Last week it seemed the universe was not in alignment. A week ago, we memorialized our fallen academic and theatrical comrade, Paul Backer. There were, it seemed, few things to be grateful for, aside from the epiphanic reminder that when our students graduate, they don’t disappear, but blend into a larger fabric that USC marketers call the “Trojan Family.” Until last Friday, that wasn’t tangible to me, but now it is. For that I am grateful.

This week, the universe seemed aligned to bring me karmic gifts every day. Here’s what the week has brought me and what I’m grateful for:

IMG_6698Sunday – Dear friends, Marykate and David, for coming to dinner and bringing beautiful vegetables from the community garden that Marykate cultivates in North Hollywood, as well as a beautiful bouquet of bright yellow lillies, which I’ve been spaying all week as their luscious petals unfold to reveal their stamens. I’m so grateful for them. Our friends, not the spayed stamens.

Monday – The beginning of a week nurturing the creative rumblings of our new fall Directors, each bringing the excitement of investigative researchers into our school, each challenging me with questions that exercise my budgetary brain, the ‘no’ spasms that my budgetary brain sends while my creative center is shouting, ‘YES! YES! YES!’ I know that there is a happy medium and I am grateful for the challenge to find it.

Tuesday – The bully hummingbirds on our balcony who have, by their fervor in guarding the two feeders, reduced my time cooking Hbird syrup by 90%. A less positive person might be angry to see that they have also reduced the number of birds that visit in a day, but I am impressed by their determination to not let anyone else get to the water fountain.

Wednesday – The arrival of a surprise gift – a book called Grit by Angela Duckworth, which my friend and colleague, Jeff sent me after telling me about the book last week. I dove in and read about 10 pages and it’s excellent. I highly recommend it. Grit’s premise is that success is not based on intelligence, or wealth, or education, or genes, but on that elusive thing we call ‘grit,’ or ‘sticktoitiveness’ or ‘gumption’ or ‘spine.’ Ms. Duckworth should know. She was one of the first female cadets at West Point, and in addition to her 5 terminal degrees (I’d have to go look them up and I don’t have the gumption to right now) she is a good writer. This book came out of the blue, completely unexpected. It made me aware that gifts from our friends are like that. They come unasked for and joyful as a result. I’m grateful for Jeff and our friendship.

Thursday – This day was so rich with gifts it is almost an embarrassment. It started off not looking so great. My trip to the gym in the morning was a downer. To get up at 4:45 is a testament of faith, but I chose the bike in the front row where when you “tap it up” even a quarter turn, it goes to the hill setting. As my friend Sophie said,

“Oh, yeah, that bike is like dragging a dead body up a hill.”

So I was puffing and sweating more than Jane Curtain and Chevy Chase in that famous SNL sweaty anchor sketch, for the entire half hour in spin, and falling over out of balance the entire half hour of yoga. All I could think of was the fact that I lacked Grit. I’m grateful for the reminder that some days aren’t as possible as others. The second gift of the day was a pop in visit from former student Liza Jane, who happened to be downtown to buy fabric, and returned to campus to say hi. What a pick me up! She updated me on her life; she lives in SF and teaches at a private school. She has the most adorable first graders, which she proudly showed me pictures of on her phone at their science fair. Amazing. I’m so grateful for her and alumni like her. The third gift was a late afternoon cookie break with my friend and colleague Mary Joan, who stopped by my office at 4pm and we solved the problems of the world.  Mary Joan and I used to be on the opposite ends of a hallway in the CWT building, which suffered a horrible death as many USC bungalows are wont to do. We have missed our opportunities to dash down the hall to share ideas and yesterday’s mind meld was long overdue. Talk about grit – Mary Joan has more of it than almost anyone I know. She instills it in her students, too. I am grateful for her. When I got home, I was exhausted from so many gifts, and picked up Jimmie and went out to dinner at Public School. Brilliant concept, good food, too loud. Enough said. I’m grateful for Jimmie’s ability to laugh about his hearing loss. We observed a couple there who had a similar age difference to us. They were on the beginning of their journey. We laughed as we exited the restaurant, my getting Jimmie his walker, that they must have looked horrified as we retreated from view. I’m grateful for my best friend and partner in life, Jimmie. When we got home, we had received the fourth gift of Thursday, a mysterious box from my Talented Aunt Irene.  It was one of her ink paintings, rolled up, and we were overwhelmed with gratitude. Entitled “Lip Sync, 22″x 28″, 2011”, it was inscribed on the back in pencil:

For Darling Elsbeth and Jimmie, just because you both are so dear to me! xooo, Renie

Friday – I received two gifts today. The first, frankly, I’d been asking for all week, but finally got it late iIMG_6705n the afternoon yesterday, but there was too many gifts to report that day. My friend and colleague Phil has this charming gesture which he does with great humor when he can’t believe the rest of the world isn’t as adept at adapting as he is. Sounds obnoxious, but it’s really not. He slaps his head with mock exasperation as if to say, “Will you people never get this?” It had happened a few weeks before in a meeting and at the time, I thought, “This would make an amazing GIF. Phil’s slapping his head over and over.

I could play it for myself to amuse myself when the world and it’s inhabitants disappoint me. Which would be almost always at least until November. In fact, I could leave it running in the corner of my desktop to amuse myself!

So yesterday, as I was talking with my friend and colleague Duncan, Phil requested a face time session, and during that, I was able to convince him to do the gesture so I could at least get a picture. I don’t know how to make a GIF, but I do know now that it’s pronounced with a soft G. Thank you, Phil. I’m grateful for your ability to always be ahead of the curve. Today’s second gift, and friends, it’s really early in the day, so I am well aware that much more is possible, was my spin class led by Hector, with his usual Fiesta Friday theme. I was able to join my pals Sophie and Christina in the front row, and they got me going so that I did not have a Jane Curtain moment, but triumphed during the 45 minute ride. Sophie, I’m grateful for your encouragement of my exercise and diet regime, your gifts of face masks and your jumps on the bike – they are all so helpful in keeping me going. I have lunch with a former student today, Sarah, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m so grateful for the riches in my life.

My Talented Aunt Irene

This past week, we had the pleasure of spending four days in New York City, the first time since 2009 when we were there to attend my niece Kendra’s wedding. I organized this trip so we could see my Dad and his wife, Sally, whom we also hadn’t seen in way to long a time. We all ended up staying at the Algonquin Hotel on W. 44th St., smack dab in the middle of the theatre district.  What I didn’t know was that my Dad’s sister, Irene, and her husband, Paul Neal, would also be in New York for some meetings with her new agent.

My Aunt Irene is a truly gifted artist. She has been making art for a long time, close to 50 years now, and her painting style mirrors her personal refulgence.

Renie is my dad’s younger sister. They are 5 years apart in age. They adore each other and have such a great time when they get together which is frequently. They love to laugh, a trait they and I inherited from their mother. Here are a few images from over the years.

When they get together, their laughter is contagious. This trip was no different. One evening, I teased my Dad that I couldn’t believe there was a table in the Algonquin dining room making more noise than ours. I blurted out that he has a stentorian voice which he misheard as centurion, which set us all off. Both words actually apply. My dad is a voracious reader, and a commentary writer. His areas of interest and opining are population, family planning, immigration and a number of other subjects that I studiously avoid because our views are so diametrically opposed. But he is not shy about expressing them and loudly. In retrospect, it is surprising that we avoided talking about the Presidential race for four days. Dad is also one of the most generous men I’ve ever known, and it’s become a point of pride when I can get the table’s check before he does, which happened exactly once the entire week. (I need to practice more.)

Jimmie and I have our own modest collection of Irene Neal’s paintings and jewelry created over the years. On our wedding day in 1984, she and Paul arrived at Paulsson’s Restaurant for our reception bearing a 4′ x 5′ oil painting that she had freshly inscribed to us. It still hangs in our living room. Other periods of her work featured colorful acrylic paintings on wooden bases that are enormous, and totemic in feeling. They are a blast of color and energy just like Renie is. She belongs to a group of painters called the New New Painters, who had a show in Prague in 2002, curated by Kenworth W. Moffett, who passed away just a few days before Renie came to New York. Out of that show came a colorful catalogue of their work, which I have a copy of at home, inscribed in Renie’s loopy writing.

Renie and Paul are environmentalists; out of that love came her creation of beautiful pins and earrings made from discarded plastics. In the 1980s, she utilized the 6 pack plastic rings used to hold beer or soda together, once destined to choke fish but now have a second life as beautiful earrings and brooches. Her most recent jewelry material are the Nespresso pods which she has shaped into delicate, glittery flowers that are quite dressy looking. I was thrilled to be given one by her on the last night there.

Anna Abruzzo and Irene Neal

Renie and her husband Paul came to New York to meet with Anna Abruzzo, who is interested in repping Renie’s work.

L. to R.: Dad, Paul Neal, Irene Neal, Sally Epstein, Richard Epstein

We visited Anna at Studio Tag, where she showed us around the architectural showroom showing us all of Renie’s most recent ink stain paintings  gracing the walls of several Studio Tag offices. Before I arrived, they had taken this photo of our group in front of one of Renie’s paintings, and Anna, whose energy mimicks Renie’s, had already named my dad “The Boisterous Man.” I liked her immediately.

After showing us the showroom, Anna took us all up to the roof of the building, where there was a delightful meadow in the middle of Manhattan.

The thing I love most about my Aunt Irene is her natural joy and irrepressible enthusiasm about everything. Right after we got home yesterday, she texted me this picture. I can’t tell if the mounted policeman is giving her directions or lecturing her, but I’m sure that after the encounter, he left smiling because it’s impossible not to when you meet a force of nature like Irene. IMG_6624She always has a smile on her face; she is one of our family’s biggest boosters. What am I saying? You already know her because she is the most frequent commenter on my blog. She gives me a target to aim for when I get to be 80.

Our trip to New York and time with Boisterous Man and his sister Irene is not one I will soon forget.