Yes, I’m still alive…

I’ve been a very, very bad blogger.

The one thing you’re expected to do as a blogger is to write blogs, at least occasionally, and preferably on a regular basis. But life definitely got in the way of my writing this year. I have a folder, jam-packed with ideas and events I had planned to feature in posts, but I never got around to writing about any of its contents.

Rather than try to cover several months, I am opting to start fresh, which feels appropriate because I’ve launched a new career. I’m no longer a copy editor, though I do still spend quite a bit of time correcting papers. Neither have I returned to my former career of teaching elementary school. However, my job is in the field of education.Officially I’m an employee of the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, even though I commute 45 minutes north to Fairfield, in Solano County, rather than across the bridge to the City by the Bay. As an independent studies teacher for Five Keys Charter Schools and Programs, I work with adults so they can either get their high school diploma or take the GED. The five keys of the school’s name refers to Education, Employment, Community, Recovery, and Family, which are all considered integral tools for people to have success after incarceration. Most–but not all–of my current students are adults on probation or parole. When they come to the probation department building to meet with their parole officer or to provide a court-ordered urine sample, they can stop by my classroom and either drop off work that they’ve done or ask for help with whichever subject they’re working on.

I teach everything but P.E., performing arts, and foreign language, although there is some curriculum for motivated students to teach themselves Spanish. I haven’t yet had to teach upper-level math, but I should probably brush up on my trig at some point, since that was where I hit the math wall back in high school. So far I’ve mostly taught fractions and negative numbers, which are both still in my comfort zone.

Some of my students stay twenty minutes, some stay an hour, and some stay all morning. Their ages are from 22 to 60, their reading levels are from 2nd grade to 12th grade, and their math skills range from learning their multiplication facts to algebra. A number of my students are in recovery for addiction, and a few are dealing with accompanying memory loss. Some have hectic work schedules that make coming to class tricky, and others are actively looking for work. Three of my students live in a group rehab house, and at least one is homeless. Several have children. A fair number have learning issues, and many just didn’t get much out of school the first time around.

But they all want to build a better life for themselves and for their families by getting an education, which increases their opportunities.

I’m the only teacher at my site, but I have colleagues in other social services within the building. My fellow teachers are spread out across Solano County and throughout California.  My principal is the director for all Solano County programs and has a lot on his plate, so I don’t see him very often. My classroom is all mine, as small as it is, and I’ve done some re-organizing to get settled.  Right now all my hours are there. When I get jail clearance, I’ll also teach students who are in custody at Claybank Detention Facility in addition to my current roster.

Getting out of jail and working on getting a diploma is a new beginning for my students, and commuting to Fairfield to work with adults is a new beginning for me–so we’re all starting down that road together. And so far, I love it.

It certainly keeps me busy, which means I’m not always thinking about the current political nightmare. And that is a good thing.

Advertisements

Best of SF Fringe Festival: Brooks’s Tasha

Cat Brooks in Tasha

The San Francisco Fringe Festival is part of a long tradition of giving the stage to less mainstream indie performers. From slapstick to satire to the one-person show, Fringe performances are ones you are unlikely to see at A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep. This year’s line-up offers 30 choices.

Cat Brooks artfully presents the tragedy of Natasha (Tasha) McKenna, a woman with schizophrenia who was killed in police custody in Fairfax County, Virginia, in 2015. Representing her mother, one of the officers, the sheriff in charge, other characters, and most notably, Tasha herself, Brooks takes the audience on the journey that leads up to and includes Tasha’s death.

Actual footage from the events plays intermittently on screens between Brooks’s portrayals of different characters, never letting the audience forget that this is fact not fiction.

The most moving scene for me was Tasha’s mother after her daughter’s death. Her pain is so present and personal; yet set within the larger context of police violence against black people, we know that despite the specific details that make this case distinctive, it is a story that plays out far too often.

Through tears, I gave a standing ovation for Brooks as a playwright, a performer, a storyteller, and an activist. Afterwards, Brooks gave audience members the chance to ask questions in the limited time we had until the next show needed to set up. I think we were all glad that we had that time to process, if just for a few moments, before going back out into the world.

I was disappointed that the small house at Exit Theatre wasn’t full. Everyone should see this piece. I think it deserves a longer life than its four showings at the festival and hope it finds a home on one of the bigger stages in the Bay Area.

If you see only one SF Fringe performance, let it be this one.

Go to The Other Place!

Robert Parsons and Stacy Ross

Sometimes I’m lucky and see a play early enough in its run that I can recommend it to others. I am so glad that is the case for “The Other Place,” directed by Taylor Korobow.

I don’t recall even hearing of Symmetry Theatre Company before last weekend.  But the play featured my favorite local actress, Stacy Ross, so I was excited to be able to get tickets because I will see her in anything.

In fact, the whole cast was very good. Robert Parsons always gives a solid performance in everything I’ve seen him in. Lisa Morse and Michael Barrett Austin are both versatile actors who play a range of roles well. Within the play itself, Morse portrays three distinct characters, though her role is listed simply as “The Woman.”

Ross plays Juliana, a smart and confident research scientist, who opens the play by addressing the audience as if we were attendees at a conference where she was presenting. With skill, she smoothly goes back and forth between her presentation and her thoughts as she speaks. We meet her doctor (played by Morse), her husband, Ian (Robert Parsons), and hear her account of events. But clues are steadily dropped, and gradually the audience learns what’s really going on and also discovers the trauma in her past that makes its way into her present. The combination of the script and the staging let us know different facets of a complicated situation a little bit  at a time, rather than building to a big reveal all at once, which provided a more realistic feel that this story benefited from.

It comes as no surprise that the “other place” of the title represents not only the vacation home where the trauma originally occurred but also the alternate reality in which Juliana finds herself. Expressing that complicated transition from one reality to another on stage can be hard to portray convincingly, but Ross does so exquisitely.

The program, though glossy and professionally printed, gave little information about the theater company and even less about the playwright, which seems like lost opportunities to me. (It did have the largest print I’ve ever seen in a program, which was a refreshing change for my eyes; but I would have given up a few font sizes to have more content.)  I’d have thought the playwright was a woman, knowing only the name–Sharr White–which to my ear sounds like a diminutive of Sharlene or Charlotte. But I discovered that Sharr White is a man by googling the name while we waited for the show to begin. And after the show I went online to find out more about the theater company, whose mission is

to create professionally produced theatre that will excite, stimulate and challenge our audiences. The plays we choose will always have at least as many female characters as male, and in any given show there will always be at least as many Equity contracts given to women as to men. In addition we will produce plays that acknowledge that women’s stories are as important as men’s and in so doing we will hope to bring about further awareness to the public and the theatre community at large of the need for more “balance on the boards.”

Live Oak Park
Live Oak Park Theater entrance

Now that wouldn’t have been so hard to put in the program, would it?

The program aside–and I realize that most theater-goers wouldn’t be bothered by its shortcomings–I highly recommend this production of “The Other Place.” It is playing one more weekend at Live Oak Theater in Berkeley. If you appreciate a good story, excellent acting, and thought-provoking theater, go buy your ticket right now!  https://www.symmetrytheatre.com/.

Acceptance doesn’t mean giving up

Since last November, most people I know have felt like they’re stuck in some sort of alternate universe. I definitely went through the first two stages of Dr. Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief (denial and anger) last fall. I’m not sure what bargaining (stage three) would look like in this scenario–maybe trying to bargain with yourself? if I write 30 post cards and call my congresspeople twice a week, then at least I can say I’m paying attention, right? But not long after the high of the Women’s March in January wore off, I was stuck at stage four–depression.

I tried to go backward in the natural progression and try out anger again for a while, but that didn’t get me past my grief. I tried keeping an activism log, but my failure to maintain it after a few months put me right back into despondence.

Then I read something my husband shared on Facebook, “How to Stay Sane If Trump Is Driving You Insane–Advice from a Therapist.” And it made sense to me. Stage five–acceptance–doesn’t have to mean accepting the present administration as the new norm or becoming complacent. It’s more complicated than that. Acceptance in this case means being able to accept that, despite our horrifying circumstances, this is indeed what we’re working with now, and we must continue. Wallowing in depression is a win for the other side.

But the key, according to behavioral therapist Robin Chancer, is not to fall into false optimism:

There are times when optimism is not appropriate or possible, and this is one of those times. Our President is delusional, lying, or ignorant; disastrous climate change and war with North Korea loom; marginalized people in our society are suffering. Faced with these calamities, catastrophic thinking is a rational response.

But this therapist lays it all out clearly, so rather than reading my take on it, you should read her advice in her post on politicsmeanspolitics.com.

 

Unpacking my invisible knapsack

invisible knapsackDuring the school year, I met with a group of educators regularly during lunch. We started a white cohort to discuss racism. And because we were brought together by the school that was our community, our first natural focus was on our students. We purchased Black Lives Matter t-shirts and pledged to wear them to school on Fridays to show our support. We discussed how we might be able to include more structured anti-bias curriculum. Sometimes we got sidetracked by other kinds of social injustices or just shared personal stories from marches, workshops, and our classrooms that were of interest to us all. But it wasn’t until the end of the year that we realized we hadn’t really talked about our own white privilege.

No doubt you’ve already read Peggy McIntosh’s now-classic piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” If you haven’t, you can read it on SEEDS’ web site. Written in 1989, the article came out of McIntosh’s work in feminism and male privilege. She was trying to understand how men could deny the privileges they enjoyed; and it occurred to her that although she did not have the advantages that many males had, she certainly benefited from being white. So she began listing all the things she could think of that she didn’t have to face as a white woman–situations that she didn’t have to think about simply because of her race. And despite her list being 28 years old, a lot of her points are still relevant, unfortunately.

We read (or re-read) McIntosh’s article and assigned ourselves homework: list the contents of our own invisible knapsacks. But I missed the next meeting and never got to share mine with the group. And the end of the school year meant that something special was happening every day at lunch, so there was no time to meet.

And shortly before the last day of school, I decided that I couldn’t afford to return to my wonderful part-time job next year. So I’ve attended my last Whites Against Racism lunch, which I will sincerely miss.

But I made this list, so . . . I thought I’d share it with you. Here is what I came up with as privileges I enjoy as a white person. (I did borrow quite a bit from Ms. McIntosh.)

My Invisible Knapsack

  1. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors will be neutral or pleasant to me.

  2. I can go shopping and be reasonably sure that clerks are not studying my every move, watching for signs that I might be shoplifting.

  3. I can turn on the television, go to a play, or watch a movie and see people of my race widely represented.

  4. I can read history books that recount many positive contributions from people of my race.

  5. I know that in school my child was exposed to positive accomplishments by people of our race.

  6. I can go into a music store and count on finding music by people of my race.

  7. I can go into a supermarket and find foods that I grew up with and fit with my cultural traditions.

  8. I can easily find someone who can cut and style my hair.

  9. When I use checks or credit cards, it is unlikely that my skin color will cause any extra scrutiny as to my financial reliability.

  10. I can easily find public places where I am accepted and comfortable.

  11. I can swear without people labeling me as angry or dangerous.

  12. I can wear a hoodie without being followed in any neighborhood.

  13. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

  14. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

  15. If a traffic cop pulls me over, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

  16. If I see a cop, I don’t have to worry that I will be stereotyped as a criminal and fear for my safety.

  17. I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, and magazines featuring people of my race.

  18. I can join organizations and be pretty sure that I will be heard and accepted by other members.

  19. I can accept a job offer without having co-workers suspect that I got it because of race.

  20. I can walk into a hotel or store, knowing that people will not stare at me, wondering if I’m supposed to be there.

  21. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.

  22. If I am not treated well by a server, I don’t have to wonder if my race had anything to do with it.

    got privilege button

I’m pretty sure there are many I haven’t thought of, and I plan to add to my list, at least mentally, when I discover more.

What invisible privileges do you benefit from?

Shotgun’s Events is phenomenal, thought-provoking theater

Wow.

I’ve been a theater-goer for decades, a choral singer on and off throughout my life, and more recently, a playwright. But last night I experienced theater in a completely new and transforming way. I was both audience and performer in an incredible play at Shotgun’s Ashby Stage, and I have to say–it felt amazing to be part of it.

Scottish-born David Greig wrote The Events in response to the 2011 massacre in Oslo that left 77 people dead. Though the circumstances differ, Greig explores the painful aftermath for one particular survivor of a mass shooting, Claire. Part of Greig’s vision of the play was to include actual community choruses onstage–a different one each night.

Which is how I got involved. Shotgun put out word that it was seeking both intact community choruses and people with choral music background to learn songs and perform them in the role of the play’s choir. One large four-hour music rehearsal introduced us to the songs back in late April. Then we were on our own to learn and practice the music, using mp3s that were sent to us, although presumably some of the choirs used their own practice time as well.  But for those of us who responded to the call as individuals, we didn’t practice together until the night of our performance, in a two-hour rehearsal that also included blocking, cues, and the addition of a few spoken lines.

Claire, exquisitely portrayed by the talented Julia McNeal, is a minister and leads a community choir. (And having been in a few choirs myself, I think she did an admirable job of conducting us onstage.)  While her partner and her therapist want Claire to focus on herself, Claire is driven to search out anyone whom she thinks may be able to answer the one question she has–why?

The Boy (Caleb Cabrera) Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Caleb Cabrera takes on the twelve other roles in the play, which includes the young perpetrator (known only as The Boy), but he also portrays her partner, a cab driver, a journalist, The Boy’s father, a friend, a classmate of The Boy, a choir member, a politician, her psychiatrist, a man named Gary, and even a baby. And he does so, quite effectively, without costume change, without props, and without gimmicky affectations. Although initially confusing, the blending of characters highlights the omnipresence of The Boy in her thoughts. In a particularly chilling scene, Cabrera flips back and forth between portraying The Boy and Claire’s partner, Katrina, putting us in Claire’s head, which, of course, is a confusing place to be. As The Boy, Cabrera leaps, runs, climbs, and even does jumping jacks, in what is certainly a taxing physical performance.

Director Susannah Martin made some bold choices for this production but never left the audience hanging. For example, she extended the boundaries of the stage by having The Boy climb ape-like alongside the audience.

Angrette McCloskey’s set was simple, focusing on the choir’s practice room, which allowed multiple settings without disruptive scene changes and also kept Claire essentially trapped in the place where her life changed forever. The particular challenge of creating a space for the choir that was both practical and not too intrusive was creatively solved with a slightly recessed nook.

Because Shotgun stuck to the playwright’s vision of using a different choir each time, it was a huge job to wrangle numerous singers, schedule rehearsals, and patiently explain the same blocking to a new group every night of the performance. For that, Choir Captain Brady Brophy-Hilton deserves a special award.

Claire (Julia McNeal) Photo by Jessica Paloponi

And for being the true musical director beneath the dramatic surface, Lisa Quoresimo was an effective leader in a quiet, unobtrusive way, performing a miracle–taking 16 to 20 different singers each night and pulling from them polished, moving renditions of eight songs whose origins varied from traditional to Kanye West. Bravo!

The script was intricate and thought-provoking, the direction was creative while remaining respectful of the playwright’s vision, the acting was stellar, and the music that was written for the play was hauntingly beautiful.

But what really took hold of me was the thought of being part of something so great in a number of ways: the camaraderie of fellow choral members (most of whom I’d never met before that night), watching the play unfold before me while I was onstage myself (singers were not given scripts so that they could experience the play as a true audience), and knowing that the journey that Claire was on is not a fictional occurrence because unfortunately a growing number of people are sadly going through similar recoveries. And some are not recovering.

And the speech that I got to recite about humankind’s relationship to apes and bonobos, which seemed oddly out of place during our tech rehearsal, may have been what made the most connections for me after I rolled it all around in my head after the play.

But I don’t want to give away any more details than I already have because you should see this play for yourself if you possibly can. And after you do, let’s talk!

The Events has been extended through June 4 at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA.

Should so much depend on a bath mat?

Its early life, hanging on a towel rack

Some months ago, we were having dinner at a friend’s house. At some point I made use of the facilities. Little did I know that I would fall in love.

It was just hanging on the side of the tub–so pristine and white that it drew my eyes to it. I reached out to touch it, and it was everything I’d imagined and more. I didn’t want to leave the bathroom without it. I felt the need to share the tactile heaven I’d experienced, so I carried it out to the group assembled around the dining table and exclaimed to our host that it was the most exquisite bath mat I’d ever felt. Then I actually offered the other guests the chance to feel it for themselves. (I may have already had a few glasses of wine by this point, but it honestly didn’t feel like odd behavior at the time.)

Our host admitted that it was indeed brand new. He’d just gotten it at Ikea that day. Ikea? I thought it must have come from some high-end bath boutique where the toothbrush holders cost a day’s salary. But if it was from Ikea, it was probably reasonably priced.

But we’ve been on belt-tightening mode for several months now, not purchasing anything but food and the basics in order to pay the mortgage and property taxes (you know, so we can remain in our beloved home). So I didn’t really consider buying a new bath mat, especially since we don’t even need one. Both our bathrooms have somewhat worn but perfectly serviceable rugs in place.

A few months later, Dave had to replace something–I don’t remember what–and he casually asked me if we needed anything from Ikea. The memory of that soft, pebbly fabric washed over me. First I resisted. Then I broke.

“Well, if you happen to see a bath mat like the one Andre has–I mean, if it’s a really good deal. We don’t have to have it, but…”

My unfinished sentence hung in the air like a pitiful wish.

“Okay,” he answered noncommittally.

Despite the lack of its necessity, Dave brought one home. I was beaming when he handed it to me. It was kind of ridiculous how much I loved it.

I love, love, love Ruby. But she has fur to spare.

The next question was where to place it–upstairs where I would get to enjoy its softness on my bare feet every morning and night? Or downstairs where guests could appreciate that luxury under their shoes? Downstairs is also the bathroom where Dave washes our dog Ruby every morning when they return from Point Isabel (where Ruby inevitably goes swimming and rolls around in sand and mud). I started to feel a bit possessive, almost protective of the bath mat. If I put it on the ground, it would get dirty. With people tromping all over it, it would lose its cottony cushy goodness. I decided to hang it on a towel rack until I could find it a good home.

Since then, we decided to rent out a room in our house to help pay the bills. So we moved the office out of the downstairs bedroom into the nook of the master bedroom upstairs, which previously housed all my books, yearbooks, photo albums, and boxes of photos that I’d always planned to put into albums. And of course the downstairs bedroom, though small, is quite a bit larger than the nook where the office was being relocated. Bottom line? We had way more stuff than room to put it in. Our bedroom became stacks of books, boxes, files, and an excess of office furniture. We also had to relinquish use of the closet in the downstairs room in order to rent it out. (Tenants don’t usually like landlords barging into their room to access shipping boxes or out-of-season shirts.) So more stuff had to find a home. And the shed in the back yard is already full of Whereabouts Press inventory since we stopped paying for off-site storage.

Basically, we were living like hoarders, clearing paths in order to travel from our bed to the bathroom. This was not the sort of place that deserved a beautiful new bath mat. And since we’d let our housekeeper go last year, the bathroom is cleaned somewhat irregularly. It would look ridiculous to put down a new, white rug when dog hair was just going to find it anyway. So the bath mat remained clean and perfect on the towel rack.

For weeks, most of our available energy was going toward making the downstairs room attractive and livable for a tenant–painting, cleaning, etc.

Once our tenant moved in, we started to focus on our bedroom. Luckily, 24 years ago I gave birth to a master organizer who lives with us once again. Kylie’s work hours–and let’s face it, OCD tendencies–allowed them the time and talent for projects such as going through all the office supplies and getting rid of items we’ll never use. (Maybe it’s because my dad lived through the Great Depression and raised me to be frugal or maybe it’s because I taught elementary school for so long, but I have a hard time getting rid of perfectly usable containers and extra highlighters.)

In any case, our home is starting to look once again like a home.

      

So I thought it was time. Our house is not perfect, and neither are we; but we deserved to feel that soft, fluffy bath mat beneath our toes. Because life is too short.

And besides, it’s only a bath mat.