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Saturday, September 16, 2017

Looking for His Theater: Back from Vietnam

It was a warm night--even for New York--and I was in a showcase play (where you try to get agents to see your work). The play was called Dark Ladies, Bright Angels and was a collection of Shakespeare pieces. The opening involved the actors going onstage and talking with each other, to get into character.

There was only one person in the audience when I emerged, and he didn't seem at all to be there for Shakespeare. He was quiet, thoughtful, and seemed very serious, even sad. After a moment or two watching the actors, he said he was looking for a theater for Vietnam vets.

Some of the actors ignored him, and then someone told him this was a Shakespeare play. That was the end of our communication with him, and we began trying to get into character--chattering, laughing and saying a few of our lines. I have always regretted it, though.

Because I really wish we had at least talked to him, character or no. He seemed to need to be there -- in a theater with his peers, others vets, people who had experienced what he had. As it happened, he waited for a little while and then left.

This weekend, Ken Burns' long-awaited documentary on the Viet Nam war is beginning to air on PBS. This summer, my husband and I have been watching China Beach, for no particular reason except that we'd always wanted to see it and never have.

I do remember the era and the protest marches, and then later, the vets coming home, and generally not being treated very well. The night this particular vet walked into the theater where I was working seems part and parcel of that, somehow, though we were not intentionally being rude or mean.

The bright spot in all of this is that I did see him again at the theater, because he found the group of vets he was looking for. I said hello, but not much more than that, because I had to get to my performances. And to be fair, he was busy with his group too.

And yet, and yet.

So much that happens in wars changes the people who experience them. And I believe artists have a real obligation to learn from and listen very carefully to the people who lived through wars and traumas. I wish that night, we had taken the time to listen to this man. Or even ask about the theater company he mentioned and go to one of the shows.

We could have learned so much.


Resources for you and/or your kids:

Soldier photo: Manhhai

Saturday, September 9, 2017

First Rule of Storytelling? No Rules

Now and again, I try to remind myself of a few of my favorite storytelling rules.

1. There are no rules.

2. If there were, rule 2 would be not to write about writers writing unless you can be spectacularly interesting about it. Which is hard. If you're going to break this rule, make sure writing is a very small part of a much larger and more interesting story.

3. Wait. Don't just start writing a story because you want to sell a book, play or idea and don't write because you're hoping for a best seller. Let the idea haunt you and needle you and obsess you until you absolutely NEED to write it out. Wait for the idea that won't let you go, because in my view, that's when you have a best seller.

4. Make up characters you know. You don't have to know them well; they can be people you talk to once in a while in your neighborhood, but they have to intrigue you sufficiently so you can do a good job of describing them and even more importantly, imagining them. Try to observe people and talk to them and learn their speech patterns. It will serve you well when you are writing characters. And when you start thinking about characters, write down little notes about them until you know everything there is to know--from physical traits to the sound of their voices to the shoes they wear and much more. Because you really do need to know everything.

5. Give yourself time to sit in the dark and stare into space. Empty your mind of everything except your story. Think about what would happen if you were the protagonist and navigating the particular life you want that protagonist to have. Then figure out what needs to happen in the story to move it forward.

6. Think about the worst day you've ever had. What happened? How did you navigate it and what did you learn from it? Is there a way to tell that story as a novel or a play?

7. Think about what you want most and how you tried to get it. Make that part of your story too. The more difficult it was to get it, the better your story will be. If you didn't get it, your story might be even better.

8. Don't think about the ending while you are writing. Let the ending find you, rather than trying to find it. You'll know when you're there, and in the meantime, your story needs to keep winding, like everyone's story.

9. Be patient and go slow. We all want to be done with stories and books and plays after we've been working on them a while. But rushing shows up in your work, and makes it sloppy. If you get half a page done a day, so be it. Make that half a page count and you'll have done a good day's work. I mean it.

10. Pick one or two people you trust and share. When you're ready, share your work with a trusted reader or two and get away from it for a bit. I have always found doing that makes my work stronger because I can get comments I never expected about stuff that's really important. So don't be afraid to share.

If you have rules for storytelling and want to share them, feel free! Maybe you have rules about what you read? THAT... would be even better.

Writer photo: Alan Weir

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Period Ain't the End of Discussion

A few months shy of my thirteenth birthday, I got my period for the first time. When I told my mother, she slapped my face on both cheeks and said, "That's a custom in our family--so your cheeks will always be red."

She then handed me a sanitary napkin and belt and told me what to do. I remember fumbling around, not liking this unwieldy way of dealing with what should have been simple. I also remember we didn't talk about this new wrinkle in my life very much, other than to say it meant I could get pregnant and needed to be careful (whatever that meant).

My mother was old school and not versed in talking with her kids about sex, so I had to get most of my information at school or from my older sister and other friends. Luckily my sister was cool about sharing her thoughts and experiences with me, but she was seven years older and it wasn't always easy to track her down.

I'm bringing this up because I would have loved to have more information and support about what Anne Frank used to call her "sweet secret." I'm very glad we are a more open society than we used to be, though I know that in other parts of the world, young girls are not getting information that could help them deal with their sexuality and gender.

I resolved when I grew up I would TALK to my kids frankly about sex, and I hope my son would say I kept that promise. It felt scary at first; he was eight when he first asked me what an orgasm was and I have to say I was not prepared for the question. But I did try to answer him matter of factly and give him age-appropriate information that would at least respond to some, if not all of his questions.

The thing I have that my mother did not was a lot of books (and the internet) and suggestions on how to talk to your child. I wish she had been able to access that because it would have helped us both so much. I do remember feeling happy and excited on the day my first period came; and that at least is an indication that the occasion was a good one. All I know is that it should never be an occasion for shame.

If I had any advice at this point besides being frank and friendly, it would be NOT to slap your kid's cheeks if she tells you she got her period. Her cheeks will be red enough.

If you're looking for help about what to say, I found some posts for you:

Talking to Your Kid About Menstruation

5 Tips for Talking with your Daughter About Her Period

When (and how) to Talk to Your Daughter About Periods

Young girl photo: Igor Gorshkov

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Water Dreams

Once in a while, I dream that I am somewhere out in the country with my sister or a friend and we are both in some sort of pond, or swimming hole, and I am about as happy as I've ever been or will be. I don't know what it is about water, or why I crave it so much--I just know I do.

It's not only lakes I crave--hotel pools hold a special place in my heart too, and I've rarely ever met one I didn't like. So on this last Sunday in August, I thought I'd write a little about the hold water has on me and how I'm always chasing it--winter, summer, fall and spring.

My first experience with lakes was at a day camp, and I've probably been hooked ever since. I loved swimming as a child, but the truth is I was never very good at it. I've managed to have a serviceable crawl and backstroke, as well as a decent breaststroke--but sidestroke is my go-to position, mostly because I'm lazy.

There is something about water, wherever I find it, that lifts my heart and spirits when nothing else will--except maybe mountains, and if you put both together I'd like never to leave. So why have I lived most of my life in the city?

Playwriting, I would say, requires it--but I have no regrets about that. It's just that if you want to be in theater, you need to be in a city that respects theater, and I'm very proud to say I do. At the same time, I do think about what it would take to be out of the city, at least summers, and for more than a week or two at a time.

Haven't found the solution, yet, but I will. 

Sharing a couple of pictures of Wisconsin here because they remind me of the Simon and Garfunkle song America. At least that's what's been running through my head all weekend as my husband and I drove through LaCrosse and Pepin.

Reaching through a dream to the water... and back again.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Sharing Uncertainty with Kids: a Parent's Journey

I keep thinking there will be a day when I will look at my phone or the TV screen or drive home and put on the radio and tragedies will stop. Recently, it seems like every other day there is a terrorist event of some sort or another-- and I wince thinking of a parent talking with his or her kids about what we're hearing and seeing in the news.

Yes, life is precarious-- and we tend to forget that in our day to day lives, especially if we have good jobs and mostly safe neighborhoods, which is a great privilege, whether or not we realize it. Explaining tragedy and terrorism to kids though doesn't start (or end) with a grief counselor. And grief and fear have a way of growing the older we get, whether we want them to or not.

This is a really huge chunk of stuff to get our arms around and to tell the truth, I don't feel equipped for it. One thing I have been thinking of in these uncertain times is how to live with uncertainty, which we all do every day, and ever moment. Maybe that's the place to start?

The only way to live uncertainly, I think, is to be alert to the moment and aware of our lives in every breath and step we take. Tall order, especially for someone who likes to imagine other worlds and scenes in her head most of the time. (aka Writer's Disease).

But trying to stay in the present may help us live with uncertain futures better than we would if we were trying to anticipate the future (as if anyone could). That doesn't mean we can't try to prepare, say, by having an emergency stash of water or staying away from texting while we drive or not getting drunk with a guy we don't know well in the back seat of someone's car.

But we also need to take in the moments, and stay in them, because without them life is even more uncertain. Maybe that's how we talk to our kids about what's around the bend--and how to be brave in accepting that we aren't able to see down the road too far in advance--and maybe wouldn't want to, even if we could.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Restaurant Kidz

When I was first starting to date Pete (the man who became my husband), we'd take my son out with us to restaurants. Josh was a friendly little guy who liked walking around to talk to people at other tables.

Pete didn't think this was a good idea. In fact, he let us know it embarrassed him, which I have to say was vexing. I wasn't that good at getting my son to stay in a chair for long periods--and didn't actually think anyone else would be good at it either. We did try telling Josh to stay with us, and that would work for a while--but only for a while.

As he got older, Josh got a bit better at staying in his seat at a restaurant. I never brought along any coloring books, though I did appreciate the restaurants who supply crayons. But crayons don't always keep active boys engaged, either.

My own childhood was very, very different. I don't remember going to many restaurants when I was a toddler, but my mother did take my sister and I on an outing to a New York City coffee shop when I was about six or seven. The older gentleman next to me commented to my mother about how much of a little lady I was at the table.

I remember thinking about how boring it was to be at a restaurant--and wishing I was home. I don't know that I ever did get into restaurants until I was a teenager. My first trips to the International House of Pancakes were fun with friends--especially because I got to order coffee.

Some years ago I read a piece by the food writer M. F. K. Fisher about her love affair with restaurants (the plush chairs, snowy napkins, waiters) -- but I don't think this really reflects the way most children feel. My one idea to make them more interested is to make them cook the meals for ten lunches and dinners in a row. That'll get 'em to appreciate restaurants, I bet. And what about the mothers who cook for them?


Couple of tips for getting kids used to restaurants, if you're interested:

7 Survival Tips for Taking Your Kids to Restaurants

How to Dine Out with Kids and Enjoy It

7 Tips for Taking Little Kids to Restaurants

Boy in restaurant photo: Sarah Stierch 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Room at the Top of the Stairs; My Aunt's Illness

My Aunt Ida was one of the most interesting people I knew as a child. Her clothes were exceptionally glamorous; she and her husband Lou lived in New York City; and they had their own business and were doing really well.

She was funny, fun loving and sophisticated. Everything I wanted to be.

Then Lou got cancer and passed away when Ida was  in her thirties. Sadly, she herself developed a rare and ravaging illness some years later called Pemphigus. It created sores on her skin that wouldn't heal and kept her in bed for months on end. 

I believe it was as painful as it was disfiguring; and we could find no drugs to treat it except a steroid for pain called Cortisone.

Years later, I learned that Chris Stein of the band Blondie contracted the disease, though by the time he did, more treatments were available. My aunt had no such luck. Sometimes she had to be hospitalized and at some point she came to live with us and stayed in my room. My sister and I spent a lot of time with her, and she was always gracious about talking with us. 

I can't honestly remember my aunt emerging from her room at the top of the stairs, which had been my room. I don't recall her eating with us at the table; but  memory doesn't always serve us when someone we love is ill. Maybe it's just that we do not want to remember, and send remembrances away.

I do know there came a time when Aunt Ida got worse and had to go to the hospital - or a nearby nursing home. I remember her crying and begging for my mother to keep her with us. I remember holding back my own tears and praying that somehow God would save her, or that my mother would figure out a way to let her stay.

Unfortunately, my mom wasn't able to care for her sister when things got bad. My aunt went to a hospital first, and then my mother found a long-term care community a few miles from our house where my aunt could live. It seemed pleasant and sunny and the staff seemed kind. Yet I knew my aunt would have given anything to live independently again, on her own. She once made a beautiful sewing basket for our family out of tongue depressors, and we kept it for a long time. We visited her frequently and I remember loving her smile and hating it when she cried.

When I was nine years old, my aunt died in her room at the home. I wasn't there and in fact no one in our family was with her. When I think back on this time, I am haunted by the idea of her being alone at the hour of her death.

I would like to think that today we are better about how people with chronic illnesses are treated, but unless they have really dedicated, committed family members, and the family members have support from friends, family or neighbors, I don't think much has changed. 

As a society, we are afraid of illness and of getting old. We tend to send people away and put them out of sight and out of mind. And that, I have decided, becomes not only their loss--it becomes ours as well. Because just because you are chronically ill doesn't mean you have lost your ability to think, share your stories and love the people you know.

If someone is ill in your family, how do you treat them? How do you want your kids to view them? How do we talk about illness with our children -- and with each other?

I understand it is extremely hard to be a caregiver, and since most women work these days (and most caregivers are women), it's hard for people who are ill or older to live independently in their homes. I think we are at least making strides towards that goal, but I can't help but feel it's not enough.  

I don't know how to get there, but I DO know we need to keep talking to our kids about it. Because if they can learn to stop stigmatizing illness, they'll teach the rest of us how to do that too.

Too late for my beautiful aunt, but not for others struggling now with chronic conditions or illnesses. We need to figure out how to make life better for them--and we can't let those illnesses win.

Reading ideas: