RIP Lynn Cohen

I’ve had the privilege through the yeoman actor who was my husband to meet so many talented actors. We lost one of them yesterday, dear Lynn Cohen. I met Lynn back in the mid 1980s when I married James Greene and inherited his friends, who were a spectacular group of people. Lynn and Ron were among my favorites. I remember visiting them in their upper West Side apartment which had a kitchen large enough to dine in. I remember many dinners there; Lynn was a phenomenal cook. An intimate dinner with Lynn and Ron, Marsha Mason and Brian Murray before I appreciated the rarified theatrical aristocracy with whom I was dining. Lynn and Ron were warm and Midwestern, products of their Kansas City, Missouri past. They loved to laugh, and often invited Jimmie to regale them with his stories, asking for them by punch line, and then laughing with rigorous, infectious enjoyment. I attended my first seders at Lynn and Ron’s, sitting next to Steven Hack, who was, at the time, performing in Cats at the Wintergarden Theatre and who had been a student of Lynn’s long before. Later, when Jimmie and I moved to Los Angeles, Steven remained in our lives, a member of the same company of actors that Jimmie belonged to, Interact. It was Steven who’s call punctuated a Friday morning meeting with the terrible news.

We’d last seen Lynn and Ron in summer of 2016, when, after our annual trip to the Cape, we ventured down to New York City for a visit with my Dad and his wife, and my talented Aunt Irene and her husband. We stayed at the Algonquin, one of our favorite spots, and only briefly met with Lynn and Ron in the lobby for lunch. Lynn and Ron had become increasingly busy with their acting careers. Lynn was humble about her successes in major films and television roles, speaking instead about the times when she and Ron were able to do things together on stage. They frequented the Cape May Playhouse on the Jersey Shore, and according to this article, were honored there in 2010.

I remember at that last meeting at the Algonquin, Lynn expressed a wistful desire to go on a cruise. I offered to get the cruise brochures and let them know when I found one, but alas, Jimmie’s health was not up to such an adventure, and I’m still receiving those cruise brochures occasionally. I can’t imagine a couple I’d rather have gone on a cruise with than Lynn and Ron.

Lynn and Ron didn’t frequently get to Los Angeles, nor did we get to New York that often, but when we did we’d bond over a good meal somewhere with them and sometimes others, like our dinner at LA Live a few years ago, populated by many friends of Lynn’s from all periods of her life. We stuffed ourselves into a booth at one of the restaurants long-since expired at LA Live. Our server coincidentally, was one of the graduate students from the MFA Program at USC, and I think we asked her to snap the picture below.

L. to R. Els, Jimmie, Clare O’Callaghan, Jay Willick, Lynn, Steven Hack, Ron Cohen

For the gourmand that she was, Lynn was a hoot to eat out with. She had a meticulous diet that she followed scrupulously, and waiters would do poodle turns as she ordered in her universally charming way. There was no request that was unrequited. Probably by anyone, waiters or otherwise. She was a siren, generous with her attention, and loving with her friendship.

Ironically, I don’t think I ever got to see Lynn on stage. She and Jimmie had done a play years before we met, the name of which escapes me, but they became fast friends. I feel so fortunate to have had Lynn in my life, however briefly.

I realize with each person who slips away (and couldn’t we take a pause, by the way?) how precious our interchanges are. How important the time we spend together is. That same 2006 trip to New York for Jimmie’s 80th birthday, we gathered in Bryant Park with friends Bob and Mitchell, Lee and Susan, and while we were there huddled around the table in the cold, the most miraculous sight unfolded as a flash mob of unruly Santas suddenly invaded the park cementing in our minds and hearts the events of that day.

RIP, Lynnie. I know that you and Jimmie are having wonderful meals together in heaven.

The Father

Before attending The Father by Florian Zeller at the Pasadena Playhouse, I met my friend Cathy at the Urth Caffe for dinner. It was also the first meeting of our writer’s group of two, formed when I shyly asked her to join me after my un-birthday tea. Saturday I arrived at the restaurant fifteen minutes early, with a typed paper listing my goals for our writer’s group.

If it isn’t already obvious, I’ve never been in a writer’s group. I don’t know from writer group etiquette. That was clear when I created a doodle poll to figure out possible meeting times. For the two of us who were meeting in an hour for dinner…

No doodles, intoned Cathy, in her deadpan delivery that always makes me laugh.

I was fine with that, having spent the entire last week filling in my “empty time” with doodle polls at work. So many meeting seeds planted, few of them surviving.

It will be more organic, Cathy reassured me.

Organic is a terrifying concept to stage/production managers. Doodles we do just fine, organic not so much.

We ordered our food and sat down at a metal cafe table outside near the heaters. I unfurled my pretentious little sheet, which I’d brought two copies of so we could each look at a copy. Thoughtful, eh? When our salads arrived, I looked lustfully at the piles of hearts of palm. Cathy interrogated the waiter about whether that was really what she’d ordered. He smiled shyly, picking up our numbers before walking away.

After dinner, we walked away from the Urth Caffe, down the Playhouse Alley full of so much personal history, to the front courtyard where we entered the State Theatre of California. We climbed the sloping carpeted stairs to the balcony and found our seats in the rear most row. This was the second time in recent history I’d found myself closer to the booth than the stage. Saturday night, fresh inside from the unseasonably cold evening, all the heat of the theatre rose to meet us. We stripped off as many layers of clothing as we legally could, then fanned ourselves with our programs while we talked about Valentine’s Day coming up. Conspiratorially, I leaned into her and confided a secret which made us gasp and burst into uncontrolled laughter. As people started to fill in the seats around us, I became aware that given the topic of the play, our inane giggling was inappropriate, which of course made us giggle more. We riffed on the fact that we should write a scene with two women of a certain age in the week before Valentine’s Day, giggling about the unspeakable in the moments before a play about the dangers of aging.

Soon the play unfolded under the careful direction of Jessica Kubzansky, a thriller of sorts: deft scenic design by David Meyer, immersive sound by John Zalewski, and heart stopping cessations of normalcy that Elizabeth Harper provided in blackouts that punctuate each chapter of the evening. The play delivers a gut-wrenching and unreliable narrative familiar to anyone who has been dementia-adjacent. Costume Designer Denitsa Bliznakova facilitated our confusion with details that called into question who was really narrating the play. Audience members question what we’re seeing as though our own memory has begun to slip. The cleverness of the designers’ work guided by Kubzansky is breathtaking. Alfred Molina, as the titular Father, is by turns charming and reprehensible, confident then lost. He’s supported by a cast of characters with impressive range. The effect is sobering, sometimes funny and ultimately devastating.

I’ve always loved the arc of the phases of enjoyment related to theatre going.

First, there’s the delicious anticipation which begins the moment you select your seats on the theatre’s virtual seating map. Earlier in the week, I’d been warned by one of my colleagues that at the New York production, people were screaming and crying in the theatre. I can’t imagine going to the theatre and having people scream (maybe at a curtain call with positive feedback). So thinking that we might have a moment like that made me want to see it even more. I’d worked with Alfred Molina and was looking forward to seeing performances by Michael Manuel, and Pia Shah. I was looking forward to going to the play with Cathy, all of that return on investment before my ticket was even scanned at the door.

Once, my husband, Jimmie, told me about the curtain call for The Changeling at Lincoln Center, where the audience stood and booed and hissed loudly while pointing at the actors in their monstrous codpieces on stage. Have you ever had an experience like that? I haven’t, but live in eternal hope.

Phase two: there’s the play itself, approximately two hours where immersing yourself in the world of the play unpeels all the world’s worries from your brain. I’m amazed every time I go to the theatre by the creative splendors of playwrights’ stories, the artistry of a director’s vision shaping how those stories are told. For me, every theatrical outing is an opportunity to admire and critique other theatre artists’ work; it’s research, a way to expand my personal theatrical canon. From the first moments when we sat down, I admired Meyer’s beautiful Parisian apartment, imagining what I’d be like if I lived in a Parisian apartment, the heady feeling that I’d traveled somewhere wonderful, even magical, a feeling that persisted for those fifteen minutes before the play began and continued to tease me throughout the evening.

Phase three happens as the lights go up we discover and then meet the characters, listening as their relationships unfold; we experience the delicious satisfaction of spying on others, watching their worry and relief. Though they are immersed in a private hell, we have the distance afforded by our overheated balcony seats to reflect how we might have dealt differently with the circumstances unfolding, or in Cathy’s case, how she had dealt with similar circumstances. While we engage with the play, we also feel grateful about returning to our own worlds afterwards.

Then finally, after pushing back from the banquet table, we reach the moment where we digest the play through conversation and reliving specific moments in our minds, a process that goes on for me over the next week. Everything in my quotidien life becomes colored with brushstrokes from the last play that I’ve seen. The last two weeks were really something, with Metamorphoses, Eurydice, Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream all churning around on my canvas.

After the play, Cathy and I retired to a bench in the courtyard to dissect and reflect about The Father. We sat huddled on the bench for fifteen minutes before retrieving our cars from the garage, as she shared details of her guardianship of a loved one embedded in the confusing whirl like what we’d just witnessed on stage. We closed our car doors and made our way home.

Sunday morning, I slept late, waking finally with the beginnings of a head hungry for caffeine, then ate my breakfast and drank my tea before calling my father, as I do every Saturday or Sunday morning via FaceTime. I caught him in his familiar green chair, and we chatted companionably for twenty or thirty minutes, he showing me his wife, sitting over his shoulder on the couch. We waved at each other. They’d been to a memorial service that morning, and he was reflective on life, and aging. I told them about the play, advising them if it ever came to Washington, they should definitely see it. About twenty-five minutes in, I asked him to redirect the camera to his face, because it had drifted to a view of the ceiling. Suddenly Dad said something vague like “I feel like a curtain is coming down sometimes and I’m…being attacked.” It was such an odd statement. I said, “What do you mean, Dad?” And from behind him, his wife said, “Yes, what do you mean, Don?” And I felt like I’d been sucked back into the play through some diabolical theatrical wormhole. I felt hot again, as though the sweaty tendrils of the balcony were reaching for me. As quickly as it happened, it passed, leaving confusion in its wake.

Maybe we should hang up and you should take a nap, Dad? Are you feeling okay?

Writing now, regretfully, I know that he’ll read this and undoubtedly feel terrible that I’ve revealed an unsettling personal detail. My father has always had the best memory of anyone in the family on either side – a penchant for capturing exquisitely detailed aspects of everyone’s story, like a prospector panning for gold and holding the shimmering pieces up for us all to see. In recent years, he’s bemoaned the dulling of his recall, but in fact, I’ve always felt his memory was at least five times better than mine or either of my brothers’. This momentary lapse was so startling, disorienting as much for me as it was for him. For me, as much because it came on the heels of the evening before like that “Aha” Refrigerator moment, or what others call Fridge Logic, when, standing in the light spilling from the fridge you understand what that curious beat in Act II that rendered you confused at the time. At 88, nearly 89, it is to be expected and yet, I found myself reacting dreadfully, in the literal sense of being filled with dread. What can I do?

I’ve had a few days to mull it over and process what it means. I’ve come to the realization, in the words of my friend Cathy, not solvable by doodle polls, this, too, will be more organic.

In spite of my unsettling post-dramatic experience, I sincerely recommend a trip to the Pasadena Playhouse to see The Father.

Alfred Molina as The Father, Pasadena Playhouse

Putting It Out There To The World

This living business is sometimes pretty daunting. I can cope with the whole get up, wash my face to face the world, step onto the bus and ride to work, engage with my colleagues and students, laugh a little, cry a little routine part. That I’ve mastered quite well. I can even fit in a few external tasks, like rolling over an IRA (to see if there’s anything under there), or sending a book back that I borrowed, or returning the white pair of sailor capri pants I ordered that arrived and looked as ridiculous as you might have expected they would. What was I thinking? But all that seems pretty manageable.

What’s more elusive is formulating the next steps in living. You know, simple things, like whether you want to start dating again. I mean, how do you even begin to think about something so foreign? It’s about as imaginable as my getting up and disco dancing again. Or wearing sailor pants at 60. You start, I guess, naturally, perusing through your mental rolodex of all your male friends:

Married, married, gay; gay?, damaged, completely celibate, out of my league, way too sensible… you get the drill. It’s daunting. And who even uses a rolodex anymore. Makes you feel like a damn dinosaur.

You toy with a new affectation that you are a freelance writer. You open an UpWork account to try to field writing jobs because a friend told you they do that and it pays well. I guess it’s like joining a dating website (no, no, no). At least the writing part is something you can enjoy in your newly minted solitude. Like a skilled needleworker, you can retire to your living room after work and tat tat tat away on your computer conjuring images of checks rolling in from an unmarked escrow account. Ahhh, speaking about fantasizing…

I’ve been reading a lot lately. Books about the upward powerful current of optimism I aspire to. I shared with my students the other morning an article by Jane Brody from the New York Times Science section how optimists have been proven to be 50% (women) to 70%(men) more likely to live to the age of 85. I polled the class using the statements late in the article with a show of hands to gauge how they looked at the world. I’m happy to report that there were many more rose-colored glasses wearers in the class than not. By the way, if I could write one tenth as well as Jane Brody, I’d be able to die (after 85) and happy.

In this phase of my life, I’m pushing through the uncertainty, grasping at things that look appealing to me, without really knowing how to trust whether they are truly what I want, or just a means of rebuffing grief. And, yes, I did intend the double meaning of rebuffing – shining it up to admire my heroic features in it, while simultaneously holding it at arm’s length so I can avoid it at all costs. I don’t know how to describe this phase I’m in, really, though I am committed to trying to. Forging ahead through it.

You know, life is really good. I had a splendid birthday trip to New York, with an escape to the Lake House, and a reunion dinner with about a quarter of the Tutorial. I’m so aware of the precious and refined oxygen of a room filled with good friends who are inquisitive and curious about the world and each other. It’s heady stuff.

Flowers from my dear friend Jackie, whom I had coffee on Saturday morning in NYC.

This week has been a reminder of why we should so value our loved ones, with the fragility of life as evidenced in the loss of Kobe Bryant and eight others. Tonight, I got off the bus near the Staples Center, where people have been gathering to pay tribute for days since the news of his and his daughter’s untimely death. I saw an endless parade of city buses, whose display panels on the front flickered back and forth between their route number and RIP KOBE in respectful fonts. The Wilshire Grand Building at 7th and Figueroa sports a huge LED image of a purple 24 on a field of gold. At the corner of Olympic and Figueroa, vendors are selling life-sized photos of Kobe and t-shirts, capitalizing on our nostalgia.

So what’s with the picture of the man on the bench? The other night, I was coming home from tech rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I grabbed the 204 bus up Vermont, exited at Olympic, and was cutting through the parking lot to wait for the 728 bus. As I passed behind the bench where a man sat, hands folded patiently on top of his cane, he uttered a quiet exhalation of breath that sounded so much like Jimmie I had to scurry past to get a discreet look at him. I took the photo surreptitiously, his pose, his cane, his cap causing my own quiet gasp; I was suddenly subsumed by a torrent of emotion for the loss of partnership, of friendship, of my other half. When you lose your partner, you are rendered from your heart. Even now, fourteen months after the event, something as tiny as an exhalation of a stranger’s breath can sucker punch you.

But I’m working to stay alert for signs from the world that I’m still viable and will move into the rest of the year with hope and transparency. And maybe a little bit of freelance writing to keep me amused.

Phoenix Rising

When last we left Nana, she had boarded the big green bus run by the South Tahoe Airporter and was speeding her way up from the lake’s edge to Reno, to fly to Washington, D.C., where she would visit her father and stepmother for the New Year’s celebration.

Freshly showered, latest Grisham book in hand, I boarded the first of two flights from Reno to D.C., enjoyed reading a bit, something which had eluded me for the past week. I relaxed into my seat on the United Flight to Los Angeles, which is only an hour, and best intentions falling aside like the book into the crevice of the seat, I immediately dozed off into intermittent sleep. I had promised myself that I’d finish my blog in L.A. while waiting for the red-eye to DC, but found I was quite content instead reading my book and relaxing in the crowded anterooms in LAX. I boarded the 10:45PM Sunday night departure with other bleary-eyed travelers, all of us anticipating a solid 5 hours and 10 minutes of sleep. At least I was, sure that with no nurseling or tot to worry about, I’d soon be out. The flight was full, and all seats and overhead bins bursting with folks heading to the nation’s capital.

The following morning, after a pricey cab to the Northwest district, I arrived at the home of my stepmother and my dad. I entered the cozy foyer, and immediately sat down to have breakfast with them, as though I’d never left since my last visit in July. They have an orderly life, attended by a loyal staff who’ve been with them for about thirty years. There is hardly a metaphoric point further flung from Tahoe than here. Complete tranquility and care for the next four days, which I was very much looking forward to.

I’d finished the Grisham (highly recommend it, too – The Guardians) – and eagerly launched into Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House, a novel I’d heard people raving about for weeks. Within the first 121 pages, I was struck by a quote which underscored the topic of uncertainty about the future that my coach and I’ve been discussing of late:

There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not in place, and for a moment you’re suspended, knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.

Ann Patchett, The Dutch House

I stopped and read the quote a second time, a third time, a fourth. It had fallen almost like a love letter out of a long unopened book, and I settled into my chair to consider the happenstance of reading such a missive at this time. Just my recent two weeks of travel, visiting my son and his family for Christmas, and now my Dad and his wife for New Year’s is completely foreign to me. Traveling alone is simple, unencumbered. I would always have preferred the encumbrance of my darling husband, but I now embraced the efficacy of traveling alone.

Over summer, I’d signed up for TSA Check, and this was the first trip I’d successfully used it on. If you can call successful being stopped with a half full water bottle at the checkpoint, which I vociferously denied having, then being escorted around and coming through again for two agents to scrutinize the screen and discover a very sharp work-knife in your purse successful. I do, considering they could have done a full cavity search at that point, and they didn’t.

The five days in D.C. was lovely. I’d told my Dad I didn’t want him to fill up the time with activities, that I knew I’d be exhausted and would just like to hang out, and he followed my wishes. Aside from the three squares we all had together each day, we did a few errands together; I accompanied him to get out some stitches at the dermatologist’s office, marveling at how he knew everyone’s name in the office and used it, causing broad smiles to come over each staff member’s face. Unbiased of course, I’d say my dad is a charming guy, and it was great to see he hasn’t lost his touch with people. He has an uncanny ability to meet someone and to know their life story within fifteen minutes, then to hold onto that story like a pit bull with a rubber toy. This is probably a function of his having been a charitable foundation grantor for years; that work is about making relationships with people and determining if what they do or want to do with your foundation’s money is within the guidelines of that foundation’s mission. He’s never lost that flair for finding out what makes people tick. I’ve always admired it in him.

We took a trip to PetSmart, all three of us, to select two new finches for Sally’s indoor aviary. The zebra finch and society finch hopped about trying to evade capture by the young woman at PetSmart, but when they were inducted into their new home, a good 10x larger than their cage at the store, they tweeted happily and flitted about the aviary with joy.

I took two rambling hikes in Rock Creek Park, the first, where I felt accompanied by my dear friend Susie at my side as I walked through the well-marked trails, slipping on the leaves occasionally in my inappropriate hiking shoes, red leather Clark’s moccasins. On the New Year’s Eve day hike I took, I resolved to do fifty hikes in 2020, so unfortunately couldn’t count that day’s hike, but it felt good to get out and move my legs after a few days of complete lassitude.

On the second day of the new year, my dear friend Liz came up from Annapolis to visit me at the house. Liz and I have known each other since we were about seven and eight, respectively, and lived about .08 mile from each other in Greensburg, PA. Our escapades were too many to recount, but included much creative “free play” on the acreage of her family’s home, flinging Barbies into the tiered ponds to “swim,” serving and drinking tea in the tiny log cabin playhouse, picking so many beans from her father’s vast garden that I once thought when I went to sleep, I would see only beans in my dreams. Like Patchett’s Dutch House, Liz’s family’s house in Greensburg had an almost mythic status for me which stuck with me for years, and I would visit its magical spaces in my dreams throughout my twenties, and even occasionally in my thirties.

Academically, I followed Liz from the Valley School of Ligonier, to St. Paul’s School, but diverged as she went on to Stanford and then back to Pitt to get her medical degree. She’s been practicing Emergency Medicine for thirty years, and that was one of the things we kept marveling at during our spectacular visit – how we’d gotten to be in the sixth decade of our lives in the blink of an eye. Both with families, and grown children, successful in our fields, far away from the little midwestern town where we’d percolated as children.

What’s wonderful about staying connected with a childhood friend is the dissipation of time that happens when you reunite. You’ve come a huge distance, with full lives lived between the 53 years between the time you met and now, but it’s all telescoped into a comfortable understanding of who you are together and apart. There’s no need to try to impress; she knew you when you were nine and stupid enough to slam the door of the pool house, inciting the wasps behind the hex sign on the door to chase you around the pool and back in again to sting you both multiple times before you both realized you should jump into the pool. You’ve attended her wedding, and she’s watched from afar your husband’s life celebration. You’ve both been working mothers and wives, with busy careers and family life. You’ve harbored hopes and dreams for your partner and your children, postponing conscious self care so that at 60 it is an entirely new topic to discuss. And you do discuss that topic with ferocity like how you chatted at night trying to fall asleep during that thunderstorm, lightening and thunder ricochetting off the ceiling, as it split a tree just down the hill from Liz’s bedroom. Fears about real and imagined boogiemen have populated our conversations and letters for over fifty years. How is that possible?

The image that I’ve been thinking of recently is the Phoenix.

…a unique bird that lived for five or six centuries in the Arabian desert, after this time burning itself on a funeral pyre and rising from the ashes with renewed youth to live through another cycle.

a person or thing regarded as uniquely remarkable in some respect.

The conflagration of the past two years or so is more or less out, smoldering a bit but effectively over. Charred, a bit wounded, I nevertheless feel the upward draft of the fire’s residual flare. Feet charred, I feel willing to rise above the wreckage to fly, like Sally’s finches, to discover new relationships, to listen to the air currents, open my flaps, as it were, to explore who the new me is.

In this next decade of discovery I’m suspended in the golden amber of past discoveries, magical spaces, and the fealty of noble friendships past and present.

Dear 2020, help me to recognize the opportunities as I encounter them to become uniquely remarkable in some respect, and to recognize and perhaps create the thresholds of inspiring new spaces that beckon me to creative inspiration.