Tunnel Vision, Scarcity and Balance

It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you are a college professor. Your hours are filled with prepping for classes, grading assignments, reading to stay ahead of your students, planning how to engage them in the topics at hand. Then there are meetings, trainings, and the relentless onslaught of email, each one dripping into your inbox, requiring at least 30 seconds to 5 minutes to adequately respond with the information requested. Because there’s never just an email:

Hi! Loved seeing you the other day. You look tired. Are you eating enough spinach?”

“Thanks, it was great to see you, too! Nope, I’ll add some more spinach to my diet. Thanks!”

That only took about 15 seconds and left me feeling pleased that someone noticed how tired I was, and even more so since I just purchased some spinach at the store a little while ago. But it’s never that simple.

I was rushing around last week, on Monday, returning from one of our buildings flung up on the north end of campus to my office in the southwest what I call “idyllic corner.” I was trucking along, at a pace my Dad trained me early to master; in order to keep up with him, it required one practically to skip. I wasn’t skipping back to my office, exactly, but I was powering along when my boot landed on a little perfectly round 2″ long stick, and suddenly I was going down and going down hard, my right hand outstretched to break my fall, my left hand holding my cell phone, grimace on my face, the whole thing, I’m sure in slo mo. My phone and I slammed hard onto the asphalt driveway between the shop and the theatre where my office is.

Oofa.

All I could think of as I picked myself up and dusted off my ego, pride and jeans, was “That would have been a disaster if I’d broken something. Time to slow down.”

Earlier, I’d been listening to this amazing series on one of my favorite podcasts, “Hidden Brain” with host Shankar Vendantam. A summer series, under the umbrella of “You, 2.0,” the episode, entitled “Deep Work,” guest, computer scientist Cal Newport, discussing his disciplined approach to work without interruption. It was tantalizing and extremely helpful. The idea of having large blocks of time where you allow yourself not to be interrupted by every incoming email or phone call in order to focus on the development of writing, or research, or even working on class prep sounds impossible to schedule in the fray of the semester. How do you do that?

I suppose it’s like training a pet. Which is to say it is really more about training the owner of the pet to be consistent and focussed on breaking the behaviors that you are trying to correct. About fifteen years ago, my husband and I had a series of extremely….er… hospitable dogs. They’d “welcome” our guests for about 20 minutes of enthusiastic barking, for which we rewarded/stuffed them with dog biscuits. This made hosting a large party a hellish venture for both us and the guests, but not, I must say, for the dogs, who proceeded to quiet down in the middle of the party and then ramp it up at the end to say “goodbye” to our guests with the same rewards coming. We hired a dog trainer, to the tune of $700.00, but unfortunately we weren’t able to break ourselves of the bad habits that fed our dogs’ bad behaviors. Not even for that grotesque financial incentive to succeed.

And so it is with distractions at work. We don’t block out work sessions four months in advance (Cal Newport does); nor do we currently adhere to the deep work time like he’s scheduled, and end the day with check of the weekly plan, a visit to his task list and a mantra where he basically checks out of work so that it doesn’t bleed into his evening or family life. That would be amazing, though, right? If we could do that?

I can visualize myself at my desk on a Friday afternoon at 6:00PM saying “There is nothing more here to be done this week. I’ll see you on Monday, dear little desk.” And standing up, gathering my things and walking out of the office. Uh. Nope. Not so fast!

Working in the theatre, both professionally and educationally bleeds a lot into your life. Many of the conversations I’ve had with students over the past fifteen years have been to listen to their fears about this idea of work/life balance. Can I have a family? I did. I have a wonderful family who supported my professional and creative work. I wonder if my son understands why I’d made some of those sacrifices, now that he is a working man with deep responsibilities and a young family? I hope he has more success in pulling the plug at the end of the day than I did.

Tunnel vision creates feelings of scarcity and the inability to manage things in our lives. This was illuminated in another episode entitled “Tunnel Vision.” It covered hunger, financial scarcity and loneliness, all of which can become crippling to your normal standard operating procedures. I guess grief probably falls in there, too, as it reflects a scarcity of your recently lost loved one, with resulting loneliness.

A question that my coach asked me recently has stuck with me.

What are you tolerating in your life right now?

Examples she gave were, clutter, poor lighting, broken car. This is an activating question to ask yourself. Last week, after asking myself, I:

  • Fixed the motor shield under my car that had been kissing the road for months. And by kissing, I mean sloppy, slovenly, snogging.
    • I decided to just remove it ($30) rather than replace it ($465), so also a prudent financial move.
  • Cleaned off my desk so that I had some space to think.
  • Went to the movies on a weeknight with friends and laughed a lot. (not just tolerating loneliness)

I know that doesn’t seem like a lot, but actually, when you are pulling yourself out of grief, it is quite a lot. Ask any of my BIGs (Buddies in Grief). They’ll tell you I had an amazing week.

The last thing I’m aware is of these days is my physical balance or lack thereof. At the end of each morning’s workout, we have 20-25 minutes of yoga. I’m aware of the difference from day to day or even side to side of my balance. It isn’t physical, but mental, I think. Breathe. Be present. Catch yourself and try again. It’ll come back.

Photo by David Charles Schuett on Unsplash

Lucky Koi

I loved the koi at the pond at the Actors Fund Home in Woodland Hills. I went out on Saturday with two colleagues from USC to visit a former colleague and also some former colleagues of my husband’s. We had lunch in “The Lodge” dining room. It was comfortable, restaurant-like, the only thing giving it away as not a typical restaurant was the high count of walkers and canes scattered around the edges of the room and the occasional interruptions by various very deferential staff members in scrubs.

I initially caused a kerfuffle as I’m wont to do when we arrived. Our host had very carefully ordered a table for four, but unbeknownst to him I’d invited two more people and a third arrived with them, so the Lead Waitress, Rosalinda, was initially displeased. But in the scheme of things, this was merely a one-ripple event, and soon, we were all seated, ordering our lunch. The food was great there, and the company even better.

During lunch we were visited by some Actors Fund Home luminaries, including a beautiful 97-year-old woman who looked better than me, and a friendly intern chaplain from UCLA who stopped by to greet the residents. We fake-sparred in the inevitable way that Bruins and Trojans do when they meet, just because we have to. It’s an exercise of saving face in these days when saving face has become increasingly important at USC. But I digress. As the chaplain-in-training walked away, our host quipped: “He’s an intern, so he can only send us to purgatory.” This caused the others at the table to roar (after it was repeated a few times for audibility). I was very impressed that the staff knew everyone’s names and addressed them respectfully and shared some laughs with them.

After lunch, we toured the grounds, seeing the cottages, the Louis B. Mayer movie theatre where first run movies are shown for the denizens (empty yesterday), the Roddy McDowell Rose Garden, replete with a larger than life-sized statue of Caesar, Roddy McDowell’s character from the Planet of the Apes Movies. This made me titter, the idea that this wonderful actor would be memorialized as his ape character. We sat on some benches in the shade – it was 107 degrees in the sun, or so the thermometer at the start had said it was. But if we stayed very still, we could imagine it was only 95 or so. Dry as it is in California, the redeeming thing about our weather.

Mary Joan points to the Lu Leonard bench plaque as our host, Michael, looks on indulgently.

The lucky koi, so diverse in their colorful array of smooth and textured skins, swam around in the large pond, bordered with tables with umbrellas, and a few chaises. We stood and watched them swim around in a frenzy for several minutes. We remarked on their beautiful colors. “That one looks like it’s wearing fishnet stockings.” Our host said it was one of his favorite places to go. The campus is 22 acres, and full of many really impressive things, including a cozy library lined with books about the business of show. I thought Jimmie would have been very comfortable in that library, and if I ever wanted to give away Jimmie’s biographies and autobiographies, that would be a good place to start.

At one point as we walked around, Mary Joan put her arm over my shoulder and said conspiratorially, “These are the important things.” I’ve been learning so much about what the important things are in recent weeks and months as I work on getting my footing back. Friends, family and self-reflection have fed me enormously, even if I don’t have enough time to do the latter very much.

I’ve begun working with a life-coach to see what the next chapter might bring. She’s someone I knew from college, so we are able to bypass a lot of the getting-to-know-you phase of our work, though after thirty-seven years apart, I look forward to getting to know her again. I can tell from our short interactions to date that she likes her work, and I trust her feedback. This week, we talked about catabolic and anabolic energies. Energy is constantly changing all day long. We have certain default tendencies. It was easy enough to come up with examples of tasks or stressors that deplete (catabolic) vs. those that energize and reinvigorate (anabolic). Picture your email inbox and imagine these various responses to the task of emptying the email.

  • Level 1 (Catabolic) -Victim of email. Avoidance of email.
  • Level 2 (Catabolic)- Mad about email. Blaming all those people for sending email. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
  • Level 3 (Anabolic)- Coping with email. Thinking about it as an opportunity to remain connected with others. Thinking of it as a necessary tool.
  • Level 4 (Anabolic) Concern for Others – Taking on the burdens of others. Helping others succeed by answering their questions.
  • Level 5 (Anabolic) -Perhaps email is a chance to build relationships or discover opportunities?
  • Level 6 (Anabolic) – Email is a writing exercise that helps me polish my craft. Email is a free writing opportunity.
  • Level 7 (Anabolic) Level of pure creation. Tap into joy while answering email. (Frankly, this is currently inconceivable, but then, I’ve just begun…)

My homework – to look at events and things that happen and try to filter more than one purely catabolic reaction to an event. I shared with her that I’d had a wonderful therapist who showed me that feelings were just feelings. In the same vein, there are many different ways to react to events. I’m practicing this week, so if I see you and it takes me longer than normal to respond to a question, I may be working on it from the inside out.

But any way you look at it, these koi are lucky. Lucky to be in a big well-aerated pond, guarded from predators by a plucky concrete owl, visited by the denizens of a beautiful residence for Show-biz types.

“And the seasons they go round and round….”

This is the first week of classes, and my Freshman Seminar “Theatre Scene” is all the way across the campus from my office in the Scene Dock Theatre. It’s a joy, walking across the campus, in my brightly colored silk blouse, taking my steps to share knowledge and passion for my topic with my inquisitive students. Today, I plugged in my earplugs and let my music boost me across campus. Truly great songwriters tell stories and it’s been so long since I heard music through an optimistic filter. There’s something stunning about listening to the lyrics that I know by heart, but instead of from my single just-north-of-twenty-year old self, listening from the other side, single and just-south-of-sixty.

The USC School of Dramatic Arts 2019 Move in Day event on August 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

I don’t know when exactly it was that I reached out to Karla Bonoff recently, but I am relishing the reconnection. Full disclosure, I don’t know Karla Bonoff, but I’ve got her as my current station on Pandora. No, thank you for thinking so, but it’s the free Pandora, the one with the irritating ads. “….spa inspired bathtub….” Yeah, yeah.

Baby Don’t Go (Karla Bonoff)

Taking all I’ve got and now you’re leaving….

Karla Bonoff

Been to Canaan and I won’t rest until I go back again.

Carole King

After work today, I jumped in my car to pick up a brown tiger’s eye bead necklace from the repair place over on Sunset. I’m in that sort of mood these days. Clearing off desks, putting TVs up on the wall to free up table space for my puzzles. My TV now hangs out on an arm that tilts it towards the kitchen so I can watch while I cook. I know I sound like I’m well on my way to being a cat lady. But what you may not know is that I’ve been there, done that. With five cats at one time. So I swear I don’t have a cat. I don’t need a cat. I don’t want a cat. I am doing what I want right now. Planning the next phase of my life. Consulting with professionals. Asking embarrassing and probing questions of myself and only myself. A bit of good old navel gazing, I think we used to call it.

Anyway, today in the car as I toodled up Vermont Avenue, I belted along listened to some of my old faves:
Both Sides Now (Joni Mitchell)

…Moons and Junes and ferris wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way

But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really…

The copyright police will come after me, but I just wanted to drive home the point that we’ve come a long way since our feckless twenties. Life looks quite different from this angle. But the music is still so great. Joni Mitchell was 25 when she wrote that song in 1968.

If you are of the vintage when Karla Bonoff’s, Jackson Browne’s, James Taylor’s, Linda Rondstadt’s, Joni Mitchell’s, Carly Simon’s and The Eagles’ songs spoke loudly to you, do yourself a favor – give another listen.

My listening tonight:

  • Blackbird (Sarah McLachlin)
  • Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
  • After The Thrill is Gone (Eagles)
  • Carry Me Home (Karla Bonoff)
  • When Will I Be Loved (Linda Rondstadt)
  • Rock Me on the Water (Jackson Browne)
  • Angel (Sarah McLachlin)
  • Blue Bayou (Linda Rondstadt)

After I shared this post, my colleague Luis Alfaro guided me to this astonishing rendition of Both Sides Now. Thank you, Luis!

So Proud of Our Son, Proud of All of Them

I’ve been spending a lot of time with some very proud parents this week. During the Move In Day Parent Welcome event last night, I met so many proud parents bursting with enthusiasm about the accomplishments of children. Have you ever noticed, that just like cops, parents get younger and younger when you work at a University? When I started, they were roughly my age, because our children were the same age. Now, their children remain the same age, but the parents are all getting younger. It’s sort of alarming, but in a grandmotherly sort of way. I’m getting used to it, after 15 years in the institution of teaching.

Oh yes, I need to define who the Our is from this post’s title. By Our, I mean Sean’s, Chris’s birth mother, Jimmie and me, his adoptive parents, and ultimately, too, Chris’ birth father, who remains a mystery to me.

Our son turns thirty this week, and he is definitely someone to be proud of. By thirty he has:

  • Focused first on his family and made choices that support them
  • Dedicated himself to bettering his skills as a hockey coach and to his players’ growth
  • Nurtured enormous integrity and self-awareness
  • Taken enough risks to make choices and decisions that advance him professionally and personally.
  • Made enough poor choices and decisions to know that they lead in a direction he doesn’t want to go.
  • Incorporated knowledge of those choices to better counsel young people about the perils of that path
  • Taught himself how to coach, recruit and inhabit the skin of a hockey coach.
  • Found and married the most perfect and amazing partner to spend his life with
  • Parented two beautiful girls, one into a fearless bug-loving, mud-slinging, brash and confident almost four-year-old, and the other, as of yet to be defined, but exceptionally calm and happy almost five-month-old.

Yes, clearly I’ve drunk the KoolAid on this young man. But believe me when I tell you that he is warm, charismatic, observant, funny, sardonic, intelligent and living life in a very large way.

You can blame this blog on him. Not just this post, but the entire blog. During his stint as a fisherman, he started a blog on WordPress. In a typically competitive pattern which began when we played tennis together, he at age eight or so, me at thirty-seven, I began my blog, causing him to abruptly drop his. I feel pretty safe telling you that because I’m 99% sure he will never read this. Neither of us play tennis any more either, much to my chagrin. Hey, son, I challenge you to a game next time we’re together.

Some more fun stats on our son: We’ve spent at least 40 hours (a full workweek) in various ERs with him.

  • Broken collarbones (2)
  • Injuries to hands and wrists (4)
  • Hand surgeries (1)

That doesn’t include the injuries he sustained out of our supervision. I once unsuccessfully pitched a book he should write to be entitled Scar, the cover art for which would have been a picture of him with various Post-its near the visible scars annotating dates and cause. I thought he’d go for it because of the innumerable hours I’d spent driving him and his friends to places while listening to them all heroically recount their injuries and display their scars to each other while I giggled in the front seat. I thought it could have been a best seller in the 14-17 year old set. Or for the Moms of that age group.

Other scars less visible, but certainly equally impactful are those left from his loss of his birth mom and the resulting cavity in his origin story. I didn’t understand, no matter how much our adoption social worker tried to prepare us, the gravity of that loss. Leave it to our son to have searched and found his birth mom and reconnected not just with her but with his step sister. This alone demonstrates his intrepid curiosity and commitment to self-knowledge. I’m so happy for him to have found his other family.

Back to my USC Move in Day Event. I love this event, not because I sit on the panel, though I feel honored and pleased to do so, but because of the radiating pride that is emitted from the audience seated before us. Their questions are focussed, and discerning and candid. My favorite question last night was to the students on the panel, “If you could talk to your Freshman self, what would you say?” What a great question! The students responses were mature, and worldly and impressive, even for those of us who’ve witnessed their journeys. We’ve witnessed some of their “failures,” though to me, there is no such thing. I chalk them up to character/intellect/heart building experiences (which I remind myself every (mostly) morning at the gym as I pant to myself “You can take it easy here. Just coast it in.” Nope. The clarity I gained from hearing them self-assess their pitfalls was great. And that was just one of the questions.

The USC School of Dramatic Arts 2019 Move in Day event on August 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging)

I (and probably all those parents) am asking myself the very same question, now. “If you could talk to your Freshman self, what would you say?” Which is really directing you to look at the future four years to see how you might change the course of them now, from the starting gate, from the Move In Day, if you will. This is the greatest question we can all take forward in our lives. So thank you to that perceptive parent in the fourth row last night.

To Our Son, Happy Birthday, and as you move forward, keep asking yourself about how those earlier stumbles have formed you to be the amazing and strong man you are today, the one who can talk to your players so that they have dubbed your coaching “Chrisicisms,” the most loving tribute that chokes me up every time I think of it. You are a role model, someone who lives your life with integrity and power. I had a long history of skepticisms that you’d grow up, like the trenchant belief that you would never learn to tie your shoes, or skates, or might be 30 and still wearing shorts. I can now confess, somewhat sheepishly, that there were moments I wasn’t sure how you would turn out, but you have made yourself someone of whom we can all be proud.

And for me as a really empty nest parent, many of those whom I also met yesterday, revel in the clearing of your charges from that nest, feather it again the way you want, for you, for the next phase of your life, and enjoy living your best life, mistakes and stumbles and all.

Stage Managers and Scary Things

There’ve been several times as a stage manager, when I received invitations to do jobs that scared me. Scared me for different reasons, but mostly due to my normal fear of the unknown. And yet every job is unknown, because stage management is virtually 100% freelance gigs. Sometimes, though you are still working contract to contract, you get lucky enough to have an artistic home, as I did for several years several times in Los Angeles over the twenty-five years that I freelanced.

I spent four years at the Geffen Playhouse and the same at Center Theatre Group. I grew to love each of the staffs of those theaters, as well as the many actors, directors and designers with whom I collaborated on dozens of shows.

I’ll always associate becoming a mother with the Los Angeles Theatre Center, where I was stage managing Reza Abdoh’s Bogeyman, when the call came from our social worker at the Department of Children’s Services that they had a toddler for us to fost/adopt. My colleagues, led by the ASM, Sandy Cleary, hosted the baby shower. Even considering the complexity of the show I was doing at the time, suddenly becoming a mother of a two year old used many more brain cells and was more physically challenging.

Four years at the Pasadena Playhouse. My crew and I grew so accustomed to being at the theatre, so at home there that once we walked to the nearby Target on a two show day and bought Little Debbie’s cakes, and Twinkies, then retired to the office during the dinner break and practically made ourselves sick and giddy and ridiculous there on the floor between the stained couch and the desk. I’ll always associate Tin Pan Alley Rag with losing my Mom. In the stage management office off upstage right, I took a call one night just before half-hour from Jimmie, who was holding down the caretaker fort with my mom as she progressed through the final weeks of her life. Metastatic lung cancer, proof of which manifested itself in several very surreal episodes.

Hi, Els, can you talk? Your mother would like to speak with you. (some rustling as the phone is passed to her)

Hello, Elsbeth? (breathing heavily, and sounding frantic)

Yes, hi, Mom, how are you? What’s going on?

Elsbeth! You need to call the UN immediately. They need you to negotiate. I just heard it on McNeill-Lehrer.

Well, uh, Mom, I’m pretty sure the UN will be fine without my negotiating skills… Besides, we’re at half hour.

What a brat I was.

Stage/Production Managers have extraordinary skills of compartmentalization. It’s what made it possible for me last year to organize the home care for my husband, then go to work and focus on details that the job demanded. The occupational hazard of Stage Management is megalomania – we begin to believe that we’re the only one who can do the job. I only have one regret about last fall. That I didn’t walk away from work to be at home before it became acutely necessary for me to be there. Take away this.

Yes, the show will go on, but it can go on without you when your life calls you urgently to live it.

Opening night, she came to the theatre to watch the play with Jimmie, and afterwards, at the opening night party, clad in a new Missoni floor length gown, she mingled alongside me, with the cast and crew. I introduced her to the actor who played the lead character, Ira Gershwin. It was a day or two after the fashion designer Gianni Versace had been murdered in Florida. Ever the reporter, Mom looked at my lead actor, turned to me and hissed, “He’s the one who killed Versace!”

No, Mom, I promise you, it wasn’t David. He’s been in tech and dress rehearsals for more than a week. He wouldn’t have had time to get back and forth to Florida between rehearsals.

I am fortunate to have spent my entire life (so far) working in the theatre – a life in the theatre is a life well spent. I’ve had the opportunity to share important life markers: falling in love, marriage, parenthood, illness and even death with other theatre artists who understood how to work and live with intimacy, depth and candor. All while doing work on stage which illuminates many of those same life markers.

Sometimes a job will come along that shakes you out of your artistic home. Calls upon you to maybe move household, or take a big step back or a huge step forward. An invitation to go to Sicily to Stage Manage for Robert Wilson; or to go to Montana for the summer with the Alpine Theatre Project; or to apply for the job as Production Manager at USC School of Theatre.

Your inner scaredy-cat says

“What? Go to Italy and work with international artists? My language skills aren’t strong enough!”

“What? Move to Montana for the summer? What if my family doesn’t want to come?”

“What? Production Manage? I don’t know how to do that?”

But your strong center and your hunger for new and interesting collaborations calms down the fearful voice and says, “You lived for a year in Italy and will regain fluency and for crying out loud, it’s Robert Wilson!”

“Maybe that’s just what you need to go to Montana to shake things up. Plus you can hike and get out of the city. Your family can come join you there for vacation.”

Or maybe you are just lucky enough, as I have been, to have friends who encourage you to try something new when you are at an emotional or professional crossroads. Like the Production Management opportunity. “Els, you’ll know how to do it. It’s just like stage management but on steroids.”

And so you take the steps forward to meet the challenge. To do the work. To build the life.

I’ve shared that the loss of my husband last fall was a devastating blow. Even now, nine months later, I still tear up and some days feel unmoored, untethered from the very life we had worked so hard to build. How fortunate I am to have a strong artistic family and friends that have gathered around me in my time of need.

I haven’t felt like writing lately. I’ve been hunkered down in my post apocalyptic emotional bunker, occasionally poking my head up like those adorable prairie dogs at the zoo. I’m on watch for the next tragedy. Grief is distracting. More distracting than anything I’ve ever experienced.

In stage management a project starts and it ends. There are frequently good days and bad day no matter how illustrious a project it is. There’s a thing nothing short of magic that happens in a rehearsal room as the alchemy of playwright, director and actors is forged through the vehicle of a new and exciting script. Life’s the same as that. Except it’s a devised work. No script. You’re the producer who brings all the facets together to create your own magical alchemy. If you take the chances, the risks, to step outside the normal boundaries of your existence, you meet new people, form new experiences, participate in new adventures. And yes, it’s frequently scary, but usually okay or way better than okay in the end.

All the good days, all the bad, the pain, the heartache, the joy you feel through every phase of your life makes you who you are. You are strong and vibrant and capable. You may not be able to write about something important every day, but if you pay attention to the call, you may find pop out of your prairie hole and find something to keep you entertained and alive.

Crenelated Time

In the past few days, I’ve been reflecting on the events of my recent trip to Italy. There I stayed with friends I’ve known for almost forty years. In both cases- my visit to Umbria and that to Venice, it felt as though we were picking up where we left off, and yet, we’ve all had full and rich lives between meetings.

This week, out of the blue, I got hired to do a reading, a wonderful project with interesting people, from referrals by friends from completely different segments of my life. And so, (I have to laugh because it’s so Mrs. Malaprop of me) I started thinking of the image of time as crenelated.

I laugh because what I really was thinking about was the way an accordion fan is folded, which isn’t at all what crenelate means. Crenelate means to furnish with crenels, or battlements to a wall, to fortify it. Which, ironically, could also be a little accurate in this recovery time. I’m coming up on nine months since the loss of my husband, and while things are slightly less raw, I am startled occasionally at the depth and pitch of the forgive the metaphor, crenels of grief.

Last weekend, I had a wonderful weekend in Carlsbad with my son and his wife and their beautiful daughters. Saturday, I’d made a dinner reservation for an Italian restaurant and found it on the map about twenty minutes away. We started off for a brisk walk along the beach wall overlooking the beach, arrived at the restaurant to discover that it was the wrong restaurant (there was another one with the same name two blocks from our hotel.) Hangry and more than a little annoyed, we walked back and stopped at another restaurant halfway between the two, where we had quite a nice dinner. My food came last, so I was holding the baby while her parents ate, and I gazed out the window of the restaurant at a couple who were standing still, arms around each others’ waists, watching the sun as it sank into the Pacific. They looked intently at the sun dipping into the water, then equally intently and fondly at each other. That’s all it took. I completely lost it. Tears quietly cascaded down my cheeks. I tried to hide it but with my hands full of baby, I wasn’t able to wipe them away.

My daughter-in-law said, “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I blubbered. “I’m fine. Just snuck up on me.”

I proceeded to try to explain the loss of one’s other, the feeling of yearning to share life’s simplest moments, in direct contrast with intractable solitude one faces with the loss of one’s life partner. It didn’t go well, particularly because she’d been quite moved that I was so emotional about holding their darling baby. Which was part of it, I want to assure her.

But back to this feeling about time and the connection between quite disparate points in my life, and how they have remained joined to others on the same continuum. The metronome of friendship tick-tocking up to tap you from behind. I’m moved by it.

Earlier this week I came home from work and went down to swim a little in the pool at our condo. Only a year ago, my husband would have come with me, rolling his scooter with aplomb to a shady corner of the pool, where he would have watched me swim, or dozed off in the late afternoon. We might have brought crackers and cheese and some sparkling water down, and after emerging from my minimal pool laps, I would have sat and joined him in companionable silence, munching our crackers and enjoying the diminishing sun that warmed the chaises on the north side of the pool before it slipped down behind a nearby building.

I pulled my head up out of the water and looked quickly to his corner, deliriously expecting him to be there, just as I had earlier in the week as I stretched on the floor of our apartment, looking up to his picture on the table.

Damnit. You’re not coming back, are you?

No, he’s not. Anger, worry, hollowness, impatience, weariness, wallowing self-pity are some of the feelings a person in grief slogs through every day. But as time passes, it’s not always terrible. There are also moments of hope, optimism, gratitude, self-discovery, pride of accomplishment, and even some joy, too. Those are the feelings I try to steer myself toward. I’ve always been a “there must be a pony here somewhere” type of person, and now is no exception.

I’m so grateful to my friends and colleagues for their support now. I’ve learned the power of making plans to look forward to, to experience, then look back on and enjoy remembering the events of those times you’ve planned. I guess that’s what makes a good life, you could say. Even if time isn’t actually crenelated at all.

Orvieto, I think…

Final Days of My Roman Holiday

The last day in Rome, I visited the Vatican. I got adventurous, and took the metro from the Spagna stop (at the base of the Spanish Steps). This was my first immersion in Rome, far from the selfie-snapping tourists and close to the daily press of flesh which is the metro. I wisely waited two minutes for the second train and wedged myself in next to a woman with kind eyes and a universal sense of “What can I do about it?”

I made my way to the tourism office where the tour was meeting. They rented Vespas there. Can you imagine renting a Vespa in Rome? I’d seen three young girls on bikes the previous day at the Coliseum walking them more than riding them through the hordes of boisterous tourists. The tour I’d booked through ItaliaRail was called “Show and Go” and was $116. for the two tours of the Coliseum and Vatican. The beauty of them was that you could show up any time to join the tour. “No waiting in lines.” This proved to be ludicrous. There are nothing but lines in Rome in July. Get used to it. I can say I saw the Sistine Chapel, even without the benefit of having a selfie, unlike the woman at St. Peter’s in front of Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” It did feel sometimes like the pictures were being taken more to prove we’d been there than to experience these great artifacts and sculptures.

I’m guilty too.

My final night in Rome, I was feted by an old friend in his home with two indulgent Italian professionals, who let me struggle more than I had on the trip to date with my rusty Italian. It was a great evening and a wonderful way to close out the International part of my summer holiday.

The next morning, I winged my way back to Washington, DC, suitcase bulging with a few treats and my feet snuggly in my compression socks that my friend had generously loaned me.

I may have told you how much I loathe the phrase “to unpack the meaning of something.” I mean I really loathe it.

So when I say unpack, I mean literally unpack from my trip. The last leg of my trip was a visit to my Dad and his wife, Sally’s in Washington, DC. If I need any encouragement in continuing to travel as a measure of a life well-lived, I need look no further than my Dad and Sally. They have traveled all over the world, and now, as conditions keep them closer to home, it would be hard to impress them with stories of an Italian trip. But they were extremely indulgent, looking at my Ipad slide show of Umbrian hill towns, Venetian churches, and Roman ruins.

I remember as a child sitting through my maternal grandparents’ endless slide shows, with an actual slide projector, loaded with slides, and then reloaded with perhaps a second tray of slides. My grandfather was an architect, with a good eye and terrific composition in his photos, but as an eight or ten-year-old, one’s attention span is limited.

We sat in the breakfast room, watching as wildlife flitted by: three raccoons, a doe and her dappled faun, a cowbird and a dozen other varieties of seed-eating birds. It was delightful. The heat outside fogged up the refrigerated interior of the house.

They had a lot of things planned for my four day visit. I had seen an article about the new Spy Museum, and after an aborted attempt to get in, complicated by the parking at an unreasonable distance and poor planning in booking tickets ahead, sent us scurrying instead to the National Gallery, where we drank in the visiting exhibit covering 17 centuries of animals in Japanese Art; though they’d already seen it of course, they graciously accompanied me, then treated me to a lunch in the cafeteria connecting the two wings of the Gallery. When the exhibit comes to Los Angeles Sept. 22-December 19, 2019 don’t miss it! These are just two examples of the whimsy and elegance of this exhibit.

After lunch, we visited the Tintoretto exhibit upstairs in the West Wing. It was particularly satisfying to think that I’d just seen so much of his work in situ in Venice. There was a particularly interesting room of portraits which brought to mind Rembrandt, rather than the usual luscious, quick strokes of Tintoretto’s angels and suffering saints.

This richness made me realize that over the past 10 years or so, I’ve not been taking advantage of the cultural opportunities that Los Angeles affords us. Full time work, care taking my husband, who in the later years, tired easily. So many excuses, so many lost opportunities. The future gleams with potential.

Thursday evening, which was July 4th, they had planned a family dinner with some local relatives, which was lovely. Meanwhile, only a few thousand miles away, my home city was rocking and rolling from earthquakes. I didn’t feel the least bit disadvantaged by missing these shakes. Instead, we watched the rather insipid July 4th celebration on TV, hosted by John Stamos and the Muppets. After dinner each night, we worked diligently on their diabolically complicated Stave puzzle which we finally finished on July 4th.

Friday evening found the three of us in the Kennedy Center, watching the touring production of Hello, Dolly! starring Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi and Lewis J. Stadlin as Horace Vandergelder. It was a lively, satisfying show with a powerhouse performance by Buckley. In the gift store before the show, I picked up a replacement fan so that I could continue my Venetian tradition of staving off the heat. I bought a second fan to send off to Caro in Venice, because I’d put some kilometers (chilometri) on hers while there.

Saturday we made our way over to the Hillwood Estate, Manor and Gardens of Marjorie Merriweather Post, and spent the morning steeping ourselves in the hostess’s meticulous and lavish lifestyle, beautifully preserved in the park and mansion exhibits.

That evening we had dinner out and called it an early night, so that I’d be ready for my trip home on Sunday, July 7th. A spectacular trip and one which I’ll remember fondly for a long time.

Thinking Heads and Voyeurs at The Venice Biennale

I’d be derelict if I didn’t share some of the photos from the two days we spent at the Biennale while I was in Venice. On the way there, though, Caro and I had a wonderful time exploring all the different countries’ pavilions. Here are some photos from our first day. If you get a chance to go to the Biennale, go. There’s a mind boggling amount of beautiful art and ideas. Beautiful for people watching. Take the largest frame below for example.

The Biennale is rife with colorful images, shapes and ideas, and could be represented by almost any of the pieces shown there. The Lara Favaretto room, in the main building of the Gardens felt like walking into a curated prop room, with shelves neatly decorated by groups of objects, identified with a descriptive word under each shelf. The most intriguing part of the exhibit was its reference to secret meetings of people in a bunker in Venice to discuss the objects. Wait, a bunker in Venice? The piece suddenly gelled as a metaphor for the whole Biennale.

I asked one of the docents who are there to help you understand what you’re looking at if there had been any meetings. An earnest young art student, he answered, “I believe that the first one was cancelled, but there may be more scheduled.” Given the top secret nature of Favaretto’s description, I figured if we went to any bar that afternoon, it would serve as the bunker for conceptual inquiry into the nature of not just these objects, but any in the various countries’ pavilions.

A wall decoration from within the Venice Arsenale

Our second day at the Biennale, Caro and I were joined by her husband, Alberto, and we explored the even more vast exhibits in the Arsenale. Here are some of the exhibits, including the studies by Lorenzo Quinn of sculptures that are currently able to be seen all over Venice, including in the Arsenale.

Earlier in the year, as I planned for my trip to Venice, I’d read about the Lithuanian Pavilion, and the first prize (Leone d’Or) they’d won for “Sun and Sea.” The exhibit was evocative and sensory, with the spectators looking down from above onto the denizens of a temporary indoor beach. Joshua Barone’s review in the New York Times, along with their photos captures the feeling of the experience. I thought it was a little critical, considering the accomplishment of this trio of artists. Try getting 30 people to commit to spending 8 hours on the sand in their bathing suits over a period of 8 months. Probably in June it’s pretty easy, but consider November, when the cold winds blow off the water whipping through the Military Arsenale into this warehouse with open windows. I have limited experience with wrangling volunteers for theatre projects with our production of “Don’t Go” a few years ago with Sojourn Theatre. It’s harder than it looks. An article in the ArtTribune.com shared the invitation they put out to get people to participate. https://www.artribune.com/arti-visive/arte-contemporanea/2019/05/biennale-di-venezia-2019-padiglione-lituania-cerca-volontari-vacanzieri-per-lopera-performance/

Seeing the performers in their swimsuits, digging in the sand with their children and dogs was pretty wild. Almost every exhibit in the Biennale this year examined in some way the impact of humans on the environment, and this one provided a chance for us to watch ourselves in microcosm. The opera itself, parts of which we saw in our thirty minute stay at the exhibit, had some both haunting and comedic, jaunty tunes. It was fun to identify which of the singers might sing next, the man with the gray chest hair, who scanned the balcony idly as his tween son ran off to play with some other children, or the woman who barked her little portion of the score, a tirade against people who bring their dogs to the beach. There were two visible at the time, well behaved little dogs who also looked like they were enjoying themselves. Periodically, cast members would sprinkle bottled water on the sand to keep the dust from kicking up into people’s faces. I was reminded of the Robert Wilson piece I stage managed in Sicily years ago, staged in a 13th Century Granary building. After a few weeks of rehearsal, they trucked in tons of sand and suddenly it became a different exercise entirely. Sun and Sea was pretty fascinating, though. I didn’t want to leave.

Some other stunning works from the two days at the Biennale.

From the Indian Pavilion (I think?) These were powerful as a group, but even more powerful specific objects.

There was quite a bit of video and theatrical experiences aside from Sun and Sea. The Istralei Pavilion hosted “Field Hospital” where you entered the exhibit, which looked like the waiting room for an urgent care facility. There you were given a number, and you waitied approximately 10 minutes, while watching reassuringly placid videos about the type of care you would receie there. Everything felt very hospital-like. All the staff were wearing white coats, and were very gentle with the visitors. Once your number was called, you went to the registration table, where you were given a paper wrist band, and the opportunity to select which video you would see in the treatment area. The videos ranted in topics from transgender bullying to The Palestinian question. Up the stairs from registration, you were guided into one of three padded rooms where you were told to follow instructions. I did, but after emerging from the booth, I realized they were not soundproof, so everyone in the outside waiting area had heard my primal screams.

On we went into the treatment room, where a large array of reclining chairs held other patients who were watching videos, and then watching additional material (second opinions ) from experts with knowledge of the topics of the videos. Once you finished watching, the “nurse” came and freed you from the chair, giving you a rubber bracelet to replace the paper one, which said “Field Hospital” on it. It was an eerie experience, especially for Caro. whose video was a little more graphic than mine. (I won’t spoil the exhibit for those of you who are going by telling you which videos we watched.) Suffice it to say that once we emerged from the Field Hospital, we were ready to go home and also to get a cold drink before taking the Vaporetto back home.

The Littlest Theatre in the World and Gratitude to the Madonna Dei Bagni

One of the last days I was in Umbria, we visited the Umbrian hilltown of Monte Castello di Vibio, another spot of unspeakable beauty. Our destination was to see Il Teatro Piu Piccolo Del Mondo. As the sign below promises, Civilization isn’t measured in square meters and volume. Built by a consortium of nine families (I’ll spare you the poor historical recall and defer to Wikipedia). But when we visited, the lobby had a fascinating exhibit by a local man who had documented his family’s history in a series of scrapbooks, only seven out of thirty-three of which were on display. There were photos, paintings of weddings on the stage, and other news clippings detailing the historic events that had taken place in the theatre. The frescoes by Luigi Agretti in the second floor lobby were really wonderful, considering he was 14 when he painted them in 1892. Yes, 14!

After relishing the tiny space, complete with playback of a recording of a musical concert so that we could experience the acoustics in the all-wooden theatre, we retired from Monte Castello di Vibio, and made our way to the Madonna Dei Bagni, a church near Deruta, which features approximately 700 votive tiles from the 17th century to the 20th century, all presented in gratitude for acts of salvation by the Madonna. Each tile has the initials P.G.R., which stands for Per Grazie Ricevuto, or For Graces Received.

The Sanctuary itself is not notable, except for these tiles, almost totemic in their iconography. Four Hundred years ago, according to the history, a man found a piece of pottery with the Madonna on it and he nailed it to an oak tree, and prayed for his ill wife’s recovery. When he returned to his home, she had recovered, and thus began the practice of these votive tiles. They represent graces received from the Madonna after accidents throughout the centuries. Did you know that the most perilous thing in Umbria is the tree and the ladder? So many people fell from trees and lived to represent it that there developed an iconography of falling out of the tree.

That and getting trompled by horses.

Or struck by lightning.

You’ll have to believe me when I tell you that just like the tree plates, there were several of the lightning and later, dozens of gnarly car and motorcycle accidents as well as war survivors and leaky rain gutters. I just didn’t take photos of them all. It’s worth going to verify my account.

But my favorite was the tile that told the story about the recovery of 140 of the tiles which had at one time been stolen (rubata) from the sanctuary. Thanks to our guide, Marina, who was able to read the tile to us and translate, we understood that an off-duty cop (Carabinieri) born in Deruta, but assigned to Perugia, had come across one of these plates at a swap meet or whatever the Italian equivalent is. He bought it, then launched an investigation and was able to recover all 140 of the stolen plates. I think the guy carrying the tile is the same one lying down in his carabinieri uniform (Art History 101).

After that, we were exhausted and of course, it was time to go get some lunch. We were very happy there as well for the graces received.

Thirty-six Years Later

I visited Venice after a 36-year hiatus and expected to remember my way around that complicated jewel box of a city. It didn’t seem unreasonable to me. Venice is a walking city and the routines of daily life had enabled me to learn about five ways to get home, how to walk in a narrow street in the rain with an umbrella, and how to choose an alternate route when there was someone too slow in your way. Guess what. I’m the slow one now. Continue reading “Thirty-six Years Later”