Friday, March 17, 2017

How to celebrate St. Patrick's Day, according to Katherine Clifford Kendrick

Thinking today of my mom, she of the Clifford and Dalton clans. Here are my thoughts from a few years back on this St. Patrick's Day.


And the Rest of the Day to You

It wasn’t until twenty minutes into Zumba that I realized today was St. Patrick’s Day.  I noticed how many green shirts there were in class and had to cogitate on that for a few moments (to be fair, I was doing a tricky salsa step at the same time) before the light dawned.

I asked my mother, wherever she is, to forgive me.

It was not a holiday to be taken lightly in my house. I can still remember my mother giving me a shamrock-covered handkerchief, one of her best, to take with me to school on St. Patrick’s Day. “You can always tell a lady by her handkerchief,” she would say. She had a whole drawerful of handkerchiefs, all beautifully pressed and smelling of Chanel No. 5 and the sweet, pre-smoked tobacco of her Chesterfields. I don’t think I ever saw her blow her nose in anything but a Kleenex, but that was beside the point. To her, the epitome of ladylike behavior was the holiday hanky, the one that showed you were not only Irish, but classy.

I can also remember her teaching me little bits of Irish lore that she thought I could share at school. She had a misinformed idea of what happened at Buder Elementary, but I appreciated the effort. The hayseeds and crackers with whom I spent my grade school years were more interested in pinching people who weren’t wearing green than in hearing a rendition of “Harrigan” that my mother had taught me that morning,  “H-A-double R-I, G-A-N you see, it’s a name that no shame ever has been connected with, Harrigan, that’s me.”

Of even less usefulness was her insistence that I learn the proper way to greet someone on St. Patrick’s Day:  I should say “Top o’ the mornin’ to you,” and the person was to reply, “And the rest o’ the day to you.” She suggested that I try this ethnic charm on my teacher, who year-to-year, was a harried and sour child-hater just slightly above the cracker class herself, one who gave wide berth and the occasional fish-eye to a neurotic little twerp like me.

I never did of the things that my mother suggested.

Instead, I came home in the afternoon, hanky still pressed, song unsung, greeting undelivered. I suppose we ate corned beef and cabbage, yuck, but I don’t really remember that. My Aunt Fran was said to serve only green food on St. Patrick’s Day, including mashed potatoes. My mother thought this was disgusting, as bad as a cake with blue frosting. She trotted out the yellow food coloring to mix in her watery, Miracle Whip-y potato salad, but there was no need to get carried away. I thought green food sounded wonderful and exotic, but I never got to see it for myself.

The most enthusiastic Irish celebrant I ever knew was my godmother, Thelma Kelley (“k-e-l-l-E-y!” she would spell, showing what sort of Kelley she was, and separating her from the déclassé "y-only" crowd). There were two St. Patrick’s Day Parades in St. Louis, the product of a feud between the “true Irish” Hibernian society, whose parade was always on March 17, and the sellouts from the suburbs, who held a big parade on whatever Saturday fell before the holiday. There was a great deal of finger pointing between the two groups, and dark mutterings about IRA connections, but Thelma rose above the fray. She attended both parades, arriving early with a lawn chair, and, in later years, her walker.

As for me, I’m not fond of crowds, so I usually pass on the parade action. I think beer tastes like liquid Wonder Bread, and I’d be happy to drink whiskey instead, but I’d need to do it five feet from a place where I could lie down quietly as soon as I did. So the holiday has waned in importance to me, especially since the values I love most in the Irish – garrulousness, eccentricity, the ability to laugh at oneself, and a willingness to look people in the eye – are all in somewhat short supply where I'm living now.
Still, I thought about Thelma today, and my mother, and the song. I sent out a silent “Top o’ the mornin’ to you” to both of them. And I swear, just under the salsa music, I could hear them wishing the rest of the day to me, too.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Food, romance, and some truly creepy vintage valentines

Seems like a good time for a repost of this particular essay. Imagining the byzantine world of the food-related valentine fad is a pleasant escape for these byzantine times. Enjoy the yam, the herring, and the whole crazy gang.


Strangest Valentines Ever: The Yam, the Herring and the Abused Cow

Mary Katherine’s junior high class decided to exchange Valentines this year. “Ironically, of course,” she informed me, but I didn’t care. I’ve always been a big fan of Kid Valentine’s Day.  Couple Valentine’s always seemed highly smarmy to me, all that dining out and acting happy, but I Love Love Love the children's version, including cutting out red paper hearts and finding the doilies buried under  the sprinkles, the cookie cutters and other seldom-used cooking supplies. When I was small, people were not jumbo-sized as they are now, and all we exchanged were paper valentines. Now, every card comes with candy attached, and that’s why none of us can squeeze into our desks anymore.

But I digress.

I implored Mary Katherine to let me research vintage valentines online, so she could be even more ironic than the average Scooby-Doo-Valentine-buying tween. She relented, I think just to please me, and we found some doozies: a blonde mermaid insisting that there was “nothing fishy” about her love; sledding kids declaring there was “snow doubt” that they wanted the recipient to be their valentine; a ponytailed teen, lying prone, telephone in hand, somehow rhyming “yak” and “it’s a fact” that she wants U to be her valentine. I was in heaven.

Then I found the strange valentines, the ones that were clearly made the day the office staff went out for lunch and had too many cocktails, or perhaps when one of them just snapped at all the stupid rhymes. Perhaps the artist was simply a victim of his own success. One day, feeling hungry, he came up with giant, romantic fruits, declaring they’d be “a peach of a pair.” He followed that up with a bowl of salty snacks and the line, “I’ll pop a corny question and ask you to be my valentine.”

Perhaps they were huge hits. The public loved them. The boss demanded more food-related valentines. The artist was stuck. Then, in a fit of desperation, he created this:
 An orange-fleshed tuber in a valentine?  Hey, it worked with the bowl of popcorn. For the record, I have to tell you that this yam frightened Mary Katherine, and she insisted that his cane was menacing. I retorted that it was a walking stick, not a cane, and that the yam was probably best buds with Mr. Peanut.  When he wasn’t sweet-talking lady yams, he and Mr. P. probably took long strolls down the boulevard, stunted arm in stunted arm.  I imagined the yam had been saving up for a monocle.

But back to our desperate artist. The boss accepted the yam-entine, grudgingly, so now where should he turn? Why, to oily fish, of course:
 Our love can be pickled, our love can be smoked, but it will last forever, said this genius card.

By this point, I imagine that the boss was getting angry. No one wants a valentine like this, he shouted.  Go back, literally, to the drawing board.

And then, our artist created it:  a valentine that combines cruelty, red meat and love in a perfect trifecta of Valentine’s devotion:
Did the boss fall for it?  I like to think that the artist was carried around the office on the shoulders of his adulatory co-workers, and that he eventually married the boss’ daughter, took over the company, and sold it to the Japanese in 1965 for one million dollars.

Or something like that. Happy Valentine's Day, by the way.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Impermanent permanence, and other thoughts on food

I write about food. I also write, at least lately, about family farms, Oriental rug merchants, and a Somali refugee who became a college professor. Writing about a bunch of different things is the lot of a freelance writer, after all. But I always come back to food: what’s trendy, what’s delicious, what’s better for you, what’s deceptively easy to make but impressive-looking enough for the potluck, what’s the next formerly exotic global cuisine that’s about to take all your refrigerator shelves. Just about every week, I interview a food trend expert or a hot new chef or someone who just opened up a storefront to sell sriracha-vodka-infused doughnuts, or something equally off-the-wall.

Because I write so much about food, and talk to so many chefs about their work, people assume that I must love, love, love to eat in restaurants. I recently interviewed a celebrated food reporter over lunch at a local spot. She tossed out name after name of popular eatery, wondering if I’d liked the toast stacks at Bachelor Farmer before they stopped using the toast racks, if I preferred Nashville Hot to traditional fried chicken at Revival or if I had, like her, simply swooned over the Vidalia onion tortellini at Spoon and Stable. I am often stupidly honest, so I found myself saying, “Sorry, haven’t been there” to each of her increasingly frustrated queries. Finally I confessed: I don’t eat out, not really. She looked at me as if I’d just confessed I was one of those “Twilight” vampires who doesn’t eat at all.

“What do you DO?” she asked. “I eat at home, I eat stuff I cook, you know … I just eat. I pretty much prepare everything I consume, usually from scratch, and a lot of stuff I’ve grown in my garden, things I’ve fermented or brewed …” I trailed off. She looked taken aback, as if I’d just confessed that I shot a bear every October and ate off it until it started to rot in spring. I shrugged.

It’s not that I don’t like food, because, take a look at me, it’s clear that I do. But all the fuss and bother and theater of eating out is wasted on me. I don’t particularly like being waited on. If I’m eating a meal in a restaurant, I’m usually wondering what’s going on in the kitchen, which always seems like the more fun place to be. And I can never really get myself away from thinking that I’m spending quite a bit of money for something I’d probably enjoy more if I made it myself, and for something that – let’s be honest here – I’m going to digest and excrete in not too short a time.

My interviewee’s frustration got me thinking. Most people eat out quite a bit, or eat food that’s been prepared for them, and that’s their “food experience.”. For me, it’s something different, and it often has very little to do with the ingredients themselves or the way they’ve been prepared, but with the intention behind them.

Here’s an example: a couple years ago, one of my children fell upon some hard times. A guy, a rift, a stumble … suddenly the world got very dark for her, and she ended up back at home, healing. In the early days of this crisis, I had dropped by a friend’s house on a quick logistical errand – returning a pot, picking up a book, something mundane. Standing at the front door for the thirty-minute chat that could never occur on the sofa because I was “in a hurry,” I told her about the very rough patch currently being navigated at our house. She responded with kind words, a hug and a promise of prayers. I left, momentarily buoyed. Then she got out her soup pot and went to work.

The next day, I had encouraged and prodded and cajoled my girl enough to extract a promise to “talk to someone,” who had blessedly fit us into her schedule. She opened the front door for an appointment that was filling both of us with dread. She stopped short and turned around. “There’s something here,” she said in that flat, toneless voice. We looked. It was a basket worthy of Red Riding Hood. Inside was a tureen of chicken noodle soup, fresh bread, a box of calm-inducing tea. There was an encouraging note from my friend. My girl looked at me in wonder. “She hardly knows me. She cooked me food.”

I blinked away tears and tried to explain. “She’s a good person. She’s a mom. Also, she was 19 years old once, too. She remembers what that can be like.” We brought the basket in the house. We went to the appointment. My girl felt better, having been listened to by someone wise. We came home. We ate the soup. Sitting together, my girl kept peering into her bowl. “She chopped these vegetables for me. She cooked these noodles.” Her amazement was complete – that someone had thought she was worth the effort, that someone had sent love to her in such a practical and nourishing way. Yes, she was digesting it already, and it would move through her body and be gone, but the love would stay. Impermanent food, made with care and delivered at the right time, had taken up a permanent place in her broken and battered soul. She will never forget her wonder when she discovered that basket on the front porch, and she will always feel the warmth of that broth filled with goodness.

That’s what food can do. And that’s why I write about it.

Monday, October 24, 2016

That can't have been three years ago

My very good friend Olivia asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for the Common App for college. While I am absolutely positive that she can't be a day older than five, she seems to think she is 17. Worse, she somehow believes she's old enough to go away to college.

I struggled through my shock at this turn of events and relied on a writer's best friend -- self plagiarization. I cribbed heavily from the post below, which I wrote three years ago, from her recommendation for high scool.  I wrote a new ending, though, and I'll share it here: "Do I need to say it? I suppose I will. Any college which accepts this young woman is getting a gift. She’s not a sparkly, overwrapped gift that promises much and delivers little. She is a wonder, a delight, and a gift that will make your campus a better place – truer, deeper and wiser. Lucky you, to spend four years with this amazing young woman."


To the Admissions Office at De LeSalle High School

One of my favorite people in the world, Olivia Louise, asked me to write her a recommendation for high school admission. Once I got done, I realized that I wanted to share it, because she really is a person worth knowing, and should probably enjoy a wider fan base than she currently does. So here goes:

I still can’t remember the first time I met Olivia. It’s as if she materialized in our house, went off to play Barbies with my daughter, and, in many ways, never left, thank goodness. Over the years, I’ve served her thousands of dishes of mac and cheese, gone to see her performances in school plays (always stellar), noticed when her teeth fell out, sympathized when she got braces and celebrated when they came off. I’ve ferried her all over town, to day camps and drama classes and in between one sporting event and another (she is seriously sporty). Olivia has spent a lot of time being a passenger in my car, and that alone is a testament to her strength of character.

The hands-down best times she and I ever spent together were when my daughter, who is six months older than she is, was already in half-day kindergarten, and Olivia, still a preschooler, would walk up to the grade school with me to pick up my daughter for lunch and playtime. Olivia would get to hold the dog’s leash, all by herself, and she would walk by my side, telling me what was on her mind. I loved, really loved, hearing what was on her mind.

A part of me, the big, dumb part, or maybe the hopeful part, believes that these walks happened just a week or two ago, and that Olivia is still waiting across the alley for me. All I need to do is walk up the cowpath she and Mary created between our two yards, help her on with boots and mittens, and we’re set for our walk up to school.

But of course this isn’t true. She is taller than me, and smarter than me (always was, I have to admit) and ready, now, for high school. Despite all those changes, she is still someone whose company I enjoy just as much as I did on what I now must admit were long-ago walks.

Last year, our family went to Beijing to visit my oldest daughter, who was studying there. It was an arduous journey that none of us particularly wanted to make, and one of the few things that made it bearable was that Olivia came along with us. The truth is, we are a high-strung, excitable bunch, even worse when we’re all together, or when we’re traveling, and Olivia calms us down. She is the still, strong center to which we cling, whether we realize we’re doing it or not.

It was a better trip, because of her – her clarity, her observations, her willingness to do crazy things like fling herself in a metal sled down the side of the Great Wall of China. It was an outrageous thing to do, and Olivia and I, both Olympic-class worriers, were probably equally afraid of such a stunt. We’ve both spent our lifetimes thinking about all the things that can ever go wrong, and then working very hard to prevent them from happening. The difference between Olivia and me is that I rode back down on the babyish gondola, and she picked up the sled and went down the side of the Great Wall. That’s how brave she is, and that’s one of the many reasons I admire her so much.

Three other reasons I admire her (and these are just the top-of-the-head ones, I could come up with dozens upon further reflection): 1) She sees everything, I mean everything, but she doesn’t feel a need to comment. She just knows, and that’s enough. And I know when she knows, and sometimes that's kind of fun and sometimes it's a little bit scary. 2) She has been through a lot, more than the fair share for an average eighth grader, and, perhaps because of that, or just because she’s wonderful anyway, she is one of the most resilient people I know. 3) She does not toss away her smiles and laughs for free; they must be earned. This makes me try even harder to please Olivia, and when I do – whether it’s by pulling the banana bread out of the oven at the exact moment she wants it, or by getting all the logistics right and getting her to the place she needs to be at the precise instant she needs to be there – I feel as if I’ve earned a medal, and it’s not in Worrying, but in something really worthwhile, Olivia-Pleasing.

In some ways, she’s been a grown-up ever since I’ve met her, and it’s been interesting to watch her get older and become more of a fit with her actual outside self. She was one heck of a wise five-year-old, and she’s a wicked-wise fourteen-year-old. She’s the sort of person who won’t necessarily get any smarter or wiser as the years go by, because that would probably be impossible. Instead, she’ll just become herself,more and more, and that will be an amazing thing to behold.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Coming out & correcting grammar: Your Welcome

My mother was a high school graduate. My father was a high school dropout. We were not -- in any sense of the term -- educated people. So when a close cousin of the Clifford clan made it through college and got an English degree, it was Big News. Her graduation was followed by the equally big news that she had become, in just four short years, the smartest person in the room, at least any of the rooms located in Ferguson, Missouri. Twelve years older than me, she took to interrupting my grade-school self at family parties, pointing out my incorrect use of a singular pronoun or a plural verb.  I retreated to my room, thought dark thoughts, and planned how I'd do things differently if I ever managed to escape Missouri, and her.

Part of that plan is still in place today: I don't correct anyone's spoken grammar or pronunciation, ever, purely in recognition of my own basic humanity and the awareness that I, daily, am heaping up a pile of error that reaches to the rooftops. Even when someone asks me to proofread something they've written, I aim for a good mix of kindness to go with the accuracy.

But like so many people who, faced with anonymity, go a little bit rogue, I have to confess that I've penciled over typos in library books, written "Caesar!" in Sharpie on laminated menus, and defaced more than a small number of school and work posters.  My inner Delinquent-Grammarian strolled the halls of Southwest High School a few years ago, and this was the result, all in support of Coming Out with the proper possessive. Happy Coming Out Day, by the way, and keep your pencils handy.


Your Welcome: The Grammar Vandal Strikes Southwest High

Yes, officer, I did deface that poster in the halls of my daughter’s high school. But no jury in the world, as least one that knew the difference between possessives and contractions, would ever convict me.

Here’s what happened: Mary Katherine and I were killing time at intermission during a play. We saw a lovely four-color poster for National Coming Out Day (October 11! It just seems to come earlier every year. And I haven’t even wrapped my National Coming Out Gifts, or finished hanging the festive National Coming Out Day garlands!)

The poster encouraged everyone to celebrate that day by wearing a “name badge that identifies you’re orientation.”

Of course you can’t blame me for whipping out a ballpoint and changing the “you’re” to “your.” And yes, I did add just a teeny bit of editorial comment: “Good grammar is appropriate for all orientations.” Golly, that will learn ‘em.

Mary Katherine, by the way, thought all of this was great. It reminded me of one of her favorite games when she was small, which she invented and named, “Playing Hurdmans.” She’d loved the play, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” and she was especially taken with the smoking, cursing, bullying delinquents of the piece, the Hurdmans. We’d finish Sunday breakfast and she’d beg, “Let’s Play Hurdmans.” The game involved her acting out crimes – setting fire to the cat was a popular one, as I recall – and me reacting with shock and horror. Even then, this girl knew that villains get the best parts.

So there we were in the hallway, me feeling like a cross between a pinch-faced librarian and Zorro, her laughing and egging me on. The minute I’d finished with my egregious act of vandalism, she turned to me, eyes shining. “Let’s deface something else before Act Two!” she urged, grinning wickedly. Turns out her orientation has been a closeted poster-defacer all these years, and it took this one bold move for her to come out.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Sixty years, more or less

Today would be my friend Joel's 60th birthday. Or perhaps he would have started lying about his age, so perhaps it would just be his 55th.

When he was alive, he was always full of surprises. And he still seems to have a few tricks up his sleeve around this time of year. I'm waiting for my annual "random" outreach from someone who loved him and wants to talk (see last year's post below). In the meantime, I'll try to do some Joel-like things today: laugh so loudly that other people turn their heads, make some wonderfully barbed observation to a pal, or just look somebody straight in the eye and not be afraid, not one little bit.


Birthday greetings (from the afterlife)

The first time it happened, I thought the timing was well, intense. But when it happened again this year, I just had to smile. If there was ever anyone who could have the sheer life force to keep popping up two and-a-half years after his own death to remind me to wish him a happy birthday, well, it's Joel Hershey, my now-gone but still-and-always friend. I used to tell him he could arrive on the moon and run into someone he knew, someone who loved him. One of my strongest memories is being interrupted as we walked together or stood in a lobby. "Joel Hershey," someone would shout, then trot to catch up with him. I can see myself standing to the side, watching him fling his big wide arms around yet another person who loved him and was happy to connect with him. They always thought it was random. Honestly, I'm beginning to wonder.

What I know for sure, after this week, is that he's still connected, he's still reaching out, and he's still driving me (just a little bit) crazy.

His birthday is August 12. He died October 23, 2012, in a way that was sudden and dramatic (like him), but also a little bit boring (very much unlike him). At the bottom of this post, I've included what I wrote and shared when I first heard the news. It's the post that keeps on giving, because it's the one that keeps popping up in Google searches whenever someone goes looking for him. And then they look for me. And, guess what, it just happens to be mid-August.

The first message showed up in my inbox on August 15 last year. It was written by Dave R., who said, "Hi Julie, I'll start off by saying you don't know me. But since moving back to San Diego early 2013, I had wondered a number of times why I hadn't seen Joel around. I figured he met someone, fell in love and finally left the area. I couldn't imagine any other reason why I wouldn't have run into him at the places I'd seen him regularly in the past. So in my half-stupor of just waking up this morning, he popped into my head, and I decided to Google him. And then the news appeared. I'm here a few hours later, still somewhat in shock that he's gone ... Denver, the summer time I think it was, I happened to run into him, of all people. He was staying at his brother's place, and I think his mom had moved there not too long before, if I remember correctly. That was the first time we really talked about his family or much about his background. He showed me pictures of his mom and her new cat. Things that we never would have discussed before. It was a nice change, to talk with him from the perspective of two middle-aged guys instead of whatever we'd spent time discussing 20 years earlier. 

 "I told him I was thinking about moving back to San Diego after I finished school, and we said we should get together again if that happened. Which is why I'd been wondering why we never bumped into each other again. And here I sit at my computer, writing to you, because your "Darling" post was really touching, and it gave me a taste of the Joel that the people he was closest to knew. Thank you for posting that. It was almost like a nice way to put memories of him back up on the shelf and let them go. It's funny how fate happens, how I was allowed one more time to run into him in a place that was not home to either of us, for one last, meaningful chat. Now I wish I'd gotten to know him better. I'm really sorry for your loss. Thanks for listening."

And then this year, on August 17, I received this message from Sheryl G.: "Dear Julie, I went to Wash U with Joel Hershey. We had not been in touch for years but some weeks ago I found myself thinking of him and did the Google thing. I was horrified to realize what had happened. I kept roaming around on Google and came across your blog. Thanks so much for the great photos. I could remember easily what it would be like to be near Joel, I heard his distinctive laugh, and his voice making a smart-ass but on-target crack. I am not sure how we lost contact, he moved so far away and in my twenties I was not as mature as he was in a lot of ways. I loved that he was reliable and steady. I don't remember contacting him when my mother passed away in the early 90's, but he showed up at our family home in Columbia Missouri, unannounced, after the funeral during the lonely time when the friends and relatives have just left. He spent the day, he was helpful, he was diverting. He was Joel. I hope you are doing well. Thank you again for the wonderful post."

I'm not quite sure what to make of this, so I decided to write about it instead, always a good plan for me when I don't know what I think. This has, for me, been a year of letting go. I've lost a number of things I thought were important to me. Ways in which I've always defined myself have vanished, and relationships that were a true place of comfort have shifted and suffered inexorably. I am looking around and wondering what's next, and it's not at all clear.

And then I get an email, and I think about Joel. I hope that perhaps I am not as alone as I feel right now, appearances to the contrary. And all I can say is, Oh Darling.



I’m holding my own personal Irish wake tonight, cheap box wine and all. Like most wakes, it has less to do with the deceased than with my own specific experience of loss. And for that, I know, my friend Joel Hershey, who died yesterday, would forgive me. “You and your Irish and your self-pity,” he would snarl. “Didn’t you have a great aunt a thousand years ago who was a professional mourner?”

Well yes, as a matter of fact, I did.

For all the time I knew him, I was always a little bit afraid of what Joel was going to do, and I guess that’s why I stuck so closely by his side for twenty-five years. I wanted to see what would happen next, even as I was holding my breath and squeezing my eyes shut and peeking through my fingers. He was, and always will be, my bad boy, and that’s just one of the many reasons I loved him.

Maritz Motivation Company Picnic, July 1987

 Annual No-Hope Dessert Classic Miniature Golf Tournament, 1991

We met in the most sterile and confining of corporate environments, back when he wore a tie and I wore pantyhose, and yet he found a way to poke his fingers through the bars of our cages and cause mayhem of the sort I could not resist. I followed along behind, the rules-obeying girl who finds herself swept away in naughtiness. And, as it turned out, in goodness. Jesus, that man was good to me – when I was heartbroken, when I was frightened, when I was unemployed – there were many nights when Joel was the thing that kept me from the edge. And now he’s gone over that very edge himself, and I keep wishing I had one more night to stand in line at the TKTS booth with him and hear him argue with the clerk about which are, actually, the best seats in the house. Him and his first balcony, center -- just try to get him to sit anywhere else.
These days, I am a nondescript woman who lives a nondescript life in a nondescript part of the world. I am invisible on good days and contemptible on bad ones. I am reminded, sometimes hourly, of all the ways I will never Be Enough. And yet, when I was with Joel, I unclenched enough to just be myself, the one who could never follow directions or understand how to split a bill or say no to that next drink at the happy hour. Lost or dumb or drunk, it didn’t matter to him. Or if it did, he loved me anyway.

The past two summers, we’ve met for a totally illicit and utterly impractical week of New York theater together. This picture below is from this past July, the day I dragged him to see the taping of the Seth Rudetsky radio show in midtown. I normally take a terrible picture. I tense up and worry that I’m going to ruin it for everyone, that my frozen, frightened and mud-ugly face will forever make the picture unusable. Look at how relaxed and happy I am, next to him. O Joel. 

The last meal we ate together was at Zen Palace on 9th Avenue. We'd met Mary Katherine at her Acting Workshop and were heading towards the neighborhood of the Brooks Atkinson, where we'd see our show for the evening, Peter and the Starcatchers.  See our show. For us, that was the phrase that brought everything into focus, and made us giddy with the thought that we were about to slip out of the grim fantasy of daily life and tumble into the true reality, the one that can only be  experienced with a Playbill on one's lap.

It was time to pay the bill, and I extracted a few sweaty dollars from the recesses of my cargo shorts. "Figure out what I owe you," I'd said, handing them over, and he repeated what he always said to me when we were splitting a bill: "Darling, it would be so easy to cheat you, but you'd never even realize it was happening, so what fun would that be?"

I am angry with myself right now, because he called me from the road, and I missed his call, and I kept meaning to call back. All this past weekend, as I stood at the edges of playing fields or stood still in traffic or stood at the stove grinding out yet another meal I wasn’t at all interested in eating myself, I was thinking, “I have to call Joel. Maybe he’s in Pocatello, Idaho, and we can sing about the Princess Theater, like the last time we did when he was there. That’s next on my list.”

I never got to the next thing on my list.  I never called.

And he died in Boise, not even in Pocatello.

I’m also angry with him for going out like such an establishment tool, just quietly passing into the next life while he was puttering away on his laptop in this one. How respectable. How boring. How unlike him. Me, I plan for my body to be found with a 20-year-old pool boy with whom I have been romantically linked. I want everyone, everyone, to be buzzing with gossip at my funeral, in between enormous gulps of champagne. I want to make a scene.

But I’ll be somewhere else by then. I’ll be with Joel. He and his friend Jon Prel, long ago dead from AIDS, used to talk about how they hoped there would be good lighting in Hell, how we naughty kids could sit up front, fanning ourselves and continuing to make catty remarks about everyone we knew.

Get some extra pink gel on that follow spot for me, Joel. And do save me a seat in first balcony center, darling.

Friday, July 8, 2016

When the grownups weren’t watching

I went to the theater last week. There were no tickets and no playbill. The audience was, entirely, just me and two other people. This wasn’t a mistake about the date or time, or a marketing/pr failure on the part of the new intern. Everything was perfectly fine. In fact, it was a little bit more than fine. The evening was, I’d have to say, one of the purest theater experiences I’ve ever had – full of heart and soul, bursting with youthful energy and generously sprinkled with theater magic.

This underground performance took place in the “wine box” theater (it’s painted a nice merlot instead of black) at Minneapolis’ Youth Performance Company (YPC). This was a farewell mashup--an unauthorized final presentation by the cast of YPC’s Young Artists’ Council “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.” The nine-person cast, mostly high schoolers and a couple college-aged young people, had rehearsed the show for six weeks and had just finished presenting it for the past three weekends. Their final show had been Saturday, and they’d already struck the set.

But, even after the last show, it seemed they didn’t want to be done. So they Snapchatted, texted and arrived at a solution--a one-night-only version that would require each cast member to move one chair over, into the part of the person who’d been sitting next to them during the show’s fanciful depiction of a middle school spelling bee. The young man who played the unhinged principal became a neurotic pigtailed blonde with a speech impediment. The beefy parolee doing community service became the prim woman running the show. The girl who’d played the “I Speak Six Languages” whiz kid now became the Little League Pitcher whose unfortunate arousal at the sight of an opponent’s dishy sister both sealed his doom and set him up for the funniest song ever written about—well, if you know the show, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

My 18-year-old daughter, who had been loving her role as the neurotic, lisping obsessive-compulsive, was now going to be performing as the home-schooled goofball boy who falls out of his chair, can’t keep his hands out of his nostrils, and who falls into a trance whenever it’s time to spell the name of another exotic rodent.

When she had told me she needed the car that night, and when I heard about the plan, I asked if this was something which might require a bit of an audience. Could I come? “Sure,” she shrugged, “up to you.” By 7:30 p.m., the audience had swelled to three: her game-for-anything father and one of her friends (“I told her I was bored, so she picked me up on the way to the theater”), arranged on folding chairs, facing the cast. It soon became clear that this entire “audience” would be needed to fill in during the early-show audience-participation section. We gamely agreed, and so we began with all of us “cast” facing empty chairs, ones we returned to when we were disqualified for not being able to spell words like “hemidemisemiquaver.” Or, in one case, “cow.” 

I struck out early and moved back to my seat, an audience-of-one observing the great switcheroo they were pulling off. Since they’d already returned all the show’s costumes, they dressed for their new parts themselves, some with great care (the new Little Leaguer seemed to have found a uniform), and sometimes not (the former Barfeé, now a spelling-whiz girl, tied a shirt around his legs to indicate a skirt). I had gotten to know these kids over the past weeks, and it was a wonder to see them doing something fresh with material they knew so well. Seeing a 6’3” deep-voiced young man pull at his imaginary pigtails and lisp convincingly was amazing. I noticed that the kid who’d played the wholesome straight arrow had unleased dark reserves of weirdness to play the lugubrious, tortured Barfeé. They weren’t only as good in their new roles as well as their old ones, I realized. These kids, undeterred by physicality or gender or even common sense, had range.

What I loved most, though, was how persistently they kept at the task they’d set out for themselves. They were knocking around this small merlot-colored space, with no adults telling them what to do, and they were focused beyond measure, occasionally policing themselves when a few inevitably lost focus. “You are not as important as this song right now,” the music director, who’s heading to Boston Conservatory in the fall, sternly told them when the chatter got out of hand during a solo. They all shut up. Well, most of them, anyway.

A few points became evident as the show unspooled: probably in spite of themselves, they had each learned how to spell the crazy-difficult words they’d memorized with their original lines. If the newly cast actor messed up a spelling, there was a quick and aggrieved “It’s ‘ie, not ei!’” from the “old” actor. Also, they clearly had been watching each other closely. Some of them, it seemed, had been harboring ideas about how certain roles should be played, and they, in the parlance of sports, left it all on the floor in their attempt to find something new in a character. Voice, dance, acting, interacting – they were ready for an audience much bigger, but seemed unphased by the six-palmed applause they were receiving from their tiny but appreciative cadre of observers. What impressed me most was that our presence seemed utterly superfluous. They were doing this for themselves and themselves alone, because they loved the show, they loved each other, and they just weren’t  yet ready for their final rendition of the misspellers’ exit song, “Goodbye.”

It was the sort of utterly ephemeral last word that could only be rendered by the young. Imagine famous Equity actors gathering in a toasty-warm, third-floor space on a beautiful summer night, acting out something that would never be seen by critics or industry connections, just to please themselves. Sure, these kids had the marvelous surfeit of time that grownups envy, and they weren’t currently worried about babysitters, mortgages, low back pain, or any of the million other things that, we adults tell ourselves, keeps us from living out our passions.

I found myself admiring them, and envying them, just a little. There aren’t many things I do purely for love, solely for the mere joy of doing them. These kids had taken it upon themselves to find a way to keep the magic going a little longer, and damned if I didn’t find myself tearing up, along with them, when it came time to sing “Goodbye.”