My Sanctuary, Fitness

Last November, my gym of 3 years standing folded. Days before Thanksgiving, without any warning, all of the inhabitants of that (insert old gym’s name here) community were rather unceremoniously kicked to the curb. I walked by the still-empty storefront the other day, and rather than feeling the familiar ire about the situation, I felt the curiosity of potential for that space. But those thoughts drifted away like the soft whispy clouds of a late summer’s afternoon as soon as I had walked past.

Transitions are hard. Change is hard. Change is good. Transitions are good.

Working out has become as important to my sustainability as, well, breathing. Dropping my five workouts a week because my gym closed, wasn’t an option. I rely on the cardio workout to reset my brain, my psyche, my attitude. If I go for several days without working out, I find myself grumpier, more prone to look at the dark side of things, just not as even keeled as my life requires that I be.

As a result of having lost my workout home, I began exploring other options. I investigated Pilates, SpeedPlay, Sync Yoga and Spin, and eventually accepted an invitation from one of my favorite sweat-sisters, Allyzon, to try out her new spot, Sanctuary Fitness. Their logo is Peace through perspiration. Couldn’t have said it better.

There were a lot of reasons I shouldn’t like it. My old gym had been right around the corner, about 200 steps from my bed. I had to get in my car to get to this new gym, but of course, at 5:30, there’s not a lot of traffic. I had to feed the meter, but that proved to not be too big an impediment. And after a few mornings of the new ritual, it became comfortable.

I love the physical plant of Sanctuary Fitness. There is a spacious foyer with friendly folks personning the front desk. They give you towels to use, though for some reason I still bring my graying (insert old gym’s name here) towels to sweat into. It’s a little Linus-like, I suppose, my last link to familiarity.

And sure enough, most likely due to the power of my sister in sweat, Allyzon, I noticed familiar faces from (insert old gym’s name here) showing up. The bikes are better. There are weights, and sometimes elastic bands to work the upper body while you are riding. The bike shows metrics with average watts, rpms, calories, miles, etc. It’s accountability at it’s best. And by the time I get home to make a second cup of tea, I have the results waiting for me in an email.

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In addition to spin, they have High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) classes, which I sprinkle twice throughout the week just to remind me that I’m twice as old as almost everyone in the class but my body still works (more or less). The instructors are encouraging, as in encouraging us all away from the comfort of our beds, our comfort zones, our patterns.

For me, fitness is my sanctuary. I’m in much better shape now than I was in my forties, or possibly my thirties. The ritual of getting up, going to the gym, making some time for me, seeing my friends every morning (because I now go 7 days a week, btw), is critical to my hanging in there for another day of whatever life brings me. I appreciate this need for ritual because many of the other things that are ritualized for me are not as personally satisfying and a little more grueling than the forty-five minutes of sweat equity I get at Sanctuary.

So thank you to all the trainers, Allyzon T., Brandon H., Kevin, Reed, and all my workout buddies for the Sanctuary respite that I need and for kicking my butt.

The (all too) Humans

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

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

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

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

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Jimmie in NYC June 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recharging Our Batteries

Sometimes there’s a synchronicity in things that borders on breathtaking. This week it’s about batteries.

  • Your alta fit bit battery is low.
  • Your internet isn’t functioning (four calls and a trip to Staples to buy a new Uninterrupted Power Supply when the old one was fine) only to discover it was indeed the modem. A trip to the Beverly Center where you discover there is no Spectrum Store. A glance out the window indicates that it is at the Beverly Connection, which to the Spectrum technician on the phone was the same thing, I guess. After 15 minutes there, I finally noticed the board where our names were listed in order of being helped. I was #22. I plugged in my earbuds and waited, doing some people-watching.
  • Jimmie’s scooter battery dies while his niece Stella is visiting and they are in the park necessitating a full tilt push of the device back to the apartment. (I’ve been there before – humiliating, ridiculous, a test of the humanity of others.) God love Stella. When I returned, I found them at home drinking Starbucks beverages, so she pushed him to Starbucks and then home, something that I wouldn’t ever have done.

Anyway, you can see the theme here. Recharging batteries.

Summer is about recharging our batteries. The days at work are shorter in the summertime, and there are fewer interruptions, allowing us to organize the puzzle that is the following academic year’s season.

More time for visits from family and friends. More time to give back. This summer I’ve started recording interviews with some of the West Coast stage manager notables, for the Stage Manager’s Association “Standing in the Dark” series of podcasts. Selfishly, this allows me time with friends and mentors like Jimmie McDermott, and Mary K Klinger.

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Els and Jimmie and Mr. Bighead, of course. 6/22/18

More time for following our grandbaby’s exploits on the Insta feed.

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Granddaughter Skylar’s joyful mud discovery during a recent Father’s Day camping trip with Mom and Dad.

We had a captivating visit with Stella followed by one from Jen and S. Extraordinary people and we are so lucky to have them in our lives. On the last day, S found a green worm on its way to our tomato pot on the balcony, and brought it inside, where it writhed and danced on her tiny finger like a tiny green belly dancer before finding sanctuary on a full leaf of Romaine lettuce where she proceeded to eat several large holes in the leaf, in a perfectly round shape.

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More time for reading the Sunday paper, especially when your internet modem dies a horrible death. More time to discover to your infinite pleasure that Jonathan Franzen doesn’t seem to give a whit about social media and adores birding. I knew I felt a kinship to him.

More time for finding and using the sweat glands, more time for explosive step ups in HIIT class, and more time for fitbit Workweek Challenges posed by former students. I’m coming for you, Ashley S!

More time for reading. I just finished reading Todd Purdum’s book, Something Wonderful, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, a beautifully researched and entertaining dive into the history of American Musical Theatre, a subject high on my radar of late. Apparently high on other peoples’ reading lists as well, as this photo and Guardian article revealed. But enough of that. I’m recharging my batteries. No perp walk for me. I told my husband as I got about half-way through the book,

Lucky you! I’m going to sing all the lyrics I encounter.

Which turned into one of the sweetest pastimes we’ve had. Out of the murky depths of our long fused, long term memory banks came the swells of the live theatrical shows of his youth and mostly televised shows from mine. Granted we sounded a little closer to Archie and Edith on the piano bench than Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae,  but nevertheless, it was lovely. We beamed at each other.

Summer brings the crunchy, sweet wholesomeness of cherries, watermelon, lighter evenings and the prospect of summer vacation on the horizon. A week of unscheduled recreation with family. Time to attend book signings by friends, and to go to the movies.

In essence, time to recharge our batteries.

Ode to My Dad

Recently, my cousin Connie sent me an envelope stuffed with photographs, the one above included, as she had recently done a “big purge.” I so appreciated reviving the memories, with photos of my nuclear family at points along our development. It seemed appropriate to focus this week on my Dad, who remains the anchor to our diminishing nuclear family.

I never write about my Dad, though Jimmie says I should, because he is such an interesting man. I don’t know anyone like him, with his memory for details about people’s lives and fortunes and misfortunes. At 87 he only occasionally grasps for the tendrils of a story, (far less often than I do thirty years his junior), but tells them with such conviction that I believe them whether they are true or not. I suspect they are largely true. They are always colorful and a bit dangerous, like the one below which he shared with my brothers and me via email. I hope he will forgive my sharing here.

August 31, 1999

A Short History of Brass Knuckles, by Donald A. Collins
This “pair” of brass knuckles (why is this single, ominous looking instrument of cast brass referred to as a “pair”?) belonged to Alexander Tichnor Collins, born Louisville, KY in 1873, son of Jeremiah “Jerry” Collins, a minor politician and local water company employee and Sarah Collins, who died when young Alex was under 10. Alex was a latch key kid at 12 (e.g. pretty much on his own, coming and going with his own key to the home of his father and the father’s new wife, the latter being someone with whom he did not get along). He went to work for the Louisville Street Railway Co at 16 and became their paymaster by 18, known because of his young age, Kid Collins. Jerry’s brother, Hubbie Collins, was then a star infielder for the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, soon renamed Brooklyn Dodgers, and Alex, partly emulating his uncle Hubbie, became an outstanding semi pro player in Louisville.

The knuckles were part of his paymaster equipment, as Saturday paydays could be occasions for trouble. The story most told by my father about Alex, my grandfather, whom I called “Buddy” was about a payday when a robber came into the street railway car used as a payroll car, with windows blocked out and the payor, Alex, sitting at one end, with his bodyguard. The man threatened Alex with a weapon, either gun or knife, but when he got to the desk, the guard took out his Bowie knife, stepped close into the robber and slit the intruder from stomach through breast bone. The guard left town quickly and no charges were pursued in the incident. Justice was a bit quicker in those days.

I was given two of Hubbie’s bats and leather bat case inscribed with his name by my grandfather. In the early days of baseball, the bats were shaped like bottles, not the slim handled beauties of today. Reason: The balls then had less bounce and a solid hit was needed to get the ball going. Hubbie was known for his solid line drives and his base stealing. His club record for runs scored in a single season for the Dodgers in 1991 (148) I believe still stands. Unfortunately, his bats and case were lost in a fire that swept my room and almost burned down our house after a lightening strike on June 1, 1950 in Greensburg.

Hubbie’s lifetime batting average was in the 280s. His team won 2 pennants while he lived. He died of scarlet fever at 26 in 1893 after only 8 professional seasons. His stats are in Cooperstown at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When Buddy married Irene Shupe of Mt. Pleasant, PA, the daughter of one of the town’s leading citizens, after a whirlwind 10 day courtship, the newly weds went to her home town where Alex became manager of the Oliver P. Shupe Flour Mill, owned by his father in law. Shortly, two sons arrived, my dad, Oliver Shupe Collins (1901), and Alexander T. Collins, Jr. (1909). IMG_0498

Alex, a handsome, personable man with a good sense of humor and an ability to speak in public, was twice elected Burgess (e.g. Mayor) of Mt. Pleasant, then a booming mining town and coking center, where 99 open, polluting coke ovens burned constantly, making huge illuminations against the night sky. Having 100 ovens together incurred a special tax, something their clever owner, the famous H.C. Frick, avoided.

There as in Louisville the Saturday night miners could get a bit drunk and Alex often carried a small “blue” steel pistol for protection as his life was threatened several times by the celebrants who ended in jails overnight. Alex sold the mill in 1942 during WWII, having earlier moved his family to Greensburg, the county seat of Westmoreland County, as he was elected County Treasurer twice, beginning in 1936. He retired just as WWII began, hastened perhaps by the premature death in 1941 of his beloved wife of uterine cancer mis-diagnosed by a local quack.

During WWII, my Buddy and I got very close; he was bored and we would go to the movies often and sit in the front row. Or play gin rummy for hours in my house or that of his other son where he had an apartment. Often in the Summer, he would drive me to see the Pittsburgh Pirates play at Forbes Field, some 30 miles distant. I became an avid baseball fan, despite the fact that the team in those years had weak ownership and players were even worse than most of those sad wartime teams. After WWII, I went off to college and he continued to live with his younger son, AT Collins and his wife Sarah Steel Collins until shortly before his death in 1958. However, the brass knuckles, which I now use as a paper weight on my desk, and those bottle bats, though long gone, remind me of my Buddy often.

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DAC and Jimmie, April 2018

The occasion above was my Dad’s 87th birthday and his most recent trip to Los Angeles to visit with us. He’s always been good about journeying to see us, even from the days of Jimmie’s and my early marriage, when we were ensconced in the Magic Castle Hotel during the run of The Iceman Cometh at the Huntington Theatre in Hollywood in 1985.  Initially quite skeptical of our relationship and the difference in our ages, he has come to appreciate my husband as “the older brother I’ve never had.”

You’d be hard pressed to find a more generous man than my father, both financially and with sharing his opinions, which he does on almost a daily basis through essay writing. Generally, he and I don’t see eye to eye on many of the topics about which he writes, but he continues to write and enjoys it.

The photos that Connie sent tell the story of our happy childhood, much of the summer days spent in the pool behind my mom’s parents’ house in northeastern PA.

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July 4, 1967

This photo captures us frozen in time, me age 7, Larry to my right, age 9, and Don to my left, age 11. Dad would have been a young father of three at 34. He and my mom had just finished building their home in southwestern Pennsylvania, at the base of the hill where my dad’s parents lived. The young plants around the door are just a fraction of the massive planting spree we did over the next five years or so, on our 1/2 acre plot.

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June 25,1967

When we were home, we had his parents hosting Sunday suppers on the screened in porch up on the hill, and probably about every month or so, we’d head to Wilkes-Barre to visit mom’s parents and her sister’s family who lived nearby.

I’ve learned so many things from my father. That hard work and building relationships are critical to one’s success. He taught us about the value of money and the relationship of money to work, paying us a penny per fly for swatting flies in the summer, and a dollar for every A we brought home on our report cards. You might now call that bribery, but it was motivating, at least until they bought a bug zapper for the back porch. He was a fierce disciplinarian. I won’t soon forget the moment when he discovered a pack of cigarettes under my bed when I was about 14. Or when I lied about pulling and breaking the light cord in the basement during a squeal-inducing game of tag with the Latchaw children. I also won’t ever forget how he and my mother shaped my future by giving me the educational opportunities that I had.

As an adult, he has taught me about getting my affairs in order, living with integrity, how to pick up the check at dinner, and how to speak truth to power. I can’t imagine feeling more appreciated as a daughter. Though he lives across the country, we have a standing date every Saturday or Sunday morning to chat via FaceTime. I wish we could see each other more often in person, but this works really well as a substitute.

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Dad with Terry, my sister-in-law, May 2018

Recently he underwent a knee replacement which is no small feat at 87. We were all relieved it went so well. I’ve seen way too much of the progress of healing (I tend toward queasiness whenever blood or stitches is involved). But I hope he’ll soon be able to get back to the golf course and do his 9 holes daily. This, too, he’s schooled us on: the value of daily exercise and good eating.

So, on the occasion of Father’s Day, thank you, Dad, for all you’ve done to make our lives so rich. Here’s to many more!

The Black Hole of Parenting

Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.

My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.

What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.

I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs toimg_0658

the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?

In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.

My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.

We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.

Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.

I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”

I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.

This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.

I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:

  1. Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
  2. Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
  3. Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then.  Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
  4. Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
  5. Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
  6. Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
  7. No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of  the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
  8. Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.

As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.

When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”

 

The Adventures of W & M

W & M have known each other for ever. From back in DC where they worked as interns for some Capitol Hill pols, carrying their bosses’ lunches back to the office, purses over their arms, chattering like magpies.

WAIT! Did you say magpie? Where?

No, W & M, it’s a figure of speech. Let me tell the good people the story.

Last weekend, I was assigned the job of checking in on W & M while their parents were away. I think it’s a wedding – unclear. But W & M live in two cozy apartments near our downtown cozy apartment, and we know the “checking-in-on-the-kids-while-the-parents- are-away-for-the-week” deal. At one point, our policy was to only leave a live person in situ so that things didn’t get out of hand. So I’m an old pro at this. I went to check out the lay of the land on Sunday.

Keys. Check.

Food. Check. Really, they only eat kibble?

K-litter. Check. No scoop?

It’s okay – shakeable tray.

Oh, okay.

Moms and Dads left last night. So I went to check on the girls after work this afternoon. I opened the door, catching W with the game remote in her paws, cigarette hanging lazily out of mouth, Ark: Survivor Evolved blaring away on the TV. She was busy fighting T-Rex when I opened the door. She dropped the remote like a hot potato, cigarette falling perilously to the floor. I ran across the room and stomped it out, tried to look stern, but she was so nonchalant I didn’t know quite how to handle it. I was completely dumbstruck. Then she dropped to the table like she’d been doing her nails.

You know how tough it is to yell at someone else’s kids, so I just went on checking her food and water, then grabbed the fascinator (I know it’s not really called that, but its such a great descriptor and so current) just to let her know that I wasn’t mad. After all, I don’t set the house rules, her parents do.

I bid W farewell and made my way down to M’s apartment. I am pretty sure W had called her about my coming because by the time I got to the door, M was wailing. I mean on the guitar in the living room. She was wailing. Sounds came out of that guitar like you’ve never heard. I mean I knew she was good. W’s parents had told me, but I had no idea. 

I put the key in the door and turned the knob only to find M sitting demurely by the door, no guitar in paw, looking up at me with ennui. Which is hard for a cat to master. Usually they have the imperious thing down, but ennui is a real affect that they have to master. Ennui, that is, until she realized I was her meal ticket. Then the caterwauling started for real and she wrapped herself around my legs.

I scooped her food and filled her bowl and backed away.

What can I tell you? I know they were both up to something before I got there and then when I arrived, almost all evidence was gone. I’ll have to wait and see what other shenanigans they pull the rest of the week. I bet it will be good. Kids always misbehave when their parents are away.

For now, you’ll have to trust me when I tell you that W & M are living the high life.

Don’t Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Memory Game

My husband and I have an idea for a show. Maybe not a good show, but the idea amused us. We were flipping through Jimmie’s old address book tonight after dinner, a garlic infused pork loin and a salad adorned with some just over the hill avocado that we ended up picking out of the bowl. Poor thing, he’s married to an absolute disaster in the kitchen during the work week. Give me a day off and I can whip up something divine, but drag me into the house at 7pm and expect dinner by 8 and you will probably get something from Trader Joe’s. Could be worse. Could be something from Carl’s Jr. Which has happened, if I’m totally honest. But I digress.

Who amongst us still has an actual physical address book? Jimmie’s is black leather-covered, the yellowing pages holding precious peoples’ names and old addresses scored out in black pen, the newer ones written carefully below. Far too many of the people in the address book are actually gone now, gone to the Big Stationers in the sky, but the amazing thing is how many names neither of us had any recollection of.  Jimmie would say the name, which of course I won’t here because if you’re reading, you’d feel bad. I would cock my head back, close my eyes, and come up with what I think was about 75% of the time, accurate.

Director of the play you did at the Old Globe.

Comedian who lived around the corner on Emelita and…. (Incredibly, I couldn’t come up with the cross street one over from where we lived for almost twenty years.) You went somewhere with him in a limo once. Was it to a hockey game?

Hockey coach

Dermatologist

Psychologist who was supposed to be really good with teenage boys.

Ex-wife. (Just kidding. He always remembers those.)

At one point, Jimmie turned to the page in his book where he’d meticulously listed all of the agents at his agency.

Boy, I had a lot of agents. Why didn’t I work more?

But recently, Jimmie’s memory has become the consistency of tonight’s avocado – soft and just a little dark around the edges. It came on suddenly, this memory loss, within the last 3 months,  I suspect, due to the hormone antigens he’s been taking for his prostate cancer treatment.

I became aware of it one night when I asked him what he’d had for lunch earlier in the day. I wasn’t really quizzing him, since I knew what he should have had, having made it myself before going off to work, but it is always a safe, gentle question to jump start the bigger questions, like “What happened in Trumpville today?”

That particular day, he couldn’t remember what he’d eaten, and since I’d left it in the fridge and it was still there, I worried that he’d forgotten to eat. So did he, until we realized that the sandwich was half of the sandwich I’d left for him that looked like a previously left half of a sandwich earlier in the week. So you see, he’s not the only problem here.

Most of the people in the address book were old doctors, left behind when we moved downtown and consolidated our array of physicians to within 5 miles of us.

A few were actors he’d worked with–like the actress about whom I said,

She did that movie with you, where you played the farmer and she played your wife. Tom Hanks was in it. Started with a P. He came to the farmhouse with a bullet in his shoulder and you dug it out. P. P. P. Aha! Road to Perdition!

That’s when Jimmie got the idea for a show with two people who couldn’t remember squat.

I know we’re not the only couple who play memory tag team when they go out in public. You do it too. You’re at an opening and here comes an ever-so-familiar face and your spouse whispers their name into your ear just as they come up and Euro-kiss you on the cheek, and you say, quite convincingly, “Barbara! So good to see you!” Only when your backup disk fails, as is happening more frequently to me than I care to admit, you’re sunk.

Some people have minds like traps – or systems to manage all the people they meet. My father has always had an incredible facility with remembering the details of the people he’s met. His wife keeps a card file which she updates meticulously with the most current information when they see people. I wish I’d begun that practice earlier in my life. It would be so useful.

Jimmie and I met on a play entitled “Play Memory,” in the fall of 1983 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey. I was his dresser, as well as thirty-three years his junior. I like telling people that to watch them blush. The reality was quite tame. I handed him a sweater in the crossover upstage; but it seems ironic and kind of full-circle now that we are amusing ourselves by playing Memory, rifling through the pages of the address book upon which we relied so heavily only fifteen years ago.

You can play, too. Scroll through your cell phone contacts and see how many people you really remember. Or if you’re lucky, ask your partner for help.

 

Puzzling for PMs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SpeedPlay with The Reformer

It’s traumatic to lose your gym after four years of an established routine of working out. Instructors I loved, a block from home, face it, I was spoiled. I could pour out of bed at 5:30 and saddle up by 6:15 with a cup of milky tea in the left bottle holder, and a water bottle in the right.

I had a community of friends who I worked out with. I didn’t know them well, but I knew them by name, I knew their individual gym strengths and habits. We all had our specific bikes that we headed for, mine in the way back left side of the studio, no matter if it was a small class, I still liked the bike closest to the window, behind the open doors, for air and people watching. Sophie and Christina rode the bikes in the front row, one or two to the right of the instructor. Lynn, who came on Saturday mornings and did the spin portion of the class, spun her heart out on the bike in front of me, sporting Canadian t-shirts and a sporty cap with the bill pointed up like she was riding in the Grand Prix. André, who always put his cycling shoes on in the lobby, chatting amiably with the instructors, and Xin, who always took the bike to his left, and who’s delicate tattoo I admired as much as her pace on the sprints. Gordana who had her coffee cup, which she stowed in the cubbies during yoga and returned to after putting us all to shame with her yogic prowess.

Sophie, Brian and I formed a team for the marathon ride last June, were we rode pretty much non-stop for three hours to raise money for a Cancer association. Sophie occasionally brought her adorable daughter, Charlotte, to Saturday morning classes, where she would sit and quietly play with her ipad, then move to her yoga mat with enviable flexibility, giggling throughout the class. It was charming.

On Saturdays, I ceded my left window seat to wise, intrepid Ellen, with whom I could discuss our latest theatre samplings, and who finally convinced me to go to the Pageant of the Masters for the first time since we moved to LA in 1986. I miss her wry sense of humor as we groaned together on adjacent mats in the Yoga room, the two elder stateswomen of the classes. The last Saturday, as a moving truck jockied around on the street outside for fifteen minutes before pulling away, I joked.

Maybe it’s the repo man coming for the bikes.

Since the abrupt closure of our gym, I’ve been reminded of how much my exercise dollars are in demand, and through the ClassPass App, I’m discovering various workouts in the DTLA area. Last Saturday, I took a demo class at Club Pilates DTLA followed up with two more classes this week that left every muscle in my body aching, but with a renewed sense of excitement about the forced change-up this closure has necessitated. And face it, I’ve reached the Pilates phase of my life, right? I’ve always associated it with women in their 50s though again, I was the oldest one there. Anything that involves equipment with the quaint moniker of “The Reformer” is surely something a grandmother needs.

This morning, I worked out at SpeedPlay DTLA, an interval training gym where, for 60 minutes, we did a series of nine-minute workouts on a rowing machine, floor work, and treadmill. The instructor, Jenny, asked the three of us if there were any injuries she needed to be aware of before we started.

Yeah, I’m old. My body doesn’t work as well as it used to.

And walking back home with Sophie and Christina, it was all I could do to stay vertical. But really, all this chatter about exercise is just the entree to the real Reformer of my holiday season. IMG_7202She stands about 2.5′ tall, and has a will of steel. To draw a parallel with the Pilates Reformer, she’s two reds and a green. Don’t get me wrong. I love the stretch and endless entertainment she provides. Spending time with our granddaughter reminds us of the rigors of parenting. I am so impressed with her parents’ unflappability and good humor. Toddlers are mercurial creatures. There’s really no way of knowing where they’re going from moment to moment. Everything is a process of discovery and learning. My Reformer is learning the ABC song, for example, which she sings with intent focus and a little lack of clarity in the EFG section. Her intervals are fast, as I learned after chasing her in her socks across the gritty soil near the Natural History Museum outdoor café, with dozens of parents and grandparents watching as I grabbed the back of her shirt and she went down face first in the gravel, bursting into angry tears. Good one, Nana.

On the flip side, she has an unwavering sense of wonder that only seeing things for the very first time in your life can induce, and the ripple effect of that wonder is a delight to all around her.

Having a spirited toddler in the house is a reminder that life is unpredictable and we must stay flexible in our approach to new challenges. Like the moment when her parents slipped out to get some sushi while we were eating the delicious-if-I-do-say-so mac and cheese I’d made. Like heat lightning followed by a midwestern summer storm, her face collapsed, melting from noodle concentration to an instantaneous and very audible obsession with the loss of parental security. She wedged her tiny body in the corner by the door and wailed for the next 6 hours. Okay. I’m exaggerating. At least if felt like that. I finally resorted to 52-card pick up to distract her, after trying numerous other approaches. Nothing but seeing Nana lose control of those cards over and over and over and over and over again would console her. Later, when we were getting ready for bed, putting her PJs on, her parents slipped back in. I wish I had a picture of her face at the moment when she realized they were home again – the relief, joy, love that swept over her features and made her body wriggle was intense and palpable. There’s nothing like the immediacy of emotions in a toddler to remind us of the journey through life. IMG_8784

Later that night, after she declared “I’m hungy” and I went to get the noodles back out, she sat in her booster chair, and we chatted. The conversation went something like this:

Nana: Hey, Skylar, you were really crying earlier.

Skylar: I was cying.

Nana: I have an idea! Next time we get to spend some time together, let’s skip that part, okay?

Skylar: seriously nodding

I know we won’t be able to skip that part for some time. But it’s nice to know that My Reformer stretches me in ways that I haven’t been stretched for some time.