Park Pals

Jimmie has spent his fair share of time in parks. Years ago, when our son was between the ages of about two to ten, Jimmie took him to various parks around the San Fernando Valley. When we lived in North Hollywood, they headed east to parks in Burbank, and occasionally to the North Hollywood Park. When he was seven, our move to Van Nuys moved us closer to a park in Studio City, where parents who didn’t work 9 to 5 gathered with their kids. They were friendly adults with diverse interests with whom we wiled away the hours on the bench: musicians, stay-at-home Moms and Dads, unemployed actors and stage managers with call times after dinner. Okay, so I was the only stage manager.  Our camaraderie was mandated by our kids’ fickle friendships. The summer days drifted by, punctuated by frequent trips to the ice cream truck and the parks’ recreation office.  We came and went according to the napping or eating needs of our children.

I remember more than once miss-timing those needs and carrying our squirming squalling four-year-old son under my arm back to the car, while waving jovially over my shoulder to the other parents. The benches were hard concrete, but it didn’t deter us; Jimmie took two daily two-hour sessions at the park. Sometimes when Chris was older, they’d ride to the park on their bicycles – Jimmie, seventy, Chris, seven.

Jimmie used his time in the park productively, working on writing his memoir, or tossing around a baseball with Chris, sometimes visiting with our friend Jason, who’d walk over from his house on nearby Teesdale Avenue. Park denizens in the 1990s had few distractions. No one took endless Instagram pictures of their children, or checked email, texted, or tweeted. Cell phones weren’t really a thing yet. We spent a lot of time reading books and magazines on the bench, doing the crossword puzzle while glancing up periodically to make sure no one had died.

And then, almost as abruptly as our park adventures had begun, Chris outgrew the park, and we no longer went.

Fast forward twenty-four years. Chris now goes on outdoor adventures with his wife and baby, camping and hiking in Northern California. And we are city dwellers, amidst an ever-increasing forest of high rises in downtown Los Angeles.

But there’s still a park next door, with a playground lousy with climbing apparatuses and slides, nestled on a cushiony surface that allows young children to fall and jump without damaging their ankles, or skinning their knees.

More relevant to us now, though, are the many benches scattered around the park. Jimmie has his favorite he likes to head to when he goes to the park. His visits are, as in the old days, daily, but only once a day, in the afternoon. He rides his scooter over to his bench, near the south end of the park, positioned at a busy corner good for both people-watching and viewing the changing northern facing skyline. On the rare and very happy occasion where I can join him for a park visit, he narrates about the regulars habitués of the park. To our left, the seventy-year-old Korean couple who come to the park every afternoon; he precedes her, always carrying his newspaper. They enter the park from the south west. He’s better dressed than she, who wears the same park outfit most days. For the longest time she wore black slacks and an oversized orange checked flannel top. Recently she has changed into a beige top. He sports a natty powder-blue track suit, the jacket zipped up. He likes the shade and she prefers the sun, so they sit on separate benches. They don’t talk to each other much while they’re in the park. He’s a voracious reader; when finished with the paper, he frequently pulls out a Kindle and reads that. She goes through a series of exercises, meanwhile adjusting her slacks at the waist, rolling her shoulders forward and back. Usually after about a half hour, she’ll stand up and leave the park, leaving her husband on his bench without a backward glance.  Jimmie and the man have never spoken to each other beyond the one time when Jimmie said “hello” on his way to his bench. Their benches sit opposite faces of a small lawn measuring about 20′ square, Jimmie’s on the south side, and his on the west.

I always marvel when I visit Jimmie there at how sacred the regulars’ spots are. No one ever sits on Jimmie’s bench, and rarely have I seen anyone other than the Korean couple on theirs.

When I got home for dinner today, Jimmie said eagerly,

Something interesting happened at the park today.

He’d entered the park as usual, from the north west, gliding on his scooter under the mosaic clock tower and scooting south parallel to FIDM. Halfway to his bench, he stopped short, chagrined to see a stranger had commandeered his bench. Quickly, he reconnoitered, pointing his scooter due east toward one of the benches under the shade of a bougainvillea-cloaked pergola. He parked, got off the scooter, and sat on the bench looking back across at his own regular bench, keeping his eyes on the man on his bench and willing him to get tired and leave. But the man, in his forties, casually dressed, looked settled in and content there, sitting and taking in the park. Across the grass, sat the Korean man; his wife had apparently already left.

Suddenly, Jimmie noticed the Korean gentleman purposefully walking over toward Jimmie’s usual bench. He began to talk animatedly to the man sitting there, occasionally looking over his left shoulder at Jimmie indicating to the man that he was talking about Jimmie.

Jimmie could tell from the distance that he was asking the man to move to the adjacent bench. The man didn’t argue at all, but looked a little surprised to have been asked. The Korean man then turned to Jimmie and raising his arm triumphantly, he vigorously beckoned Jimmie back over to his bench. Jimmie stood, getting on his scooter again. Seeing that Jimmie was coming, the Korean man turned and walked back to his own bench. Jimmie smiled as he drove to his bench,

Thanks! You got my bench back!

As Jimmie told me the story at dinner tonight, he giggled, delighted by the unexpected kindness of the man. We laughed about the narration that he and his wife must have about us, and what he must have said to make the man change places to the other bench. And what might have happened had the interloper not been as charitable himself. I was happy that Jimmie’s made a new friend at the park. I told him he needs to take the man a present tomorrow. Perhaps he could share his New York Times with him.

Last week, we took our granddaughter to the park when they were visiting, and while there, observed the comings and goings of other young children and their parents.

But some my favorite interactions are happening in the sixty-and-over-set on the south side of South Park.



Hiking into the New Year

This morning at the crack of dawn, I woke and pulled on my pants and boots, grabbed some breakfast setting off to meet two old stage manager friends (okay, old as in I’ve known you a long time, not actually old. Geez, people are so sensitive) to go on a hike.

I love hiking, though you’d never know it from practice – I think today’s hike is the first one I’ve taken since the summer when we stayed up in Tahoe, and hiked from the parking lot to the beach one day. Living in California and in Los Angeles where there are an abundance of hiking trails doesn’t seem to have been sufficient to get me outside, but a simple question posed by a fellow stage manager on facebook actually got me out the door.

Anyone wanna go on a hike?

You’d think three stage managers could organize a hike through deft email execution-an email or two, right? Our arrangements were hilarious, taking about a week and 16 emails, and an actual live phone call to realize. As I pulled up outside Susie’s house at 7:40AM, I replayed the email exchanges in my head, laughing that the three choices of hikes did not include the very real possibility of rain, and as I stepped out of the car, greeted by Susie on the stone steps to her house, I proposed hike #4 to IHOP. Fortunately, she didn’t go for it.

We swung by to pick up Michele and off we went to our hiking destination, which I think was Eaton Canyon, though I can’t swear to it because I’m not apparently from this region, having lived in LA only thirty-three years. There was a heavy mist on the windshield, but I didn’t pay much attention because it was great to see good friends and colleagues from so many years and there was a lot to catch up on.

Professionally, we’ve all worked together on so many shows that I can’t really remember which ones they were, but I always credit Michele with training me to be a truly autonomous ASM. She was the PSM on one of the CTG Celebratory shows – perhaps the 20th Anniversary, when as ASM, one of my jobs was to cue Gordon Davidson onstage riding an elephant. It was early in my career, one of my first ASM assignments at the Taper, pre-renovation, where the elephant (and all scenery for that matter) had to come in through bedroom-sized doors SL. I was intimidated and also admired Michele for her years of experience as one of the top SMs at the Taper. Deferring to her, I asked her what she wanted me to do next.

Run the deck!

And so I did, learning that I was there because she trusted me to know what to do next, otherwise I wouldn’t have been there.

I’ve been admiring Susie’s penchant for strenuous hiking for several years now. I’ve wondered how she’s able to put in the miles she does with her work schedule. Kind of amazing. I was glad to be there this morning. We started down the fire road into beautiful Eaton Canyon. At least I assume it is beautiful, because the conditions were quite misty and we couldn’t see too far down the road, kind of the perfect metaphor on this eve of a New Year fraught with political uncertainty.


Stage Manager Selfie: L. to R. Susie, Els, Michele

This was the selfie I took of the three of us, looking fresh as we started off, me sporting my GumCha, a Christmas present from my Dad and his wife; this scarf is typical of those woven by rural farming families in West Bengal, India for more than 2,000 years. The 4o year old GumCha4Health project was started by local health and development professionals to

…create a self-sufficient, self-sustaining, community-based financial model for providing long-term support for healthcare and health education programs (including contraception and HIV prevention) for poor rural farm laborers, subsistence farmers, their families and their communities.

It’s pretty and bright, and apparently gets softer every time you wash it. I’ve worn mine almost every day since Christmas and it’s in the wash for the first time as I write this.

So, what do veteran stage managers talk about on the trail for 2 hours? Taping out floors and how sore it makes us when we’re done? Yes, a little of that, but much more about our lives outside the rehearsal room. The three of us share life synchronicity which they might not appreciate my sharing with you, but which gave us plenty of good conversation over the next 5.6 miles. The first 2.8 were mostly up the hill, where we were passed by bicyclists, runners, dog walkers, and other folks out and about to ring in the New Year with a good cardio workout.

We stopped periodically to huff and puff, and per Susie’s usual routine, we greeted every single person at least once, and some of them twice, the cyclists, as they lapped us up the hill and back down. This paid off at the top, when we were able to ask someone to shoot the picture of the three of us by the Henninger Flats sign.The second 2.8 miles were down hill, in the pouring rain. I was grateful to have my GumCha with me to wipe off my glasses. The lovely tree portraits below were taken by Susie.

By the time we got back to the car, we were able to wring water out of our clothes. We raced home to take showers or hot baths, and for a good nap before tonight’s festivities.

What will the New Year and the road ahead bring? Hard to say, hard to see even, but in spite of the rain and mist, we will still get there with persistence, civility, and good hiking shoes.

Happy New Year!

My Fitbit Flex 2 Told Me to Sleep In

In the beginning of 2016 I set a fitness challenge for myself to work out 56 days in a row in honor of my “35th” birthday. Didn’t fool you there, did I? Well, I met that challenge, and in the past few months, I have been, without a challenge, but with some effort, working out an average of 5-6 times a week.

Exercise is so critical to maintaining a healthy attitude about work and life. I am pretty sure that without the exercise I would be a quivering mass of nerves and not handling the stresses of the full production season, plus the life challenges we are facing, plus the publishing of my husband’s book.

So as a celebratory gesture, I bought myself a lilac colored Fitbit Flex 2. I had to wait almost two weeks for it to arrive, but as I discovered, Fitbit was anxious to inform me via email all information about when I would receive the product in the mail, tracking number included. I tracked it obsessively as it made it’s way from Indianapolis, through La Grange, IL, Kansas City, KS, Amarillo, TX, Continental Divide, Essex, San Bernardino, and Chino, finally arriving on my doorstep on October 1st, as promised.

After charging the tracker and downloading the app, I read about all the things my new toy would track. The number of steps I took, of course. When I completed the first 10,000 steps it shivered on my wrist and lit up in celebration of my athleticism. The first day I wore it around my ankle, like some deviant lilac colored ankle monitor. Switching the tracker between the two bracelets required me to move the clip from the small bracelet to the large bracelet. I only broke two nails in the process. Went back to the box to discover that there was not a second clip, so I ordered that and can now track its progress to my doorstep.

My Fitbit actually advised that I sleep in this morning, breaking my nearly two months long record of attendance at the gym. I had been at a dress rehearsal of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the night before until 11:00PM.When I set my goals, I didn’t figure I needed to set a workout goal but I did intend to get more sleep; when the alarm went off this morning, I rolled over and obediently slapped it silent for another two hours just to make my Fitbit happy. Something tells me that I may not have read the manual correctly…





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gold Stars – 51/56

When I was about 7 years old, I asked my parents for a piano and piano lessons. It was a bold request; we had just moved from our house in Pittsburgh’s North Hills to a newly constructed colonial on the outskirts of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, placed lovingly by my parents at the foot of the hill leading up to my paternal grandparents’ home. We had visited the house through all phases of construction, peering over the muddy pit that would become our basement as it was excavated, to playing tag in the spindly wooden uprights which would define our bedrooms and bathrooms.

I don’t know where I got the idea for piano lessons from. I had heard my mother play Clare de Lune when we visited her parents’ home in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and I remember being surprised that someone as capable and strong and sensible was also so expressive, so lyrical, so sad. She lost herself in the keys, and the sound of her playing filled their house with a melancholia that was tangible. I don’t know why I remember it as sad, because I think she was actually happiest then in those early years of motherhood, but my auditory memory is one that stills me to a sadness.  Mom wasn’t the only one to play that piano; my Uncle Lou could bang out happier music, which underscored our sing-alongs. My cousin, Doug, too, had a propensity for playing that was astonishing. He really was adept. Perhaps I was jealous of his skills. Who knows.

Anyway, for whatever reason, my precocious seven-year-old self got it into her noggin that she was going to be a virtuoso pianist and when we moved into the finished Greensburg house, one Christmas morning, there, in the linoleum-floored family room adjacent to the kitchen and laundry, was a dark, upright piano. I was enthralled, and spent hours playing the piano, and learning the songs that my piano teacher, Mrs. Gardner taught me. She lived in a house in the center of Greensburg, right across the street from a a friend of my father’s  from Yale. It happened that Dad was a squash player with this friend, Joe, and Joe had recently constructed a squash court behind his house, right down the street from Mrs. Gardner’s house. So while I was being taught by Mrs. Gardner, Dad was working up a sweat across the street. Sweet deal for both of us. Every Saturday morning we went to our separate labors.

The inside of Mrs. Gardner’s home was dark; her concert piano ebon, it’s black and white keys angled so that as I sat on the bench, my back was to the window on the front of the house facing the street. She was really old. Remember, this was my 7-year-old perspective, so she was probably my age now, or maybe even younger. But she had been a concert pianist, so I was told, and now, her hands were gnarled with the arthritis which had forced her career to a close. Her training was strict and rigorous. I was a little terrified of her and her methodology.  She told me that my fingers should also be tightly clenched, the fingers functioning as little independent hammers to strike the keys during the endless scales that she gave me to practice. She wrote the fingering with a stubby pencil above the notes, afterwards, laying the pencil to rest on the music stand of the piano. And she used little gold stars to reward me if I came and performed the scales or the simple pieces well. Oh, how I lusted after those gold stars, or the little piano stickers. They incentivized me to a ridiculous extent. Sometimes when I would sit on the bench of the piano at home, having been cajoled there by my patient mother folding laundry to my left at the machines, and I would think about those little gold stickers and the pleasure of Mrs. Gardner’s approval. It took so little then to make me reach for a goal. My parents did a good job teaching me how to strive to better myself.

Today I have a piano in my living room, adorned with pictures of my family and friends, my new granddaughter held lovingly by my son and his beautiful partner. I haven’t played the piano for weeks, and before that, for almost a year. There are no gold stars in the books in the piano bench. There is a copy of Clare de Lune, which I occasionally struggle over; it’s more about making contact with my mother, who has gone on to the great piano concert hall in the sky, than my piano practice.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other goals that I’m reaching for. You may have followed my current physical challenge of 56 yoga or spin classes in 57 days as a 56th birthday present to myself. It hasn’t been a solitary journey. I have had lots of support along the way, and lots of gold stars from my instructors at #YASDTLA.


Special thanks this morning to Mike Nobrega for giving me the gold star I needed to cross into the final 5 days of my challenge. I’m offering you a free ride and yoga class any morning next week at 5:30AM Monday-Friday to start your own challenge, or help me finish mine!

Birthday Challenge & I Need Your Help!


Els and Allyzon midway through Allyzon’s Birthday YAS Class

Today was a special day at YAS DTLA. It was Allyzon’s birthday (I’ll let her share the number if she wants) and she threw a big ol’ bash for her birthday. In attendance were virtually all the YAS DTLA star instructors in addition to a lot of others, including myself on Day 21/56 of my challenge. Kristy, Sterling, Julie, Mike, D.J., Andrea, Jules L.,  were a few of the instructors who were riding in solidarity with Allyzon. It was a celebrity event – an A-list ride. Allyzon shouted out to her YAS family throughout the ride, pumping us up and making us all ride like we were there for a reason.

Afterwards, Allyzon generously catered a party; after the YAS class, 1/2 hour of spin, 1/2 hour of yoga, and at 9:30 when we finished, we were feted with a gorgeous all vegetarian spread by Jennie Cook’s Catering and Plant-Based Parties. There was quiche, and some egg-muffiny concoctions, a beautiful platter of fruit, and little individual jewels filled with yogurt and blueberries. Pitchers of cranberry juice and orange juice and a basin filled with Champagne ready to be cracked open – it was quite a beautiful spread.

At the start of the ride, spirits were high, with birthday balloons gracing the back of Allyzon’s bike seat, and flowers and cards littering the top of the stereo. Lots of whooping and hollering accompanied the ride, and a special comedic dance break-out by Instructor DJ and Allyzon had us laughing just when we were starting to break a sweat. Halfway through the ride, the balloons freed themselves from the back of her saddle, and rose triumphantly to kiss the ceiling. The crowd roared.

The yoga room was full, mats close to our neighbors, giggles when our handstands evolved into wide spread legs. I silently admired my mat mate’s pedicure color –

Oh! That’s a nice color!

And before you knew it, it was time to party and the energy was great – like a big family birthday party.


The After-YAS Birthday Party. 

Our parting gift was a homey Mason jar filled with the ingredients to make Allyzon’s signature cranberry, oatmeal, chocolate chip cookies. (I know, you are thinking right about now that this is counterproductive to having spent an hour working out), but better the workout followed by the cookies, than the cookies alone, right?

It was particularly fun to celebrate Allyzon’s birthday today because mine is tomorrow. I will be a fierce 56, and you may have read my blog earlier this week about the challenge I’ve set for myself, of 56 classes in 57 days. Here’s where I need your help, gentle but athletic reader. Today was day 21, and I know that I still have 35 days left to meet my personal goal. I invite you (friends, students, fellow faculty at USC SDA, Staff)  to come any M-F at 5:30AM or Saturday or Sundays at 8:30AM between now and February 16th to take a YAS class with me. If you are new to the YAS Downtown studio, you can take the first class for free. If you aren’t new, I have some free coupons saved up – just let me know in advance if you can make it and I’ll bring one along to get you into the seat/mat next to me. Here’s a link to the YAS DOWNTOWN website so you can plan your visit!

Here’s the thing. Yes, 5:30 is really early. But truthfully, when that alarm goes off, your intentions become instantly clear and somehow, it works out with the REM cycle so you can jump out of bed. And it would be so nice to see a familiar face in the room to cheer/goad/push me on. So, that’s my plea for help, and I hope to see you there to help me make my goal. Now excuse me, I have to go make some cookies!


Cranberry, Oatmeal, Chocolate Chip Cookie mix


18 of 56/57

For some reason, I decided to set a probably unachievable goal for myself just before my 56th birthday. 56 isn’t exactly a landmark birthday, though I suppose it does represent cresting the wave of the 50s and sledding down the slope toward 60.

After spending a blissful week of no exercise (I don’t count  pushing a vacuum and making a few beds as real exercise) for our son and his girlfriend upon the birth of their beautiful baby, I returned with renewed vigor to my gym, YAS Downtown, where I began to go on a daily basis beginning on Boxing Day.

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#GrownLadyCrush – Sarah G. Epstein

I was driving to get my allergy shot today, an unfortunate but necessary 1.5 hour investment of time in myself, when I heard an interesting NPR Story about why old women are so often the face of evil in fairy tales and folklore. I listened avidly, as scholars from Harvard and beyond dissected our cultural crone-ology, the dominance of scary old women in Disney films and beyond. You should read the article, but at the tag end of the story, listeners were directed to post instagram pictures of women of the generation above us (very PC way to put it) who inspire us. We were to label them our #GrownLadyCrushes.

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Sarah G. Epstein, my #GrownLadyCrush

I thought it appropriate that on the occasion of my stepmother’s 90th birthday, which happens to fall on Halloween, appropriately seasonal for this bewitching topic, I would spend some time introducing you to my #GrownLadyCrush, Sarah G. Epstein.


Girls on the Pier, 1920 by Edvard Munch


Molly Melching, Founder of TOSTAN, another #GrownLadyCrush

I have known Sally for a little more than twenty years, since we traveled to Vietnam in 1994 on a family planning trip organized by my father. Both he and she have had lives deeply involved in bettering methods of female contraceptives, and it was on this trip where their common interests became bonded by affection and eventually love.

They have been married for more than 20 years now, and over these 20 years, I have had the privilege of learning more about Sally and her passions. She is a strong and opinionated woman, well-read and well traveled, avidly interested in helping to solve the world’s burgeoning population problem. Her frequent letters come in recycled envelopes, graced with stickers promoting organizations like “Friends of the Earth.” Frequently, she has sent birthday gifts in my name to Tostan, an organization started by Molly Melching, a young woman who moved to Senegal in 1974 as an exchange student, and began working there, helping to create a model for Community Empowerment Programs which has by now blossomed into more than 7200 communities who have publicly declared the end of FGC and child/forced marriage. Molly Melching, whom Sally provided me with the means to meet, is another of my #GrownLadyCrushes.

In addition to Sally’s powerful footprint in the world and making a difference in womens’ lives, she is a passionate advocate and collector of  the artwork of Edvard Munch. A self-educated Munch collector and scholar, she has written numerous articles and books, and is one of the most prominent American collectors of Munch’s lithographs. She has lectured widely about his life and work, and as a result of this passion, she has traveled the world behind her collection, which she has generously loaned to many museums hosting retrospectives of Munch’s work. Sally has written a lot about the fact that much of Munch’s work documented the three phases of a woman’s life: the virginal young woman, portrayed as a lithe figure in white often looking out to sea; the strong, passionate woman in the midstream of her life, depicted either naked, or clothed in red; the crone, depicted in black.  A powerful rendition of this journey we make as women is seen in his 1895 etching entitled, “Woman.” Munch utilized these iconic  women in white, red and black throughout his work, including in the lithograph depicted above, “The Girls on the Pier, 1920”, which is the frontispiece of her book, entitled “Edvard Munch, Master Prints from the Epstein Family Collection.” Sally thoughtfully questioned whether the artist intended these icons to be chronological (or crone-ological) or layered aspects of any woman at any point in her life. That’s how Sally thinks – she does big picture and drill-down thinking at the same time.


Woman, 1895 by Edvard Munch

Sally and her former husband, Lionel Epstein,  had begun collecting these Munch etchings and lithographs back in the 1960s, when, as Sally described herself, she was young, idealistic, and innocent. She wrote about her own stages of life as related to her collecting in the essay from the book above, “Living with Edvard Munch Images: A Collector in Three Stages.” In another essay entitled “The Expressionist Prints of Edvard Munch and Richard Bosman” which she co-authored with Charles T. Butler for an exhibit at the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia, she discussed her life as a collector. In this essay, her youthful enthusiasm about the impact of Munch’s work on her as a young woman is evident. CloseTotheSurface

I have enjoyed our correspondence over the past 20 years. Sally is so thoughtful about finding articles about the theatre that she thinks I might be interested in, and sending me the periodic post card, always jotted with something about a recent trip or experience she has had. She is extremely organized and disciplined, spending part of each day in correspondence with friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if she spent a good part of her time combing the papers for relevant articles just so she could reach out and remain connected with her friends and family. Sally catalogues her friends and associates from all walks of life, collecting information and updates on them, maintaining a detailed card catalogue system which I have long envied. Early noting my interest in Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Sally has sent me dozens of postcards and many books and has always urged me to write about O’Keeffe’s early trips to New Mexico to visit Mabel Luhan Dodge, and her subsequent life at the Ghost Ranch. We’ve talked about what a fascinating play it could be.  Not too long ago, she sent me an article about the hockey great Gordie Howe, and a copy of his book to Chris, because she knew about his love of hockey.

Sally, in addition to her philanthropy and tireless advocacy of many causes, takes time to throw a pot or two. No, not in petulance, but she is an accomplished ceramicist. She makes beautiful natural colored bowls, and vases, many of which grace our home from 20 years as grateful recipients. In addition, due to her travels, Sally always has the most interesting gifts, brough from points far and wide and shared with equanimity. Finding a gift for her, on the other hand, can be quite challenging, though she has never seemed displeased with our presents.

Sally’s life long dedication to others has been noted many times. She was named the Feminist of the Month by the Veteran Feminists of America, in July, 2010, for her Worldwide Family Planning work, and her advocacy of the Quinacrine Method of Sterilization. She was presented with the Emily K.E. Bradley Award in 2010 for her numerous years of service to Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington.

But on the occasion of her 90th birthday, these are just a few of the things Sally has taught me to aspire to in my womanly journey:

  1. A well organized Itinerary is an essential part of orderly travel.
  2. It’s easy to cook a turkey. Don’t be intimidated. Just baste it every 20 minutes or so and it will turn out fine.
  3. Nothing warms the heart more than a nice letter or postcard in the mail.
  4. Aging does not remove the exceptional accomplishments of one’s younger life. (I recently learned that while an international exchange student, Sally had climbed the Watzmann, the third highest peak in Germany at the age of 22.)
  5. Actions speak much more about who you are than words.
  6. By acknowledging other people’s interests, you validate them.
  7. Make philanthropy a part of your daily life. Find organizations you care about and support those.
  8. Keep in touch with your family. Gather them around you on important occasions.
  9. Support the arts. Go to the theatre, opera, gallery openings frequently.
  10. Have a creative outlet. Take time each day to exercise, and to be creative.

As I approach the advanced platform of being a grandmother, I aspire to not be Baba Yaga to my precious granddaughter, but instead, her #GrownLadyCrush. Wish me luck, and thanks to Sally for showing me the Lady Crush path. Baba_Yaga_front

Access Evaluation Center


Jimmie sits in front of one of the retired busses used for training and evaluation at the Access Evaluation Center

The trip to the Access Evaluation Center this morning reminded me a lot of my trip to Lourdes back in 1983. I don’t know what I expected but when we entered the warehouse I didn’t expect a full blown episode of Mister Rodgers neighborhood gone to seed. The entryway was lined with people in varying stages of physical impairment. Arrayed around the roughly 10,000 sq. ft. warehouse were busses and ramps, carefully laid out pathways lined in yellow paint. The walls of the warehouse were decorated with large color photographs of the various types of busses in use in the city of Los Angeles, interspersed with gray line drawings of more busses, trains, trees and even an ungainly plane taking off into the dingy white acoustical tiles that covered the ceiling.

I brought my extremely indulgent husband, the ex-marathoner, here today to see if he is sufficiently impaired to take advantage of the para transit services offered to people in Los Angeles. While I am more than willing to drive him wherever he needs to go, I thought it would be nice for him to be able to get around without driving.

The process is outlined below at the website for this service. Check it out. We had done the steps to get here today, and had arrived a few minutes early for J’s 9:00AM appointment.

Access Paratransit Eligibility

This is an impressive facility, with dozens of people in the process of being evaluated. Each person sports his or her own means of battling the indignities of time: walkers, canes, scooters. We all find ourselves in this downtown purgatory for what we have been told will take from 2-4 hours.

After sitting for an hour or so, and watching the rhythms of the room, I gleaned that following the brief intake session, we would return back to the original seating area to await the next evaluator who would walk him through his paces. In the intake session, like a well-tuned team, the evaluator held up a small camera and said, “I’m going to take your picture now.” Jimmie leaned forward, and just as the man was about to snap the photo, one of his colleagues swept in with a large piece of white poster board to block the camera’s view of the row of waiting patrons behind where Jimmie was seated. It was impressive. We returned to our spot and watched approximately ten people march or roll or limp by, their attentive evaluators carrying clip boards and prepared to grab them by the belt which was wrapped around each applicant’s torso. The general sound of bustle in the room was broken occasionally by the chirping sound of a traffic-crossing sound, the light of which was just visible over the top of one of the busses.

Desks for the horde of evaluators were cleverly and discretely scattered around the room, the walls of their cubicles decorated with playful storefront designs, suggesting that we were in a perfect version of LA with people to assist you onto and off of the busses.

I have to say, as a bus passenger, I have always been impressed with the care and respect the drivers give to those passengers requiring assistance with their wheelchairs and walkers. So the testing is understandable, given that the Metro already has considerations in place.

This facility may be where old busses go to die, but they don’t die, they continue in their service here, providing a live set for the practitioners. IMG_3585

After an hour of waiting, I can see that my husband was bored with this exercise. I, on the other hand, was avidly interested in the process and continued to jot down my impressions.

There appeared to be about 20 evaluators, and at the end of the testing area, a man in a mauve polo shirt sat at a computer and processed out people as they completed their testing. I could see we wanted to get to the mauve man. That was how you won the game in this warehouse.

We sat on purple plastic chairs arranged in front of one of the busses. To our left stood a dusty looking Palm tree and a small 3′ round of AstroTurf at the base of the tree. When we arrived, we were told to sit by the palm tree. I thought about how much fun the designer of the warehouse must have had with this assignment.

A trip to the restroom revealed another completely full zone of waiting, about thirty more people in relatively good cheer in this purgatory of paralysis.

An industrious employee in a blue polo and sweatpants, with one phone headset in his right ear, the other dangling over his chest, swept periodically dirt and dust tromped through from all our urban feet.


Robert’s desk is past the two busses on the left, behind the mint green ramp.

Finally, my husband was summoned by a young man named Robert who was both kind and observant. After leading us past two parked busses to where his desk station was, he asked some questions about current medical conditions, took down the list of medications that we brought.

“This is an amazing place,” I said to Robert as he typed the medications.

“Yes it is,” he said. I noted that there were a lot of people there.

“How many people do you evaluate a day?” I asked. Robert responded that there were anywhere from 150 to 200 people evaluated every day. Impressive.

Robert rose from his table and said, “Follow me. We’ll go for your orientation.” I had heard the language “orientation” earlier and knew that that was done at the final station, by the man in the mauve polo shirt.

“Jimmie doesn’t have to do a tour of duty?” I asked Robert.

“I think he’s done his tour of duty already,” he responded, as he led us to the mauve man’s desk. In about 5 more minutes, we walked out into the parking lot and drove home. In 21 days, Jimmie should receive his Access card which will enable him to call for the van to pick him up and take him well, wherever he wants to go.