I saw "Prodigal Son"

What I saw: “Prodigal Son” at the second-most generically named theater I’ve yet been to in New York, the Manhattan Theater Club (also known, even more generically, as New York City Center Stage 1) at 131 W 55th Street, which is off-Broadway.

What I wore: favorite blue Fluevog Guide heels, Hudson jeans that are much too long and puddle annoyingly around my ankles, black no-iron stretch cotton Brooks Brothers blouse, black Eileen Fisher cardigan, gray rag & bone scarf with black dots that for a while I thought the cleaners lost and I cried over it because you can’t buy them anymore but then I found it so I wear a lot and maybe clutch it jealously sometimes, tiny purple Kate Spade purse with a long skinny strap that is really no replacement for women’s clothes having functional pockets but what can you do?

What I did beforehand: When I first moved to New York I complained that you can’t get a decent cup of coffee, but I have since gotten over the general badness of a lot of the coffee in New York and found where to go. Before the theater, I ate a molasses ginger cookie and drank a decaf cappuccino from Blue Bottle coffee (which is a New York outpost of a West Coast chain) and then walked to the subway to catch the uptown E train. I got on the wrong train, hopped off and then got on the right train and got off at the wrong stop. I was supposed to be meeting the Bacon Provider for dinner and had to walk five blocks instead of no blocks.  

Who went with me: The Bacon Provider and The Graduate (who we should have invited to join us for dinner) 

How I got tickets: online, full price, in two batches because I thought The Bacon Provider was going to be out of town and when I found out he wasn’t going to be out of town I bought one more ticket, in the back row

Why I saw this show: recommended by a friend at the barn who has a friend who is an actor and the friend recommended it

Where I sat: Row B, Seat 5

Is your phone off?

Things that were sad: Sometimes, I miss teaching. Sometimes, I think the wrong people get into teaching. 

Things that were funny: I did not like the rambly, new-agey incidental guitar-and-sometimes-piano music used in the show. It was correctly engineered, but I just didn’t like it. File this under #myunpopularopinion; it was composed and performed by Paul Simon. Also, when the lights came up, just before the actor spoke his first line, the woman next to me said aloud, “I like the set!”


Things that were not funny: how many prep-school coming-of-age stories are there left to be told? But if you want me to sit on the edge of my seat, tell me a story of redemption. Because, you see, I, too, was a liar once, and know well what liars can do.

What it is: the best written play I’ve seen this year; the script is for sale for $17 at the coat check afterwards, and they may not have change, so buyers will have to choose, as I did, between paying $20 for it or waiting for change.

Who should see it: fans of the wildly gifted young actor, Timothée Chalamet; people who think about Socrates, Nazis, T.S. Eliot, and Jesus Christ

What I saw on the way home: Before the play begins there is a book lying on the stage. If you go to see the play, and you should, check to see what book it is.  Also, check to see what book is left on the stage at the end.

Budapest #3 ⅖: The dead bird and Gül Baba Türbeje

On the way down the hill from Gül Baba türbeje, as we stumbled on the large uneven cobblestones, I said that we’d found our dead bird. My son heard me, but said nothing. He knew what I meant.
How is it possible I have not written down the story of the dead bird?
A dead bird
When I was in Italy, I told it over and over. The story of the dead bird is a story I tell so often and to so many people that sometimes, I, too, am tired of telling it.
A couple of years ago, in North Dreadful, one of our dogs found an injured bird on the porch; we think it hit a window. He brought it to us, in good retriever fashion, and surrendered it on command. It didn’t last long, but it was put into service as an artist’s model. This dead bird made a nice addition to a still life: lightweight, odorless and capable of maintaining its pose indefinitely, the only real problem it presented was keeping the pets away from it. Well, and I guess not all the people in the house thought having a dead bird lying around was ok. I started writing the story of the dead bird then, but never finished.
I never tell the story exactly the same way.
Once, on a day when I was a working parent at the co-op preschool, we were scheduled to go on a field trip, by city bus, to the University of Washington to look at the cherry blossoms in the main quadrangle. The co-op was my whole life when we first moved to Seattle; we had moved there, knowing no one, and still living the small, busy life of having very young children. Co-operative pre-school gave me and my kids instant friends, a place to go on a regular basis, and scheduled field trips to all the new things we needed to discover about Seattle:  the Woodland Park Zoo, the aquarium, the Ballard Locks, the Flight Museum, the Space Needle, etc.  Being a “working parent” meant I stayed for school that day, and helped with snack and clean-up and generally providing another pair of hands where needed.
A pre-school field trip is a serious undertaking. The logistics of getting a dozen three and four-year-olds safely to a destination and back are numerous. If you drive, most cars only hold two car seats in the back seat (three are usually too wide). If any family forgets to drop off a car seat, it’s an emergency. If a working parent can’t make it at the last minute, the whole trip may have to be cancelled. Some destinations are too hard to get to, have inadequate parking, or are too expensive. 
But most preschoolers love field trips, and while routine is great for them, the break from routine is great, too.  Our co-op was in a windowless church basement with cinderblock walls and clammy linoleum floors, across the street from a nice little park full of broad maples and tall oak trees, providing a reasonable supple of collectible acorns, and an old, sand-footing playground. There was a long slide coming out of a tall metal tower made of vertical poles, with a conical top, meaning it was a rocket or a jail or a castle depending on the imagination of the users. One block beyond the playground was a city bus stop, so field trips by bus were a good way to go.
The two teachers at the school then were Nancy and Teacher Wendy. Teacher Wendy liked to be known as Teacher Wendy, and she taught the younger kids. Nancy liked to be called Nancy, and she taught the older kids. When she was a child, Nancy’s brother used to tease her and call her Child Nancy and she hated it, so we always called her Nancy and never Teacher Nancy, although having a Teacher Wendy made everyone want to call her Teacher Nancy.
On the day of the dead bird, we had the backpacks full of snacks, the folder with emergency medical forms and a first aid kit, plenty of parents helping, and all the kids lined up, their coats zipped, their name tags pinned on with diaper pins. Nancy waited until she had everyone’s attention and then she opened the door. The kids were allowed to go to the top of the stairs, and then they had to wait. A parent always brought up the rear, and I was that parent on this day.
Next, when Nancy said so, the kids got to run ahead to the corner of the building, and then they had to stop again and wait. It was April; the kids knew the routine. Nancy said ok and they ran to the corner. It was a perfect spring day, with a bright blue sky above and green, green grass below. The daffodils were done, but the tulips were up and open. When the lingering parents, distracted by the lilacs, had caught up to the kids, and she had everyone’s attention, Nancy gave word that they could run to the corner to wait to cross the street. 
It was at this corner that one of the children found the dead bird.
I have told this story to adults at a cocktail party, teetering on high heels and trying not to fling champagne on myself. I have told this story in the dark, around a campfire. I have told this story walking in the fog in the Dolomites, to a new friend worried about her life having meaning. I have told this story to high school math students. I have told this story to another friend as we wandered lost in Venice. I have told this story so often my husband and children don’t listen anymore. But I no longer remember what kind of bird it was.
“Look, Nancy! Look!” said one of the children. He was standing on the curb, pointing into the metal grate of the storm drain.
Nancy stepped up and bent to see. She was not tall, but was taller than her students. It was a dead bird, a songbird. Maybe it was a robin, but I think it was small and brown and bland. Perhaps a sparrow.
“Oh, look!” said Nancy. “It’s a bird.”
Another child asked, “Is it sleeping?”
“No. It isn’t sleeping. It’s dead,” she said.
By now all of the children ringed her, trying to see.
Nancy reached into her pocket—a pocket that always had enough tissues—and, cradling it in a sheet of tissue, lifted the dead bird out of the gutter. All of the children pressed in around her closely. The adults stood back. One child wanted to make the bird alive. The other working parents exchanged a glance, already aware that we were in danger of missing the bus.
“Why is it dead, Nancy?” someone asked.
“Everything dies,” said Nancy. “Maybe it was old, or maybe it was sick. It’s hard to tell.”
“Did it hurt when it died?”
“I don’t know. It was probably quick, I think. Like falling asleep,” she said.
They had more questions. The bus came and went without us. The working parents saw it go.
Nancy registered the expressions of the parents over the heads of the children. “It’s ok, “ she said. “We can catch another bus.”
Some of the children wanted to touch it. Some of the other children really didn’t want to touch it. One of them wasn’t sure. “If you touch it, we are going to have to go back in and wash your hands really well,” she said.
The children nodded gravely.
The curious children stroked the quiet feathers with an outstretched index finger, and came away holding up that finger like it wanted a bandage, or needed kissing, or had wet paint on it.
The child that wasn’t sure said, “We have to bury it.”

This, having been said, could not be unsaid.
Soon, we were all back in the classroom, one line of kids washing their hands under the supervision of a working parent, others kids helping to look through the available small shoe boxes for the perfect bird coffin. A group wanted to go back outside to collect leaves to put in the box. Everyone wanted to see the bird once it was in the box, resting quietly on a layer of last year’s dry, brown, oak leaves.
When it was time to take the coffin back outside, the children lined up again and went up the stairs, this time marching seriously and with confidence, the run out of their legs. A perfect spot was found under a bush next to the church. Everyone took turns (except the parents) digging a shallow hole using a large serving spoon borrowed from the kitchen in the church basement. When the hole was dug and the coffin placed, everyone took turns (except the parents) covering the box with dirt. The dirt lay in a mound over the box. Words were said about the bird.
“I’m sorry you’re dead.”
“Goodbye bird.”
“You were nice, bird.”

It was now time to go to the playground and play.
After that, we came in, washed up, and had snack. After snack, we drew pictures about the dead bird, and every child dictated a small story about it. At the end of the day, we sat in a circle and Nancy shared the stories.
We never made it to see and dance in the falling, magical, pink petals of the cherry blossoms at the University of Washington that year. We had gone the year before and we would go the next year. The co-op preschool was an important part of our lives for many years. But the day of the dead bird was always the most memorable day of preschool.
At some point, as we wiped off the tables and stacked the indoor play equipment so there would be room for that night’s meeting in the church basement, Nancy confided, chuckling, “It’s called ‘emergent curriculum.’ Teaching the kids about whatever really engages them that day. It’s so…obvious.”
Just the other day in Hungary, we didn’t exactly know why we wanted to go see the Gül Baba’s tomb; we had ended up there after not being able to see the big synagogue.  And I didn’t have the moment of recognition until we were headed away from it. Because the street below the tomb is crumbling and uneven and impossibly old and beautiful, and except for the woman trapped in her car, it could have been any time at all, here on this street. It could have been 1654. Except for the car.
Why had she driven up so obviously bumpy a road? Why had we walked down it?
The guy next to her, watching as she tried and failed to make the car go forward or back, said, “Én nem tudom hogy mit mondani.”
My husband turned to us and quietly translated: “I don’t know what to tell you.” She looked pretty stuck.

Groundhog Pie day

Last night, I stayed up too late, and slept poorly. At first light the cat started bugging me, meowing and placing a paw on my chin. I could see in the wan light of morning that it was still snow-covered out there. I patted the cat, feeling like winter here will never end. The cat settled in next to me, and I slid back into restless sleep.  After another half an hour, the cat stretched out on top of me, putting both paws on my mouth. I patted him, knowing by the blue quality of the morning light that we had heavy cloud cover and snow yet on the ground; I fell asleep again. We played this game for several more repetitions. I overslept.
I tweeted yesterday that I hate Pi Day. An old friend H____ from my college math teaching days offered up her take on it, tweeting, “Many of my students wished me a Happy #PiDay on the way out of class today. Everyone was just smiling and happy.”
She continued, “I had such fun this week talking about #PiDaywith my students, sending them Pi links, etc. They were super into it,” and, then, “We talked about some of the cool properties of the number pi. And while the 3/14 thing is silly, we took it in good fun.”
She compared Pi Day to, “the stupidity of Groundhog Day,” adding, “taking a day to celebrate Pi … is a delightful thing.”
H____ was right, of course. People pretend that nerds have inherited the future, because a couple of nerds like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs became billionaires. But most nerds just do ordinary jobs for regular salaries, and while they may share messy hair or dirty glasses or a fondness for a particular mock turtleneck, being a nerd is more about your passions than your fashion. I can’t think of other days of the year that my affection for things mathematical is necessarily appreciated.
Several lifetimes ago, I was a college math teacher, and then a stay-home mom, and after a long time away from the classroom I got a job teaching math in a nearby Catholic girls high school.
Coming from a college teaching background, my contact with students had been mostly limited to 2 or 3 days a week for either an hour or an hour and a half, and office hours. I had done some student advising, but it was always cut and dried, about picking courses and a major. In this job I was taking attendance, reporting dress-code violations (in theory), supervising clubs, doing parent-teacher conferences, writing college recommendations, and listening and handing out Kleenex when girls came to me to cry about things.
I was surrounded by them, from a little past 7 a.m. when I arrived, until some time past 3 p.m. when I dashed out with an arm-load of grading, late to pick up my own kids from their schools across town. I had them in my room as soon as I unlocked the door in the morning, I ate lunch with them in my room at noon-ish; I went to the bathroom with them. I had a room cleaner assigned to my classroom, who cleaned the white boards, swept, and wiped down and rearranged the desks each day after school. Once a week I walked the neighborhood before school, with a safety vest and a clipboard, writing down the license plate number of any student car that was parked in violation of the rules.
That first year, I never conducted an exact head-count of my students until late February, when the head of the math department asked me for it for ordering pies for Pi Day. I had never heard of Pi Day before this job. What a silly reason for a celebration. It had never occurred to me that March 14 might be written 3.14, perhaps because I always thought the ordering day-month-year more logical. As a math person, I understand affection for numbers. I put a line through my sevens, for clarity. My favorite integers are, in order, 8, 0, and 24, and though I do like e and the square root of 2, I love i. Ok, yes, I’m a huge numbers nerd. But, Pi Day? Really?

Crumble-topped Apple Pie

The department chair allowed 6 pieces per pie, because, she said, they were small pies. She ordered enough crumble-toped apple pies from Borrachini Bakery to feed a piece of pie to every math student in the school. This number was essentially the full enrollment of the school, minus the one or two seniors who were headed to art school and didn’t take math their senior year. Like most of the math department, I had a teaching load of five classes: four honors and one, non-honors section, known as, “college prep.” The honors classes had the highest enrollments, with a maximum of 26 students in each, and the majority were full classes. I had perhaps 104 honors students, and an additional 20 college prep students. At 6 pieces per pie, that’s 20 2/3 pies, but, of course, pies don’t come in a fractional form, so let’s make that 21 pies.
The mood on Pi Day was always festive in the math classes, the way it was on spirit days when the girls came dressed head-to-toe in their class colors, or Halloween, or the last day before a break, or any day when snowflakes were seen falling outside the hundred-year-old windows.  Maybe I should call the mood distracted. They were excited for pie, of course.
From the moment that the pies were brought to my classroom, in big stacks of tidy pink boxes, the smell of the pies was intense. Apples, sugar, apples, sugar. Apples! Sugar! And from the first moment of cutting a pie with a pie server I brought from home for the purpose, more apples, and more sugar. By the time the first 26 students had their slice of pie during first period, I was already done with the smell of pie. The desk set aside for pie slicing was already sticky. My garbage can filled up with paper plates and sticky forks and gooey leftover apples and sugar, and don’t forget the empty pie boxes, four boxes per class. The floor around the desk with the pies got sticky. The floor around my desk got sticky. The floor around the trash got sticky. The doorknob got sticky. The room got even stickier through the day. Sticky.
By the end of the day, my clothes were sticky with pie. The light-switch was gooey with pie. My nose was coated with pie. My eyes felt gooey with pie.
This morning on Facebook, my former student and room cleaner G____ had a status update:  Happy Pi Day, everyone!! (Totally craving some pie.)” 

She is in graduate school now.


My husband is said to be the funniest man in his whole family, but all of his siblings are doctors in rather unfunny specialties, so how funny is that? Also, he really gets annoyed when I explain something he did by saying, “He’s the funniest man in his whole family.”
The perfect selfie: 
taken while sitting on the toilet on an airplane
Whether I am funny is a question I find hard to answer. I said I was funny on the first day of my writing class at the New School about a year ago, and my writing teacher asked me to clarify. “Oh, you’re funny?” she asked.
“No,” I replied, trying to be funny.
It wasn’t funny.
There are several ways to measure funny, like if you get a laugh, or even if you get a snort or a smirk or a smile. On Twitter you might get favorite stars or retweets. On Facebook you get “likes.” Sometimes west coast audiences clap for good jokes, instead of laughing.
When I used to teach night classes at the University of Utah, sometimes I had as many as 110 students. Ok, they didn’t all show up all the time, but I used to like to say that if you’re a math teacher and you can get a laugh in a room full of bored undergrads, you feel like you’re Johnny Carson.
Should I say Ellen DeGeneres now? Louis C.K.? Tina Fey? Back then, it felt like Johnny Carson. It was the 80s, you know.
Anyway, I was at a fancy party with the Bacon Provider, and while he was fetching drinks and tiny plates of hors d’oeuvres I found myself talking to a suit-wearing finance guy from a large media company. I have no memory of what I was talking about. Sometimes I just talk. I can do it without thinking. I can talk about dogs or cats or horses or children, about St. Louis or pure mathematics or Seattle, about figure skating parents or ultimate Frisbee, or Twitter or non-profit and governmental accounting, about skiing in the 1970s. I have stories from my childhood about crows, imaginary friends, and not eating mixtures of foods. I tell stories about being a math teacher. It could have been any of these, or something else.
As the Bacon Provider walked away for more drinks, the suit-wearing finance guy from a large media company said, “I know your husband, and he’s a nice guy and all, but you, you’re really funny.”
I probably smiled and nodded, with my eyebrows all the way up.
“No,” he continued, “really funny.”
Now. At the time I took it as an awkward moment at a party. But sometimes on Twitter I get mistaken for a guy. Not because I get called “Bro,” or “Dude,” because my kids and former students did that. Because I get wished a Happy Father’s Day. I keep my avi the same: a cartoon monster drawn a long time ago by my youngest child. I tweet about stuff I’m interested in. Some people can’t tell my gender from that. I’m A-OK if people don’t know my gender.
Really, I find it amusing, as I do almost everything. I think if you can’t find life funny you’re fucked.
There is another kind of funny, like funny meaning odd. I have the strangest feeling that I’ve written this essay before. That’s a funny feeling. Funny meaning odd.
My writing teacher pointed at me a few months ago and indicated that she wanted me to read next. “You,” she said, forgetting my name. “You, with the funny hair.”
Why do I get to be congratulated for being funny? Is it because I’m known to be unemployed? Is it because I’m a middle-aged-mom-type?  Is it because women aren’t thought to be funny?
Last Tuesday, I tried to tell the story of being told I’m funny at a fancy party by a suit-wearing finance guy from a large media company, and while the details seemed amusing to the person I told it to, he clearly didn’t get it.  Why would he? He’s a smart guy, good at his job, a dad, and a serious person. He’s a suit-wearing finance guy himself.
Maybe it’s because my stories never have a point.