2020 has been declared the year of clarity, the year of the stage manager. Leave it to Stage Managers to get up in the business of the new decade and claim it. New decade, both for the world and for me. I’m entering my 6th decade, and have decided that many celebrations are in order. I’m really clear about that. Does that count as decadal clarity? Or just well-developed narcissism? Okay, okay. I have my answer.
Saturday, I threw the first of those many celebrations, an unbirthday party, hosting tea at The Huntington Gardens for a dozen and a half friends. I know that I left important people out and for that I’m cringing as I write this. Know that your engraved invitation is coming for another day and please forgive my brutish forgetfulness while putting the guest list together. Isn’t it always like that, life? Happy events tinged with sadness or regret? I’ve resolved to try to let the negative thoughts go, and I do hope you will, too. We’ll go another day.
So why tea? When I was in my late twenties, or early thirties, I frequently had tea at the Huntington with my starving artist theatre friends. The gardens were much less developed than they are now, but still magical; this was back in the mid eighties and early nineties before the Chinese gardens had been added. For us, the Gardens represented a place to escape to for a few hours of sunshine, appreciation of fine art and books and the embodiment of a slower, more elegant time. The gardens comprise 120 acres of botanical bliss. Still, all these years later, the same sturdy tea house still sits in the center of the rose garden, even today. I was surprised Saturday to see as many roses in bloom as there were, considering it’s January. We gathered just outside the door; they wouldn’t seat the group until everyone had arrived. Under the tree was a display of roses, a wooden table with a chair, and a big banner behind the table that said “Ask Me About the Roses.” As we milled around waiting for everyone to gather, I avoided sitting because I thought someone might approach looking to me for encyclopedic information about roses. Not Michael. He stepped up right to the table and proceeded to instruct my more gullible friend, Cathy, about the several varieties of roses on the table. He indicated delicately with his musician’s fingers, sweeping across the display tray, lingering at each flower:
Oh, that one (pointing to the yellow) is the Eisenhower, and the red one, there, is the Nixon. (pausing for effect)
Cathy took this in thoughtfully, nodding, while the other Michael covered his mouth to keep from laughing. A minute after this picture was taken, Cathy exploded with laughter when she realized what had happened. I believe there was some colorful language, but I pretended not to hear it because I was mentally preparing for tea. Clearly I didn’t get to introducing people quickly enough to have allowed that to happen. Thankfully Cathy didn’t hold a grudge about Michael’s rose bloviating.
Once inside, I quickly dealt out the place cards so that everyone could sit. There was some quick engineering to fix the sunlight-streaming-through-the-window-problem. Leave it to another stage manager to sort out the quick napkin over the door solution.
A few of us had arrived early to take a walk in the gardens. Several of them had complimented me on my new coat. “I bought it for myself for my birthday, online at the Ann Taylor sale. I bought the coat on sale at $231 only to put it in my cart and discover it was $95.” Good story, right? Enough people were graciously complimentary about my new coat so that every time someone commented about it my two friends, Lynn and Rob breathlessly doubled over. And those were the friends I brought all the way to Pasadena in my car and who needed a ride home from the party! Only your friends can remind you of what will be the most important new rule for my 60s. Rule number 6. I read about it in the wonderful book, “The Art of Possibility” by Ben Zander.
Don’t take yourself so goddamn seriously.
This is hard for a Capricorn. We Capricorns are earnest. We take everything seriously. So this will be a challenge for me in the coming decade. Lynn and Rob and I laughed all the way home as I realized I’d repeated the stupid coat story about five times to different people, forgetting that all around me there were people who’d heard it anywhere between one to five times. Talk about bloviating. They were on the five end of the spectrum. They fell out every time I started in. It was a bonding moment for them, more of a bondage moment for me. Harrumph. Remember, Els, rule number 6!
The tea was spectacular. Being so supported this past year by my friends has been a gift. Speaking of gifts, I very carefully instructed that there were to be no gifts. But you know, some people can’t help themselves. My friend Jenny brought me a beautiful square box with an extravagant crenulated hat on top. “It’s just a box with some padding in it,” she said.
I’m making strides in the new year, the new decade, with the critical new rule. Rule number 6.
Recently, I left my brand new-Christmas lunch box on the Dash F bus. I was on a call with a colleague, and jumped off the bus, leaving it behind, in all it’s splendor on the seat and didn’t realize I’d even lost it until I was leaving the credit union after ordering my widow checks and didn’t have it. I stopped and cursed my luck before continuing back to my office. No lunch box. No lunch. What a terrible way to start the day.
First, you have to know why I became unhinged at losing what others might consider to be a trifle. Over the years I’ve worked at USC, fifteen this January, I’ve received many monogrammed gifts – scarf, hat, umbrella, drink tumblers, coffee mugs, water bottle. I’ve used the heck out of all of these losing the water bottle just last fall in a moment of forgetfulness after a safety training. But this lunch box and its contents was truly special, featuring many more monograms than any self-respecting faculty member deserves.
Ridiculously fabulous, right? And just in keeping with the new president’s sustainability measures.
How is all that branded swag sustainable, asked my very inquisitive friend, Bob in New York.
E: We stop using straws and plastic silverware. My helpful suggestion was to never serve bottled water again, because a few years ago they gave us all water bottles. I am, of course, on my fourth since then, but the habit stuck.
Which habit, you might be asking yourself about now. The habit of not using plastic water bottles? Or the one of buying sustainable products over and over….. I can’t honestly answer that question without blushing considerably.
My friend Susan had already started shopping for a replacement lunch box for me. Where i saw a loss, she saw an opportunity….
I left my lunch bag on the Dash bus once years ago, so I knew they had a lost and found, and walked back to my office not too worried that I’d be able to get it back.
Others of us lucky to have received this gift have lost theirs, too. But I can hardly compete with my colleague Luis, who lost his in an episode worthy of Live PD, or Cops – blame someone else for ransacking his car or burgling his apartment to lose his – way better story; it’s hard to compete with his story of loss. He’s a playwright for Christ’s sake.
Back in my office, I called the Dash office number on their website. I listened to an endless loop of muzak underscoring the announcement, “You’re Number One in line, ” punctuated with “Hi! Your call matters to us, thank you for your patience!” After about five minutes of listening to this hellish loop, I began muttering back at the speaker phone on my desk, “I guess my call doesn’t much matter considering I’ve been listening to this dreck for ten minutes,” Hannah snickering in the background. You know when there’s a particularly real sounding phone interruption that actually sounds like someone has picked up the phone and you might end up talking to a LIVE HUMAN BEING? That’s what the above punctuation “Hi! Your call matters to us…” sounded like. It got me every time. Like two dozen times.
It’s lunchtime, said Hannah wearily, though it was really only 11:45, and it was her polite way of saying, Let it Go, Els.
So I hung up. Tried again at 3:30, 4:30; same thing. They must eat lunch there a lot. So I decided after riding the Dash bus home, I’d jump in my car and go to the bus yard. I asked the evening driver if anyone had turned in a lunch box earlier that day, and he went off on a tangent talking about having seen a lunch box in the breakroom, and I felt buoyed about the prospects of my lunch box retrieval. The address on the website had said 100 N. Main St., but when I got there, it was a rolled down door at a building on Main and 1st, not a bus yard.
Wait! I’d been watching them build the new bus transit station for a year or so on the way to my gym in the arts district! So off I went – it’s on Commercial Street, parallel with the 101 Freeway, just below the Twin Towers Correctional Facility.
I pulled up on a street behind the facility, parked at the many meters and crossed the street to the guard’s gate. It was about 7:00PM. I stood there until the guard noticed me. Wearing a jaunty tam, he slid open the window to inform me that the parking garage was on the other side of the building, and closed at 4:30PM but then graciously opened the gate and called someone on his walkie talkie to take me to Dispatch. Talk about jobs you don’t want. The Dispatcher was on the phone with a driver trying to take their break. The office was tidy. I could see a pile of what might be lost or found items on the file cabinet to the right of her desk. No lunch box. I waited patiently until she’d finished with the driver. I told her what the driver of the bus told me about someone having seen the lunch box in the breakroom, and she sent someone to look for it. Nope. She let me know that it probably wouldn’t turn up until the end of the night when the bus came back.
I’ll check back tomorrow. But before I leave, do you have a direct phone number?
She jotted it down and handed it to me, and I promptly uploaded it into my phone, triumphant that I’d no longer need to suffer the fates of the muzak.
I called later the next day, about 4:00PM, and sure enough, someone had retrieved my lunch box and it was there. The food is no longer there, she said. She told me to come by dispatch. This time went more smoothly, but Jaunty Jake was still there, still sardonic.
You’re back after hours again.
Yes, they said they’d found my lunch bag.
Back to Dispatch – this time, when the Dispatcher finished with the call they were on, he cradled the phone, shook his head and said, “Drivers. What are you going to do?” He reached up onto the file cabinet to the right of the desk and said, “This it?” Yes!
I signed the clipboard, and turned to my right, spotting Jaunty Jake holding a bag of chips. He escorted me down the stairs to the parking garage.
Well, if history holds true, you won’t see me for a couple of years, but now I know w here to come to find my lost stuff. Thanks for your help!
He laughed, as he headed over to the guard station by the back gate. I cradled my monogrammed lunch bag in my arms, and jumped into the car, pulling out of the LADOT Transit Parking garage to head home. With my monogrammed lunch box.
Speaking of monograms, here’s a million dollar business idea. You remember His and Hers towels? Isn’t it time for Theirs towels? Go for it. Make a million.
The phrase “up at the cabin” now rings metaphoric to me. The cabin is a real place, its denizens over the Thanksgiving weekend were my middle brother, Duck and his wife, Bunky, whose cabin it is, my son and his wife and their two children, her Dad, and her best friend. It’s a beautiful wooden house/cabin purchased by Bunky’s Mom and Dad back in the 70s, where they vacationed with their family and friends. I’d call it nouveau rustique – the nouveau parts are rustic, too, so I don’t intend to freight it with the value judgement normally ascribed to nouveau. There’s nothing riche about the cabin, except it’s history, which wears a thick patina of familial experience that still echoes within its walls. A big bookcase in the corner holds brother-in-law Bruce’s AV Extravaganza, which fortunately he had the foresight to write instructions to before passing away a few years ago. Even so, it took several of them to figure out how to play the video of Lady and the Tramp on the DVR, while the picture of Bruce gazed indulgently down at us from the top of the shelves.
The original wood burning stove has been replaced with a propane remote-controlled red stove, which takes a minute to get started, or so said Duck, when I asked him to walk me through the opening instructions for the cabin. This was Grandma Dorothy’s decision, after watching the aging cabin denizens split wood to feed the fire. After a day or so, I suddenly realized that no one had been fetching wood. Duck shared the history of her decision to change out the fireplace and Grandpa Dan, who has one of his own up north, suddenly looked interested. We’d been discussing what people wanted for Christmas, and as his interest warmed, I nudged his daughter with, “sounds like we know what to get Dan for Christmas this year!” Gulp. I love being helpful.
Other improvements to the cabin – a brand new Kenmore range, which did a great job of cooking the turkey, after hours and hours of discussion about the stuffing, much perusing of the Chronicle recipe, calculating the correct time and temperature to cook the 22-lb. bird, and many attempts at inserting the meat thermometer judiciously to get the most accurate reading. That followed on the thesis we wrote on brining the turkey and making the stuffing. Bunky led the charge on both of those efforts.
I should explain that my brother and his wife both have real, parentally-prescribed names, and that the above names are their professional names, being well-established commercial fishermen for the past 20-30 years. Their conversation, especially when they were in the company of my son Chris, aka Duckling, who shares history with them as a fisherman for three years on Duck’s boat, was peppered with colorful names which my failing memory now won’t allow me to retrieve. Names like Blind Bob, Stumpy, Red Ryder, etc. Knowing full well that these names are endowed on fishermen not chosen, I nevertheless made idle conversation asking those of us never-to-be-named to think about what our names would be. I decided mine would be Miss Manners, but the others eschewed the game and it died quickly.
The cabin nestled all eight of us comfortably over the Thanksgiving holiday. It chuckled as we donned the adult-sized onesies that my daughter-in-law had picked up at Target on the drive from Tahoe. Clad as Olaf, she had a goofy carrot sticking out of her head like a maniacal unicorn; her nearly four-year-old daughter sported the bobcat suit, sans tail, and her best friend, Beth, a Bunny; I rocked the Deer. Except for Skylar, our tails all jiggled a lot when we played Twister. One thing I can tell you: Twister is a whole lot different at 60 than it was at 16.
So many times over the weekend, my brother, Duck, covered his eyes with his weathered hands and just shook his head in disbelief at our shenanigans. Then he snapped pictures of the Twister game, which will no doubt become part of the cabin’s voluminous photographic history.
We played the antique ivory dominoes that belonged to our maternal grandfather, which I remembered playing with on the floor of their den on wintery visits; Duck shared how much he loved the game, teaching me to play again, and sharing how much he’d enjoyed playing with Grandma Dorothy, who was apparently killer good at Dominoes. Duck bemoaned his dearth of play since she’d passed away and I remembered the bloodlettings he’d given our older brother Don and I on Christmas morning as we played Monopoly from about 4AM until a reasonable time to get up. Somehow, he’d bank all his thousands under the board then whip them out and buy a slew of hotels just as we were coming around the corner into his zone. He was strategic, frugal, then funded the capital need as it arose. Sort of like he’s become as the president of the San Francisco Community Fisherman’s Association. I understood why no one else wanted to play dominoes, and in spite of fearing for my reputation, I played a few games with him.
The snow fell consistently pretty much the entire time we were there, piling up a foot and a half on the railings of the deck, where I’d spent summer evenings about 13 years ago with our Dad and his wife, and my uncle and aunt and my niece and her boyfriend at the time. Back then, too, Duck managed to feed the troops, while the rest of us recreated and enjoyed each others’ company.
This visit, before I got there, Wednesday, mid day, my granddaughter had built a snowman, made a pumpkin pie, and made two cheese balls, or so went the legend when each of those items was presented and eaten. Ultimately, my granddaughter also cooked the bird. She is turning into quite the little chef. Such is the lore of the cabin. By the time we left, the snowman was buried up to her waist in fresh powder, her eyes and nose gone from her face.
“Up at the Cabin”.
I was so aware while there, napping in the afternoon, pulling up the shade in the upstairs bedroom at the end of my nap to see three full-sized deer (gender identity unclear through the branches of the surrounding trees) gamboling through the snow up the hill, that these are the moments that make up our lives. A phrase resounded through my mind all weekend was one my coach recently shared with me: “How we live our days is how we live lives”. Not that I want to spend my days napping, dressed as a deer, or even watching deer through a cabin window. And god knows I did enough dishes to last me quite a long time, thank you very much. But being in the breast of family is sweet.
“Do you think you’ll want to come up to use the cabin by yourself?” Bunky asked me on the last morning we were there.
Bunky, Yes, I intend to come back up to the cabin. Both alone, and with our family – to sop up the experiences, and to hang out with the people with whom I want to make a lot more memories.
You know, I used to be a whole lot better at logistics than I seem to have been in the past few weeks. A week ago, I made a car rental reservation for my trip to the family cabin – my brother’s family cabin, in North Fork, just west of the western entrance to Yosemite. I was very excited to reserve a midsized SUV, which sported a picture of a Ford EcoSport. I was unable to ascertain from the website whether the car had 4 Wheel Drive, which I knew I needed because of the major weather belt which was tightening around the entire region. So I googled Ford EcoSport, and discovered to my pleasure, that indeed it did have 4 Wheel Drive. Ah, I sighed. “That’s accomplished.” I’d even felt pretty smug about reserving the car at the on-campus car rental office, located in the parking and housing office just at the end of campus. So convenient!
And then I went on about the rest of the week, which foamed with activities, such as publishing spring design assignments, meeting with colleagues, and planning my classes. Saturday I shopped, gathering the plumpest, most luscious looking 22 lb. turkey at the store, and had a conversation with the butcher because I’d thought I’d be bringing up a frozen bird in a cooler to the cabin. There wasn’t one big enough, so this 22 lb. monster was fresh, and I had considerable trepidation about carrying it in the car thawed. The butcher assured me, as did another fellow shopper, that my turkey would make it salmonella-free to my family. My office mate, Hannah, kindly brought me one of the prop coolers from the props storage, so that Tom and I could make the trip to North Fork.
Tuesday morning began with our wrap up THTR 130 class about collaboration, all the faculty collaborators there. We did exercise designed by Tina, the Costume Design Faculty member. The room was divided up and seven groups came up with seven scenes, which they discussed scenario, characters, setting, lighting and costuming the two characters from what the group was wearing, and final dramatic moment of the scene. The room was quite intense as they worked on their scenarios, huddled over the sheet, writing down their ideas, which were coming enthusiastically, ending after about twenty minutes by naming the scenes. At the end they took turns pitching their shows, freshmen actors, all of them, eager to perform in front of their classmates (in a technical production kind of way). The five faculty members sat in seats in the center, to listen to their pitches.
Here were two of my favorites:
A Quiet Ruckus – 14-year old Russell plays baseball near the barn, finds the dead body of Wrangler. Cue opening song – Finally a Friend!/Lights come up – there are movers and gobos…/3 mice and a raccoon scurry in. /Setting – unit set – Winter inside the barn of Russell’s family farm in the south– pretty realistic setting. /Winter – chilly fog intensifies as the 14 year old boy continues to lose his mind. Sound – 30’s style hoe-down music. Wrangler (the dead man) has a Johnny Cash voice. Basic sound effects – “Danny Elfman-esque” score– wintery soundscapes/Very lighting heavy show – heavy side lighting. Sirens flashing on the duo.
The Not-So-Nice-Pumpkin-Spice– Intern brings boss wrong coffee/Characters are Dean, the mean boss and Samm, the under-qualified intern/Setting – present day in NYC 23rd floor – big sleek black desk, two large windows, big black leather chair, white shag rug. 2 mac books/Low budget student film /Costumes from within group /Lighting – colors of the scenes – black and grays. Using fluorescents from above. Gloomy outside. Not too much warm light/Sound – elevator music in the background (cue played on one student’s Iphone to very appreciative laughter from all)/Shouts and honks from outside/Final scene – sounds are getting louder/Boss throws coffee onto the intern who drips in pumpkin spice as the lights fade to black.
You get the picture. It was a great exercise and we all left the classroom buoyed.
Later that afternoon, I extracted myself from a meeting at 4:15, rolling my red cooler with the big white handle, across campus to McCarthy Quad where the car rental office was. The empty cooler groaned its way across the varied brick and concrete sidewalks, tracing the tracks of thousands of fuller, though hardly less celebratory coolers from game days gone by. The plastic wheels rattling against the pavement was driving me nuts, and people were looking at me as I passed by as though I’d only missed the USC/UCLA rout by three days. I steamed into the office, with my little friend behind me to discover a sign. Uh oh.
The Car Rental Center employee did not come to work today. Please call 213-XXX-XXXX to follow up on your reservation.
There was a young Chinese student in the office on her phone and as I looked blankly at the empty desk, she kindly wagged her finger at the sign, then walked outside to join her friend.
I fumbled my phone out of my pocket and dialed the number, navigating the menu to reach a live person who chirped, “We have someone coming to pick you up.” So I wandered outside and encouraged the other young women to walk with me, again, behind my tethered turkey trolley to the corner of Figueroa and McCarthy Way, where within about ten minutes, an unmarked white van pulled up and a young man named Jamal recited our two cell phone numbers and assured he was with the company. We hopped in.
It was now about 5:00PM, and we arrived at the rental car place near DTLA. I retrieved my cooler from the back of the van. I checked in after the two young USC students got their car squared away. The store was very busy, with a festive air – off for Thanksgiving! I chatted briefly with a man about the drive to Yosemite, which was currently listed as 6 plus hours, and I knew that I’d be racing against the snow.
Finally a clean cut young man with hand held computer walked out to show me my car. The first car we look at was a large heavy looking grey Dodge 2019 Journey. I asked him, “Does it have 4WD?” He didn’t know, nor did the other man in the lot who we went over to talk to. While we were about 20 feet away from the car, another man came over and started to get into that car as my sales rep was showing me a much smaller mini SUV. “This one is the same size as the other one.” “But it’s patently not,” I said beginning to see how this was going and beginning to tear up a little that the turkey that weighs as much as my granddaughter was now in danger of not getting to North Fork, or anyone’s fork at this rate.
Eying a large black Chevy Tahoe, I said, “I’ll take that one. That looks like it has 4 Wheel Drive.”
Rep: I’m sorry, but that is reserved for someone for tomorrow.
Me: But what about the Ford EcoSport I reserved for today? Atypically petulant now Scuffing the bottom of my faux-fur-tufted snow boots on the asphalt of the lot for effect. What effect, I’m not sure because it seemed to be having none on the two stressed-out employees.
Rep: We’re in Los Angeles. We rarely have a need for cars with 4 Wheel Drive. And the website says “or similar.”
Me: (I must have missed that fine print.) And yet, here we are, in need of one. Not proud of my attitude, and turning immediately penitent. Softly: Can we please ask about the Tahoe?
The Rep and I walked back into the store where the manager was busy checking out another customer. He informed my customer service agent(loudly so I could also hear and looking back and forth between me and him) that “All the reservations for our customers have been confirmed with them.” (“That’s the way we do it at this fine establishment, lady!” implicit.)
Churlishly, now, I leaned over the counter to my rep: “Tell me, what good is it to be a “Plus” customer?”
Rep: Trying desperately to please a customer who can only be pleased in a way not available to him. “I can still rent you the Nissan Sport that’s outside.” Me: “But we’ve already established that it wouldn’t be safe to drive it in the snow, right?” He shrugged.
I felt the hot tears of disappointment resulting from poor customer service beginning to spurt, and I turned from the counter, weakly, over my shoulder, “Never mind. I’ll figure it out.”
Then I toted my turkey cooler out to the sidewalk and plopped myself down right in the middle of the sidewalk in view of the side window of the car rental manager to try to find another rental company on my phone. I was breathing hard, not thinking clearly, angry, upset that I wouldn’t get to see my granddaughter who’d earlier squealed “Nana!” on the phone in her most exuberant voice.
I called Midway, which it turned out was directly across the street from where I was perched on the cooler.
“Hold, please.” The very friendly man came back a moment later. “We have a Ford Mustang.”
“Is that a 4WD?” I asked, imbecilically.
“No, it’s a sports car.”
I stabbed at the Uber app on my phone, and waited three minutes for Hugo to arrive in his Silver Toyota to take me home. I figured going to home base was the smartest thing right now.
Once in my apartment, the sobs erupted, I’m embarrassed to say perhaps worse crying even than when I lost my husband a year ago. Heaving and hiccoughing, I couldn’t think even where to begin. As a planner of the Type A variety, I was absolutely stymied by suddenly not having any plan at all along with the responsibility of the 22 lb. turkey for my entire family snowed in up at the cabin. I envisioned my 4-year-old granddaughter gnawing on the forearm of her baby sister while the adults sat around eating the last of the cheese balls and looking forlorn.
So I texted my son.
Oops. I guess the secret is out. Anyway, soon my phone rang, while I was in the middle of maniacally dialing the rental company again. It was Chris. He said the magic words.
Think further along the line.
Honestly, sometimes he is Yoda-like. Right! If they don’t have 4 WD in Los Angeles, they might have one in Fresno. Then the collaborative exercise began. Through my tears, I opened my laptop, booking a hotel room in Fresno, because by now it was 7:00PM, and there was no way I was going to get to North Fork by the end of Tuesday as originally planned. Chris remembered that his wife’s father was flying into Fresno on Wednesday morning and driving out. In an SUV. We quickly arranged for me to accompany him to North Fork. He graciously said he’d love the company, though if he’d seen me at that moment, I’m not so sure he would have felt that way. So I ate some food, and packed my cart with Tom in the Trolley.
The drive to Fresno was about 4.5 hours, and I listened to podcasts, munched on potato chips and stopped once at one of those roadside food courts with the central bathrooms bereft of toilet paper, to pick up another sack of ice to ice down Tom and the other perishable food. I arrived at the very nice Holiday Inn Express in Fresno at midnight on the nose, and after checking Tom, checked in, just as the rain began to come down with increasing ferocity. I fell into the downy white bed and slept hard.
This morning, Dan will pick me up and we’ll go on to put Tom on our forks in North Fork. Picture Norman Rockwell-esque scene, lots of heavy side lighting, steam rising from the golden turkey, the tinkle of children laughing and the fire crackling in the stove. Fade to black.
Here in California, and at USC specifically, we recently practiced for “The Great ShakeOut,” a state-wide Earthquake Preparedness Drill. Under the guidance and leadership of the university’s Fire, Safety and Emergency Preparedness, we performed the drill, each school setting up it’s Emergency Response Team and executing well-defined plans.
Thursday, October 17 2019 began with a triage drill at the Health Center. My overacting ended me up in a neck brace, but I was next to a guy who had “lost his hand”. We were sitting waiting for the “ambulance to pick us up to take us for further care,” he holding his hand in a bag, me wearing my brace. (Though his right arm had been treated, he carried a left hand in his left hand, which made us laugh for a minute. I had to be discharged early from the drill so I could join my team to set up our Departmental Operations Center to be ready for the 10:17 Earthquake. While the idea of a scheduled earthquake is absurd, the scheduling of practice for the inevitable earthquake is anything but. It offers us a way to get it into our bodies, so that when the real one happens, we are ready.
At 10:17, we dropped, covered and held under the flimsy table which was our Departmental Operations Center, where you can see me ready to enter the data collected from our Emergency Response Teams and our Building Emergency Response Teams on our Status board. We use WhatsApp for that communication.
Also on my WhatsApp chat list is the chat group composed of just myself and my two dear college friends, Susan and Bob. That Emergency Response Team is entitled “Loving Jimmie and Els” and was started by Susan about a year ago when my husband had a fall that ultimately quickly ended his life.
We started it in the days after we’d returned home for hospice, a brief three-day period that was insular and emotional, of course, as brief hospices are, and over those days, my friends sent me so much love via this emergency friendship group. Unlike messenger, WhatsApp allowed me this morning to roll back to the beginning of the chat quickly, and to see the real-in time responses to what we were going through right at the end of Jimmie’s life, including a photo of Jimmie in the hospice bed which I’d impulsively deleted from my photos because it wasn’t how I wanted to remember him.
Over the past year, Bob and Susan have supported me on every front, nearly every day via this Emergency Response Team message platform. My earthquake was personal, one that we’d prepared for through many many iterations of hospital care over the years. But critical to the success of surviving the actual incident was having people to share it with immediately and in the aftermath. Looking back on our messages, we shared pictures and memories and plans for future travels together and past travels. At one point, I referred to the chat as a “life feed for me.” We arranged Skype chats to check in and see how each other were doing. Like typical digital tourists, we spent a good five minutes at the beginning of each of our chats figuring out the technology. Honestly, it was ridiculous. But hey, that’s why we practice. To get it right when we need it.
On the other coast, Bob and his son just concluded a similarly quick hospice for his partner and his son’s father. We used the same Loving Jimmie and Els chat over the past ten months as he tended to his loving partner, Mitchell. In honor of Mitchell we need to change the name of our group to Loving Bob and Mitchell. Otherwise it’s hard to be helpful all the way from Los Angeles. I’ve been thinking about him and their son Nate, and also reflecting back on our own hospice with Jimmie as we approach the year mark.
The waiting is the easy part. That’s not to say it’s emotionally easy. Of course it’s not. But while you are in the cocoon with your loved one, you have supportive nursing staffing (if you’re privileged to have health care and resources) and most likely you have family visiting to pay their respects and to say goodbye. You have a solemn intimacy couched in the shared love of your partner/parent/child. I remember on Jimmie’s last day, one of Chris’ best childhood friends, now a cop, dropped by to pay his respects. The two of them laughed at the foot of Jimmie’s bed about all the trouble they’d gotten into when they were younger, and under his watch. Having him visit normalized the process of dying.
Those visits are so critical to the family as they grapple with their emotions. Tugged by the undertow of their loved one’s leaving, it is easy and normal to want to follow them into the afterlife. The visits by friends and family remind you that it isn’t time for you to die with your loved one even though you feel like you want to. There is more life to live and loving family and friends to support you on your first unsteady steps away from the tumultuous surf.
The end of life scene is different from other social settings where people come to visit. It’s purer, somehow. No one expects you to serve up food for them. The visitors do that for you. They are there because they want to be there. Why? To let the person who’s dying know that they love them, and care enough to come and sit facing their friend’s death, but also their own mortality. Because you can’t sit with someone who’s dying without thinking about your own exodus and the remaining purpose of your life were you to be in their position.
Sitting with your loving and dying friends where you all know that time is running out, frames everything in this context. I’m a pretty touchy feely person, but even with repeated experiences, I find my words choked and unavailable. How do you summarize a twenty-five year relationship in a fifteen to twenty-minute visit? This is part of the earthquake drill I still need to rehearse in order to be ready.
What happens immediately after is a frenzy of arrangements, people coming in to what had been a few minutes or hours ago the hallowed ground of your loved one’s departure. Now, your home is the workspace for mortuary workers, hospice care personnel clearing out their equipment. Then there is the silence. The part where no amount of sobbing or screaming or pounding your fist into pillows or walls can bring your loved one back. After you’ve tired yourself out with expressions of anguish, there follows a cavernous silence, an emptiness of loss that feels insurmountable. Simply, what was is no more. The love you had for them is still there, but it echoes back at you in terrifying starkness. Thirty plus years of intimacy and friendship and love gone in an instant. When it happened to us, Chris and I had to get out of the house. We went for a bike ride, of all things, grabbing metro bikes and riding from our condo to Little Tokyo, where we ate sushi, then walked miles back to the empty apartment. And the feelings were epic – guilt (did I do enough? Why didn’t I spend more time at the end at home?), fear (how will I survive without him?) rage (against the disease, the loneliness which you already are beginning to feel, the pain), and eventually, exhaustion, as all the days or months or years of staying vigilant collapse onto you like weighted plates, threatening to crush you. And frankly, you sort of wish they would. Then you wouldn’t have to deal with all of the niggling details of death – the acquisition of dozens of death certificates, of stationery to respond to people who will write in sympathy, the faces of the people who come to see you expressing their love and sorrow for your loss. And may continue to do so far after you need or want them too. Bob expressed it well in one of the messages – Bouts of sobbing – which Siri had helpfully translated as Boys off sobbing. Equally appropriate.
This year, on the anniversary of our return home from the hospital to hospice, I have two tickets to see David Sedaris at UC Irvine. I can’t imagine a more comforting place to spend the evening. I’d booked the tickets a year ago intending to go with my dear friend. During my recent visit, we talked about the fact that she wouldn’t be going with me. It was a bittersweet moment to acknowledge the rapid change in our fortunes.
Not to sound like a modern Cassandra, but like the catastrophic earthquake in Southern California, loss is coming to all of us. How we prepare ourselves to weather those losses is a personal choice. I’ve preferred to suit up and practice going through the motions of it with others. My recommendation to you is that you create your Emergency Response Team now, utilize the tools of communication we are so lucky to have to do it.
Last week was an amazing theatre week. Wednesday night I attended “On Beckett” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, starring the incandescent Bill Irwin, sharing his life-long love of and relationship with Samuel Beckett’s texts. Sitting in the center of the Kirk Douglas Theatre before the show, uncannily close to where I sat for opening night of Endgame, I cracked open my program to discover the Dramaturgical pages filled with pictures of Beckett performers, including my darling Jimmie, in the ashcan next to Charlotte Rae’s, circa 2016. (Scroll through to page 4/8 to see the page of which I speak. ) I continued to think throughout the ensuing evening how much Jimmie would have enjoyed this production.
Irwin is a master, his affinity with the distinctly Irish voice of Samuel Beckett so clear; his training as a clown made Beckett’s humority (do you like my new word?) powerful and immediate. Irwin removes all distance between himself and us with his personal narrative through the work. The fact that he shared texts most of us probably weren’t familiar with was also a bonus. The not-so-nutty professor, complete with gag podium.
Thursday evening, Sarah Jones was in the house, performing Sell/Buy/Date at USC as part of Visions and Voices in the Bing Theatre, packed to the rafters with appreciative students and faculty. Her play, which had appeared a little over a year ago at the Geffen Playhouse, is a complex jewel. Avoiding spoiler alerts, let’s just say her framing device is brilliant; positioning herself in a time frame about thirty years hence allowed her to skewer our behaviors and sharply direct our attention to the topic of sexual exploitation. On Sunday, the front page of the New York Times was a chilling reminder of how this show, originally performed in 2016, is maybe even more relevant today. Framing is everything. I told my freshmen seminar students that this is why the theatre has the power to change society.
Last Friday, I took the Dash bus to USC from my DTLA home, went to the Transportation office to turn in my parking pass in exchange for the EZ-Metro Pass. The pass allows me to take the Bus, Metro and Dash to and from work, something that I’ve not done in recent years because of my caregiver need to be able to get home quickly. This is a big step, given the fact that we’re heading into “winter” and there are, God willing, bound to be rainy days and late nights after tech where I’d probably appreciate the comfort of my private car. But the $110 parking vs. the $40 EZ-Pass is compelling, as is the lightening of my carbon footprint. And I can still listen to my favorite podcasts and spend time thinking and decompressing from work before I get home, regardless of the hour. I spent the first few days feeling a little dependent on forces not aligned with my fervent desire to get home right after work, until last night, at 10:49PM, I walked up to the bus stop at Jefferson and Figueroa, under Felix’s watchful eye, pulled up the timetable for the 81 bus to discover it only runs one bus per hour… but due to arrive in about 1 minute! Which it did. I got onto the bus, found a seat, and was home by 11:05, feeling oddly privileged.
You see, it’s all in the framing. I’ve decided this old house needs to be reframed, and I’ve begun the work. I still have the car sitting at home. If my legs give out from walking the 11,000 steps I’ve proclaimed I want to do each day then I can always get my parking pass back. But on the eve of Free Ride Day on LA Metro (Oct. 2), I’m happy it’s not just a one day choice, but feels like a shift in my lifestyle.
Saturday, I attended the life celebration of one of the former deans of the School of Dramatic Arts at USC, Robert Scales. It was a moving tribute to a man who as many people noted, would have hated the attention. Speaker after speaker talked about what Bob had done for them, either through introducing them to someone who could help them, or by helping them himself. His acts of kindness or opportunity or financial support were laid bare for all of us to see, yet again, reinforcing his legacy. I’ve been thinking a lot about who memorials are for and they’re a chance for us to take notice of each other and the impact we can have on others’ lives.
I’d spent Thursday running around in our new van, picking up loaner ghost lights to decorate the Bing to celebrate Bob, who’d made the witty little lamps as a hobby. In my travels, I got to visit one of Bob’s Los Angeles homes, the 24th Street Theatre, where he had been a constant support to that theatre. You can read more about Bob here through the words of Jay McAdams, one of the theatre’s Artistic Directors. Jay handed me two boxes of the whimsical lamps to use at the Bing. Here are a few pictures of some of the celebrants at Saturday’s event. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of the ghost lights.
I just want to take a moment to shout out to our amazing Theatre Management staff, CB Borger, Chris Paci, and Joe Shea, who gracefully shuffled the week’s events into an already loaded deck. At the time, we had Men on Boats in tech, and our upcoming productions of Amsterdam and Cider House Rules, Parts 1 and 2 waiting for their attentions for hangs and focuses. And yet they powered through, making the School look great as well as our guests, Sarah Jones and the spirit of Bob Scales.
It’s been a busy week and no signs of getting less so in the coming weeks. I feel lucky to have had such wonderful support in this difficult transitional year. Don’t know where I’m transitioning to, but I feel the psychic and emotional shift from looking backwards to looking forward. A few weeks ago, I removed the slim silver bracelet depicted below from my wrist because it no longer seemed a funny and encouraging exhortation but instead a petulant wail of sadness I like to think belies my natural optimism about the future.
It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you are a college professor. Your hours are filled with prepping for classes, grading assignments, reading to stay ahead of your students, planning how to engage them in the topics at hand. Then there are meetings, trainings, and the relentless onslaught of email, each one dripping into your inbox, requiring at least 30 seconds to 5 minutes to adequately respond with the information requested. Because there’s never just an email:
Hi! Loved seeing you the other day. You look tired. Are you eating enough spinach?”
“Thanks, it was great to see you, too! Nope, I’ll add some more spinach to my diet. Thanks!”
That only took about 15 seconds and left me feeling pleased that someone noticed how tired I was, and even more so since I just purchased some spinach at the store a little while ago. But it’s never that simple.
I was rushing around last week, on Monday, returning from one of our buildings flung up on the north end of campus to my office in the southwest what I call “idyllic corner.” I was trucking along, at a pace my Dad trained me early to master; in order to keep up with him, it required one practically to skip. I wasn’t skipping back to my office, exactly, but I was powering along when my boot landed on a little perfectly round 2″ long stick, and suddenly I was going down and going down hard, my right hand outstretched to break my fall, my left hand holding my cell phone, grimace on my face, the whole thing, I’m sure in slo mo. My phone and I slammed hard onto the asphalt driveway between the shop and the theatre where my office is.
All I could think of as I picked myself up and dusted off my ego, pride and jeans, was “That would have been a disaster if I’d broken something. Time to slow down.”
Earlier, I’d been listening to this amazing series on one of my favorite podcasts, “Hidden Brain” with host Shankar Vendantam. A summer series, under the umbrella of “You, 2.0,” the episode, entitled “Deep Work,” guest, computer scientist Cal Newport, discussing his disciplined approach to work without interruption. It was tantalizing and extremely helpful. The idea of having large blocks of time where you allow yourself not to be interrupted by every incoming email or phone call in order to focus on the development of writing, or research, or even working on class prep sounds impossible to schedule in the fray of the semester. How do you do that?
I suppose it’s like training a pet. Which is to say it is really more about training the owner of the pet to be consistent and focussed on breaking the behaviors that you are trying to correct. About fifteen years ago, my husband and I had a series of extremely….er… hospitable dogs. They’d “welcome” our guests for about 20 minutes of enthusiastic barking, for which we rewarded/stuffed them with dog biscuits. This made hosting a large party a hellish venture for both us and the guests, but not, I must say, for the dogs, who proceeded to quiet down in the middle of the party and then ramp it up at the end to say “goodbye” to our guests with the same rewards coming. We hired a dog trainer, to the tune of $700.00, but unfortunately we weren’t able to break ourselves of the bad habits that fed our dogs’ bad behaviors. Not even for that grotesque financial incentive to succeed.
And so it is with distractions at work. We don’t block out work sessions four months in advance (Cal Newport does); nor do we currently adhere to the deep work time like he’s scheduled, and end the day with check of the weekly plan, a visit to his task list and a mantra where he basically checks out of work so that it doesn’t bleed into his evening or family life. That would be amazing, though, right? If we could do that?
I can visualize myself at my desk on a Friday afternoon at 6:00PM saying “There is nothing more here to be done this week. I’ll see you on Monday, dear little desk.” And standing up, gathering my things and walking out of the office. Uh. Nope. Not so fast!
Working in the theatre, both professionally and educationally bleeds a lot into your life. Many of the conversations I’ve had with students over the past fifteen years have been to listen to their fears about this idea of work/life balance. Can I have a family? I did. I have a wonderful family who supported my professional and creative work. I wonder if my son understands why I’d made some of those sacrifices, now that he is a working man with deep responsibilities and a young family? I hope he has more success in pulling the plug at the end of the day than I did.
Tunnel vision creates feelings of scarcity and the inability to manage things in our lives. This was illuminated in another episode entitled “Tunnel Vision.” It covered hunger, financial scarcity and loneliness, all of which can become crippling to your normal standard operating procedures. I guess grief probably falls in there, too, as it reflects a scarcity of your recently lost loved one, with resulting loneliness.
A question that my coach asked me recently has stuck with me.
What are you tolerating in your life right now?
Examples she gave were, clutter, poor lighting, broken car. This is an activating question to ask yourself. Last week, after asking myself, I:
Fixed the motor shield under my car that had been kissing the road for months. And by kissing, I mean sloppy, slovenly, snogging.
I decided to just remove it ($30) rather than replace it ($465), so also a prudent financial move.
Cleaned off my desk so that I had some space to think.
Went to the movies on a weeknight with friends and laughed a lot. (not just tolerating loneliness)
I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but actually, when you are pulling yourself out of grief, it is quite a lot. Ask any of my BIGs (Buddies in Grief). They’ll tell you I had an amazing week.
The last thing I’m aware is of these days is my physical balance or lack thereof. At the end of each morning’s workout, we have 20-25 minutes of yoga. I’m aware of the difference from day to day or even side to side of my balance. It isn’t physical, but mental, I think. Breathe. Be present. Catch yourself and try again. It’ll come back.
I visited Venice after a 36-year hiatus and expected to remember my way around that complicated jewel box of a city. It didn’t seem unreasonable to me. Venice is a walking city and the routines of daily life had enabled me to learn about five ways to get home, how to walk in a narrow street in the rain with an umbrella, and how to choose an alternate route when there was someone too slow in your way. Guess what. I’m the slow one now. Continue reading “Thirty-six Years Later”
Saturday, June 22nd in Civitella was the Feast of Corpus Domine, and our hostess, Marina has a tradition of hanging banners from the windows of the Apti Palazzo, to greet the procession as it passes through the arch on its tour of the town. In previous years, the festive gold and red banners (if I squinted, they looked cardinal and gold to me ala USC) which she’d had made for this occasion were hung with ribbons from four windows on the south side and three on the north, and one in the main entryway of the Palazzo.
Bob and Sally had also traditionally helped with hanging the banners as you need one person on the ground to adjudicate what their level was, as well as the lay of the cloth against the rough stone. This year I was indoctrinated in the hanging of the banners. Here Bob invoked the powers of my stage management training, but the truth of the matter was that Sally’s mathematical orderliness came much more handily into play.
Our meeting time was scheduled for 10:30, so when we arrived, Marina had the main entry gate open, and gave me a complete tour of the Palazzo, which is stunning. Again, the temperature of these interiors is a good twenty degrees cooler than that outside, all managed by the shutters and windows. Generally, when a room isn’t being used, it is dark keeping the rooms cool. The standards of housekeeping in Italy always take me by surprise, from the first night I arrived at the Casalone in Scoppieto and slipped my tired feet between the crisp ironed sheets, to this tour of Marina’s Palazzo, where nary a dust mite appeared, the dark wooden doors gleaming with their polish. Honestly it puts most Americans to shame. Certainly myself.
We quickly determined that Bob and Marina would go below while Sally and I tied the ribbons on the banners and hoisted them out the windows. Stakes were high, but with guidance from below, we placed the banners. The biggest unknown was the strength of the wind, which tends to pick up in the afternoon and early evening.
After completing the task, Marina graciously complimented me on my stewardship of this process. And here again is the other reason you need to come to Civitella. I’m not sure if it’s something in the air, a generosity of spirit that heroicizes the visitor, but I am sure that my twenty minutes of participation has secured a lifelong invitation to Civitella. As we left to go get lunch, Marina taught us the saying with which I’ve entitled this post.
Chi tocca il bambino diventa padrino. Or, he who touches the baby becomes its Godfather.
In other words, this job was mine for life. Done deal. Similarly, on my last day at Scoppieta, I participated in the harvest of the walnuts for making Nocchino, a strong liquor made with forty walnuts quartered and put into a bottle with 180 proof alcohol and left to percolate until it becomes a deep dark headache-inducing beverage. Standing under the walnut tree counting the nuts garnered me an invitation for the olive harvest in October. Believe me I am sorely tempted!
After lunch and a nap, we returned to unfurl the banners just as Marina and Carlo went to Mass. While they were there, we took advantage of taking another walk around Civitella, and ending at the Museo Ova Pinto. Each year they have a town wide competition for who can decorate an egg most creatively. This year the theme was Leonardo’s five hundredth birthday. Here were some of the eggs we saw in the museum. My favorite was the children’s contribution in ho or of Leonardo, which put the whole angry birds thing in perspective. My plane neighbor would have really appreciated it, I think.
After the mass, the procession began, with the small group of local worshippers and us following through the town. There were portable speakers for everyone to hear the prayers and be able to sing.
The town had been decorated with flower petals by some young teens along the processional route. After the procession, all the flowers that hadn’t blown away had been swept up. We didn’t see it because we were busy striking our banners and planning how we would improve the hanging next year. Because, as we now know,
The mornings shape up with a singular clarity of no mornings since my childhood. First my feet emerge from the heavy Italian cotton sheets, dropping onto the warm terra-cotta tiles of the bedroom, windows agape, and I peer out onto the sun dappled lawn. Two plump gray and white pigeons, (palome) , peck around in the grass, their gossipy calls sounding like “Chi a detto? Chi a detto?”
Breakfast consists of tea with milk, a bowl of granola with fruit and yogurt, or on the occasional morning, a special French toast with maple syrup. We aren’t rushed, but have a healthy itinerary ahead of us.
Friday we visited Todi, a town just northeast of Civitella, guided by charming Marina, the impressively bi-lingual landlord to the farmhouse where my friends have stayed for many years (8).
She took us first to the Church of San Fortunato, a church constructed in the 13th century. There was a music festival in Todi, so at the end of our tour (Giro) we stopped by the Palazzo of Tio Carlo, where in the grand salon, there were two music performances: a couple of guitarists singing autobiographical songs about Ireland, followed by a chorus of two dozen high school students from the local high school, singing a mix of music across the ages from an English fifteenth century song to a Beatles encore number. Dressed in black, they were conducted by a sophomore college student, passion writ large on his face. I sat in a chair along the windows separating us from another concert (Benny Goodman) outside, and marveled at his ability to keep the students focused and in tune.
We wondered why they had scheduled competing concerts so close together and decided that the outdoor concert that was supposed to be in the main piazza had been displaced by the youth soccer field which was installed there.
The competition outside was some line dancers, wearing bilious lime green dresses, hence, “lime dancers.”
Arriving a half hour before the concerts, we had been ushered into the gracious 16th Century Palazzo by our hosts, the sprightly 84-year-old Tio Carlo and his wife Tita, who gave us a tour of the Palazzo, Tio Carlo first rushing ahead to fling open the windows. It called into mind the Dutch paintings of women opening their windows to throw out the slops. Not because of a lack of grace by Tio Carlo, but due to the physicality of the action of opening the windows. What I’d never considered was how architecture informs the body mechanics of daily life until I reached into the dark bathroom the other evening to turn on the light switch and laughed as my hand butted up against the wall about a third of the depth of the wall. The activity of living in an Umbrian Palazzo would be time consuming but would keep you fit. The stairs alone, with their 10-12 rises challenge your stride. The first day I arrived and mounted the steps of the Apti Palazzo in Civitella Del Lago where Marina and her husband Carlo live, I panted like a trout flung on the shore. In the subsequent days, I’m happy to say I gained power in my legs. What would have been an impossible flight of stairs we conquered yesterday easily in Montefiascone to see the Cattedrale de Santa Marguerita by dint of our post prandial chant of “One Carbonara, two, Carbonara….on the way down I silently chanted mascarpone uno, moscarpone due…You get the idea.
In short, every day a destination or three. Hill town, Chiesa, home, pranzo (lunch) under the pergola, nap, then dinner (cena).
Over the past four days, we’ve visited Todi, Perugia, Assisi (more on that in another post), Orvieto, and Montefiascone. The latter was less impressive than any of the former, however, from where we sit at Casalone, if you gaze across the valley on a clear morning, you can see in the far distance the bump which is Santa Marguerita. Yesterday afternoon, as we stood in the courtyard outside the crypt of Santa Lucia, quite gaudily reconstructed with the stations of the cross around the place of worship, Sally took a moment with her GPS to make sure we could spot Civitella.
I’m so glad she did because now, in my mind I can see the three of us panting atop the wall. Our initial enthusiasm about the elevator waned when we realized that we were dropped at the base of the aforementioned carbonara steps.
Each day I feel stronger, physically and my grief subsides more with each Umbrian vista. Last night at 3:00 AM, as I slept in the monastic comfort of my suite in Casalone, I heard a voice sharply call “Els!”
I sat bolt upright in the darkness, then settled to listen to the rest of my instructions. The crickets outside continued but the voice was gone. I got up to use the bathroom, and returning to bed, I happened to glance out the casement into the night. I stopped abruptly, seeing the bright stars directly beyond the tree line. I leaned out the window, moved beyond my sudden awareness of the lack of the light pollution I’ve grown to accept, but more importantly that I was called to witness the glory of the Scoppieto night sky by whom? I stood there for a good five minutes, identifying the Big Dipper. I mourned my having missed this nightly show, and vowed to see it in my one remaining night at Casalone.
I the morning, I scattered some of Jimmie’s ashes in the lavendar overlooking Civitella because I figured his instructions were at least clear in that regard.