Be a Good Little Widow

Friday night’s adventure consisted of a theatre outing to the Odyssey Theatre on the Westside with my neighbor/griever-in-common, Marilyn, to see a play entitled Be a Good Little Widow. When I signed up for the tickets, I confess that I thought the title was How to… That sounded incredibly instructive. Then I discovered that two of our current stage management students were working on the show, and it was closing weekend, so I thought it’s now or never for me to get instruction on the new path my life has taken. On closer reflection, I don’t think I need instruction, and if I did, would I want to be a good little widow? Or a raging, bigger than life WIDOW! The latter seems more inviting.

Given the title, I expected that the Odyssey lobby would be filled with lonely hearted and unwilling singles. Partially accurate. What I did not expect was the full on life-force of current and former USC School of Dramatic Arts students clamoring at the gate. The show starred Adrienne Visnic, and was directed by Brendan Baer, both alumni. The lobby was filled with about a dozen young artists, skewing the average demographic by about forty years.

Kate Harrow (of Bow and Harrow ) and Christina Bryan (Stage Manager Extraordinaire)

Bekah Brunstetter’s play is technically well constructed, introducing us to the newlywed couple, Melody and Craig, in their first days living in their tidy, tiny new split story home, rendered effectively by Scenic Designer Pete Hickok. Brunstetter fakes us out, by introducing Craig’s mother, Hope, a widow, into thinking she might be the titular tutor. But any self-respecting playgoer knows that the adjectives good and little probably don’t refer to the mother of the young couple, however youthful she looks. It’s with a growing sense of dread that we hear about Craig’s frequent air travel for his work. In spite of their visible affection, we become aware of Melody’s honeymoon jitters about her marriage and her mother-in-law. Visnic aptly captures the shock and entropy of the newly widowed in the aftermath of the inevitable plane crash,. She succumbs to the planning expertise of Hope, who overtakes and executes the offstage funeral for her son, Craig. Melody soon exhibits the expected raw grief of a young and vibrant widow. Visnic excels in physical abandon, beginning with the ragged breathing of her anything-but-flowing yoga practice, to the uninhibited half-dressed dancing, vodka bottle vertically poised over her mouth. I was going to say it was the universal dread of every widow to lose oneself in numbing self-debasement, but I realize that without researching this further, I can only say I dread that image and path.

On the way home from the play, Marilyn and I talked non-stop. She’d joined some of the other audience members in the ladies room afterwards, where she reported the camaraderie of so many widows in seclusion bordered on an open therapy session. Fortified by the dramatization of loss we’d shared, she and I confided the origin stories of our widowhood. The comfort of sharing these intimate details is what happens between widows and widowers, but not generally with the public at large, who frankly, don’t particularly want to hear it.

Keeping these stories contained on a “need to know basis” is part of how our society defines “being a good little widow.” I reject this model. It’s something we all eventually experience and there’s nothing to be ashamed about learning how to grieve. And here’s the thing. As in anything in life, death isn’t only sad. The moments around a loved one’s death can be full of love and laughter, profound feelings, expressions of fear, superficial worries, triumphs of resilience, gestures of trust and faith. I remember the night after my grandmother’s death, my brothers and I were bunked in our childhood beds in the bedroom above the kitchen in our grandparent’s home. In the dark, we lay there exchanging our best recipes, my brother Larry sharing his recipe for macaroni and cheese in minute detail. For a reason I can’t even remember now, though it may have been his serious tone about building the mac and cheese, but we couldn’t stop laughing. We giggled into the middle of the night, relieved from the events of the day by the instantaneous melting away of twenty years – by becoming children again in the dark under the duvets on those big wooden beds up in the attic bedroom. A moment I still remember another twenty-five years later.

Since discovering it, I’ve immersed myself in each episode of the podcast, Terrible, Thanks for Asking. They can’t come fast enough. I’m obsessed with Nora McInerny’s communal platform for not just looking back at grief and its origins, but looking forward to forging new lives.

My new strategy is to “Say yes to everything” but now manifest it in buying airplane tickets. Obviously I won’t be able to go everywhere, given my professorial constraints, both in free time and finances. Last week I booked a trip to the Fall Production Managers’ Forum conference hosted by The American Players’ Theatre in mid-September. Privileged to have been in the Forum for several years I’ve been constrained from traveling to the annual conferences. I’m now actively pursuing professional curiosities and deepening my work in my chosen field of Stage and Production Management.

Today was the day when I was supposed to get everything done for my trip to Italy. On the advise of another widow pal, I went to Michael’s to pick up the tiniest little jar you’ve ever seen so that a little bit of Jimmie can go with me to Italy and ride a vaporetto (water bus) in Venice, or climb a hill with me in Umbria. Nails done, haircut, dinner with friends two nights in a row. I’m making room for life to find its way back in.

Latest Artwork from my granddaughter: L to R. Pink (Cupid the Dog), Green (sassy self-portrait of the artist), light green (Mom), Teal (Nana with seaweed in her hair), little teal blob with two arms (artist’s little sister) being held by Dad (extremely active and apparently hard to render).

Life is good. Be in nature as frequently as you can, see the art, laugh and be as irreverent as you can be serious. Know your foibles. Keep perspective on your strengths and weaknesses. Let those whom you love know it often.

My beautiful tribe.

Finding Joy

Time is diminishing until I take off on my summer vacay, two weeks in Italy and half a week visiting my Dad in Washington, D.C., over the 4th of July weekend. Something about knowing that I’ve got only another week at work to get things done is making me feel particularly stressed while I’m at work. My desk sports a messy mantle of papers; I was in someone’s office last week and she had a standing desk which I immediately desired and admired, but more notably, she had not a scrap of paper on her desk. How do people do that? I know she is an incredibly organized and productive person. I said to a co-worker who dropped by for lunch on Friday,

Sorry, but I have to dine al desco today.

And that’s kind of how it’s been going.

Remember the tutorials I spoke of recently? Well, two months have passed and I’m pretty sure I missed one; maybe the others feel relieved that I haven’t poked, them. I’ve been experiencing that deja vu feeling of missing a social engagement; deja vu because it used to happen with alarming regularity in the pre-sobriety-pre-cell-phone-as-extra-brain days. You left a bar late Thursday night blithely tossing over your shoulder, Sure! I’ll see you at brunch on Sunday.” Then you got a call on Sunday saying “Hey, Els, where are you?” Yes, that’s the feeling I’ve got about my missed Tutorials. A soupcon of guilt along with a pinch of “who cares? – only you, Els.”

Good thing I’m going to be with the Tutor Supreme in just a short while. Tutor Supreme and Spouse Supreme. I fly on 6/19 to Rome. Yesterday in a day of extreme productivity and relaxation, I purchased a new suitcase, which had an appropriate sticker on with the name of my building. Also, don’t we all aspire to lightweight and durable Abs, which it also promises?

Ironically, and I know this is seasonal selective panic setting in, I’ve been finding a lot of joy in my off work hours. Last weekend I spent with my son and his family in Tahoe, hiking, eating, and absorbing the grandchildren’s energy which was an enormous boost.

This weekend, I invited my niece Martha to come down and do some fun things with me this weekend. Martha has become like a sister to me; never having had one, is a great addition to my immediate family. She drove down from the central coast where she lives, and Friday night, we made dinner which we shared with gourmet chef niece Niki. It’s intimidating to cook for a gourmet chef, but Niki is always extremely gracious and complimentary. And who doesn’t like a sweet potato black bean taco with tri-color slaw peppered with pineapple? We ate, then retired to the living room where we talked about sundry life topics until nearly midnight. Lots of joy.

On Saturday, Martha and I took a long passeggiatta (I’m going to become very annoying in the coming weeks as I pepper my writing with Italian phrases, so I’ll provide a little translation as I go). A passeggiatta is an Italian family stroll usually after dinner. I remember when I was working in Gibbelina, Sicily umpteen years ago on a project directed by Robert Wilson, there was a lovely campo (open plaza) where families with their children walked around greeting each other and shared the night air. Martha’s and my passeggiatta was during full daylight and measured about 4.5 miles at the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. It was lovely, and we didn’t greet anyone. However, we ventured inside the Huntington Mansion Museum where I was temporarily stumped by the Roman numerals on this massive stained glass piece. Quick, no cheating, now. What’s the date? As I was trying to suss it out, I couldn’t help practicing the date in Italian: Milleottocentonovantotto. There, that’s your hint.

Look for the answer at the end of the blog.

We’d packed a picnic so that we after our Huntington Gardens walk we could go and join some Sanctuary Fitness pals at Victory Park for the Street Food Cinema to watch The Greatest Showman, a movie which had eluded me until last night. On the way, we stopped at Target so I could get the suitcase, some pajamas that I wouldn’t be mortified to be seen in by the Tutors Supremes and my other friends I hadn’t seen since 1983 in Venice. I know, you’re saying, it doesn’t matter, they’ll be horrified anyway, never mind the PJs, but a girl’s gotta maintain her dignity. So off to Target we went. Having had a workout early morning, plus the long walk, both Martha and I were going to be very happy to sit down on the grass in Victory Park, food trucks ringing the large lawn, and a general atmosphere of excitement to see a movie for the gazillionth time. Or the first in both Martha’s and my case.

They also had amazing chairs which we were able to rent which made it possible for us to stay to the end of the movie. No way I could have done it without the chair, in spite of my awesome core and glutes. (Irony)

The simplicity of sitting and eating on a lawn at dusk was so peaceful. It made me ponder the difference between happiness and joy. When you are surrounded by experiencing and witnessing others’ profound pain, it is important to be able to identify moments of joy and contentment. On the lawn at Victory Park was one such moment. And that was even before the crazy extrovert people started getting up dancing and lip synching.

Hugh Jackman Impersonator at right.

I didn’t get a picture of the Mother/Son duo dressed as the Bearded Lady and PT Barnum. For a minute I thought the movie was going to be like the showing of The Rocky Horror Picture show that I went to during a Christmas vacation in Wilkes-Barre, PA, with my Mom. When the locals got up in front of the screen before the movie and proceeded to do what they do in that situation, my mother gasped, Oh, Elsbeth! with a mixture of admiration, horror and incredulity that has always stayed with me. Later when she was hit in the back of her head with a hurled roll of toilet paper and doused with a squirt gun, she was delighted, and laughed and laughed. That’s where I went in my memories when I saw those folks standing in front of us. I had a moment with Shirley, which filled me with joy, too.

Last night, as we drove back from Pasadena, we witnessed the splendor of DTLA lit up for Gay Pride Month. I couldn’t take a picture from the best view because I was driving, but when I got home, I captured this picture.

Can’t see the US Bank building’s prideful colors from here. Also, the intensity of the Intercontinental Hotel’s splendor is dimmed on this side.

This morning, on the recommendation of one of my Sanctuary pals, Lynn (Hey, Lynn! you made it again!) I went to do the Showtunes Spin with Rick at Hype Silverlake. It was amazing to spin again, and to all show tunes. What could be better on Tony Award Sunday? Rick heightened the fun by asking several questions – what show is this from? Which version is this from? It was almost diverting enough to make me stop panting. Almost.

Had a great lunch at Pitchoun! on Pershing Square, and tonight we’ll celebrate the Tony’s around the TV with yummy food. A joy-filled weekend before heading into the last week before vacay. The answer above was 1898.

What is Easter?

Ask a three-year-old raised in a non-religious household “What is Easter?” and you get pretty much what you’d expect, especially if she’s clutching the headless 12″ chocolate rabbit Nana brought her, methodically munching her way down his torso.

It’s Easter egg hunts…..(chomp) and candy….(thoughtful chewing) And the Easter Bunny. Where is the Easter Bunny?

Easter embodied in the Chocolate Bunny.

More than that, my granddaughter will likely think of Easter when she hears the fire truck go by, and may, through the slip of the tongue, refer to the Fire Bunny rather than the Easter Bunny. All of this is to be expected, when the fire department hosts the annual Easter Egg hunt at the local park and the sound that heralds the beginning of the egg hunt is a protracted blast of the firetruck’s siren.

I grew up in a fairly religious family. I now like to think of us as Public Presbyterians, our family’s worship having been more community-based rather than faith-based, though I’m pretty sure my Mom was more spiritual than the other four of us put together. We spent a lot of our youth in Sunday School in the basement of the large First Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, PA, learning about Jesus, of course, but more importantly, painting small shards of glass with window paint to reassemble them into little stained glass sculptures. I also “assisted” my mother when she chaired the church fair, with little tables in the basement filled with home made crafts like these that were sold to raise money. I attended Brownies, and Girl Scouts in the same church basement. I have a faint recollection of the youth paster calling me “BeElzebub” which was only a short distance from the usual bastardization of my name by people, Elsbeth not being a common name. Hmmm. Perhaps that’s why I now call myself “Els.” Be Elz a Bub.

I associate Easter with my vestments of Easter, one year the pretty light-weight aquamarine wool coat with silky frog closures that I wore to the Easter service when I was about eight. I remember the Easter Bunny coming to deliver a basket of candy to me when I went to Florida with my Mom to stay with her parents in their condo when I was about six. I remember being very impressed that he was able to find me all the way down there. I also associate it with community, as the entire congregation was invited to Mrs. Boetticher’s house for brunch following the service on Easter Sunday. Gazelle Boetticher was a lovely Methodist minister’s widow, who, in addition to hosting this chaotic lunch, also baked birthday cakes throughout the year for all the children who attended. I don’t remember a lot about her, other than her extensive spoon and plate collection, which decorated the walls of her dining room, and the warm circle of church members who celebrated this holiday with her.

Easter was tangible for me in a way that it is for most small children, I imagine. The anticipation of the hunt, the glory of the prize of finding eggs stuffed with candy. Dyeing the eggs is a ritual I feel lucky to have learned. There is always at least the one lost egg which turns up with a spectacular reek a week or so after Easter. My daughter-in-law is smart about this, and has her daughter hide the eggs outside, where any lost eggs will merely feed the many members of the animal kingdom.

The thing about three year olds (as well as fifty-nine-year-olds), is they aren’t very clever about hiding Easter eggs. This is probably just as well, because they also aren’t very good at remembering where they hid the eggs. And when the game is both hide and seek, this is a useful shortcoming. Makes it more fun.

Aside from any religious aspect, Easter is fun. It’s especially fun if you have a brand new grand baby to meet over Easter weekend, which I did. Talk about a boost! Babies are redemptive.

First photo of Nana with Gdaughter 2.

Babies provide us with the lens to see the good, the vulnerable, to bring out the kindness and compassion that our modern society seems so desperately to want to squash. Traveling to the mountains, separated from the internet, nothing but family to focus on is centering and quelling of the worldly chaos I know I’ve physically internalized. Even when the exercise occasionally turns to the quelling of three-year-old tantrums, it is still soul-refilling.

Easter means redemption to many of a more Christian stripe than I. And there is no greater season of hopeful redemption than the first months of widowhood. Even the atheistic griever must confess to the willing suspension of disbelief that our partner or spouse will rise again from the dead, push aside the rock separating them from us, and reunite with us. Lingering on this path, however, is the way to insanity, I’ve come to realize.

Not surprisingly, I find myself thinking a lot about death lately. I’ve removed the WeCroak App from my phone after a particularly graphic quote startled me away. I guess my loss is recent enough that five daily reminders that we will die isn’t yet restorative or comforting. I’ve gravitated to dinners and theatre outings with my also-recent widows and widowers, but recognize that this desire to be helpful in others’ healing ironically may be holding me back from my own. As the semester ended yesterday, I realized I would no longer have the artificial buzz of the work hive to sustain my attentions, and that I would need to dig deeper to discover and re-discover what it is that I want to spend my time on. Just as the mountain snows’ melting reveal summer’s tools left behind, the passing days of solitude reveal the work still to be done.

Time to heft the Collins axe once again.

A Trip to the Zoo

We could potentially categorize the entire vacation as a metaphoric trip to the zoo. The baby bouncing on the banquette at breakfast, the too numerous to count feedings that transpired throughout each day – breakfast buffet, pool food, afternoon snacks, dinners at the Harbor Restaurant, Convivo, Los Agaves to name a few. Well-fed denizens of this zoo. Languid lounging poolside in the afternoon. African mud baths in the park.

Watching the toddler groom her mother’s hair with a plastic fork, providing unprecedented calm at the dinner table. It’s really hard to keep a two-year-old entertained any more than she herself can do so by running out the door onto the sidewalk and watching Daddy take chase.

We hatched this plan to vacation in Santa Barbara earlier this spring, after deciding that a trip to Hawaii wasn’t in the cards for Nana and Grandpa. As it is, Grandpa occasionally asks Nana “How far are we from home?” To which Nana responds, “Two hours.” This soothes Grandpa considerably. As does watching TRM Show before they retire at night.

Last night Nana and Grandpa J had a rambunctious visit from the toddler and her parents after dinner. Nana displayed how to do a somersault for Skylar, and her parents laughed and laughed at Nana’s decrepitude. Oh, it was more fun than a barrel of monkeys (apropos given the theme of the week). I ask you, when was the last time you had to do a somersault? Stop reading right now and try one. You’ll laugh too. Don’t blame Nana if you end up in traction. Seriously, don’t.

The only tonic was for 29-year-old-father-of-the-toddler (FOTT) to do one himself. Yes, Nana did capture it on the iPhone, but has decided to hold out for a bigger payout to keep it off this blog.

Nana’s Fitbit has been apoplectic this week, constantly whirring on her wrist: Get Up! Go! The unprecedented spans of sleep are really upsetting the little buzzer.

IMG_0607Yesterday it was placated a bit by their actual trip to the Santa Barbara Zoo, a quaint hillside dotted with small exhibits and a lot of parks and activities for kids. After getting our tickets (parking, entrance, attractions, train, small home equity loan) at the gate, we rushed to the top of the park to the Giraffe enclosure where we waited in line with about 50 fourth-grade summer campers for the moment when we would all get to feed the giraffe. Nana forged ahead to the top of the summit, to see what the excitement was about. One very patient but not-yet-sated giraffe stood at the bottom of a V-shaped ramp – the right side holding campers with handfuls of romaine lettuce, the left side their escape made, usually squealing after feeding the bottomless pit giraffe. Meanwhile, Nana’s alternative but equally desperate need was for a power outlet for Grandpa Jimmie’s scooter, which was threatening to die a horrible death. Grandpa Dan located the perfect power outlet, and while we waited for the feeding moment, we charged the scooter. Small gratitudes.

 

Many other feeding opportunities at the zoo yesterday, first the sheep and goats, then the humans.

 

Today, Nana finally insisted that they rent one of the surreys-with-no-fringe-on-top to pedal along the beach, her handsome FOTT at the helm, her precious grandchild wearing her bright red helmet in the front basket, facing bravely forward as instructed, but turning impishly to flirt with Nana, and to threaten removing her helmet, the strap clenched in her teeth while giggling in a charming but devilish manner. Her beautiful mother (MOTT) sat behind me, peddling, but also catching clothes the toddler threatened to chuck out of the bags in the basket near her. Hilarity ensued.

It wasn’t until we were well on our way that MOTT and I realized that our steering wheels had no impact on the direction we were going. Leave it to Nana to realize this was the case, and yet, to continue “steering” diligently thereafter.

We rode up the beach past Stearns Wharf, looking for the playground where we were meeting Grandpa Dan and Kathy and Cupid, only to discover that we were going the wrong way. So we turned around, again, much hilarity, as FOTT put his foot down to back us up and get us reoriented in the other direction. And off we rode, going past the hotel again, waving at the bicycle rental man gayly, as we headed off around the bend past the zoo itself.

Then the beautiful MOTT pulled out her phone to check our destination and we realized we had passed the park twice without seeing it, and so headed back past the hotel again, going as quietly past the bicycle rental station as possible so he wouldn’t think us the imbeciles we were without even trying to be.

Nana was happy as a clam, her Fitbit racking up the steps, breaking a sweat for the first time this trip.

 

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.

IMG_0542
Els and Jimmie and Mr. Bighead, of course. 6/22/18

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

IMG_0535
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.

IMG_0572

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.

Don’t Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Puzzling for PMs

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

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

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

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

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

24770885ffe81986f08dd730ce6e96f4--vienna-austria-flower-paintings
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.

 

Park Pals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something interesting happened at the park today.

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

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

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

Thanks! You got my bench back!

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

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

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