A revelation… and its aftermath.

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I don’t know how long it’s been. Maybe a week, but I don’t think it’s been that long.

I attempted to do something I had neither the skill nor the experience to accomplish. Once I started, I felt as though another hand had taken control of my own.

I wanted to paint a selfie I had taken of myself with my cat, Hermione, who passed away last month. In this picture, Hermione is very prominent; I can be seen in the background, and only in shadows.

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There were a number of reasons I didn’t think I could pull it off:

  1. My only previous attempt to paint a cat had failed miserably.
  2. I’ve never been good at painting anything in shadows. In fact, I stink at anything dark; a friend once called me a member of the Kodachrome School of painters, since everything I produce looks like a flash cube exploded in front of it.
  3. In order to paint this in any size bigger than a post-it note, I was going to break a cardinal rule of portraiture: never paint your subjects larger than life size.
  4. In the original picture, there were certain details I could not make out: my left eye, the left border of my nose, the actual contour of my chin. My right eye was nothing but a shadowy smudge. My lips were visible, but nearly colorless. Only my glasses showed up in any great detail.

Common sense should have told me to chuck the whole idea, but I decided to go ahead and paint the picture.

Normally, at the start of a portrait, I cheat. I put the original photograph into Power Point, and project a table on top of it, so I can graph out the details. Then I draw a graph on the canvas, and proceed to draw the picture, using the fields in the graph as a rough guide, so I don’t make noses too big, or eyes too far apart. It’s not a foolproof method… my fields are big enough to allow for approximation… but it’s a help.

This time, I did my preliminary sketch, but I was so afraid to put paint on canvas that I kept adding more and more detail. Soon, the shadows and values of the pencil drawing were so developed that they resembled a detailed grisaille. Instead of covering my pencil drawing in black and white paint, I just covered it with a coat of liquid medium and decided to go right into color.

I swear I felt as though a greater power were speaking to me, and guiding me as I started painting my face.

“Paint the lights and shadows. Don’t think about the forms. Look for the darkest shadows. Where do they fall? Paint them in. What colors do the shadows produce? Are they purple? Reddish? Blue? Don’t make them pretty. Make them real.”

“Now for the lights. Which ones shine brightest? Which are more subtle? How do they flow?”

I didn’t look to see whether a particular ray of light belonged to my nose or my cheek… I painted it as a beam, as an active streak of energy. I saw shapes not as they corresponded to physical features, but as they resulted from the interaction of lights and shadows.

When I started painting my glasses, I suddenly saw how very little of the gold appeared yellow. It reflected light, and looked much more silvery than I would have expected. Even the little rubber nose guard had a light play of its own; it’s the kind of detail I would normally not have even seen, let alone incorporated into the picture.

I don’t know how long it took me to cover “my side” of the canvas with paint… but when I was done, I stepped back and I was floored.

It was me. Without detailed eyes, I could see exactly where my figure was looking. Without definition, I had captured the contours of my nose… my chin. I could make out the bone structure under my brows, the muscles above my lips.

It was the best damned portrait I had ever painted in my life… and all I had concentrated on was the simple play of lights.

Painting Hermie was simple and quick. Much of her face was white, but the front of it had a warm tone, and her cheeks were bluer. I was able to achieve these effects with an underpainting, then slashed on pure titanium white on top to suggest the growth of actual fur. Her tabby markings were easy; I just loaded a fan brush with white, black, yellow ochre and burnt umber, and the colors mixed themselves right on the canvas.

The only feature which I painted deliberately and consciously was Hermie’s eye; I followed the lights and shadows that appear in the original picture, but made the color much more vibrant, as I remember it. The effect worked; Hermione’s eye is unmistakably the focal point of the picture.

The entire painting was completed so quickly and with so little paint that if you look closely, you can still see some of the graphite grid marks hiding under the pigment.

Am I going to add paint to correct that?

I wouldn’t dare. I didn’t paint that picture; Someone Else did, manipulating my hands as surely as I manipulated the brushes.

I spent at least a day staring at the picture, and asking myself, “what have I learned?”

The answer was simple. “Follow the flow of light.”

The flow.

Movement.

Don’t paint static shapes, or figures.

Paint the movement of the lights.

It’s just like when I studied acting.

You don’t act “words.” You act “action.” Movement. What is your character DOING? How and why is your character DOING the action of the moment?

The revelation came.

Art is action.

Action is energy.

Action moves.

Art moves.

I went back and looked at the paintings I had produced two weeks ago, and compared them to the photographs from which they’d been sourced.

I was appalled.

In painting what I thought should be there, instead of what the camera had actually captured, I’d thrown four cartoons on canvas, instead of four people I really love.

The painting of my son was the worst, and I realized it when I looked at the ray of light on the bridge of his nose. The actual ray of light had been angled; by painting it straight, I had not only misrepresented the shape of his nose but its length.

I also saw that I’d completely left out the ray of light over his upper lip; to put it in, I’d have to raise his moustache and shorten his nose, confirming what the previous ray of light had revealed.

Next to him, my boy Derek looked better, but his hairline was wrong and his cheeks were too dark. Also, he looked bearded; Derek should have nothing more than a shadow, a stubble. You should see hair trying to grow in, not asking to be cut.

It took me two days to rework them, but this is what I have now:

alandboofinal

Then I proceeded to “fix” my daughter and her husband.

Ben’s nose wasn’t right. It looked cartoonish, like a little potato. His eyes weren’t right either; they were SO defined that he seemed to be wearing eyeliner. Amanda had fared better, but her head was too round, her forehead too short, and her lips were too dark; this is a girl who puts on Chapstik and feels like a painted lady.

Again, I went back and looked for the lights. Not only did Ben need a light above his upper lip; he needed an upper lip! In the original picture, you could see it vaguely under his moustache; evidently, I had just plopped dark hair under his nose and proceeded to fuss about his teeth.

In order to give him a lip, I had to raise his nose, and noticed two things I hadn’t seen before: he had the tiniest reflection of light on the side of his nose, which defined its width, and he had a very specifically shaped shadow surrounding his nostrils, which gave orientation to his face.

His eyes were too big, and the area surrounding them had neither shadows nor creases; by concentrating on the light play, I was able to paint features which were much more realistic, and infinitely more attractive.

It took two days to get them to where they are now.

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I think I’m finished with these three paintings.

Churchill once said it took two people to paint a picture, one to do the work, and someone else to say, “Stop messing with it!” I’m hoping to hear that voice; I’m tired of waking up at three and thinking, “the right cheek needs a glaze of umber.”

Also, I miss writing!

I bought a few more canvasses yesterday and a couple of good brushes, but I’m scared to death to start on any new pictures. Painting is so all-encompassing, and I’m so bloody obsessive!

But I’d hate to quit now, just as I’m finally getting better.

And there’s something transformative about connecting with your muse.

Retirement is wasted on the old.

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I believe there’s a statement that’s just as true as “youth is wasted on the young.”

Retirement is wasted on the old.

I’ve always said that my father’s retirement killed my mother. For years, his profession had been everything; he practiced medicine all day and studied medical books at night. Suddenly, he found himself with nothing to practice and no reason to study; he didn’t know what to do with himself.

He would follow Mama around the house like a forlorn old mutt, whining for attention. He knew she liked to play cards, so he would always have a deck in his hands; she gave in often and played, even though she was much sharper than he was, and could have beaten him at every game with very little effort.

“I wish he’d find something else to do,” she’d whisper to me. “I’ve been alone at home for years; my days had a pattern. Mornings were for housework, afternoons were for sewing, and evenings were for my novelas. Now, I have to stop what I’m doing and entertain him; it’s driving me crazy.”

I retired before Jeff did, so when my days became free, there was no one here at home to entertain me.

I applied for two or three jobs I didn’t get, hoping to recapture a sense of worth, and I accepted the opportunity to do some freelance work for a friend, so I could feel my life had some purpose.

It didn’t take up very much time, though, so I spent a huge portion of my first year as a retiree playing Scrabble on my computer.

I also started my blog, but I only wrote intermittently. Writing for my own pleasure felt almost masturbatory; it had been too many years since I had allowed myself to spend daylight hours gratifying myself by expressing my own ideas. Publishing a post, while necessary, was as embarrassing as standing at a window naked and yelling out, “I’m having an orgasm!”

Now there’s an image I want to remove from my mind!

So I kept playing Scrabble… and watching TV…and deteriorating both physically and mentally.

Then, a few months ago, I got the itch to blog again… and discovered that there was a community of people who wrote and published something every day, shamelessly and happily. I decided to shuck my inhibitions and try it for a few days… then a few weeks… and with a few days off here and there, I’ve been blogging every day for nearly three months.

You know what? I may still have the body of an old woman, but my mind is now about nineteen years old.

I feel like the kid who used to lock herself away in a bedroom and write. She produced poems filled with adolescent angst, and plays no one would ever act in. That didn’t matter; the important thing was to watch the words hit the paper. They could form characters that had never lived before; invent plots that were unlikely to play out in reality, express feelings too deep to display when one is a real person with a fear of rejection.

Why had I stopped writing like that?

Well, because I’d started writing to make a living. I’d learned how to make my words factual, informative, brand-compliant, and uncontroversial.

Bloodless.

And after eight hours of this, five days a week, who the hell has the inspiration to come home and be creative?

Who has the time while living an adult life: raising kids, navigating a marriage, and participating in a community?

Some people do, I guess… but I didn’t.

Not until I retired.

I’ve started painting, too… something else I loved to do in my teens. I remember being scolded when I spent too much time working at my youthful canvasses. “You think you’ll ever make a living doing this? Go do something useful!”

It doesn’t matter if I’m useful now. I’m never going to make a living again; now, I can paint, or write, or shoot hoops, or dye all my cats deep purple, and it’s more than okay: It’s GREAT! I’m not preparing for a life, or a career, or parenthood, or any of those daunting things that stood in my path back when I was a kid. I’m just here to have fun until I’m not here anymore.

I still feel sheepish when I start a new post, or start prepping a picture; I’m afraid Jeff will think I’m wasting my time when I could be doing housework, or something of value. But he doesn’t feel that way; he encourages me and takes pride in what I’m doing. He tells me I’ve earned the right to follow my bliss; I’m trying very hard to believe him and internalize that sentiment.

My kids also like what I’m doing now . They’re never going to show their families the crap I produced during my working years, but I hope and suspect that they’ll share what I’m currently producing.

It’s so much more meaningful.

I’m no longer working for a living, but the work I’m doing is giving me life.

The Punishment of Painting

Image may contain: 2 people, people smilingEvery ten years or so, I get this obsessive need to paint oil portraits.Most of them are not very good, since I have no technique whatsoever, but each of them fulfills a need to capture the essence of a friend or loved one on canvas.There’s no telling what will set me off.The last time, I was challenged to enter an art contest. I didn’t win, but a couple of people told me they liked my work. Praise whore that I am, I did at least five more canvasses in the next few months, only stopping after I painted a highly inaccurate portrait of my beautiful niece and nephew. She is too gorgeous for anyone of my limited ability to grasp properly, and he was at a highly unfortunate stage of adolescent development, which I managed to capture with unkind precision. Had I known he would become so bloody good looking in the next few years, I might have waited to paint him.Either way, my niece and nephew were highly offended, which deflated my sails and got me to put down the brushes.Until now.During that paint-a-thon, I did a portrait of myself and my husband with which I was never quite happy. It looked too painted; the colors weren’t blended well, and my lips looked really fake… too big, and frightfully purple. He looked good… sweet and soulful, with beautiful bright eyes… but I looked like a very aggressive clown.A few months ago, I happened to read somewhere that Rembrandt achieved the luminosity in his portraits by painting his skin tones with layer after layer of very thin paint. I wondered whether this would help my little painting… kind of like adding foundation to flawed skin, you know what I mean? So I grabbed the poor thing, and started giving it a weekly coat of glaze.In time, it grew to look more blended… but the lights and shadows started to disappear, and it became hard to distinguish any features if you stood more than a few feet away.I decided to get forceful and fix it.First, I went to YouTube and started watching portrait-painting tutorials.None of the featured painters do the same thing, and all of them do stuff I’d never heard of.A couple of them started their portraits doing something called “grisaille,” which is basically painting the entire picture in grayscale, and then putting color on top of that. This seemed to me like a colossal waste of time, until I realized it gave you the impetus to really concentrate on the placement of your darks and lights, and the relationship between the various shadows.Is that what people mean by “tone values?” For once, I wasn’t as interested in the vocabulary as in the substance of the message.One guy then covered his darkest shadows in a color that looked like Army Jeep green; since he was painting a young lady, I was afraid he would make her look like ten miles of bad road. Somehow, he covered this in some mixture of burnt umber, alizarin crimson, lead white and unicorn urine, and managed to create astonishingly lovely skin tones, which he blended with paper towels, q-tips, and his fingers, so they didn’t look “brushed on.”Then there was the woman who didn’t’ use “grisaille” (I like that word!), but who started out by painting the model’s hair blue and burgundy, with green highlights. She then painted all the flesh-colored parts of the face, leaving the eyes and mouth for last. “How can she do that?” I wondered. To me, the eyes and the mouth are the soul of the painting; I want to look at them first, and connect with the person who’s eventually going to emerge from the canvas.Whatever she did, it worked; the young lady she painted was stunning, and the picture that emerged was astonishingly realistic and beautiful.However, one thing she did was familiar… every now and then, when the painting looked fine and very close to finished, she would add a stroke of color, or try to correct a line, and totally muck up huge sections of the picture, if not the whole thing. Then she had to go back and correct her what she’d done; I was very glad to see that other people also screwed up their work, and had to go back and fix the result of their fussing.Eventually, I was so overwhelmed watching other people paint that I said,  “F’ it. I need to get started.”I grabbed my painting, my little box of beginner’s oil paints, a bottle of turpentine, some linseed oil, brushes and paper towels, and the one tool that’s new to my repertoire: my cell phone.I needed that so I could dig deep deep deep inside my Facebook photo albums, where I found the original picture that I had tried to copy.Was Jeff’s face ever so full? Was my hair really that dark?And look! I had already started growing my second chin, but the turkey wattle hadn’t appeared yet. Very nice.One thing struck me immediately: the picture had some very prominent areas of extreme dark and extreme light; I really hadn’t done them justice.So, I went to town. I made the dark areas very dark, and the light areas very light.To blend the colors with everything around them, I took a big, soft, dry brush and swished across the picture with a very light touch; I believe Bob Ross used to call this “a hair and some air.”Then I attacked my mouth.I tried outlining it. That only made it look bigger.I looked at the original picture, and really stared at the shape of my lips.Damn! I always thought I had bow lips. Turns out they’re not that well defined.I rounded out the top lip, highlighted its outline, and rounded it out again. After three or four tries, I just grabbed the blender brush and rubbed off the definition of the shape.Ha!Blurry, it looked better.Then I went back to the original picture, and noticed something surprising.My tongue was visible under the top teeth.How could I have missed this the first time I painted the picture?I had to completely refashion my lips and my teeth, which led to a complete rerendering of my chin.I wondered whether I shouldn’t just chuck the entire damned picture.But I continued. I made sure to put lighter shadows on the lower lip than on the upper one, just like the people on television, and to tone down the teeth by making them duller than the brightest highlights. They’re a tad pink right now, but they don’t look bad. Let people think I never wiped off a lipstick smudge; it will add to the realism.When I was finished with myself, I looked over at Jeff, and noticed that one of the shadows under his eyes had disappeared. I put it back, and made a few other “corrections.” It wasn’t until I photographed the picture (and published it on Facebook, moron that I am) that I realized I’d made one half of his face too pink.I fixed that this morning.And now, I think I’m done.Except I’m not sure the skin tones shouldn’t be better blended.But I’m done.Really, I am. I am done.I even started a new portrait… my son and his boo are my next victims.Subjects.I have to decide whether to do a grisaille first, or just dive into color the way I usually do.I wish I weren’t so obsessed with portraits.I wish I could follow in the footsteps of Bob Ross, and paint happy little trees without eyes, or noses, or tongues, or teeth, or ears, or facial hair, or multiple chins… happy little trees who wouldn’t say, “Hey,.that doesn’t look like me!”But that would be too easy.

Television sucks.

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There’s nothing on television tonight.

Absolutely nothing.

I’m staring at the schedule, and it’s as barren as the Sahara.

CBS has a remake of a show from the 60’s that I didn’t watch in the 60’s. NBC has another stupid, sensationalist “true crime” documentary. FOX has a ballgame, but Jeff won’t watch the Mets, just as I won’t watch the Yankees (and neither one of us will watch any other team this early in the season, which invalidates all the channels with ball games.)

ABC has another of those dumb-sluts-vie-for-a-husband reality shows; they make me weep for humanity.

“How can he not give me the rose after I slept with him on camera?”

The next four channels have Sci Fi B movies and news.

PBS, which is often a beacon in the night, is unfortunately playing bad old rock and roll. I understand they need to solicit contributions from Boomers, but didn’t my generation listen to anything other than acid rock? The only reason to watch is to wonder how these geriatric bags, most of whom look like Merlin, managed not to damage the few cells now powering up their brains. Jeff tells me many of them have all their blood replaced six times a year; it may be something to consider.

The next few channels will attempt to sell me things I don’t want and can’t afford. Honestly, My computer works fine and my zits have dried up; my pots and pans may not match, but they do what they’re supposed to do.

By the time we get to channel 20, things start looking up. “Law & Order SVU!” Love it… But I still haven’t forgotten all the trouble Benson got into by trying to help out her brother. There’s no need to relive the angst. Channel 21 has another favorite, “The Big Bang Theory,” but I’ve pretty much memorized all the reruns and it’s too soon to watch them again.

The next slew of channels all deliver news… some from the left, some from the right, and some from a remote location in the Meadowlands of New Jersey where perfectly unaccented Spanish is spoken. There are other stations which play news in Italian and Korean, plus my beloved BBC… but Jeff won’t watch anything which causes him to say “huh?” more than twice per minute.

Skipping over every station that plays anime, wild animals that eat each other, and Larry King,  we come to my beloved Do It Yourself channels. I won’t play the cooking channels tonight, since I don’t want to remind my husband that I served really dry pork chops for dinner, and I won’t watch the real-estate and redecoration channels, since I don’t want to think about the home improvements I want and can’t afford right now. I don’t want to see American Pickers rummage through storage units; it reminds me of the exorbitant rent we’re paying to store crap that we didn’t discard from the old house and can’t fit in the new house. We’re not watching that either.

So we come to all the sports channels. MLS Soccer… NCAA Studio Update… College Basketball from schools neither of us attended…PGA Golf… a soccer match between Scotland and Mexico… and something called “Fiance Killer.”

Maybe that one’s not a sport, but it doesn’t sound like my cappatea, if you know what I mean.

Next, there’s a slew of old movies we’ve already seen, more esoteric sports, a frightful array of conjectures about the nature of extraterrestrial life, a lot of rap music, two westerns (don’t tell my husband), another M*A*S*H* marathon (which is what we watched last Saturday, and the Saturday before that), a few live surgeries, some angry brides (who marries these women anyway???), a half a dozen preachers spewing guilt and asking for money, and HBO.

This is followed by nearly 50 channels of music, none of which play show tunes or opera.

Keep’em!

Then, there are a dozen or so Spanish channels and a little more soccer, before we get to…

Exactly the same lineup of channels, but in High Definition!

And then, there’s exactly the same lineup of channels, but in Ultra High Definition!

Add up all the variants, and we have over 1,000 channels of nothing, for which we’re paying well over $100 a month.

WHY?

Of course, we could order something On Demand… they have thousands of shows we didn’t feel like watching when they first aired, available at every hour of the day or night. Or, we could power up the Fire Stick and see what’s available on You Tube, Amazon Prime, Netflix, or any of the other services available to us. Jeff doesn’t trust the Fire Stick, though. It’s like Alexa. It learns what you like and makes suggestions. It probably tries to steer you into seeing things that get you to change your mind, and veer you into a condition where you’re enslaved to Artificial Intelligence.

Is it time to get stronger light bulbs and crack open some books?

Might we go out for a change?

Should we call old friends and pay a visit?

Shall we take a walk in the summer moonlight?

Should we sneak into the community pool and go skinny dipping until we’re caught by security?

There’s got to be something to do, since there’s nothing to watch.

I’ve been socked into insanity.

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My husband is trying to gaslight me with Hanes socks.

I’m not kidding. The day will come when I am found hanging like a bat from the top bar of a laundry trolley, chewing on a Size 11-13 calf-length sweat sock.

My husband has hundreds of them.

Maybe thousands.

And very few of them match.

We finally went to the laundromat yesterday. I don’t want to say that it’s been a long time, but I will tell you that top-rated TV series have debuted and been cancelled in the interim.

Needless to say, we had bags and bags and bags of clothes to wash. I’m actually ashamed we own so many clothes, but since we’re awful at keeping up with the laundry, we need to have an abundance of shirts, pants, and underwear to keep us going.

One entire bag contained nothing but socks.

His socks.

And it’s my job to fold them.

There’s actually a very good reason for this. I have a bad back, and I can’t stand at a table folding laundry nicely for more than five minutes or so.

Jeff, bless his heart, can still do this, so he is responsible for folding the shirts, pants and knickers… none of which need to be matched to anything.

I get to sit on a nice hard plastic bench, and pull socks from a trolley, which I then match and drop into a bag at my side.

As soon as the first dryer stopped spinning, I knew it was time to take my station. He emptied it, filled a trolley with white socks, and brought them over to me.

This man needs to acquire a taste for going barefoot… or at least stop wearing two pairs of socks inside his work boots.

I could not believe how many socks were sitting in front of me.

But I dug in.

I pulled out a nice white crew sock with a narrow-waled ankle, a ½ inch top seam, and gray heels and toes.

Then I pulled out a white crew sock with a wide-waled ankle and a gray sole. This was followed by a white crew sock with a ¼ inch top seam and gray heels and toes, reinforced with red stitching. The next one had a Hanes logo in red. Others had a Hanes logo in gray.

I didn’t count the variants. Trust me, there were many.

I started out carefully and conscientiously, sorting carefully, and rejoicing when I was able to make a match in all twelve essential dimensions, like the guy from eHarmony. However, as my patience and my eyesight began to wear thin, I got sloppy. Thin wale vs. medium wale? Who cares! Reinforced toe vs. let’s-hope-for-the-best? That’s fine.

Nobody sees socks inside people’s shoes anyway, and my husband is not the princess forced to sleep atop a pea. He is NOT that sensitive.

It took me a good 45 minutes to match up all those stinking socks, and I only had one left over without a partner.

“I’m done, Jeff! Put them in the car.”

“Oh, Good! The you can start on my black socks!”

His what?

I felt a sizzle in the back of my neck. It sounded just like a loose power cord sputtering at the edge of the socket.

He brought over a trolley filled to the brim with black crew socks.

“Don’t worry. They’re all the same.”

IS HE BLIND?

Some said Hanes in red, some in gray. Some had a funky blue and red cross logo; some had no logo at all. Each one had a different sole. No two were the same shade of black; obviously, these bloody things fade differently and independently.

I stared at my husband in desperation.

“Really?” I asked, piteously.

“Oh, come on. It’s no big deal!” he said. “My mother used to match socks for relaxation!”

That explains so much about him and his family.

I’d rather relax by napping on barbed wire!

But I was not going to start a row in the middle of the laundromat, and set a bad example for all the other immigrants, who stared at me every time I spoke in English to the tall, fair-haired man that kept bringing me socks.

I folded. I stewed. I folded.

And then I finished.

Well, I sort of finished. I had three socks left over.

“I’m done!” I told him.

“What about those?”

“Look! They’re completely different.”

“That’s all right,” he said. I have a drawer at home filled with orphan socks. One of these days you’re going to help me sort them, and we’ll see if we can make any matches.”

“Matches.”

He said “matches.”

I’m going to set fire to his dresser.

I’m seeing Sondheim.

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If a retrospective of my life were ever to be filmed, it would have to be scored by Stephen Sondheim… and tomorrow, for the first time ever, I am going to see him in person.

How can I tell you what Sondheim has meant in my life?

I loved his words long before I ever heard his music. I remember seeing West Side Story with friends when I was fourteen. I was reluctant to go… after all, I was the only Hispanic in my gang of Irish, Italian, and Polish Catholic schoolgirls, and I always dreaded any situation that called attention to my exotic and quixotic heritage. Bernstein’s music was sublime, of course, but those words!

“I’ve got a feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come through, comin’ to me!”

“Today, all day I had the feeling a miracle would happen; I know now I was right.”

“Somewhere, we’ll find a new way of living; we’ll find a way of forgiving, Somewhere…”

I’ve often heard Sondheim criticized for songs like “I Feel Pretty,” and “One Hand, One Heart,” in which he puts very erudite language in the mouth of a young Hispanic girl. “It’s not realistic,” they say. Well, THIS Hispanic girl cannot begin to express how alarmingly charming she feels whenever she voices his lyrics, onstage or (much more often) off.

Sondheim was the first musical theater figure to shock me. I saw “Company” when I was seventeen, and it certainly wasn’t the Rodgers and Hammerstein fare I knew and loved. It was dirty… sophisticated… daring. Some of its chords were jarring; some of its lyrics were achingly desperate.

Two or three years later, my college put on the show, so I decided to listen to it again, in order to audition. I fell in love with the “Ladies Who Lunch,” and realized that the character of Joanne had the sort of jaded urbanity I longed to portray. I went to the audition and got a callback. There were three of us up for the part. I asked if I could go first, since I had an exam the next day. The other girls let me. The next one to try out sang her song, left the theater, and got raped on the way home. She also got the part. Ever since, I’ve considered “Company” dangerous and dark… something not for me, and perhaps something I survived… but something visceral.

My first “featured song” in a show was “Rain on the Roof” from Follies, when (at the age of 23) I played a geriatric showgirl. Two years later, I had the joy of narrating “Side by Side by Sondheim,” which allowed me to sit onstage as my dearest friends sang the greatest showtunes ever written, from shows like “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Evening Primrose,” “Gypsy”… so many others!

I did not know that would be the last Sondheim show I would ever do .

A year afterward, I met the very handsome young man for whom I would give up acting. We saw “A Little Night Music” on our first date, and I had my answer to the question, “Are we a pair?” In time we married; I walked up the aisle as another dear friend sang “One Hand, One Heart” from “West Side.”

Seven years later, I got a call from a friend in Florida, who knew I was besotted with the Sondheim show “Sweeney Todd.”

“Hey! Do you still know all of Mrs. Lovett’s lines and lyrics?” she asked.

“Of course!”

“Then get your ass down to Florida. The theater I’m working for just lost their Mrs. Lovett, and they need a replacement NOW. I told them about you, and they asked me to get you. When can you be here?”

I was eight and a half months pregnant.

I did not, then or ever, play Mrs. Lovett.

The child I was expecting, though, managed to do “Sweeney Todd” twice, and kick ass in the role of Beadle Bamford.

I heard him sing Sondheim on stage a number of times… and when he told me he had decided NOT to pursue a career in the theater, I worked off my bitterness by singing “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” for three straight days and nights.

These are among the memories that I expect will flood my soul when I see Mr. Sondheim take the stage tomorrow night. He’s speaking as part of a writers’ conference; I can’t wait to hear what he has to say about his technique, his inspirations, his experiences.

Frankly, I don’t care WHAT he talks about. I just want to bask in his presence.

I just hope I don’t meet him. I’ll get tongue tied and stupid. I’ll stutter and stammer. I’ll giggle.

But hey. Maybe there ought to be clowns.

The recluse is released.

my jeep

Yesterday, I was proud to do something I haven’t done in six months: I left the house by myself.
Those sound like the words of a broken old recluse, don’t they?
But I’m not really a recluse, you know. I have Jeff. And I do go out when he takes me somewhere.
Furthermore, I have reasons why I’ve been staying home. You may choose to call them excuses, but I don’t.
My confinement started last December when it started to snow… and kept snowing until April. In our development, the owners of each unit are allotted one space in the carport and one space in the common parking areas nearby. Since Jeff and I each have a vehicle (God forbid I should call his precious truck a car!), this is usually fine.
When snow is expected, though, the complex expects us to put one car in the area behind the main clubhouse, so they can plow the parking areas near the residences.
Jeff and I decided we should move my car to the clubhouse and put his truck in the carport, since he’s not retired, and needs to leave home on a regular basis.
So that’s what we did.
Now, it’s not like I can take a quick walk over to the clubhouse… it’s more than a mile away, and anything more than a block or two wakes up my infirmities. An evil genie deep within me sounds the alarm to every organ.
“Heart! Pound!
Lungs! Shut down!
Legs! Cramp!
Head! Get dizzy!”
I know better than to cross that bastard.
But I expected Jeff to drive me over to pick up my car a day or two after that first snowfall. The swift arrival of the second snowfall was unexpected. Or the third. Or the nineteeth. Or the forty-eighth, for crying out loud.
It snowed all stinking winter, and most of the way through spring.
And my poor little car sat there, all alone, covered in snow, while I stayed home getting older and crankier.
Finally, as May rolled around, I said to Jeff, “you think it has stopped snowing?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
None of us did.
“Should we take a ride over to the clubhouse and see if my car is still there?”
I was half expecting someone might have thought it was abandoned and towed it away.
We went to the clubhouse, and were thankful to learn that my little car was right where we left it.
Of course, it had a dead battery and a flat tire, but it was still there.
Since Jeff is a mechanic, I was not concerned. I thought he would wave a magic wrench, sing Bibbidy Bobbidy Boo, and get my baby back on the road.
No.
He used some kind of gizmo on the tire which had always worked in the past. This time, it didn’t. He jumped the battery and let the engine run for half an hour, to see if it would sustain a charge. It wouldn’t.
So now we had to wait for payday.
And when it came, my lawfully wedded wizard found an air compressor that would do the trick on the tire. Then, we jumped the car again, took it for a cautious, but hope-filled ride, and went to Auto Zone for a new battery.
I’m sure that when the car started, white smoke poured from the muffler and wafted up to heaven, signaling the start of a new era.
Habemus vehiculus!
Yesterday, as soon as I woke up, a thought flashed into my mind: “I have a car again. It’s in the carport, where I can walk to it. I can go somewhere.”
Overwhelmed, I turned over and went back to sleep.
A few hours later, I woke up… no more refreshed, and somewhat guiltier.
“I can now run all the errands I’ve been needing to run. I can take myself to the laundromat. I can do the food shopping. I can get that haircut I’ve been needing so desperately.”
I could go back to sleep.
No I couldn’t.
But I could write my blog, read my webpages, watch some TV, play with the cats, and maybe even take a shower.
By five o’clock, I had run out of diversions and excuses, and realized I needed to hit the road.
So I did… after I found my keys, and my wallet, and my shoes, and my cane.
I walked out the front door and was surprised to see that the roses in front of the house were in full bloom.
Damn. The last time I stepped out we still had daffodils.
Squinting like Disney’s Mad Madam Mim in the bright glare of that “horrible, wholesome sunshine,” I went to the carport. I grasped the fob on my keychain, pressed the button with the little open lock, and heard my sweet little car chirp its welcome.
I got in.
I still fit behind the wheel. That was a plus.
I turned the key, and the engine started. That was sheer music.
I put my new prescription sunglasses on, turned my head, and backed out of the carport without hitting anything.
Yes!
Triumphantly, I rode out to the supermarket.
Using the shopping cart to steady my gait, I bought everything on my shopping list. I began getting tired, then dizzy, about three quarters of the way through the store; luckily, I found a bench between the pharmacy and the floral department, where I was able to sit until I’d regained my strength. I celebrated by picking up two ferns for my living room, promising to water and feed them regularly.
The poor gullible fools believed me and got into my cart.
Then I drove home. Happily, Jeff had just got home too; I found him outside chatting with a neighbor. I grabbed the ferns and a bag filled with melting ice cream sandwiches; he, dear soul, brought in the rest of the groceries.
We celebrated with a lovely steak dinner.
And now, we’ve arrived at today.
I woke up, had a nice cup of coffee, and went back to sleep.
I woke again, had another cup of coffee, and worked on my blog.
There’s nothing on television.
After I take my shower, what should I do? Go to the laundromat? The hairdresser? Drive to upstate New York and visit my daughter?
The possibilities are endless.

 

Juxtapose this.

kids.jpg

One day, as I was driving along with my two kids, I was suddenly filled with the need to rhapsodize about their gifts.

“Oh, Amanda!” I gushed. “What I wouldn’t give to have your intellect! You don’t realize what a gift you have, being equally smart in math and verbal skills. Most of us are only good at one of these, but you, my darling, have the rare ability of being able to compute and communicate with equal facility. I am in awe!”

“And you, my Alex! You have the one gift I coveted more than any other… the ability to sing! What’s more, you have natural ability to act. What many of us struggle to acquire, you were born with; those of us without your gifts could never come up with the nuances you exhibit on stage. God made you a performer!”

Amanda, who was riding in the front seat, turned around to her brother.

“She just called me untalented.”

Her brother piped up. “What are you complaining about? She just called me stupid!”

They can be such creeps.

Why do people do this? Juxtapose their talents against those of the people around them, and they suddenly see nothing other than imagined deficiencies.

On the other hand, if you juxtapose their deficiencies, they don’t automatically start seeing their talents. If I’d said to them, “You, Child ‘A,’ are stubborn, and you, Child ‘B,’ are lazy,” neither of them would have responded with, “she called me ‘open-minded,’” or “she called me ‘industrious.’”

We look for derision in praise, but we don’t find the praise in derision.

Maybe it’s something we should start doing.

Juxtapose

Please make contact.

An open letter to Bigfoots, Grays, Chupacabras, Men in Black, Merpeople and Unicorns:
Stop avoiding me.
I won’t kill you, dissect you, send you to a work camp at AREA 51, or take videos of you when you’re drunk that I can share on my You Tube channel.
I will not repurpose ancient rituals in which you’re sacrificed or worshipped; I will not put you at the center of any ceremony in which you’re surrounded by torches or dancing virgins.
I don’t know any.
I won’t sell you to the highest bidder… not to traffickers in the international black markets, and not to other housewives who troll ebay.
I won’t take you to social events and make you dance with nerds and uglies.
Promise.
All I want is to see one of you. In person. Once.
The problem is, I don’t drive in the woods, I don’t own cows, I’ve never been to the Pacific Northwest, I’m nowhere near any mountains of lakes, and I have no personal connections with The History Channel.
You’re always appearing to people who have shows on The History Channel.
What do they have that I don’t have?
Are they more gullible?
I doubt it. I believe you’re real enough that I’m writing this letter, and you’ve never appeared anywhere in my vicinity!
Are they dumber?
Honey, I couldn’t reverse engineer a paper airplane; your secrets, your DNA, your provenance and your technology are safe.
Do they share your circadian rhythms?
Night and day stopped having any meaning to me on the day I retired. Do you want to meet in the middle of the night? No problem. Are you more of a morning creature? I can adapt.
Please forgive me if I sound desperate, but the truth is, I am filled with envy for people who claim to see you. Just this morning, I read about a woman in Michigan who has a whole tribe of Sasquatches living in her back yard. She feeds them blueberry bagels.
A whole tribe!
They’re a friendly, bunch too… they braid her pony’s hair, build little stick structures in the woods behind her house, and play pranks.
The only thing they won’t do is let her take their pictures.
That’s okay.
Would you be willing to settle for “everything” bagels? I really prefer them, but if you insist on blueberry, I will make do.

via Daily Prompt: Ceremony

Ceremony

Making the final decision

hermandme

Is it archaic to believe that God should decide when life should end?

When I was in my late teens, one of our cats, Toby, became very sick. We coddled her, we nursed her, we fed her by hand, and we did everything in our power to make her comfortable. When it became obvious that we could do nothing else for her, I took her to the vet… and he raged at me. Why had I let this cat live so long? Why had I not had her euthanized before?

I felt like an abuser. Like a monster. By loving Toby with all my heart, and trying to keep her alive as long as possible, I’d made the last days of her life miserable.

I swore I’d never act that way again…

Yet here I am, doing the same thing.

Our oldest cat, Hermione, is obviously at the end of her ninth life.

We don’t know how old she is. Her daughter, our beloved Sprite, is seventeen, so we think Hermie is at least eighteen, but she may be older.

After many years of being a beautiful, big, beefy cat, Hermie started losing weight about five years ago. Her health still seemed strong, though… she ate voraciously, jumped around the furniture vigorously, and bossed everyone in the household firmly… Jeff and me, as well as Sprite and her “kittens” (they’re sixteen now).

About five months ago, she took a sudden turn downhill. She could barely move her hind legs. Her meow was weak. She seemed disoriented, until she saw me with an ice cream sandwich, which she immediately tried to take from me.

Jeff and I kept her in our arms all day, not expecting her to make it through the night.

She did, though… and every day for the next few days, she seemed to get better.

She walked slowly and haltingly, but she didn’t fall.

Hell, that’s how I walk.

She jumped from one piece of furniture to the next.

I can’t do that.

Her appetite was good… and because we were concerned about her weight, she got more treats than all the other cats combined… roast chicken… good tuna… lots of vanilla ice cream.

In the ensuing months, she had good days and bad days, just like any creature of an advanced age might be expected to have.

But now, even the good days aren’t so good, and the bad ones are downright heartbreaking.

Common sense and decency tell me we should put her down, but I just can’t.

I’ve made other end-of-life decisions in the years since Toby. When an operation revealed that our beloved Jack Russell, Dylan, was riddled with cancer, we allowed the vet not to bring him out of anesthesia. We put our darling pit bull Roscoe down too; I don’t even want to think about the pain of holding him as the doctor injected the final drugs into his leg.

I’ve even participated in end-of-life discussions concerning beloved human beings…  Should heroic measures be taken to extend their lives artificially? Should their DNR requests be honored even as they gasp for breath, and beg to receive treatment? Should life-prolonging machines be turned off… and if so, when?

Believe me, there’s nothing as traumatic and disgusting as selecting a convenient date for someone you love to die.

Perhaps the day will come when someone has to make those decisions for me. Even though I’ve made it clear I do not want my life to ever be prolonged past my point of usefulness, I can easily see my loved ones disputing the right time to pull the trigger.

I hope to God they don’t have to. I hope to God I go quickly and quietly, with a minimum of fuss. Jeff’s grandmother died that way; she stretched out on the couch for a nap, and never woke up. My mother-in-law always said, admiringly, that her mother had “died like a lady.”

Meanwhile, I’m not God. I don’t want to be the person who determines when anyone’s life should end… not a person’s, not a pet’s. Not anyone’s.

via Daily Prompt: Archaic
Archaic