Monday, March 30, 2009

Real Estate advice

Almost two decades ago, my new husband and I took our entire nest egg, gifted us at our wedding, and bought 14 acres with two buildings: an overgrown garage with rotting walls and a stained mattress inside, and a hideous 1950’s concrete block “cabin” done up in harvest gold and avocado shag that was slowly mildewing, out in a drained tamarack swamp two hours from the city where we worked as freelance artists. We were one of those high risk mortgages—no visible means of support. We had no first home in the city where we worked, and this was a real fixer upper but we were young and we had a vision. Strike that we were young and we were stupid. We didn’t know wells and propane tanks. But there was a stand of white pines where the wind whistled through the trees and a big meadow perfect for bonfires. There was a field of periwinkle. There was a view from the back that went on for miles. There were cows next door.

We have never ended up fixing up that shack in the woods. Underemployment, big medical bills, kids and a steady stream of muddy dogs kept putting it off, and in the course of almost two decades, our second home has become our real home. With real estate values in a tailspin, this is either the best time ever or worst time in history to buy a little dacha, a Ferienhaus, or as my grandma would say, a coliba of your own. For us, buying our little place in the woods was one of the best decisions we ever made, but NOT because it was a good investment. We may never know if it was or not because we are not likely to unload it in my lifetime. I would hock my left kidney before I would ever give up the land where all my kids learned to walk and catch snakes, where we’ve eaten Thanksgiving dinner with a revolving crew of artists, friends and family for 18 years, and where every one of our long string of pets is buried.

Those marshy acres are our true home. We have seen shooting stars and a moon so bright it casts your shadow, we’ve lost a necklace of baby teeth, read books, shot off explosives for 4th of July and New Years, and gone to sleep by the light from a jarful of fireflies. It’s become the place I go when I meditate. It’s the place we always go back to. We have grown up, grown close and are growing older on those acres, and if I’d tucked the money into a mutual fund, I surely would have tapped it by now to pay bills. And if I’d put it in a 401k—hah! It would be gone.

Forced to jam our loud family and all the animals into a tiny house with one iffy bathroom and no tv reception, we must get along in a way we aren’t required to in a house with a phone and internet hookups and reliable hot water.

Nature and weather has a more profound effect here, regularly knocking out power. We are constantly reclaiming the place from mice and infestations of biting ladybugs and stink bugs. But we spend major holidays there and as the memories telescope out, the place summarizes our lives.

So buy a second home, but not as a financial investment. Buy it as a spiritual down payment on the memories that make up your memoir.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Birthday thoughts

It’s my birthday this week. There was a lovely fruit tart at work but otherwise, I forgot the occasion entirely, or lost it or something amid all the theatrical productions, weather gyrations and general overcommittedness of the last few months. And to be honest I am so much more excited about it officially being spring, than about me being reminded of being older. I accept the aging process as normal and natural and I am on speaking terms with it—I am just not entirely ecstatic about being reminded of my mortality. It’s been a week of facing the cold hard fact of the long slow slide into the end of a life as my mother in law goes in and out of ICU. I do not think her story is ending, but we are coming to the last chapters and what shall they be? And I look at my hopes and dreams and plans and I mean OF COURSE I am not living my perfect life and following my bliss—I can barely get the laundry done and we need milk and cereal AGAIN. I can’t figure out Twitter or Facebook in its reconfigured state and that’s enough to make me feel like an old dinosaur. I am running out of time to live the life I dreamed of living while I am still physically capable of doing so, but it’s on hold right now because I need to figure out where our living expenses are coming from next month. That’s another reason to overlook a celebration. I can’t afford carry out sushi even! I feel like I have been on hold for years, just solving the crises that keep popping up like dandelions in the green expanse of my wonderful plans. You dig one out and six more pop up. So you pull all your resources together and avert disaster and try to breathe a sigh of relief and the friggin economy falls off a bloody cliff. I haven’t read a novel in months—I seem incapable of writing poetry and the only sketches I ‘ve done are of the garden I can’t afford to plant. Grumble Grumble.

Life is hard. Looking at the human condition, I don’t know where I got the chutzpah or stupidity to think it was going to be some fairy tale for me. Jobs are lost, economies tank, hot water heaters die and need immediate replacement. Look at the damn salmon I try to eat once a week for Omega 3’s. If they aren’t eaten as eggs, or splayed out on a ball of rice for sushi, or salted as lox,(and we aren’t the only species wolfing them down) they get to rip their skins off swimming upstream to keep the species going and they don’t even get to see their babies. And I got lucky enough to be born in the developed world. I don’t suppose raising kids in Darfur is a bundle of laughs this year. Jesus I am glad I am not a mom in Gaza. Or anywhere where there are landmines-- I hate loud noises.

So my gift for myself is gratefulness. Every day for the next month I will write out 3 things I am grateful for. Because when you think about it, the good stuff outweighs the bad. Last night there was a cold Guiness waiting for me at the end of a long St. Patrick’s work day.
So today’s list: I am grateful that I can smell the world again as the earth warms. I am grateful that my kids are healthy TODAY (no fevers yippee and seasonal allergies haven’t hit yet). I am grateful to be alive. Happy Birthday to me.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Life at the Opera

Last night the Uber Understudy Super (me) finally got to put on a wig and costume and get onstage. As we arrived at the theater we saw a memo announcing that our favorite yearly event at the Lyric, the end of season company party, has become the latest casualty of the deepening recession. It feels like our family reunion just got cancelled—every year we gather with choristers and stagehands, dressers and makeup artists, security guards and supers—folks we have worked with, and folks my children are growing up with, and in the glittering lobby of our favorite place, we lift a glass, and make a Sundae at the make your own bar. And while the Lyric is faring better than some opera companies like Baltimore , it is not immune to shrinking endowments and curtailed corporate contributions. But even more than in the good times, we NEED opera in the bad times. One because it is cathartic to weep over the tragedy of Manon and Lulu and be grateful you are not them. Two, because a Mozart song spiel is the ultimate diversion when your kids college fund has just melted into thin air, and three, because sometimes music really is better than food. But the real reason why Opera is so important right now is because it is important to be part of something timeless, to experience something that has been around giving people pleasure for hundreds of years. Opera has survived wars, epidemics, panics, bank runs, the great depression, revolutions. It will be with us in some form or another when these storm clouds blow over, and it tells our human story the way nothing else can. It feels right to be a part of a river of common experience that flows back into time the way sitting in an opera house and listening to these amazing sounds does. I have done my part to continue the tradition, charging my cheap seats of a yearly All the Operas subscription in the back of the upper balcony even though I have no idea what we are going to do if my husband doesn’t scare up some work soon. We may be hungry, but we’ll be at the opera.(Of course, I have always bought tickets instead of food--in grad school I ate ramen and stolen bread for a week after spending my entire grocery budget on great seats to opening of The Photographer at BAM) And this year the end of year party will be potlucks in the canteen at closing shows for the dedicated volunteers that supers are, and I will hand make my good bye tokens instead of purchasing them. And we will all cross our fingers that the scions of industry and powerful people that run the world figure a way out of this pickle before we all look like the rabble that opened the season with Manon. But come fall, I will be back: back stage if there are super roles, back balcony if there are not, ready to experience Heaven and Hell the way only the Lyric can dish it up.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Our Guild

My daughter, theater star.

Centuries ago, a family would pass on their business or trade the way folks inherit property today. Though the fashion appears to have fallen out of favor, more than a trace of it remains in our house. Our family biz is not retail or politics but the thespian craft and we are more akin to a service trade. We are like the vaudevillians, starting them young. In utero in fact---I have pictures of all three on stage slowing me down prior to birth—in our house you very nearly are born onstage. And you sure as heck spend most of your first year being lugged about rehearsals. As soon as you can walk you are clear about upstage and downstage and having lived life stage left or stage right, my kids can be confused by mere mortal directions.

I have never pressured the kids to be in theater— in fact its sort of opposite--they resent that I have not buckled down and gotten them agents (they have full page resumes and get paid to work, which when you are 8 should make you pretty happy) I am known to skimp on headshots and they don’t get to audition if I don’t like the script. But I think they really like working hard at something and seeing the results—and getting applause. For them its much easier and more logical than what happens at school. And the social life filled with people with all kinds of backgrounds, of all different ages and types, makes for a lively circle of friends.

While a school and performance schedule are easily arranged, organized sports leagues are not compatible with theatrical careers FYI. And I am not much disturbed by this. I got to do a side by side comparison of being a sports parent and a stage parent in the last week. On Saturday, I spend the day in a freezing cold ice rink, using what was left of my voice to cheer on my speed skating husband and children. The event went on for over six hours and required the participants to get in skates, and out of skates, and eat all manner of prepackaged foods. Two days later, I am back stage chaperoning the same charges (minus the husband) at the opera. You only have to get them into costume once. You still have the prepackaged foods in the form of heat and eat dinners in the canteen. But I was warm. And surrounded by opera singers, SINGING. And it was only about a 3 hour commitment. And did I mention I was warm? I could sit on a nice chair, and not a freezing cold metal bench. I will take stage mom over sports mom in a heartbeat. And so we survive the biblical rainy season, the pending mud season and the longest coldest snowiest winter in the last several decades by burying ourselves in the making of theater and grand opera. Not bad. Not bad….

Friday, March 6, 2009


I have served on committees with a wonderful woman who died recently after a six month battle with cancer. Our kids went to elementary and middle school together, at a nurturing private school. At the visitation and funeral, every single family from that class that graduated from eight grade a full six months ago was there. They showed up. That’s what my people do, even if you aren’t close friends. You just show up when what is needed is bodies in pews. Not everyone in our fast paced cyberworld still does this, but lo--these kids and their busy families came from the city and far flung suburbs, left their 2 dozen different high schools and got there. We had not seen each other since graduation night last June, but there on that cold winter day, they gathered around their classmate whose mom died the week of finals. We brought baked goods. We cried. We were There. It was a moving visual on the concept of community that is so in the news right now. One of the benefits we got from paying all that tuition money was a posse, and now that I am too broke to buy that little perk for my family and especially for my kids, I am going to have to build one at home. It’s that team thing, or as my writing mentor Susan calls it Tapping in to the Network, a recent post on Chicago Mom’s Blog.
(Shameless promotion here, I also will be blogging there)

How do you build a posse? You actually map out time in your planner for socializing, just like I finally had to mark in 3 hours a week for Being Creative. OMG, is that pathetic or WHAT? So in that Build a Posse time what kinds of activities will I plan? Potlucks and ice cream socials, field trips to the batting cages and beach, rocket building and launching days. Sleepovers. I know most of my day job consists of creating little communities for the kids I am paid to entertain and I guess I had hoped this would just “happen” for my own children, but I see now that fostering a sense of people belonging to one another and being there for one another takes time and effort. Duh. I am a little slow to the pickup on some of this. We are beings hard wired to be part of a pack, and with all our technology and staring at screens, we have lost touch with this reality. So now I see that one of my essential tasks is to get In Touch. Sharpen that pencil and take out that planner and start blocking out time for the Posse.