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.

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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!

Mother’s Day

I always find myself a twinge sad on Mother’s Day. In recent years, I’ve always attributed it to missing my mom, who passed away when I was thirty-six and she a mere sixty-five in the volcanic aftermath of her voluptuous love affair with cigarettes.

My mother was a force of nature. This might surprise anyone who knew the ladylike self-effacing woman she presented to the world, but my brothers and I know her fierce tenacity in all things she did throughout her life. For the first 20 years, she was a loving daughter and sister, growing up in Northeastern Pennsylvania in coal country. The next twenty shaped her as a Mom, as she married my father straight out of Wellesley, foregoing a possible career in something that remains unclear to this day. My dad tells the story about how he hitched a ride back to the naval base in Boston after visiting Mom, a senior at Wellesley. He got into the car with one of her professors who went on and on about Shirley’s aptitudes as a student, and became forlorn to learn she would be marrying and not carrying on in some pursuit of the mind.

But she did. She threw herself into mothering; both she and my Dad engendered in all of us a love of learning, of reading, of love of the arts, exposing us to frequent museum outings and a hard work ethic and love of our family.

The penultimate chapter detailed her return to the life of the mind, after her divorce,  returning to the work force, a short lived application of her library science degree in an actual library at Wilkes College, followed by the insane application at nearly fifty to the Columbia School of Journalism. She completed that program, and began her subsequent life as a journalist in Bethlehem and Palmerton, PA.

The final chapter was underscored by her tragic demise from lung cancer. The last year or so was predictably sad, and no matter how many good times we had, the residue of the hospice days remains always for me a sober reminder of our obsolescence as humans.

Cut to my own motherhood. Twenty-five years ago, Jimmie and I adopted a toddler through the LA Department of Children’s’ Services. Born in Los Angeles, the fost-adopt toddler came from a medically challenged scenario; he had been born to a young mother, who had been unable to care for him. In addition, there were maternal grandparents were unable to raise him.

Chris was prenatally exposed to drugs. He had an older sibling, born to the same mother. His father was no longer alive, according to what we were told; the exact details were unclear.

The adoption worker explained the upcoming process to us:

1) We would undergo the home study and they would check our home to make sure we would be safe fost-adopt parents.

2) We were not allowed to meet Chris unless we agreed up front to accept him. They described this as protecting the child, which was, understandably, their first priority. We agreed.

3) Through the next year or so, the process to “free” Chris of parental rights would happen and then the adoption could go ahead. I remember being worried all through that first year that his birth mother would be in the courtroom on the day when we were going to complete the adoption – all of which could happen, according to the DoCS.

4) I did a lot of research at the library about pre-natal drug exposure and the sorts of things we could expect in terms of learning delays, behavioral issues, etc. The court offered Chris nine months of rehabilitation through the CHIME program at UC Northridge, where he attended classes once a week and spent time with other children who were receiving state-funded learning remediation. Chris’ vocabulary was extremely limited when he came to us. He had only eleven words. Jeep was his name for anything with four wheels; doggie, ball. He added cat shortly after coming to live with us. He had been in a foster-adopt home in Santa Clarita with an older child who was mute and communicated with sign language. Chris would bang the tips of his fingers together to signify his wish for a bottle. Within about a month in our highly verbal home, his vocabulary had expanded to 50 words. Chris was such a social child that he also thrived at the CHIME program.

Our adoption worker kept in touch with us with home visits to see how Chris was adjusting to our lives together. She continued to warn us that if his birth mother got back in touch and challenged her parental rights, we could lose Chris.

I am sorry to say that her absence was a gift to us. My husband and I were so enthralled with our “son,” though the adoption was not finalized for more than a year.

The day we went to the Children’s Court to finalize the adoption, I looked around the courtroom to see if his birth mother was there. The judge asked if anyone had any reason for this adoption to not move forward; I held my breath, but no one spoke up, and Chris became our son.

We took a picture of the judge with Chris sitting on his lap in the courtroom. The picture has faded to a funky green and orange tint with the passage of time, and Chris has a frown on his face in sharp contrast to the broad smiles on Jimmie’s and mine.

Fast forward to 2015, a Friday afternoon late in March, when, as is the case for many major disclosures from Chris, I received a text message that said simply:

C: I think I just found my birth mother and we just talked.

Whoa. It was a staggering revelation, and the details are his to tell. We shared back and forth extensively the details of his discovery. We were alternately thrilled and terrified. In the days immediately following their online reunion,  I thought about all the information she shared immediately with him, and was shocked at how frank she had been. Chris remarked more than once since then how candid she has been with him and how much “like him” that is. And he’s right – he is very candid and so, obviously, is she. Thank goodness. There are so many ways that an adopted child’s finding his or her birth mother can go. She was not only ready to hear from him, but also let him know that she had tried to find him.

The whole thing happened so fast that I felt more than a little overwhelmed by the process. This digitally accessible world made the following inevitable: within a few hours, his mother had posted on FB that she had found her son, followed by her other child, Chris’ half sister, posting that she had found her brother who had been “lost to the system.” As the “system” to which Chris was “lost,” I initially took gross offense to that statement, as I’m sure she may take offense from my description of the details at the time of Chris’s placement with us.

It is offensive because it is, of course, only half of the story. There is so much we don’t know about each other, and of course, we have all made assumptions. The story is important and I hope that we can tell it together with candor and compassion.

A few nights after they reconnected, I received several pictures from Chris’ birth mother via FB Messenger, pictures of her grown child and her grandchild, and a few pictures of herself as a baby. In addition, she asked to be friends on FB. I was nervous that she wanted to be a part of our lives, too, but I understand the inevitable hunger from 25 years of separation. While she didn’t say it, I think she wanted me to reciprocate with pictures of Chris as a little boy growing up.

In 1991, as Jimmie and I got ready to welcome a foster child into our home, they asked us to prepare a picture book of pictures of our family that could be shared with Chris so he could “meet his future family”. We included pictures of the two of us, lounging on the grass at our first home in North Hollywood, and pictures of our many pets then – we had three cats and two dogs. We included some pictures of my parents and Jimmie’s parents. They were, of course, at that time, photos that we pulled from photo albums, some of them taken around that time. Excitedly, we drove to the drug store to drop off for processing, then back to pick them up, slipping them between the plastic sleeves of the small 4 x 6 photo book I had purchased for this precious gift for our new child. Not many of us use photo albums any more. We trust our computers and the mysterious “cloud” to store our precious family heirlooms – I worry  sometimes that a simple loss of electricity or connectivity could obliterate lifetimes of images for future generations.

That first Sunday night, when I received those few digital photos shared by Chris’ birth mother, it felt almost like the same exercise Jimmie and I had gone through so many years ago– she was preparing us for receiving the new members of our family. And I was, on Sunday, not ready to receive them, or her into our lives.

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Our first Thanksgiving with Chris. At 2, he had a fascination with doors.

The social welfare system is complicated. I don’t remember now when all the details about Chris’ birth parents were shared with us, but I think it was sometime after we had fallen in love with our little boy. Which happened immediately. From the minute when the door opened at the foster home in Santa Clarita, and we saw his two foot high body with a mop of black curls and a little pony tail, that 300 watt smile, and his enthusiastic embrace of life, it was over for us. We were completely smitten. There is probably very little information they could have shared with us at that point that would have dissuaded us from loving him. The little information we did receive came months later during the process of “freeing” him from his birth parents.

Even now, three years after Chris found his other mother, the psychological tsunami is strong. I appreciate every day that a hole within Chris’ heart that has been filled by finding his birth mother. The fact that he hasn’t known about where he came from was always clearly a painful gap in his life which he has always shared frankly with us, not to be hurtful at all, but to let us know it has been missing. Shel Silverstein, “The Missing Piece,” was one of Chris’ favorite books when he was young.

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Chris on a beach in Spain several years ago.

And Chris has found not only his birth mother, but his birth sister, and her children as well. They met shortly after his discovery, and then he met his birth mom.  Life is rich and full of surprises and I am thrilled that we know more about his roots. Especially now that he’s a father.

So here are a few photos from the journey together up until today. Because we are all only the mothers that our children allow us to be.

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.

 

Heartbreaking News…

Earlier this week, Jimmie and I attended Spamilton at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. It’s the first time we’ve been to the theatre together since we went to see Punk Rock at SDA almost a month ago. In all truth, we hadn’t been planning on attending the theatre again together not because we loathe the theatre or spending time together, but because the Circumstantial ROI of our theatre outings has become negligible for Jimmie. You can read here about our last Broadway Adventure.

The schlepp to the theatre is fine. We enjoy each other’s company and it’s nice to get out and see our adopted city’s sights traffic periodically. Assembling and disassembling Jimmie’s magical scooter is fairly automatic – no waving of the wand (that would be welcome technology, please), but it’s manageable. The logistics are surmountable. But when you can’t hear the play, what’s the point of surmounting the logistics?

Once we get to the theatre, sure, I have a moment of terror when Jimmie heads into the men’s room and I lurk by the door, craning to hear a thump and to ensure that no one takes his scooter for a joy ride. Other onlookers frequently are kind and offer an arm to walk him in and out of the men’s room. But I still look like some kind of perv, which is awkward.

Last night as I lurked before heading into see the show, I got a text from one of my friends from the spin gym where I have been a member for about four years. I had missed the email from the founder of the gym, which was entitled “Heartbreaking News…” In the brief email, she spelled out her reasons for the upcoming abrupt closure of the gym – on November 22nd. My phone lit up with other messages from friends I’ve met and gotten to know at the gym. I was completely distracted throughout the time leading up to the show, and immediately afterwards, restored my phone to see more communal wailing about the closure.

Heartbreaking News…

The power of words.

Since I wrote the last two posts, I’ve discovered people’s hunger to discuss and share the issue of giving care to our loved ones. A half dozen people have approached me to share their own stories, proving that we humans have a lot going on in our lives that isn’t necessarily visible in our daily comings and goings. Many people are shouldering their responsibilities at work while also carrying untold pounds of personal grief or struggle at home. And we don’t talk about it in any kind of direct way. We hide it as though it’s something to be ashamed of when it’s not. It’s just completely a part of our lives. We carry it because we want to, or in some cases, we need to or have to.

Tuesday, Jimmie and I visited the doctor after he experienced drainage difficulties in the morning, which I was able to help him solve with some of the medical equipment I had left over from over a year before. Note to self. However much you relish the idea of a personal bonfire to eliminate the traces of your medical mishigas, you should resist. By saving two boxes of single use catheters, I saved us a trip to the ER and missing a lecture. And yes, I know you were all asking yourselves,

What was she a girl scout or something?

Just as you shouldn’t get ahead of yourself in medical equipment armament, don’t Konmari yourselves into an ER visit as your situation changes.

Our visit to the doctor was late in the day. When we came in, he was in a hurry, and unfortunately hurry isn’t in our repertoire anymore. Jimmie inadvertently scooted into the wrong room requiring me to use my air traffic controller batons to steer him into the correct one, where the doctor did a quick ultrasound. As Jimmie stood to get dressed again, his back was facing the doctor when I asked him about the biopsy results.

The doctor, lowering his voice, quietly said,

Oh, They didn’t tell you? There’s aggressive cancer in the prostate.

I looked at him, incredulous. Did who tell us? This was his surgeon speaking. Also, I couldn’t believe that he was trying to tell me this without including Jimmie, who is extremely hard of hearing and facing the window while he pulled up his pants. My bossy sister emerged.

Oh, no. You need to tell him this directly.

And in my loud, most comely voice, said to Jimmie.

Jimmie, you need to turn around. The doctor has something important to tell you.

Jimmie turned and the doctor delivered the news. Again, he was still in a hurry, not that he was being unkind or elusive, but this was his last appointment before heading over to the adjacent hospital, and the details were brief.

Aggressive prostate cancer. Hormone therapy.

The power of words. When Jimmie stood up from the table, he caught his leg on something sharp, and as I hurried to help him with his pants, the doctor and I both watched as two small blooms of blood developed on the back of his khakis. He quickly applied gauze and tape, and then Jimmie and I executed the extraction of the scooter from the office.  Everything else about the exit from the office is fuzzy. I can’t speak for Jimmie, but I was in an emotional blackout.

The next twenty-four hours moved in a blur. We decided to go to Spamilton to take our minds off the unknown.

The follow up appointment with his GP two days later calmed us down. He confirmed that the entire tumor board of the hospital had reviewed Jimmie’s case and were unanimous in the treatment plan. Somehow hearing that was a comfort. Prostate cancer is slow moving.

Heartbreaking news…Aggressive Prostate Cancer. These word combinations are tough to read but it is our reactions that are our own to manage.

In the case of the closure of my gym, the truly heartbreaking news was that I had already paid for my 2018 membership and have yet to hear back from the management about a refund. If I am honest with myself, I had been thinking that I needed to change up my workout plan. Spinning, as good as it is for cardio, is boring. I’d been thinking I’d like to try pilates, or something else. So barring legal issues getting my membership fee back, while the news is heartbreaking for all the spin instructors at the gym and for the convenience of having my gym within 400 paces of my front door, these words can be managed.

In the case of Jimmie’s cancer, we will move forward with treatment, and take it a day at a time. Lord knows we are practiced in that. And we even have more theatre outings in our future. Last night we attended, heard and enjoyed Circle Mirror Transformation to see the MFA Y2 Actors in the Scene Dock Theatre. Tonight Eurydice is on the ticket.

This morning I got a text with some photos from Chris.

A bear broke into my truck last night

Now that’s heartbreaking. Especially given how much the truck has meant to Chris.  But that’s why we have insurance.

I’m grateful to be blessed with all the things we have. Good enough health to be able to attend a gym on a regular basis. Good enough medical care to help us through this crisis that Jimmie is experiencing. Lots of loving support from family and friends as we go through this ordeal. Good enough auto insurance to repair Chris’ truck. All of it is surmountable. As Chris texted me this morning, “This too shall pass.”

Heartbreaking News…Aggressive Prostate Cancer…Bear in the Truck. The power of words do not render us powerless.

And in the meantime, it seems fitting that Thanksgiving is right around the corner.

 

Piss Mas Eve, A Caregiver’s Story

A positive update. Jimmie’s recovering well from the dreaded P surgery two Thursdays ago. For those of you who are recoiling from my TMI posts, please just go back to reading posts with puppies or politics or whatever makes you to feel better or worse. Lord knows that there is enough suffering in the world to avoid posts about peoples’ personal plumbing perils. By the way, tonight is Piss Mas Eve.  Continue reading “Piss Mas Eve, A Caregiver’s Story”

Before Your Last Trip to the Outhouse, I want you to know…

Jimmie and I have been dealing with health issues of late. I should say Jimmie has been dealing with the health issues and I have been following along behind trying to keep up with the details. I choose to think about these interludes as romantic getaways, because hospitals let you stay over, and provide you with a folding cot which makes your back feel the way it looks when it’s folded up during the day.IMG_8721.JPG

Four hospitalizations since August for the same man-plumbing issue have culminated in our most recent overnight stay at Good Samaritan after what is the surgery most dreaded by men. I have this on good first hand info from many of the men in my life who’ve had it and lived to tell about it. Ask any one of them what the worst word in the English language is. Starts with a c:

Catheter.

Watch them spit it out with disdain, a churlish look of scorn tinged with not a little fear. Watch their eyes dart to the left as their lip curls. P surgery, pee surgery it’s all the same thing in this case. But at 90, a surgery under general anesthesia is enough to get you thinking about death.

After the doctor left, having delivered the news about the upcoming surgery, we huddled together, Jimmie in the 1960s-era wooden hospital guest chair with the leatherette dun-colored seat that exhales like it’s farting every time you sit on it, and me, sitting on the edge of the bed, the sanguinating catheter bag huddled to our left like a resentful pet who has been ignored too long. Our conversation turned to the inevitable, which is, of course, truly the inevitable.

“The night my father died,” said Jimmie, softly, his gaze averted, “he went out to the outhouse up at the cabin in Maine. My sister Claire was there with Mom and Dad. He came back and sat down in the chair and then fell out of the chair onto the floor. Claire said she knew instantly that he was gone.”

“What did he look like before he fell over?” I asked, scanning Jimmie’s pallid face, so depleted from the significant blood loss over the past weeks.

“He looked fine. I think it was a happy time for him. He loved being up in Maine. It was a complete surprise. I always thought that’s the way I would go,” he said. “I don’t know if my heart will stand this surgery.” The other unstated message was that the recent events haven’t been a “happy time in Maine.”

That sat between us somberly, as did the knowledge of Jimmie’s older brother Jack’s untimely death from a heart attack and similar type of collapse. I felt my cheeks becoming hot. My optimistic, fix-it-all attitude was showing some pretty severe cracks. My rational mind struggled forward. “They aren’t going to suggest a surgery that they don’t think you can survive, Jimmie. Your cardiologist will evaluate your ability to withstand the surgery. It seems to me that the real question is whether you want to continue to live.”

This may seem like a really harsh way of asking someone, and I think it was, but I had just finished reading the Dornsife Magazine, Fall 2017-Winter 2018, the theme of which was “Grave Concerns: the Mortality Issue” so I was primed for the conversation. I looked into his eyes, still not looking at me, and he said, “Not if I have to live this way,” with no hesitation at all.

“Well, before your last trip to the outhouse, I want you to know….” I sought to convey my love and gratitude to him for our magical life of thirty-five years together, while nagging behind me was my arch nemesis and evil twin, Maude Lynn.

You’re overreacting, Els, she sneered. And as usual, she proved correct.

Jimmie took my hand, bringing it to his lips, and kissed it gallantly, as we professed our love for each other. “Let’s remember there were so many good times, and not dwell on these difficult times.”

I tend to be extremely pragmatic, accept difficult circumstances for what they are and move forward. It is a primary trait among stage managers and theatre people in general. But to be frank, looking directly at the loss of Jimmie and our life together isn’t something I feel pragmatic about. I prepared for this surgery knowing that Jimmie never expected to live past eighty; we’ve talked more than once quite frankly about death. He’s been more ill recently than I’ve ever seen, and the procedures he has been going through with this recent bout have created a new Jimmie, whom I have struggled to love as unconditionally as the old one. We prefer to be around people who are healthy and pleasant and upbeat. If that isn’t the case, you are probably in the health care profession. I so respect those in the health care profession; they don’t frequently get to see the old versions of healthy people, but dwell in the land of the sickly, frightened, enraged or deflated new versions of formerly healthy people. Earlier this week as I watched the RN in the Emergency Room working on irrigating the catheter, I said “It’s kind of satisfying, right?” Without hesitation, JP, a former youth hockey player, (we’d bonded about that earlier) now RN said, “Yes it really feels good to make improvements in the health of a patient.”

We recently changed doctors. Jimmie’s GP closed his private practice to reduce his working hours as he approached retirement. Jimmie’s new GP, is kind and direct and speaks loudly – either a result of his geriatrics training, or perhaps hearing loss from also being a musician (something I overheard him say rather loudly at his office during our first visit.) He described for us the romanticized Hollywood version of aging, a gentle slope of decline as you get older. He derided that fabrication. I watched him describe, his hands chiseling the air in a series of steps, that patients are more likely to go from a steady baseline condition, to an event such as a surgery, or a heart attack, or a hospitalization, after which they drop down to a new baseline. This process repeats and he said if he got to do a TED Talk, that’s what he’d tell us. This made a lot of sense. I’d prefer to hear it in a TED Talk than see it in my spouse.

Later that first night at the ER after Jimmie was admitted and settled into his room, I stumbled out of the hospital at 11:30 PM, exhausted after seven hours in the ER. The night nurse reminded me to bring Jimmie’s Advanced Directive to the hospital when I came back. I had, of course, forgotten. It took me two days to remember to bring it back with me. I didn’t want something written almost twenty years ago and hadn’t spoken of since to define our conduct should the need arise. Thinking about these choices is hard, but with the assistance of his doctors, we arrived at the decision to move forward with the surgery which happened two days ago. With a spinal, not a general anesthesia. They rolled him out of the operating room, and his eyes were open. I said, “Hi, Jimmie.” He said, “Hi, Els.” In retrospect, I keep thinking, “what was I so worried about?”

Every day we hear from family and friends, colleagues from work and we are buoyed by their support, their virtual hugs (Jimmie may be becoming a little bruised from all the passed along hugs) and the knowledge that this too, shall pass. Now that we are home, it’s my job to teach the new visiting nurses what medications he takes, and answer their incredulous question each time I open the door to a new person:

How old are you, anyway? (While looking down at their clipboards at Jimmie’s DOB).

We went to the park today and sat in the sun. Fingers crossed. Neither of us is ready for our last trip to the outhouse yet.

 

The Dangers of Living with an Actor

I may have mentioned once or twice that I’m married to an actor. What I may have not mentioned is I’m married to a really good actor. This is an actor who’s plied his trade for the past sixty-five years, accumulating over twenty Broadway credits and twenty-nine off-Broadway,  has worked all over the country in regional theaters from The Mark Taper Forum in our home town, to the Intiman Theatre in Seattle, the Globe Theatre in San Diego, to Yale Rep. IMG_6046He’s gotten around, most recently, performing as Nagg in Center Theatre Group’s production of Endgame at the Kirk Douglas, in May 2016. He was one of three performers who were ninety years old when the play opened.

 

 

 

 

But perhaps his most convincing performance has been in the role of aging actor. Years ago, he played the 100-year-old man on the final “Centennial” episode of Las Vegas. The episode aired in 2005, so Jimmie was a spritely seventy-eight. He came home from his day on the set and told me that the mayor of Las Vegas had remarked to him after they shot their scene:

Hey, this acting business is tiring.

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What Jimmie looked like in 2005

For the episode of Las Vegas, they applied extensive prosthetics to achieve the 100-year-old character. I remember looking at him in his makeup and thinking

I’m going to stick around – you look damn good for 100!

But in fact, at the age of ninety, Jimmie looks decades better than he might (if the makeup artist was accurate) at 100. Now that’s talent.

I’d bet that you can’t tell which of the photos below is from 2015 and which is from 2016?

So this is how I know he’s a really good actor. Forget the convincing performances on stage and screen. He does an incredible stand-to-stasis moment when he gets up from the couch. He pulls himself up, then stands still for a moment, teeters precariously just long enough to engender a skosh of empathy from the audience (me) before he moves toward his walker. Once there, he trots away toward the bathroom. I’m pretty convinced that he doesn’t do it that way when I’m not there to witness it. But he eschewed the Nest Cam, so I won’t know for sure.

Other incredibly convincing acting techniques include the amount of time he takes to get into bed. The way he pulls his legs up and really slowly eases his toes under the sheets as though they might damage his legs – wow – it’s breath-taking.

I laugh sometimes when I see student actors struggling to convey age. They bend at the waist, use a cane; makes me want to cry out –

It’s all about the knees!

Jimmie’s use of hero props like his walker, hearing aids, and his enthusiastic insistence on the daily bottle of Ensure are foils against my incredulity about his aging.

He’s mastered his scooter for whizzing around the neighborhood, so you might lose sight of the fact that the same journey six months ago without the scooter would have taken five to six times the amount of time it takes now.

What gives him away as an actor, though, is when he lets his performance slip – shows his sharp recall of facts from the past, or launches into a brief but youthful invective against the current political situation in Washington. Or when we play Scrabble and he takes me with words like sycophant or xylophone.

The other night we had dinner with Hal Holbrook and the two of them were gossiping like teens. Talk about recall of events! Hal remembered a specific moment in a rehearsal at Lincoln Center during his put in for After the Fall. And Jimmie similarly about rehearsing a scene during The Changeling with Lanna Saunders where Elia Kazan struck him across the face to demonstrate to her how she should slap him. Twice. You can’t make this stuff up. Come on guys! You’ve gotta do better than that to convince us you’re getting older!

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L to R. James Greene, Els Collins, Rich Costabile, Randy Wilcox, Joyce Cohen, Hal Holbrook

When Jimmie and I first began dating, one of the things we liked to do was run after each other around Central Park. Actually, I usually ran after him. As an ex-marathoner, he kept me well in his rear-view mirror. That was okay with me – I liked the scenery with him in front of me. Now, I can just about believe that he was an ex-marathoner. His backstory is convincing when he plays the lack of knees in that stand-to-stasis moment.

But right now, while he pores over the New York Times, his new Nike eyewear in place, he looks only a tad bit older than when we tied the knot almost thirty-three years ago. I won’t let him know that his acting technique is failing him. He’s very proud to be an actor. It will be our little secret, okay? Unless you want to lobby to have him added to this list where he definitely belongs.