I’ve had the privilege through the yeoman actor who was my husband to meet so many talented actors. We lost one of them yesterday, dear Lynn Cohen. I met Lynn back in the mid 1980s when I married James Greene and inherited his friends, who were a spectacular group of people. Lynn and Ron were among my favorites. I remember visiting them in their upper West Side apartment which had a kitchen large enough to dine in. I remember many dinners there; Lynn was a phenomenal cook. An intimate dinner with Lynn and Ron, Marsha Mason and Brian Murray before I appreciated the rarified theatrical aristocracy with whom I was dining. Lynn and Ron were warm and Midwestern, products of their Kansas City, Missouri past. They loved to laugh, and often invited Jimmie to regale them with his stories, asking for them by punch line, and then laughing with rigorous, infectious enjoyment. I attended my first seders at Lynn and Ron’s, sitting next to Steven Hack, who was, at the time, performing in Cats at the Wintergarden Theatre and who had been a student of Lynn’s long before. Later, when Jimmie and I moved to Los Angeles, Steven remained in our lives, a member of the same company of actors that Jimmie belonged to, Interact. It was Steven who’s call punctuated a Friday morning meeting with the terrible news.
We’d last seen Lynn and Ron in summer of 2016, when, after our annual trip to the Cape, we ventured down to New York City for a visit with my Dad and his wife, and my talented Aunt Irene and her husband. We stayed at the Algonquin, one of our favorite spots, and only briefly met with Lynn and Ron in the lobby for lunch. Lynn and Ron had become increasingly busy with their acting careers. Lynn was humble about her successes in major films and television roles, speaking instead about the times when she and Ron were able to do things together on stage. They frequented the Cape May Playhouse on the Jersey Shore, and according to this article, were honored there in 2010.
I remember at that last meeting at the Algonquin, Lynn expressed a wistful desire to go on a cruise. I offered to get the cruise brochures and let them know when I found one, but alas, Jimmie’s health was not up to such an adventure, and I’m still receiving those cruise brochures occasionally. I can’t imagine a couple I’d rather have gone on a cruise with than Lynn and Ron.
Lynn and Ron didn’t frequently get to Los Angeles, nor did we get to New York that often, but when we did we’d bond over a good meal somewhere with them and sometimes others, like our dinner at LA Live a few years ago, populated by many friends of Lynn’s from all periods of her life. We stuffed ourselves into a booth at one of the restaurants long-since expired at LA Live. Our server coincidentally, was one of the graduate students from the MFA Program at USC, and I think we asked her to snap the picture below.
L. to R. Els, Jimmie, Clare O’Callaghan, Jay Willick, Lynn, Steven Hack, Ron Cohen
For the gourmand that she was, Lynn was a hoot to eat out with. She had a meticulous diet that she followed scrupulously, and waiters would do poodle turns as she ordered in her universally charming way. There was no request that was unrequited. Probably by anyone, waiters or otherwise. She was a siren, generous with her attention, and loving with her friendship.
Ironically, I don’t think I ever got to see Lynn on stage. She and Jimmie had done a play years before we met, the name of which escapes me, but they became fast friends. I feel so fortunate to have had Lynn in my life, however briefly.
I realize with each person who slips away (and couldn’t we take a pause, by the way?) how precious our interchanges are. How important the time we spend together is. That same 2006 trip to New York for Jimmie’s 80th birthday, we gathered in Bryant Park with friends Bob and Mitchell, Lee and Susan, and while we were there huddled around the table in the cold, the most miraculous sight unfolded as a flash mob of unruly Santas suddenly invaded the park cementing in our minds and hearts the events of that day.
RIP, Lynnie. I know that you and Jimmie are having wonderful meals together in heaven.
This living business is sometimes pretty daunting. I can cope with the whole get up, wash my face to face the world, step onto the bus and ride to work, engage with my colleagues and students, laugh a little, cry a little routine part. That I’ve mastered quite well. I can even fit in a few external tasks, like rolling over an IRA (to see if there’s anything under there), or sending a book back that I borrowed, or returning the white pair of sailor capri pants I ordered that arrived and looked as ridiculous as you might have expected they would. What was I thinking? But all that seems pretty manageable.
What’s more elusive is formulating the next steps in living. You know, simple things, like whether you want to start dating again. I mean, how do you even begin to think about something so foreign? It’s about as imaginable as my getting up and disco dancing again. Or wearing sailor pants at 60. You start, I guess, naturally, perusing through your mental rolodex of all your male friends:
Married, married, gay; gay?, damaged, completely celibate, out of my league, way too sensible… you get the drill. It’s daunting. And who even uses a rolodex anymore. Makes you feel like a damn dinosaur.
You toy with a new affectation that you are a freelance writer. You open an UpWork account to try to field writing jobs because a friend told you they do that and it pays well. I guess it’s like joining a dating website (no, no, no). At least the writing part is something you can enjoy in your newly minted solitude. Like a skilled needleworker, you can retire to your living room after work and tat tat tat away on your computer conjuring images of checks rolling in from an unmarked escrow account. Ahhh, speaking about fantasizing…
I’ve been reading a lot lately. Books about the upward powerful current of optimism I aspire to. I shared with my students the other morning an article by Jane Brody from the New York Times Science section how optimists have been proven to be 50% (women) to 70%(men) more likely to live to the age of 85. I polled the class using the statements late in the article with a show of hands to gauge how they looked at the world. I’m happy to report that there were many more rose-colored glasses wearers in the class than not. By the way, if I could write one tenth as well as Jane Brody, I’d be able to die (after 85) and happy.
In this phase of my life, I’m pushing through the uncertainty, grasping at things that look appealing to me, without really knowing how to trust whether they are truly what I want, or just a means of rebuffing grief. And, yes, I did intend the double meaning of rebuffing – shining it up to admire my heroic features in it, while simultaneously holding it at arm’s length so I can avoid it at all costs. I don’t know how to describe this phase I’m in, really, though I am committed to trying to. Forging ahead through it.
You know, life is really good. I had a splendid birthday trip to New York, with an escape to the Lake House, and a reunion dinner with about a quarter of the Tutorial. I’m so aware of the precious and refined oxygen of a room filled with good friends who are inquisitive and curious about the world and each other. It’s heady stuff.
This week has been a reminder of why we should so value our loved ones, with the fragility of life as evidenced in the loss of Kobe Bryant and eight others. Tonight, I got off the bus near the Staples Center, where people have been gathering to pay tribute for days since the news of his and his daughter’s untimely death. I saw an endless parade of city buses, whose display panels on the front flickered back and forth between their route number and RIP KOBE in respectful fonts. The Wilshire Grand Building at 7th and Figueroa sports a huge LED image of a purple 24 on a field of gold. At the corner of Olympic and Figueroa, vendors are selling life-sized photos of Kobe and t-shirts, capitalizing on our nostalgia.
So what’s with the picture of the man on the bench? The other night, I was coming home from tech rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I grabbed the 204 bus up Vermont, exited at Olympic, and was cutting through the parking lot to wait for the 728 bus. As I passed behind the bench where a man sat, hands folded patiently on top of his cane, he uttered a quiet exhalation of breath that sounded so much like Jimmie I had to scurry past to get a discreet look at him. I took the photo surreptitiously, his pose, his cane, his cap causing my own quiet gasp; I was suddenly subsumed by a torrent of emotion for the loss of partnership, of friendship, of my other half. When you lose your partner, you are rendered from your heart. Even now, fourteen months after the event, something as tiny as an exhalation of a stranger’s breath can sucker punch you.
But I’m working to stay alert for signs from the world that I’m still viable and will move into the rest of the year with hope and transparency. And maybe a little bit of freelance writing to keep me amused.
I couldn’t imagine anyone I’d rather spend my 60th Birthday with than my friend Bob. Well, any living anyone. Arguably our friend Susan, but she was happily ensconced in CapeTown and a three day weekend wasn’t practical from that distance. I jumped on a plane Friday morning, my birthday itself, and spent the day in transit, via Denver and some seasonably tricky winds, landing finally at La Guardia Airport, well on its way to being “the New LGA.” At one point, a flight attendant leaned over in the dark conspiratorially, and said, “Happy Birthday! Would you like a drink to celebrate?” Little did she know how fraught a question that might be for the not-so-newly-sober, but I said, no, thank you and went on reading. I landed at 11:53PM, with a scant seven minutes of my fifties remaining, grabbed my luggage and began the long trek down the sidewalk outside the baggage claim area, lined with the huge yellow columns proclaiming TAXI with arrows pointing forward. I think I turned sixty somewhere on that walk to the Shuttle Bus to the Taxi stand, in total disorientation and confusion; I’m sure this isn’t indicative of the state of my sixties to come but was appropriate for the transitional moment itself.
I bet you’re wondering why you are on a bus right now….
So began the announcement that played to pacify us during the five minute drive to the Taxi Stand, and indeed it did, as they described the future beauty and ease of our taxi rides into Manhattan. Smart marketing, I’d say.
It’s been about 4 years since I was in Manhattan, June of 2016, the last time after my husband’s and my last trip to Chatham, when we came down to New York to visit a gallery where my Aunt Irene’s work was being exhibited. Jimmie and I stayed at the Algonquin, and had a great time, aside from our very difficult experience seeing The Humans, and I took this shot of Jimmie in front of the Broadhurst Theatre, the site of his first Broadway show, Romeo and Juliet, in 1951, starring Olivia DeHavilland.
We visited The Met Museum, had dinner at the Algonquin Round Table, though we were only about 2/3s a table worth of brilliance and wit, and had an amazing family visit there.
This trip, however, was about celebrating a benchmark age, as well as spending time with Bob who has recently lost his partner. It wasn’t about getting notches in my theatre attendance belt, though that time will come again, but about visiting Bob and their son Nathan. If I’m entirely honest, I also had a secret agenda, to see the lake house. I’d forgotten that January 18th was Mitchell’s birthday – he’d have been seventy, and so I realized I was definitely meant to be there to mark that moment, too. As anyone who’s lost their partner knows, first birthdays after loss are emotionally fraught, both for the quick and the dead.
Bob was receptive to our driving north to the Lake House, and so we got in the car, with a fuzzy flannel blanket very similar to the ones that I’d draped over my knees at the hockey rinks as a hockey parent. Bob opened the front door of the car to let a very excited Springer spaniel, Layla, up onto my lap, where she sat for the next hour or so, in various paroxysms of excitement, agitation, and passivity. She was extremely attentive to all the turnoffs, watching as Bob’s steady hand hit the turning signal, squeaking excitedly as we turned onto the Taconic Parkway, where she began to do full on girations in a standing position on my lap. Bob helped push her into the back seat.
I wasn’t aware that was an option, I intoned drolly.
The snow had begun to fall in Manhattan as we were leaving the city, cascading in big fluffy flakes, doing their best to stick to the road and forests that lined the Taconic. Finally we arrived, and the beauty of the spot took my breath away. The lake house was the love child of Bob and Mitchell, and everything about it speaks to the strength of their partnership and their teamwork. I’d been familiar with the virtual version of the house through our frequent What’sApp video chats, but the huge windows, elevated and overlooking the lake was a perspective that I’d not appreciated for its actual power or beauty.
Now, as I sit at the desk overlooking the water, trees swaying gently in the afternoon breeze, snow atop the overturned canoe and dinghy down by the water’s edge, I can’t imagine a more perfect place to be, to live, to write. I’ve watched throughout the last hour the open water on the lake closing under a meniscus of nascent ice until there was just about a foot left. Earlier this morning, two of Bob’s neighbors breezed in at about 8:00AM, with a freshly made almond paste stollen, and we sat and sipped coffee companionably before beginning their ritual walk with Layla in the lead, around the lake. I had a true appreciation for the danger of the ice, since over the flaky sweet buttered pastry and hot, strong coffee, Ruth had shared her story about falling through the ice one Monday morning in another January, while snowshoeing across the lake. She’d been out on the lake the day before, with all her children, and the local ice fishermen. Monday, it was she alone on the ice. I marveled at how calm she remained through what must have been a terrifying experience. She dropped her ski poles under the water, pushed her snow shoes up onto the ice, then, channeling a recent National Geo show she’d seen about how seals came up from the ice pushing forward with their flippers until their bellies were up on the ice, slid out of the water onto the ice, continuing on her belly to the lakeside where she grabbed at the reeds to pull herself up onto the land. A neighbor, who happened to be a first responder and had fortunately seen her fall into the water arrived, shoved her into his brand new truck ignoring her consternation about getting his new truck wet. He drove her home, dropped her in her clothes into the shower for an hour, standing guard outside, then helped into her bed where he covered her with blankets and she shivered for the next 10 hours. Needless to say, she doesn’t snowshoe on the ice anymore.
Now, as I watch the slow encroachment of the thicker ice into the open water, I have a new appreciation for the perils of country living. I’m no less envious about the view from these windows, however, and the promise of natural beauty to guide one’s mindfulness and appreciation for the natural world as well as one’s creative endeavors.
Our morning walk around the lake, a perfect three-mile junket, was still and cold, but at a pace which belied the slushy conditions of the road. Layla did a good nine miles to our three, dashing about like a mad person after squirrels, other dogs, and just bounding with joy through the woods around us. Eventually, we dropped off Bob’s neighbor at her house, basically about half-way around the lake, then continued on, taking some as-of-yet-untrod paths through the snowy woods to avoid the local highway. We arrived back at the house with a fresh appetite which another piece of stollen quickly satisfied.
Yesterday, we paid homage to Mitchell by coming to the lake, Bob’s building a hearty fire in the stove, then making venison chili, a tradition of theirs with the largesse of their neighbors to the north. Bob had brought with us his Japanese daruma doll; the mystery of which’s eyes had become filled in remains, but the quicker you burn the doll and buy the new one, the quicker you are on your way to fulfilling your dreams. I think of this one’s import as the cleansing of our losses and renewal of our lives. Perhaps it means there’s a lake house in my future.
When last we left Nana, she had boarded the big green bus run by the South Tahoe Airporter and was speeding her way up from the lake’s edge to Reno, to fly to Washington, D.C., where she would visit her father and stepmother for the New Year’s celebration.
Freshly showered, latest Grisham book in hand, I boarded the first of two flights from Reno to D.C., enjoyed reading a bit, something which had eluded me for the past week. I relaxed into my seat on the United Flight to Los Angeles, which is only an hour, and best intentions falling aside like the book into the crevice of the seat, I immediately dozed off into intermittent sleep. I had promised myself that I’d finish my blog in L.A. while waiting for the red-eye to DC, but found I was quite content instead reading my book and relaxing in the crowded anterooms in LAX. I boarded the 10:45PM Sunday night departure with other bleary-eyed travelers, all of us anticipating a solid 5 hours and 10 minutes of sleep. At least I was, sure that with no nurseling or tot to worry about, I’d soon be out. The flight was full, and all seats and overhead bins bursting with folks heading to the nation’s capital.
The following morning, after a pricey cab to the Northwest district, I arrived at the home of my stepmother and my dad. I entered the cozy foyer, and immediately sat down to have breakfast with them, as though I’d never left since my last visit in July. They have an orderly life, attended by a loyal staff who’ve been with them for about thirty years. There is hardly a metaphoric point further flung from Tahoe than here. Complete tranquility and care for the next four days, which I was very much looking forward to.
I’d finished the Grisham (highly recommend it, too – The Guardians) – and eagerly launched into Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a novel I’d heard people raving about for weeks. Within the first 121 pages, I was struck by a quote which underscored the topic of uncertainty about the future that my coach and I’ve been discussing of late:
There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.
Ann Patchett, The Dutch House
I stopped and read the quote a second time, a third time, a fourth. It had fallen almost like a love letter out of a long unopened book, and I settled into my chair to consider the happenstance of reading such a missive at this time. Just my recent two weeks of travel, visiting my son and his family for Christmas, and now my Dad and his wife for New Year’s is completely foreign to me. Traveling alone is simple, unencumbered. I would always have preferred the encumbrance of my darling husband, but I now embraced the efficacy of traveling alone.
Over summer, I’d signed up for TSA Check, and this was the first trip I’d successfully used it on. If you can call successful being stopped with a half full water bottle at the checkpoint, which I vociferously denied having, then being escorted around and coming through again for two agents to scrutinize the screen and discover a very sharp work-knife in your purse successful. I do, considering they could have done a full cavity search at that point, and they didn’t.
The five days in D.C. was lovely. I’d told my Dad I didn’t want him to fill up the time with activities, that I knew I’d be exhausted and would just like to hang out, and he followed my wishes. Aside from the three squares we all had together each day, we did a few errands together; I accompanied him to get out some stitches at the dermatologist’s office, marveling at how he knew everyone’s name in the office and used it, causing broad smiles to come over each staff member’s face. Unbiased of course, I’d say my dad is a charming guy, and it was great to see he hasn’t lost his touch with people. He has an uncanny ability to meet someone and to know their life story within fifteen minutes, then to hold onto that story like a pit bull with a rubber toy. This is probably a function of his having been a charitable foundation grantor for years; that work is about making relationships with people and determining if what they do or want to do with your foundation’s money is within the guidelines of that foundation’s mission. He’s never lost that flair for finding out what makes people tick. I’ve always admired it in him.
We took a trip to PetSmart, all three of us, to select two new finches for Sally’s indoor aviary. The zebra finch and society finch hopped about trying to evade capture by the young woman at PetSmart, but when they were inducted into their new home, a good 10x larger than their cage at the store, they tweeted happily and flitted about the aviary with joy.
I took two rambling hikes in Rock Creek Park, the first, where I felt accompanied by my dear friend Susie at my side as I walked through the well-marked trails, slipping on the leaves occasionally in my inappropriate hiking shoes, red leather Clark’s moccasins. On the New Year’s Eve day hike I took, I resolved to do fifty hikes in 2020, so unfortunately couldn’t count that day’s hike, but it felt good to get out and move my legs after a few days of complete lassitude.
On the second day of the new year, my dear friend Liz came up from Annapolis to visit me at the house. Liz and I have known each other since we were about seven and eight, respectively, and lived about .08 mile from each other in Greensburg, PA. Our escapades were too many to recount, but included much creative “free play” on the acreage of her family’s home, flinging Barbies into the tiered ponds to “swim,” serving and drinking tea in the tiny log cabin playhouse, picking so many beans from her father’s vast garden that I once thought when I went to sleep, I would see only beans in my dreams. Like Patchett’s Dutch House, Liz’s family’s house in Greensburg had an almost mythic status for me which stuck with me for years, and I would visit its magical spaces in my dreams throughout my twenties, and even occasionally in my thirties.
Academically, I followed Liz from the Valley School of Ligonier, to St. Paul’s School, but diverged as she went on to Stanford and then back to Pitt to get her medical degree. She’s been practicing Emergency Medicine for thirty years, and that was one of the things we kept marveling at during our spectacular visit – how we’d gotten to be in the sixth decade of our lives in the blink of an eye. Both with families, and grown children, successful in our fields, far away from the little midwestern town where we’d percolated as children.
What’s wonderful about staying connected with a childhood friend is the dissipation of time that happens when you reunite. You’ve come a huge distance, with full lives lived between the 53 years between the time you met and now, but it’s all telescoped into a comfortable understanding of who you are together and apart. There’s no need to try to impress; she knew you when you were nine and stupid enough to slam the door of the pool house, inciting the wasps behind the hex sign on the door to chase you around the pool and back in again to sting you both multiple times before you both realized you should jump into the pool. You’ve attended her wedding, and she’s watched from afar your husband’s life celebration. You’ve both been working mothers and wives, with busy careers and family life. You’ve harbored hopes and dreams for your partner and your children, postponing conscious self care so that at 60 it is an entirely new topic to discuss. And you do discuss that topic with ferocity like how you chatted at night trying to fall asleep during that thunderstorm, lightening and thunder ricochetting off the ceiling, as it split a tree just down the hill from Liz’s bedroom. Fears about real and imagined boogiemen have populated our conversations and letters for over fifty years. How is that possible?
The image that I’ve been thinking of recently is the Phoenix.
…a unique bird that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.
a person or thing regarded as uniquely remarkable in some respect.
The conflagration of the past two years or so is more or less out, smoldering a bit but effectively over. Charred, a bit wounded, I nevertheless feel the upward draft of the fire’s residual flare. Feet charred, I feel willing to rise above the wreckage to fly, like Sally’s finches, to discover new relationships, to listen to the air currents, open my flaps, as it were, to explore who the new me is.
In this next decade of discovery I’m suspended in the golden amber of past discoveries, magical spaces, and the fealty of noble friendships past and present.
Dear 2020, help me to recognize the opportunities as I encounter them to become uniquely remarkable in some respect, and to recognize and perhaps create the thresholds of inspiring new spaces that beckon me to creative inspiration.
I’ve been off the grid for the past 8 days, spending the Christmas holiday with my son and his wife and their two adorable girls, S, a recently-turned four-year-old, and B, a recently turned 9-month-old. My son and his wife run a beautiful home – chaotically creative – the best kind. There are lots of toys, and lots of entertainment units of the organizational sort to keep Nana busy after the sun goes down. My OCD kicked in in a serious way. I don’t want to get all judgy — in a minute, you’ll see why–they get the job done brilliantly with a minimum of fuss, and don’t let the little things like organizing shoe piles spoil their afternoon. They are Present, yes, with a capital P, at all moments that their children are awake, and they thrive on the triumphs and squalors that constitute growing up well and happy.
I arrived on December 22nd, just in time to assist and attend S’s fourth birthday party, at the local bowling alley, a festive affair, with sparkling Spindrifts and Pellegrinos, and a beautiful fresh fruit platter from the local grocery store, as well as a veggie and dip tray. Perfectly and easily organized. (My producer’s brain noted “Know your audience.”)There were about 20 unicorn themed gift bags. Each bag had a very sparkly beaded wrist wrap which went from straight to bracelet with a quick slap on your wrist. Each one sported a cat or an animal. They ranged in color from pink to Cabaret black. They were a big hit. Also in each bag, there was a bag of Frozen Pirate’s Booty – when I first heard that, I gagged, but then realized that it referred to the Disney movie, not the geothermic state of the puffs; I’ve never really understood the appeal of them when corn syrup packing peanuts are available in any Amazon shipment. Clearly the Frozen Pirate Booty is great because of the product alignment.
Parenthetically, I finally sat down and watched The Movie this holiday as well, so I will no longer have to pretend to know the claw accompanied by the hiss reference when S freezes me. Poor Ilsa. She really had it rough.
Have you ever seen almost-four-year-olds bowl? It’s spectacular. First, there are the adorable shoes, which only begin at kids’ size 10, so the wee ones just wore their own shoes. The ball is larger than their entire torso, and definitely heavier than they can manage. Their proud parent behind them. the toddlers reach the head of the lane and then unceremoniously drop the ball at their feet, where some miracle of physics and floor wax progresses it down the lane at about the speed of a very old demented tortoise. Miraculously it doesn’t stop. However, if one gets impatient, one can just line up the next ball to be ready.
After a few seconds, the tot turns away disinterestedly and resumes animated dance or conversation with their friends as parents and adjacent onlookers wait for the next minute-and-a-half as the ball makes it’s tortured way down to the end before shuttling off into the gutter. If they’re lucky, they might hit one pin. As the afternoon went on, S got a little better and was knocking a few pins down. But it didn’t matter. Bowling was just the setting. Ever so much more important was the giggling and chasing each around the bowling alley.
These Tahoe Toddlers’ parents are nice people in addition to their accomplishments. I met several of Whitney’s school colleagues and their children. My main job was to hold B so that Whitney and Chris could host the big kids and their folks. B is a magnet, so charming and smiley. She has this lovely full-body wiggle she does when she eats something she likes, or if someone smiles in her direction. I mean anywhere in her direction. She must be the happiest baby I’ve ever met. Everyone in her family now emulates the B wiggle when they want to see her smile. Adorable.
S is iconoclastic, a leader in the same way her daddy is. Rebel, comic sense of holding for a laugh and then letting herself laugh with abandon. Her friends all arrived with various packages of Playdoh products, again many of the gifts were this season’s favorite, Frozen. Unicorns and Ilsa are big in the under 5 market.
In addition to coming to spend the holidays, I ended up staying in this beautiful part of the world so that Chris and Whitney could attend a wedding after Christmas. I’d agreed to babysit for the dynamic duo for an overnight trip. When I arrived, I realized it was actually for two days, which was fine. I’m always up for a challenge. Being a Grandparent is a dance. I’ve never been a particularly good dancer, save for the disco competition I won in a state of extreme inebriation in the college pub. It’s harder than it looks in books, movies and TV. My practice unfortunately looks more like George Wilson to Dennis the Menace – you know- the cranky neighbor trope. Four year olds (and fifty-nine-year-olds, for that matter) can be mercurial. We can go from chill to chilly in a heartbeat. One of my corrections to some benign four-year-old action resulted with her responding, “Why don’t you go outside, Nana, and die in a snowbank?”
I consider a moment whether this is a witty musical reference to Grandma got run over by a reindeer….Nope. And before you jump to conclusions and decide either that my granddaughter is a psycho or I’m Emily Gone Postal, let’s just say transitioning from a single, urban life style into the afore-mentioned creative home combined with the onset of a serial stomach flu suffered on the 23rd by Whitney, the 24th by Chris, and my hypochondriacal certainty that I would be next on Christmas Day made me less than nimble. And she told me so.
Note to self. Nana’s is to remain chill. Assume the corrective mantle only when necessary when someone is about to die.
On Christmas Day I fell into a slough of despondency the likes of which I’ve not felt since last Christmas, the first without my husband. Leaden limbs, near total disinterest in presents, a need to fall asleep on the couch by 10 in the morning. It was bizarre and I was incredibly relieved (as I’m sure Chris and Whitney were) when I mostly recovered the next day. (And I didn’t get the flu, thank you, Baby Jesus.)
In spite of being somewhat physically and mentally disengaged on Christmas, I still got a charge out of S’s generosity in offering to open everyone’s presents. I had bought S a little robotic dog that pants, barks, growls, sits, wags his tail and runs on command. At one point during the weekend, B and I were sitting with the little cutie on the floor next to the chair and I was patting it, while she depilled it and ate the fluff when suddenly, the dog turned it’s head sidewise and looked up at me in the chair – like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. It scared the bejeezus out of me. Toys are too damn smart.
As stage managers and production managers, we manage logistics. Rehearsals have breaks taken at Equitable times, and we’re trained to track multiple people on stage at any time, and write what they are doing, where they are going and what they are carrying down. Two kids for two days? Piece of cake.
Two days later and I would challenge any Stage manager to take care of two toddlers under four. In fact, I think this might be an amazing training drill. B has her eyes on anything that can be put into her mouth, lint, pine needles, dice. Her favorite is Puffs, little colored cheerios that come in a can. Doesn’t matter if they’re from two days ago and are gummy. In it goes.
The logistics went something like this:
5-7AM Wake up to the baby standing up, holding onto the crib and shrieking.
Take her downstairs, change her and sit her on the floor to play. She is happy.
6:30-7:00AM S comes down and wants to make slime. “Nana doesn’t do slime.” The truth is that Slime is my Cryptonite. Bring out a bowl and ask for glue and I start quivering all over and not in the charming way that B does.
7-9AM Negotiate about the slime. S is definitely going to be a prosecutor and a damn good one.
7-9AM Make breakfast while keeping an eye on B so she doesn’t spill out the dog food or water on the floor of the kitchen or find/eat dessicated grapes under the cabinets . Find something that S will eat that has some nutritional value and sit with B giving her some bacon and blueberries. Bacon goes down, Cupid gets fed. Blueberries go down. Nana gets to do some waist bending. That’s my exercise for the day. Did I eat?
9-10AM Color with S while bouncing B on my knee and handing her the lids of the markers to hold for me. This is what we call stasis.
10AM Warm up some milk and bottle it while holding B on my hip.
Put on the TV for S and take B up to put her down for her nap.
10:30AM-12:30PM Play with S, again negotiating for a more manageable game than slime…We might get dressed here or we might
12:30PM Retrieve caterwauling B from the crib and bring her down. Change her.
Lunch. What the hell will they eat? Did I eat yet?
Afternoon activity – walk outside, go to the indoor childrens’ playspace nearby
5:00PM Start dinner while making chocolate chip cookies with the neighbor children. Calculating how much raw dough will make them sick….
6:00PM Eat dinner followed by a brief Gymnastics competition.
6:30PM run a bath. S and B love their bath which they take together. Make sure B doesn’t fall face first into the bath. No actual hygiene seems to take place in the bath but they both look cleaner when they come out.
7:00PM Prepare bottle and take B up to bed after finding something appropriate for S to watch. Kids Channel on Netflix. Oh, here’s the original Grinch movie. I came down after putting B to sleep and saw Jim Carrey in a green suit with maggots or bugs climbing all over his teeth. Slapping hand to my mouth…
Whoa! This is going to give you bad dreams, S!
Yeah, it’s scary.
I thought you told me you’d watched it before.
(Sometimes S uses her debate techniques to persuade you that she is making an actual case when it is really just a very inventive story narrative.) Correction: she’s going to be a prosecutor/novelist when she grows up.
8:00PM Read books or listen to a sleep story with S.
8:30PM Tiptoe downstairs and start playing the Nana OCD cleanup game.
10:00PM Crawl into bed
10:30PM B Caterwauling. I’ve got this! Bottle on the way.
10:45PM B refuses bottle
11:00AM S stumbles into the room.
You’re not going to get much sleep in here, S.
I want my Mommy!
Cupid starts barking manaically at something outside the window.
Els realizes she’s left the car in the driveway, throws on shoes, then opens the front door and Cupid goes screaming into the night, surely to be eaten by a coyote or a bear. What will I tell Chris and Whitney?
12:30AM B, S and Nana cry themselves to sleep.
6:30AM the Following Day – Rinse and Repeat.
Along the way, I would occasionally pick up my phone and see people wishing each other Merry Christmas! But I didn’t have time to play those reindeer games. I was off the Grid with S and B.
And you know what? I wouldn’t trade one glorious second of it. Happy Holidays!
This Christmas I’ve done better than last, when I had no heart for shopping, for thinking of others. Last year, I licked my widowly wounds, spending the holiday in Seattle with Chris and his family at her Dad’s place. I remember feeling both there, and not – feeling as my friend Bob recently called it, “ashy.” The state of knowing that you inhabit your body but don’t quite know how to make the limbs move, or how to move with intention because you’re without a partner to fuss over, to find the perfect present for, to strive to make the holiday special for. This year, I combined cleaning out the storage unit with bringing the tree supplies up really early – a week before Thanksgiving. I put the tree up, and turned it on, and it hasn’t been turned off yet. No worries – it’s rabidly artificial- not even attempting to look like a natural tree. Yes, it has the familiar conic shape, it’s green, but there the similarity ends. It has sixteen settings of LED lights, the last of which is the one I like – amber static lights. I think there’s probably a karaoke plug-in for the tree if I hadn’t thrown out the manual. Yesterday I mailed all the packages to my Tahoe family members so that I can breeze in Sunday with just my makeup kit like a glamorous Hollywood starlet from the 1950s.
Keeping a journal has been helpful in getting my feet back under me this year. My formerly tamed stationery fetish recently raised it’s ugly head, and as though on cue, my ex-neighbor, Chewy gifted me with a small bucketload of Paper Source journals, of many sizes, all entwined with flowers, a pack of floral pencils and a pen to match last week when we went to see Jitney at the Mark Taper Forum. The journal entry from that night records the richness of our outing, from discovering we were sitting behind Al Pacino and in front of Stephen Tobolowski and wife, Anne Hearn. We ran into many SDA colleagues, and set designer Joe Celli and that was all in the front of house before the play began. On top of those happy reunions, seeing Ruben Santiago Hudson’s muscular production of Wilson’s 1970s Pittsburgh was so satisfying. I know the play well, but from behind the scenes. I ASMed the last time Jitney played at the Taper, directed by Marion McClinton and starring Carl Lumbly (Booster) Shabaka Henley (Doub), Russell Hornsby (Youngblood) and Willis Burks II (Shealy). One of my jobs off stage right was to apply a spot of blood on the cheek of Stephen Henderson’s Turnbo when he ran out the door after being slugged by Youngblood, and then returned with his gun waving it like a mad man. I was so pleased to see Anthony Chisholm reprising the role of Fielding – having his gravelly-throated way with the sartorial sot – the man’s a comic genius. When he tells Becker’s son, Booster, newly returned from twenty years in prison about his wife (22 years gone), he made me laugh and cry again within a span of two minutes.
You got to have somebody you can count on you know. Now my wife . . . we been separated for twenty-two years now . . . but I ain’t never loved nobody the way I loved that woman. You know what I mean? BOOSTER Yeah, I know. FIELDING
She the only thing in the world that I got. I had a dream once. It just touched me so. I was climbing this ladder. It was a solid gold ladder and I was climbing up into heaven. I get to the top of the ladder and I can see all the saints sitting around . . . and I could see her too . . . sitting there in her place in glory. Just as I reached the top my hand started to slip and I called out for help. All them saints and angels . . . St. Peter and everybody . . . they just sat there and looked at me. She was the only one who left her seat in glory and tried to help me to keep from falling back down that ladder. I ain’t never forgot that. When I woke up . . . tears was all over my face, just running all down in my ears and I laid there and cried like a baby . . . cause that meant so much to me. To find out after all these years, that she still loved me.
August Wilson, Jitney, Act I, Sc. 3
So, like I said, I’m filling my days with spectacular events rather than things. I visited at the Posthumous Party for Eddie Jones on Saturday, reconnecting with so many of our old friends from Interact Theatre Company. Tonight I participated in an active shooter drill at USC. My theatre training gets me all the plummy roles – I got to make the first call kicking off the drill, and the primo seat in front of the Campus Center to watch the drill unfold. Better than Christmas shopping, I quipped, down in the ballroom as we awaited instructions.
Busy is better than not busy. In moments like my bus ride home tonight, Carla Bonoff blasting in my ears, reading a book on Leadership, pausing to think about my upcoming Christmas travel, I recognize that I’m jamming it all in to a gaping hole of loss. As a friend recently posted “I need to slow down.” Just a few days until the Winter Recess begins for real and then we can all slow down.
Tonight, after coming home and making a quick dinner, I opened the mail. Not to get too revelatory, but the thing is that when one of two partners passes away, lets just say that the other one is sometimes left with the short end of the financial stick. So I’ve been focussing on events rather than things, too, because funds are more limited this year. In fact, as I sat there eating my dinner, I was strategizing about how to come up with the gift for our building staff at the my condo. I kept opening the mail, reading and enjoying cards from friends, then came upon the familiar SAG-AFTRA residuals envelope. I opened it and out fell a statement for Patch Adams and Seabiscuit and a check for $1,209.63. Gulp. Pause.
The thing about Seabiscuit is that Jimmie ended up on the cutting room floor. You millenials may not know that quaint expression but it harkens back to a time when films were shot on celluloid, which had to be physically cut during editing, and actors would bemoan the fact that their parts of the film would fall in thick tresses onto the floor of the editing room and they wouldn’t end up being in the movie. In fact, now I remember going to the screening of Seabiscuit, all dressed up, hanging like a starlet on Jimmie’s arm, only to realize as the final credits rolled (Jimmie’s amongst them) that we hadn’t seen him at all. We then skulked out of the theatre after we realized he hadn’t survived the editor’s shears. But, good news! I remember from Saturday’s reel of Eddie is that he had a big role in that one, so I hope his widow Anita gets a lovely check this week, too. Anyway, the long and short of it was that I burst into tears when I opened the check, my heart racing, “tears was all over my face, running all down in my ears…to find out after all these years that he still loved me.”
So that was my early Christmas present, and the proof that getting out and about is the best antidote to loss. Thanks, Jimmie, for looking out for me while I learn to look out for myself.
Oh, and I apologize for the tease of a photo. Maybe more on that another day.
Today marks a year since the death of my partner-in-life, our son’s father, accomplished actor, life-long Red Sox fan, and so many more qualifying roles he played during his 92 years on the planet. I’ve been warned by many loving friends of the unexpected tsunami of grief we who lost Jimmie may experience today. But throughout the relatively calm day, I’ve been reminded of the power of time as balm, the healing power of our life’s work and the loving remembrances of friends and family whose lives he also profoundly touched.
When I woke this morning, as every morning, I locked eyes with “Jimmy” in the distinctive black and white photo taken during The Iceman Cometh back in Washington, DC. at the Kennedy Center. It is a searing portrait by Joan Marcus, of Jimmie Greene as Jimmy Tomorrow, Eugene O’Neill’s Boer War veteran and denizen of Harry Hope’s Bar he played not just in 1985, but also back in 1967. Pipe dreams and all, Jimmy in the photo has a Rembrandt quality, his face emerging from the surrounding darkness; the photo is slightly water-damaged but still sits in the white matte frame it came in back in 1985.
The morose sorrow of Jimmy Tomorrow is palpable, the angle of the photographer’s lens, just below his eye line, allowing his eyes to follow me around the room. How does that work anyway? Of course when I looked it up, “how to make eyes follow you in a photo” – it’s straight forward – make the eyes or anything face straight out. The other 600,000 links were how-tos for wannabe social influencers. Of course.
Anyway, Jimmy Tomorrow is present, focused, stern and intently loving. I can’t tell you the number of times this year that he’s listened to me as I told him the terrible and wonderful things that have befallen me over this first year flying solo. He’s watched as I stripped our marital bed every two weeks to change the sheets, he’s watched as I sorted socks and underwear on the bedspread, back turned to the portrait, often regaling him with the benign details of trips to the gym, dates with friends, challenges at work and emotional setbacks. I’ve tried not to blame him in these “Jim Sessions.” He watched my back as I packed my suitcases for this summer’s European adventure, and again when I returned to unpack and sort them into laundry and dry cleaning, all the while as I gabbed about who and what I’d seen abroad. Was he glad I was home?
Sometimes before I turn the light off at night, I’ll try to achieve a Vulcan Mind Meld with Jimmy Tomorrow; the other night so successfully that when I turned out the light, I retained the negative image, face silhouette, frame and all in my mind’s eye for a good five minutes. During those intense stares, he almost seems to move, and his gaze responds to whatever cue I’m throwing his way. I know this is classic projection. I know I am alone and he is gone, but somehow it has been comforting to imagine his presence still in the room as he’s very much still in my mind and life.
Its been a busy year, with its share of exciting events and devastating ones. I’ve progressed through the phases of seemingly intractable grief to the promise of more mindfulness in my teaching and in my life. Whatever comes with Jimmy Tomorrow, here are just a handful of photos that remind me of Jimmie Past.
We lost a great human being this week, Susie Walsh, stage manager, friend, my reluctant widow pal. There have been so many heartfelt posts about what made Susie special. I’m late to the tablet. People have noted her great sense of humor, her biting but loving wit, her talents as a stage manager to anticipate and solve problems as they arose. The length and quality of her practice as a stage manager, the depth and breadth of her friendships and impact has wowed me. Susie was very private and would probably have hated the attention she’s getting, except not really, because it is so heartfelt, and irreverent, just like Susie was. Loving, subversive, disarmingly direct sometimes, she said what she meant and rarely sugar coated it unless needed to stay within professional boundaries.
I’ve known Susie for twenty-five years, but hold her dearest in my heart for her role as PSM for Endgame at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Spring of 2016. It was my hub’s last show. Having worked so many times with Susie over the years on shows, and seeing her shows, I took enormous comfort in knowing that she’d be monitoring the halls outside of the three 89+ year old actors dressing rooms. Just making sure they were behaving. Which they were, I think, for the most part.
She let me come to a rehearsal one time upstairs so I could see how Jimmie was navigating the work as his best 89-year-old self. I’d visit Jimmie on his two show days; In the bathroom across from his dressing room, Susie would be putting on her togs for a run or bike to the beach. A runner and a complete jock, Sueis loved sports and people who loved sports and some of us who just pretended to love sports to witness her love of them and us. I went to watch a football game at her house earlier last year and feigned interest, grazing instead on the snacks, and enjoying the company of her college friends who really were invested in the game as I would never be.
Susie and I shared a secret affection for our “old men.” She and I were about eight years apart in age, and both our partners were about 30 years older than us, give or take a few years, and after all, what’s a few years when you already have 30+ years difference? Though she and Ken never married, she was loyal to him like a spouse. We shared a pretty unique set of concerns for our old men. Our stage manager, old man Venn Diagram really was fairly rare. We added a widow circle on Dec. 1, 2018.
Sure, other couples of similar ages have illness arise that they have to deal with and it is no less impactful than what we did, but ours was expected. We knew what we signed up for. It was dreaded and yet routine, and when we had lunch together after seeing her show at the Geffen about a year ago, we spent twenty minutes or so chatting about their bad knees, their home care workers. It was our dark bond, one that we shared easily like a special shared language.
When Jimmie passed away, Ken was in his home receiving carefully organized care that Susie had put together. She texted me some photos of her battle station at Ken’s.
Hey, who do I know who would appreciate my organization?
She was right, I did appreciate seeing it because the quality of her instructions was so personal, so tangible. Seeing them brought back my own diligence, and the urgency of caring for someone you love so much in decline. That was Nov. 24th, and Ken was gone by Dec. 1st, Jimmie’s birthday. We made plans in January, to go see David Sedaris on Nov. 6th this coming week at UC Irvine. It seemed so far off, and I knew we’d both need a laugh as we approached the anniversary of our shared loss. This was the perfect reflection of Susie’s sense of humor.
Susie was the fittest over-fifty person I knew, running races, inspiring us more sedentary types to exercise more. The photo above is from New Year’s eve in 2016. That morning, we took a hike in the rain and mist. At the end, I was tired, and sore for days, a fact I shared with Michele and Susie via our ongoing shared text message. We made plans for a few more hikes, each of us taking the role of organizer of the day. My go to spot was the Huntington Gardens, Michele organized a Christmas light walk in Pasadena. In each of these walks, we shared the easy comaraderie of long time colleagues and friends – the stories unfolded, with the trails. In March, 2019, it was Susie’s turn to call the walk and we’d agreed to do a hike in a spot I didn’t know about. Susie knew all the trails – we’d done several in Griffith Park and I’d seen more of Los Angeles than I dreamed existed. We followed her trustingly, sometimes discovering that the distance was more than we’d planned for, but always feeling accomplished at the end. This time, however, in the car on the way over, Susie said, casually, “I’ve got to tell you a story – I had to go to urgent care last night.” We leaned forward to listen expecting a typically light story about food poisoning, or something like that. We arrived at the spot, got out of the car and started across the parking lot. Susie was lagging a little, then she stopped and said, “Hey would it be okay if we didn’t walk? I’m having a lot of pain.” And so instead, we went to breakfast. And began to hear the ominous start of what became the beginning of her cancer odyssey. The way was unclear, and as the future unfolded, Susie met each bend in the very uneven road with her usual fierce integrity and grit and eventually resignation and grace.
In the recent weeks, when I was able to visit her, either in the hospital or the one time I was able to get away to visit her bedside, we rarely talked about death, though he was obviously in the room, shadowing the conversation, evident in the clear oxygen tubing that snaked around Susie’s ears and under her nostrils; the propulsive wheezing of the tank that spooked Maddox, her cat from sitting on the bed with her. In her living room, the room had been torqued 90 degrees from the way it liked to be, the alien hospital bed facing the door, the coffee table and couches hugging the walls, pushed aside as if to make room for the last dance of life. The photos of family, and young Ken faced her bed, her sister Katie sitting in the chair, back to the front door, her comrade in arms, as so many of Susie’s many brothers and family had done since late summer, when Susie began her chemo. I was hopelessly inept at saying what needed to be said in what turns out was the last time I saw my friend. I’m kicking myself about that and all the loss of recent weeks makes me want to rail against the gods or something. But for what?
Friday, my colleague brought me a little pink rose bush, and said how sorry he was for my loss. Thursday, the day we all lost Susie, my coach had given me an exercise to do called Roses and Thorns. As I lay in bed last night, just before I turned out the lights I documented the Good Things (Roses) vs. the Bad Things (Thorns) I marveled at the literalness of the day. Aside from literal roses, I thought about the happy reunion of Ken and Susie, Susie and her recently departed Mom, and the very happy actors, Jimmie Greene and Charlotte Rae, who now can begin rehearsals afresh with Susie monitoring the hallways of heaven.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with some very proud parents this week. During the Move In Day Parent Welcome event last night, I met so many proud parents bursting with enthusiasm about the accomplishments of children. Have you ever noticed, that just like cops, parents get younger and younger when you work at a University? When I started, they were roughly my age, because our children were the same age. Now, their children remain the same age, but the parents are all getting younger. It’s sort of alarming, but in a grandmotherly sort of way. I’m getting used to it, after 15 years in the institution of teaching.
Oh yes, I need to define who the Our is from this post’s title. By Our, I mean Sean’s, Chris’s birth mother, Jimmie and me, his adoptive parents, and ultimately, too, Chris’ birth father, who remains a mystery to me.
Our son turns thirty this week, and he is definitely someone to be proud of. By thirty he has:
Focused first on his family and made choices that support them
Dedicated himself to bettering his skills as a hockey coach and to his players’ growth
Nurtured enormous integrity and self-awareness
Taken enough risks to make choices and decisions that advance him professionally and personally.
Made enough poor choices and decisions to know that they lead in a direction he doesn’t want to go.
Incorporated knowledge of those choices to better counsel young people about the perils of that path
Taught himself how to coach, recruit and inhabit the skin of a hockey coach.
Found and married the most perfect and amazing partner to spend his life with
Parented two beautiful girls, one into a fearless bug-loving, mud-slinging, brash and confident almost four-year-old, and the other, as of yet to be defined, but exceptionally calm and happy almost five-month-old.
Yes, clearly I’ve drunk the KoolAid on this young man. But believe me when I tell you that he is warm, charismatic, observant, funny, sardonic, intelligent and living life in a very large way.
You can blame this blog on him. Not just this post, but the entire blog. During his stint as a fisherman, he started a blog on WordPress. In a typically competitive pattern which began when we played tennis together, he at age eight or so, me at thirty-seven, I began my blog, causing him to abruptly drop his. I feel pretty safe telling you that because I’m 99% sure he will never read this. Neither of us play tennis any more either, much to my chagrin. Hey, son, I challenge you to a game next time we’re together.
Some more fun stats on our son: We’ve spent at least 40 hours (a full workweek) in various ERs with him.
Broken collarbones (2)
Injuries to hands and wrists (4)
Hand surgeries (1)
That doesn’t include the injuries he sustained out of our supervision. I once unsuccessfully pitched a book he should write to be entitled Scar, the cover art for which would have been a picture of him with various Post-its near the visible scars annotating dates and cause. I thought he’d go for it because of the innumerable hours I’d spent driving him and his friends to places while listening to them all heroically recount their injuries and display their scars to each other while I giggled in the front seat. I thought it could have been a best seller in the 14-17 year old set. Or for the Moms of that age group.
Other scars less visible, but certainly equally impactful are those left from his loss of his birth mom and the resulting cavity in his origin story. I didn’t understand, no matter how much our adoption social worker tried to prepare us, the gravity of that loss. Leave it to our son to have searched and found his birth mom and reconnected not just with her but with his step sister. This alone demonstrates his intrepid curiosity and commitment to self-knowledge. I’m so happy for him to have found his other family.
Back to my USC Move in Day Event. I love this event, not because I sit on the panel, though I feel honored and pleased to do so, but because of the radiating pride that is emitted from the audience seated before us. Their questions are focussed, and discerning and candid. My favorite question last night was to the students on the panel, “If you could talk to your Freshman self, what would you say?” What a great question! The students responses were mature, and worldly and impressive, even for those of us who’ve witnessed their journeys. We’ve witnessed some of their “failures,” though to me, there is no such thing. I chalk them up to character/intellect/heart building experiences (which I remind myself every (mostly) morning at the gym as I pant to myself “You can take it easy here. Just coast it in.” Nope. The clarity I gained from hearing them self-assess their pitfalls was great. And that was just one of the questions.
I (and probably all those parents) am asking myself the very same question, now. “If you could talk to your Freshman self, what would you say?” Which is really directing you to look at the future four years to see how you might change the course of them now, from the starting gate, from the Move In Day, if you will. This is the greatest question we can all take forward in our lives. So thank you to that perceptive parent in the fourth row last night.
To Our Son, Happy Birthday, and as you move forward, keep asking yourself about how those earlier stumbles have formed you to be the amazing and strong man you are today, the one who can talk to your players so that they have dubbed your coaching “Chrisicisms,” the most loving tribute that chokes me up every time I think of it. You are a role model, someone who lives your life with integrity and power. I had a long history of skepticisms that you’d grow up, like the trenchant belief that you would never learn to tie your shoes, or skates, or might be 30 and still wearing shorts. I can now confess, somewhat sheepishly, that there were moments I wasn’t sure how you would turn out, but you have made yourself someone of whom we can all be proud.
And for me as a really empty nest parent, many of those whom I also met yesterday, revel in the clearing of your charges from that nest, feather it again the way you want, for you, for the next phase of your life, and enjoy living your best life, mistakes and stumbles and all.
There’ve been several times as a stage manager, when I received invitations to do jobs that scared me. Scared me for different reasons, but mostly due to my normal fear of the unknown. And yet every job is unknown, because stage management is virtually 100% freelance gigs. Sometimes, though you are still working contract to contract, you get lucky enough to have an artistic home, as I did for several years several times in Los Angeles over the twenty-five years that I freelanced.
I spent four years at the Geffen Playhouse and the same at Center Theatre Group. I grew to love each of the staffs of those theaters, as well as the many actors, directors and designers with whom I collaborated on dozens of shows.
I’ll always associate becoming a mother with the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where I was stage managing Reza Abdoh’s Bogeyman, when the call came from our social worker at the Department of Children’s Services that they had a toddler for us to fost/adopt. My colleagues, led by the ASM, Sandy Cleary, hosted the baby shower. Even considering the complexity of the show I was doing at the time, suddenly becoming a mother of a two year old used many more brain cells and was more physically challenging.
Four years at the Pasadena Playhouse. My crew and I grew so accustomed to being at the theatre, so at home there that once we walked to the nearby Target on a two show day and bought Little Debbie’s cakes, and Twinkies, then retired to the office during the dinner break and practically made ourselves sick and giddy and ridiculous there on the floor between the stained couch and the desk. I’ll always associate Tin Pan Alley Rag with losing my Mom. In the stage management office off upstage right, I took a call one night just before half-hour from Jimmie, who was holding down the caretaker fort with my mom as she progressed through the final weeks of her life. Metastatic lung cancer, proof of which manifested itself in several very surreal episodes.
Hi, Els, can you talk? Your mother would like to speak with you. (some rustling as the phone is passed to her)
Hello, Elsbeth? (breathing heavily, and sounding frantic)
Yes, hi, Mom, how are you? What’s going on?
Elsbeth! You need to call the UN immediately. They need you to negotiate. I just heard it on McNeill-Lehrer.
Well, uh, Mom, I’m pretty sure the UN will be fine without my negotiating skills… Besides, we’re at half hour.
What a brat I was.
Stage/Production Managers have extraordinary skills of compartmentalization. It’s what made it possible for me last year to organize the home care for my husband, then go to work and focus on details that the job demanded. The occupational hazard of Stage Management is megalomania – we begin to believe that we’re the only one who can do the job. I only have one regret about last fall. That I didn’t walk away from work to be at home before it became acutely necessary for me to be there. Take away this.
Yes, the show will go on, but it can go on without you when your life calls you urgently to live it.
Opening night, she came to the theatre to watch the play with Jimmie, and afterwards, at the opening night party, clad in a new Missoni floor length gown, she mingled alongside me, with the cast and crew. I introduced her to the actor who played the lead character, Ira Gershwin. It was a day or two after the fashion designer Gianni Versace had been murdered in Florida. Ever the reporter, Mom looked at my lead actor, turned to me and hissed, “He’s the one who killed Versace!”
No, Mom, I promise you, it wasn’t David. He’s been in tech and dress rehearsals for more than a week. He wouldn’t have had time to get back and forth to Florida between rehearsals.
I am fortunate to have spent my entire life (so far) working in the theatre – a life in the theatre is a life well spent. I’ve had the opportunity to share important life markers: falling in love, marriage, parenthood, illness and even death with other theatre artists who understood how to work and live with intimacy, depth and candor. All while doing work on stage which illuminates many of those same life markers.
Sometimes a job will come along that shakes you out of your artistic home. Calls upon you to maybe move household, or take a big step back or a huge step forward. An invitation to go to Sicily to Stage Manage for Robert Wilson; or to go to Montana for the summer with the Alpine Theatre Project; or to apply for the job as Production Manager at USC School of Theatre.
Your inner scaredy-cat says
“What? Go to Italy and work with international artists? My language skills aren’t strong enough!”
“What? Move to Montana for the summer? What if my family doesn’t want to come?”
“What? Production Manage? I don’t know how to do that?”
But your strong center and your hunger for new and interesting collaborations calms down the fearful voice and says, “You lived for a year in Italy and will regain fluency and for crying out loud, it’s Robert Wilson!”
“Maybe that’s just what you need to go to Montana to shake things up. Plus you can hike and get out of the city. Your family can come join you there for vacation.”
Or maybe you are just lucky enough, as I have been, to have friends who encourage you to try something new when you are at an emotional or professional crossroads. Like the Production Management opportunity. “Els, you’ll know how to do it. It’s just like stage management but on steroids.”
And so you take the steps forward to meet the challenge. To do the work. To build the life.
I’ve shared that the loss of my husband last fall was a devastating blow. Even now, nine months later, I still tear up and some days feel unmoored, untethered from the very life we had worked so hard to build. How fortunate I am to have a strong artistic family and friends that have gathered around me in my time of need.
I haven’t felt like writing lately. I’ve been hunkered down in my post apocalyptic emotional bunker, occasionally poking my head up like those adorable prairie dogs at the zoo. I’m on watch for the next tragedy. Grief is distracting. More distracting than anything I’ve ever experienced.
In stage management a project starts and it ends. There are frequently good days and bad day no matter how illustrious a project it is. There’s a thing nothing short of magic that happens in a rehearsal room as the alchemy of playwright, director and actors is forged through the vehicle of a new and exciting script. Life’s the same as that. Except it’s a devised work. No script. You’re the producer who brings all the facets together to create your own magical alchemy. If you take the chances, the risks, to step outside the normal boundaries of your existence, you meet new people, form new experiences, participate in new adventures. And yes, it’s frequently scary, but usually okay or way better than okay in the end.
All the good days, all the bad, the pain, the heartache, the joy you feel through every phase of your life makes you who you are. You are strong and vibrant and capable. You may not be able to write about something important every day, but if you pay attention to the call, you may find pop out of your prairie hole and find something to keep you entertained and alive.