Tuesday, March 23, 2021

A Thousand Ways 

“This is not going to be a conversation,” the robot said once the the drum machine heavy hold-music stopped.

“This is a way to see one another,” she/he/they informed us. “Words are all we have.”

Four days before the year anniversary of our pandemic lockdown, my husband and I attended a performance of A Thousand Ways, an interactive theater piece created by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, the two-person collective known as 600 Highwaymen. We were dressed not for the theater, but instead, in the soft clothes that have, over the last months, become our uniform. Minutes before show time, we took our cell phones to separate rooms, dialed a number and entered a personal code. 

“This is not going to be a conversation.”

So what was it? 

Besides the robot, there was only one other person on the line. A man. The robot asked us to choose to be A or B. I chose first, but I chose B. (Later, my husband would say this is typical of me. I often reserve what could be considered the better choice for the other person.) 

The robot began to ask questions.  It wanted to know about the objects surrounding us. The man – we’ll now call him A. -- had a rolling chair from Ikea. He had a turtle shaped lamp. He had a painting of a bridge in Vancouver.

I took in the pile of books on my bed stand, the tangle of laundry on the dresser. There were three pairs of my shoes in three different areas. Walking shoes, running shoes, house slippers. 

A was born in 1964. He had no tattoos. He had three siblings. He loved a person named Mark. (When he said the name, I could hear the love.) 

“Some day this will be something we will laugh about,” the robot said. 

A answered in the affirmative when asked if he’d ever shot a gun. 

“A BB gun.” 

I was trying to take notes, but I was also trying to participate. I wanted to be all in. This is hard for me even if I’m not actively taking notes. My brain is recording, trying to make connections. The robot was asking me to set that aside. 

“Words are not always enough.”

The man known only to me as A had a friend named Rex. 

“Where is he?” the Robot wondered.

“Lying in a bed, trying not to suffer,” A answered. 

He described Rex’s hazel eyes.

Who had been my support? I could name at least a dozen people with no effort. Where were they now? Princeton, Atwater Village, Sandia Park, Albuquerque, Santa Monica. At a desk, a kitchen table, walking a trail, at a potter’s wheel, in the garden, on the beach. 

“This is your luggage,” the robot said. “This is all the stuff you take with you.”

I stopped taking notes.

Could I change a tire? Start a fire? The robot fired off questions.

Yes. Yes.

The robot asked us to rest the palms of our hands on our necks. We sat like that. The silence rose up between us. Together, we counted back from ten, alternating numbers. When directed, we traced the length of our forearms. We shifted from one place in the room to another. 

The robot described a road in the desert. We were driving on that road. It was night. Our car broke down and so we decided to walk.

The stars above us were so bright.

The robot asked us to imagine the three of us there, together under the stars. And I saw us. In my mind, the robot was small, almost a child. A’s gray hair shone a little in the flicker of our fire. 

As we neared the end of the hour-long conversation, I’d begun to form a picture of A in my mind. I could almost see him leaning against the door of my room, barefooted and dressed in a soft sweater. His hair was a little shaggy. 

After a long year of isolation, I’m practiced in picturing the bodies and faces of loved ones. Perhaps this practice has made my brain nimble enough to conjure a stranger. Perhaps all this missing of the known has increased my love for and acceptance of the unknown. 

It took only an hour for me to connect with A. It took only an hour for him to tell me he could hear my smile in my voice. 

Saturday, August 22, 2020


I was unprepared for Jennifer Hudson. The third night of the Democratic National Convention with its nearly two hours of heart-felt speeches and beautifully edited video montages about gun control, climate change, racism, and immigration policies had left my emotional pump primed, but it was the sight of Ms. Hudson, elegant and composed in an apricot-colored gown, that cranked open the faucet. A performer and her accompanists away from the stage seemed to embody everything that is new and strange about our world.

The vast lobby of the Harold Washington Cultural Center, like the convention itself, was missing the collective heartbeat, the mingling of exclamations and exhortations. The gold trimmed arches, ornate painted ceilings and Tiffany glass dome only emphasized the emptiness of the space, and reminded me how much I love a pre-show theatre crowd. What I wouldn’t give for the mingling of perfumes, the jostling of elbows and shoulders, and the pleasure of eavesdropping in line at the bar. On an ordinary evening, the glamorous lobby would shrink around a mix of theatergoers; the glowing dome would hold the community as they prepared to be transported by art. On an ordinary evening, Hudson would likely spend the time before the show in her dressing room before emerging into the spotlight. The transactional agreement between performer and audience would be clear.

Instead, we saw her from a distance, dwarfed by her surroundings, a tiny figure in a sea of carpet. Though the chandeliers glowed above her, it was possible to see hallways trailing into darkness on both sides of her. The camera circled, orbiting closer and closer, observing her first quiet notes supported by Fred Nelson and Richard Gibbs on twin pianos, and echoed by Reginald Foster’s soprano sax. We bore witness as she used her voice and her body to take control of her surroundings. Perhaps due to a youth spent reading Ray Bradbury; an adulthood inundated by post-apocalyptic cinema, I had the passing thought that these few humans in this vast space might have been the last alive on the planet.

Sam Cooke’s, “A Change is Gonna Come,” is a kind of prayer and every moment of the previous two hours had made it clear that even if you weren’t a church person, now is the time for prayers. The song is also a story. Using Aretha Franklin’s arrangement, Hudson tacked on four lines at the beginning, which shift the telling into a re-telling. Hudson picked up the thread of history and acknowledged her own place in the narrative.

At the close, Hudson stretched out those last few bars. “It’s been a long time coming,” she sang, looking up, looking out, seeking, seeking answers. She shouted to the sky. Not the ranting of Lear, but the clear and controlled demands of a woman who knows what she has been missing. The power of this plea drove her body forward. She seemed unable to resist the pull to action.  

Turning from the camera, offering her back to us in a position of both vulnerability and strength, Jennifer Hudson was audience and performer. She was play and playwright as she strode through the room, and down the wide staircase. I imagined the marvelous echo of that stairwell, the thrill it might have given her to feel the power of a voice that no longer needed a microphone to be heard.

 Watch her magnificent performance here

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Well into my sixth week of hunkering down, my appreciation for everything and everyone in the outside world has only expanded. I want to write a love letter to staircase handrails, public water fountains, and the the deli department number dispenser. I could throw a parade for popsicle vendors and the counting of coins on an open palm.

The longer I stay in, the more my nostalgic bubble widens, encompassing not only chance encounters with friends at the market, but the ability to stand contemplatively in the cereal aisle. I am wistful for the way our bodies once moved through space with ease and unconscious comfort.

I am so aware now of the physical action of being in the world.

For instance, inside my house, I rarely wear shoes and so my feet have become sensitive to the texture of wood floors, tile, driveway cement, grass. I can feel the need to grab the broom before my eyes even see the evidence of this need.

I am feeling everything.

Some years back, I saw a play called “The Method Gun,” created and performed by RUDE MECHS, the Austin based theater company. It has stayed with me in the way a dream does: images, emotion. On Saturday afternoon, I settled at my desk for a live performance of “The Method Gun,” by the Wesleyan University Theater Department. I’d seen mention of the play on Facebook and, in this time of no-schedule, I made extra effort to mark my calendar. I felt an outsized desperation to be there in the moment, while it was happening.

At first, it was hard to settle. A little sweaty from a late afternoon neighborhood walk, I guzzled water and rolled my neck. My desk was a jumble of papers that called for shifting and inspection. On screen, other watchers were exchanging greetings on the message board. Though I often eavesdrop on these pre-show conversations from my seat in an actual theater, I wasn’t sure how to respond to the open nature of this exchange. Without the boundaries of convention and physical space, the invitation was equally weighted between listening and participation. In the online chat box, there are no side conversations.

“The Method Gun,” centers around a theater company dedicated to indefinite rehearsal despite the disappearance of their leader and the absence of a performance date.

In the Wesleyan production, a group of college students under the compassionate and dedicated direction of Katie Pearl, found a way to create something meaningful despite a pandemic.

The play is about the value of an ensemble without a leader; it’s about the merit of a piece of work (in this case, “A Streetcar Named Desire,”) without its main characters.

What (or who) is missing? How can we fill the void?
These are the questions of my (our) days.

On the home front with my husband and our two teens, we have become our own theater company. We are taking on all the roles. We are stretching in some ways and shrinking in others. My son has been folding laundry. My daughter has learned to cook. We all clean the house, care for the dogs, and take turns playing curator for an ongoing family film festival. Though we find our own corners in the house, our awareness of each other is heightened.

At my neighborhood Trader Joe’s, spray painted lines separate us in the parking lot as we wait for our disinfected cart. Inside the store, brightly colored directional arrows mark routes throughout the store. Small, squares of blue gaffer’s tape indicate where I should stand at the checkout counter. Signs everywhere ask us to be aware, to keep our distance. It’s still confusing. No one has had enough rehearsal. This new choreography has not yet settled into our muscles.

The actors in The Method Gun started their rehearsals in a theatre. They stood next to each other. In the same room. 

In the nine small squares of Zoom, the actors led their audience through “Paperboy into Flower seller.” The paperboy was center square. We were paperboy POV, responding to Blanche, though we didn’t hear her lines. We saw her actions. Her hands. Her mouth. Her gestures, unfurled around the paperboy like flowers as eight pairs of hands reached for a cigarette, (inhalation, exhalation,) reached to touch. Lips moved in for a kiss. The paperboy, his eyes closed. Me, at home, eyes open. The screen went black. This moment of physical intimacy was (is) impossible to witness.

At Zoom meetings, I sit at my quiet desk, while other mothers lean over kitchen counters, their faces bobbing in and out of frame as they tend to their children, chop vegetables or shout direction to unseen others. Dogs and cats often make guest appearances. Once there was a guinea pig. My own daughter sometimes hands me a bowl of noodles or fruit or cereal through the door of my small office and I reach off screen to accept her offering.

Toward the end of the play, everyone started to break down. Someone shouted.
The approach is bullshit. Everything we’ve done is nothing.

Once every few days we feel the same way. This lock down. These guidelines. The careful structure of our days. The way, no matter how much we sweep, the dust and dog hair continues to gather on the floor.

In “The Method Gun,” the company performs Streetcar as a stunning series of near misses. The staged version involved bodies moving around the stage amidst swinging lanterns. I remember sitting in the theater next to my friend. I remember how the rhythm of the scene (the sound of a metronome) began to inhabit my body.

Is my heart beating? Are my lungs taking in air? Did my fingers brush the fingers of the cashier at the market? A door knob. An envelope. A light switch. A stair rail.

My office is just off the kitchen. My husband was beginning dinner preparations. He was talking to me from the stove. His back was to me. He didn’t realize I was crying. I was sitting at my desk watching these young actors on the screen of my computer. The sky outside was glowing with the last of the day’s sun.

The next part of the play is as much for us as it is for you.

Arm around Steve. Arm around Pablo. Run down the rake. High-five Steve. Near miss. Give Steve a hug. Break away. Near miss.

Maybe it was the young faces of the actors, so close to the age of my own children who, over these two months have grown in ways I can see (over an inch in height) and in other ways I can only intuit. Maybe it was the audience member who typed, as Blanche was taken away, about the experience of the first responders. Maybe it was the gesture of hands reaching across the darkness. Maybe I needed a good cry.

We are being asked to contemplate the space taken up by our bodies in the world. We are being asked to think about the relationship of our bodies to other bodies. In these times, what constitutes the kindness of strangers?

I was in my seat for this performance. I was surrounded by theater goers. And I was so grateful to be there.

You can watch The Wesleyan Theatre Department Production of "The Method Gun," here.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

It’s a rainy Thursday and I’ve been trying hard to get back to serious work on my Big Project, but I’ve been procrastinating by doing a little bit of work on a dozen tiny projects. I transcribed about five minutes of an interview. I wrote a couple of emails and answered a couple more. I made a list of things I might want to write about when (and if) my brain ever stops floating and flitting like a gnat and starts, instead, to trot again like a good and sturdy horse.  

Shit. I have been so sad this week. And so angry. And so frustrated. I haven’t wanted to sit down or to stand up. I have a tummy ache and a back ache and a head ache and I feel like I’ve been piped full of cement. Except when I feel like I’m paper thin and drifting away.

Two days ago, as I drove down Los Feliz Boulevard, I saw a woman selling masks from a plastic bag. A little while later, over in Pasadena, a man paced between the cars stopped at the light just off Lake. He held up masks in one gloved hand. This morning, I read a newspaper article about a tenth grader who was helping his mother sell masks so that they could make ends meet. Five dollars at a time. And the ends so far apart.

I’m so fucking fortunate to be in my house, at my desk, trying to come up with something cheerful to say.

Earlier, I wrote a few lines about some things that made me happy this week.

The hot water bottle. The filling of the thing gives me reason to stand alert over the kettle. Constant vigilance is necessary. The water should be hot, but not boiling. When the water is just right, the surface looks a little bit marbled and the kettle breathes deeply, but is nowhere near ready to whistle.

Acrylic Paint. Even the old, slightly sticky tubes I found in the craft cabinet. My husband and I took an online painting class taught by an artist in Albuquerque. Together we contemplated some tangerines piled against a gray background. We were given twenty minutes to see the shape of the tangerines. We dipped our brushes in brown paint and drew rough outlines of the fruit. They weren’t round. Some of them turned out to be square. The one at the bottom was dented as if by a heavy thumb.

Bagels. They arrived warm from the bakery, delivered to our doorstep by a dear neighbor. She and I shouted our greetings and gratitude from a distance and then I called my family and we all stood in the kitchen and my husband cut the bagels with a big, serrated knife and we toasted them and slathered them with cream cheese or vegan butter and ate them standing there together without worrying too much about the spill of sesame seeds.

I am trying to make some sense of things and it feels impossible. 

I remember asking my Dad what it meant to have a hole in your arm where all the money goes and he sat down and carefully told me about Vietnam and heroin and addiction. He explained that I was a "little pitcher" and that my big ears were good listening ears. 

Among all those lost this week, one soul was John Prine. I saw him play last year at the Ford Amphitheater. I arrived early and sat in the empty space, watching while it slowly filled with people. The sky was dark and the air was cool. I got to talking to the people beside me and we got to talking to the guy in front of us and the people behind us and we laughed together like old friends. That's the kind of warmhearted gathering it was. 

I'm really longing to be in the world; to be surrounded by people. 

I didn't buy a mask from any of those people selling them on the street, but I did reach out to give some cash to a very elderly man with a cardboard sign, and, when our fingers -- his gloved and mine bare - grazed, I tried hard not to flinch.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Green Chile Cheeseburgers

This morning, my mom sent me a photo of some pot holders she was going to turn into masks. I told her I’d sew her a mask and drop it in the mail. She taught me to sew and while I don’t do it enough to be very good at it and it always takes me about fifteen tries before I remember how to thread the thing or how to fill the bobbin or how to adjust stitch length, I can usually make something simple and reasonably tidy. It’s busy work and brain work and I am in sore need of both.

My dad would’ve been 80 years old today. He’s been gone nearly 18 years and we still talk about him and think about him and it’s like he’s here and not here. As is our habit, we are having green chile cheeseburgers for dinner. I thawed some meat and some Beyond meat for the vegan in the family and I defrosted some green chile that I keep in little cubes in the bottom of the freezer.

Green chile was one of the few items I bought at the grocery store a few weeks ago when I didn’t realize what was really happening. Everyone was filling their carts in slow, polite motion. Everyone looked a little worried, but their eyes held not a strategic gleam nor outright panic. We were all toddlers that day. Curious, clueless, trying to base our actions on the models around us.

I didn’t want to be too alarmist so I bought some kale and some spinach and some milk, a small bag of flour and, at the last minute, and just because I happened to see them, three cans of Hatch chile. Now I long for that day. When I could have casually added baking soda and wheat flour and strawberry jam. I might have looked for tinfoil or rubber gloves and things to make Easter baskets for the kids.

We’re living in a paved paradise now. Every day thinking about what we had and what is gone. Trying to make do and get through.

I sewed four masks today – three for a friend of mine and her dear daughter, and one extra for my own dear daughter who is keeping sane by walking up and down our block or sitting on a beach towel in the drive way. Today she made some tomato soup from a recipe she found on TikTok. She made a date shake. She took some selfies and tied her long, thick hair in a knot.

My son is waging a D&D campaign with his friends on the computer. Later, he plans to watch a movie with a bunch of other people on the computer. He lives in his pajamas. He eats toast and gives me bear hugs and leaves his cereal bowls in stacks on his desk.

Eighteen years ago, my dad was alive and my son was floating in my womb and I felt as out of control and as in control as I’ll ever be. Change was rattling the windows and shaking the walls.

My husband mentioned how present my Dad still feels. “The kids know him,” he said. “He’s like… around.”

I think he’s around because we ask him to be around. We conjure him with stories and with devotion to the objects he’s made. We delight in the things that he found delightful. In Albuquerque, my brother threw some burgers on the grill for lunch. Up in the mountains, my stepmother and her neighbors have gathered as close as they can to do the same. In Morocco, our friend Autumn is eating a green chile burger. Dad is nowhere and everywhere.

Dad was the king of keeping himself amused. There was not a restaurant placemat that didn’t turn into a sketchpad, not a stick of wood that couldn’t become a face or an animal or a mermaid with outstretched arms. He turned the newspaper into magical, growing eucalyptus trees and refrigerator leftovers into both dinner (Smosnane Moosenose – a favorite with Klondike Prospectors) and fodder for bedtime stories.

Tonight, green chile cheeseburgers, Bob Dylan on the stereo, beer in a glass. A toast to my Dad and a toast to all of us, keeping on, holding the talismans, creating the rituals, telling the stories.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Postcard Roadtrip

I’ve been looking at the news approximately every four seconds, but sometimes I just look at it. I feel my eyes grow big as beach balls and let them kind of bounce softly against the words, but not really stay in one place.

Isn’t it incredible to think about a beach ball traveling through a stadium or concert venue? Doesn’t it feel a little bit like a poem when you imagine those fingers reaching up to give that bright orb a gentle nudge? I could honestly cry for the beauty of a cheap, plastic inflatable and the willingness of strangers to work together, finger print by finger print to move the thing through the air.

I am missing so many things.

I was walking through the neighborhood past all the shuttered businesses. I was reading all the handwritten notes tacked to darkened doors and shuttered windows. Everywhere was a reminder of something I’d forgotten to miss: the shared bowl of wrapped candy on the counter at the Vietnamese restaurant, the public telephone, the slightly sunken wing back chairs in the bar at the Tam O’Shanter restaurant. I miss using my hand to summon a walk signal.

Stuck inside my house and wondering about the world, I came across a stack of old postcards. They’d been part of a bulk box I’d ordered on eBay. I’d sent all the innocuous kittens and flowers and landscapes, along with notes of encouragement, to voters in my own state and in many other states across the country. But it felt odd to send vintage hotel and motel photos. It didn’t feel right to send aerial shots of beaches and golf courses or muddy photos of unfamiliar landmarks. I’d kept the postcards anyway. In case.

Today, these postcards provided an activity and a destination. I picked a few, turned them over and wrote the first thing that came to mind. And then I mailed them.

If I am to believe the blurb on the reverse of this one, The Marott (aka Queen of Indiana Hotels) boasts 500 luxurious guest rooms and two suites. Three Dining Rooms. Two Cocktail Lounges. There is banquet seating enough for 500 guests.

I want to bounce on the beds in each room. I want to check my lipstick in a wide mirrored vanity and twist the cap off a tiny bottle of shampoo. I want to hold the soft rectangle of wrapped miniature soap in the palm of my hand and inhale the chalky floral scent.  In the cocktail lounge at The Marott (Queen of Indiana Hotels,) I will slide into a leather banquette, rest my elbows on the table and look up at the waiter as he deals out cardboard coasters like cards. Order a Roy Rogers, a Shirley Temple, a Jack and Ginger in a bucket. Get whatever you want. It’s on me.

Oh, won’t you join me, when this is all over, for a banquet at The Marott? Or for brunch at Lehr’s Greenhouse? Or perhaps we could pick up a hammer and join in the barn raising.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

I know what I know.

Last night, while I was making dinner, I used a salad spinner that I bought at the 99Cent Store in Silver Lake back in 1992.

While I was making the salad, we were listen to Paul Simon’s Graceland. The album had been mentioned in an LA Times article featuring albums to listen to during this time of hunkering down. My husband is trying to find some structure. Reading the newspaper and taking part in all the offerings of communal engagement is one way to do that.

Graceland makes me think of my freshman year of college when a dear friend sent me the cassette and I listened to it approximately one million times. When I listened to Paul Simon’s sweet voice last night, I marveled at his magnificent metaphors and wept a little as I stirred the risotto. My own son will be a college freshman in the fall. How is this possible?

It is possible because time passes and that is one thing we know.

I’ve been keeping track of the things I know and using them as anchors or stepping stones. Or maybe a better metaphor is the planks in a swaying, decrepit suspension bridge. I’m not looking down at the chasm. I’m keeping my eyes up and I’m putting my feet down on the the known when I can.

Here’s what I know right now: last night, my son did the supper dishes while Prince sang “Let’s go Crazy.”

Yes. Let’s. (But just a little.) Because here’s what I also know: there is milk and cereal for breakfast. There is bread and butter for toast. My dog is out of his skin with joy when I pull the leash from the closet even if a few moments later, he’s dragging his feet on the trail. He’s willing and reluctant and so am I in so many ways.

I know my boy will go to college. One of these as yet unvisited, untested places will be a vessel to hold my kid, a petri dish of experimentation and growth and magical transformation.

And if it’s not. Perhaps, later, when he leaves the dorm and strikes out on his own and he moves into a place that seems a little run down, but the landlord says it’s okay to paint the wood floor and it’s okay to have a cat and it’s okay to leave the windows open all night, then this is where he’ll start to grow.

Or, maybe, (and this is where I get all hopeful,) he’s growing now.

My daughter has used this time to transform her bedroom from the space of a kid to the space of a young woman. (She will be so grossed out by that sentence when/if she reads it and that’s okay with me.) She’s painted white over the pale blue of six years ago, and, yesterday, I helped cram a menagerie of stuffed animals into an oversized, black plastic bag. Though I have a strange aversion to plush, and have been trying (with little success) for years to limit the collection of stuffed animals, it was hard to press the flat of my hand over these cheery familiar faces. I looked away from their bright plastic eyes and let this collection of childhood friends become one cumbersome body that we lugged down the stairs and crammed into a bin in the garage. I sat on the bin to get the lid to close.

I saved two old friends. A squirrel named Squirrel and a bedraggled tarsier named Little Freak. Liberated from the anonymity of the pre-school toy box, Squirrel lived a flamboyant life in my daughter’s company. His companion, Little Freak was given numerous hairstyles and was loved into a grubby, matted nub. Did I save them because they were the most eccentric of the animals? Because their diminutive stature reminds me that my towering daughter once had the smallest of hands? Was it the curious light in Squirrel’s button eyes or the windblown ear-hair of Little Freak?

I can’t know.