It’s a mixed blessing, this not-quite-spring we’ve been having here in the East: sunshine and cloudless skies, but temperatures still in the 30’s and 40’s in the morning and not going much above that by the middle of the day. Forsythia, like June in “Okalahoma!”, is busting out all over. At work there’s a tall, simple vase of beautiful purple irises at the reception desk.
The last two weeks at work have been beyond hectic and I put in so many overtime hours they gave me a day off last Friday, a day for which I had planned the consumption of large amounts of carbohydrates, fat and sugar while watching whatever marathon was running that day: “Top Chef All Stars”, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”, “Tabatha’s Salon Takeover” (if only for the moment when some drama queen stylist breaks down and calls Tabatha “a f***ing bitch”) – you name it, I was game. I might even stay in my PJ’s and robe all day.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Somewhere around mid-morning, after most of a pot of coffee, I started to dismantle “the room”: that spare room that had started out as an unofficial office -- complete with bookcases, cheesy computer desk and computer -- but which had become a catch-all for assorted miscellany: bags and boxes of stuff we didn’t know what to do with, which had begun to pile up and accumulate, tucked into corners, stacked behind the door, thrown into the closet, you get the picture. Pictures were hung and taken down, new ones put up – my expanding collection of old movie posters threatened to take over at one point – and the walls became pocked with little nail holes and chips in the paint or plaster. The rice paper and bamboo roll-up window shade I had purchased at Pier One, back when people still thought all that stuff was really exotic, now had rips and holes in it. Everything was covered with a fine layer of dust, enough to notice but not really enough to bother going for a rag and the Pledge.
We had talked about getting more bookshelves to house Chris’s extensive collection of jewelry and art books, cleaning the place out, getting rid of stuff we didn’t need or want, repainting and making the room into a real office and den, de-cluttered, clean and comfortable.
And so that Friday morning I started the daunting task of taking everything out of that room, stacking it up, weeding it out, and preparing to paint it. Saturday we’d get up and paint, then go to Ikea for the shelves (the Billy system is our choice, although they’re phasing out certain items), put them together and get them up and filled with books, at which point I’d work my decorating magic with carefully chosen pictures furniture and tchotchkes. Which is pretty much what happened. (We painted it something called Crème Grape from Home Depot, the paint and primer in one stuff, which looks really much better than it sounds.)
In the midst of all the cleaning and dusting and finding things behind other things I thought I had lost, I was reminded of another movie I haven’t seen in years, (though I understand it’s available for instant viewing on Amazon.com so I may have to check it out again). It’s called, appropriately enough, “Housekeeping” (1987) and stars Christine Lahti as Sylvie, an eccentric spinster who moves in to raise two young girls who’ve been orphaned (by their mother in a strangely lighthearted suicide). At first Sylvie seems like one of those charming, slightly dotty but harmless characters who starts out misunderstood and ostracized, but who winds up teaching everyone a valuable lesson about something or other: being different, prejudice against being different, acceptance of those who are different, take your pick.
But “Housekeeping” ultimately provides a more realistic view, and as we learn more about Aunt Sylvie we get the sense that, for all her eccentric charm, she may be something of a danger to herself and certainly to the two girls in her charge. There’s a darkness to this character, thanks mostly to Christine Lahti’s performance, which is ultimately unsettling and sad. Not surprisingly, Sylvie has a dramatic impact on her nieces, one of whom seems to understand and bond with her aunt, while the other, younger yet more stable, attempts to convince her sister that Sylvie is not exactly a role model. The movie starts out rather whimsically (the suicide notwithstanding) but spins out into something darker. As one reviewer on Amazon.com put it, this is “a small, quiet, moving and faintly disturbing little movie”.
So here’s another favorite film about an outsider, someone who doesn’t quite fit in… I’m beginning to see a pattern here.
And, oh yes, the cleaning and clearing and repainting… we were bushed by Sunday’s end, but it was entirely worth it! The sense of accomplishment, the lightness it brought were worth the work. If there’s a project you’ve been putting off or don’t know how to start, just… start. Start small. Dig in a little, then a little more and before long you’ll be amazed at what you’ve accomplished.
The improv group I've been working with for the past almost-five years, Tongue & Groove, (officially called not Improv but Spontaneous Theater) has been invited to perform in the first annual Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts at the world-famous Kimmel Center on Philly's Avenue of the Arts. We're very excited about it and have even come up with a new form, an hour-long structure within which we create scenes and characters based on audience suggestions. The difference with us is that we don't do the wacky, "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" kind of short-form improv in which anything goes. Our work is based in reality, real characters and situations (in many cases we use our own lives as fodder). As the Philadelphia City Paper said, "...improv or not...this is great theatre, acted with soul-baring sincerity, intelligence, and humor. GO SEE THIS!"
Our group has gotten smaller and grown; we've lost members (one of our charter cast mates, Adam Gertler, went on to almost win "The Next Food Network Star" but got his own series on the Food Network anyway); we've gained new members, we continue to work and grow and it's become a very safe and warm group of friends and confidantes. In improv, as in theater in general, it's crucial that you trust your castmates. Moreso in improv, since when you go out onto that stage, you have no idea what's going to happen!
So, for those of you who are so inclined, (and near Philadelphia) here's the information. I'd love to see you! And you'll love seeing us!
"This will explode your expectations about what improvisation can be. The performers …are funny, and masters of timing, but they dig deep into human behavior and motivation. You'll see …. [the] human experience, raw, painful, smart, sharp and beautiful, And you'll laugh till you get a head rush." phawker.com
THREE PERFORMANCES ONLY!
FRIDAY, APRIL 15, 9 PM
FRIDAY, APRIL 22, 9 PM
SATURDAY, APRIL 23, 7 PM
The Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St (Broad & Spruce); Rendell Room.
In London during the early '90's, around the time director Stanley Kubrick ("Dr Strangelove", "The Shining", "2001: A Space Odyssey") was making his last film (the ponderous and oddly un-sexy "Eyes Wide Shut" with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) a man named Alan Conway was going around England claiming to be the famed reclusive auteur, promising his pigeons fame and fortune, roles in his movies and so on, in exchange for a few drinks and dinner or a little cash.
The story of Alan Conway was made into a wonderful movie called "Color Me Kubrick" in 2005, starring John Malkovich and it's worth a look for the improbable (but true) story and the all-out, fearless, balls-to-the-wall performance by Malkovich.
The picture is subtitled "A Tru-ish Story", presumably because it doesn't cover all the actual details of the real Conway's life. Born Eddie Alan Jablowsky in 1934, Conway had been married and had a son, but eventually left his wife for his gay lover, who later died of AIDS. According to an article in the UK Guardian, Conway had been a liar and con artist since his teens, when he was sent to Borstal prison. He was also, apparently, abusive toward his son who lived with him for a time after the divorce. In addition he was an alcoholic who eventually sobered up in AA and died sober, leaving behind diaries in which he confessed to all his cons. So while the movie doesn't include all the details, it still paints a rich portrait of a man who, at heart, must have been deeply unhappy with who he was. Malkovich's performance is Oscar-worthy, in my opinion, at least deserving of a nomination. But I suppose the movie wasn't big enough or "important" enough or didn't rake in enough at the box office... It's a shame because, as an actor myself, I appreciate the risks Malkovich takes and how it all pays off in his creation of a character who's pathetic and sleazy, bizarre and sad, funny as hell and very, very savvy about the lengths to which people will go in pursuit of fame and the satisfaction of their vanity. Conway even took in then New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. And ultimately that's what the movie is about: not just all the people Conway fooled into paying for his meals and booze and cigarettes (including a fairly well-known British cabaret singer who put Conway up for a week at a very expensive hotel, thinking Stanley Kubrick was going to make him a household name around the world); but Conway himself chased celebrity in posing as a film director, not exactly remaking himself (he was British and his American accent was apparently atrocious) but fooling himself into believing he was who he said he was. He appeared on a British TV series called "The Lying Game" and told his whole story. "I really did believe I was Stanley Kubrick,' he said. 'I could have carried on until the day I died." Unless you're very, very secure in your own skin and have always been perfectly happy with who you are and how your life has been going, there will be something in this movie that will resonate with that part of you that has at one time or another wanted to be someone else, someone richer or "better" or more talented. I know that's what gets me. That and the fact that this is a hell of an entertaining movie with, I have to say it again, a terrific performance (it isn't easy acting drunk convincingly, but Malkovich does it perfectly) by one of my favorite oddball actors.
I've been reading on the train to work. The last few trips I've left the earphones out of my ears, left the iPod off and just read a little and rested my brain for the day ahead. The other day I came across this little epigram at the beginning of a chapter of the book I'm currently into:
"Let us live most happily, possessing nothing,
Let us feed on joy like radiant gods."
Photo by Fred Andersen
Its from the Dhammapada, a scripture based on the sayings of Buddha, as compiled after his death by some of his disciples, if I'm not mistaken. And by itself it would be, as the kids say, awesome enough. But it put me in mind of something I forget all too often: that many, many times when I'm feeling low or down or out-of-sorts (whatever you care to call it) I'll suddenly laugh at or about something. It usually comes out of left field: I'm sitting in front of the TV and someone says something that takes me completely by surprise; or a particularly brilliant commercial comes on, and I'll find myself laughing in spite of myself. It's such a satisfying feeling, that kind of joy that just springs up out of nowhere, from deep inside. It really is as though I've had a bite of something really delicious.
Or in the middle of the work day, feeling a little stressed, an opportunity presents itself to laugh with someone by the coffee machine, unplanned, a gift. Maybe not a feast, but certainly at least a couple bites of joy.
As to "possessing nothing", while Chris and I don't exactly have nothing, we live with rather less of the "stuff" that's usually associated with being all grown up: a mortgage (or two), multiple cars, the usual. We prefer to spend our spare funds on nice things for the apartment, antique bargains, rugs, art, travel, dining out... It does make life easier, for one thing. Simpler. No, we're hardly monks, but I guess you'd say we try to keep things simple, and to find joy where we can.
Sunday morning we decided to take a drive, since it was a fairly decent day and a little like spring. We drove down to the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, PA, where they have a small, wonderful collection of American art and, of course, paintings by all three generations of Wyeths. The oil paintings by N.C. Wyeth that served as illustrations for books (like "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped") and magazines are worth the price of admission alone. And we stopped at Ruby's Diner for a late lunch and had a wonderful afternoon. Just spur-of-the-moment and, yes, joyful.
To "feed on joy like radiant gods"! What a great line. What a wonderful sentiment. The image of it is joyful in itself: reading it, I smiled. Re-reading it, I smile. Thinking about it...I smile.
"Lent is a season of soul-searching and repentance. It is a season for reflection and taking stock," according to the Rev. Ken Collins. How appropriate. This year Ash Wednesday (the traditional begging of Lent, the seventh Sunday before Easter) fell in the middle of a week of hard work and stress -- which has led to the onset of one of my "sinus infections". At least I think it's a sinus infection. It's not the flu and it's not a cold. But I can feel it: that scratchy throaty-vaguely feverish-totally exhausted feeling that lets me know that in a few days I'll be sneezing and blowing my nose and hacking and coughing...
Not surprisingly, at least for me, it's also brought on a period of self-doubt and concern about the job. Not that anything's going to happen. I'm pretty confiedent that my job is secure and that I'll get through the next couple of weeks and then things will change and there will be new challenges. But in the meantime I'm going through whatever this is, and trying to leave the past behind and not worry about what hasn't yet happened, the better to concentrate on what's in front of me.
And I'm not trying to outrun it. I'm taking the advice of a number of people who advise just being with whatever I'm going through, examining it, thinking about it, letting it be with me. Reflecting.
And I'm trying to see it as an opportunity. The other day I stopped and thought, "Okay, what's the opportunity here? What can I gain from going through this?" The answer was almost immediate: I am finding that I am loved and that I have friends who truly, deeply care about me and my well-being and happiness. I'm surrounded by it. How can that not be a good thing?
Even writing here helps, putting it into words, composing my thoughts about it and sharing it. With friends near and far. And friends I haven't even met. They say that in sharing your troubles you get to divide them up and give them away and make your burden lighter.
So I'll use my unease and stress to take stock and reflect, and be grateful.
I usually don't give anything up for Lent. But maybe this year I'll try giving up the suffering. Pain, they say, is inevitable in this life. But the suffering is optional.
Besides, it will leave me in a good mood for the arrival of the Easter Bunny.
A father turns bad news into laughter by ripping up a job rejection letter, to the joy of his baby. Try not to be absolutely delighted by this! Thanks to Bratprince for posting this link from Salon.com. (Boy, did I need this today!)
So I was in need of some shop therapy today and ventured over to the mall. It was fairly mild this afternoon, though overcast, and everyone came out of hibernation -- the price of gas be damned! -- to hit the road, do some shopping, anything to go outdoors without nine layers of clothing.
I went to The Gap for some of their V-neck tee-shirts. The fabric is really soft and comfy and they fit very well and, yeah, they're only tee-shirts, but it's worth it. They make you feel good and by extension, I suppose, you look better somehow.
But I still wasn't satisfied so I headed to Nordstrom's where I browsed, smiled at the gracious but not overly solicitous sales staff, let them know firmly but pleasantly that I was only browsing and imagined what I would look like in a $150 silk bowling shirt, or a Burberry sport shirt with their signature plaid lining the cuffs. I looked good, but I didn't buy.
Fragrance! That's the ticket. And I remembered a couple of years back we were visiting a lady friend of ours who still had, on the vanity in her bathroom, a small atomizer of Jo Malone Amber and Lavender. I'm an inveterate snoop and decided to take a whiff, just because the packaging was so elegant and because... well, I'm an inveterate snoop.
It was delicious! Indescribable. Exotic and spicy, yet not heavy and not really feminine either. Totally unlike most of the designer stuff you find in Macy's or scratch 'n' sniff in the pages of Vanity Fair. Turns out our friend had had a gentleman friend at one point who used it himself.
So I tracked it down and found it the first time at Neiman-Marcus (later at Nordstrom and later still in London: it is, after all Jo Malone London). Chris got me some for my birthday, as I recall, and it took me a long time to use it up. I haven't had any since.
The Jo Malone boutiques are all alike: beautifully designed, classy, classic... and tasteful! My God, you've never felt so tasteful in your life! The sales people are unfailingly gracious, not pushy but very, very good: unless your sales resistance is very well-developed you'll likely buy something. (And you can always shop online: www.jomalone.com.)
The fragrances are, as I said, completely unique and obviously worth the price. The orange blossom smells like real oranges, not like imitation orange that somehow fools you into believing it's the real thing. And they encourage you to mix and match, blend one fragrance with another to create something that's truly bespoke.
So I got me some Amber and Lavender (the small bottle, I'm not made of money) and I can still smell the sample I spritzed on my wrist four hours ago. And I intend to use it, too. Every other day... hell, every day if I feel like it. It's not to be saved for special occasions, whatever they are. I encourage you to do the same. Find something you really like, something exotic. Spend a little extra for a cologne that doesn't come with a free tote bag. Like Jo Malone. Or Acqua di Parma (Colonia Assoluta). There's also something called the Knize 10 from Austria, and Isotta Fraschini from Italy (which happens to be from the same manufacturing concern that made Norma Desmond's famous "Sunset Boulevard" roadster). You can find most of these things online, if you don't happen to be in Nordstrom's or London or Milan.
Of course, I've also fallen in love with a line of Mystic Blends oils from a company in Florida called Sun's Eye. Mixtures of essential oils blended with herbs and spices and sold in tiny bottles for $6.95 on the Web. Or places like the giant, oddball Shop Therapy store on Commercial Street in Provincetown, MA. I have the Healing oil, but there's also Ancient Wisdom, Garden of Delight and Guardian Angel. I put a little of the Healing Oil on a pulse point before I go to bed. It may be all in my mind, but I swear it calms me down and I've been having killer dreams! Of course, I smell like a head shop, but I like it.
Okay, so this wasn't all spiritual and deep. But it's nice to climb into bed smelling good, in a nice, new tee-shirt.
Like many (or most, depending on where you live) people, I take public transportation to work. I drive a couple of miles to take the PATCO (Port Authority Transit Company) Hi-Speed Line, a train which runs between southern New Jersey and center city Philadelphia. The Hi-Speed Line has been running since the late '60's. One of the stops was in Haddonfield, NJ, where I grew up and where my parents had their restaurant. All the other stops along the line were above-ground but Haddonfield, being a sort of Main Line-ish, mini-Wesport, CT type town, was having none of that: they had to engineer things so that the track through Haddonfield was underground, thereby preserving the tranquil, tasteful, Colonial atmosphere of the town. It was a big damn deal and at the time it was the sine qua non of rapid transit. In fact its stop speed, as I understand it, is 65 mph, but that was considered so fast in 1969 (for a train) that one of the waitresses at the restaurant refused to set foot on it until assured it was safe.
But I digress. One of the things I find interesting about the train ride is watching the people and, lately, observing what they read. Of course there are the daily papers, the Philly weeklies and the Metro, a free little tabloid publication that specializes in very, very brief stories about current events, sports and the like. But in addition, I've noticed that lots of people still read books.
Tonight, for example, on the way home I observed a middle-aged man reading Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear, a science fiction novel described on amazon.com as being a "...difficult but rewarding short novel (about) an interstellar colony ship gone astray." The hero is "an amnesiac starship crew member just released from a deep hibernation state called Dreamtime. Naked, disoriented, and forced... to find safety somewhere among a confusing network of passageways, the man eventually receives help from an odd assortment of fellow Dreamtime refugees." Sounds like a typical day at work to me. I see hardcovers and paperbacks, many in those clear plastic book jackets favored by public libraries. I also see a fair number of Kindles or Nooks or other e-readers, but it's heartening to see how many people still like to hold a real book in their hands, to become engrossed in a good story, anxious to turn the page. I have nothing against e-readers, but there will always be something less than satisfying about swiping my index finger across a screen and hearing the manufactured sound of a turning page. I see nonfiction, serious novels, bodice rippers and more. I also see a very wide range of "self help" and inspirational books, including Bibles and palm-sized New Testaments. I saw a young man the other day reading a book called The Jesus Style and even I knew it probably wasn't about what to wear when raising the dead. Turns out it's about, among other things, how to lead by serving others and what it might have been like to know Jesus as a man. It's written by someone named Gayle Erwin, who has also written The Spirit Style and The Father Style ("a fresh look at the nature of God the Father"). There are some meditation recordings on my iPod and I'll listen to them once in a while on the way in to work, anticipating being stressed if not stressed out already and trying to calm myself with deep breathing instruction delivered by a woman with a slightly British accent and a smoky, Public Radio kind of voice. And as I breathe and try to calm myself and expel the fear and stress (mind you, this is before I've arrived at work) I look around at the people with their sacred texts and self-help books and I don't feel quite so alone. Everybody, I suppose, needs a little something -- a calming influence, encouragement, peace of mind -- and I suppose reading the New Testament or a book about what we can learn from Jesus certainly beats a slug of gin first thing in the morning. I want to ask why so many people are so stressed or in need of spiritual support. Not that spiritual support is a bad thing, necessarily, but before I can finish asking the question I can think of a dozen good reasons why people are on edge: the economy, gas prices, job security and the madness in the Middle East to name a few. We find security and peace wherever we can -- a moment of laughter, the kind of laughter that just erupts from you like a brilliant, delicious surprise. Or a few deep breaths and five minutes away from the computer. The embrace of someone we love.
Or a book on the train, the words of someone we'll probably never meet, a voice that tells us in one way or another "It's okay, it will all work out. Do your best. You're perfect just the way you are." By lunchtime it may all seem like a crock, but first thing in the morning it can be as essential as coffee.
Like most end-of-season, best-of/face-off/championship/super-match-up events, NCAA's March Madness seems to just go on forever. I guess it's mostly the lead-up, the eliminations, the divisions, the endless winnowing to get down to two teams who play the Ultimate Game. I mean, I really like baseball but over the years (okay, decades) with the advent of new divisions and leagues, or divisions within the leagues (true baseball fans feel free to set me straight) the playoff season seems to drag on and on. And on. Didn't the World Series used to be pretty much over by Thanksgiving?
So here comes college basketball and pools and those intricate charts and all the "they play them, and they play them and whoever wins that game plays those guys...". They call it March Madness.
Which, far from putting me in mind of abnormally tall, sweaty collegiate athletes in baggy shorts (and yes, I liked basketball much better in the 70's when the shorts were short, dammit. And tight!) -- far from putting me in an athletic frame of mind, the term March Madness seems to conjure up "Auntie Mame"... Vera Charles... oh, no, that was "Midsummer Madness".
And although he started his descent into what appears to be a drug-induced alternate universe last month, Charlie Sheen seems bent on making this March, and probably the entire spring season, quite mad indeed.
Then there's my version. I work at a university and it's coming upon finals week, when there's a lot to do: setting up schedules, ordering online exams, extending credit limits in order to buy the online exams, organizing class lists, making sure everything matches up... On the face of it, it's pretty simple. But once you get into the nitty-gritty it's a confusing business. Not to mention that there are at least half a dozen other plates I need to keep spinning. Balls in the air. Pick your juggling metaphor. I'm still finding my way among an office full of people who have been there much longer than I, and who know all the shorthand, the why's and wherefore's. And no matter how often I'm assured that the learning curve is at least a year and I'm doing fine; no matter how much people thank me for all I do... I still have this gnawing, maddening, gut-tightening feeling that I'm really not doing that well at all. The I've screwed up this or that task. Or I should have known how to... Or when to... Or when not to...
I'm a disappointment, a big one, and it's only a matter of time.
Of course, in talking to my colleagues and faculty members I'm assured that everyone feels overwhelmed and stressed a great deal of the time, even that some of them often -- and irrationally -- fear for their jobs, in spite of the fact that they're doing yeoman's work and doing it very well.
I keep thinking back to all those little Zen sayings I'm so fond of, reminding myself that the future doesn't exist, the future where I've done some irreparable damage, or missed an important deadline. But it doesn't help. I still wake up anxious, before my eyes are even open. I still look back at yesterday, last week, last month, and wonder why I didn't do this or that differently. Or why I did do this... or that.
It's madness. To the best of my knowledge I'm doing a fine job. Not perfect, but given that, as with many new positions I'm sure, I didn't get months of hands-on training before leaping into this particular void. Also, as with many jobs, this one is very unpredictable. I never know from day to day, or week to week, what I'll be asked to do next.
I know I'm not alone in this. And if anyone reading this has similar worries, troubled sleep, gastric problems brought on by stress... you're not alone either.
Still, I spend an awful lot of time worrying about things that haven't even happened yet, doubting myself, calling myself names, wondering why, in fact, I'm even alive. Amazing what chaos a bit of stress can do to the psyche: the imagined future is real, what my mind tells me about myself I believe.