Lessons in Narcissism and Recovery

An American living in our times would be forgiven for diverting their gaze from narcissism as an odious and rampant practice of the higher reaches of our society. I remember one of my husband’s favorite stories was from when he’d shot the film Doc in Almeria, Spain back in 1971. He’d been on location for several weeks, and after recounting seeing someone kick a dog in the street, was told “It starts at the top with Franco.”

James Greene, 1971 as James McLowery in Doc

Yeah, well, I think we’ve beat the Spaniards on this one. So clear is the directive sent from the upper reaches of our government that the expected trickle down effect has infiltrated every corner of our society, Ponzi schemes, to #MeToo to the latest scandal in college admissions. All are fundamentally based in the tenet that my needs/truth/reality overrides yours or anyone else’s.

I’m here to tell you that sometimes narcissism is healthy if exercised in a confined timeframe. I can’t yet tell you the acceptable outer boundaries of healthy narcissism, because I haven’t yet navigated them, but some examples are:

  • Around the birth of one’s child
  • Around the care of loved ones
  • Around the death of one’s partner

There may be other examples of appropriately prescriptive narcissism. My direct observations have to do with all three bullet points above. Not sure what our Franco-equivalent in the White House would say are the rationalizations for his extreme narcissism, but I’m pretty sure they are none of the above. But then, as a (hopefully temporary) narcissist, no one’s pain is worse than mine, right?

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 24th Street Theatre, here in South Los Angeles. Running through May 19th, based on the young adult book by Kate DiCamillo, the play recounts the travails of a uniquely fashioned charmingly narcissistic china rabbit. Edward’s miraculous journey unfolds through his travels and travails, and his awakening from narcissist to empathetic being, able to learn to love again after his own loss. The 24th Street Theatre does consistently beautiful work with minimal and very theatrical elements, and again, here they don’t disappoint.

Director Debbie Devine has guided her cast of four, accompanied on a piano throughout by Bradley Brough through the intricacies of this rabbit’s tale (sorry, couldn’t resist). Funny, moving, tear jerking and ultimately satisfying, the afternoon unfolded with a welcoming curtain speech by Co-Artistic Director Jay McAdams, contextualizing this theatre’s imprimatur on the play (first production utilizing spanish supertitles, created for the production, as well as the consciously simple aesthetic which the theatre embraces). From the moment I entered the lobby of the theatre, I found my visit one of inclusion. Awkward in my singleness these days, I’m challenged in going out to see something on my own, particularly on a Sunday afternoon. It was opening weekend of the play, and the lobby was filled with 24th Street Theatre family members, board members, critics, adults, children, neighborhood folks. The step and repeat with a stool and two bunches of carrots was heavily utilized. I enjoyed seeing families posing with the carrots and huge smiles on their faces.

(I’m sorry, Jay and Debbie, issuing a spoiler alert.) If you are in the LA area, please come see this play. If you aren’t, you can benefit from a reading of this magical book.

Like Edward, I’ve been going through my own miraculous journey since my husband’s death in November. In the early phases of his rabbit destiny, Edward is cocooned in the loving embrace of his young girl owner Abilene Tulane. He wants for nothing, so embraced and supported is he. A bunny of privilege, his clothing is stylish, his position in the household secure. Then comes his loss, from which it appears he may never recover. His life pretty much goes to hell. I recognize, wear these phases of bunny privilege, then loss. The life going to hell part is less applicable, unless you describe sessions of unprovoked tears, increased impatience with things and people and a general weariness and disinterest in participating as hell. I don’t afford myself that luxury. I know that it is a process, and as hard processes go, they are not hell. They are opportunities for growth and improvement and learning.

The tears, weariness and disinterest describe the immediate aftermath of a loss, even if you are lucky as I have been, to have the consistent support of family and friends. Eventually, after the public grief cycle has “ended,” after the memorial, the funeral, the life celebration, the next phase begins. It is one of solitude with a lot of acting involved. To sustain the Edward Tulane metaphor, this might be construed as the “scarecrow” phase. Utilized as a deterrent to others, surrounded by shiny objects, the grieving widow/er is still out there in the field, showing themselves to be fierce, smiling, but feeling emotionally empty and suspended. This might be why I chose to purchase the bracelets and distribute them to my grieving friends. Upon receipt, their thank yous were heart-felt, but also tinged with a recognizable sadness and fraught with questions I don’t have the answers for.

How do you keep f&*king going?

I can keep f&*king going, but why should I?

And for me, the moment one night 34 years into my sobriety, five months into my solitude, this week, I stood in front of my cabinet in the kitchen and looked at a corked bottle of red wine left over from one of my recent visits by friends, thinking to myself, “well, no one would even know if I had a glass of red wine right now.” I promptly uncorked the bottle and poured the remaining wine down the sink. It really scared me.

The one reassuring element of this scarecrow phase is that I find myself surrounded by other scarecrows. I’m not alone in the field. Nor are any of us. I want you to hear that.

None of us is doing this human thing alone.

I’m reminded of that every day, yesterday in the hallway in the DRC as I greeted a colleague who has been on leave for several months. We clung to each other sobbing amidst the coming and going of our colleagues. In her I recognized her challenges and loss; in me, she recognized my loss and challenges.

If you were to read my bed-side table stack now, you’d be worried but really, I’m in a research phase, to prepare me for the work ahead. Because of my loss, my bunny tale, if you will, people have been reaching out for support during their own challenges. I want to say when they do, “I don’t know any more about this than you do!” And I’m certainly not an authority on caregiving, death, or anything related to human loss. And yet, I do have the capacity to listen and hear and try to help. In my own limited scarecrow capacity. As do you. And certainly my friends do.

Emotional Check in this morning with my Pals via Skype – three different time zones. So sustaining.

From now through May 19th, if you live in Los Angeles, you can and should see The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 23rd Street Theatre. It will help you in your recovery. Aren’t we all in recovery from Narcissism?

Between the Bubble Machine and the Sobbing

The other morning I dashed from the gym to my eye doctor’s office to pick up my new glasses, you remember, the Gwen Stefani frames? This pickup happened to coincide with the arrival the night before of some new togs I’d ordered on sale at Macy’s. As I drove home in the gestating traffic from Burbank to DTLA at about 9:00AM, I pictured my stylish new self cutting quite the swath through the morning air as I strode into my office.

I arrived home, pretty rank by this time, having gone sweaty into the car in my down jacket. Due to the atypical inclement weather in L.A., I’ve had it on for almost three weeks without respite or laundering. Ew, you’re saying. Peeling off the offending jacket, I greeted my cleaning lady, who was off in the bedroom busily stripping the bed of it’s sheets. As I called her name, I saw her coming toward me, face splotchy, guiltily swiping the tears from her cheeks. We embraced; I tried to console her, she tried to recover, but we both knew I’d caught her grieving. And me, temporarily dry-eyed, looking toward my day clad in my new persona, the classic “growth vs. grieving” moment.

I went off to work and I guess the glasses were a lot more stylish in my mind than they are in person – no one noticed them. Granted, the decor is on the inside of the frames, with only a glint of red visible at the temples.

Do you like my Gwen Stefani glasses?

To which the universal response was ‘meh.’

Wednesday, I attended a Visions and Voices event, Enchanting Aging: Inspiring Awe and Meaning in Late Life. Writer and MacArthur Award honoree, Anne Basting, came to share her research about the intersection of health care and culture in an appropriately fashioned joint event between the School of Dramatic Arts and Gerontology. She began her lecture by defining Awe and Wonder, and asking us all to turn on our cell phones and text someone the following question:

What gives you a feeling of awe and wonder?

She instructed us to text the question to someone we knew well and then mute our phones. She promised that later we’d be able to share the responses.

Predictably, Chris’ response was not “a walk in the woods or the snow carpeting the woods” but merely, “What?” And then a rude quip about something completely unrelated to awe or wonder followed by a smiley emoticon, tears pouring down its face. What can I say? Maybe we didn’t raise an awe-er, but he does have a fair amount of wonder-ing going on most of the time. And a great sense of humor.

Dr. Basting’s recounted her work (her website is www.timeslips.org) in an illustrated presentation, the bold splashes of colorful humanity on Gerontology’s fancy LED display. She brings the rigor of her scientific exploration into fierce and joyous communion with her artistic practice, much of it with the Sojourn Theatre Company. There were more than a few moments of awe and wonder experienced by Wednesday’s audience. She asks compelling questions: How can we deepen the cultural and human experience of people in long term care (both residents and providers) by creating collaborative and creative spaces to share that humanity? It can be done, and the results are inspiring.

Her talk described how awe can minimize our egos and wonder can maximize our search for meaning. She had a dandy diagram which I unfortunately didn’t capture to illustrate this. I bought both her books and look forward to learning more.

One of the stories she shared grabbed my attention. She detailed a pre-production walk-through of one of the nursing homes with the director and production designer for their upcoming production of the I Won’t Grow Up project in three care facilities in Kentucky. As they walked they indicated where they would place the bubble machine, then came around the corner to discover a couple in their 60’s sobbing in each others arms. Forgive me while I mangle exactly what she said, but what I heard was that in these creative care settings, where we seek to buoy people’s emotions with a shared uplifting experience (metaphorically the bubble machine), we also need to remember and respect the underlying grief and profound loss that also resides here. Don’t all of us reside squarely between the bubble machine and the sobbing?

In the Q & A period following Dr. Basting’s talk, a student behind me raised her hand and shared that she’d recently lost her grandmother. She became emotional, and in the way that we recent grievers tend to do, laughed through her tears and apologized that she “wasn’t over it yet.” Her admission made me tear up more from the obvious expectation she was inadequate in her grieving, the idea that she should be over it. I wanted to reach back and tap her hand and let her know we were with her and didn’t expect that she recover on some societal timeline.

My dear friend Susan sent me the most beautiful and apt poem that I’ve shared with some profligacy already via text message to my Widow(er) Club. Delivered within a Sermon written in 1910 by Henry Scott Holland on the occasion of the death of King Edward VII, it is entitled Death Is Nothing At All.

Death is nothing at all. 
It does not count. 
I have only slipped away into the next room. 
Nothing has happened. 

Everything remains exactly as it was. 
I am I, and you are you, 
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. 
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. 

Call me by the old familiar name. 
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. 
Put no difference into your tone. 
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. 

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. 
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. 
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. 

Life means all that it ever meant. 
It is the same as it ever was. 
There is absolute and unbroken continuity. 
What is this death but a negligible accident? 

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? 
I am but waiting for you, for an interval, 
somewhere very near, 
just round the corner. 

All is well. 
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. 
One brief moment and all will be as it was before. 
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!


Source: https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/death-is-nothing-at-all-by-henry-scott-holland

What the poem gives us permission to do is carry on with the current life, secure in the knowledge that our loved ones are all around us. This is profoundly comforting.

And so I’m bubbling on with my new life. This week was full of contrasts. I shared an intimate dinner at the Pacific Dining Car with Hal Holbrook and his companions, Joyce and Juan. Hal is such a national treasure, such a passionate practitioner of the theatre, and I feel so fortunate to spend time with him, much of which is spent reflecting on the past and our Jimmie.

The next night, I had my first solo dining out experience at Fred 62, a diner on Vermont. Thursday, I’d witnessed the beautiful and collaborative care that Hal cherishes while enjoying a beautiful piece of halibut on a succotash of delicate vegetables. Last night, I felt my own strength and fearlessness in my new solo role while eating a crunchy grilled cheese sandwich with a cup of warm tomato soup. Then I wandered down the street to the Skylight Theatre to see Boni Alvarez’ America Adjacent. The on stage scenario he reveals is not illustrative of any outlined by Dr. Anne Basting, but Boni’s play is a full throated celebration of his heritage, and all of our yearning for the elusive American Dream.

Somewhere between the bubble machine and the sobbing, perhaps we’ll find it.

The Here After/Il Futuro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vulnerable Adult

When I see it in writing, and in light of this afternoon’s events, it doesn’t seem nearly as amusing as it did this morning on the WhatsApp chat with my friend Susan, freshly returned to her home in South Africa after what could only be called an appalling return trip.

She had come all the way from Cape Town for my husband’s life celebration. We’d had a wonderful weekend of visiting with family and other friends, and on Monday evening, somewhere between the plane’s arrival at Heathrow and her return to her flat in London, she realized she’d lost her passport. Or it had been pickpocketed. After doing what most of us would do in that situation, freak out, she searched the American Embassy website, found the earliest appointment available, (Friday at 7:45AM). She clearly wouldn’t make the flight to Cape Town scheduled to leave on Wednesday evening.

Susan is one of the most capable women I know, and by the time she had regaled my friend Bob and me with her story, she was well on the way to solving the problem. She described it as a generational problem which a quick call to her father in Florida straightened out.

His phrase “You’re an American” ringing in her ears, she walked into the American Embassy at 8:00AM the next morning, and out at 9:07AM with her replacement passport. Made the flight that evening, and “Bob’s Your Uncle.” Thanks, Dad!

Chuckling, she described herself as what some would call a “Vulnerable Adult” – further defined as the guy who leaves his car doors open, or his front door open, or his car keys in his car with the car doors open. When she used this term, I laughed in recognition.

I didn’t know it was an actual sociological term in the UK. “A person who is 18 years of age or over, and who is or may be in need of community care services by reason of mental or other disability, age or illness and who is or may be unable to take care of him/herself, or unable to protect him/herself against significant harm or serious exploitation.”

I laughed not because I recognize the description. Lately it describes me (in need of community care) but prior to that, our son. My husband and I raised him. He’s much better now than he was at 18. But I did just have to overnight his car keys to him that had been left in a bag left behind after his Dad’s life celebration last weekend.

First, I went to the UPS store, and as we prepared the package, the clerk looked skeptically at me and asked me a question.

Does this key fob have a lithium battery in it?

Umm, I don’t know.

Then I googled it.

Yes, it does have a lithium battery.

Then we can’t ship it from here. You’ll have to take this to the main UPS office tomorrow so that it can be sent certified mail. It might bring the plane down if it explodes.

What?

It wasn’t until the next morning when I was standing in the main UPS terminal that I realized if Chris hadn’t left the keys in his jacket pocket in the toy bag on the floor of my apartment, he’d have carried them onto the plane with 300 other people carrying lithium batteries in car key fobs in their jacket pockets. After pointing this out to the clerk, I got ridiculously peeved then when she still made a phone call to make sure I could ship the keys. $69.28 later, I left the UPS store, having successfully shipped the overnight package to my vulnerable adult and very much feeling like a vulnerable adult myself.

This afternoon I returned to my apartment between shows, and was walking through the lobby when I ran into one of my neighbors, Marilyn. Marilyn and her husband, Jerry are one of the nicest couples in the building. Jerry, who walked with a pronounced limp, instantly endeared himself to me about ten years ago, when we first moved into the building. Every morning, when I would walk our dog, he would double over and fuss over Lizzie, making her tail wag madly. He and Marilyn were always together – they were poll workers together at every election. She’s an audiologist, and drove what looked like a former police cruiser, and I would frequently see them early in the morning doing a car shuffle because they only had one parking space in the building. I think Jerry’s a teacher.

In fact, today may have been the first time I’d ever seen them apart. At this year’s Christmas party, I had been greeted by the two of them heartily and Marilyn had given me a big, reassuring hug and encouraged Jerry to do so, as well. (You may recall I left that party quickly, after losing it at a kindness uttered by another neighbor.) Now I saw Marilyn walking toward me in the lobby.

You and I have something in common.

I stopped walking, chilled, because I realized instantly what she was saying.

My husband died on Thursday. (two days ago) He was at work and they called me to say he was unconscious. Then they called again to say he was at the morgue.

What is going on in the world right now? I stopped and clung to Marilyn with a ferocity she certainly didn’t want. She wanted to keep moving. Looking over her shoulder, she almost accusingly said,

You threw yourself back into your work, didn’t you?

No, Marilyn, I took some time before going back to work. Please be kind to yourself. Take a little time off before you go back.

But I was talking to her back as she moved quickly toward the garage. I heard her muttering about losing it, needing to get back to work so she wouldn’t lose it. I recognized first hand her abrupt departure, her anxious gait, her restlessness, the vacancy of her missing companion. Reminded me of the forlorn looking pigeon on my porch this afternoon, huddled in the rainy downpour. It may not be technically accurate, but the term vulnerable adult suits many of us right now.

Chez Pa-niece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Jimmy Tomorrow

Today it’s been a month since Jimmie died.

Jimmie came home from the Neptune Society. I called them Monday morning, after making my chili for the Chili cook off, a festive and competitive annual event thrown by the production students. Then I called the Neptune Society and they said Jimmie was ready for me to pick him up. It’s been a strange few weeks of limbo, not really knowing where his corporeal body was. It was clear and wrenching from the moment he left that his spirit was no longer there. I’d experienced this phenomenon twice before and regardless of what I believe about the afterlife, I know that the human spirit is free of the corporeal at death.

I inveigled my colleague, Hannah, to drive with me to Sherman Oaks, where the Neptune Society is, on Ventura Blvd. and Woodman, a hop skip and a jump away from our home of 10 years in Valley Glen. It was right around the corner where Jimmie and I bought the really comfortable 7′ long yellow couch we had for years in our bonus room, and I was reminded of how many emotional touchstone points there are in a life and in a city when you start to drive around. 

Retrieving “him” was surprisingly quick, signing some papers, and receiving Jimmie’s cremains in a plastic box in what I noted looked like a Crown Royal bag. Others who saw the picture more kindly said he was clad in theatrical drapes fabric. It was emotional being reunited with him, after 15 days of limbo, not knowing or being able to visualize where his body was.

Hannah drove back to school, Jimmie “sitting” on the floor between my work boots. I reached down occasionally to caress the strings that closed the bag. When we got back, I eschewed the chili cook off – all I wanted to do was go home and have lunch with Jimmie. I didn’t think the students would appreciate my showing up with Jimmie to the cook off. Talk about traumatizing. 

Home we went. “We” had some clam chowder, Jimmie’s favorite, (No, I didn’t put any in front of him) and he rested across the table from me  in his seat, watching me do some administrative paperwork with the death certificates I had also picked up. Now that there was at least a physical representation of him in the apartment, I felt better, more grounded. Not alone.

Later that evening, I watched TV, cradling the blue box in the crook of my elbow, chatting with Jimmie about how crazy the news has been and about the prospect of the rain that would be coming later in the week. It felt good to be reunited.

Tuesday evening, I attended the holiday party in my building. I knew it would be difficult as it was the first time I’d gone alone at that event, and though I’m on a friendly basis with many of the home owners, social chit chat is a bit fraught right now. I lasted about 45 minutes at the party before I felt a deep, gutteral grief uncapping somewhere in my solar plexis. It happened, as it is likely to, when I was talking with someone who knew Jimmie and who was expressing concern about how I was doing. I felt my face reddening, and I blurted out, “I think I have to go now,” and quickly scurried away, the emotional magma rising with urgency when I hit the outside patio. Once I was in the elevator, it came, hot and fast, and by the time I got to the apartment, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I quickly undressed, putting on the fluffy white robe that a friendly lesbian couple had given to Jimmie and me on our 30th anniversary weekend at the Langham.

As I’d been warned by so many of my widowed friends, experiencing the grief is essential and necessary. I sat on the edge of my bed, looking over at the photo of Jimmie, one taken during The Ice Man Cometh (1986) of him as Jimmy Tomorrow, which, due to the angle of the camera, allows his eyes to follow me where ever I go in the room.  Behind him sat the comforting blue box, and  in front of them both, I sobbed and tried to gain my breath. Ten minutes went by until I was spent, and then I went to look for something else to do. 

Fortunately, one of my friends had noticed that we had set up a holiday puzzle in our office to work on at lunchtime, and knowing what had transpired in my life, had thoughtfully purchased two puzzles for me to take home. I had just brought the Broadway Musical Puzzle home that evening, and so cracked it open to begin working on it. 

I’ve done winter puzzles every year for as long as I can remember. They are always intrusive to our small living space, because they take over the dining room table. This time, underscored by Broadway show tunes, it was the perfect invasion of color and the graphic comfort and familiarity of all those show posters spread out on the table like so many old friends. I made a cup of tea, and before I knew it, three hours had gone by and it was time to go to bed. And I was soothed and ready to sleep, under the watchful and protective gaze of Jimmie Tomorrow.

Our Amicable Divorce

GASP! WHAT? IMPOSSIBLE!

Of course I’m not divorcing that darling husband of 34 years. In fact, I’m sitting next to him on our couch watching the umpteenth night of Olympics solo ice dancing. If our marriage can survive that, then we’re home free.

No, I’m talking about our divorce from our bank of 35 years -since we moved out to Los Angeles, in fact. They shall remain nameless, but their ever-loving-initials are B of A.

The trouble began in November, after paying my 2018 gym fees in the end of October. All of the gym members were notified by email that the gym was closing abruptly before Thanksgiving, taking with them (in my case) almost two grand without looking back. The more rational among you are thinking, “Why didn’t she divorce the gym rather than the bank?”

Starting in December, through painstaking documentation of the theft of this money, I thought the Bank would come to my aid and at the very least, front the money so that I could afford my new gym membership. I would call every two weeks or so to inquire as to the status of my claim, speaking with Juanita, then lovely Rebecca (names changed to protect the innocent). Each person I spoke with was ostensibly “horrified” at the amount of time this claim was taking, their small exhortations of breath audible over the phone, with assurances that they would accelerate my claim, sending it up to the next level. Every time I hung up, I felt better. Finally someone would help me take care of this.

The online claim system is horrible. You can’t upload any documents, and you can’t send emails to find out the status. You have to phone in and sit on hold. I’m not saying I’m the busiest person in the world, but it’s really annoying to have to carve out precious time to sit on hold while the purportedly shocked employee mutes their line, and buffs their nails for 10 minutes before coming back to express more despondency about why this claim hasn’t been settled yet.

On a Friday a week ago, I was told by “Sheila” that I would absolutely hear by Monday evening, or Tuesday morning at the latest. That was a week ago.

It takes a lot to make me lose my cool, but when last Tuesday came and went, I was pretty steamed. I immediately drafted a letter to the B of A Claims P.O. Box, in which I cced the president of B of A, BofA Presidentphoto below.

Found this little tidbit online.

Brian Thomas Moynihan’s 2017 equity incentive award has been raised to $21.5 million from $18.5 million in 2016.

I can see that ignoring my claim is incentivized by the award listed above. Alongside the information and mailing address was a many-pages long list of irate comments from angry customers like me, who have been ignored and whose claims have gone unanswered. Other websites encouraged me and others to “kick the claim up the poop hill” to CEO Moynihan.

I’m not going to take it any more!

My letter included my stated intention to begin removing myself and my business from his bank if I didn’t receive any response by last Friday. So I started the process earlier, on Wednesday. It’s difficult to disentangle yourself from a banking institution after thirty plus years. Complex, but satisfying. Every keystroke changing online bill pay and direct deposits to my new Credit Union account felt great.

Except every item I moved I relived the humiliation of being taken by the gym, then being taken by the bank.

Ironically, as I typed this blog last night, interspersed with attempting to change various accounts, I received this message from B of A:

We’re letting you know that you have a new message about your claim in your Online Banking mailbox.

This alert is in reference to an open claim you have on file with us. The account listed in this alert is for verification purposes only.

When I went to check the message, it indicated that my credit was permanent.

Message date: 02/20/2018
Subject: Credit is now permanent. 

We’ve completed our review of your claim.

What you need to know

We’re pleased to let you know that the previously issued temporary credit for $1,750.00 is now permanent and we consider this claim resolved.

We’re here to help

If you have any questions, please visit bankofamerica.com/help. We appreciate the opportunity to serve your financial needs.

A hasty search of the entire account revealed no previously issued temporary credit. I think I’d have noticed that, don’t you?

Ironically, while making lunch today, I received a call from another B of A employee in the Executive Claims Department, letting me know that they had received my letter and that I would have the money by midnight tonight.  I let her know that I was, of course, pleased with the outcome of the claim’s conclusion, but that I would still be leaving the bank. And tonight, I see the money sitting ready to come back into my account.

It felt really good to have someone to give my feedback to about the process. This B of A employee wasn’t buffing her nails while we talked. She was listening. Of course, in the back of my mind, I’m thinking….power of the blog!….keystroke monitoring?…..paying it forward? New Gym! New Bank! What a great way to start the new year!

The divorce, while amicable, will be finalized in the next few weeks.

Heartbreaking News…

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

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

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

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

Heartbreaking News…

The power of words.

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

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

What was she a girl scout or something?

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

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

The doctor, lowering his voice, quietly said,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aggressive prostate cancer. Hormone therapy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bear broke into my truck last night

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

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

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

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

 

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.

Maskirovka as a tool on College Campus

There was a fascinating story on the front page of the New York Times yesterday by Andrew E. Kramer entitled Decoys in  Service of an Inflated Russian Might about the use of inflatable “dummy” military lures by the Russians. There were so many things that intrigued me about the article:

  1. That there were photos of these inflatable MIG-31 fighter jets taken by the New York Times (James Hill) from a distance of what looked to be less than 10′. This in and of itself contradicted the secretive purpose of the objects. The descriptions of their inflation, the company that makes them, etc. indicate that it’s common knowledge that they exist. The article even cited the fact that you could see in radar images the inflation and deflation of the devices, but obviously the trickery must work or the Russians wouldn’t go to the expense of fabricating them and then rolling them out.
  2. The theatricality of these objects and their deployment is extraordinary. It is mind boggling that somewhere in Russia in a Rusbal warehouse there are people stitching together these set pieces (you can see the video on their website – looks like a costume shop). That military TDs then are sent out to load them into temporary sites and strike them immediately afterwards, so that they appear and disappear with the ephemeralness of a site-specific theatre piece is extraordinary. This underscored again the relevance of theatre to the larger human condition. Of course, I would prefer to not see theatre militarized in such a fashion. Not the first time, of course; we have had all too many examples of the militarization of personalities using theatrical practice – Hitler comes to mind.

But the article stayed with me last night and I sat down to blog about it but didn’t yet have the hook as to it’s staying power. It is a much more personal issue that the concept of Maskirovka awakens in me.

Recent press about presidential candidate Donald Trump’s sexual bravado (last Sunday) and accused sexual assault (by Wednesday) made tangible what I’ve been thinking a lot about this week. After watching students deal with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted, these inflatables seem metaphoric to the campus experience. I don’t just speak about my university – the statistics about young women on college campuses and sexual assault are staggering.

Putting aside the grossest metaphor  of “inflatables” in a sexual sense, I am haunted by the image of the representation of a real object with a decoy as it relates to the aftermath of sexual assault. Disclaimer – I was the victim of a sexual assault in college, after leaving my eating club one night, having had way too much to drink. The episode, which I did not report because I was embarrassed to not remember what had happened, has remained with me for 35 years. I am a resilient person, and the event has less power in my life at this point; I have confronted it, examined it, flogged it, and more or less put it away. I do recall the time immediately following the event, when I had to continue attending classes, work at my student job, show up at the theatre at night as a stage manager, inflate myself with enough confidence to even come out of my dorm and not be afraid of every man on campus because I had no memory of what “he” looked like. I was a walking decoy for my wounded and vulnerable self. Classic Maskirovka.

Spending time on campus now as an adult and professor,  I am aware of events that unfold for many young women, and I see the aftermath of the abuse, but in a peripheral way, like the Times photographer standing close by and watching the military decoys inflate and deflate.  The other aspects of Maskirovka, denial and deception, are very much at play in these circumstances. In my own case, I practiced a huge amount  of denial with myself and with my closest friends, concealing from them any and all details of the event, not discussing it with anyone, and stuffing it away. It was only 25 years later when I had some counseling that I realized, AHA! I could have dealt with it more directly, treated myself more kindly by accepting assistance in processing the event with counselors who were, even in the early 1980s, available to me on my campus.

Hear me, Donald Trump, 25 years had passed since the event before I sought to explore it in any way.

A sexual assault is a lot to process. Time doesn’t slow down while one does or doesn’t do the processing. The daily demands to remain connected, far more than when I was in college with no email, rudimentary computers, no cell phones, places even more pressure on young women to conceal their panic, their grief, their heartbreak about what has happened to them.

Last night I listened to a CNN panel discussion about the “opportunistic” timing of Jessica Leeds’ and Rachel Crooks’ accounts of inappropriate touching by Donald Trump as a means to slander him. It made me furious just as obviously his statements galvanized something in both of them on Sunday night to make them reach out to tell their stories.

The story about decoy, denial and deception is an old story for many of us and a painful new story for many young women. We all need to be aware of the people around us, some of whom are not themselves, but inflated stand-ins passing for themselves as they move through processing their experiences.

So, as if I needed any more reasons to be with Her, thank you Donald Trump for triggering this last one.