his objects. They aren’t as clear as the painting below in their meaning, but function as a visual blog of sorts, and not specifically about “live now because tomorrow we die” messages, but live now because we live now as unique and creative  individuals.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memento_mori#/media/File:StillLifeWithASkull.jpg

This was an impactful and timely message for me to hear now, only a few days after the death of my husband.

“Farber championed art that was committed to observation, deep attention, and the unique temporalities of the quotidian. In his words, the production of termite art is a process of “journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through horizontal coverage.”

https://www.moca.org/exhibition/one-day-at-a-time-manny-farber-and-termite-art

Last Monday’s “unique temporalities of the quotidien”  was the disposal of dead flowers. I had received so many beautiful floral arrangements, and they had begun to leer grotesquely at me, challenging me to disassemble them and rearrange the leftover flowers into something that will last a few more days.

Emotionally this is what I’m doing as well. Reassembling my heart and life into something that will last a few more days, weeks, months, years, decades, hopefully.

The task mundane, the smell redolent, I trimmed away the lilies, their faded flowers cascading into the sink, next the roses, buying more time with their sympathies and the beauty of their arrangements.

While I did this task, I wondered what my “tabletop” would look like now. Scattered documents from the Neptune Society, SAG-AFTRA, MisterRodgers USPS forever stamps and thank-you-for-your-thoughtfulness cards, an appointment card for Jimmie’s podiatrist whom I haven’t yet called to give the news, my checkbook, a typed list I’ve ironically entitled “The Hereafter List”on the table, my South African ceramic mug filled with chilling tea and milk. No dead birds, a theme of Manny Farber’s table tops, but that day, I wore the hummingbird earrings thoughtfully sent to me by my stepmother last Christmas, a talisman of our shared enthusiasm.

Over the past two weeks, I’ve heard from the many widows and widowers in my life, and they may not have any idea of how greedily I’ve drunk in their words and metaphors for their journeys.

Somedays you are in the boat, and somedays you are under the boat. I’ve found that the less you resist, the quicker the wave swells pass.

I’m sure you have many people, family and friends to be with you at this difficult time. The tough time comes when they all go back to their separate lives, and you realize your best friend is gone.

I know this is inevitable. I have been on the giving side of that unintentional abandonment. I know it will suck, but her words are true and it helps to prepare for that moment.

Remember that you are alive. He is gone, but you are still alive. 

Each of them has confessed: “I still talk to _______ every day.”

I’ve been timid to speak to Jimmie, feeling foolish to hear the shaky cadence of my voice in the quietude of our once shared home. Sitting on the couch yesterday, I looked over to where Jimmie used to sit from my chaise end of the couch and said, “This sucks, you know.”

So far, it is a one-way conversation, but that’s to be expected. He too, is busy getting his bearings in the new world where he finds himself. I’m sure there are happy reunions going on there, with his dear friends Jason and Steve, his brother Jack and sister Claire. All this spoken in the confusing maelstrom of my mind where I remind myself I don’t believe in the afterlife. 

I’ve begun re-reading Joan Didion’s “The Year of MagicalThinking,” a powerful book which I finally read last year because while I had thought I’d save it until after Jimmie was gone, I went on a Joan Didion bender and got to that book and thought to myself, “Jimmie is never going to die and I really want to read this book.” In the mind of a grieving widow, this equates into “by reading Joan Didion’s book I killed my husband.” I know how irrational it sounds and I don’t at all believe it to be true but I share these inner workings because this process is not unique to me. Millions of people lose loved ones every year. According to Quora, the estimate was 6, 775 per day in the U.S. alone.

Today I returned to work. Wearing a full-fledged head cold. One of my colleagues stopped by at 9:00AM with two boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts, the holiday version, and the classic.  Not that it matters but you may be proud to know that I ate the top left one and then we cycled them down to the shop classroom where they were happily ingested. I’m not sure what the message is when you get two dozen donuts where a box of 6 would have sufficed, but the arrival of the donuts was absolutely a joyous way to start a tough day. So, thanks PGA for reminding me I’m still alive.

The work right now is riding the grief like the wild bronco it is. Arranging my new table top is work for the future, but am inspired by Manny Farber’s joyously colored chaotic and richly decorated surfaces. I am also inspired by the way we humans make our way through the headwaters of grief and resurface anew, emotions perhaps rough, but memories intact. And one makes new memories, witnessed below.

Lucy Sparrow – Felt the Grocery Store!

One of the best things about living downtown is easy access to cultural events. This weekend, that included attending a pop-up art installation at the Standard Hotel at 6th and Flower in DTLA.

British craft artist Lucy Sparrow has spent a year in her “Felt Cave” back in Essex, England along with her staff of five, building the 31,000 felt grocery items that adorn the felt shelves in the second story Sparrow Mart.

Getting into the exhibit required a bit of patience. When my friend Rob and I arrived, there was a short line wrapped outside near the parking lot for the Hotel. It was warm, but we were in the shade most of the time, and the hotel provided bright yellow umbrellas in a stand near the door for those moments when you found yourself between the dappled leaves of the patio’s trees

Once inside the Hotel lobby, we approached a stand where we made our actual appointment. We arrived at 2:30, but learned that our appointment would be for 5:00pm. Groan, vocal incredulity. We Angelenos are an impatient tribe. Not being a DTLA Hipster, I rarely frequent the Standard Hotel lobby, but nevertheless enjoyed the next few hours catching up with Rob while sipping iced tea and eating a moon pie from the Sparrow Food bar, where you can buy tasty treats and also take home the felt version of them as well. Surrounded by the lobby’s burled wooden walls, and hot pink lounge furniture made the time pass easily, with music  by a DJ who played LPs appealing to the over 50 and under 25 sets. Quite a feat.

At our appointed time, we ascended the escalator, and gathered outside the storefront of the Sparrow Mart for brief instructions. Soon, we were inside with a red basket hooked over my arm, looking at an impressive array of animated vegetables, pineapples, cucumbers and peppers, each sporting laughing black eyes.  To the right a fish case, filled with shrimp, mussels, salmon fillets, and lobsters. Next to it, a display of liquor bottles leaning drunkenly against each other.IMG_0881

Adjacent to the alcohol, a full case of sushi, dozens of individually stitched hand rolls. The level of detail is mind boggling. And so colorful!

IMG_0860This art installation allows for all of the objects in the store to be purchased. The Sushi pieces are about the most affordable at $10 per piece, but all of the objects in the store are hand painted and all are signed by the artist. So expensive relative to the represented item, but cheap as far as an original art purchase goes.The prices may not be affordable for everyone, but the experience of seeing the objects and enjoying them is completely accessible and charming. These were some of my favorite items.

The atmosphere in the store was festive and celebratory as shoppers moved about the aisles cooing at the brightly colored American items. That is one of the things that impressed me about the different projects of Lucy Sparrow. She made an effort to identify and build items appropriate to the locality of the exhibit.

The various cases around the store were cunning, but the meat counter was particularly detailed.

And should you not have enough cash on hand, there’s even a felt ATM you can admire if not access.

IMG_0863IMG_0866

She’s even got the grab-and-go food market covered, with individual pizza slices, and sodas in a case covered in felt, and pretzels. There’s a candy area, complete with gum and chocolate, a cigarette area, and an entire aisle full of over-the-counter medicines. She’s got it all.

Rob and I each selected about three items, and when we went to buy them at the back of the store, I looked down at the hands of the woman who was wrapping my purchases, reading FELT LIFE across her knuckles, and I gasped.

You’re Lucy, the Artist! This is so amazing!

She beamed. Not surprisingly, just as she is in the video, she is friendly and engaged with her audience and IMG_0885.JPGI was gratified to have a brief face-to-face moment with her while she wrapped my purchases in black and white checkered paper, then red outer paper wrap with a Sparrow sticker.        Here’s a great interview I found online about her work.

As far as diversions go, the Sparrow Mart is high on my list. Definitely worth the wait. Take someone you need to catch up with. Probably go during the weekdays rather than on Sunday afternoon as we did. But it’s a must see. There until August 31st at the Standard Hotel, 550 S. Flower St., Los Angeles, CA.

But that’s just how two of us felt about it.

E(scape) R(oom)s

Recently, Jimmie and I had dinner out at our favorite CPK downtown at 7th and Fig. We are fixtures there, having had a long habit of going there for “strike pizza” after the closing of shows at USC. I’d finish the strike, jump in the car and pick up Jimmie to head out for pizza on a Sunday night. We are highly ritualistic people, and this was one of our favorite outings. The last time we were there, we were greeted at our table by a former student, who told us that she had been working at an Escape Room in downtown LA.

We laughed about the coincidence that two recent graduates from the School of Dramatic Arts had gone into E.R. work, and yet they hadn’t know each other while at USC.  I guess it’s to be expected that theatre designers/scenic painters/costumers would find this kind of work engaging and profitable. And that they would have success in it.

My 91 year old husband has developed an affinity for E.R.s this week. You won’t find our favorite E.R. on any list of Immersive Escape Rooms. It’s the E.R. at Good Samaritan, in downtown LA, where we are now on a first name basis with much of the staff. For the record, I’d rank it as very difficult, but so far with a 100% survival rate.

We come in, fill out the paperwork and have a brief wait in the lobby. When we arrived Tuesday night, our first visit this week, the lobby was surprisingly empty, and we were swept in with the speed of a couple with reservations at WP24.

The thing about E.R.s is that they are pretty easy to get into. When you are 91 with a plumbing issue, you rise straight to the top, like the cream on the frosty bottle of whole milk in the milk box.

Milkbox
What my childhood milk box looked like

(Some rurally raised Boomers will get that reference. For the millennials, one used to have milk delivered to your home (even as late as the early 1970s) where they left it in an insulated square box sitting outside your door in the early dewy mornings before school.)

But, as usual, I digress.

Tuesday night, we went in to the Good Sam Escape Room at 6:30pm, and we walked out at 9:30pm, new plumbing features in tact. Our “plumber” had just finished his day of surgeries and is such a wonderful man that he dropped in to assist with the necessary fittings which the competent but overwhelmed nurses were unable to install. Good thing he came along when he did. It was uncomfortable, God-and-anyone-within-range-of-Room-6-knows, but he got the job done and we were home by the 10 o’clock news.

Full Disclosure: I’ve never been to an actual Immersive Escape Room, but found this helpful video on the site of our former student, Madison Rhoades’ Cross Roads Escape Games to get educated about them.

Here are some parallels and differences between Maddy’s carefully curated experience and Good Sam’s (GS):

  1. We enter as a team. Unlike the Hex Room experience, we weren’t separated at any time, except when the plumber insisted I leave the room. And that was okay with me.
  2. You’re isolated in a room and left to your own devices. (CR and GS)
  3. Unlike the Hex Room, there are no magic buttons to push to get a clue about how to get out, and seemingly no puzzles you can do to advance in the line for service. Tuesday night I read the Sunday NY Times Magazine article about Gwyneth Paltrow’s “GOOP” Empire. Friday night, I did two crossword puzzles. No Exit.
  4. It’s a triage system at GS, and judging from Friday night’s line up, we were definitely not high on the priority list. (which, of course, is both good news and bad news). Last night, Nurse Tim resolved our issue quickly, and then left us to languish for about five hours while they dealt with two coronary attacks and a stroke.
  5. At GS, they have players who are helpful and encouraging in furthering your attempts to get out. Last night, Friday, when we returned to play again at 8:40pm, a woman dressed as a kindly nurse’s aid ushered us back into Room 6.

Aide: I just made up this room, knowing that Mr. Nolan would be back in tonight! (cooing) And who are you?

Els: (flatly) I’m his wife.

Aide: Oooh! What a beautiful wife you have Mr. Nolan. (Leaning in conspiratorially, whispers) You take good care of your beautiful wife! (She exits. Jimmie turns to me)

Jimmie: What did she say?
Els: (loudly) She said, You better take good care of your BW! Hey, how did she know our pet name?

In spite of the flattery and kindness of the support players, Jimmie became impatient more than once. I now know that I would be a terrible participant in an actual immersive Escape Room situation. When abandoned in the ER, I become placid and accepting. Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s nothing I can do by having a tantrum that can’t better be done by excessive groveling whenever the support staff enters the room. So our door remained closed, and Jimmie shivered under his sheet for three of those five hours of captivity before I got up my courage to emerge and request a blanket.

Later, I joked with Jimmie that there was a door right behind where I was sitting that opened into the main hallway. Why didn’t we just leave?
Jimmie’s eyes brightened, and he gathered himself to stand up.

Els: No! That would be like running out on your restaurant check. We have to wait until they walk in with the paperwork to sign and then we’ll know you’ve been discharged.

Hours later, I turned to Jimmie and made like we should leave through that door.

Jimmi: No, Els! (patronizing, instructive tone) Don’t you know, we have to wait to be discharged!

Hours later, well after midnight, the beleaguered doctor came in, apologizing for their seeming neglect. We quickly updated her on the successful features of our visit, with strong hints that we should be going home soon. She agreed, and told Jimmie he could get dressed again. That’s when I took the this picture.

IMG_0823
Pouting doesn’t help in the escape room experience.

Still, it took another thirty minutes for Nurse Tim’s return with the necessary paper to sign. He then turned, slid the bed to the wall, and at 1:30AM, opened the tantalizing door to the outside hall.

It will be much easier for you to go out this way. There’s a lot going on the other direction.

I think I will advocate the Cross Roads Escape Games next time Jimmie gets bored.

 

The (all too) Humans

Some people measure years and personal growth with penciled marks on a closet wall next to their child’s name. As the child grows, the marks rise, sometimes inches above the last mark, especially during adolescent growth spurts. This sizing of our tribe is proud, grateful, sentimental, self-referential, celebratory – many of the things that mark our humanness.

As Angelenos were painfully reminded just this morning, the passing of time can also be marked through shared loss, as we read about the untimely passing of Pulitzer-Prize-winning LA Restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who’s LA Times obituary was one of the most moving I’ve read in some time (Kudos to Andrea Chang). Gold, in addition to being an exquisite writer, was a gourmand, chef, taco-truck aficionado, friend, husband, organizer, someone who celebrated the value of food in building his community and ours. In fact, several of the local annual foodie events that happen in Los Angeles came about because of him.

This building community is a feature that I’ve always appreciated about the theatre. This week, I attended The Humans, Stephen Karam’s breathtaking (and Tony Award winning) paean to our humanness.

Those of you who are diligent followers of my blog (a handful, but nevertheless profoundly appreciated) may remember that I had seen The Humans in New York a little more than two years ago. It was an emotionally draining experience, not just because of the power of the play, but really, because of the physicality of the journey itself, and the resulting realization our connubial theatre attendance was moribund; that was painful and distracting. And with that inviting introduction, if you want to, you can read about it here. 

IMG_6541
Jimmie in NYC June 2016

So about a week ago, when I ran into my friend Rob at Ralph’s in the dairy section, I agreed reluctantly to attend a performance of The Humans last Tuesday at The Ahmanson, where the touring production is playing (only this week, so don’t miss it!).

We agreed to meet there, and on Tuesday evening, I caught up with him at the box office window, watching as he worked to negotiate seats together (after booking them separately). Somehow he managed to pull it off, and we entered the lobby of the Ahmanson, immediately accosted by an enthusiastic subscription saleswoman. I made the eye connection, so my bad.  Rob headed off to the bar to get us some cool drinks, while I tried to figure out how to get Dear Evan Hansen tickets without mortgaging our condo. Done and done.

Viewing The Humans for a second time with none of the logistical myopia caused by getting my butt in the seat was eye-opening. I grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania. However, my maternal grandparents lived in Wilkes-Barre, and we spent many happy trips there while we were growing up. Reed Birney (Erik Blake), bears an uncanny resemblance to my dearly departed Uncle Lou (at least from Row E of the Ahmanson Theatre’s mezzanine), so much of the Thanksgiving gathering and the feedback felt appropriately familial. Like those self-referential closet wall markings, we take in theatre experiences from where we stand.  Two years ago, perhaps I related more to the character of Brigid (Sarah Steele), hearing and responding to her parents’ critique of her marital status, her new apartment, her life choices.  It’s also possible (and quite likely) that I didn’t adequately hear the play, so wrapped up was I in the emotional reckoning I was having in the balcony of the Helen Hayes theatre, with my husband of thirty plus years.

Two years down the pike, last Tuesday, the play ran through a different emotional filter, as I focussed keenly on the character of Momo, played by Lauren Klein, and the effect her caregiving had on her son and wife, played with stoic durability by Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell. Lately, I frequently find myself mentally marinating in the role of caregiver, caretaker, whatever one calls it.  This isn’t the moment to expound, but suffice it to say, any caregiver who cares for a loved one also takes pleasure and privilege from the work, hence my confusion in the use of the terminology.

KL: What was your impulse behind writing The Humans?
SK: I was thinking a lot about the things that were keeping me up at night and that got me thinking about existential human fears: fear of poverty, sickness, losing th e love of someone…Was there a way to actually tell a story that might elicit some of those fears – or provide some thrills- while also talking about how human beings cope with them? And by the time I was done, I had written a family play, or, as I think of it now, a family thriller.

From an interview by Seattle Rep Literary Director Kristin Leahey, Ph.D, and Playwright Stephen Karam (Original transcription by Annika Bennett)

But I digress. Theatre is prismatic. It accords us the opportunity to revisit even the same play over and over again, learning new things about ourselves and our community from the facets of our experiences. That is why a play like The Humans appeals to so many different types of people. It has the ability to mirror back to us that which we project.

Rob and I drove back down to South Park after the show, and a day later, Rob reported that he’d lost his wallet at the theatre. After multiple trips to the theatre, dealing with kindly Christine, the house manager, and searching the areas under our seats, he discovered a slot under the row where he posits his wallet might have fallen into a mysterious pocket, probably unretrievable. Somehow, this seemed a fitting end for a lost wallet at The Humans. We searched my car again to make sure his dreaded trip to the DMV was required. This morning, when I got in the car to go to the gym, I discovered I’d left the overhead lights on from our search, and felt grateful when my car started up.

My re-visit to The Humans managed to remind me about all of the things that make our shared experiences powerfully human, and I’d go so far as to say to remind me why I am so grateful to be alive and living in Los Angeles.  I’d encourage you to make a visit to see The Humans while you can to discover what experience you find reflected back at you. Then, by all means, let me know!

Don’t Go

The image above is one of those perfectly encapsulated generational images. On the left, our son, age 2 and 3 months, poised in his dandy finery next to the knob on Thanksgiving, impish smile as he reached for the doorknob, his favorite talisman of the terrible twos. On the right, a photo of his daughter, age 2 and 4 months, hand extended in an eerily familiar manifestation of her DNA. Both photos say “Don’t go.” But in the one on the left, it was we who were saying “Don’t go” and on the right, it is our granddaughter who wears the universal mien of the child who wants her parent to stay. I haven’t asked Chris who took the shot, but I’m assuming from his Instagram post that he evoked this tragic look of loss on her little face.

April has been a month rich with visits, starting with a spring break visit from our son and his wife and daughter, three days full of flurried energy. Our guest bedroom isn’t the comfiest spot for a family of three, but we’ve hungered for connection, so it was great to have them here.  This last visit was taxing because unbeknownst to me, Jimmie was becoming dangerously anemic.

Our second visit was from our dear friend Susan, who resides in South Africa. Her trips are about the clearest demonstration of a friend’s love that I’ve ever witnessed. Two legs of travel, the first 10 hours, the second 16. Each way. I don’t know how she does it, but she manages to stay awake while here to visit, and to watch baseball with Jimmie while I head off to work. The last day of our visit was cut short, when I drove Jimmie to Hotel Good Samaritan to find out why he was so exhausted. Susan, ever gracious, had cleaned the house and left us flowers reminiscent of those she left 34 years ago in our honeymoon suite after executing the Maid of Honor duties for our wedding.

The third visit was Jimmie’s niece, Martha, come to support me through the last weekend of productions in the spring semester. I called her on Wednesday, she arrived Thursday evening and began taking care of us selflessly, as she has done so many times before. She cooked for us, spent time with Jimmie, and still managed to make discoveries around downtown LA, checking in on the progress of the mural in Pershing Square.  She discovered a new dangerous french bakery/cafe opposite Pershing Square, where she picked up the best blueberry scones I’ve had ever. Martha has an enormous zest for life and such style that I am constantly finding myself wanting to emulate her. She was as ever, a good sport, when I cajoled her into participating in one of the spring productions at USC, entitled Don’t Go.

Don’t Go was a devised, exploration in collaboration with the Sojourn Theatre Company, under the auspices of USC’s Arts Initiative, “Visions and Voices” of what happens when strangers meet, form a relationship, then discuss a topic that they may not see through the same lens. For a year, we’ve been planning this artist residency, and for the past four months or so, we’ve cast the seven student actors, and then the Strangers. The rehearsal period and performances were the culmination of this phase of the project, which I suspect will have a future life in the capable hands of the Sojourn Theatre.

I’ve come to appreciate the kindness of Strangers. Both at work and at home. Yes, capital S because the Strangers I met at work this month were many, curated from the USC campus and from among friends, family and neighbors within the larger Los Angeles area. The play demanded participation of seven of these curated souls each night, and finding them initially seemed impossible given the constraints of our other productions and the fact that each day only had 24 hours. Guided by the directors of the piece, Nikki Zaleski and Rebecca Martinez, we reached out to create bridges across the campus and with other theatrical institutions, such as The Pasadena Playhouse, which yielded willing participants to this theatrical and social experiment. Potential Strangers were asked to fill out a brief survey, indicating their availability for specific dates and performances or rehearsals, and some brief questions to unearth issues that they might feel strongly about. Meanwhile, the directors were building a structure for the conversations to take place while guest scenic designer and artist Aubree Lynn simultaneously designed a habitat. Student Costume and Projection Designer Mallory Gabbard worked to create clear instructional projections and a curated wardrobe to support the desired environment.

Student Lighting Designer Abby Light created a flexible plot which could both color and provide movement around the space for the conversations to unfold. Student Sound Designers Jacob Magnin and Noah Donner Klein grappled with the physics of reinforcing sound in unpredictable places throughout the theatre.

Most impressive to me was the ingenuity of the Stage Management team, students Lexi Hettick and Domenica Diaz, who communicated throughout the process with our Props Manager, Hannah Burnham, as the tasks to foster relationships evolved. In tech and performance, Lexi created an improvised tracking system to call lighting, sound and projections as determined by Sojourn artists, Jono Eiland and Michael Rohd, who took us all on the journey each night. It was different each night, because the topics selected were different. Lexi’s and Domenica’s focus in tech was laser clear and sound, live mixed by Noah was integral to the audience’s ability to follow the show.

The take away for me from the month of April is the blessing of generosity in the people around us all the time were we only to be aware. As negative as the current news cycle is, it is sometimes easy to think we are surrounded by danger all the time. My personal visits at home and the circumstances of the Sojourn piece allowed me to appreciate that we can easily share our common humanity with a complete stranger over the course of anywhere from 10 to 90 minutes of getting to know them. We may present ourselves to the world in a way which may be very different from what is in our hearts.

Yesterday, a new visiting nurse came to check up on Jimmie, post-hospital stay. She and I had been playing phone tag a bit, and we were expecting her between 6 and 7pm. Starving, Jimmie and I downed a bowl of potato chips, and I went to see what of Martha’s magical leftovers were in the refrigerator, not intending to prepare them until the nurse left. She arrived, a young woman in her early to mid-twenties, clad in blue scrub pants, a gray t-shirt, and sneakers, a bounce in her stride that jostled her braids. Within the ten minutes of our meeting, she knew that I taught theatre (which surprised her), and we knew that she lived in the neighborhood and had a four year old with brain trauma. How do we know these things? Because we allow ourselves to be interested in each other. To take advantage of the most cursory and peripheral engagements to be curious about who they are. What do they think about this? That?

With our hands on the doorknob, poised for flight, we have the opportunity to say to each other, Don’t Go. Stay a while. Let’s share our common humanity.

 

Puzzling for PMs

Production management is a big puzzle. What are calendars but intricate jigsaws of time, venues, and events, people and resources? Beginning with the broad strokes, the macro edges of a season, building a shape to contain, in our case, twenty shows, and then working in down to the detailed microcosm of who will be on a crew to support the physical needs of each of the individual productions. As I begin, each year seems jumbled and chaotic, unachievable, until I ponder specifically, painstakingly about how it all fits together. What worked the last time? What didn’t? Where do we need to make accommodations for specific dates within the calendar?

I should have known when I was ten, sitting at the folding card table on my grandparents’ plush Persian carpet, sweeping my gaze over the 1000-not-yet-interlocking pieces of that year’s Christmas puzzle, that I would end up a production manager.  There, with my mother’s father, the architect turned bridge-maker, we sat in companionable silence, for hours at a time, hands darting with quicksilver recognition of pattern and color, brushstroke and tone. Typically we puzzled over paintings. I remember well the vexation of Rembrandt’s “The Man with the Golden Helmet.” 1200px-Rembrandt_(circle)_-_The_Man_with_the_Golden_Helmet_-_Google_Art_Project That was a challenge. Sure, the helmet was easy, the sheen on his right shoulder, but the miasma of the dark field around him was unnerving when we started. And yet, in spite of the seemingly impossible challenge, we soldiered on, until the full image lay flat and complete. Sometimes a piece would go missing, lost in the intricate patterns of the carpet beneath our feet. And like the aha moment of my later puzzling as a PM, we would find the piece that brought that particular section to a satisfying whole.

This early exposure to puzzles may be the reason I took up the study of art history in college, finding pleasure in examining the brushstrokes of various painters, languishing in the details of influence and exposure of artists to one another and the formation of schools of painting, or the iconoclasts who broke away in their painting practices. I discovered the elegance of Georgia O’Keeffe, her stout American grace, her standing as a female artist in a man’s world. I relished her heady romance with Alfred Stieglitz, thirty years her senior.

I see you taking this in and assessing how these pieces fit in my life.

The thing about puzzles is that sometimes what you are looking at isn’t really what you are seeing. In your eagerness to find the piece that slides in snugly but not with force, your brain can convince you that what you are looking for is something green when in actuality, it is part green, part yellow.

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Several years ago I went through a phase of puzzling 17th Century floral paintings…

Honing that expectation to the reality requires a stillness and mindfulness to see the edges of color, the subtleties of tiny lettering, in the case of this year’s puzzle challenge, the subtleties of dozens of different fonts of lettering.

As an adult, I rarely have the time and, in our downtown aerie, the space to have a puzzle out on a table.  Our table is the dining room table, which typically functions as the breakfast, lunch, and dinner venue. During the holidays, it sports a colorful green cloth with a festive Guatemalan runner down the center, and whatever I’ve thrown together as the centerpiece. This year, two (now desiccating) red roses, some Queen Anne’s lace, a drooping white hydrangea, a spray of evergreen, two perky carnations (death flowers to the Italians) and a festively jeweled red tennis ball on a stick that came with the discount flower concoction I bought at Ralph’s after eschewing the much more attractive centerpiece of pink tulips and evergreens because of the price. That reminds me it’s time to toss my confection.

The convergence of time (a week off between Christmas and New Year’s) and venue availability (a last-minute cancellation of plans for my Dad and his wife to visit) opened half of our table venue to puzzling, providing the pleasure of an extra-curricular puzzling respite, a break from the puzzling as PM that I get paid to do.

And so, I pulled out the puzzle that my dear friend Jennifer had given me for my birthday two years ago. It has sat on my desk at home awaiting some confluence of events as described above, and eagerly, on the 23rd of December, I opened the box and spread out the pieces.

An Antique World Map, on display at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, CA.

…originally designed as a frontispiece to Henricus Hondius’s 1630 revision of the long-lived Mercator/Hondius atlas, a work then being challenged by rival map publishers.

Where to begin? Initially confounding, and only when approached methodically, patiently, the edges and corners came together in a few hours, then the images of the portraits of Julius Caesar, and cartographers Claudius Ptolemy, Gerard Mercator and Jodocus Hondius, Sr. followed. What seemed impossible to imagine ever completing, the dual circles of alternating colors around the two lobes of the map, came together on day two. The colorful outlines of South America, Africa, Europe and Asia, clued together by the internal tiny names. The vast, uncharted territories of Canada and the Northwestern United States.

And yes, lest I seem callous, I was devastated by the change in plans and not getting to spend the Christmas week with my Dad and his wife. Sometimes plans are fickle, and unchartered. Happens all the time for us PMs, us humans, us explorers. As disorienting as it was to have our Christmas plans disrupted, we made the best of what we were given. And that, my friends, is the only solution to that and any puzzle.

Writing with my best friend -Black and White

This is the coda to an earlier blog entitled Writing with my best friend – Royalties? Er….No.

After disengaging from the process thinking that we’d never be able to recoup on the book, another writer in our family, Jen, encouraged me, saying that according to her writer friends, publishing the book again in black and white shouldn’t be too hard. So back into Createspace I went, and began what I hoped would be a simple process.

Continue reading “Writing with my best friend -Black and White”

Gordon Did That

I’m sitting this morning watching the welcome mists of rain obscuring the reach of the downtown skyline and thinking about Monday night’s Celebration of Gordon Davidson at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Gordon’s tribute was staged on David Zinn’s set of Amelie, on the production’s dark night. Twinkle lights framed the proscenium, and the scenery upstage was lit with soft purples and blues, presumably repurposed from Jane Cox and Mark Barton’s lighting design by Tom Ontiveros. A ginormous projection screen hung over the stage. A 9′ grand piano, DSR,  pointed its formidable bow up left. A lecturn graced the DSL corner of the stage.

As the audience entered the theatre, Gordon’s beaming face, halo-framed by his white hair, arms akimbo over his head, fingers laced behind his neck, lay saucily on a bed of programs. His warm, intelligent eyes focus on the camera (and hence on all of us), his wry awareness of the photo set up as ego trip invited us to relax and celebrate his accomplishments with him. Splayed behind his head were programs for Angels in America, The Wedding at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, its opening production in 2004, just two of so many accomplishments. A photo posed like this of anyone other than Gordon might have seemed inflated. Throughout the evening, we were treated to a series of shots of Gordon looking directly out at us across the span of more than fifty years. We had time with each image to look deeply into Gordon’s eyes at every phase of his life. The sense of seeing Gordon and in a funny way being seen by Gordon for the last time was elegantly accomplished with the curation of these images from Gordon’s Los Angeles Theatre family album.

I hadn’t thought I’d be able to attend the event – in fact, I barely knew it was happening. Somehow, my connection has dimmed over the past decade. Had I not decided to take a hike on New Year’s Eve, I wouldn’t have known about it at all.  Besides, things are hopping at “the factory,” as I like to call my job; in the first week of the spring semester,  we’re casting eight shows- four more already in rehearsal. I didn’t think I’d be able to get there, and convinced myself that Gordon would understand given the nature of the conflict.

But then I had a dream on Saturday night that I was there when Gordon was felled, like the Sequoia tunnel tree last week by the monsoonal northern California rsequoiaains. In the dream, for some inexplicable reason, I was dangling by my finger tips from a ledge about 15 feet over the ground -in the Annex, (where we all know that the ceiling height doesn’t exceed 7′) when Gordon passed beneath me. I said something that caused him to fall to the ground, beseeching eyes looking up at me for assistance, and I, unable to release my fingers without plunging to death, failed him. It was a horrible dream, but enough to make me rearrange my schedule to be there on Monday. Gordon did that.

Gordon did that.

That was the powerful theme on Monday. Speakers, performers, singers, family members, both by blood and by practice, testified through song and poetry and performance about Gordon’s profound reach and impact on all of our lives. Playwright and performer Charlayne Woodard told about spotting Gordon’s white halo out amidst a student performance of  her first show, Pretty Fire, for a student matinee of 70 seven-year-olds and cringing that he was seeing the show in that context. Andrea Marcovicci sang a haunting song from Ghetto, with a projected image of herself thirty years prior on stage singing the same song. Echoes of our growing up with Gordon. Groener shared Gordon’s generosity in opening three rehearsal rooms in the Annex to the young Anteaus company, effectively underwriting the formation of a successful company of actors. Gordon did that.

Luis Alfaro performed a poem crafted for the CTG 35th anniversary. Luis Valdez, currently in rehearsals next door at the Annex for a revival of his 1978 hit, Zoot Suit,  recalled his early Teatro Campesino work and Gordon’s faith in its relevance to the Los Angeles audience, his invocation to write a play about the 1972 Zoot Suit riots.

When the character of El Pachuco, memorably played by Edward James Olmos, swaggered onto the Taper stage, Chicano theatre became American theatre,” explained writer/director Luis Valdez.

CTG website Article

Gordon did that.

Throughout the evening, the live testimonials were punctuated with video testimonials filmed at a New York theatre; Jack O’Brien, Robert Egan, Terrance McNally, Tony Kushner, Kathleen Chalfant and others sharing stories about collaborations with Gordon, failures and successes, but always funny, heartbreaking, quirky, goading, human, encouraging, powerful – reminding us what Gordon’s legacy to us was. Ringing through the evening was Gordon’s passion for the work, his belief in the capacity of each of us to bring our best and unique selves into the room, the artistic endeavor, the play, the theatre, the city – wherever he called upon us to go.

Several years ago, USC School of Dramatic Arts Dean Madeline Puzo brought Gordon to USC, or as we jokingly referred to ourselves, CTG South, as an uber-dramaturge to our second year MFA students in Dramatic Writing. These productions, some of my favorite in our season, are workshop productions of plays written by the students in their second of three years of the program. The production budgets are purposefully lean, to focus our attention on the development of the words rather than the technical framework for the plays. Gordon was sitting in the theatre during one of the dress rehearsals. I was there in my capacity as production manager, and felt self-conscious having Gordon in the room – found myself wanting to make sure no time was wasted. I had gotten up to intervene in a scene change to see if there might not be a more efficient way to do it, and when I came back to my seat, Gordon leaned over and said something to the effect of “It’s so great to watch you working with the students, Els.”

I don’t think any praise could have been more welcome than Gordon’s recognition of my new place of practice. That he was taking note of how I had grown up from the ASM who worked on Unfinished Stories back in 1993. Gordon did that. He had that galvanizing nurturing effect on all of us.

My favorite speaker Monday night was Mark Taper Forum Production Manager, Jonathan Lee, who spoke as a representative of the CTG Staff. Jonathan brought a prop – a thirty-year-old T-shirt from back in the day, under TD Bobby Routolo, the back of which was emblazoned with “Where the Hell is Gus!” in huge letters. Gus, as Jonathan explained, was the driver who they would commonly be waiting for during load in days. On the front breast of the T-shirt were letters so tiny that the audience had to trust Jonathan when he told us they were a quote from Gordon.

How could this have happened?

Jonathan’s reading of this quote elicited a loud laugh of recognition from many in the audience. He described how Gordon looked at you intently when he said that, and we all knew it was code for “You fucked up.” But more importantly, it was Gordon really wanting to know how it had happened, and even more crucially, wanting you to really want to know how it had happened. I remembered it keenly and personally from the reopening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre when Jonathan and I were on the roof of the theatre trying to figure out how to time the Culver City sign’s most beautiful and complete cycle exactly with the reveal of the marquee.

Gordon did that. He made us all hungry to know the better way to have done things, the better way to do things in the future. Jonathan’s speech moved me to tears – probably because he spoke of the behind-the-scenes collaborations, but also about the compassionate rigor that Gordon taught us all to bring to our practice.

The evening was capped with moving speeches from Gordon’s blood family members, his daughter Rachel speaking about how she shared her father with us, and how her father shared artistic opportunities with her as she grew up. Finally, Gordon’s widow, Judy thanked us all for coming and shared that though Gordon felt forgotten at the end, this evening had proven that he had not been forgotten.

Far from it, Judy. Gordon and his legacy live on in all of us who were in that theatre, as well as thousands who were not. When we were leaving the Ahmanson on Monday, I ran into Jim Freydberg, the producer of The Vagina Monologues, someone whom I had been thinking of earlier in the week in spite of not having seen him regularly since the show closed in late fall of 2001. I’d been thinking about Jim’s practice of having the stage manager phone him after each performance to report how the show had gone. I appreciated the intimacy of that trust bestowed on me to critically watch each show, taking note of how each moment was executed, how the audience had responded, and spend the time to recount it to him. When Jim walked up as we were about to leave the building, I told him I’d been thinking of him. Dramatically, he recoiled, saying “That can’t be good!” I laughed, then thanked him for that relationship that he’d formed with me during the show via that practice of nightly phone calls, and for his trust. Jim, in his typically modest way, eyes twinkling, said,

You know, Gordon did that.

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Writing with my Best Friend – The Cover and Recovery

One of the most enjoyable phases of putting Jimmie’s book together has been abusing my long friendship with my college pal, Bob Stern, now a graphic designer in New York City. We had the pleasure of seeing Bob and his partner Mitchell when we were in New York this summer, and there, in the dining room of the Yale Club, the years melted away and we reconnected after a mere whisper of time since graduating from college. 34 years gone in a flash!

While we were in college, I used to visit Bob in the printmaking shop, and watched him as he designed, then laid the heavy block letters in the press,then printed out posters for our theatre shows and theatre department. The printmaking shop was housed in the same building where we had all our theatre classes; Bob and I also shared a love of theatre. We spent two summers running a theatre on the campus, traveled with about 10 of our college friends to Edinburgh, Scotland after graduating, under the guidance of our teacher and mentor, Carol MacVey. There we all re-mounted 5 productions before disbanding across the continent to broaden ourselves. I spent thirteen months living in Venice, Italy, several of them over the last summer while Bob visited, doing graduate studies from Yale, and  we cavorted among the canals with our misfit American and Australian expat friends. I wrote a series of posts, Letters from Venice,  three years ago about that time. It is easy to fall into silliness when I am with Bob.

When I got up the gumption to publish Jimmie’s book, I asked Bob if he’d consider designing the cover, and he graciously said yes. We had initial conversations about what it would entail. No slouch when I knew him in college, Bob now has an important job in New York, and is the father to a teen. Our initial book cover conversation was a Skype call at almost midnight his time. I had sent him the book a few days before, which he had read. After adjusting the lights so that we could see each other on our respective screens, we talked about the title, A View From The Wings, and how to convey the double meaning of the word wings, discussed in a previous post.

Bob came away from the Skype session with more than one interesting idea about the design of the book’s cover. He had an idea about using Jimmie’s silhouette as a window/curtain split through which one could also see him performing on stage. Trippy, right? I have a little trouble even now describing the concept, and at midnight, after strenuous days for both of us, Bob’s description wasn’t really sinking in. But I have enormous faith in his artistry, and after almost an hour of conversation, we ended the call.

Several weeks later, Bob apologized for his computer’s “crapping out.” We would have to wait to see the sketches of his idea, but in the mean time, could I find a simple full figure photo of Jimmie that we might use as the silhouette?

I don’t know about you, but my computer photo organization is in shambles. I have the photos in  my Iphotos folder, and in my photos folder, in a large box under my bureau, and in about 5 or 6 assorted old style family picture albums. I have another hard drive where I saved all the photos and I think obliterated all the dates associated with them in the process of saving them. I probably will need to spend about a month and hire a professional to figure out how to access and organize them. I suspect my inability to see and retrieve them all has more to do with the remaining size of my memory. How apt.

I mean my computer’s memory.

thumb_s6300111_1024I went back and looked at all the photos of Jimmie I have in all my photo programs, and came across this photo of him backstage during the national tour of 12 Angry Men, wearing his natty white linen suit, in whichever city it was that I joined him in. I wasn’t sure that this photo would work for what Bob wanted, but it turned out it was exactly what he was looking for.

So weeks went by, and we had the man plumbing issues to contend with and then the teeth. We spent a few days in various ERs; I have great appreciation for the nursing staff and doctors who attend ERs. They are unfailingly kind and considerate. I have also observed that 56-year-olds don’t get in to be seen as quickly as 89-year-olds. So it was Wednesday morning at about 1:00AM, after the Tuesday tooth extraction, when out of the mists of my slumber, I heard someone calling. I don’t remember what I was dreaming about -actually think I was not dreaming, but suddenly awoke to see Jimmie standing next to the bed, and his pillow looked like something out of the horse-head-in-the-bed scene from The Godfather.

And off we went, this time to the County Medical/USC Hospital. Their ER made Good Samaritan’s ER look like a kindergarten. The size of the waiting room at County General was really imposing, but once again, we went to the head of the line. (Yes, yes, I distinctly hear my privilege.) In we went, and for the next few hours we waited as they tried about three different techniques for staunching the bleeding from Jimmie’s gums.

We spend a lot of time these days seeking medical care, but it’s time we get to spend together, and for that, however unfortunate the circumstances, I am grateful. We took turns sitting on the bed and the plastic chair in the ER bay#3 and took turns napping. It was during those hellish ER limbo hours between 4:30AM and Jimmie’s 9:00AM discharge that Bob’s email arrived with ten sketches of the book cover. 10! We looked at Bob’s creative ideas, any one of which would have worked just fine. I can’t tell you how much their arrival buoyed our spirits.

We are in re-cover-y. Thanks to Bob and the kindness of local ERs.