Year of the Stage Manager 2020

I received what I considered a writer’s prompt just a minute ago when I opened my email from AEA Vice President and Stage Manager Ira Mont. He encouraged us to share a story in celebration of February 16, 1920, when Stage Managers and Assistant Stage Managers were first recognized as members of Actors Equity Association and thereafter written into the various contracts which we still follow today. Why? Because an ASM squawked after his show closed and he argued successfully that the producers owed him two week’s pay.

Ira encouraged us to share a story about stage managers in honor of this Centennial celebration. Nineteen of us gathered for a Centennial Photo of Los Angeles Stage Managers at the urging and organization of Pat Loeb (top row, third from left). It was a beautiful day in Griffith Park, and when I arrived (at 9:30 for the 10:00AM photo), I noted wryly that I was not the first to arrive. Are we surprised? Stage Managers tend to be at least thirty minutes early. Amy Pell, Zoya Kachadurian and Mary K Klinger had beat me there. Soon, there were 19 of us accompanied by three husbands, a baby and a dog (not people-friendly, we were warned, but baby-obsessed).

Have you ever watched a group of stage managers organize themselves for a picture? There we were, half of us up on benches around the picnic table (I noted that all of us who climbed up were over 50 or maybe even 60 – see? Risking life and limb for glory and recognition!) when two more stage managers arrived, one sporting a wheelchair, when there arose a cry – NOT ACCESSIBLE! And off across the grass we gamboled, to a more appropriate spot.

In honor of Ira’s query and our Centennial, I wanted to #credityourstagemanagers specifically some of the people enshrined in the photo above taken this morning at Griffith Park.

Jimmie McDermott (red shirt) and Mary K Klinger (blue floral print, silver mane of hair) were my mentors when I started as a PA at the Taper thirty odd years ago. From the two of them, I learned that though the work we do as Stage Managers is important, it is only one facet of a rich and fulfilling life – it is also play; Jimmie taught me to laugh and to be wicked. Mary taught me first my place as a PA and then many many years later, that stage management could be taught in a classroom and taught well and individually. Mary Michele Miner, top row, second from left, in the green shirt and sunglasses taught me candor and expediency. Once, I ASMed for her for a gala event at the Taper during which, Founding Artistic Director Gordon Davidson rode onto the stage on an elephant. At one point, I went up to her while she was juggling metaphorical balls of fire as one does during a gala, and I asked, “What would you like me to do?” She turned and said brusquely, “Run the deck.” This meant making sure the elephant had done its business outside before coming onstage with the Artistic Director on its back. Not every job we do as stage managers is glamorous. We do shovel some shit along the way. And learn to do so autonomously. It is probably the skill that is most marketable for stage managers. I’ve got it printed on my business card: “I shovel, then wash my hands and am ready for the next job.”

Many of my family of stage managers from about 30 years ago. L to R. Front Row, Tami Toon, Lisa Jo Snodgrass, Robin Veith, me, Mary Michele Miner. Second Row L. to R., Jonathan Barlow Lee, Mary K Klinger, Gordon Davidson, Susie Walsh, Jimmie McDermott, Rear Row, L. to R. Frank Bayer, David Franklin
Twenty or so years later at Mary K’s Teaching Retirement Party, L. to. R. Jonathan Barlow Lee, Mary K Klinger, Neila Lee, Mary Michele Miner, Jimmie McDermott

There are some others in today’s picture I don’t know well, so can’t speak to their skills or practices, but there are a few that I can. Jennifer Sarvas, 2nd row far left, green shirt, was a student at USC when I began working there in Spring 2005. At the time that I arrived, Dean Madeline Puzo had arranged for about 14 acting students to be a part of CTG’s Ahmanson production of Dead End. We realized the value of a PA assignment for one of our stage management students, when Jennifer, a senior approached me about whether I could help arrange that. She went on to PA at the Taper the following year, and has had strong career since then, while taking stints on various other production and stage management roles around Los Angeles.

Taylor Anne Cullen (top row 2nd from right) graduated more recently and has worked steadily since graduating, most recently with the Antaeus Company. She has a buoyant personality and an exuberance combined with a level of organization which makes directors hunger to have her in the room.

I’m sure that every one of those stage managers in the picture have equally rich histories to those I’ve recounted. I met Christina, fourth from the left on the bottom row, a recent graduate of Yale’s graduate program, currently in Los Angeles to do an internship at Disney. Jake Perri, top row, far left, stage managing for Parson’s Nose Theatre Company in Pasadena for the past two years. Pat Loeb, top row, three from the left, currently overseeing Lady Day at the Emerson Bar and Grill, directed by Wren Brown and currently playing at Ebony Repertory Company.

Stage Managers are fiercely loyal, achingly discrete, hard-working, optimistic organizers of people, props, information and time. We are entrusted with maintaining the artistic intentions of the entire creative team once they’ve left the building, and our work is part scout leader, disciplinarian, therapist and magician. If you don’t remember or retain what my mentors have taught me about humor, appropriateness and autonomy, it can become a brutal path or profession. In order to be a stage manager, you must love it all.

You can’t forget the life part. So, after our photo op this morning, Michele and I walked up the hill and began our hike, passing first, this happy Clown effecting her character transformation in her car. We stepped carefully past a rattlesnake on the trail, and paused in the shade of a tree to admire the downhill path ahead of us.

I always loved being a stage manager until I knew that it was time to do something else. I’ve always loved and appreciated knowing stage managers. On this 100th birthday for us, I raise a glass to the stage managers here in Los Angeles who were doing other things to mark the anniversary and to stage managers everywhere.

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

Sophrosyne and her Doodles

Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Sophrosyne who lived among the rolling hills of a small midwestern town. She swung her arms wide in the high grasses on the hill behind her parents’ house, singing with abandon, pretending that she was Maria von Trapp, the sun caressing her face until she fell, giggling into the grass, disappearing from the world.

She indeed had everything her heart could want, two parents who loved her, two brothers and a dog who may have as well. The demands on her time were minimal – to care for her things, to help in the rotation of setting the table and doing the dishes. She asked for a piano for Christmas, and sure enough, her parents provided one for her. She would sit at its wide deck of toothy musical possibility finding satisfying chord structures, emulating as best she could the easy playing style of others.

As she grew, Sophrosyne’s simple tastes changed, through exposure to the finer things by her parents; she would listen at the top of the stairs on those rare evenings when the under 15s were exiled to the upper story, as the adults below discussed Shakespeare and literature, while dining on gourmet food. She could hear the clink of their glasses and the tinkle of silverware on the china with the gold edge. She began to dream about a similar life of intellectual fulfillment, surrounded by a loving husband and more or less obedient children.

As time passed, she benefitted from a fulsome education, at private schools where she witnessed again the finer things of the world, sometimes first hand, and sometimes as through a slightly foggy glass frosted with her breath, upon which she doodled “I want” with a longing that left her breathless. She never lost her gratitude for the opportunities that she experienced, just occasionally her perspective wandered about what she wanted or needed. She progressed to university, where she piled her plate with the sweetmeats of close study of literature and fine arts, and immersed herself more wholeheartedly in theatrical pursuits. There she learned to collaborate and about the exquisite satisfaction of long hours of intense and focused review of passages of music and text in the company of like-minded thespians. It filled her mind and her heart.

And yet.

Sophrosyne longed for more. She longed for love, and sometimes for escape from the worry that there was more to have, to master. She traveled far and wide, filling her belly with life experiences and her young and hungry mouth with food and drink and languages that she had studied while at university, utilizing them in her quest for love and a richer life. She missed theatrical pursuits, however, and yearned to find her soulmate.

She returned from her travels and began a life in the theatre, almost instantly meeting the man who became her partner in all things. Their initial theatrical collaboration translated into an easy partnership of similar interests, a mutual appreciation for the arts, for good, simple food, for the company of close friends. Sophrosyne began paring away the external wants like drink, that had served to numb her worry, and instead relied upon her partner for the calming comfort that thoughtful dissection of a problem together could bring. They thrived, knowing that they had everything they needed.

They raised a more or less obedient child together, watched proudly as he went off to begin to make a life, looked for love, while striving to find an avocation that would satisfy him. Sophrosyne returned to university, this time, not as a student, but as a theatrical collaborator. She loved the work there, and the friendships with her colleagues and the satisfying proximity of supporting the next generation of theatre makers as they discovered and explored their passions. And she continued to doodle, this time, more about the happy and fulfilling life she and her partner had created.

But, far too soon, Sophrosyne’s partner began to fail in health, and she watched as the inevitable happened, and she again found herself alone. The aching and ancient yearning returned, and she struggled to remember that what she had was enough, her gratitude sufficient. Now her doodles were darker, more poignant. She cherished the outreach from their son, who checked in with her faithfully to report on his and his family’s life.

And yet.

Life at the university filled the nooks and crannies of loss and desire, doodle polls arriving with a regularity, filling in Sophrosyne’s calendar with activities and meetings, while she continued to examine what she wanted vs. what she needed. She needed to recapture the doodles of her youth, not the breathless longing, but that feeling of endless musical possibility.

Sophrosyne pulled out the bench, listening to its satisfying scrape across the floor. She sat at the keys and began to doodle.

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.

The Lake House

I couldn’t imagine anyone I’d rather spend my 60th Birthday with than my friend Bob. Well, any living anyone. Arguably our friend Susan, but she was happily ensconced in CapeTown and a three day weekend wasn’t practical from that distance. I jumped on a plane Friday morning, my birthday itself, and spent the day in transit, via Denver and some seasonably tricky winds, landing finally at La Guardia Airport, well on its way to being “the New LGA.” At one point, a flight attendant leaned over in the dark conspiratorially, and said, “Happy Birthday! Would you like a drink to celebrate?” Little did she know how fraught a question that might be for the not-so-newly-sober, but I said, no, thank you and went on reading. I landed at 11:53PM, with a scant seven minutes of my fifties remaining, grabbed my luggage and began the long trek down the sidewalk outside the baggage claim area, lined with the huge yellow columns proclaiming TAXI with arrows pointing forward. I think I turned sixty somewhere on that walk to the Shuttle Bus to the Taxi stand, in total disorientation and confusion; I’m sure this isn’t indicative of the state of my sixties to come but was appropriate for the transitional moment itself.

I bet you’re wondering why you are on a bus right now….

So began the announcement that played to pacify us during the five minute drive to the Taxi Stand, and indeed it did, as they described the future beauty and ease of our taxi rides into Manhattan. Smart marketing, I’d say.

It’s been about 4 years since I was in Manhattan, June of 2016, the last time after my husband’s and my last trip to Chatham, when we came down to New York to visit a gallery where my Aunt Irene’s work was being exhibited. Jimmie and I stayed at the Algonquin, and had a great time, aside from our very difficult experience seeing The Humans, and I took this shot of Jimmie in front of the Broadhurst Theatre, the site of his first Broadway show, Romeo and Juliet, in 1951, starring Olivia DeHavilland.

We visited The Met Museum, had dinner at the Algonquin Round Table, though we were only about 2/3s a table worth of brilliance and wit, and had an amazing family visit there.

This trip, however, was about celebrating a benchmark age, as well as spending time with Bob who has recently lost his partner. It wasn’t about getting notches in my theatre attendance belt, though that time will come again, but about visiting Bob and their son Nathan. If I’m entirely honest, I also had a secret agenda, to see the lake house. I’d forgotten that January 18th was Mitchell’s birthday – he’d have been seventy, and so I realized I was definitely meant to be there to mark that moment, too. As anyone who’s lost their partner knows, first birthdays after loss are emotionally fraught, both for the quick and the dead.

Bob was receptive to our driving north to the Lake House, and so we got in the car, with a fuzzy flannel blanket very similar to the ones that I’d draped over my knees at the hockey rinks as a hockey parent. Bob opened the front door of the car to let a very excited Springer spaniel, Layla, up onto my lap, where she sat for the next hour or so, in various paroxysms of excitement, agitation, and passivity. She was extremely attentive to all the turnoffs, watching as Bob’s steady hand hit the turning signal, squeaking excitedly as we turned onto the Taconic Parkway, where she began to do full on girations in a standing position on my lap. Bob helped push her into the back seat.

I wasn’t aware that was an option, I intoned drolly.

The snow had begun to fall in Manhattan as we were leaving the city, cascading in big fluffy flakes, doing their best to stick to the road and forests that lined the Taconic. Finally we arrived, and the beauty of the spot took my breath away. The lake house was the love child of Bob and Mitchell, and everything about it speaks to the strength of their partnership and their teamwork. I’d been familiar with the virtual version of the house through our frequent What’sApp video chats, but the huge windows, elevated and overlooking the lake was a perspective that I’d not appreciated for its actual power or beauty.

Now, as I sit at the desk overlooking the water, trees swaying gently in the afternoon breeze, snow atop the overturned canoe and dinghy down by the water’s edge, I can’t imagine a more perfect place to be, to live, to write. I’ve watched throughout the last hour the open water on the lake closing under a meniscus of nascent ice until there was just about a foot left. Earlier this morning, two of Bob’s neighbors breezed in at about 8:00AM, with a freshly made almond paste stollen, and we sat and sipped coffee companionably before beginning their ritual walk with Layla in the lead, around the lake. I had a true appreciation for the danger of the ice, since over the flaky sweet buttered pastry and hot, strong coffee, Ruth had shared her story about falling through the ice one Monday morning in another January, while snowshoeing across the lake. She’d been out on the lake the day before, with all her children, and the local ice fishermen. Monday, it was she alone on the ice. I marveled at how calm she remained through what must have been a terrifying experience. She dropped her ski poles under the water, pushed her snow shoes up onto the ice, then, channeling a recent National Geo show she’d seen about how seals came up from the ice pushing forward with their flippers until their bellies were up on the ice, slid out of the water onto the ice, continuing on her belly to the lakeside where she grabbed at the reeds to pull herself up onto the land. A neighbor, who happened to be a first responder and had fortunately seen her fall into the water arrived, shoved her into his brand new truck ignoring her consternation about getting his new truck wet. He drove her home, dropped her in her clothes into the shower for an hour, standing guard outside, then helped into her bed where he covered her with blankets and she shivered for the next 10 hours. Needless to say, she doesn’t snowshoe on the ice anymore.

Now, as I watch the slow encroachment of the thicker ice into the open water, I have a new appreciation for the perils of country living. I’m no less envious about the view from these windows, however, and the promise of natural beauty to guide one’s mindfulness and appreciation for the natural world as well as one’s creative endeavors.

Our morning walk around the lake, a perfect three-mile junket, was still and cold, but at a pace which belied the slushy conditions of the road. Layla did a good nine miles to our three, dashing about like a mad person after squirrels, other dogs, and just bounding with joy through the woods around us. Eventually, we dropped off Bob’s neighbor at her house, basically about half-way around the lake, then continued on, taking some as-of-yet-untrod paths through the snowy woods to avoid the local highway. We arrived back at the house with a fresh appetite which another piece of stollen quickly satisfied.

Yesterday, we paid homage to Mitchell by coming to the lake, Bob’s building a hearty fire in the stove, then making venison chili, a tradition of theirs with the largesse of their neighbors to the north. Bob had brought with us his Japanese daruma doll; the mystery of which’s eyes had become filled in remains, but the quicker you burn the doll and buy the new one, the quicker you are on your way to fulfilling your dreams. I think of this one’s import as the cleansing of our losses and renewal of our lives. Perhaps it means there’s a lake house in my future.

FBKBWB Gifu, Japan. 17th Jan, 2016. A Buddhist monk throws a Daruma doll into the fire during Daruma Kuyo, a doll burning ceremony at Dairyu Temple in Gifu, Japan. People buy the dolls, which are thought to bring good luck, at the start of the year, and burn ones from the previous year. 10,000 dolls are burned during the ceremony. Credit: Ben Weller/AFLO/Alamy Live News

New Decade, New Rules. Rule Number 6

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.

Benjamin Zander

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.

The aforementioned padding is the beautiful scarf wrapped around my shoulders. Not to mention the elegant hat which was on top of the box.

I’m making strides in the new year, the new decade, with the critical new rule. Rule number 6.

Check out the Hungtington when you get a chance!

There will be blog….

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.

Photos of the Dash Bus Depot by Joe Linton

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.

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.

Off the Grid with Nana

I’ve been off the grid for the past 8 days, spending the Christmas holiday with my son and his wife and their two adorable girls, S, a recently-turned four-year-old, and B, a recently turned 9-month-old. My son and his wife run a beautiful home – chaotically creative – the best kind. There are lots of toys, and lots of entertainment units of the organizational sort to keep Nana busy after the sun goes down. My OCD kicked in in a serious way. I don’t want to get all judgy — in a minute, you’ll see why–they get the job done brilliantly with a minimum of fuss, and don’t let the little things like organizing shoe piles spoil their afternoon. They are Present, yes, with a capital P, at all moments that their children are awake, and they thrive on the triumphs and squalors that constitute growing up well and happy.

I arrived on December 22nd, just in time to assist and attend S’s fourth birthday party, at the local bowling alley, a festive affair, with sparkling Spindrifts and Pellegrinos, and a beautiful fresh fruit platter from the local grocery store, as well as a veggie and dip tray. Perfectly and easily organized. (My producer’s brain noted “Know your audience.”)There were about 20 unicorn themed gift bags. Each bag had a very sparkly beaded wrist wrap which went from straight to bracelet with a quick slap on your wrist. Each one sported a cat or an animal. They ranged in color from pink to Cabaret black. They were a big hit. Also in each bag, there was a bag of Frozen Pirate’s Booty – when I first heard that, I gagged, but then realized that it referred to the Disney movie, not the geothermic state of the puffs; I’ve never really understood the appeal of them when corn syrup packing peanuts are available in any Amazon shipment. Clearly the Frozen Pirate Booty is great because of the product alignment.

Parenthetically, I finally sat down and watched The Movie this holiday as well, so I will no longer have to pretend to know the claw accompanied by the hiss reference when S freezes me. Poor Ilsa. She really had it rough.

Have you ever seen almost-four-year-olds bowl? It’s spectacular. First, there are the adorable shoes, which only begin at kids’ size 10, so the wee ones just wore their own shoes. The ball is larger than their entire torso, and definitely heavier than they can manage. Their proud parent behind them. the toddlers reach the head of the lane and then unceremoniously drop the ball at their feet, where some miracle of physics and floor wax progresses it down the lane at about the speed of a very old demented tortoise. Miraculously it doesn’t stop. However, if one gets impatient, one can just line up the next ball to be ready.

Bumpers UP!

After a few seconds, the tot turns away disinterestedly and resumes animated dance or conversation with their friends as parents and adjacent onlookers wait for the next minute-and-a-half as the ball makes it’s tortured way down to the end before shuttling off into the gutter. If they’re lucky, they might hit one pin. As the afternoon went on, S got a little better and was knocking a few pins down. But it didn’t matter. Bowling was just the setting. Ever so much more important was the giggling and chasing each around the bowling alley.

These Tahoe Toddlers’ parents are nice people in addition to their accomplishments. I met several of Whitney’s school colleagues and their children. My main job was to hold B so that Whitney and Chris could host the big kids and their folks. B is a magnet, so charming and smiley. She has this lovely full-body wiggle she does when she eats something she likes, or if someone smiles in her direction. I mean anywhere in her direction. She must be the happiest baby I’ve ever met. Everyone in her family now emulates the B wiggle when they want to see her smile. Adorable.

S is iconoclastic, a leader in the same way her daddy is. Rebel, comic sense of holding for a laugh and then letting herself laugh with abandon. Her friends all arrived with various packages of Playdoh products, again many of the gifts were this season’s favorite, Frozen. Unicorns and Ilsa are big in the under 5 market.

In addition to coming to spend the holidays, I ended up staying in this beautiful part of the world so that Chris and Whitney could attend a wedding after Christmas. I’d agreed to babysit for the dynamic duo for an overnight trip. When I arrived, I realized it was actually for two days, which was fine. I’m always up for a challenge. Being a Grandparent is a dance. I’ve never been a particularly good dancer, save for the disco competition I won in a state of extreme inebriation in the college pub. It’s harder than it looks in books, movies and TV. My practice unfortunately looks more like George Wilson to Dennis the Menace – you know- the cranky neighbor trope. Four year olds (and fifty-nine-year-olds, for that matter) can be mercurial. We can go from chill to chilly in a heartbeat. One of my corrections to some benign four-year-old action resulted with her responding, “Why don’t you go outside, Nana, and die in a snowbank?”

Beat….

I consider a moment whether this is a witty musical reference to Grandma got run over by a reindeer….Nope. And before you jump to conclusions and decide either that my granddaughter is a psycho or I’m Emily Gone Postal, let’s just say transitioning from a single, urban life style into the afore-mentioned creative home combined with the onset of a serial stomach flu suffered on the 23rd by Whitney, the 24th by Chris, and my hypochondriacal certainty that I would be next on Christmas Day made me less than nimble. And she told me so.

Note to self. Nana’s is to remain chill. Assume the corrective mantle only when necessary when someone is about to die.

On Christmas Day I fell into a slough of despondency the likes of which I’ve not felt since last Christmas, the first without my husband. Leaden limbs, near total disinterest in presents, a need to fall asleep on the couch by 10 in the morning. It was bizarre and I was incredibly relieved (as I’m sure Chris and Whitney were) when I mostly recovered the next day. (And I didn’t get the flu, thank you, Baby Jesus.)

In spite of being somewhat physically and mentally disengaged on Christmas, I still got a charge out of S’s generosity in offering to open everyone’s presents. I had bought S a little robotic dog that pants, barks, growls, sits, wags his tail and runs on command. At one point during the weekend, B and I were sitting with the little cutie on the floor next to the chair and I was patting it, while she depilled it and ate the fluff when suddenly, the dog turned it’s head sidewise and looked up at me in the chair – like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. It scared the bejeezus out of me. Toys are too damn smart.

As stage managers and production managers, we manage logistics. Rehearsals have breaks taken at Equitable times, and we’re trained to track multiple people on stage at any time, and write what they are doing, where they are going and what they are carrying down. Two kids for two days? Piece of cake.

Two days later and I would challenge any Stage manager to take care of two toddlers under four. In fact, I think this might be an amazing training drill. B has her eyes on anything that can be put into her mouth, lint, pine needles, dice. Her favorite is Puffs, little colored cheerios that come in a can. Doesn’t matter if they’re from two days ago and are gummy. In it goes.

The logistics went something like this:

  • 5-7AM Wake up to the baby standing up, holding onto the crib and shrieking.
  • Take her downstairs, change her and sit her on the floor to play. She is happy.
  • 6:30-7:00AM S comes down and wants to make slime. “Nana doesn’t do slime.” The truth is that Slime is my Cryptonite. Bring out a bowl and ask for glue and I start quivering all over and not in the charming way that B does.
  • 7-9AM Negotiate about the slime. S is definitely going to be a prosecutor and a damn good one.
  • 7-9AM Make breakfast while keeping an eye on B so she doesn’t spill out the dog food or water on the floor of the kitchen or find/eat dessicated grapes under the cabinets . Find something that S will eat that has some nutritional value and sit with B giving her some bacon and blueberries. Bacon goes down, Cupid gets fed. Blueberries go down. Nana gets to do some waist bending. That’s my exercise for the day. Did I eat?
  • 9-10AM Color with S while bouncing B on my knee and handing her the lids of the markers to hold for me. This is what we call stasis.
  • 10AM Warm up some milk and bottle it while holding B on my hip.
  • Put on the TV for S and take B up to put her down for her nap.
  • 10:30AM-12:30PM Play with S, again negotiating for a more manageable game than slime…We might get dressed here or we might
  • 12:30PM Retrieve caterwauling B from the crib and bring her down. Change her.
  • Lunch. What the hell will they eat? Did I eat yet?
  • Afternoon activity – walk outside, go to the indoor childrens’ playspace nearby
  • Naps
  • 5:00PM Start dinner while making chocolate chip cookies with the neighbor children. Calculating how much raw dough will make them sick….
  • 6:00PM Eat dinner followed by a brief Gymnastics competition.
  • 6:30PM run a bath. S and B love their bath which they take together. Make sure B doesn’t fall face first into the bath. No actual hygiene seems to take place in the bath but they both look cleaner when they come out.
  • 7:00PM Prepare bottle and take B up to bed after finding something appropriate for S to watch. Kids Channel on Netflix. Oh, here’s the original Grinch movie. I came down after putting B to sleep and saw Jim Carrey in a green suit with maggots or bugs climbing all over his teeth. Slapping hand to my mouth…

Whoa! This is going to give you bad dreams, S!

Yeah, it’s scary.

I thought you told me you’d watched it before.

(Sometimes S uses her debate techniques to persuade you that she is making an actual case when it is really just a very inventive story narrative.) Correction: she’s going to be a prosecutor/novelist when she grows up.

  • 8:00PM Read books or listen to a sleep story with S.
  • 8:30PM Tiptoe downstairs and start playing the Nana OCD cleanup game.
  • 10:00PM Crawl into bed
  • 10:30PM B Caterwauling. I’ve got this! Bottle on the way.
  • 10:45PM B refuses bottle
  • 11:00AM S stumbles into the room.

You’re not going to get much sleep in here, S.

I want my Mommy!

  • Cupid starts barking manaically at something outside the window.
  • Els realizes she’s left the car in the driveway, throws on shoes, then opens the front door and Cupid goes screaming into the night, surely to be eaten by a coyote or a bear. What will I tell Chris and Whitney?
  • 12:30AM B, S and Nana cry themselves to sleep.

6:30AM the Following Day – Rinse and Repeat.

Along the way, I would occasionally pick up my phone and see people wishing each other Merry Christmas! But I didn’t have time to play those reindeer games. I was off the Grid with S and B.

And you know what? I wouldn’t trade one glorious second of it. Happy Holidays!