Friday, February 22, 2013


I love boxes. Those tiny places to hold a stone, a shell, a secret, a precious little heart. And I have quite a collection. I never intended to be a collector. It just happened. One by one they arrived.

What is the fascination? The possibility that there is something inside, something out of sight, private. The excitement of opening it, perhaps to discover a prize, a gift, a memento, or even to find it empty—a world of possibilities. I simply cannot resist them.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Theater

I went to the theater recently with a group of writer friends. A mutual friend was performing in a new play at the Annex Theatre. As the lights dimmed, I gave myself over to that mystical experience and entered the land of make-believe.

There is something quite wonderful that happens in live theater. Movies are entertaining and safe. The makeup and costumes will be just right, every hair in place, each article of clothing just right, all frozen on the screen for all time. (It took a zillion “takes” to be sure that is so.) However, in the theater you never know. These are real people in a real setting and for me, a sense of adventure takes over as the lights dim. Maybe tonight something will happen, something beyond the control of the director or actors. Perhaps there will be some new insight, new interpretation. So when an actor speaks and moves the magic begins.

I did a lot of theater when I was young. In high school I got to play the ingĂ©nue, the sweet young thing. Not much talent required doing that for I was sweet and young. My first two years in college, I did theater as well.  Got to play some leads. My favorite was in the play Ladies in Retirement.  This was the role of an older woman. I got to wear a great wig and have lots of makeup. In one scene, I was required to scream. The problem was that I couldn’t. Scream, that is. I know, all women are expected to be able to make loud shrieking noises. I couldn’t, can't. Not exactly sure why (although I do have my theories: my quiet family upbringing, the need to completely let go, weird vocal chords, who knows). I was told I either screamed or the stand-in would take over. I wanted that role, and so I enlisted the help of Alberta. She was on the technical crew and had a scream that could wake the dead. I arranged with her that the lighting on me would be dim as I appeared on the landing, looked below, and raised my hands to my face. At that moment, Alberta let go with a hair-raising scream. It worked, and the director never learned the truth.

My junior year in college, my family moved to Minneapolis, and I was able to enroll in the University of Minnesota. Bit of a shock. In Eau Claire, I’d been a big frog in a little-bitty puddle. But here I was, a junior at this enormous University. No orientation for me, and no way to meet people as I lived at home. For two weeks I wandered about and spoke to no one and no one spoke to me. It was dreadful. Every morning, my father said, “Aren’t you the luckiest girl in the world!” I never told him how unhappy I was and every evening I cried myself to sleep. But I knew I had to do something. Sink or swim.

One evening as I crossed the Mall, I noticed the lights in the basement of the music building. That’s where the theater was. I walked inside and asked who was in charge. Someone directed me down the hall to an office. I opened the door and saw a bald man with the biggest, darkest, kindest eyes I’d ever seen; Doc Whiting, the head of the theater department. He invited me in. “What can I do for you?” he asked, and the next thing I knew I was babbling away, telling him all about it. He took my hand and walked me backstage. “Put her to work,” he said. They did. Saved my life. The theater wasn’t even a minor for me, and most of my professors did not approve of the time I spent doing plays. But I loved it. I was never given any leading parts—I wasn’t even in the same league as the people who were playing major roles –but I got walk-ons and minor roles and lots of technical jobs. One of my favorites was King Lear. I was a sound technician. My friend Helen was lights. By the time we were giving performances, we’d memorized the play. Some evenings, she’s say all the men’s roles, I’d do women’s. then we’d reverse. Another fun play was Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. I had a non-speaking part--a walk-on--and a marvelous costume. It was a pale rose color and had panniers –bustle-like pads at the hips. I was having a fun flirtation with a fellow who was doing lights, an added bonus. In one scene, I was seated on a big pouffy seat on the far right of the stage, my gown spread out at my feet. Suddenly, I had the eerie feeling that the audience was moving. I glanced over to the wings and there was my flirtatious friend with a grip on the hem of my gown, slowly pulling me offstage. I planted my feet firmly to grip the floor and leaned forward. It didn’t help and before I knew it, I was in the wings and in his arms. Fortunately, it was a high school student matinee and no one seemed to notice. Such is the fate of walk-ons.

My most momentous moment on stage was for a senior recital play. Theater majors were required to give a senior recital. This meant they were to pick a one-act play, produce and direct it. A woman I barely knew asked if I’d perform the lead in her senior recital. My ego leaped in and I accepted. A lead! For the male lead, she chose a handsome fellow she was dating. (I’ll call him Hal.) Hal had no theater experience, but he was handsome. We began rehearsals. It was a drama, and in one scene, Hal pulls out a pistol, threatens me, and then fires the gun. (He misses me, tosses the gun, and rushes off stage.) We used a toy gun during rehearsals with Hal promising he knew all about pistols. The evening of the performance arrived and we were ready. Everyone knew their lines and their places. Costumes were great, even makeup. Hal was provided with a pistol. He fitted it with blanks and fired several shots into a large barrel. We were ready.

The play was going well—no missed cues, the audience fully engaged and then we had the gun scene. Hal looked perfect, hair messed, face enraged when he pulled out the pistol. I felt the audience tense. He threatened me, raised the pistol and pulled the trigger. You could hear the click in the quiet room. Nothing happened. A look of panic filled Hal’s face. He pulled again. Another click and silelnce. The quiet of the room now had weight. Hal's hand shook as he again raised the pistol. He squeezed the trigger and a loud click reverberated through the silent room. Suddenly, a voice hollered, “Bang!” The audience roared with laughter. Hal ran off stage. I said my lines and ended the play.

I wanted to die I was so embarrassed. I raced down to the dressing room intending to hide until everyone had gone. But the door opened and Doc Whiting walked in. “You were good, Ruth. Congratuations.” he said.

“What idiot hollered ‘bang?'” I asked.

He smiled. “I did. The audience needed some relief. And you never got out of character. I mean it when I said you were good.” He patted my shoulder. “Now go out and greet your fans. Go on. You’ll survive.” And I did.

My happiest, most amazing experience was a tour. The Department of Arts and Lectures at the University wanted to try an experiment. (This was 1946.) The play was “Blythe Spirit” by Noel Coward. I played the role of the maid who happened to be a “familiar.” Got to sing “I’ll Be Loving You Always” with a Cockney accent. I was also in charge of properties—we all had dual roles. The sets were piled into a big truck, the six actors in one car, and off we went for our one-night stands, to small towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. My per diem was $5/day. At the end of the tour I had to borrow money to get home. We were a success, so much so that they still do tours, only now they do the Mediterranean, Japan, and Europe. Born thirty years too soon, the story of my life.

My last theater adventure was Little Theater my first year out of college. I was teaching in a small town in Wisconsin and joined the theater to give me something to do with my evenings and to make friends. The play was "Claudia" and I played lead role of Claudia, a young bride. In the play, she smokes a cigarette and flirts with a fellow, even allows him to kiss her. The play went well and we received rave reviews in the local paper. The following week, I was called into the Superintendent's office. I could tell I was in trouble the minute I saw his face. He didn't even ask me to sit down, but shook the folded newspaper in my face. He was outraged. Here I was, a teacher, a role model to the children, a woman who should have been a paragon of virtue, and I had sullied my reputation by being in a play!

I could feel tears wanting desperately to fall, but I thought about my father and wondered what he'd do. He wouldn't lose his cool, of that I was sure, so I gritted my teeth. I asked if  the Superintendent was familiar with Shakespeare. He was. Did he think those plays were worth doing? He did. Even Edmund's soliloquey in "King Lear?" He agreed. I raised my fist. "Now, gods stand up for bastards!" His mouth dropped open. I turned and left his office. I cried all the way home, sure I'd lost my job. But the following day there was a phone call for me. It was the Superintendent. He apologized. It seems the gods can stand up for teachers as well.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The AID People

In my life they are everywhere and sometimes hard to spot for their disguises are so clever. They’re the AID people –you know, Angels In Disguise.

My darling friend Abbie could spot an angel no matter how clever the disguise. Abbie’s disease (a degenerative muscle problem) had gotten to the point where she was now in a wheelchair. We were best friends. She lived in Camarillo, I lived in South Pasadena  and Abbie loved to come visit. So her husband Peter drove her in to spend weekends with me. This one weekend, I didn’t think to ask about how she’d get back home. Finally, on Sunday I asked if I was to take her home. No, she said. She wanted to spend as much time with me as she could. I could take her to the bus in the morning. Are you sure? I asked. I had my doubts about this, but she insisted. And so early Monday morning I drove to the bus station in Los Angeles. I parked the car and then struggled with the wheelchair (it just barely fit in my little trunk). I finally got it out and opened. Then lifted Abbie into the chair (she was a tiny thing with long blonde hair) and crossed the street and entered the depot. It was a mess as they were rebuilding/redecorating. There was this black rubber moving floor that went up to the second floor where you bought tickets. No matter how hard I pushed, I couldn’t get the chair to go up on the ramp. I was sweating and muttering, when a very drunk man staggered up to us. “Having a little trouble?” he asked.

I turned away, disgusted with his appearance and smell. But not Abbie. She smiled and held out her arms. “Yes. Could you help?”

The man pushed me aside, grabbed the handles of the chair, turned around and stepped backwards onto the ramp. Up they went with me standing at the bottom open-mouthed. I finally joined them. Abbie thanked the man and he kissed her cheek. He ignored me and staggered away. We went up to the ticket window and Abbie bought her ticket. Then we went to wait for the bus. It arrived and the driver stepped out. He was a big man, with a head of curly blonde hair. I pushed Abbie forward and he reached for her ticket. Then he looked at me. “Your ticket,” he said.

“Oh, I’m not going.”

“Oh, but you have to. She needs to have someone with her.”

And thus began the argument. No matter what Abbie and I said, he was adamant. No handicapped person on his bus without an attendant. Finally, Abbie said, “If I can get on this bus by myself can I go?” He thought a moment and then agreed.

We stood and watched, tears streaming down our faces, as Abbie struggled to crawl up the steps onto the bus. Before she reached the very top, he leaped onto the steps and picked her up. He put her in the front seat by a window. Abbie was a master at spotting the AID people. Takes one to know one.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Swans, Geese, and Eagles

Swans, Geese, and Eagles

Last year when my friend Allison asked if I wanted to see swans, I readily agreed to spend the weekend with her. I’ve not seen many swans in my lifetime, had read about them long before I ever saw one. Not many swans in Wisconsin. As I packed for the weekend, I tried to remember my swan encounters. I remember walking a narrow footpath, pulling my suitcase, on my way to catch a bus to the village of Broadway. I had made reservations at a B&B and was anxious to get there. The footpath was bumpy and I was developing a pain in my upper back, for although I travel lightly, my suitcase was getting heavier by the minute. And then I saw them, four swans, three white and one black. It was like being hit, a wake-up call. Ruth, stop and smell the roses. There are four swans swimming in the River Avon. You’re in England and there’s a lovely pub across the way. All my aches disappeared.

My next memory of swans happened in Norway. I was on a train with my sister, going from Oslo to Bergen for the weekend. It was March and the snow was deep. The scenes were beautiful as we rode along. Suddenly, there was an opening in the forest and I looked down a long ravine to a river below. The trees were black against the pristine snow and at the bottom of the ravine were six swans gliding on the icy blue water. We quickly moved on, but the scene was forever etched in my memory.

And here I was now, in Allison’s car on our way to her home in Skagit County. We left the freeway and were on a county road when I saw some swans. Allison stopped so I could take a picture. These were Trumpeter swans (you know that because of their size, dark bill, and deep honking sound), the largest North American waterfowl, weighing about 28 pounds with a wingspan of six to eight feet. They can live more than 24 years and they mate for life. The male is called a cob (from the Middle English cobbe meaning leader of the pack). The female is a pen and she lays between three and eight eggs each summer. In 1940, the Alaskan bird watchers counted only 69. These birds were on their way to extinction. But people intervened and today the Alaskan birdwatchers claim nearly 13,000 swans nesting there in the summer.

I took my picture of the swans.

This was the first time I’d seen swans out of the water. They moved slowly, awkwardly, one webbed foot carefully placed one after the other. Water is their element. I noticed Allison had a sly smile as we drove away. Within a few minutes she stopped the car and pointed. “Ruth, look off to your right.” At first, I thought it was snow, and then I saw movement. Swans, hundreds of them. Made the hairs on the back of my neck move.

(The volunteer bird counters say there were about 8400 in the County.) They feed on the after-harvest crops, gleaning the fields of carrots, potatoes, corn, berries, etc. When they leave in March, the fields are fertilized and ready for plowing, a good arrangement for all concerned. And they need to fatten up for they will be going back to Siberia to mate and nurture their young, all to be ready to make the long flight again next winter. The whole business left me speechless. (If you want to know more about swans, check out Martha Jordan.) 

The swans would have made my weekend, and then Allison asked if I’d like to see the Snow Geese. I remember reading Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose. Beautiful story, very sad ending, haunted me for weeks. I had never seen a snow goose and so the chance to see some was enticing. There were books on the coffee table about birds, so I did a little research. These Snow Geese summer in Alaska on Wrangle Island, but they winter here, grazing much as the swans do on the after-harvest veggies. The birders on Wrangle Island recognize the geese who winter here for their heads are dyed a coppery red, due to the ferrous soil in the Skagit Flats. We drove to the Floyd Jones Reserve the next morning and there they were, over 100,000. It boggled my mind.

The geese are beautiful and noisy. Every once in a while, a group would rise and swirl over the crowd. And then a flock came in like a blizzard from the north, circled the group below, and gracefully land to join the others. How do they do it? They never bump into each other or cause any accidents. There were squabbles going on, but never about the flying. It was more over some tender morsel. I could have watched them all day. 

But we didn’t stay all day with the geese as Allison had one more treat in mind. Eagles. Seeing an eagle has always been an event in my life. I remember my father pointing one out when we camped in northern Wisconsin. Such majesty and power. I knew immediately why it was my country’s official bird. I knew about hawks: Rough-legged, Red Tailed, Northern Harriers, Peregrine falcons. But eagles always were special. Still are. I love to see them in flight. But to see them sitting upright in a tree is also magical for me. It’s as if they are some kind of messenger sent just for me, either to give me strength, or to remind me all is well. Lucky this farm family: (Those black dots are eagles--12 of them.)

I am still in awe of all that beauty. I hope the feeling never leaves. Mother Nature knows what she’s doing.