VDay – New Memories

In one of the last semesters, in one of the Meet and Greet circle up meetings in the Bing lobby, the SM organized the large group to introduce themselves by name and role in the production. The group was huge, more than 40 people between the cast, crew and designers, and the “Meet and Greet -Cute” feature was to state your favorite jam. I’ve never been a huge music fan, though I listen and know what I like, my memory for artists and names of tunes is slim to none. Fortunately, I was on the far side of the large circle, and had several minutes of private panic before they arrived at me.

I listen to podcasts. (had to hold for large collective guffaw). My current favorite is Hidden Brain.

This is true and sometimes I find myself practicing the pronunciation of the host’s name, Shankar Vedantem as though I’ll be asked to report who that is in the next circle up.

Can you tell I’m avoiding talking about the elephant in the room? Yes, my friends, it’s Valentine’s Day. The first Valentine’s Day without my primary Valentine. 

My WOW friend, who now has a good 2.5 months of Widowhood in the rearview mirror, says she’s studiously avoiding it… and me, when I texted her Happy Vday, with a stream of lurid hearts trailing behind. I’ve had a burst of loving messages from friends, all of which reinforce the new way I’ll need to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

A recent episode of Hidden Brain, called One Head, Two Brains, debunked pop psychology about the roles of the left and right brain. Rather than butchering the science here, I urge you to listen to it. But one of the things in the podcast was relevant in this new phase of my single life. They were discussing whether you are the type of person who goes to the usual restaurant and order the same thing, or someone who tries different things on the menu. Having been married to someone for whom the closure of first Joe Allen’s and then Orso in Los Angeles signaled the tragic end of his access to liver and onions, I am most familiar with the former. I fall somewhere between the former and latter and after listening to the podcast, will steer myself sharply to trying new things. It’s only right, right?

The host, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, described that the habitual orderer and what their brain rewards them for their habit. They rely on anticipation of a good meal as well as the expected satisfaction after the meal. That’s something I witnessed countless times in our marriage. It got to be a bit of a joke as we dined at restaurants closer to home in the later years, CPK being our go-to place, and Jimmie over and over ordered the pesto with shrimp, or the penne with chicken and sun dried tomatoes, which he would pick out of the dish and leave on the side. He was stolid in his ordering, never wavering from his choices.

But come to find out that the person who tries new dishes is more likely to form new memories, according to Gilchrist, and that’s what nudges me to that camp. Especially now when I’m in the business of forming new memories, and recovering antique memories of who I was before I was “Jimmie’s wife.”

Last weekend, faced with a weekend of no work, I imagined what I would do, visualized sitting on my couch at home watching TV, reading, and generally just missing Jimmie.  I chose instead, to jump in the car and head north to Los Osos in the relentless rain, to visit our niece, Martha, where we spent 24 hours chatting, doing a puzzle, taking brief but beautiful walks in the blustery central coastal climate.

Entitled Food Porn, this puzzle was challenging and very satisfying

The drive north was spectacular, the verdant hills off to my left and right, the rainbows appearing in my windshield, first on the left, then on the right.

Martha and I had long chats, ate the french pastries I’d stopped to pick up at Renaud’s in Santa Barbara, watched some TV, napped. It was bliss, and not from the habitual menu, so fulfilled my desire to make new memories.

Valentine’s Day 1.0 was spectacular. My sweetheart usually gave me a pretty bauble and always a sweet card. There was always way too much supermarket candy in the equation. It was a celebration of our long love and sure, I’m not thrilled to be celebrating VDay without my valentine.

Years ago, I had the privilege of stage managing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. Thirteen months of rotating celebrities, three amazing new women every two weeks, directed by Jenny Sullivan, produced by Jim Freydberg. It was an incredible gig, and one which I mourned its completion. The resilience and power of those women’s stories, onstage and off was a theatrical experience I won’t soon forget.

Last night, as a precursor to what I guess may be my new VDay routine, I attended a Visions and Voices event, A Conversation between Roxanne Gay and Amanda Nyugen. It was a stirring reminder of the ability of the heart and spirit to not only recover from violence, but also to rebuild and flourish. With grace and gentle empathy as embodied by Ms. Nyugen, and with sardonic power as exemplified by Dr. Gay. I left the auditorium, again, into the pouring rain, and walked with a bounce to my car.

So what did my new VDay look like? With a 9AM meeting at the Geffen Playhouse, I booked a 6:30AM workout at the new Sanctuary Fitness Pasadena outpost, followed by a beautiful shower and breakfast at the Urth Cafe. All by my lonesome. Ironically, it wasn’t the least bit lonesome. That’s called forming new memories. And lest you think I’ve jettisoned any of the old, please know that I have not.

At the Huntington Hotel – February 5, 2015

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Wedding without the Groom

This week I’m producing a life celebration for my husband. It’s a wedding without the groom. But I know how to do this. I’ve stage managed countless other events, even memorials before.

When you lose your spouse (every time I say that phrase I think back to Lady Bracknell’s line in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”) This, in turn, makes me think of Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell which transports me to the pre-Els portion of Jimmie’s life.

(Readers are thinking, How can she have already digressed in the first paragraph? I invite you to peer inside the mind of the recently grieved person. There is no digression too unappealing to explore. In depth.)

When you lose your spouse, precisely at your rawest, most inconsolable moment, well-meaning family and friends ask about whether there will be a funeral. I know that funerals are the norm, but I can’t imagine how people pull them together at that moment. It was only about a month after my husband died that I was able to even imagine how to commemorate his life in a ritual we’ve come to call a “Life Celebration.”

Date. Venue. Guests. Speakers. Outfit. Music. Food. Flowers. Stage Manager. Program. Hotel. Transportation. Video.

This initial list can start the average stage manager panting with anticipation of things to order and to put in order. The list unfurls its own subset of questions that are more or less easy to answer once you’ve established the date, and the venue and have the Production Manager in your communication loop.

But this grieving stage manager had some additional hurdles to overcome. First, there is the sheer entropy of grief, that warm, swaddled state of incredulity; you are actually planning such an important event without the advice and counsel of your best friend. No one to bounce ideas off of, to run things by, to giggle with about what isn’t going to plan.

We pull on experience. Back in December, I began to pull together a guest list, determining that there would be 150 people who might want to come to celebrate Jimmie’s life. By the end of the month, I’d determined the venue, with a capacity of 74. Oops.

This first hiccough added a major need to the main list – web streaming.

So here’s the FB page where the event will be web streamed.

Date: Saturday, January 26, 2019 4PM

Venue: Web-streamed and some live participants

Speakers: There will be speakers!

Music: There will be some music!

Food: There will be some promised-to-be delish food from niece Niki.

Flowers: There will be flowers!

Stage Manager: I’ve hired a former student, Jennifer, to be professional me on the day when I can’t necessarily be counted on to be professional.

Program: There is a beautiful program thanks to my colleague and graphic designer, Chris.

Outfit: I went shopping with my friend and colleague, Tina, an accomplished costume designer. I knew what I wanted – a purple duster to wear over black pants and a gray top (which I already had). We went to Koi in Pasadena, parked in the 20 minute spot in front of the store, went in, bought the purple duster (believe it or not there was one), then retired to a nearby pub for a true English breakfast, complete with sausage and a eggs and a roasted tomato and a pot of tea. Success!

Hotel: Family and friends are starting to arrive today and tomorrow. There will be many opportunities to eat and talk about life and the wonderful man we’ve been so fortunate to spend my life with.

Transportation: Van to take family from hotel to venue. Organized.

Video: Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with my great niece-by-marriage, Alisa Bargeski, on a video to celebrate Jimmie’s life and work and family. Putting that together has probably been the most satisfactory thing about the process and very healing.

With all these elements in place, the profoundly unsettling fact remains. The groom is gone.

I sat on the couch last night and the stillness of the interior apartment settled around me, wintry wind whistling just outside the glass patio door. I wasn’t weepy, just alone and somehow finally aware of my solitude in that moment. As I said to my dear friend Susan this afternoon, after all those years of knowing that I would be alone, I never visualized exactly what that would feel or be like. Isn’t that strange? But I know I am not alone in my life, that I’m surrounded with the life force of friends and colleagues and family. And I know I’m excited to see them at the “wedding without the groom” this Saturday.

I’d prefer a puppy, thanks.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Do not misconstrue this as a secret request for a dog. I acknowledge my luck in having many caring people in my life who would jump at providing me with a new puppy. Please do not.

Have you ever noticed this phenomenon? When you are in the market for a new vehicle, or house, or dog even, you find yourself surrounded by dozens of the brand/style/breed that you’ve been thinking about? It’s been a while since I was in the market for any of those things, but lately I’ve noticed more people around me who have experienced significant loss. I am swimming in grievers.

Obviously, being surrounded by grievers is far less appealing than swimming in eager, face-licking puppies, but no less visceral. When we choose to notice our fellow humans and the all-too human experiences we share, they mirror our own frame of reference. Naturally. Narcissistic, yes, extremely, but also it can be comforting and reassuring.

We’re not alone. There are others who are facing or have faced the exact same thing we are going through. The predecessors can provide spiritual guidance. The successors give us a sense of utility when we are floundering with what we will do next. Each of us copes in our own intensely personal way. It gets better for a while, then we hit a huge grief pothole or icy patch and spin out. No matter how good our emotional snow tires are.

Due to circumstances I’ve begun to feel a bit like a grief vampire. They say that death comes in threes, and she has circled closely to my orbit and plucked away three important people to close friends in a very short time. The rest of my constellation is surely holding their loved ones close and struggling to maintain the apogee of orbit from those of us with loss.

And yet, they’re not. I’m stunned on a daily basis by people’s thoughtfulness, and consideration of what I’m going through. Earlier this week a colleague made me a quiche and dropped it off at work. Last night I took a bath in the light from a candle given to me by a neighbor. One of these days, I will finish the 1500 piece puzzle given to me by a colleague. I will either complete it, or in a fit of pique, will attempt the magician’s tablecloth trick which will end the puzzling for the season.

When comparing notes with my close circle of Widow/er/s, I’ve discovered that it’s acceptable to have begun talking to myself. Mind you, I’m not talking to Jimmie (most of the time), but talking myself through the steps of a given task.

Yesterday, in a moment of self-care, I signed up for a new app called emeals, which was recommended to me by my office-mate, Hannah. Check it out. Despite the cozy picture of the couple cooking together and the fact that it doesn’t cater to singles, it’s amazing. You pick your menus for the week, it downloads a shopping list, and even links to Instacart or other delivery services. I got very excited, picking four things – beef barley soup (slow cooking), grits with eggs and arugula (breakfast for dinner), and a few others. The shopping list was full of arcane items like fig preserves and frozen cheese biscuits that would challenge any half-hearted shopper so I linked to Instacart for delivery between 8-9pm last night.

Then I promptly forgot, realizing at 7:50 as I sorted crew participants for the class that I teach that I needed to be home to receive delivery. I bolted from my office and when I walked into my building at 8:08 I received the shattering news that my 32 arcane-Els-you-will-never-find-this-on-your-own items had been canceled from my cart. I imagined the beleaguered Instacart shopper stomping their feet, then having to return the items to the shelves in a pique of anger.

I spent about 5-8 minutes huffing around the store, looking for someone to complain to (they were all gone) before grabbing a cart, unchecking all the items on the shopping list, and beginning to fill my cart myself. Mindful self care. I calmed myself with the task at hand (filling the empty refrigerator at 8:45PM so I could feed myself). Checking out the other people who did their shopping that late and thinking I spotted a few other grievers in the store. But it could have just been projection on my part.

One day at a time. One meal at a time. Using the tools and technology to ease the process of rebuilding.

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

Understudy Rehearsal

Stage managers, in the course of their work, frequently have to put actors into a show when circumstances arise that prevent a regular actor from performing. Plays have understudies, who are contracted to start, usually a week or so before a play opens. This means stage management begins rehearsals during the preview week, when rehearsals for the regular show are happening during the day, and previews at night. Everyone is exhausted at this time in the production arc, but Stage Managers know that it is critical to have at least one, if not two rehearsals that week. That way, the understudy can go on “on book” – an occurrence one wouldn’t wish on anyone, but a legitimate state of performing per our Actors Equity Association rulebooks. 

This way the producers are covered if someone gets sick, or has to leave the show abruptly due to occurrences like the ones that underlie this post. And stage managers know how to rehearse actors to put them into shows. We know the blocking, we know the intent of each scene, the director’s desires. On more complicated shows, we’ll create tracking sheets for each actor, so that if we have to insert them into the show, we know how to run a pick-up rehearsal, including just those parts of the play in which our understudy will be featured.

When you get to a certain age, you’ve accumulated things. If you are fortunate, as I am, you’ve accumulated good friends, close family, a comfortable workspace with supportive colleagues. But there’s one thing I’ve only become aware recently of how many I’ve accumulated, and that’s widowed friends.  I have a plethora of the widowed in my life.

Men and women; just counting on my fingers, I have two full fists of friends who’ve lost their loved ones, their spouses, their life partners. There’s a range of loss from 35 years ago, to 18 years ago, to 8 years ago, to just a few weeks. 

With all the other widows and widowers, I have turned my face and ear to them as a sunflower turns to the sun, drawing in their experience and wisdom, their references for books, thoughts about memorials, and life ahead, about clearing clutter. Surely that will make the path through grief easier, if it can be done. Why not do your research and make it more tenable?  And I bask in every ray of their singular and collective light as it illuminates renewal, a time when the pain is less, and when I know what my new path is. Who I am alone in the world. What my purpose is.

But it is the week-old widow (WOW) who speaks loudest to me. She and I have uncannily similar situations. Both married to actors more than thirty years older than we; both theatre workers. Neither of us religious, nor afraid to tell the truth about our circumstances. Both with irreverent senses of humor. Now we share a date of grieving that I never would have wished on either of us. But now that it is a thing, it provides me, and I hope her, with some solace. The morning of Jimmie’s birthday, while I was helping some neighbors decorate our lobby’s Christmas tree, she sent me a plaintive text that her partner had passed away.

How are we ever supposed to get over this?

Boy is that the question of the month?  And with the question came the turning point. From sunflower to sun, not that I presume to know a scintilla of what my widowed friends know, but I could keep company with her, and being three weeks ahead on the learning curve, I could share what I knew. 

And so, with my WOW friend, right in the middIe of my own “production,” I had the tracking sheets, at least for the first three weeks. I knew the blocking, the intent, the emotional pitfalls that might confront her. I knew I’d be able to push her around “backstage” and help her make her entrances.

A good stage manager allows the understudy to bring themself to the part. To interpret to a certain extent the lines so that they fit them and they can inhabit them gracefully. 

There’s nothing graceful about a five week widow. Trust me. But my WOW friend is a strong woman. And we have the history that allows us to speak honestly to each other about how we are doing. That’s a huge gift. 

One of the first things I had to confess was my obituary bitterness. Granted, I didn’t know the first thing about placing an obituary in the newspaper. Apparently, it’s something that should happen that day or the next day at the latest. I waited a week, only prompted to do so by my brother. Now my very dark advice is to write your obituary now so you’re ready.

Two days after I got the text from my WOW friend that her partner had passed, I picked up the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and saw his obituary in both papers. 

But see, those are the kinds of things you can say to an understudy. Both to help them through the terror, and also to make the process as fun as possible. Believe me, putting an understudy on is fun compared with this widow’s work. And to further impress you with the strength of my WOW friend, she conducted a real understudy rehearsal about 5 days after her own loss. 

I’ve started going to the theatre again this week – first to see Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol starring Jefferson Mays at the Geffen. He’s really terrific, as are all the production values. If you can get there this week, try, because it’s the last week. My friend Jill warned me about the opening of the show, where a dark Victorian casket sits center stage, surrounded by black feathers and haze. People are very thoughtful. That wasn’t, as it turns out, a trigger for me. 

Last night I went to Come from Away at the Ahmanson Theatre, the most exuberant and life-affirming show I’ve seen in years. You’ve got longer to get yourself there. It plays until January 6th.

Last Sunday, I went for a hike with my WOW friend and another Stage Manager pal who is not on the current understudy track that we are on. Instead, we walked for five miles in Griffith Park, up and down along the North Trail, the Bee trail, admiring the morning sun and talking about life in general, and the two of our’s newly widowed status. When I got home I was sore, but felt a sense of accomplishment from the hike to remind me that I was indeed alive. Painfully so, but good pain this time. 

People are kind and considerate, calling, texting, what’s apping (sorry Mr. Strunk, I’m sure that’s not a verb)…. Life goes on. We turn our petals to the ever increasing sun and await instructions. Building our new tracking sheets to better be prepared for future performance. My WOW friend and I stand together strong in a long tradition of life and living after death.

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.

After the Fall

Arthur Miller’s After the Fall, a production of the Lincoln Center Repertory company, directed by Elia Kazan, and produced by Robert Whitehead and Elia Kazan, opened in January 1964 at the Anta Theatre in Washington Square.

Opened in rep with “Marco Millions” and “But For Whom Charlie” then continued into next season and played in rep with “The Changeling”; “Incident at Vichy”; and ‘Tartuffe”.

Jimmie played The Clergyman in the production, which also starred Jason Robards, Barbara Loden, Faye Dunaway, Hal Holbrook and Mariclare Costello among other actor luminaries.

After the Fall has taken on new resonance, as our lives have been shaped by a single event. Our short-lived period of pain-free peace was shattered by the nocturnal victory of gravity over balance at home one night in the middle of October.

Our dear friend Susan was visiting us from South Africa, a trip booked in a previous period of medical panic, and we were basking in the final moments of her visit, the night before her departure.  We were enjoying the end of the Major League Baseball playoffs, soon to gift us with a fourth World Series title in 15 years for our Boston Red Sox. Susan’s May visit was punctuated with an ill-timed trip to the ER, and this time, I’d made Jimmie promise we wouldn’t go again while Susan was here. Little did I think I’d be tempting fate with such a promise. The final night of her October visit, Jimmie tumbled, his Lear-like cry and the resultant clatter of his walker against the mirrored closet doors roused me from the murky depths of a deeply restorative sleep.

I rushed to his side, tripping over the too-heavy-for-LA-comforter which lurks on the floor at the foot of our bed. The fall was traumatic; he was shaken, but I checked him over and finding nothing broken, returned him to bed. The next day, we went to the ER. No fractures, thankfully. This photo we took in the hallway on our way to the ER as Susan waited at the apartment for her ride to the airport.SusanJimmie10-18-18After that foray to the ER, we returned home, and spent about 10 painful days there until last Thursday when his visiting niece Martha and I realized we couldn’t manage his care at home. We called 911 and two strong EMTs came and lifted Jimmie onto the chair gurney.

Martha and I followed in the car, and I caught up with him in the third floor ER. After a CT scan, confirming no fracture, he was admitted to hospital overnight.

I never thought this day would happen. I’d always sworn that whatever happened, Jimmie would stay at home. But when your husband’s a dead weight in your arms, it’s a stark reminder that we don’t always control decisions about our circumstances, especially as we age.

Pain meds are powerful and effective. When administered regularly, they have stultifying effects which exacerbate the pain even more. Pain causes lack of hunger. The combination of lack of hunger and pain meds causes a glassy-eyed ghostly non-presence which descended quickly and in our case, irrevocably.

I watched as my normally impish and flirtatious husband become a vision of St. Therese, gazing up in beatific gape-mouthed wonder. I’ve had a lot of time to think in the past days. These are a few of the things I’ve been thinking about.

I’ve worked hard all my life in my job, very often at the sacrifice of cultivating social relationships. I think it’s probably fairly common in an industry where “I can’t. I have rehearsal.” is a slogan on T-shirts. While I love the people I work with, I wouldn’t necessarily call on them to be with me at my husband’s bedside. That’s not the nature of our friendship. When the social worker said, “this is the time you need to call on your friends,”  I realized that our son is the only one I can really talk to about this.*

*Shortly after writing this, my phone rang and it was a dear colleague from school “just checking in on me.” It was so meaningful and amazing that such a brief conversation could have such a restorative impact. Since then, I have had numerous outpourings of support which have cheered us on.

No one prepares you for making tough decisions like these by yourself without your loved one’s input. An Advanced Health Care Directive and Medical Power of Attorney are critical to having control over your circumstances. After a day or two in the hospital, Jimmie wasn’t able to answer a question about what his level of pain was – how could he endorse my decision to take him home and cease medical intervention? These are conversations best entertained in the flush of good health during the early part of your life and marriage. Or the middle part. Tough talks. Gotta do it.

So many people have told me that I have to care for myself in order to care for him. Fighting away the doubt and guilt, the third night of his hospitalization, I succumbed and went home to sleep on his side of our bed, lolling drunkenly in his scent like a dog in roadkill. The next morning, Tuesday, I took time to vote before coming back to the hospital. They were right, I felt more like myself, less victimized by grief and loss of control.IVotedhospital

Now, about 20 days After the Fall, we sit patiently by his bedside, now home in the comfort of our shared world, Chris by my side, his little dog Cupid affording us all pet therapy.

The Hospital Stay Play (With apologies to actual playwrights)

Characters
Jimbo – our hero

Elsa – his wife

Lawrence – Trans Male Night Registered Nurse (Nights 1 and 2)

Emily – Sturdy Pacific Islander Certified Nursing Assistant (Nights 1 and 2 and Days 2 and 3 – they never let her leave)

Delauney – The intravenous gold that allows him to sleep in spurts of 2-3 hours

Ms. Contina – the pill that evens out the pain during the day and night.

Place: Limbo, AKA a room on the fifth floor of Good Sam Hospital

Time: Now, then, whenever, an eternity of time that easily spans hours, days, weeks

Set pieces – two medieval torture racks – one with electric controls to raise and lower the back and feet, the other, a decidedly analog roll out hospital cot. A rolling table that barely fits under the bed and rolls up to within 6″ of the patient’s chest, causes anxiety and revulsion.

Scene 1 – \Transitioning from the ER. Jimbo and Elsa enter, Jimbo on a gurney, Elsa, as usual, carrying too much for the given situation. Jimbo moans in pain. Elsa hovers, holding his hand as Lawrence and Emily get him situated. Emily takes his blood pressure. Lawrence nods. 

Lawrence: Jimbo, what is your pain level on a scale of 0-10?

Jimbo’s eyes dart left and right, pupils almost too tiny to see, his hand reaching for a hand to clutch. Elsa provides it. Minutes pass, Lawrence waiting patiently next to the bedstead, holding Delauney and a saline chaser in his hand.

Lawrence: (after several moments, giving him the benefit of the doubt) Jimbo, are you still thinking about what pain level you are at?

Jimbo: (silence. Mews in pain. Soon Delauney saunters into the bloodstream and we enter the Beckett zone. Jimbo’s head lolls back.)

(Hours pass. Elsa climbs onto the second torture rack and falls into fitful sleep. Jimbo’s passed out, sprawled on the pillows on the electrical torture rack.)

(Suddenly)

Jimbo: AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!

Els: (Springing off the rolling rack, wrenching her back) What is it?

Jimbo: Pain! (Els pushes the call button on his rack. Lawrence enters. Unawake, Elsa narrates what Lawrence is doing. Her lack of sleep and general gender confusion cause her to use the wrong pronouns and clumsily, finally, no pronouns at all.)

Elsa: She’s trying to get you positioned, Jimbo! ….helping you to be out of pain.

(once Lawrence has left the room)

Jimbo: Are we alone?

Elsa: Yes

Jimbo: Is she mad at me?

Elsa: Sorry, she is a he, and no he’s not mad at you. (a minute passes)

Jimbo: Is she mad at me?

Elsa: (firmly) No, he’s not mad at you. (a minute passes, and the hellish exchange continues three more times.

(Later)

Jimbo: (genuinely contritely) I’m sorry I can’t go to the theatre tonight with you.

Elsa: We’re not going to the theatre tonight, Jimbo.

Jimbo: Can they hear my voice on stage?

Elsa: Jimbo, we’re in the hospital. We’re not in the theatre.

Jimbo: But can they hear me on stage? Are we in the wings?

Curtain

More days have passed. In a fluke of the world showing it’s perfectly kind underbelly of good Karma, we were sent a caregiver at night who turned out to be a theatre buff, and kept saying loudly by Jimmie’s bedside, “He’s a National Treasure!”

We are still in the wings. To a transitional phase that  happened so quickly, so unexpectedly. Only two weeks ago we were back to a pain-free life together.  Treasure the moments you have. Be present. Plan ahead so you don’t ever have to plan under duress. (She said, sounding like the logistician/stage manager she is.)

 

 

 

No Scone Left Unturned

This week, unfortunately, I stumbled across a recipe for scones in the New York Times. I don’t know how I could have gotten to the ripe old age of fifty-hand-over-mouth-mumble without knowing how ridiculously easy scones are to make. And now that I’ve lost the illusion of them as something only English people (who seem ever so much more clever than we) can whip up, Lord help me. And you, if you’ve clicked on the link above. Curse you, Susan Guerrero!

Today I made two batches, telling myself that I would share them with others; when Jimmie eschewed a hot fresh scone for a Thomas’ English Muffin this morning, I knew I was really in the danger zone.

And yet, that wasn’t the first good idea I had this week. Yesterday, at the end of the work week, Jimmie and I scootered over to the park for a half hour, happening upon a flash-mob of toddlers all under 3 playing with their parents in a postage stamp of green grass in the center of the park. It was adorable. A diverse group of parents, from the nearly neglectful rockers languishing on a bench as their tow-haired two-year-old dashed madly around the grass, to the maniacally kiss-crazy mom chasing behind her son chortling, “Good job, Joey!” every two seconds. It seemed to be the only thing she could come up with to say, but her adoring offspring suffered her kisses with a delighted smile, giggling into the falling tendrils of his mother’s hair. Meanwhile, his father stood nearby waiting for the two of them to notice he was there. A pair of doting grandparents sat on a bench reading, watching their late twenties daughter tossed a ball with her Boden-clad daughter, sparking the question, “Who wears a skirt to the park to play?” Such a mean-girls thought seemed inhospitable in the midst of “the children’s hour.”

There must have been 13 under-threes in the group. I wondered whether they were a club. They all seemed to know each other, and there were companionable grownup chats happening around the perimeter of the grass at benches such as ours. It was only when I saw a caravan of strollers forming, winding away from us toward the playground area that I remembered seeing the film crew breaking down their setup as we’d entered the park. I noted that the yellow caution tape had been removed from the perimeter of the playground. So, yes, they did know each other because they all shared the same playground at the same time of day. Mystery solved.

Jimmie and I remained in companionable togetherness on our bench, chatting about an idea for a play I’d just had. I hasten to add that this idea comes from the same hare-brained place that the idea to make three batches of scones in as many days comes from, but here it is.

Spin-Cycle: The play takes place in two acts featuring the early morning denizens of a gym to the rumpled, linty late night hijinks of a laundromat. Producers, don’t despair! You could utilize the same cast members, because god knows the morning people make dirty clothes apace. Tag line: What goes around comes around.

Brilliant, right? No, Els, it is not.

These are the idle meanderings of someone whose brain is task-saturated. And that’s my home life. Last week, Jimmie and I careened from doctor’s office to doctor’s office to lab to X-Ray, in preparation for his procedure next Thursday, the same day Brett Kavanaugh most likely becomes the next member of the Supreme Court. Despite that inauspicious coincidence, I have no reason to believe our procedure won’t go well and Jimmie will thrive afterwards. But I’ve become dizzy with details for managing his pain and prep. Simple screwups like the fact that it turns out I’d been overdosing him with Motrin for several weeks.

And so, I’m baking. Never a good sign; since I do spend so much time “researching my first play” at the gym, baking is a self-sabotaging act of dietary regression, and I can see it’s resulting bulges through my sweaty togs. On the other hand, I rediscovered the fascination of cooking good food as well, when Jimmie’s great niece, Niki, came through last weekend, demonstrating the beauty of well-cooked greens and delicately grilled cumin-flavored potatoes with swordfish. 995E7EB8-58E0-4BD9-B03B-9F54A336EE08This morning I cut the beet greens off the beets I’d bought and made a lovely chopped beet and onion sauté to go with my brown rice and scrambled egg breakfast. Which I promptly followed with a maple walnut scone chaser. Slathered in Earth Balance…

So hit me up if you want a tin of scones or some good play ideas. I clearly have plenty of both.

 

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.

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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.