Recharging Our Batteries

Sometimes there’s a synchronicity in things that borders on breathtaking. This week it’s about batteries.

  • Your alta fit bit battery is low.
  • Your internet isn’t functioning (four calls and a trip to Staples to buy a new Uninterrupted Power Supply when the old one was fine) only to discover it was indeed the modem. A trip to the Beverly Center where you discover there is no Spectrum Store. A glance out the window indicates that it is at the Beverly Connection, which to the Spectrum technician on the phone was the same thing, I guess. After 15 minutes there, I finally noticed the board where our names were listed in order of being helped. I was #22. I plugged in my earbuds and waited, doing some people-watching.
  • Jimmie’s scooter battery dies while his niece Stella is visiting and they are in the park necessitating a full tilt push of the device back to the apartment. (I’ve been there before – humiliating, ridiculous, a test of the humanity of others.) God love Stella. When I returned, I found them at home drinking Starbucks beverages, so she pushed him to Starbucks and then home, something that I wouldn’t ever have done.

Anyway, you can see the theme here. Recharging batteries.

Summer is about recharging our batteries. The days at work are shorter in the summertime, and there are fewer interruptions, allowing us to organize the puzzle that is the following academic year’s season.

More time for visits from family and friends. More time to give back. This summer I’ve started recording interviews with some of the West Coast stage manager notables, for the Stage Manager’s Association “Standing in the Dark” series of podcasts. Selfishly, this allows me time with friends and mentors like Jimmie McDermott, and Mary K Klinger.

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

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

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Granddaughter Skylar’s joyful mud discovery during a recent Father’s Day camping trip with Mom and Dad.

We had a captivating visit with Stella followed by one from Jen and S. Extraordinary people and we are so lucky to have them in our lives. On the last day, S found a green worm on its way to our tomato pot on the balcony, and brought it inside, where it writhed and danced on her tiny finger like a tiny green belly dancer before finding sanctuary on a full leaf of Romaine lettuce where she proceeded to eat several large holes in the leaf, in a perfectly round shape.

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More time for reading the Sunday paper, especially when your internet modem dies a horrible death. More time to discover to your infinite pleasure that Jonathan Franzen doesn’t seem to give a whit about social media and adores birding. I knew I felt a kinship to him.

More time for finding and using the sweat glands, more time for explosive step ups in HIIT class, and more time for fitbit Workweek Challenges posed by former students. I’m coming for you, Ashley S!

More time for reading. I just finished reading Todd Purdum’s book, Something Wonderful, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution, a beautifully researched and entertaining dive into the history of American Musical Theatre, a subject high on my radar of late. Apparently high on other peoples’ reading lists as well, as this photo and Guardian article revealed. But enough of that. I’m recharging my batteries. No perp walk for me. I told my husband as I got about half-way through the book,

Lucky you! I’m going to sing all the lyrics I encounter.

Which turned into one of the sweetest pastimes we’ve had. Out of the murky depths of our long fused, long term memory banks came the swells of the live theatrical shows of his youth and mostly televised shows from mine. Granted we sounded a little closer to Archie and Edith on the piano bench than Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae,  but nevertheless, it was lovely. We beamed at each other.

Summer brings the crunchy, sweet wholesomeness of cherries, watermelon, lighter evenings and the prospect of summer vacation on the horizon. A week of unscheduled recreation with family. Time to attend book signings by friends, and to go to the movies.

In essence, time to recharge our batteries.

The Black Hole of Parenting

Nestled in the cradle between Mother’s and Father’s Day, I find myself thinking incessantly about what it takes to help our children grow up into people whom we can be proud of. I am constantly reminded of the perilous journey from teen to grown-up. Our paths are all so different. Both as humans and specifically as parents.

My “high school” class just celebrated its 40th reunion. Without me. Sometimes our life journeys are complicated. Mine involves the latter years of living with a partner 33 years older than myself. Trips are not in the mix right now – at least airplane trips, and my “high school” is located in Concord, New Hampshire.

What is that annoying “” about? My High School was a prep school, one you’ve undoubtedly heard of and not in favorable terms recently as it’s been in the news way too often. But that aside, on Monday, post-reunion, I received a photo of my classmates. After magnifying it to a ridiculous and 40th-anniversary-appropriate-degree, I peered at my classmates’ faces; some of those fourteen-year-olds jumped right out at me; others, I had to scrutinize their name tags to recognize. There were still others whom I’m embarrassed to say I can’t find in my memory. And it was a small class, so shame on me.

I was on a path at that point in my life that my parents shaped for me – a bookish, introspective child, I excelled in school, and my parents sent me to prep school, then an ivy league college, a path paved in privilege. Sure, there were bumps along the way, a messy divorce during which time I relished the distance being in New Hampshire afforded me from my grieving mother. In prep school, I met many teachers who shaped my growth as an adult and participant in the arts. My teenage angst was deterred in a college-like, edenic campus with insane resources. I was buoyed by an intellectual rising tide of students and faculty. I flourished amongst young people for whom the goals were clear and foundational. We all paddled in the same direction, literally, in many of our cases, in beautiful, sleek crafts which we shifted from water to shoulder to rack, a physical manifestation of our parents’ dreams for a better future. Our runs toimg_0658

the boat house every afternoon conditioned us to press on in the face of adversity or exhaustion. Our studies and extra curricular events trained us in debate, performance, student government, leadership, kindness and contribution. I was oblivious to my good fortune. I was seventeen. What did I know?

In spite of the rising tide of affluence which surrounded me in high school and college, in typical teenage rebellion, I resisted, becoming a stage manager in the theatre. My parents forgave my “squandering my expensive education” (my quotation). They ultimately understood how much passion mattered in a life, and how much I loved the work I’d chosen. They appreciated that the job kept me invigorated and alive. It gave me access to creative collaborators that were life and world-affirming, and they always supported my choices. That’s what good parents do.

My path as a parent was different. I think, or hope anyway, our son will forgive my saying that it didn’t always look so clear that he would survive and become someone we would be as proud of as we are today. I alluded to in my Mother’s Day post, that he was adopted and didn’t find his birth mother until he was in his late 20s.

We endeavored, as my parents had done for me, to provide him with the best education possible. I was always uncomfortably aware of how different his learning needs were from mine, and we struggled in the middle and high school years to provide the resources to support his learning. And from the age of about five on, we gave him the sport of ice hockey, a sport which engulfed our family and which provided a structure and mentoring influences which raised the tide of Chris’ boat. Especially influential were the hockey coaches during his middle and high school years, strong men who spent their work hours as police officers and fire fighters, and their weeknights and weekends drilling our sons into skilled hockey players and collaborative teams.

Nevertheless, strong parenting and influential mentors aside, there are crazy forces at play in young men’s and women’s lives. Pressures from peers, puberty, easy access to drugs and alcohol – we all know what they are. All these things impinge on the patterns that we develop as adolescents, for better or for worse. I’ve decided it’s almost as much luck as it is money or education that we give our children. And we operate in the dark a lot of the time, not really knowing the shadowy forces at play in our children’s lives. I tend to be optimistic about how things are going and for many years for our son, they weren’t going in a way that should have made me optimistic.

I hurry to say I don’t want to pick on my kid as the only one. I’ve talked with numerous parents and friends with children this age who are in what I can now safely and with the relief afforded by healthy hindsight, call the “Black hole of Parenting.”

I think (and can confirm from conversations with him) that at a certain point, Chris, provided only limited information, pre-natal exposure to drugs, and the resulting difficulties in learning that that presented, struggled with the pubescent urge to resist his adoptive parents and become who he thought he was destined to become. That’s a powerful stew. Chris made a beeline towards a target which was self-destructive and painful and certainly was not the path of privilege we’d tried to set down for him.

This was a painful period for us as parents. I remember thinking when he was about sixteen or seventeen that he might not survive. And again in his early twenties. But I think all parents go through that. Jimmie and I clung to the belief that there was something special and unique about Chris that would help him to survive and become a magnificent human, even though, at times, it was difficult to see that that was what he wanted.

I write this not to expose his weaknesses as a young adult, but to tell you and any parent out there who currently finds himself or herself in the black hole of parenting. Here are just a few things I know, having emerged from the black hole of parenting:

  1. Not every child needs to go to college to succeed.
  2. Your child’s decision not to go to college is not a reflection of your failure as a parent.
  3. Young men grow up at about age 26. Work your hardest to keep them alive until then.  Make it okay for them to share their failures as well as their successes with you. Keep the channels of communication open. The car is a particularly successful incubator for these discussions.
  4. Sports are crucial to developing the skills and endurance one needs to survive in this world. The gift of loving a particular sport is the greatest gift a parent can provide. The gift, in our son’s case, that keeps on giving, now that he’s a hockey coach. Choose a rink fairly far away so you have lots of incubator time (see 3)
  5. Every traumatic event that occurs along the way through the growth process will influence your child’s life story, both in devastating and healing ways. Chris is such a good coach to young men now because he knows where each pitfall lies and has a keen sense of when someone is close to making that mistake. He can now help them to see it and hopefully make a better choice.
  6. Be grateful every day. Make positive choices for yourself in your own life. You have no idea how impressionable your child is and how much he or she is absorbing your experience. Deal with negative circumstances openly, and with as much integrity and forward positive energy you can muster. That is what your children see and eventually learn to model themselves.
  7. No matter how beautiful every other family’s parenting looks like, yes, even they occasionally feel the presence of  the black hole. I remember getting an insane Christmas letter one year from some parents whose children were all heading quickly to being recipients of the MacArthur Genius Award. I responded by writing a satiric yet primarily factual response about what Chris was doing at that same timeframe. In other words, I found a creative and humorous outlet for my despair. (obviously, I didn’t send it to anyone). Later I sent it to Chris as a benchmark for what we’d experienced. We shared a good laugh about it.
  8. Laugh about it, even if through your tears. It’s analogous to picking up your toddler when they fall down hard and brushing them off.

As I said before, I’m an optimist. I’m also aware that not everyone is able to survive this dangerous phase of adolescence. We are reminded of that every day in the news and when we learn about personal tragedies of parents everywhere. The pain of loss is unfathomable and makes my relief all the greater.

When I look at Chris now, and I look at him in those baby pictures from so many years ago, I can see the same joyful inquisitive intelligence he brought to us as a toddler. We just did our best to keep that alive. You parents in the black hole, keep reminding yourself that “this too, shall pass.”

 

Don’t Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Anxious Man

When I was in college, I spent a summer in San Francisco, working for the Field Polling organization, lived with my Dad and his wife in their Nob Hill Victorian flat. That summer I developed two fondnesses which have stayed with me over the years, both related to bed.

The front guest room overlooked a stretch of Chestnut Street just south of the Art Institute in North Beach as well as the island of Alcatraz; on the twin beds there were comforters, which my stepmother, Joan, called ‘doonas’, clad in vibrant orange, yellow and white striped Marimekko fabric. I liked nothing better then or now than to burrow into those cocoons of slumber after a long day at my job.

That was also the summer that I learned to value the morning newspaper, a cup of warm caffeine, and the ritual of reading up on contemporary events and planning outings to movies and plays. On a student budget, I attended many more movies than plays, but each morning, I’d peruse the SF Chronicle’s “pink section” for the distinctive clapping man icons, (designed by Warren Goodrich in the 1940s) to guide me to critically popular films.sf-chronicle-movie-review-guy-2 (Thanks to Austin Kleon for his great post about the origination and interpretation of the Little Man). That summer, I also read the daily installment of Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” which my college buddies, Bob and Bill and I  discussed avidly while we roller bladed in the inventory aisles of Macy’s that summer.  Three Princeton students assembling and collating training manuals for bored Macy’s employees.  And I’d finish by reading Herb Caen’s column about all that was politically topical in San Francisco. Herb Caen

 

Recently the Little Man has returned to my life. Except now I think of him as the Anxious Man.  Somewhere between Chair 2 and Chair 3 is the posture I frequently find Jimmie in when I come home from work. Leaning forward, elbows braced on his knees, brow furrowed. This pose is also frequently caused not only by anxiety, but by an arctic chill that he just can’t shake, even when I supply him with a warm cup of tea or coffee. I’ll sometimes get a phone call mid afternoon after he’s awoken from a nap and needs to hear my voice to bring him back to a less anxious place.

We seem to have entered a new phase. Jimmie’s memory frays at the edges like the fringes of my denim shorts when I was a teen, except his fringe is unintentionally extended, whereas I’d obsessively pull the threads to make my fringe longer, the shorts shorter. I cherish our shared memories and strive to minimize the devastation or importance of the loss. Ever helpful, Jimmie puts the dishes away from the drainboard while I’m at work. The other night when I opened the cupboard where we store our glassware, I discovered two coffee mugs. I laughed until I realized that his mistake was actually intuitive – that cupboard is directly over the coffee maker. Doh!

His memory isn’t consistently rocky. Sometimes he greets my questions about the events of the day with a quizzical expression. I don’t know, he says with the blissful nonchalance of someone whose day actually isn’t polluted by the toxicity of the current political climate. It engenders in me both envy and sadness, because of the loss of depth in our discourse. And then sometimes he’s completely present, working his crossword puzzles in the familiar pen as he’s always done.

If you see us together, don’t be surprised. I had arranged for a caregiver this Tuesday, when I had tech, but when she arrived, the Anxious Man returned, shoulders hunched, fingers intertwined, sometimes even with his forehead cradled in his hands. The well-meaning woman came closer, making reassuring looks at me. But when she started speaking, her sugary voice lilted as she said “What are some of your favorite things to do? Do you want to take a walk?”

I had to take her aside after a few minutes of condescending chatter. Jimmie looked up at me, rolling his eyes, and I felt him getting even more anxious. Within 10 minutes, he asked me five times when I was leaving, and it became clearer and clearer that I was not going to be able to leave.

This happened once the week before, when I was to assist with house management for the final dress of our spring musical; so we went together. Tuesday night we ended up going to tech together. Jimmie sat quietly tucked into the corner by the door and I popped back and forth between talking to him and listening as the stage manager ran the tech.

The caregivers who come don’t always cue the return of the Anxious Man. We had a lovely woman a few months ago who was easy to be with and inspired confidence in both Jimmie and me. She’s disappeared from the roster, unfortunately.

This week, I think we’re helping the agency break in some new employees. The past two days, we’ve had a couple who surprised us. We were expecting Mrs. Wang, but when I opened the door, Mr. Wang was right behind her. He had come along to “help with translating.” You like to think that the agency has sent someone that your hearing-impaired loved one will have no trouble communicating with in the first place. Now, he had ridiculous exchanges such as “May I have some crackers and cheese?” resulting in a bowl of crackers….. What does Jimmie do? He picks up the phone and calls me at work.

(whispering furtively)

Els, I just want some crackers and cheese. They brought me a plate of just crackers.

(heroically)

Put Mr. Wang on the phone with me, Jimmie.

(As the phone passes, I can hear Jimmie desperately asking Mrs. Wang for water with ice.)

Mr. Wang, Jimmie would like some brie. It’s in the bottom drawer of the fridge.

Oh, brie, okay, says Mr. Wang brightly.

Can I please speak again with Jimmie? Phone passes to Jimmie.

Jimmie, you need to be a little patient. The Wangs don’t know how our kitchen is laid out.

When I got home, Jimmie looked drained. I asked him if he eventually got his cheese. He started gesticulating with his hands, making little chopping cube like shapes in the air in front of his chest. Reminded me of Veronica the other day interrupting me while I explained clearly how Jimmie liked his hotdogs with baked beans and applesauce. (Okay, I’m not proud of the menu, but it’s a 5-7 minute prep time, friends, and it’s all about speed and simplicity.)

Applesauce for dessert?

No, just on the same plate with the beans and franks. (she looks repulsed)

Has he ever tried hotdogs wrapped in bacon?

(Stifling my nausea)

No, Jimmie just likes his hotdogs plain. With some dijon mustard. No bacon!

I went into the kitchen tonight and opened the dishwasher to put some things away, and to check to see if The Wangs had followed my request to put the dishes away. They had!

Now I’m the first one to acknowledge that no one loads a dishwasher the same way, and that I have OCD. But when I flipped the door down, there were three spoons lying on their side on top of the silverware drawer, and the plates and bowls were facing the wrong way. My ridiculous outrage was enormous. So big that I actually made my 91-year-old husband get up off the sofa and roll his walker into the kitchen to come look at how the Wangs had loaded the dishwasher.

I just had them unload the dishwasher, so they saw how I like it!

Jimmie looked at me like I’d lost my mind. I think I actually may have lost my mind. The first day the Wangs arrived, as I was leaving, I texted our son that Mrs. Wang showed up with her husband who is very nice but that’s a lot of company. To which he responded  OMG. This is a pilot in the making.

Maybe that’s what Jimmie should be doing. Writing that pilot.

Taking it one day at a time, friends, one day at a time. Anxious me and my Anxious Man.

 

 

The Invisible Life of a College Professor

Lately I’ve become obsessed with what I’ve started calling the “invisible work.” All the non-evident administrative tasks that are needed to the move processes forward. Lest you think this is going to be one big whinge-a-thon, you can relax. I’m gonna peel back the curtain and let you see some of what we college professors really do. Disclaimer: I love my job so those of you sniffing around the edges for a potential job opening, it’s not here. I hopefully have many more years of happy invisibility. But, having said that, it riles me to hear someone say,

You professors have really cushy jobs.

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Disclaimer: Quite old photo of this college professor at her desk and at her target weight.

Continue reading “The Invisible Life of a College Professor”

The Dangers of Living with an Actor

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

 

 

 

 

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

Hey, this acting business is tiring.

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What Jimmie looked like in 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all about the knees!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I did on my summer vacation

Over the last two weeks, I spent an intensive 25 hours of training with forty-three other USC employees to become certified members of the USC Community Emergency Response Team.

I’ve wanted to become a CERT member for several years but haven’t been able to schedule it. I’ve wanted to brush up on my fire hose and fire extinguisher skills, dust the cobwebs off my search and rescue and triage skills, revisit how to bandage someone with a pen in their forearm and a gash on their head. You never know when you might need these skills.

I’m dead serious. We live in Los Angeles, where we are way overdue for a major earth mantle mastication, AKA earthquake. When you think hard about what you would do in the event of a 6.8 earthquake, and it’s aftermath, it doesn’t take long to realize you aren’t ready.

I was not alone in this realization; forty-seven of us gathered Monday a week ago in Ground Zero, on the USC University Park Campus. We’d all signed up for the training, offered free to USC employees by the Department of Fire and Safety at USC.

FS&EP2
Our fearless leaders at USC Fire Safety and Emergency Planning

As the Head of Production at the School of Dramatic Arts, I’ve worked with these wonderful people, clearing through them the use of e-cigarettes and random issues of egress that have arisen in the course of over 240 theatrical productions over the last twelve years. Aside from knowing their subjects (fire and safety) well, they are quick to respond to emails. After attending this training, I can see why. They’re focussed on teaching us all how to stay safe in our work environments. It’s their mission and they’re good at it. If this training was any indication, they all seem to have a good time doing it.

On day one, we introduced ourselves to the group. We came from a broad array of different programs across the university. There were representatives from the School of Social Work, Hazmat and Lab Inspectors, the Engemann Health Center, the Language Institute, The Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, the Department of Grants and Contracts and the School of Dramatic Arts. And that was just our group, one of five.  From SDA, Chris Paci, an Assistant Theatre Manager and I did the training. When I’m on campus weekends to tech our shows I’m very aware how important it is to know how to safely evacuate a theatre. This training will help us be more efficient and helpful if there is a catastrophic event.

Angela was the master of ceremonies throughout the week, providing us with lesson plans and instructions about what to bring for each session and taught us the segment on First Aid. Five hours each, the sessions lasted five days, culminating today with a live simulation of the skills we had learned during the training. We were geared up with bright green vests and helmets with headlamps, a red backpack emblazoned with USC CERT loaded with all sorts of goodies – heavy goggles, kneepads, first aid supplies, a flashlight, gloves, glow sticks, triage cards, packets of water, and a whistle. Daily, we printed out handouts to learn the following topics:

  • First Aid
  • Search and Rescue,
  • Triage/RPM (Respiration, Perfusion and Mental State)
  • Cribbing and Backboarding
  • Fire suppression and Fire Hose management

Each day, we had a lecture and then hands on training of the day’s material. It was well-organized and we learned a huge amount of information about all the areas listed above. After the drills today, Angela provided us with CERT certificates and cards and bright red CERT T-shirts, as well as lunch.

Best summer camp ever.

At today’s final exercises, an officer from the LA Fire Department who observed the drills told us that 70,000-75,000 people have been CERT-ified in Los Angeles County. This seemed like a huge number until I remembered that there are over 10.12 million souls in Los Angeles County. USC trains up about 30-45 people each year. It is an impressive program.  I’m very happy to have been trained at USC.

Throughout the training, our teams learned how to work together, communicate closely about what we were seeing and hearing in each of the exercises. We planned ahead and debriefed after each drill. Each CERT trainee learned how to put a cervical collar on a patient with a back or spine injury, how to load them safely onto the backboard. Those without spinal or back injuries would be carried in the green sling stretcher, or in the Evac Chair down the stairs.

We each learned how to hook up the hose to the fire hydrant, couple it with the Y-valve to connect the 2 1/2″ hose to the 1 1/2″ hose, connect the nozzle, call for water then let it rip. All in under a minute-and-a-half. Then we learned how to empty the hoses and roll them back up.

We learned about cribbing, the practice of raising up a heavy object using a fulcrom and boxes made of 4″ x 4″s and 2″x 2″s. I felt a brief surge of pride when Jeff Pendley told the group that the School of Dramatic Arts is the first destination for wood after an earthquake.

We learned how to prioritize what type of events we CERT members were capable of assisting at, and which ones we weren’t. Safety of the CERT team members is primary, Angela taught us to think throughout the exercises what was safe to do, and how we could make it safer.  We spent a day learning about Psychological trauma and what we might expect to feel ourselves after dealing with traumatized victims.

In addition to getting prepared at work, they encouraged us to prepare at home. In the course of the week, I ordered some additional supplies to add to my home kit, including getting an Evac Chair to get Jimmie out should we need to evacuate at home.

It was an exhaustive and exhausting training and a great investment in my personal development. I highly recommend you staying tuned for future trainings and jump at the chance when it’s next offered.

 

Summer Daze in DTLA

We’ve officially reached the shank of the summer. After the Fourth of July, just before the All-Star Game. Heat advisories in the Valley thankfully don’t seem to pertain in the downtown park where Jimmie takes his respite from the cable news talking heads before the afternoon baseball game begins, before I come home from work.

At work, the ordering of the next seasons’ plays is almost done, final strands coming together in a complex artistic and literary calculus. Design and stage management assignments formulating, the students now aware that we have bypassed our self-proclaimed deadline. Faculty are now aware that the students anxiously await the news.  A last minute delay in one title keeps us all waiting for the shared excitement that is the next season’s announcement. I anticipate the rush of questions.

When will we know our assignments, Els?

Patience is required in these summer days. Patience and presence of mind and heart.

Today on my way back from the YAS DTLA gym, Hector’s rigorous and entertaining “Fiesta Friday” workout, I passed a woman walking a black plastic milk crate on a string. From behind, she looked like any dog walker in the early morning pre-work hours. She carried herself with a regal, straight-backed air of confidence, her gait unhurried. The crate glided easily along the pavement just behind her right flank. It wasn’t too full and followed her at the companionable pace of a small dachshund. She wore black leggings and a tunic fringed with what looked like a fashionable purple sweater tied around her waist. Her hair, shoulder-length was tidy looking. Abruptly she turned, and began walking back toward me shattering the illusion. As I drew closer, I could see her dirt-smudged, tanned face, her hair in ratty unintentional dreadlocks, her eyes filled with the nervous preoccupation of one who likely hears many voices. Her black plastic crate suddenly looked less like company and more like the onus of homelessness that it was.

I suddenly felt so lucky.

I continued my walk home, passing the young sycamore tree, rescued earlier in the week by a maintenance worker at the restaurant next door. The Conservation Corps folks planted the sapling about six months ago at my request. A ranting homeless man had recently kicked away the wooden splints that held it erect. The tree, bowed from the weight of its leafy branches, bobbed over the curb into the oncoming bus traffic. When I walked by, the restaurant worker was retying the rubber stays around the trunk. I held the tree in place, two strangers collaborating on the rescue of a young life. The tree secured, I asked him what his name was, and introduced myself. This morning, he sprayed the sidewalk with soapy water and I greeted him like an old comrade in arms.

At home, in gratitude, I watered all the plants on the patio, all the orchids on hiatus from blooming, the neon-green shoots sprung from the wildflower seeds I planted in the planter late last week. The seeds, in brown packets with our names emblazoned on them had marked the seating at our son’s recent wedding. Elsbeth’s seeds are doing quite well. If they fail, you can be sure James’ seeds will be planted next.

I sat down to contemplate my good fortune. IMG_8419The early morning sunlight streamed into the living room, highlighting the carved mahogany legs of a table. A precocious orchid I had ignored,  its stem lurching out to capture the sun, is now inside, granted access for its one louche bloom. I promise myself I will pay closer attention to the other orchids to guide them straighter in their fruition. These are the things we promise ourselves in the lazy lucky days of July.IMG_8421

Today we get our car back from the body shop, newly painted hopefully with no evidence of its recent trauma on the 101. I will return the white Jeep Cherokee I’ve been driving for the past week or so, a bigger and thirstier car than I would ever choose.

We had been able to make a hellish drive to Redlands last Friday to see dear friends there in the Jeep Cherokee, a comfortable, slightly higher ride than usual. Foolishly, we drove there on the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, leaving LA at 3:00, and arriving just after our 5:30 reservation. Our reunion was sweet, and after catching up on the last 10 years at dinner at Caprice Cafe, we walked them to the nearby Redlands Bowl where they were attending a trombone concert. Together, we posed for a snapshot near the patinated statue of William McKinley before heading home.

Audrey, our friend depicted above, is now a successful writer of children’s non-fiction. We discussed Jimmie’s recent book, A View from the Wings, a signed copy of which he delivered to her when we sat down in the restaurant, and Audrey recommended a book about writing: Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, The Perils and Pleasures of A Creative Life.  I immediately went home and devoured it over the next two days. She has a lot to say that is extremely encouraging for the novice writer. It’s again ironic that reading books about writing is really just another procrastination from writing, but in spite of that, I felt re-energized about the process of telling my story and am grateful to Audrey for the infusion of creative energy.

Tuesday night, the Fourth of July, Jimmie and I drove to the campus to watch the Coliseum’s fireworks from the roof of Parking Structure A. My colleague, Duncan had told me about his excellent viewing spot for years, but until this year, I had eschewed it. This year, we were in the mood to see some explosions. It was a scene. When we first arrived, Duncan and his wife sat on a utility cart facing the south wall of the Parking Structure, a stool perched on the back of the cart for higher viewing. Sheepishly, I pulled up next to them in my Jeep Cherokee and we positioned ourselves parallel to them. For the next hour and a half, through the windshield, we watched as the skyline filled with ebullient fireworks, both those sanctioned and entrepreneurial in nature. By the time we left at about 9:30PM, there were at least twenty cars, and the parking roof was chock full of families enjoying the now smoky aftermath of the display. When we got home, the new Intercontinental Hotel displayed her patriotic colors.

So that’s what we’re doing in the summer days in DTLA. You could say that we are all pulling our crate, literally and metaphorically, and I am well aware of the precious cargo in mine.

 

 

Actually… it should be required

IMG_8059Last week Jimmie and I attended a performance of Actually, a new play by Anna Ziegler, at the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre at the Geffen Playhouse. A co-production with Williamstown Theatre Festival  (August 9-20, 2017) and The Manhattan Theatre Club (October 31-November 14, 2017), the play addresses the issues of consent in the context of Title IX rules at Universities. Princeton, in this case (an institution close to my heart) where, through the lens of two freshmen students we see their collision in a devastating incident that is unfortunately far too possible.

This play should be required viewing for every university freshman in the first weeks of college. 

Ziegler’s characters are well and specifically written – Amber Cohen, played by Samantha Ressler, whose rapid speech and disaffected behavior reveal the trauma she has experienced. She confides to the audience about the challenges she and others faced in the first weeks of school:

  • Away from home and relieved of parental constraints
  • Overwhelmed by a surfeit of reading homework and
  • An endless barrage of parties she feels obligated to attend
  • Looking for a sense of identity in a new community and anxious to make friends

Thomas Anthony (Jerry MacKinnon), handsome and confident, faces many of the same issues as Amber, but also, black, first generation in college attending Princeton. The stakes are high.

The play demands a lot of these two actors – complete presence in all moments with each other, as well as the ability to speak directly to the audience, dropping artifice as they plead their cases. Because we, the audience, are the Title IX review board. This is uncomfortable, and challenging in the way that we or at least I expect to be challenged when I go to the theatre.  The actors, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, achieve distinctive and personal styles in their address which illuminate their characters and their vulnerabilities.

Incoming students feel the pressures that these two thespian freshmen feel. Perhaps some are better equipped to make safer choices than others. Or, are they just luckier and don’t end up having these experiences because of some random fate or karma? Who knows? As the article by Amy Levinson, “The Letter and the Law,” in the program (available online to read)  indicates, the statistics about campus rape are staggering:

  • One in five women and one in sixteen men are sexually assaulted while in college.
  • Freshmen and sophomores are at greater risk for victimization than juniors and seniors.
  • More than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report the assault.
  • 63.3% of men at one university who self-reported acts qualifying as rape or attempted rape admitted to committing repeat rapes.

Ziegler’s play, in addition to addressing these issues head on, is powerfully structured. Through a series of flashbacks she allows us to reexamine the events of the evening in question, each time flipping them slightly like shards of glass, refracting a dazzling new insight based on new information. People are complicated. They bring things to human encounters that aren’t apparent, but can and do profoundly impact what happens.

Tim Mackabee’s natural wood-grained box enclosure cradles the play. Its elegant simplicity disarms us into thinking the events that are coming will be tidy and well-contained. Lap Chi Chu’s lighting along with Vincent Olivieri’s sound punctuate the box with shimmering waves of aqua and teal light pulsing along with the party music to allow seamless passage between the party flashbacks and the stark conference room where we now find ourselves as the events are dissected. Elizabeth Caitlin Ward’s costumes are casual, Amber’s warm orange top and pants contrasting with Thomas’ blue jeans and soft blue top.  Tyne Rafaeli’s direction is tight, well-paced. And how lovely to see a team of strong women in charge of telling this story.

It is a riveting evening, which left me wondering how to get more people to see it. So struck was I with the piece, that I reached out the next day to the playwright, to see about how to get the script into the hands of incoming freshmen.

This play should be required reading for every university freshman in the first week of college. Can’t say it enough.

Fortunately for you, if you live in Los Angeles, you can still see the play at the Geffen Playhouse through June 11th. I urge you to take advantage of this opportunity.