Park Pals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something interesting happened at the park today.

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

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

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

Thanks! You got my bench back!

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

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

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

 

 

Notes from the Wedding Trail – Part IV

Saturday morning, Chris’s friend and boss, Michael and his wife Stephanie asked us to breakfast with Chris at their house. We gratefully accepted, appreciating all that Michael has done to support Chris’ growth as a hockey coach. We were also grateful to have some alone time with Chris – the week had gotten increasingly busier, as more and more friends and family came into town, and our face time with Chris and Whitney was diminishing daily.

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After breakfast, Chris went and picked up Skylar and brought her to us to watch while they dressed and went to take some wedding photos.  We managed to amuse each other for a few hours when Nana got goofy with the dog guitar. Then Skylar napped for a few minutes. Those were my main instructions from Chris.

It was during this shared siesta that I slipped out from under S’s head, and into my dress and then woke Jimmie and told him he had to get dressed, too. Then we packed up the Ford Expedition AKA “The Tank”  for the wedding trip up the mountain.

  • Jimmie’s Scooter and Oxygen with its charger
  • Skylar’s bag
  • 12 Flower arrangements (in two very soggy cardboard boxes)
  • Skylar’s car seat

With Skylar on my hip, and Jimmie holding onto my arm, we made our way out of the condo and into the Tank. Air conditioning blasting, we climbed the hill to the tram. Once there, we found many helpful hands to carry the flowers to the tram. Up the mountain we went, full of anticipation and excitement. Chris’ hockey videographers and the two wedding photographers, Amy and Heidi,  rode up in the tram with us.

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Nana Els had dressed Skylar in a white shirt, red sneakers and pink socks. This was not her wedding outfit. Oops.

The ceremony was beautiful. Jimmie watched from the balcony above. We processed, Chris and I, dropping me off in the front row, as he continued to the front. Next came Justin and Sammy, taking their places to the right and left of the officiate, David Coburn. Next came the adorable flower girls. In an emotional coda, one of the flower girls was the daughter of Jimmie’s niece, Jen, who had at age ten, been the flower girl at our wedding. The two girls got to the end of the aisle and then remembered their task, flinging the petals with abandon. It was charming. Next came Kai, bearer of the two rings, which he gave to Sammy and Justin after a discreet cue from Sammy.

And finally, Whitney and her dad descended the stairs, both smiling and looking so relaxed and happy.

The ceremony was beautiful – very emotional. David guided Chris and Whitney through the vows and aside from a premature kiss (again, charming), all went perfectly. They were hitched! Then the party began. It was joyous and all the various branches of the family and friends intermingled and got to know each other better. The food was yummy and toasts were given by the parents of the bride and groom, and Justin and Sammy. They were all so different and so moving in their own ways. I couldn’t stop grinning all night. It was that kind of evening.

So that’s what we’ve been doing for the week.

Sunday we basked in the afterglow of the wedding with two breakfasts: the 8:00AM Collins family breakfast,

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The Mod Squad shot – you can almost hear my brother Larry’s disgust with another picture…

and then a second seating at 11:15 with Chris and Whitney and Skylar, and additional family and friends. That evening, after most people had left to go home, many of Jimmie’s relatives remained to bring us dinner at our condo, after which, we sat on the beach and watched the spectacular sunset. It was a lovely conclusion to the week’s events.

We’re back in LA now, after only an 8 1/2 hour drive on Monday. As we were cresting the hill into Santa Clarita via the 14 Freeway, Siri asked me if we wanted to save a few minutes, then took us twenty-five very twisty miles across the spine of the Angeles Crest Highway to Glendale before wending our way down to downtown. I think she thought we wouldn’t want to leave the wilderness yet. She was right. I’m sorry to leave the Wedding Trail.

Notes from the Wedding Trail – Part III

I’ve lost my touch – I’m several days behind in my news from the Wedding Trail. Sometimes when you are on the trail, you can get distracted by the views, the moments. Recording them suddenly falls to the side.

We had been counseled by Jimmie’s cardiologist that the altitude at the wedding venue was not going to be possible for him. Jimmie and I were devastated. Until I got the simplest text from Whitney on the day of the rehearsal.

Hey I keep forgetting to tell you heavenly does have oxygen and two paramedics on call for events.

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Jimmie and I looked at each other and I ventured,

Why don’t we go to the rehearsal and then see how it goes. If you have trouble up there, we can turn right around and come back down. We’ll take the oxygen?

He gamely agreed. While Jimmie looked pretty terrified the whole time we were up there, we kept checking the gauge and he was fine at the top of the hill, which was beautiful. It was time to celebrate.

IMG_8221Friday night’s rehearsal dinner came off beautifully. Bill Belair, the chef at Sonney’s BBQ Shack & Grill in South Lake Tahoe prepared a sumptuous feast of BBQ chicken, pork ribs and sliced briscuit, collard greens, baked beans (the best I’ve ever had!), coleslaw and cornbread for 100. And this is what he looked like mid-way through our party. Not even breaking a sweat. His staff were amazing. Easiest party for 100 I’ve ever had to plan. Though there was one uninvited guest – more on that later.

I love throwing parties – always have. I think it’s because my mom did it with such flare. I enjoyed watching the preparation, the intensity of her practice – her sole goal to have people have a good time and to enjoy the food and company. Jimmie and I have had a lot of parties in our various homes. There was my fortieth birthday, which fell that year on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday, and when I went to pick up the Honey-baked Ham I’d ordered for the forty guests, the franchise was closed. I went home and made three trays of lasagna to complement the ten cooked fresh dungeness crabs my brother Larry had sent down on ice to celebrate with. It turned out to be one of the better parties.  At any rate, successes and flops aside, this one will probably top them off – never had we had so many family members from so many different branches of our family come together to celebrate such a happy occasion.

Friends and family gathered to celebrate and unwind after a hard day of driving and recreating. The twelve round tables draped with white cloths and teepees of utensils wrapped in cloth napkins awaited our flower arrangements when we arrived.IMG_8230

A turbo heating unit sat surrounded by two foot tall stumps of trees that provided a perfect play area for the party’s children, who numbered about twelve, all under the age of five.These are Skylar’s peeps, and they came ready to party.  When I sat down to schmooze with the kids, Canyon stood next to me, wearing BBQ sauce like war paint, indolently rolling his half eaten rib along the top of the stump. The others watched him with reverence.

There was more than enough food – guests were invited to take home left overs. I know ours got eaten the next day at lunch and we were very happy to have them.

Oh! About that uninvited guest. Late in the party, after the shuttle had begun returning people to the hotel, I looked over just beyond the buffet table to see a large group of people gathered by the fence, Iphones hoisted high and low, intently capturing something there.

Oh, I thought, isn’t that lovely? There’s probably a fox in the grass.

I wandered over and through the slats of the now-very-flimsy-looking fence, there was a small black bear next to a bush, nose aloft, sucking in the intense barbecue flavored air. He or she didn’t seem the least bit perturbed by the audience of paparazzi gathered there. Isn’t it nice to have a bear crash your party who doesn’t really crash your party!

The big day finally arrived. Saturday morning, we awoke to the same gorgeous blue watery view; the two people on the beach behind our condo sat drinking in the sunshine that had left me looking a tad lobsterish. In spite of having applied sunscreen fairly regularly, the morning of the wedding, I was quite red around the neck and shoulders. Nothing better than a well-BBQed MOG, I always say.

 

 

Notes from the Wedding Trail – Part II

The families and friends are gathering by the lake for the upcoming nuptuals like a flock of intrepid Canadian geese, mimicking the flock of a dozen or so near our back steps. Only much less pesky. First to arrive after Jimmie and me on Monday were the bridal party, Justin and Sammy. Justin and Chris were best friends throughout their teen years; their adventures together over the years could fill another series of notes. Continue reading

Notes from the Wedding Trail – Part I

We are in beautiful South Lake Tahoe, ensconced in a condo the back steps of which are lavishly licked by the cool clear lake’s waters. We arrived on Monday afternoon, after an intense two days of driving from Los Angeles through some of the most beautiful parts of California, the Eastern Sierras. I was reminded that we must live in the most beautiful state in the country.

The occasion is the wedding of our son Chris, to his beautiful fiancéé, Whitney. They met about three years ago in San Francisco; the star witness to the fact that they both knew it was right is their eighteen-month-old daughter, Skylar, whom they pass deftly between them according to their needs and her desires. Visiting with her over the past few days since our arrival has been thrilling. IMG_8127

Weddings are such joyous events. I remember ours, thirty-three years ago, a simple ceremony preceded by the heady confusion of all one’s relatives in the world converging on one place – in our case, New York City. Jimmie and I planned our own wedding. At the time, we lived on W. 70th Street on the Upper West Side. There were no websites to help you organize the tasks. I used my favorite organizational tool – lists – paper and pen and the generous contributions from so many friends and family.

Our wedding invitation was a clever confection, elegantly designed by our friend Barbara Grzeslo. Printed on clear vellum, it folded in a complex but fun way that when opened, revealed the details of our wedding day.

Our wedding plan was pretty simple: find the church, find the restaurant where we wanted to celebrate, order the cake. Send the invitations. Alter my grandmother’s wedding dress, order the tux. Done. No sweat. Or that’s the way I remember it now from the safe distance of over thirty years.

The night before our wedding, my maternal grandparents threw the rehearsal dinner at our mutually shared University Club in the city, suitable due to the fact that I had followed his lead there and many of my friends now at the wedding had, too. After a raucous rehearsal at the church, where Susan, who played the flute, played the song she would play the next day, standing on the steps in her bare feet. Jimmie, who looked like he was being led to slaughter, and continued to do so through the rehearsal and I practiced our vows, two poems by Yeats and the regular vows. The adage about a terrible final dress, fantastic opening prevailed.

The church, Grace & St. Paul’s Church,Grace & St. Paul's Church was a small Christian-friendly church exactly one block north of our apartment on 71st St. Even though it was only one block from our apartment, we rented a black stretch limo to ferry us all to the church and the reception. To save money, we said we’d get home from the reception ourselves, which resulted in the easiest hailing of a taxi ever – bridal gown train draped over my arm.

The first trip in the limo, my mother, myself, and our dear friend, Susan Smith, maid of honor, ended in confusion and consternation when we pulled up behind the construction dumpster parked directly in front of the church (in the photo above, imagine it directly to the right of that smaller red door). There being no other solution, we gamely hopped out of the limo and somewhat abashedly managed the last half block to the church doors.

The ceremony came off with a hitch.

Our dear NY friends had ideas about entertainment, no doubt spurred by the reception venue, the cabaret space above Pallson’s restaurant where Forbidden Broadway had been playing for years. Led by Marco Martinez-Gallarcé, our adhoc musical director, they compiled a short wedding show regaling our family and friends with songs about our love, our pets and a particularly silly riff on “Tonight” from “West Side Story”, where they replaced Maria with Elsbeth.  I’ll give you a second to think about how that played out… Sincerest apologies to Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein.

It was silly, delightful, and entertaining. Jimmie and I had secretly been rehearsing a song from the musical “Baby,”  with Marco for several weeks. I think he told each of us that we would be surprising the other and we believed him. At the appropriate moment, we turned to each other and delivered the songs verses, singing the chorus together. I’m not sure how we kept it together.

Our venue’s small size prevented us from having dancing, so simplicity was pre-ordained. Marco planned and threw a post reception party at the nearby brownstone where he lived, and we were able to let our hair down and visit with our friends. It was perhaps the most exhausting day of our lives. I remember sitting on the curb of the brownstone, waiting for a cab, leaning my head on Jimmie’s shoulder, both of us holding Tiffany’s boxes on our laps at the end of that long and happy day. You’ll have to wait for those pictures because they are 4×6″ prints sitting in a box under my bureau at home…

My one regret was that we eschewed formal photos. Our dear friend Sylvan Epstein was our wedding photographer. He took some great candid photos and we have those to remember the day, but we had no place to hold our guests while we took the photos and didn’t want to wait to greet them so we just didn’t take them.

Now that I’ve blathered on about my wedding, in the next installment, I’ll share the excitement of Chris and Whitney’s pre-wedding events. IMG_8146

 

Keeping Us In Stitches

A few years ago, shortly after our son Chris returned from a year long sojourn through Europe, living the dream, as it were, I joked that he and I should write a book. It would be an adult Mommy and Me book, the format of which might be text, as in traditional text, alternating with texts, as in the sporadic digital conversation he and I have had over the last five years via our phones as he has attained maturity. And I do mean attained. It has been a bit of an uphill slog at times, but he has arrived at what I’d call the tree-line of adulthood. If he stands there, he can turn back and see the forest, mysterious and dark and dank; looking forward, a path more clearcut, less encumbered with obvious trip hazards, but now a matter of planning his next steps, footholds and handholds, avoiding gravel slides and icy patches.

Over the years our texts have been personal, confessional, irreverent, insulting, loving, funny, heartbreaking. We have hiked through the woods together in a continual conversation about loss and redemption, self-sacrifice and self-sabotage.

Chris has, since the time he was about five, had an impulsive side, which resulted in a parade of random events and many many trips to the ER. We’ve been to the ER more times than one family deserves to go. I joked with Chris that our book should be entitled “Scar” featuring on the cover a full body photo of Chris, with little arrows pointing to all the scars on his body, annotated with post-its

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Image cropped to minimize the “yuck” factor

 

Last night he added another one to his collection. During the adult hockey game after the adult hockey game he went to play (a decision he derided as the reason he’d been injured -“I could have been on the couch at home, Mom”) , he made contact with his inner left thigh and his skate, resulting in about a 2 inch gash on his inner thigh. In typical gritty form, he called me on the way to the ER, then texted me the before and after pictures of the wound and stitches. I’ve become sensitive to any nocturnal conversation with Chris that begins with the words

Mom, you aren’t going to believe what happened…

I had just plugged in my phone to charge for the night, and when I picked it up, Jimmie’s eyes followed me back over to the couch, tracking my worried looks and listening intently to my subtle repeat of the gory details to fill him in.

It may seem creepy, but this is a ritual of bonding that the three of us have practiced for 24 years. Looking back over the years, in more or less descending chronological order:

  • 1 gash on the left inner thigh- hockey accident, age 27 (8/24/16)
  • 1 left shin gouge from pole on the dock – fishing accident, approximate age 24
  • 1 cut on the inside of his left arm – the broken glass had “nicked” a small artery which required a small surgery. He had a cut under his right eye requiring 3 stitches and another one needing 2 stitches on the top of his head. June 26, 2012 Barcelona Beach Bash
  •  1 tear of left hand between thumb and fore finger, car accident, age 17
  • 2 broken collarbones – hockey accident, age 15
  • 1 left wrist laceration requiring extensive hand surgery – hockey accident, age 12
  • 1 right pinky laceration causing damage to nerve – razor blade incident, Age 8
  • 1 injury to legs from jumping off the roof, age 5

See what I mean? That’s a hell of a lot of bonding. We are probably lucky to have not been called before the Department of Childrens’ Services for child abuse.

Some of our texts veered toward discussions of automotive injuries. The car I gifted to Chris did not take so well to the Fisherman’s Wharf environment resulting in many many trips to the Automotive ER. I considered at one point buying stock in Honda just to increase my ROI.

But the most important texts have been about the discoveries and growth in Chris’ life, including his pursuit of and discovery of his birth Mom in March of 2015, the gestation and birth of his own baby, and the flourishing of his daughter Skylar and fiancée, Whitney.

March 2015 text to Chris (edited somewhat)

Me: I was just filling up the feeder when a spider crawled over my hand in the sink.

Me: dropped half of the stuff in the sink

Me: Even worse I don’t know where the f—ing spider went

Me: I had an epiphany today in spin class – I know, how SoCal of me; but it was this; why would a mother disclose in the first conversation with her newly discovered son such dark details about his parents’ misfortunes? (Both Jimmie and I had asked ourselves this question when Chris told us about his first conversation with his birth mom.)

Me: But the more salient question, I realized, as I sweated and strained up the “hill” today, was “Why would Chris share that information as the very first information we received about his long lost family?”  “Wasn’t that really the question he had asked us a dozen times over the years with decisions that were reckless and dangerous and self-sabotaging of his own life path?

Me: The question was  – will you (adoptive Mom and Dad) still love me if I show you what I’m made of? What darkness and depths I am capable of reaching? Will you have my back? Legally, medically, financially? How much do you really love me?

Isn’t that the question we all ask ourselves in our life journeys? How true to us will our parents, friends, spouses, children remain? How much will we allow ourselves to cherish our bodies and psyches?

And the answer is, we are in it for the long haul. Thick and thin, we’ve got your back, son.

My Talented Aunt Irene

This past week, we had the pleasure of spending four days in New York City, the first time since 2009 when we were there to attend my niece Kendra’s wedding. I organized this trip so we could see my Dad and his wife, Sally, whom we also hadn’t seen in way to long a time. We all ended up staying at the Algonquin Hotel on W. 44th St., smack dab in the middle of the theatre district.  What I didn’t know was that my Dad’s sister, Irene, and her husband, Paul Neal, would also be in New York for some meetings with her new agent.

My Aunt Irene is a truly gifted artist. She has been making art for a long time, close to 50 years now, and her painting style mirrors her personal refulgence.

Renie is my dad’s younger sister. They are 5 years apart in age. They adore each other and have such a great time when they get together which is frequently. They love to laugh, a trait they and I inherited from their mother. Here are a few images from over the years.

When they get together, their laughter is contagious. This trip was no different. One evening, I teased my Dad that I couldn’t believe there was a table in the Algonquin dining room making more noise than ours. I blurted out that he has a stentorian voice which he misheard as centurion, which set us all off. Both words actually apply. My dad is a voracious reader, and a commentary writer. His areas of interest and opining are population, family planning, immigration and a number of other subjects that I studiously avoid because our views are so diametrically opposed. But he is not shy about expressing them and loudly. In retrospect, it is surprising that we avoided talking about the Presidential race for four days. Dad is also one of the most generous men I’ve ever known, and it’s become a point of pride when I can get the table’s check before he does, which happened exactly once the entire week. (I need to practice more.)

Jimmie and I have our own modest collection of Irene Neal’s paintings and jewelry created over the years. On our wedding day in 1984, she and Paul arrived at Paulsson’s Restaurant for our reception bearing a 4′ x 5′ oil painting that she had freshly inscribed to us. It still hangs in our living room. Other periods of her work featured colorful acrylic paintings on wooden bases that are enormous, and totemic in feeling. They are a blast of color and energy just like Renie is. She belongs to a group of painters called the New New Painters, who had a show in Prague in 2002, curated by Kenworth W. Moffett, who passed away just a few days before Renie came to New York. Out of that show came a colorful catalogue of their work, which I have a copy of at home, inscribed in Renie’s loopy writing.

Renie and Paul are environmentalists; out of that love came her creation of beautiful pins and earrings made from discarded plastics. In the 1980s, she utilized the 6 pack plastic rings used to hold beer or soda together, once destined to choke fish but now have a second life as beautiful earrings and brooches. Her most recent jewelry material are the Nespresso pods which she has shaped into delicate, glittery flowers that are quite dressy looking. I was thrilled to be given one by her on the last night there.

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Anna Abruzzo and Irene Neal

Renie and her husband Paul came to New York to meet with Anna Abruzzo, who is interested in repping Renie’s work.

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L. to R.: Dad, Paul Neal, Irene Neal, Sally Epstein, Richard Epstein

We visited Anna at Studio Tag, where she showed us around the architectural showroom showing us all of Renie’s most recent ink stain paintings  gracing the walls of several Studio Tag offices. Before I arrived, they had taken this photo of our group in front of one of Renie’s paintings, and Anna, whose energy mimicks Renie’s, had already named my dad “The Boisterous Man.” I liked her immediately.

After showing us the showroom, Anna took us all up to the roof of the building, where there was a delightful meadow in the middle of Manhattan.


The thing I love most about my Aunt Irene is her natural joy and irrepressible enthusiasm about everything. Right after we got home yesterday, she texted me this picture. I can’t tell if the mounted policeman is giving her directions or lecturing her, but I’m sure that after the encounter, he left smiling because it’s impossible not to when you meet a force of nature like Irene. IMG_6624She always has a smile on her face; she is one of our family’s biggest boosters. What am I saying? You already know her because she is the most frequent commenter on my blog. She gives me a target to aim for when I get to be 80.

Our trip to New York and time with Boisterous Man and his sister Irene is not one I will soon forget.

 

Writing with My Best Friend- Day 1

Years ago, my seasoned and yet surprisingly humble actor-husband wrote a book. A theatrical memoir, it spans his 50+ years in the hay day of NY theatre, covering his experiences from his first Broadway show, in 1951, as a young Capulet servant in Romeo and Juliet, starring Olivia DeHavilland, through the burgeoning off Broadway years of Circle in the Square, through his last outing on Broadway in 1991 as Béjart in La Bête,  a play by David Hirson, set in the 17th Century France, written in rhymed couplets. He also wrote about his LA stage work and television and film work as well.

He began writing the memoir about the time we adopted our son, Chris, age of two, hoping that one day Chris could read all about his life and know more about his father. I’m not sure he anticipated publishing the book, but as it developed,  we realized that the book would be interesting to theatre folks as well as civilians.

Jimmie, in spite of being an actor, is essentially an introvert, but a natural story teller, too. After 50+ years of being smack dab in the middle of the American Theatre, he has some good ones to tell. In New York, early in our marriage, Jimmie had a dear friend, Sylvan, stock broker by day, cantor in his local temple on Saturdays, and occasionally a voice teacher. Jimmie went to his singing lessons bringing along our German Shepherd, Jasper; they meandered through Central Park to Sylvan’s apartment on West 55th St., overlooking the now City Center Theatre. Sylvan was Jimmie’s number one fan; he loved to hear his stories and frequently urged Jimmie to record his experiences as a book. The resulting memoir, entitled “A View From The Wings,”  is dedicated “In Loving Memory to Sylvan Epstein.”

Aside from sharing a photocopied, spiral bound version of the book with close friends and family after it was finished, over the past 16 years or so, we haven’t taken steps to publish the book. But recently we’ve discussed writing additional material to cover the intervening years.

Jimmie was diligent with the writing when he began the memoir, and found segments of the day where he sat at the dining room table and wrote, long hand, in a series of spiral notebooks. He often took his writing to the park, where he spent time on the bench, glancing up to watch Chris playing.  He enjoyed the process, and he would share the freshly minted passages with me at the end of the day; I marveled at his facility, his natural voice on paper. Everyone who has read the book has enjoyed it, describing not being able to put it down, reveling in his “View from the Wings.”

As Jimmie approaches 90, our desire to publish the book has increased.With a long 15 year gap between the events depicted in the book and now, I have become the nagging wife/editor/technology coordinator encouraging Jimmie to continue with his story to present day before publishing. I want to know how he reflects on his life – has his practice changed? Grown? Weakened? How has he persevered over the now 70+ years of his acting career?  While he hasn’t been as busy as he was in his 60s and 70s, he has still been fortunate to work on stage and in television sitcoms as an octagenarian. That’s pretty impressive.  There are about three remaining segments still to be written.

20 years after he put the book down as finished, the physical writing has slowed due to arthritis. Jimmie is willing to write these chapters, but lacks the digital stamina. So I thought I’d help. Recently I downloaded Dragon® software to my computer, and planned that Jimmie would dictate the new passages directly into the computer.  The day I downloaded it, I configured it for my voice as Jimmie napped, then taught the software how to recognize his voice. Then I made my first mistake. Showing him the software, I realized that it didn’t punctuate the words as they scrolled out onto the page. Fundamentally lazy,  I encouraged Jimmie to insert the punctuation by saying comma and period where it was needed.

Instant and stultifying overload. Jimmie’s face crumbled and I realized that the process of dictating text, so second-nature to me and anyone else using it for texting, was incredibly unfamiliar to him.

So a few more weeks passed, and my friend David called. We had shared the earlier draft of the book with him, and since then, he has been supportively nudging me to get the book self-published. He offered to have us share the book with a friend of his who “places” manuscripts. I explained that we were grappling with how to get the last three chapters written. He suggested that I sit with Jimmie and interview him, getting him to talk into the recording feature on my phone. This, I thought, combined with the Dragon® software in my computer, would get us going. So today we sat down for the first time with our outline in hand and the computer open to a fresh, snowy page, the Dragon® microphone leering from the upright corner of the screen.

We determined 11:00AM on a Saturday morning was a civilized time to start and I prepared for my best Maury Povich interview with my husband. I did a test, hitting the record buttons on the computer and phone at the same time, then spoke slowly and clearly. By the time Jimmie sat down, I thought

What could go wrong?

We began by discussing a possible new framing device for the book.  He looked about as nervous as he had on our wedding morning, which I said to him. He was quickly re-reading segments of the spiral bound book and trying to figure out how to insert discrete new paragraphs into the existing text. I explained what we were doing would require a radical editing of the book and we should just get the new ideas down first. We began the interview, and like some recording technician working on reel to reel tape, I started to get panicky when Jimmie took long pauses to think about his answer.

Relax, Els, it’s all digital. We’re not wasting tape.

Dragon® is relatively accurate, but we had some funny moments like when we were discussing Jimmie’s first day on the set of Parks and Recreation, and I asked him how Amy Pohler was to work with. He must have mumbled his answer, “warm and welcoming” and the Dragon® software wrote “Repairing drywall.” I clapped my hand over my mouth and Jimmie made me show him what was making me laugh. Amy Pohler might have appreciated that moment, too.

Then Dragon® just randomly began robotically droning back everything we had written so far, errors and all. Jimmie said,

Who’s that talking?

That’s what you were saying. Sort of.

Dragon® ate two pages of error-filled dictation just for the hell of it. I looked down, noted that everything was blue, then it was gone, leaving the eerie isolated word, “Mom” on the page. Fortunately, I had the phone recording all the time, and putting a finger up in the air to tell Jimmie to hold, I started a new document to record, then later went back and transcribed from the machine, the old fashioned way.

We talked for about an hour, then I transcribed what we had discussed. Jimmie said it was very helpful. We got nothing down on paper that will ultimately be useful for the book, but found a language of working together on writing, a normally solo occupation, and found the segue starting point for the new chapters in the process.

Not bad for the first day of writing with my best friend!

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Summer 1991 – When Jimmie became an actor/writer for Chris

 

The Perils of Grandparenting

There are so few places where you can get a good candid shot of your family, but Los Angeles County’s Natural History Museum afforded us the perfect opportunity to show our fortitude in the face of a T-Rex and other threats.

This week has marked the first visit to Los Angeles of our beautiful granddaughter Skylar, and her professionally qualified parents, Whitney and Chris. We’ve had a great time, fending off Dinos and Cheetahs while we got to know each other a little better. Talk about bonding exercises! Here are a few tips I’ve learned about the perils of grand parenting this week:

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How is it that we kept laughing while being chased by a cheetah?

  1. Don’t offer to babysit the first night when your grandchild is exhausted from an all night road trip the night before. It usually ends in tears. And not just the baby’s. Have you ever felt more inadequate than when your grand baby is screaming in your left ear?
  2. When in doubt, check the diaper. There are usually only three reasons that we are no longer having fun: Wet or poopy diaper, hungry, need a nap. Or see 1.
  3. Do not send video tapes of the melt down moments (see 1.) to the parents with the entreaty “Can you come home now?” This is irresponsible and subpar grand parenting. You can do better than that. My friend Hannah has told me I’m allowed to send them to her instead. That’s a good friend. And have you ever tried to soothe a squalling baby and take a video at the same time? I’m not adept enough to pull it off.
  4. Always have a burp cloth near by. This is just the euphemistic name for a better place for your baby to throw up on than on your new shirt.
  5. If you are out at the restaurant and the baby is lying serenely in your daughter-in-law’s lap after the meal, don’t offer to hold her. It will usually end up in tears.
  6. Binky = Success.
  7. Don’t try to conduct business when you are babysitting. Had to put the phone down with the company manager from the Kirk Douglas yesterday to rescue Grandpa, who had dropped the Binky. See 6.
  8. It’s okay to go to sleep when you’re babysitting and the baby has gone to bed and is quiet. It only took me two hours of waiting for the pros to come home to realize –

    DOH! Chris and Whitney go to sleep at night while she is sleeping. I can go to bed, too.

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    Always take a photo if you are surrounded by giant butterflies and ladybugs. It will be a classic. 

Gold Stars – 51/56

When I was about 7 years old, I asked my parents for a piano and piano lessons. It was a bold request; we had just moved from our house in Pittsburgh’s North Hills to a newly constructed colonial on the outskirts of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, placed lovingly by my parents at the foot of the hill leading up to my paternal grandparents’ home. We had visited the house through all phases of construction, peering over the muddy pit that would become our basement as it was excavated, to playing tag in the spindly wooden uprights which would define our bedrooms and bathrooms.

I don’t know where I got the idea for piano lessons from. I had heard my mother play Clare de Lune when we visited her parents’ home in Wilkes-Barre, PA, and I remember being surprised that someone as capable and strong and sensible was also so expressive, so lyrical, so sad. She lost herself in the keys, and the sound of her playing filled their house with a melancholia that was tangible. I don’t know why I remember it as sad, because I think she was actually happiest then in those early years of motherhood, but my auditory memory is one that stills me to a sadness.  Mom wasn’t the only one to play that piano; my Uncle Lou could bang out happier music, which underscored our sing-alongs. My cousin, Doug, too, had a propensity for playing that was astonishing. He really was adept. Perhaps I was jealous of his skills. Who knows.

Anyway, for whatever reason, my precocious seven-year-old self got it into her noggin that she was going to be a virtuoso pianist and when we moved into the finished Greensburg house, one Christmas morning, there, in the linoleum-floored family room adjacent to the kitchen and laundry, was a dark, upright piano. I was enthralled, and spent hours playing the piano, and learning the songs that my piano teacher, Mrs. Gardner taught me. She lived in a house in the center of Greensburg, right across the street from a a friend of my father’s  from Yale. It happened that Dad was a squash player with this friend, Joe, and Joe had recently constructed a squash court behind his house, right down the street from Mrs. Gardner’s house. So while I was being taught by Mrs. Gardner, Dad was working up a sweat across the street. Sweet deal for both of us. Every Saturday morning we went to our separate labors.

The inside of Mrs. Gardner’s home was dark; her concert piano ebon, it’s black and white keys angled so that as I sat on the bench, my back was to the window on the front of the house facing the street. She was really old. Remember, this was my 7-year-old perspective, so she was probably my age now, or maybe even younger. But she had been a concert pianist, so I was told, and now, her hands were gnarled with the arthritis which had forced her career to a close. Her training was strict and rigorous. I was a little terrified of her and her methodology.  She told me that my fingers should also be tightly clenched, the fingers functioning as little independent hammers to strike the keys during the endless scales that she gave me to practice. She wrote the fingering with a stubby pencil above the notes, afterwards, laying the pencil to rest on the music stand of the piano. And she used little gold stars to reward me if I came and performed the scales or the simple pieces well. Oh, how I lusted after those gold stars, or the little piano stickers. They incentivized me to a ridiculous extent. Sometimes when I would sit on the bench of the piano at home, having been cajoled there by my patient mother folding laundry to my left at the machines, and I would think about those little gold stickers and the pleasure of Mrs. Gardner’s approval. It took so little then to make me reach for a goal. My parents did a good job teaching me how to strive to better myself.

Today I have a piano in my living room, adorned with pictures of my family and friends, my new granddaughter held lovingly by my son and his beautiful partner. I haven’t played the piano for weeks, and before that, for almost a year. There are no gold stars in the books in the piano bench. There is a copy of Clare de Lune, which I occasionally struggle over; it’s more about making contact with my mother, who has gone on to the great piano concert hall in the sky, than my piano practice.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t other goals that I’m reaching for. You may have followed my current physical challenge of 56 yoga or spin classes in 57 days as a 56th birthday present to myself. It hasn’t been a solitary journey. I have had lots of support along the way, and lots of gold stars from my instructors at #YASDTLA.

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Special thanks this morning to Mike Nobrega for giving me the gold star I needed to cross into the final 5 days of my challenge. I’m offering you a free ride and yoga class any morning next week at 5:30AM Monday-Friday to start your own challenge, or help me finish mine!