Sophrosyne and her Doodles

Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Sophrosyne who lived among the rolling hills of a small midwestern town. She swung her arms wide in the high grasses on the hill behind her parents’ house, singing with abandon, pretending that she was Maria von Trapp, the sun caressing her face until she fell, giggling into the grass, disappearing from the world.

She indeed had everything her heart could want, two parents who loved her, two brothers and a dog who may have as well. The demands on her time were minimal – to care for her things, to help in the rotation of setting the table and doing the dishes. She asked for a piano for Christmas, and sure enough, her parents provided one for her. She would sit at its wide deck of toothy musical possibility finding satisfying chord structures, emulating as best she could the easy playing style of others.

As she grew, Sophrosyne’s simple tastes changed, through exposure to the finer things by her parents; she would listen at the top of the stairs on those rare evenings when the under 15s were exiled to the upper story, as the adults below discussed Shakespeare and literature, while dining on gourmet food. She could hear the clink of their glasses and the tinkle of silverware on the china with the gold edge. She began to dream about a similar life of intellectual fulfillment, surrounded by a loving husband and more or less obedient children.

As time passed, she benefitted from a fulsome education, at private schools where she witnessed again the finer things of the world, sometimes first hand, and sometimes as through a slightly foggy glass frosted with her breath, upon which she doodled “I want” with a longing that left her breathless. She never lost her gratitude for the opportunities that she experienced, just occasionally her perspective wandered about what she wanted or needed. She progressed to university, where she piled her plate with the sweetmeats of close study of literature and fine arts, and immersed herself more wholeheartedly in theatrical pursuits. There she learned to collaborate and about the exquisite satisfaction of long hours of intense and focused review of passages of music and text in the company of like-minded thespians. It filled her mind and her heart.

And yet.

Sophrosyne longed for more. She longed for love, and sometimes for escape from the worry that there was more to have, to master. She traveled far and wide, filling her belly with life experiences and her young and hungry mouth with food and drink and languages that she had studied while at university, utilizing them in her quest for love and a richer life. She missed theatrical pursuits, however, and yearned to find her soulmate.

She returned from her travels and began a life in the theatre, almost instantly meeting the man who became her partner in all things. Their initial theatrical collaboration translated into an easy partnership of similar interests, a mutual appreciation for the arts, for good, simple food, for the company of close friends. Sophrosyne began paring away the external wants like drink, that had served to numb her worry, and instead relied upon her partner for the calming comfort that thoughtful dissection of a problem together could bring. They thrived, knowing that they had everything they needed.

They raised a more or less obedient child together, watched proudly as he went off to begin to make a life, looked for love, while striving to find an avocation that would satisfy him. Sophrosyne returned to university, this time, not as a student, but as a theatrical collaborator. She loved the work there, and the friendships with her colleagues and the satisfying proximity of supporting the next generation of theatre makers as they discovered and explored their passions. And she continued to doodle, this time, more about the happy and fulfilling life she and her partner had created.

But, far too soon, Sophrosyne’s partner began to fail in health, and she watched as the inevitable happened, and she again found herself alone. The aching and ancient yearning returned, and she struggled to remember that what she had was enough, her gratitude sufficient. Now her doodles were darker, more poignant. She cherished the outreach from their son, who checked in with her faithfully to report on his and his family’s life.

And yet.

Life at the university filled the nooks and crannies of loss and desire, doodle polls arriving with a regularity, filling in Sophrosyne’s calendar with activities and meetings, while she continued to examine what she wanted vs. what she needed. She needed to recapture the doodles of her youth, not the breathless longing, but that feeling of endless musical possibility.

Sophrosyne pulled out the bench, listening to its satisfying scrape across the floor. She sat at the keys and began to doodle.

The Inappropriate Final and How My Students Made Me So Proud…

This has been a challenging semester for many students, faculty and staff at SDA. However, a definite bright spot in the semester was yesterday’s final with my GESM 111G Theatre Scene class, depicted above.

This is a freshman seminar, intended for non-theatre majors, so it hosts a diverse group of students (not all of whom are depicted above.) Their degree goals range from computer engineering, mechanical engineering, business administration, cinema, pre-med, to narrative studies, and other majors. Not-so-secretly I harbor the goal of “turning” them to the arts, opening them to the riches of our theatrical practice. In the past, I’ve successfully persuaded students to continue taking an acting class, or once, the THTR 130 Introduction to Theatrical Production class, where they were a crew member for one of our productions in the Spring semester. This semester, I had the privilege of teaching in tandem with my colleague, Melinda Finberg, as we guided two discreet sections of the course through our mutually defined syllabus.

We began the semester learning about the World of the Play, utilizing Elinor Fuch’s tactile treatise on the subject. We read several chapters from Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, to immediately dispel the notion that making theatre is not rigorous or is somehow loosey-goosey. I had them do an exercise early-on from that book, the creative autobiography, where students shared their first creative moments, both successful and not. I read these, squirreling away some of their creative ambitions and dreams. I was delighted to read that in general, their attitudes to money, power, praise, rivals, work and play were consistent. They seemed to understand that a certain amount of money and praise were to be enjoyed if attained; they universally scoffed at power and recognized that rivals were helpful in pushing one to do their best work. Work was perceived to be necessary, play was “yay! Fun, good, etc.” My goal in having them do the exercise was to get to know them, to have a window into what made them tick. I tortured them by breaking them into groups to talk about how they would take actual steps toward reaching these fantasy creative goals and then had them report back what they would do individually advance their agendas. I’m still not sure how that exercise went. This may ring true with other teachers. Not to pull the curtain back on the wizard, but much that we do is trial and error. Certainly I am always trying to find new ways to open mental doors for my students, to encourage expression of their human aims.

We’ve since been busy, spending the fifteen weeks of the semester learning how to read plays, then how to see them; how to creatively unpeel production elements from the skeleton of the play itself, to determine what design elements serve to better tell the play’s story and which ones might not be in service to that story. They learned how to easily identify the protagonist, or to make a compelling argument for their choice. We’ve detailed the opposing forces of five plays, identified the inciting incidents, the many moments of engagement, the climaxes, the denouements, the larger dramatic question asked by each play in our dissection of the fall productions presented at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts. I’ve shared the process of presenting a play, from obtaining the rights, through casting, rehearsing, and how a design team sculpts their work in four dimensions as guided by and supported by individual directors’ visions. Melinda and I’ve been blessed with participating guests in class to help make those collaborations real and tactile. Our visitors were directors and costume designers, artistic directors, directors and scenic designers, directors and lighting designers, and finally, a playwright. We’ve called in a lot of favors of my colleagues and am forever grateful to those student designers who’ve shared their processes amidst time management while juggling both their academic work and designs.

We’ve talked about the timeliness of presenting specific plays now, as in The Cider House Rules, Parts I and II in our current political climate where a woman’s right to choose is threatened daily with new legislature. Why was Jaclyn Backhaus’ play, Men On Boats so powerful at this particular moment? Can we relate to the police state that Mad Forest emerges from?

We’ve touched on the economic realities of programming plays by professional theaters, the notion of theaters’ artistic missions, and the challenges of meeting the costs of producing plays, without self-censoring. We’ve collectively bemoaned the paucity of governmental support of the arts in our country and how that exacerbates the afore-mentioned challenges.

They’ve attended five plays this semester, and written performance analyses about various aspects of the productions, a paper each about Scenic and Lighting Design, Casting and Inclusivity, Dramaturgy and Direction, Sound and Dialects, Costume, Hair and Makeup.

Other papers (yes, this is a bear of a class for reading, writing and creative exercises) included a straightforward dissection of one of the early plays to identify the parts of the play that we learned about through Carl Pritner and Scott E. Walters’ Introduction to Play Analysis, our main text. They had two creative projects intended to better examine the world of two plays, Men on Boats, and Mad Forest, by Caryl Churchill.

Ultimately, as the final project, a paper, they’ve utilized a stage direction from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to examine any one of the five plays we’ve read and seen this semester. This final assignment I owe credit to Professor Oliver Mayer for, because it came out of his shepherding of my fall 2018 class while I was caught in my own “Thundercloud of a common crisis,” while helping my husband in the waning moments of his life. Here’s the quote:

…The bird that I hope to catch in the net of this play is not the solution of one man’s psychological problem. I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent-fiercely charged-interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis. Some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is left in the revelation of character in life, even in one’s character to himself. This does not absolve the playwright of his duty to observe and probe as deeply as he legitimately can: but it should steer him away from ‘pat’ conclusions, facile definitions which make a play just a play, not a snare for the truth of human experience.

Tennessee Williams, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

So back to my final, which was really a party because the final was submitted by each of them at 2:00PM that day, via Turnitin. Over the final weeks I’d been mulling in my task-grading-saturated brain what would be a fun and celebratory way for the group to spend some relaxed downtime at our final meeting. The night before, I got up off my couch at 10:30PM, after grading papers, and went to Target, to peruse the game aisle to find a game that might be fun. I picked up a game entitled Joking Hazard, from the creators of Cyanide and Happiness. (Here’s where you can stop reading if you are an upper university administrator, please.)

The box sports two cartoon figures, which I guess are familiar to anyone under 20. Had I not been in the aisle at Target at 11:30 when they were closing at 12:00AM, I might have googled You Tube: Cyanide and Happiness and seen this video that would spare me the mortification that ensued. But no, onward I went down the aisle, buying other gifts and some containers of caramel corn for the class to eat while they played the game. Did you know that two tall containers of buttery caramel corn constitutes a party? I did.

Cut to the next afternoon, as I opened the game for the eagerly assembled students. As we had so many other exercises during the semester, we broke into smaller groups of four to five, and I handed each group their “deck” of cards. We read the rules and off they went, my enthusiasm beginning to flag as I watched one young woman turn about 6 shades of red as she rifled through the deck I’d just handed her. I had no idea of how inappropriate the game was. Talk about trial and error. She looked up and asked me if she should filter through the cards and remove the offending ones.

No, I said, brightly, we don’t self-censor, right? This still was in the innocent moments before I looked over the shoulders of each group as they began playing the game. True mortification set in within about three minutes as the really offensive cards came out. I’d say the game is about 80% really explicit either sexually or violence-wise. But the students were starting to get into the game. One student did say, “This is really sexual.” I quickly said, “We can stop playing anytime.”

But even after each group finished a round, they wanted to stay, as they were really enjoying the company of the other students they’d bonded with over the summer through theatrical literature and experiencing shows together, so they continued to play, one group beginning a deck-long story, which they collaborated over, creating a long span of cards telling a dark sexually aberrant tale. Lamely, I stood over them, as they laughed and continued to insert more cards into the invective stream, each one causing gales of laughter. But ultimately, I began to feel proud, as they did a creative exercise completely outside the framework of the game. They applied their knowledge of story, of opposing forces, of forwards, of climax (god help me), of bloody denouement. Moment of engagement took on an entirely different meaning in the context of Joking Hazard. Then a student pulled out their phone and began doing a pano shot of the story which engendered a little roil my stomach. Another student pulled their phone up above and captured the entire story on their table, which snaked three levels deep into the mires of really inappropriate comic frames. The group picture I took as they all assembled around that group’s story, again, other members of other groups inserting comic frames into the tale.

Anyway, this last semester I got to teach before the Title IX case is brought against me was probably the best one I’d had. Through the plays we examined, we caught the true quality of experience in a group of people, the cloudy, flickering, evanescent, fiercely-charged interplay of what it means to be human. At the end of the “final”, I shared with each of them postcards I’d written with the private dream they’d spilled from their creative autobiography, and urged them to reach up and grab at it. What a privilege it has been to share with each of them what I love about the theatre and hope that I’ve succeeded in planting in them the seed of a lifetime of theatre appreciation. However inappropriate their final was.

Production Managers Forum – Spring Green, WI

I’ve had the privilege of belonging to this mythical group for the past seven or eight years, a national group of Production Managers from Regional Theaters, Educational institutions like mine, Opera Companies, and other assorted theatrical institutions across the country. Benefits of belonging to this advanced “hive mind” are almost instantaneous solutions to problems posed to the group, ranging from seeking contacts for designers and other artists, to advice on how/whether to have a horse on stage, which was one of my first queries back in 2012. Having the lived experience of so many other theatre practitioners at your fingertips makes being a PM possible and educational as well. I’d never before been able to attend a PMF gathering – maybe once before. Last weekend was filled with professional networking, sharing of practices, and a healthy dose of relaxation and taking in the green of Spring Green, WI.

In Wisconsin, we don’t say “I haven’t hit a deer”; we say “I haven’t hit a deer yet.”

Mike Broh, Production Manager, American Players Theatre

These words reverberate like the chimes played on the Hill before the matinee at American Players Theatre. Driving to dinner from the hotel, as the slight framed deer dashed in front of the Gray Nissan rental car I’d refused extra insurance coverage on, I breathed a sigh of relief and slowed down.

The road to hell is paved with the flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.

This and other funny and insightful quotes peppered many cork boards throughout the backstage and shop areas at American Players Theater. My favorite was the APT Core Values sheet, on the safety yellow paper stock that APT’s production manager, Mike Broh, reserves for only the most critical areas of safety, of which core values would obviously be.

As someone who began as a Stage Manager prior to moving to Production Management, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for SMs, as folks who will have your back to the bitter end. This PMF group may have superseded them after getting to go on this weekend fall PMF conference. Our host was Mike Broh, of American Players Theatre. Sitting in the wide circle of tables in the rehearsal room for both sessions on Friday evening and Saturday during the day was humbling in terms of the collective experience of these Production Managers but in a comfortable non-judgmental way. There were about 40 of us there. Due to the location of the conference, there were PMs from Milwaukee and Chicago, but others who came a further distance, from Boston, New Haven, and Oregon, as well as three of us from Southern California.

Saturday morning we started the day off with a tour of the APT kingdom, which is a vast network of spaces intricately designed for their individual purposes, to support simultaneously five to eight productions annually. The complexity of this was clear even from the initial board filled with the beaming pictures of the staff, and visiting artists, designers and directors. Everyone’s friendly face on a yellow card with their name and their role clearly indicated.

We toured the props domain, starting with the props woodworking shop, framed by the organized jury of chairs sitting above to watch the clean well-organized shop. We moved through the kitchen, to the upstairs clean room for props and costume work, and finally to the furniture storage, each item clearly tagged and coded for easy retrieval. The staff’s sense of humor was evident, from the prominently displayed Julius Caesar, modeled after one of their core company members, complete with 20+ stab wounds overlooking the props work room from behind his own work goggles.

The tour continued around the many acres on which the Alpha and Bravo buildings were arranged, to the rehearsal space building. I didn’t look around to see if others were salivating like I was, but I suspect they were. I had definite space envy. In addition to the workroom spaces, each of the theatres has adjacent storage spaces to handle the scenery and costumes for rotation in and out of its stages in a very active Rep. Everything’s designed, or course, with these changeovers in mind.

The Costume Domain was equally impressive. From hats to storage, Millinery and Wig rooms, and spacious fitting rooms, all spaces reflected the ethos of giving your employees what they need to succeed.

After touring the facilities, seeing the indoor Touchstone Theatre and outdoor Hill Theatre, we returned to the rehearsal room for our second round table discussing important topics. Topics of the weekend (at the risk of banishment from the group) included:

  • Trends in Theatre
  • Salary Transparency
  • Sustainability
  • Onboarding New Employees
  • Vaping
  • Social Media
  • Use of Cell Phones backstage

Mike ran the meetings beautifully, letting the conversations about each topic ebb and flow; he didn’t need to moderate – this group pretty much self-moderates, but ending each segment right on time with a droll unsardonic “Well, that was fun,” which elicited a rolling, warm shared laugh across the room every time. Aside from acute space envy, I came away from American Players Theatre with an appreciation of the effects of transparency at practice there, the self-evident respect among the staff. It was great to run into a former student, Lea Branyan, who has worked at APT for several summers, and has recently taken a job with the Lyric Opera in Chicago.

Just for yucks, as I was writing this, I looked back to see the colorful and extraordinarily helpful descriptions of what could go wrong if I allowed them to bring a horse on stage back in 2012. That’s the other benefit of being a member. Not that I’d wish more email on anyone, but this group is thoughtful and funny with their responses to members’ questions. About that horse idea?

  1. Calculate the weight of the horse when standing on 2 hooves and if you have a trapped stage, figure the point load of the floor. Oversheet the floor with 1” plywood and reinforce the braces in the areas where the traps are.
  2. Hire a horse and a handler. There are plenty of people who do this in Los Angeles. They bring the horse, rehearse the horse and then ideally, take the horse out of the facility.
  3. Be aware of campus sensitivity. Everyone will be looking for you to be abusing the animal. This is usually quelled by saying you have an animal wrangler. (Emphasis is mine)
  4. Talk the handler through the expectations of what the horse would be doing, and conditions on stage.
  5. When you get to tech, if you haven’t found it too crazy, you will need to proceed really slowly to integrate the horse lest it get spooked.  You’ll want to have horse no people with work lights, then horse with people, then horse with lights, then horse with sound, then add people and sound (this is the biggest jump and the most likely to spook the horse), again then people and light.  Only after everything is good with each step do you go ahead.  We would take a week to get animals who are used to performing acclimated to being in a different production number. And then this was a long lead before audience.
  6.   And I forgot to say that the backstage traffic is almost as complicated.  With the right animal it could be quick, if the horse is jumpy, it could be disastrous.  
  7. Oh! And don’t forget you’ll need to assign someone to poop duty. 

Throughout the weekend, we ate well at a series of local restaurants, including one of the local hotspots, Slowpoke Bar and Cabaret owned by Mike and his wife Stacey. We even got to slip away Sunday morning to visit the garish House on the Rock, which until I’d travelled there, always thought referred to the Frank Lloyd Wright house, Taliesan. Oh, couldn’t have been more wrong. A kitschy must-see for when you go to Spring Green. That and the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, WI.

I feel lucky to be in the company of such amazing Production Managers.

“And the seasons they go round and round….”

This is the first week of classes, and my Freshman Seminar “Theatre Scene” is all the way across the campus from my office in the Scene Dock Theatre. It’s a joy, walking across the campus, in my brightly colored silk blouse, taking my steps to share knowledge and passion for my topic with my inquisitive students. Today, I plugged in my earplugs and let my music boost me across campus. Truly great songwriters tell stories and it’s been so long since I heard music through an optimistic filter. There’s something stunning about listening to the lyrics that I know by heart, but instead of from my single just-north-of-twenty-year old self, listening from the other side, single and just-south-of-sixty.

The USC School of Dramatic Arts 2019 Move in Day event on August 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

I don’t know when exactly it was that I reached out to Karla Bonoff recently, but I am relishing the reconnection. Full disclosure, I don’t know Karla Bonoff, but I’ve got her as my current station on Pandora. No, thank you for thinking so, but it’s the free Pandora, the one with the irritating ads. “….spa inspired bathtub….” Yeah, yeah.

Baby Don’t Go (Karla Bonoff)

Taking all I’ve got and now you’re leaving….

Karla Bonoff

Been to Canaan and I won’t rest until I go back again.

Carole King

After work today, I jumped in my car to pick up a brown tiger’s eye bead necklace from the repair place over on Sunset. I’m in that sort of mood these days. Clearing off desks, putting TVs up on the wall to free up table space for my puzzles. My TV now hangs out on an arm that tilts it towards the kitchen so I can watch while I cook. I know I sound like I’m well on my way to being a cat lady. But what you may not know is that I’ve been there, done that. With five cats at one time. So I swear I don’t have a cat. I don’t need a cat. I don’t want a cat. I am doing what I want right now. Planning the next phase of my life. Consulting with professionals. Asking embarrassing and probing questions of myself and only myself. A bit of good old navel gazing, I think we used to call it.

Anyway, today in the car as I toodled up Vermont Avenue, I belted along listened to some of my old faves:
Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)

…Moons and Junes and ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really…

The copyright police will come after me, but I just wanted to drive home the point that we’ve come a long way since our feckless twenties. Life looks quite different from this angle. But the music is still so great. Joni Mitchell was 25 when she wrote that song in 1968.

If you are of the vintage when Karla Bonoff’s, Jackson Browne’s, James Taylor’s, Linda Rondstadt’s, Joni Mitchell’s, Carly Simon’s and The Eagles’ songs spoke loudly to you, do yourself a favor – give another listen.

My listening tonight:

  • Blackbird (Sarah McLachlin)
  • Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
  • After The Thrill is Gone (Eagles)
  • Carry Me Home (Karla Bonoff)
  • When Will I Be Loved (Linda Rondstadt)
  • Rock Me on the Water (Jackson Browne)
  • Angel (Sarah McLachlin)
  • Blue Bayou (Linda Rondstadt)

After I shared this post, my colleague Luis Alfaro guided me to this astonishing rendition of Both Sides Now. Thank you, Luis!

The Here After/Il Futuro

here·af·terDictionary result for hereafter
/hirˈaftər/
adverbFORMAL

1.
from now on.
“nothing I say hereafter is intended to relate to the second decision”synonyms:
from now on, after this, as of now, from this day on, from this time on, from this moment forth, from this day forth, from this day forward, subsequently, in future, in the future, hence, henceforth, henceforward; formalhereinafter
“nothing I say hereafter is intended to relate to the second decision”
noun
1.
life after death.
“suffering is part of our preparation for the hereafter”synonyms:
life after death, the afterlife, the life to come, the afterworld, the next world, the beyond; 

Shortly after my husband died, being a stage manager, I constructed what I entitled my hereafter list. Hopelessly pragmatic, my hereafter was not thinking about where Jimmie was in the spirit world, but how I could cope with the logistics of my life here, after his death. All the things that I had to do to notify various people and companies of his passing. Pretty much all of them required the death certificate and none of them was a simple one-step process.

Here’s what I mean. I cancelled his subscription to The New Yorker Magazine. As much as I loved the magazine, the arrival of a new issue each week was too much of a commitment, and combined with the daily arrival of two newspapers I was mentally unable to absorb, seemed wasteful and a poor use of resources. Everyone’s, not just mine. The cancellation itself was easy, but the result was a check, which I received about two weeks later, for $23.00 for the remainder of this year’s subscription. Great. However, it was made out to Jimmie. When I took it to the bank to deposit it, of course, I’d removed him from the accounts, so could no longer deposit it in the checking account. You get the picture. Cut to three months later, when I finally had a minute to call the New Yorker back and request a new check in my name, which I should have in…4-6 weeks. Done?

Now, I’m pretty plucky, if I do say so myself, so waiting 4-6 weeks is nothing. Like batting an eye. I know it will pass quickly. But imagine the list of tasks that every remaining spouse/partner faces:

Cancel credit cards, notify insurance company; write and place obituaries, notify doctors, pensions, mortgage company, suspend automatic-refills of medications, plan memorial, rejigger finances, go back to work, remain engaged in the world, redefine yourself in your singularity. It becomes a huge list of stultifying administrative and psychological tasks which can wear down even the pluckiest among us.

I thought about people who in addition to losing their spouse, become single parents charged with the 24-7 care of their children while rocking in the cradle of their own grief. I felt lucky to have a grown child with whom I can share grown grief. Through writing about my own grieving process, I discovered a wonderful blog about just such a father who lost his partner and remains the sole parent to an extraordinary child whose adventures he shares on a daily basis. Not sure how bloggers manage to meet a daily commitment to their readers, but I’m particularly impressed with this writer’s ability to share his circumstances with good humor and grace.

But I digress. Yesterday, I managed to accomplish one of the longer lasting administrative slogs from my hereafter list as well as a new, futuro-directed-this-is-for-you-Els one.

I finalized my divorce from B of A. As you may remember, this is something which I’ve been working on for some time. Well, as the post would indicate, a year ago today. And yesterday, I closed my accounts, canceled my credit card and walked away, feeling completely accomplished. I bought muffins to take to the office to celebrate. I was giddy with freedom as I shredded my debit card and remaining checks, while jamming the sticky sweet “breakfast cake” into my mouth.

The futuro task I accomplished yesterday was the purchase of a round trip ticket to Rome this summer. Yesterday, when the phrase Hereafter planted itself in my brain sometime in the middle of the afternoon, I googled “Hereafter in Italian” and discovered that sensibly, the phrase is “Il Futuro.” No shadowing of spirituality or afterlife, just a solid unwavering gaze into the future. And yet, this trip to Italy is layered with so much more that I relish the opportunity to explore and share. It’s both a look forward, and a peering backward to revisit my youthful strides into adulthood.

Chez Pa-niece

I lost interest in cooking and eating after Jimmie died. It felt like the natural progression – he stopped eating, I stopped eating. Eating afterwards felt disloyal in a way as it’s such a confirmation of living. And grief has a weight of its own that I hadn’t remembered. It draws you down and convinces you that you need less to survive. Once you eventually get hungry, you realize that it’s also not as much fun to cook for one as it is for two, which is an added disincentive to cooking and eating.

So when Jimmie’s niece, Niki, asked if I could help her out by having her stay for two weeks with me, I quickly agreed. Not only is Niki an accomplished chef, but she is a creative and intelligent woman. I knew that she would be busy with her own outside work while she was “in residence,” but I also knew having her there would be a tonic. And it was. 

When I say Niki is accomplished I mean she’s really accomplished. She studied at the Culinary Institute, worked for six and a half years with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in the Bay Area, being sent to the American Academy of Rome as one of the first visiting cooks as part of the Rome Sustainable Food Project. She has built a healthy resume as a personal chef for many distinguished clients. Through these clients as well as through her many residencies at Salmon Creek Farm, she manifests a passion for sustainable and healthful eating, and an appreciation for interesting artists and people in general. She’s got a healthy skepticism about the trappings of wealth and a facility to hold her own amidst her clients. I have no doubt that Niki is as interesting and talented as any of them, but with a quirky self-deprecating twist, and an insatiable curiosity about the world. She extrudes confidence in the kitchen as easily as she presses garlic, and watching her in my humble kitchen zone was a privilege during her two week residency.

I first met Niki when she was about six; she and her sister Gina came to New York with their Grandma Claire, Jimmie’s sister. Their visit coincided with the early days of our courtship; in fact, they arrived the morning after I’d spent the night at Jimmie’s Upper West Side apartment for the first time. I remember this with the clarity of smell-o-vision because I’d draped my jeans over the living room chair and one of Jimmie’s cats, Flicka, had sprayed them to make them hers; when I rose to get dressed in the morning to meet his nieces, the pants reeked. Chagrined, I’d borrowed a pair of Jimmie’s jeans, which were way too big for me, and my corroding memory loops a rope belt around my waist a la Ellie May Clampett to meet Jimmie’s sister Claire and Niki and Gina for the first time.

The weekend was wonderful, getting to know Claire and her two granddaughters, by the side of the boat pond in Central Park, and walking Jimmie’s scholarly German Shepherd, Jasper around the Upper West Side. I had no idea at the time how accomplished they would both become. Gina has become a landscape architect of great renown, and Niki a top flight chef.

This Niki demonstrated many times during her two week visit: the morning she offered to take over the scrambled eggs task I was just beginning, presenting me about ten minutes later with a beautiful french rolled omelet with fresh broccoli and onions. I think she had noticed my morning regime of Ninja smoothie, and however healthy it was, it clearly wasn’t holding me over. There was the Sunday night she prepared us swordfish and potatoes. And the fresh chicken soup, with home-made broth, an array of perfectly-cooked vegetables, with separate gluten-free quinoa pasta deftly added after microwaving the soup and a parsley pesto oil to put on top. Or one of the last nights she was there, cleaning up the fridge and making a delicious curry with chick peas, carrots, celery and tomatoes.

In between the cooking, we puzzled together over the woes of the world, the challenges of surviving a catastrophic loss, and how to make people value your work more. Our life seminars played out over the pieces of several puzzles over the two weeks. Here are some of the pictures from our favorite, Reader’s Paradise. As we worked the puzzles intricate bannisters, we fantasized about dropping into the library once it was assembled on the gold tablecloth.

 

We geeked out over the carpeted stairs, the array of different types of bannisters, the stacks of children’s books. We stayed up way too late, figuring it, and all the issues of the world, all out.

Niki’s visit was perfectly timed in my early weeks of grieving. She provided a dash of modeling independence and courage, a splash of silliness, a rasher of empathy, and daily affirming hugs which telegraphed that my emotional ups and downs were normal and welcome. We happily whiled away the two weeks leading up to both of our departures for the Christmas break. In the last day, we started on the 1500 piece Kodak hot air balloon puzzle which now sits on the dining room table, ready to take me into 2019 still puzzling about this new world I find myself in. Over the break, I demonstrated a bit of what I’d learned from Niki about chicken soup to my son and his family.  Thank you, Niki! IMG_1409

Phantom Threads

Though you’d never know it from my silence, this has been an event filled week. After finishing the scones, yes, all the scones, last Thursday, I escorted Jimmie to his surgical procedure and home the same day, quite a feat for the 91-nearly-92-set, and we settled into the recovery period over the weekend.

Though the surgery had gone well, the dreaded C words still prevail – cancer in the biopsy, and catheter in the “leg” as Jimmie said to his sister Kate when we called her this weekend to wish her a happy belated 84th birthday. I could tell from his expression and from reading the handy captions on our phone, Kate wasn’t getting it. I leaned over and mouthed

It wasn’t in your leg, dear, it was in your penis. That’s where a catheter is.

Which of course cracked us both up.

We weren’t cracking up last Thursday when we got home from the hospital.55V1xr5eSDW3Ng94F5OOXQ I had sent this photo of him to our family,  taken in the recovery room, showing him beaming in his lilac paper hospital gown, not yet un-numbing from the epidural he’d had. He repeatedly was asking me why we were in the hospital? What happened?

Every time he woke up, I told him again why we were there and what he’d had done. He just wanted to go home. And so we did by about 4:30 that day.

The next four days were painful, dulled only by the heavy doses of Extra Strength Tylenol. This was the darkest time. There’s little worse than seeing your partner in pain, and it started me on a sober accounting:

  • is the pain related to an advance of the cancer or just the catheter?
  • how to be with him as much as possible
  • when to take time off
  • how to notify family and friends
  • how to organize visits so they wouldn’t tire him out
  • the effects of stronger pain medications on his lovely presence and our quality of life
  • how much longer do we have

I really went there. I don’t think Jimmie was thinking about it that much, but was just hunkering down with the pain. He was completely distracted and therefore absent, which of course made me worry more. These issues are familiar, having gone through the loss of two other loved ones to cancer, and participating in their final days. But it’s different with your partner than your parent.

Finally, on Tuesday, the fifth day of watching Jimmie suffering in pain, I called his doctor and said we needed something stronger. We went in and much to our surprise, he said he could also remove the catheter. He also gave us a prescription for heavier pain meds; mercifully, we still haven’t had to fill that.

And then, within a day or two, the pain was gone. A miracle. No more Tylenol, the notebook where we’d been recording all the medication sitting on the table untouched now for five days. To say that we won’t resume at some point would be naive, but for now we are out of the woods.

Which brings me to the real reason I started this post. We’ve resumed our lives, the absence of pain and the catheter constantly reassuring. Last night we watched the film Phantom Thread, with Daniel Day Lewis and Vickey Krieps. IMDB summarizes the plot of the movie this way:

Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know that it is about so much more than that. For me, the title is a tidy metaphor for Jimmie’s short term memory loss.

We were having dinner tonight- some strange pesto chicken patties I’d gotten at Whole Foods, and sautéed zucchini, an orzo feta salad – when I made an offhanded remark about the texture of the chicken patties. They bordered on pre-chewed, but then I joked about Alma’s cooking from the movie.

Jimmie looked at me and said what movie?

You know, the movie about the couturier who lived in the big house with all the women working there to sew his dresses……..

I then went on to describe the rather bizarre turn the movie took. Aren’t I good to not spoil it for you?

Jimmie: Blank look.

Els: You don’t remember anything about the movie do you?

No, he said, calmly eating his zucchini.

What I love about Jimmie is that he doesn’t seem the least bit perturbed about his loss of short term memory. He is always so present so you could give a fig about whether you have to repeat a story. It used to bother me that when I came home he couldn’t remember what happened in Trumpville that day, but I can easily get caught up with about 10 minutes of CNN. And what a blessing for him that he doesn’t carry this toxic mental waste around like the rest of us have to.

My favorite of his new expressions is “In one head and out the other.”

Els: It doesn’t seem to bother you that you can’t remember details. That’s wonderful that it isn’t causing you worry.

Jimmie: I just feel sorry for you that I don’t remember.

Els: What are you kidding? I can repeat myself endlessly and you never get the least bit bored about what I’m saying. You don’t put your head down on the table and say, For crying out loud, that’s the sixth time you’ve told me that story!

He smiled across the table at me, and we resumed our companionable silence as we ate the rubbery patties. And now I’m worried that I have become Alma…

No Scone Left Unturned

This week, unfortunately, I stumbled across a recipe for scones in the New York Times. I don’t know how I could have gotten to the ripe old age of fifty-hand-over-mouth-mumble without knowing how ridiculously easy scones are to make. And now that I’ve lost the illusion of them as something only English people (who seem ever so much more clever than we) can whip up, Lord help me. And you, if you’ve clicked on the link above. Curse you, Susan Guerrero!

Today I made two batches, telling myself that I would share them with others; when Jimmie eschewed a hot fresh scone for a Thomas’ English Muffin this morning, I knew I was really in the danger zone.

And yet, that wasn’t the first good idea I had this week. Yesterday, at the end of the work week, Jimmie and I scootered over to the park for a half hour, happening upon a flash-mob of toddlers all under 3 playing with their parents in a postage stamp of green grass in the center of the park. It was adorable. A diverse group of parents, from the nearly neglectful rockers languishing on a bench as their tow-haired two-year-old dashed madly around the grass, to the maniacally kiss-crazy mom chasing behind her son chortling, “Good job, Joey!” every two seconds. It seemed to be the only thing she could come up with to say, but her adoring offspring suffered her kisses with a delighted smile, giggling into the falling tendrils of his mother’s hair. Meanwhile, his father stood nearby waiting for the two of them to notice he was there. A pair of doting grandparents sat on a bench reading, watching their late twenties daughter tossed a ball with her Boden-clad daughter, sparking the question, “Who wears a skirt to the park to play?” Such a mean-girls thought seemed inhospitable in the midst of “the children’s hour.”

There must have been 13 under-threes in the group. I wondered whether they were a club. They all seemed to know each other, and there were companionable grownup chats happening around the perimeter of the grass at benches such as ours. It was only when I saw a caravan of strollers forming, winding away from us toward the playground area that I remembered seeing the film crew breaking down their setup as we’d entered the park. I noted that the yellow caution tape had been removed from the perimeter of the playground. So, yes, they did know each other because they all shared the same playground at the same time of day. Mystery solved.

Jimmie and I remained in companionable togetherness on our bench, chatting about an idea for a play I’d just had. I hasten to add that this idea comes from the same hare-brained place that the idea to make three batches of scones in as many days comes from, but here it is.

Spin-Cycle: The play takes place in two acts featuring the early morning denizens of a gym to the rumpled, linty late night hijinks of a laundromat. Producers, don’t despair! You could utilize the same cast members, because god knows the morning people make dirty clothes apace. Tag line: What goes around comes around.

Brilliant, right? No, Els, it is not.

These are the idle meanderings of someone whose brain is task-saturated. And that’s my home life. Last week, Jimmie and I careened from doctor’s office to doctor’s office to lab to X-Ray, in preparation for his procedure next Thursday, the same day Brett Kavanaugh most likely becomes the next member of the Supreme Court. Despite that inauspicious coincidence, I have no reason to believe our procedure won’t go well and Jimmie will thrive afterwards. But I’ve become dizzy with details for managing his pain and prep. Simple screwups like the fact that it turns out I’d been overdosing him with Motrin for several weeks.

And so, I’m baking. Never a good sign; since I do spend so much time “researching my first play” at the gym, baking is a self-sabotaging act of dietary regression, and I can see it’s resulting bulges through my sweaty togs. On the other hand, I rediscovered the fascination of cooking good food as well, when Jimmie’s great niece, Niki, came through last weekend, demonstrating the beauty of well-cooked greens and delicately grilled cumin-flavored potatoes with swordfish. 995E7EB8-58E0-4BD9-B03B-9F54A336EE08This morning I cut the beet greens off the beets I’d bought and made a lovely chopped beet and onion sauté to go with my brown rice and scrambled egg breakfast. Which I promptly followed with a maple walnut scone chaser. Slathered in Earth Balance…

So hit me up if you want a tin of scones or some good play ideas. I clearly have plenty of both.

 

Lucy Sparrow – Felt the Grocery Store!

One of the best things about living downtown is easy access to cultural events. This weekend, that included attending a pop-up art installation at the Standard Hotel at 6th and Flower in DTLA.

British craft artist Lucy Sparrow has spent a year in her “Felt Cave” back in Essex, England along with her staff of five, building the 31,000 felt grocery items that adorn the felt shelves in the second story Sparrow Mart.

Getting into the exhibit required a bit of patience. When my friend Rob and I arrived, there was a short line wrapped outside near the parking lot for the Hotel. It was warm, but we were in the shade most of the time, and the hotel provided bright yellow umbrellas in a stand near the door for those moments when you found yourself between the dappled leaves of the patio’s trees

Once inside the Hotel lobby, we approached a stand where we made our actual appointment. We arrived at 2:30, but learned that our appointment would be for 5:00pm. Groan, vocal incredulity. We Angelenos are an impatient tribe. Not being a DTLA Hipster, I rarely frequent the Standard Hotel lobby, but nevertheless enjoyed the next few hours catching up with Rob while sipping iced tea and eating a moon pie from the Sparrow Food bar, where you can buy tasty treats and also take home the felt version of them as well. Surrounded by the lobby’s burled wooden walls, and hot pink lounge furniture made the time pass easily, with music  by a DJ who played LPs appealing to the over 50 and under 25 sets. Quite a feat.

At our appointed time, we ascended the escalator, and gathered outside the storefront of the Sparrow Mart for brief instructions. Soon, we were inside with a red basket hooked over my arm, looking at an impressive array of animated vegetables, pineapples, cucumbers and peppers, each sporting laughing black eyes.  To the right a fish case, filled with shrimp, mussels, salmon fillets, and lobsters. Next to it, a display of liquor bottles leaning drunkenly against each other.IMG_0881

Adjacent to the alcohol, a full case of sushi, dozens of individually stitched hand rolls. The level of detail is mind boggling. And so colorful!

IMG_0860This art installation allows for all of the objects in the store to be purchased. The Sushi pieces are about the most affordable at $10 per piece, but all of the objects in the store are hand painted and all are signed by the artist. So expensive relative to the represented item, but cheap as far as an original art purchase goes.The prices may not be affordable for everyone, but the experience of seeing the objects and enjoying them is completely accessible and charming. These were some of my favorite items.

The atmosphere in the store was festive and celebratory as shoppers moved about the aisles cooing at the brightly colored American items. That is one of the things that impressed me about the different projects of Lucy Sparrow. She made an effort to identify and build items appropriate to the locality of the exhibit.

The various cases around the store were cunning, but the meat counter was particularly detailed.

And should you not have enough cash on hand, there’s even a felt ATM you can admire if not access.

IMG_0863IMG_0866

She’s even got the grab-and-go food market covered, with individual pizza slices, and sodas in a case covered in felt, and pretzels. There’s a candy area, complete with gum and chocolate, a cigarette area, and an entire aisle full of over-the-counter medicines. She’s got it all.

Rob and I each selected about three items, and when we went to buy them at the back of the store, I looked down at the hands of the woman who was wrapping my purchases, reading FELT LIFE across her knuckles, and I gasped.

You’re Lucy, the Artist! This is so amazing!

She beamed. Not surprisingly, just as she is in the video, she is friendly and engaged with her audience and IMG_0885.JPGI was gratified to have a brief face-to-face moment with her while she wrapped my purchases in black and white checkered paper, then red outer paper wrap with a Sparrow sticker.        Here’s a great interview I found online about her work.

As far as diversions go, the Sparrow Mart is high on my list. Definitely worth the wait. Take someone you need to catch up with. Probably go during the weekdays rather than on Sunday afternoon as we did. But it’s a must see. There until August 31st at the Standard Hotel, 550 S. Flower St., Los Angeles, CA.

But that’s just how two of us felt about it.

E(scape) R(oom)s

Recently, Jimmie and I had dinner out at our favorite CPK downtown at 7th and Fig. We are fixtures there, having had a long habit of going there for “strike pizza” after the closing of shows at USC. I’d finish the strike, jump in the car and pick up Jimmie to head out for pizza on a Sunday night. We are highly ritualistic people, and this was one of our favorite outings. The last time we were there, we were greeted at our table by a former student, who told us that she had been working at an Escape Room in downtown LA.

We laughed about the coincidence that two recent graduates from the School of Dramatic Arts had gone into E.R. work, and yet they hadn’t know each other while at USC.  I guess it’s to be expected that theatre designers/scenic painters/costumers would find this kind of work engaging and profitable. And that they would have success in it.

My 91 year old husband has developed an affinity for E.R.s this week. You won’t find our favorite E.R. on any list of Immersive Escape Rooms. It’s the E.R. at Good Samaritan, in downtown LA, where we are now on a first name basis with much of the staff. For the record, I’d rank it as very difficult, but so far with a 100% survival rate.

We come in, fill out the paperwork and have a brief wait in the lobby. When we arrived Tuesday night, our first visit this week, the lobby was surprisingly empty, and we were swept in with the speed of a couple with reservations at WP24.

The thing about E.R.s is that they are pretty easy to get into. When you are 91 with a plumbing issue, you rise straight to the top, like the cream on the frosty bottle of whole milk in the milk box.

Milkbox
What my childhood milk box looked like

(Some rurally raised Boomers will get that reference. For the millennials, one used to have milk delivered to your home (even as late as the early 1970s) where they left it in an insulated square box sitting outside your door in the early dewy mornings before school.)

But, as usual, I digress.

Tuesday night, we went in to the Good Sam Escape Room at 6:30pm, and we walked out at 9:30pm, new plumbing features in tact. Our “plumber” had just finished his day of surgeries and is such a wonderful man that he dropped in to assist with the necessary fittings which the competent but overwhelmed nurses were unable to install. Good thing he came along when he did. It was uncomfortable, God-and-anyone-within-range-of-Room-6-knows, but he got the job done and we were home by the 10 o’clock news.

Full Disclosure: I’ve never been to an actual Immersive Escape Room, but found this helpful video on the site of our former student, Madison Rhoades’ Cross Roads Escape Games to get educated about them.

Here are some parallels and differences between Maddy’s carefully curated experience and Good Sam’s (GS):

  1. We enter as a team. Unlike the Hex Room experience, we weren’t separated at any time, except when the plumber insisted I leave the room. And that was okay with me.
  2. You’re isolated in a room and left to your own devices. (CR and GS)
  3. Unlike the Hex Room, there are no magic buttons to push to get a clue about how to get out, and seemingly no puzzles you can do to advance in the line for service. Tuesday night I read the Sunday NY Times Magazine article about Gwyneth Paltrow’s “GOOP” Empire. Friday night, I did two crossword puzzles. No Exit.
  4. It’s a triage system at GS, and judging from Friday night’s line up, we were definitely not high on the priority list. (which, of course, is both good news and bad news). Last night, Nurse Tim resolved our issue quickly, and then left us to languish for about five hours while they dealt with two coronary attacks and a stroke.
  5. At GS, they have players who are helpful and encouraging in furthering your attempts to get out. Last night, Friday, when we returned to play again at 8:40pm, a woman dressed as a kindly nurse’s aid ushered us back into Room 6.

Aide: I just made up this room, knowing that Mr. Nolan would be back in tonight! (cooing) And who are you?

Els: (flatly) I’m his wife.

Aide: Oooh! What a beautiful wife you have Mr. Nolan. (Leaning in conspiratorially, whispers) You take good care of your beautiful wife! (She exits. Jimmie turns to me)

Jimmie: What did she say?
Els: (loudly) She said, You better take good care of your BW! Hey, how did she know our pet name?

In spite of the flattery and kindness of the support players, Jimmie became impatient more than once. I now know that I would be a terrible participant in an actual immersive Escape Room situation. When abandoned in the ER, I become placid and accepting. Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s nothing I can do by having a tantrum that can’t better be done by excessive groveling whenever the support staff enters the room. So our door remained closed, and Jimmie shivered under his sheet for three of those five hours of captivity before I got up my courage to emerge and request a blanket.

Later, I joked with Jimmie that there was a door right behind where I was sitting that opened into the main hallway. Why didn’t we just leave?
Jimmie’s eyes brightened, and he gathered himself to stand up.

Els: No! That would be like running out on your restaurant check. We have to wait until they walk in with the paperwork to sign and then we’ll know you’ve been discharged.

Hours later, I turned to Jimmie and made like we should leave through that door.

Jimmi: No, Els! (patronizing, instructive tone) Don’t you know, we have to wait to be discharged!

Hours later, well after midnight, the beleaguered doctor came in, apologizing for their seeming neglect. We quickly updated her on the successful features of our visit, with strong hints that we should be going home soon. She agreed, and told Jimmie he could get dressed again. That’s when I took the this picture.

IMG_0823
Pouting doesn’t help in the escape room experience.

Still, it took another thirty minutes for Nurse Tim’s return with the necessary paper to sign. He then turned, slid the bed to the wall, and at 1:30AM, opened the tantalizing door to the outside hall.

It will be much easier for you to go out this way. There’s a lot going on the other direction.

I think I will advocate the Cross Roads Escape Games next time Jimmie gets bored.