Getting Into College without the Strings and Tutorial 2.0

There are things that are predictable in the cycle of a university year, which is distinctly seasonal. In the late fall, High School seniors create their applications, visit the campus to see a production, determine whether they will throw their hat in the ring. Months pass, and with the advent of spring, the acceptance and rejection letters go out.

Today at the Open House, I had the privilege of meeting many prospective students, who have been accepted to USC School of Dramatic Arts where I work as Head of Production. They visited the campus to participate in workshops in acting and production, and to meet the faculty they may study with over the next four years. As I looked around the room this morning at my colleagues on the Production/Design Faculty, and at the freshly scrubbed faces of stage managers, technical directors, and scenic designers, I flashed on the hours of collaborative work we’ve engaged in this year with our current students. How quickly we traverse the distance from this pre-matriculation meeting to the next workshop I hosted, the portfolio presentations by the designers of the Spring Musical, all seniors this year. The years fly by.

Those of us who are involved even peripherally in college admissions these days are sensitive – one could say feeling bruised by the admissions scandal. As the miscreants parade across our news feeds, those of us who go through the sincere process of reviewing, assessing, encouraging applicants to our programs feel like we’ve been sucker punched. We forge ahead because we know the rewards at the end of the rainbow.

The most heartbreaking thing for me about the big tacky admissions scandal is the lack of faith in their children these parents demonstrated. It’s clear that not everyone is cut out for college or needs it to succeed. My son eschewed the college experience. When I began working at USC, he was fourteen, and I had high hopes of taking advantage of the tuition remission. While I was initially heartbroken that he wouldn’t follow in my footsteps by going to college, I knew that the route he’d chosen would be hard but that he’d be okay. He worked for several years as a commercial fisherman. The only strings I was able to pull there were asking my brother to help him get work in that field. He embraced the work. I was humbled by his commitment and hard work and what he learned during those years of backbreaking work.

The parents today at lunch bemoaned the entire process of the admissions process. How much more complicated the process seems than when I’d gone through it! I applied to two colleges, one early admissions, and one back up school. How different my life might have been had I ended up there. It’s not unusual for our current students to have applied to more than a dozen colleges, made multiple college visits with their beleaguered parents, who want the best for them.

We have some extraordinary senior designers and stage managers and technical directors who are exiting our programs with their degrees in about a month. They are scenic designers, sound designers, lighting and projection designers, stage managers, costume designers, and budding production managers/TDs, a self-proclaimed costume designer and sewist.

Listening to them recount their design and stage manager processes to the incoming students today made me feel as proud as the parents who’d accompanied our guests to campus today. These students have worked hard to earn their degrees and build professional portfolios. Through their diligence they have also assumed the roles of ambassadors to our next freshman production/design cohort.

USC School of Dramatic Arts performance of “Sunday in the Park with George” on Mar. 27, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nicholas Gingold/Capture Imaging)

Recently when I posted the picture of the bracelet I bought to keep f***ing going, Chris reminded me of my “warm and fuzzy” response to him when he called me once during his fishing days.

13 stitches in my leg, in the middle of the ocean complaining about shushing 2 tons of ice to you (to which you said) “You’re either a winner or a whiner? Which one are you?”

We hung up shortly after and I didn’t go to bed until the job was done.

While there was a time when we lost a lot of sleep about how our son would turn out and considered concerted intervention in the trajectory of his life, I no longer worry about the choices he makes. He’s the head coach of a prestigious elite hockey prep team and demonstrates daily to his players about the importance of life choices and the skills and practice they continue to refine under his and his colleagues coaching. He utilizes discoveries he’s made finding his path as a powerful teaching tool. Just as our college designers do. Strengthening their practice through self-examination, sometime failure and recovery and building collaborative relationships.

As I make my way in this new single life I’ve been thinking a lot about the closed circle that is a marriage. Often to the withering of long standing friendships. Add to that working in the theatre where the hours are already a severe deterrent to having a social life. Married couples tend to socialize with other married couples who are similarly distanced by their own bubbles of connubial bliss. What happens when a marriage ends, either through divorce, or the death of one’s partner? How do you re-enter the world? Re-activate relationships that were important to you? How do those people respond to your attempts to re-activate? Is this a healthy exercise? Too nostalgic? Should one be looking forward to forming new relationships instead? Is it fair to expect that people will be willing to re-activate long dormant relationships?

These are some of the topics I’m considering. They coincide with my increasing nausea about social media. This week I’m convinced it’s a matter of days before I unplug. I’ve already removed the book of Face from my phone as an initial step.

Then, there’s the Tutorial reboot.

I had what I thought was the brilliant idea to reach out to reconnect with a group of my high school friends, who shared a very special moment in time and mentorship with our Theatre Professor from 1977 – more than forty years ago. We called them our Tutorials, weekly gatherings where we sipped our tea, listened to the radio and talked about the problems of the world before trundling off to chapel.

Utilizing the old fashioned medium of email, some internet sleuthing and the promise of revisiting a special and formative time in our young lives, I invited the group to have a zoom tutorial. Scheduling this online group chat was one of the more challenging scheduling problems I’ve tackled (even as a life-long stage manager). All was set for tomorrow morning at 6:10AM PDT, 9:10AM EST when the participants started dropping like flies. The excuses were among the more creative ones I’ve ever encountered.

The yoga class that I teach with incarcerated men has been changed to Sunday morning.

And I’m thinking I can’t even bend at the waist any more….

I’ll be in the Louvre at the time of our call and will try to make it work.

Can you stand in front of the Mona Lisa to prove this outrageous claim?

I’ll be in Sydney and it will be 11:10PM and I may need to get to sleep.

For crying out loud! We have four time zones to coordinate here.

Clearly these are interesting and worthwhile connections to resuscitate; it may take olympic level scheduling skills work out the next chat. That and the willingness of the others to re-boot these friendships.

Hats and Passports and Moving On

On Monday, my son and his wife ushered a beautiful second daughter into the world, a process comparable in many ways, he noted, to helping his father/my husband out of life last November. Sitting bedside, hearing the breathing patterns, feeding encouragement, at one end breath expunged, followed by a terrible stillness and the onset of grief; at the other, an energetic intake of breath, a hearty kicking cry of life followed by rejoicing. Both amazing and frightening and life altering experiences for the privileged witness participants.

I wasn’t able to be there for the in-person rejoicing, as we’re in the full press of tech for two spring productions at USC. Someone, however, took a photo of Chris, holding the newly arrived baby, swaddled in her iconic blue and pink baby blanket, eyes closed. In the photo, Chris looks at the camera. Over his left shoulder on the sill of the hospital window sits his Dad’s blue Boston Red Sox baseball cap. In his eyes, the warmth of a life remembered and one anticipated.

Chris had brought his Dad along for the birth. Three years ago, Jimmie and I’d arrived from the airport about an hour after their first daughter was born. We’d all sat on that same purple couch, marveling at her perfection and the miracle of new life, then watched as she had her first bath.

Early days of Granddaughter 1’s life with Grandpa Jimmie.

Last weekend, we had tech rehearsals for Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George in the Bing Theatre, and Susanna Centlivre’s The Busybody in the Scene Dock Theatre. Spring beckoned from outside, beautiful lush flowering bushes surrounding the Technical Theatre Lab. Periodically, I would roust myself from the hip-wrenching theatre chairs to walk the exterior perimeter of the lab, beginning appropriately on Bloom Walk, savoring the sunlight on my head, and watching the hummingbirds dart through the blue and pink flowers. Very restorative.

Last night, I sat and watched the second dress rehearsal of Sunday in the Park with George, house left in the Bing, our 551 seat proscenium theatre. It felt good to sit down because it had been a day. I came in and tossed down my backpack, falling into the comfort of the seat.

I’d started the day assisting the new Campus Emergency Response Team in their final training exercise, playing a victim in the Search and Rescue drill. There were nine of us, all but one of us CERT members from previous trainings: staff, faculty, even a local untethered middle schooler. We arrived at 7:30AM to get made up, bloodied, ready to play our roles and ready to do some serious schmacting, the kind of overwrought performances only non-actors can give. I eschewed facial blood because I had to run from the drill to film the welcome greetings for our incoming class of Production/Design students. I figured seeing the Head of Production bloodied or just looking dirty might not be a good message of welcome for them. Good call?

I’d been feeling particularly sad that I wasn’t at the birth of my second granddaughter the day before, so during the drill, I adopted two rescued CPR baby dolls with enthusiasm and purpose. Another participant, Michael, from the USC Hotel, embraced them, too, so while I came into the drill a widow, within a few hours, had two babies and a husband. Pretty quick work, my fellow victims laughed. I’m sure there is some embarrassing video and stills out there of our schmacting. Stay tuned.

Chris and I texted throughout the day, first in the morning, about his eldest daughter’s dour demeanor at breakfast. She had some particularly colorful words for her other Nana as she gruffly eschewed toast. I took the opportunity of being surrounded by the zombie apocalypse to film a little PSA instructing her to eat her toast, and what might happen if she didn’t, but Chris hadn’t shared it with her. She was busy coloring.

As I watched the start of Sondheim’s masterful treatment of art and love last night at the second dress, I thought of Jimmie, not just because Chris had texted me moving messages about the power of helping loved ones across the border from life to death and from birth to life, but because the actor playing George was wearing Jimmie’s straw hat. We’d found the hat on one of our vacations to Cape Cod, a straw panama hat with a black ribbon around the outside, with the prophetic brand “Sunday Afternoon” inside the sweat brim. I’d brought the hat in earlier this year, rescuing it from its ignominious resting place in a wooden magazine holder at home, hoping that the hat (and Jimmie) might have another go on stage, and sure enough, the costume designer designated it the place of honor. I watched the hat come to life again as George sketched studies of the characters on the banks of the river for his seminal work of Act I, Un Dimanche Apres midi a L’Ille de La Grande Jatte.

L. to R. Tyler Joseph Ellis (George), Luke Matthew Simon (Boatman), Liz Buzbee (Dot), Diego Dela Rosa(Baker), Shelby Corley (Nurse), Piper Kingston (Old Lady). Scenic Design by Mallory Gabbard, Lighting by Pablo Santiago-Brandwein, Costume Design by Edina Hiser, Projections by Derek Christiansen, Sound Design by Dom Torquato

Sondheim’s Act II meeting of 19th Century Dot with 20th Century George had me sobbing. Sometimes the confluence of art and love and life and events of life feels almost too strong to bear. But it wasn’t until after the dress rehearsal ended that I realized I’d been sitting in “Jimmie’s chair” all night. 551 seats in the Bing, and I’d plopped down my backpack in pure exhaustion settling into his seat to watch the rehearsal. Who says our loved ones are gone when they are gone?

Sheathed in it’s sleek red white and blue certified envelope, my new passport arrived earlier this week. I could barely wait to open it when I got home, backpack still on my back, ripping the top of the envelope to extract the smooth, navy booklet emblazoned with the gold eagle, turning quickly to the glossy photo page to see what this world traveler looked like.

Note to self: don’t take the photo immediately after a haircut lest you look like a newly shorn Maltipoo. While cute, remember that this image will follow you on your travels for ten years. But then, we’ve previously acknowledged my history of poor pre-Passport acquisition hairstyles. A few days later, the old passport arrived, retired by virtue of its expired date, and more evidently by its hole-pierced cover, now a testament of travel gone by, an archive of trips untaken.

The new passport, a beckoning scorecard for future adventures, a challenge to stretch from the safe commute of home to work to home. What if work can span the globe as it does for grandson George?

I’m sporting a new piece of jewelry acquired this week as well. Not quite the same message as Stephen Sondheim’s inspiring Act II number, but this, for the moment, is my new mantra. I’ve bought a dozen of these for dissemination to my “widow’s club.” Because while it’s not a club one willingly seeks membership in, it’s sure nice to have the support of others on the same journey.

Please join us this weekend and next at USC School of Dramatic Arts to see what our two current productions promise in the way of emotional border-crossing. Hope to see you there!

Tension Tamer

In the recent MFA Year 3 Rep production of Swimmers, by Rachel Bonds, within her architecturally clear human rabbit-warren-of-an-office building, Dennis, offers the new intern, Vivian, the opportunity to sit for a minute and have a cup of tea. Overweight, unhappy in his work, Dennis resorts to 20-minute naps in the bathroom every afternoon to kill time within the boredom of his day. As played by Gabriel Leyva Lezcano, Dennis gets mixed results with his sanity siesta, but nevertheless has time over tea to reassure Vivian that her workplace humiliations are minuscule next to his own.

His desk sports a huge display of Celestial Season teas, each one which he tantalizes her with good humored description. Half of us in the audience want to pull up a chair when he intones sibilantly, seductively:

Tension Tamer. Tension Tamer. Tension Tamer.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with significant pain in my back. It is physically real, but also exacerbated by tension and being sedentary. The pain has dug in its little claws throughout the first quarter of 2019. I’m seeing the chiro and this week, had a massage which zapped the pain completely for almost two days. Dennis’ invitation – “Tension Tamer, Tension Tamer, Tension Tamer” calls fiercely to me. Give me a cup, no, make that a whole pot.

Yesterday, the final day of Spring Break, happened this year to coincide with the worst week of scandal at USC (speaking of Workplace Humiliations), found me sobbing in my office after my office mate Hannah went off to a staff St. Patty’s Day pot luck. It was the first time since Jimmie died that I cried, ugly wrenching sobs with no way of stopping them. I was happy it coincided with lunch, so my misery was private. Now I’m kicking myself that I didn’t actually make myself a cup of Tension Tamer, the left over bags sitting in our tea shelf. It might have helped, but also, a good cry was probably long overdue. I don’t tell you this to evoke sympathy – oh, poor Els, but to let you know that grief is hard-heartedly autonomous in its course. There’s really no way to predict when you will be damp-eyed, or reduced to a full throated blubbering. Friday I was definitely “under the boat” to quote my niece, Martha’s analogy about grief.

Perhaps, too, I was mourning that last weekend’s pleasures were through, in spite of the fact this weekend was also jammed with fun things to do; Friday I found myself mentally distancing myself from all of them.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of hosting one of my dear friends and a fellow alumna from St. Paul’s School, Nora, who flew west to spend the weekend, and check in on me. In addition to doing some of the closer to home tourist things you can do in DTLA: dinner at the Original Pantry Cafe, riding the sleek elevator with no buttons to the Sky Lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, walking to the Grand Central Market, Nora and I sat for hours, often in our jammies, sipping our tea and coffee and solving the problems of the world. Before her arrival, Nora had conspired with our LA based SPS classmates to have dinner in one of their beautiful homes on Friday night.

Playing tourists in DTLA. Clockwise from Top L: Original Pantry Restaurant, in the lobby at the Intercontinental Hotel, and at Grand Central Market

Given the plaudits of some of our classmates, (many of us bear the same educational pedigree of Robert Mueller) that initially was fairly tension-inducing, but after settling in to chat about past and present realities, it ended up being the perfect antidote to stress and grief.

This weekend, I’d scheduled a phone call with my dear friends who I’m visiting in Italy. Our chat was something I was really looking forward to. I’ve booked the tickets, but still need to solidify the time/place within that two week span.

A walk in Descanso Gardens, again, something I’ve been looking forward to all week, but when I woke, pain tugging at my back like an impatient two-year-old whose parent is on the phone, I questioned whether I’d have time to sandwich it in.

The gym, I’d scheduled at 9:30 but was an event my back seemed to have other feelings about. Beginning with the decision to go to the gym right after my chat with my pals about Italy made the day turn around. Later, still sweaty from my workout, I met my Merry Widow Master Gardener friend Jennifer at Descanso Gardens to see the tulips which are in bloom.

Tonight I’m off to the theatre with another friend to compare notes on the world and enjoy the remaining hours before Spring Break is over. I think Jimmie would approve of my current philosophy: say yes to everything. Even if it means having a good cry now and again, followed by a cup of Tension Tamer tea.

Jimmie watches calmly in a playground in Santa Barbara last summer.

Between the Bubble Machine and the Sobbing

The other morning I dashed from the gym to my eye doctor’s office to pick up my new glasses, you remember, the Gwen Stefani frames? This pickup happened to coincide with the arrival the night before of some new togs I’d ordered on sale at Macy’s. As I drove home in the gestating traffic from Burbank to DTLA at about 9:00AM, I pictured my stylish new self cutting quite the swath through the morning air as I strode into my office.

I arrived home, pretty rank by this time, having gone sweaty into the car in my down jacket. Due to the atypical inclement weather in L.A., I’ve had it on for almost three weeks without respite or laundering. Ew, you’re saying. Peeling off the offending jacket, I greeted my cleaning lady, who was off in the bedroom busily stripping the bed of it’s sheets. As I called her name, I saw her coming toward me, face splotchy, guiltily swiping the tears from her cheeks. We embraced; I tried to console her, she tried to recover, but we both knew I’d caught her grieving. And me, temporarily dry-eyed, looking toward my day clad in my new persona, the classic “growth vs. grieving” moment.

I went off to work and I guess the glasses were a lot more stylish in my mind than they are in person – no one noticed them. Granted, the decor is on the inside of the frames, with only a glint of red visible at the temples.

Do you like my Gwen Stefani glasses?

To which the universal response was ‘meh.’

Wednesday, I attended a Visions and Voices event, Enchanting Aging: Inspiring Awe and Meaning in Late Life. Writer and MacArthur Award honoree, Anne Basting, came to share her research about the intersection of health care and culture in an appropriately fashioned joint event between the School of Dramatic Arts and Gerontology. She began her lecture by defining Awe and Wonder, and asking us all to turn on our cell phones and text someone the following question:

What gives you a feeling of awe and wonder?

She instructed us to text the question to someone we knew well and then mute our phones. She promised that later we’d be able to share the responses.

Predictably, Chris’ response was not “a walk in the woods or the snow carpeting the woods” but merely, “What?” And then a rude quip about something completely unrelated to awe or wonder followed by a smiley emoticon, tears pouring down its face. What can I say? Maybe we didn’t raise an awe-er, but he does have a fair amount of wonder-ing going on most of the time. And a great sense of humor.

Dr. Basting’s recounted her work (her website is www.timeslips.org) in an illustrated presentation, the bold splashes of colorful humanity on Gerontology’s fancy LED display. She brings the rigor of her scientific exploration into fierce and joyous communion with her artistic practice, much of it with the Sojourn Theatre Company. There were more than a few moments of awe and wonder experienced by Wednesday’s audience. She asks compelling questions: How can we deepen the cultural and human experience of people in long term care (both residents and providers) by creating collaborative and creative spaces to share that humanity? It can be done, and the results are inspiring.

Her talk described how awe can minimize our egos and wonder can maximize our search for meaning. She had a dandy diagram which I unfortunately didn’t capture to illustrate this. I bought both her books and look forward to learning more.

One of the stories she shared grabbed my attention. She detailed a pre-production walk-through of one of the nursing homes with the director and production designer for their upcoming production of the I Won’t Grow Up project in three care facilities in Kentucky. As they walked they indicated where they would place the bubble machine, then came around the corner to discover a couple in their 60’s sobbing in each others arms. Forgive me while I mangle exactly what she said, but what I heard was that in these creative care settings, where we seek to buoy people’s emotions with a shared uplifting experience (metaphorically the bubble machine), we also need to remember and respect the underlying grief and profound loss that also resides here. Don’t all of us reside squarely between the bubble machine and the sobbing?

In the Q & A period following Dr. Basting’s talk, a student behind me raised her hand and shared that she’d recently lost her grandmother. She became emotional, and in the way that we recent grievers tend to do, laughed through her tears and apologized that she “wasn’t over it yet.” Her admission made me tear up more from the obvious expectation she was inadequate in her grieving, the idea that she should be over it. I wanted to reach back and tap her hand and let her know we were with her and didn’t expect that she recover on some societal timeline.

My dear friend Susan sent me the most beautiful and apt poem that I’ve shared with some profligacy already via text message to my Widow(er) Club. Delivered within a Sermon written in 1910 by Henry Scott Holland on the occasion of the death of King Edward VII, it is entitled Death Is Nothing At All.

Death is nothing at all. 
It does not count. 
I have only slipped away into the next room. 
Nothing has happened. 

Everything remains exactly as it was. 
I am I, and you are you, 
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. 
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. 

Call me by the old familiar name. 
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. 
Put no difference into your tone. 
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. 

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. 
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. 
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. 

Life means all that it ever meant. 
It is the same as it ever was. 
There is absolute and unbroken continuity. 
What is this death but a negligible accident? 

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? 
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, 
somewhere very near, 
just round the corner. 

All is well. 
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. 
One brief moment and all will be as it was before. 
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!


Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/death-is-nothing-at-all-by-henry-scott-holland

What the poem gives us permission to do is carry on with the current life, secure in the knowledge that our loved ones are all around us. This is profoundly comforting.

And so I’m bubbling on with my new life. This week was full of contrasts. I shared an intimate dinner at the Pacific Dining Car with Hal Holbrook and his companions, Joyce and Juan. Hal is such a national treasure, such a passionate practitioner of the theatre, and I feel so fortunate to spend time with him, much of which is spent reflecting on the past and our Jimmie.

The next night, I had my first solo dining out experience at Fred 62, a diner on Vermont. Thursday, I’d witnessed the beautiful and collaborative care that Hal cherishes while enjoying a beautiful piece of halibut on a succotash of delicate vegetables. Last night, I felt my own strength and fearlessness in my new solo role while eating a crunchy grilled cheese sandwich with a cup of warm tomato soup. Then I wandered down the street to the Skylight Theatre to see Boni Alvarez’ America Adjacent. The on stage scenario he reveals is not illustrative of any outlined by Dr. Anne Basting, but Boni’s play is a full throated celebration of his heritage, and all of our yearning for the elusive American Dream.

Somewhere between the bubble machine and the sobbing, perhaps we’ll find it.

Passports and Punctal Plugs – Planning for My One Wild and Precious Life

This morning I bolted* out of bed at 6:28 with a startled realization that my passport might be out of date. Stop. Redefine:
*By bolted, I mean I slowly and rather painfully threw my legs over the side of the bed and cantilevered my body into a standing position.

Not quite awake, I turned on the light, put on my glasses and followed my sense memory path to the top of the bureau where I keep our passports. I pulled open the bottom right drawer and saw….a tray of earrings. Oh yeah, I moved that bureau into the other bedroom right after…. off I shuffle into the other bedroom, pulling open the crystal drawer pulls of the bottom right drawer of the wooden box my grandfather Collins made so long ago in his woodworking shop. There, I find my passport, and thumbing through the front page to the title page, peruse the dates – issued 05 Feb 2009, Expired 04 Feb 2019.

My eyes linger on my photo, a moment frozen in time when I had started trying, I guess, to look more legit as an adult woman forty-eight, polished, with my hair longer and blown out and highlighted. This was a phase I went through and one which my passport has ludicrously memorialized for me. I remember going through so many hairstyles that year that one of the acting students, looked at me and said “What’s going on with your hair, Els?” Or more injuriously, when Chris said I looked like a high school principal with helmet hair (apologies to all high school principals). I think that was the moment when I looked in the mirror and said “uncle.” And have never looked back.

We renewed our passports then for an unexpected trip to the Canary Islands to which my Dad and his wife Sally had invited us. One of many generous trips my Dad has treated us to over the years, but now particularly memorable in that it was Jimmie’s and my last European adventure. My passport says it was November of 2009, but my photos are stamped November 2007. I don’t think I supported this ridiculous hair exercise for two years, so I’m going with the government time stamp.

Anyway, the fact remains that I’m out of a passport, and since I’m starting to plan a trip to Italy this summer, I filled out the online form, printed, signed it, and sighed a huge sigh of relief that I will be able to send this passport back and get one which more accurately reflects what I look like. Seems appropriate.

Since getting this last one, they no longer allow you to wear glasses in your photo. Which is too bad, because I just got fitted for some very sassy Gwen Stefani eyeglasses this past week. Oh, and temporary punctal plugs. Yes, you can now get collagen tear duct plugs that help you retain up to 70% of the natural tears in your eyes. Who knew? The fact that I still have dry eye given the waterworks I’ve produced over the past six months is staggering, but more impressive are the new products available. I think I’ll go back for the permanent ones in a month or so. Another step in the new regimen of self care.

Cashing in on the Large Eyeglass Craze to maximize vision!

The trip to Italy came about through the generous and oddly specific invitation via email from dear old friends, illustrated with an enticing twilight photo of the view from the Umbrian farmhouse overlooking a nearby hilltop city.

You only need to arrive at the train station before cocktails (6:30) on any given day. You need to plan to stay for four to six days and feel free to bring anyone who is amusing. 

My engraved invitation….

One of the things planning this trip has afforded me, or will afford me when I actually get down to ordering tickets with my new passport, is an opportunity to fantasize about the next phase of my life. Not as a sad-sack single, but as a person with a wild and precious life to plan. It has already afforded me the opportunity to reconnect with close friends whom I last saw and knew in Venice when I lived there from 1982 to 1983.


The quote above, again from my We Croak app, from a poem by poet Mary Oliver, who died on my birthday this year, I discovered, when seeking the source of the inspirational quote above. I can’t think of a better spirit guide than this woman for the next phase of life. Punctal plugs and all.

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.