Monthly Archives: May 2012

My Father’s Firetruck

My father was that guy, or at least he was to me.  He was tall, magnanimous, handsome and funny.  My great-uncle Dana called him “a prince among men.”

Heads turned when he walked into a room, particularly with my mother on his arm.  He had huge hands, but they never landed on me in anger.  He was often restrained when I expected him to be furious, and he found joy in the everyday mundane.  He loved to paint the house; he said it was relaxing.  (That’s not to say he never lost his temper; I learned many 4-letter words while he watched the Packers.)

Perhaps his best attribute was his sense of humor.  He was incredibly and effortlessly funny.  Not only could he generate humor, but he really appreciated it.  He loved to laugh, and he did it often.  He lived a lively, happy and abundant life.

My parents threw epic parties.  They had a merry band of friends who knew how to have a good time.  This was when folks drank Old Fashions and Manhattans.  Men would wear jackets, and the ladies would get their hair done.  Inevitably, around midnight, someone (usually Vinnie Crane) would push some unsuspecting bystander into the pool and much like a line of dominoes, so went the rest of the guests.  My sister and I would peek through our bedroom window and laugh along with the guests.

Among other things, my father was a patriot (he felt espionage should be the only capital offense) so naturally, he bought a boatload of fireworks in Mexico and smuggled them back to the states for the Bi-Centennial of these United States of America.  I don’t know how he did it, but I’m fairly certain if he tried it today, TSA might have something to say about it.

After a ridiculous lead-up of bunting, potato salad, invitations and fanfare, Frank D. Woodworth celebrated the Bi-Centennial with his very own fireworks display.  He somehow managed to get a permit from the city that allowed us to shoot off m-80s all afternoon, only to follow it up a full-blown, private fireworks display at night on the beach.  The weather was perfect, the burgers were grilled to perfection and he was surrounded by his close friends and family.  The smile never left his face; it was a glorious day.

Later in life, my parents traveled quite a bit.  My dad was pretty crappy when it came to languages, so he never really tried to fit in, but he always managed to learn one phrase in the native tongue of wherever he visited, “Hold my cheese sandwich, I’ve just been struck by lightning.”  He would write it down on a 3×5 card and he would use it on waiters and the Maitre’d.  He loved to make people laugh.

One of the coolest things my father ever did was to buy a 1935 Seagrave Fire Engine.  I secretly believed he bought it so he could finagle himself into parades. He loved parades a lot and would drag us around to catch as many as we could.  He loved the bands, the floats, but mostly, he loved the show.

Every once in a while, in between parades, he would get out his fire engine and drive it around the neighborhood, asking kids if they, “smelled smoke.”  He would also drive it to the edge of the lake, and check if the hoses still worked.  (It had working pumpers that allowed him to suck up lake water and spray it into the air.  He was in heaven, as was every dog and kid in the neighborhood.)

It was always in my plans to involve the fire truck in my wedding, but unfortunately by the time Kriner and I hooked up, the truck had been sold, and my father had passed away from a brain tumor.  His two best buddies walked me down the aisle and we released a balloon in his honor.  Not quite a parade, but I think he liked the gesture, just the same.

When I turned 40, I half-jokingly told my husband that instead of a present, I wanted a parade.  On the night of my birthday, we had a glorious party, and sure enough, Kriner had parceled together enough friends who played instruments, and even found a baton-twirler.  We marched around the block, and called it a parade.  Back at the restaurant, there was a band, decorations, food and booze.

    

I was surrounded by friends and family and had one of the best nights in my entire life.  It was a glorious affair.  Later, I realized how incredibly lucky I have been in my life, in so many different ways.  I love my lively, happy and abundant life.  But after all, I had a great role model.

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Filed under Family, Grief, Humor, Parenting

Carmen, my Garmin

I have a love/hate relationship with my Garmin. I call her Carmen. Carmen the Garmin. She’s actually pretty great because my sense of direction is fairly pathetic.  Honestly, I have gotten lost driving around a block.  She helps a lot, but here’s my beef. Sometimes she is actually too good at her job.  With all of her knowledge of “maps” and “roads” and “north” she gives me a false sense of security and I get dependent on her within minutes.  I have used her to get home from the store, which is absurd if you know where I live.  “Turn right on Rittenhouse, drive 4 blocks to destination.”

Recently, when driving in the Twin Cities, which is fairly stressful for me to begin with, (city driving makes me nuts) Carmen says, in her clipped and serious tone, “Drive 3.2 miles; take a left on exit 3A Excelsior South.”

“That’s easy” I think to myself.  “3A – I can do that.  I can totally find 3A – wait, it was 3A right?”

“Carmen, was it 3A or 3B?”  Sadly, she doesn’t answer.  (Remember when we used to actually write directions down on paper?  That would be handy right about now, but no, I have a Garmin.)

I tap her screen a few times, trying not to swerve, and she repeats, “Drive 3.2 miles and take a left on exit 3A Excelsior South” but I swear to God, she sounds a little pissed off.  There is definitely something in her voice.  Now, I am getting a little overly sensitive about her tone, and I’m thinking “3.2, exit, 3A, Excelsior South.  3.2, exit, 3A, Excelsior South” and I’m starting to freak myself out a little. I’m not necessarily looking at the road the way I should be; all I’m doing is looking for 3A Excelsior South and waiting for her next instruction.  I’m a people pleaser; I don’t want to disappoint Carmen.  It would be awkward and weird if she were mad at me, because it’s just the two of us and it’s a long trip home.

I get closer to the ramp, but along with the ramp, there’s also an exit; it’s a complicated spot, made only worse by road construction.  I get a little freaked out about the orders she is barking at me, “Turn right on exit” and I don’t know if I should take the exit or the ramp. At this point I’m at a loss to make my own decision.  It’s as if I have no will of my own. Carmen is my leader.  She has reduced me to a lemming. I can no longer think critically on my own or make any decision whatsoever. I don’t have the capacity to simply look up and see the exit for “Excelsior” next to the ramp for the turn around.  (I hope to hell airline captains don’t feel like this once they pop off the auto-pilot.)  A year ago, I would have had a paper napkin clutched in my fist, and scribbled on it “L – Excelsior” and I would have been fine.  That would have been all I needed, but now, I am incapable of making a decision.  Exit or ramp?  Exit or ramp?

“Turn right…” she barks. “Turn right!!!  (sigh)  Recalculating…”

I have never driven down the wrong side of a street in my life; however, after purchasing my Garmin, I have done it twice in a year. A few months ago I was in Madison and Carmen said, “turn right” so of course I immediately turned right and somehow I managed to end up in an oncoming, left-only turn lane and a soccer mom who looked at me, (from behind the wheel of the mini-van I am now blocking) as if I started Armageddon.  Her jaw dropped in amazement at the very same moment her middle finger went up.

I think it would be better if Garmins were designed to be a little more user-friendly and not so dictatorial in their tone.  For example, rather than, “Drive 3.2 miles and take a right on Excelsior exit 3A” we would hear, “Hey, up here, you want to take Excelsior.” That’s how a friend would give directions, right? It would be so much more relaxed!  And as you get closer, Carmen would remind, “Yeah, I think it’s up here on the left.”  And instead of, “recalculating” when you missed it (because of course you missed it, because you have been reduced to a kool-aid drinking drone at this point, freaking out because you have to take a right and you don’t know which right you should take) she could say, “Hey, dude, you missed it, but it’s cool. Just take the next exit, I think it’s 36. No worries.”

But no, you hear her cold, impersonal, “recalculating” all the while she’s probably thinking nasty things about you and your driving, not to mention how you let your daughter eat junk food during long car rides. Her silence speaks volumes.  Carmen can be a real bitch.  It’s gonna be a long drive home.

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Filed under Humor, Technology, Uncategorized

What I Have Learned from Directing Plays

When I started as a teacher, part of the reason I got hired was because of my background in theater.  Aside from needing an English teacher, Ashland had an opening for a drama coach. Sure, I had performance experience; I had been on stage since I was 14, but there was one small detail I left out of the interview.  I had never directed a play in my life.  Never.  Not even in college; the closest I had come was directing some student scenes, but honestly, in school, I only studied acting.  I didn’t take any classes in technical theater, lighting, set design, directing, and here I was, about to hold auditions.  My sister gave me great advice. “Fake it ‘till you make it.”

Oddly enough, that first play, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was to this day, one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.  Back then, I was 22 years old, and my cast members were mainly 17 and some 18 year olds.

 (Guess which one is the student?)

I was closer in age to these kids than I was to my co-workers.  We took it to state and won awards; it was a success.  It was great fun, but more importantly, I learned a ton.  I had a crash course in lighting design, set construction (although six boxes isn’t much of a set) and the dangers of letting the cast have too much power.  Now, I work more with adults than kids, but I still learn boatloads from every play I direct.  I learn things about theater, psychology, ego, and ultimately myself.  After directing over 30 plays in the past 20 years, this is some of what I have learned…

1. Always get good people to be your “crew chiefs.”  Delegate to them, trust them, stay out of their way, and then ride their coat tails for all they’re worth!  Take all of the credit for their hard work.   After all, it was your vision, right?

2. It is easy to work with people who have little or no experience on stage.  They have an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious.  With little or no ego, they take direction well, and learn fast.  They often are the ones who shine the most on opening night.  They are like puppies; they love the attention, they are full of joy, and their breath is often quite pleasant.

3. It is easy to work with people who have had lots and lots of experience on stage.  They are professional, they can take a note (a.k.a. doing what the director says) and they know their craft.  Their ego is strong enough to take criticism, even if they don’t agree with it.  They don’t have to shine on opening night, because they glow throughout the run.  However, their breath often smells of cigarettes, coffee, whiskey and if you’re lucky a cough drop.

4. It can be very difficult to work with people who have only appeared on stage a few times.  This isn’t true for all, but sadly true for some.  These people only have enough knowledge to be a danger to themselves and to the cast.  They often don’t take notes, because after that successful run as the butler in the community theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest they now know all they need!  Often, they’ll even go one further, giving other cast members notes. (This is really frowned upon in the theater world, trust me.)  These are the actors who will usually drive the costumer nuts with ridiculous requests…

These buttons are a black/black; my suit is more blue/black”

and also eat up a lot of time with the director asking exactly “how” to deliver those three lines of dialogue:

“When my character says ‘Hello’ I’m thinking she is more angry than inquisitive.  I’ve done some internal background work, and my character has had a horrid morning.  I would like to discuss it at length later, but for right now, I really think I need to have more anger here. ‘HELLO!!!’”

They try too hard to shine on opening night.  Their breath smells horrid because they “don’t eat before a show…”   Unfortunately, I was this kind of actress for a very long time.   I’m lucky I never directed myself.  I mean that.  (Also, currently I am lucky enough to be working with a crackerjack team who always have nice breath and take notes very well.)

5. Always kiss up to your costumer.  Often, he or she doesn’t get paid the same as the set designer, but puts in as many hours.

Also, the eyes of the audience will go to the set for the first five minutes of a show, but those same eyes will stay on the costumes for the entire night.

Good costumers make your actors look good, or in some cases, not so good. They often live on cookies and coffee.  Make sure they get plenty.

6. Be appreciative, but clear with your set builders.  At least in my case, I have been walked over too many times and have had to put up with something I didn’t intend.  (For the record, the past few plays I have directed, I have been very happy with the set.)  Also, this next rule is absolute and will never change.  No matter who he is, what he says, or what he promises, the paint on the set will be wet for opening.  Period.  Live with it, accept it, roll your eyes and move on.

7. Never, ever, ever underestimate the importance of a good lighting design (please to revisit lesson #1.)

It can make an ugly set look like a Buckingham Palace, and make a dingy, uninspired costume look like an Oscar gown.  That being said, work closely with your lighting people.  If you leave them alone, your show will undoubtedly look really, super-arty and cool, but often, it will be too dark and your actors will be bumping into things and each other.  Nothing says “pro” like an actor waving his arms in front of his body as to avoid running into anything. (You could always pass it off as an interesting directorial choice…)

8. Make the cast acknowledge the crew, and thank them often. They don’t get the glory.  They live in the dark shadows of “backstage” and frequently talk smack about the snottier folks in the cast, so be wary.  Also, they all seem to be a bit dark and emo, and therefore, capable of messing with the actors or directors in deceitful and wily ways.  Of course, they will have covered their tracks so well, they escape blame.  That prop that fell apart?  The light that blew?  That nail that ripped the costume?  Just saying…

9. Watch out for cast crushes, especially when directing high school kids.  Although it isn’t necessarily the director’s business, it can soon become the director’s problem.  (For the non-actors out there, when actors play characters in love, it is way too easy, and in fact, all too common to develop a crush on your opposite leading man or lady.)  This is one more advantage to working with actors who have a lot of stage experience, because they’ve “been there, done that.”  Otherwise you have love-sick nonsense backstage that can alienate or disgust the rest of the cast.  Also, it can mess with the acting.  How on earth are you supposed to hate that woman on stage when you have her lipstick all over your face?  (Again, it was an interesting directorial choice.)

10. Never, ever, ever give up on a show.  That is a cardinal sin, and unfortunately, I committed it a few times in my past.  It was before I knew any better, and shame on me for it.  It is never too late to give a note, or try to clean up a scene.  Don’t ever throw in the towel on a show.  Even on the last matinée, a director should be vigilant.  Don’t ever let an actor “phone it in.”

11. Directors will be hated at some point in the rehearsal process.  Like the wet paint on opening night, it is inevitable. Undoubtedly, someone will not like a note, or the crew will feel slighted, no matter how many Snickers you buy them. The cast and crew will talk some shit about you.  That’s the unfortunate side of leadership.  The good news is that it is usually forgotten the minute a standing ovation happens.  Always serve the play rather than the actors.  It may make the journey more challenging, but the goal will be far greater for it.

12.  Every cast becomes a family, and every cast is special.  By the time the curtain goes up, you will love everyone involved in the show very much, in spite of the smack-talk.  You will also miss them terribly once the play is over.  You may, for a week or two, consider bringing it back and doing it again, but don’t.  You never really recapture the magic; it just prolongs the agony, like pulling a band-aid off slowly.  The good news is that the blues you encounter after a show closes will fade in time.  And after all, there’s always another show.

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Filed under Humor, Theater, Uncategorized