Monday, December 27, 2010

The Gift of Extravagance

When I was a little kid, all the stores near my small hometown had those cold, bundled-up Salvation Army bell ringers at Christmas. And every year, on one of those walks past them into the store, my Mom would stop, open her change purse, and dump its entire contents into the red metal can. They clanked loudly for quite a while as they all poured in. We stood there for a moment and then exchanged Merry Christmases with the bell ringer. And I felt rich.

When you put aside the religious aspects of Christmas, I think the main gift we receive from this annual tradition is a break from our normal routine. Once a year, it’s okay to be excessive, to overindulge, to be overly demonstrative.

At Christmas, we decorate our lives with extravagance. Our houses are more inviting with twinkling lights. We wear hideous red sweaters and put a bow around the dog’s neck. We have an excuse to shop and to eat special foods. We change our clothes, our houses, our food, our social activities, even the music we listen to. Is there anything that doesn’t change at Christmas?

Christmas is the only time when we send cards with good wishes to everyone we know. We give gifts to the important people in our lives. We take off work, travel to visit family, and host huge festive parties. The Holidays mean we all come together.

What would life be like if we didn’t have a yearly reason to break the routine?

My husband and I won’t take down our Christmas decorations until after the New Year, to prolong this season as long as possible. Then the house will go back to normal. But then the everyday routine will be a little more special, because of what we just experienced. Because we were allowed a little extravagance, because of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Yarn and Sequins

There is a hobby that is shared among many dancers across the world, from the dressing rooms of the West End to the wings of Broadway theatres. Showgirls in feathers and fishnets can be found doing this between numbers, and ballerinas sit in legwarmers and pointe shoes with this same hobby on their laps. What is this assumedly glamorous hobby? Crocheting, of course.

I learned to crochet when I worked in Branson and had long late-night rehearsals for a new show. We dancers often had to wait for hours until the Powers That Be decided they were ready for us, so we sat in the front row of the theatre with balls of yarn strewn between the seats, How to Crochet books in our laps, and made the time pass more quickly.

Crocheting is great for performers. It’s better than reading a book, which can absorb your mind too much and make it difficult to jump up and resume rehearsal. It’s soft, small, and easily portable, easy to pack into your dance bag or to stuff under your dressing room table.

This week, Nevada Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker began, and I looked around at the kids in the cast to see what they had brought to amuse themselves. I saw coloring books and video games, snacks and decks of cards. They’re too young to need something involving yarn at this point. But then, past the makeup table and racks of costumes, I saw a child on a chair with the familiar string leading to the bag next to her. Her hands were busy, and a friend watched her for a moment before moving away to a video game. On the other side of the room, a teacher stood observing everything while crocheting a baby sweater with soft orange yarn. The tradition continues.

Years ago, the show I was in traveled to Nashville to perform on a TV show, and I sat in the green room waiting for our turn on the set, working on my latest afghan. Suddenly I heard a voice next to me.

“What are you making?” I looked up to see an old stagehand in worn black clothing who eyed my yarn with interest.

“It’s an afghan for my cousin who is pregnant.”

The man smiled through his long grey beard. Then he reached into his back pocket and pulled out…yarn, and a small silver crochet hook. “Here’s what I’ve been workin’ on.” He held up an intricate doily that was about six inches in diameter.

This began a nice conversation about yarn and patterns and which size crochet hook we prefer. I’d never had such a conversation with a stagehand. After all, these men tend to be gruff, no-nonsense people who move heavy equipment and protect us dancers from being hit with cables or flying backdrops, their jobs forcing them into the dark shadows. But I guess they need something for the downtime just like the performers.

So the next time you see a live performance, when you see that dancer running off stage, she’s not necessarily exiting toward a press interview or a Hollywood party or to drinks with the cast. It just may be that what waits her is a humble ball of yarn and a small metal hook. I think it’s a nice contrast to the sequins and glitter.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Too Many Old People

As I walked into Starbucks one afternoon this week, I passed a conversation between two 20-something male employees who sat outside for their cigarette break. “There are too many old people,” the one with the darker hair said nonchalantly.

Since I had a birthday milestone this weekend, immediately the sentence hit home as I continued inside for my iced chai latte. I knew their conversation was not about me, but it made me wonder what they were talking about. Would I qualify as an old person to them?

Probably yes, I assumed. I am now in the un-cool age group. No matter what I do now, no matter how I dress or act or talk, no matter what I say, I’m someone who went to school in the Eighties. And to them, that is O-L-D.

The great thing is, I really don’t care what anyone thinks. That's the greatest gift that comes with age - confidence. But I never really cared about being “cool.” I wasn’t a big partier or drinker, wasn’t into staying out late or bar hopping. I preferred hanging out with my small group of theatre friends or having deep conversations about life or books or art. And I never really thought much of people’s ages. In theatre, I’ve always worked with people of all ages, as equals. We were co-workers, not age brackets. We were just people.

And to prove that I don’t care what people think, I walked outside Starbucks (perhaps to solidify my "weird old person" status) and asked the guys what they meant regarding the “old people” comment. They laughed at being caught, then they said they had been talking about the other employees all being older. It was nice to satisfy my curiosity for a change. Basically, in their definition, anyone over 30 is old.

Now I just have to make sure that I don’t go too far with the idea of not caring about others’ opinions of me. I don’t want to be one of those obnoxious old people who yell and fart and complain, saying “I’m 70 years old; I’ll do whatever the hell I want.” (I actually heard someone say that once, loudly.)

So I’m going to embrace my 40’s, look forward to the changes in my life - and in me - that are to come in this new decade. And I'll try to wear the label "old person" with pride.

Monday, December 6, 2010


This weekend Las Vegas was cloudy – a fairly rare thing for the desert. I spent all of Sunday at home with George, with a To-Do list that consisted of making cut-out sugar cookies and prepping our Christmas cards. I didn’t know it was going to be cloudy; I first saw it in the morning when I noticed that the light coming through the shutters was different. Outside the sky was grey, the sun a big GE soft white light bulb casting the world in gentle light. It made me want to snuggle on the sofa with George and a hot cup of tea, so I did just that.

I notice the light quite a bit. Maybe everyone does, but I think I was trained at an early age to notice things – what makes a good photograph, which setting would be a great painting, how a strip of light from a window adds just the right compositional component to make a scene pop. I guess you could say I appreciate the light. And I love to notice the way the light changes depending on the weather, the climate, the country.

My favorite light is when there is snow on the ground. I love the bluish-whiteness of the light as it bounces off the snow, when the sky is white to match the ground. There is such a softness to the light of snow.

When it rains there is another kind of light, as if the light shining through each raindrop causes it to diffuse and weaken. The light seems heavy, burdened by all those drops.

Have you ever noticed the light during a solar eclipse? I’ll never forget walking out my door and noticing the difference in the light; it seemed yellowish, surreal. I walked into the yard and saw that under the tree by the mailbox, the light shining through the branches created thousands of little half-moon-shaped (half-sun) shadows on the ground. You could watch the progress of the eclipse in the shadows.

I remember hearing years ago that the Impressionists liked to paint in a certain place in Europe because the light was so good. As a kid I thought that was absurd; light was light, right? But I learned what they meant when my husband and I went to Paris a few years ago. We took the Eurostar over from London, and I’ll never forget looking outside the train window at the French countryside for the first time. Something about it was different. Yes, it was farmland and windy, cloudy skies, but it looked…I couldn’t think of a word to describe it at the time. Foreign? Well, duh, of course. I finally realized it was the light. Something about it was just…different. Brighter, somehow, but not bright.

Over Thanksgiving I drove to visit family in Alabama, across Tennessee to their house. It was dark during half my drive, but the moon lit up everything, eliminating the need for streetlights. As I entered Huntsville, suddenly the moon was right in front of me, orange in a sky of deep, dark blue. The highway wound past the Space & Rocket Center, and the tall white rockets reflected the moon’s glow. The drive was gorgeous, because of the moonlight.

In Vegas, we mostly have sunny days. And I don’t mind them. When the weather is nice, the yellow sunny days make me happy, make me want to be outside. But in the glare of the summer sun, the brightness is oppressive. We shield ourselves from it in sunglasses and floppy hats. The Vegas light is too much, blinding, revealing, exposing. Like the city itself, the summer sun is all about excess.

So give me my cloudy days. Bathe me in soft light. Cast the world in a warmer glow.

And most of all, notice the light.