Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Woman Scenic Carpenter at the Opera

When I moved to the Bay Area in 1978, I telephoned the San Francisco Opera Scenic Shop to inquire about work. A man answered the phone. I introduced myself to him and said that I had worked as a freelance scenic carpenter on college campuses for five years and I wondered if there was any work to be had for a scenic carpenter at the Opera Shop. He laughed. “What’s so funny?” I asked. He replied, “I never thought a woman would have the balls to call this shop looking for work.” That was the beginning of my relationship with the SF Opera, which eventually would span six opera seasons.

I have not thought about my years working in theater for some time. At a recent book group discussion about gender, I related the story of how I came to be the first woman to work on permit as a scenic carpenter in the only unionized shop in Northern California. The union I refer to is the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE). A friend who heard my story at the book group that night asked me if I would write it up, so here it is.

During my college years, I supported myself working part-time at on-campus theaters. I was what was then called a theater technician. I constructed and painted stage scenery, hung and ran lighting instruments, ran sound boards, built props, worked as a stagehand and roadie, and moved large objects. I loved being macho. I earned a bachelor’s degree in drama while swinging a hammer.

In the Bay Area in 1978, I landed a job as the master carpenter for the Berkeley Repertory Theater. I worked at the Rep for one year and then I did a four-month stint as a welder at the Denver Center Theater Company, which was preparing for its inaugural season (in 1979). Once the DCTC opened, I moved back to the Bay Area, where I freelanced as a theater technician. Mostly I worked as a scenic carpenter at a number of small theaters in the Bay Area. I got quite a bit of work and was able to support myself.

Although the Opera Shop did not approve of women scenic carpenters, it had no problem with women scenic artists. The carpenters built the scenery and the artists painted (and sculpted) it. The lead scenic artist in IATSE at the Opera Shop was a man, but almost all the scenic artists working under him were women. So it was acceptable for me to work as a scenic artist, and I did so during the active season each year, which lasted from about January through May. When I was laid off from the SF Opera, I called around to the many non-union little theaters in the Bay Area and always found work as a scenic carpenter or stagehand.

During that time, I never gave up on my dream to work as a scenic carpenter in the IATSE (to which I belonged as a scenic artist); and I regularly sent my resume to the IATSE office in SF. I would follow up with a phone call to ask if it had been received and the good ole boy named Perry who ran the office would inform me that he couldn’t find it. I would wait a few months and send it again. Clearly, Perry was throwing it out, because it was never on file. But I could just tell that he knew who I was – that woman who kept trying to get work as a carpenter.

In 1981, the SF Opera staged a historic production of Aida featuring Luciano Pavarotti and Margaret Price. The production required a huge amount of new scenery that had to be built and painted, as well as enough props to cover the surface of the moon. After a couple of months of work, we scenic artists were informed that we were to be laid off for a few weeks to give the carpenters time to catch up. They needed to construct more scenery for us to texture, paint, and dress. The head of the carpentry shop, Pierre, had pulled in every scenic carpenter he could find, all hands on deck, and still he couldn’t produce the scenery fast enough.

Pierre knew me since I had worked in the shop as an artist for a couple of years at that point. I went into his office, shut the door, and broke it down for him. I told him that I was about to be laid off and that probably within a few days I would be working as a carpenter in one of the little theaters in town. He was short-staffed and desperately needed experienced scenic carpenters. I explained that I could not get work through the union hall, which refused to issue me a permit. I told Pierre that I was pretty sure that Perry threw out my resume whenever I sent it in. I suggested that Pierre hire me to work for him temporarily until the carpentry shop caught up and I was needed again as a scenic artist. He agreed to do it and he said he would call Perry and personally instruct him to issue me a union permit so I could work as a scenic carpenter for Pierre. He told me to go down to the union hall the next morning and my permit would be provided and that I should report to work once I had the permit.

The following day I caved in to the devil because, well, revenge is sweet. I did not wear my carpenter’s clothes to go to the union office. I wore a long, flowing, pink skirt (with a ruffle around the bottom), a blouse, stockings, high-heeled sandals, and a slew of bangle bracelets. I even put on make-up (which usually I never wore). I sashayed into Perry’s office and told him I was the woman Pierre wished to hire. He reluctantly admitted that Pierre had called him and asked him to issue me a permit. “I need to have your resume on file to give you the permit,” Perry said. Perhaps he hoped this would present an obstacle. I sweetly informed him that he ought to have it on file since I had sent it to him every few months for three years. He actually pretended to look in his file cabinet, where, of course, he didn’t find it. He said he must have misplaced it. I produced a fresh copy from my purple velour handbag. Perry then issued me my permit. When I left his office I walked down a hallway to the elevator. About a dozen young men my own age lined that hallway as they waited to see Perry about work permits. These were not good ole boys from the previous generation but my contemporaries, who had overheard my conversation with Perry, and they gave me a round of applause.

After my visit to Perry, I changed into my overalls and reported to Pierre for work. I swung my hammer for a month building scenery before Pierre’s crew “caught up” and I returned to the scenic art department on the other side of the shop. Remember the guy who laughed at me the first time I called the shop in 1978? I knew who he was and he knew who I was and he wound up having to work alongside me during my month as a IATSE union scenic carpenter. As it turned out, I had even more “balls” than he had originally imagined.

That’s the story of how I became the first woman to work on permit through IATSE as a scenic carpenter in the SF Opera Shop. While writing this account, I discovered that the 1981 SF Opera production of Aida is available in its entirety on YouTube. You can access it through this link. Have a peek at the incredible scenery that I had the privilege to build and paint; and a listen to the magnificent voice of Pavarotti (who passed away in 2007 at the age of 71). The stagehands at the SF Opera who worked Aida said that when Pavarotti sang, the floorboards vibrated beneath their feet and his voice vibrated in their chests. Pavarotti was also a fine human being. The stagehands said he would talk to them as equals backstage, joking with them and asking them about their families. He was kind, generous, and humble. I would like to think that it would have pleased him to know that a young woman carpenter had a dream fulfilled working on his Aida.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Seeing the Magnolia

My neighbor has a magnificent magenta magnolia tree in full bloom during this faux-springtime week of ridiculously warm weather. Despite the fact that winter continues for many weeks into approaching March, that magnolia tree has exploded in celebration for anyone interested in noticing and appreciating the joy. The tricky part about the magnolia is all in the noticing. I have to remind myself to look at it when I pass, to pause for a moment and see it while it’s gorgeous for this brief time.

Philosophers and thinkers have written prodigiously on the topic of aesthetics. I don’t presume to imagine I could add anything new to that discussion. So I’m not saying anything original when I say that the brilliant beauty of that magnolia reminds me that there are forces at work in the world beyond human enterprise. The magnolia takes me out of myself and into the greater, the greater what? The greater all? Greater oneness? The greater.

Sometimes when I am out on my morning walk, whether in my rural suburban neighborhood or in the forest behind Lake Mendocino, I encounter a person who is also out walking and who is talking on a cell phone. There is one woman in particular who always talks on her phone while she walks. She doesn’t acknowledge me when I pass. I feel sorry for her, for all that she is missing on her walks. Our neighborhood overflows with exquisite forces of nature and she is largely missing out on them. Deer and wild turkeys regularly stroll down our streets. The quail with their adorable topknot scurry in a quiver of wings when I approach. This past week I had a remarkable flock of a hundred or more creamy-gray mourning doves in an oak tree beside my deck. They swooped and looped in my back yard, catching the morning light in their tail feathers. A few days ago I saw a charcoal-gray fox loping up my driveway. I bolted from my desk chair and ran to call my cats inside to safety. That got my heart racing, but the fox was certainly a beautiful creature to behold. Early purple crocuses are peeping in my front garden. In these winter months, the graceful live oak trees in our geography are a fling of bare branches draped with chalky-green lichens. I am hopelessly in love with Mendocino trees; the many kinds of oaks, the fir and redwoods, the manzanita, madrone, buckeye, wild flowering plums. How can that woman walk through this wonderland with her nose buried in her cell phone, eyes glazed over, unseeing? It’s almost criminal.

There is a famous story about the 19th-Century French writer Gustave Flaubert, who is the author of the classic novel Madame Bovary. Flaubert is credited with being the “inventor” of literary realism and he is often considered the quintessential aesthete. He was obsessed with precision and beauty of language. During a period of malaise, before he wrote Madame Bovary, he was persuaded by his friend Maxime Du Camp to travel to the Middle East. According to Du Camp’s diaries (although Flaubert never mentioned this episode in his own diaries), as Du Camp and Flaubert drifted down the Nile on a boat, in the midst of extraordinary scenery, Flaubert turned to Du Camp and declared, “I will call her Emma Bovary.” I have always identified with this story. I interpret the story to mean that Flaubert was so far inside his own head that he did not even see the gorgeous Egyptian landscape. He was too busy writing Madame Bovary in his mind to see his surroundings. I confess, I am guilty of the same.

It’s easy for me to criticize the oblivious cell-phone-lady. But I do the same thing in my own way far more than I would wish. While walking in the beautiful forests and meadows behind the lake, I all-too-often remain stuck in my head, writing novels, writing grants, writing blog posts. I “time travel,” remembering the past and projecting into the future, instead of experiencing the glorious present. I must constantly remind myself to come back to the moment and see the red-shouldered hawks swooping from oak to oak. I must remember to come out of my head and look at the beauty that takes me out of myself and my small life; to bear witness, to appreciate, to admire. The natural beauty in my surroundings calls me to participate in the moment, to actively see the miracle of that dazzlingly pink magnolia. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

For Raif Badawi

The persecution of Saudi Arabian writer and blogger Raif Badawi by the Saudi government has haunted me for weeks. I think of him, his plight, and his family every day. Raif is a 32-year-old writer and political activist who founded the blog Free Saudi Liberals, which was taken down by the Saudi government when Raif was arrested in 2012 for “insulting Islam” and was tried for “apostasy,” which is punishable by death. He came to my attention because I am a Freedom Writer for Amnesty International, which has been working extremely hard to save his life.

Raif was tried and sentenced to be flogged with 1,000 lashes, to serve 10 years in prison, and to pay a large fine. The extreme barbarity and inhumanity of his sentence is deeply disturbing. He is to be flogged (beaten with a cane) 50 lashes every Friday until he has received the total 1,000 lashes. He received the first flogging of 50 lashes on January 9 (in public in front of a mosque) and it nearly killed him. For a couple of weeks afterward, doctors stated that he had not healed from the flogging sufficiently to be flogged again and further flogging was postponed. Raif is diabetic and has high blood pressure. Doctors say that a second flogging will likely kill him. Each Friday for the past few weeks, he has received a last-minute reprieve from another flogging, while mounting attention has focused on his plight from around the world.

Raif is the father of three little girls. His wife Ensaf Haidar and his daughters fled Saudi Arabia (on the heels of death threats) and are living in exile in Quebec, Canada, where they have been given political asylum. His wife continues to take a lead role in efforts to free him. Raif wrote:  “As soon as a thinker starts to reveal his ideas, you will find hundreds of fatwas that accuse him of being an infidel just because he had the courage to discuss some sacred topics. I’m really worried that Arab thinkers will migrate in search of fresh air and to escape the sword of the religious authorities.” I have to wonder how a country comes to choose to destroy its best and brightest sons and daughters.

Raif’s writings question fundamentalist Islam and terrorist tactics. His lawyer, Waleed Abulkhair, has also been imprisoned. Last week, seven American activists who are members of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom sent an open letter to the Saudi government requesting that they be allowed to receive 100 lashes (each) in Raif’s stead, and offering to present themselves for flogging. Among the seven who sent the letter are Christians, Jews, and Muslims; some are democrats and some are republicans. One of them is Princeton Professor Robert P. George, who has stated that he signed the letter fully prepared to actually be beaten if it were to come to that. In addition, two members of the Norwegian Parliament have nominated Raif and Waleed for the Nobel Peace Prize. Human rights organizations say that the actions people are taking on Raif’s behalf (writing, faxing, and emailing letters; signing petitions; calling the Saudi embassies throughout the world; demonstrating in the streets) have blindsided the Saudi government, which apparently never expected so much bad press for this decision. The Saudi government is purported to be overwhelmed by the effort to free Raif and dismayed to have become one of the world’s greatest villains of the moment. (Click here to sign the Amnesty International petition for Raif’s release. You can also take other actions:  click here to go to the Free Raif Toolkit with more information.)

Raif’s ordeal touches me in an acutely personal way because I too am a writer and blogger. If he was able to take back his words and to go back in time and not create his website, would he do it? Would he choose to spare himself this torment and to keep his family safe in the country they love? Oh, the tremendous power of words; mightier than the sword. But there is no turning back for Raif. So much damage has already been done to him and his family that it cannot be undone. I do believe in healing, in the amazing resiliency of people, their ability to courageously move beyond trauma and celebrate life. But oh the damage that has been done here. Of course I pray for Raif’s safety, his release. I pray that he will be allowed to leave the country and join his family, to finish raising his beautiful little girls. But even if this happens, if this is the best we can hope for and it comes to pass, such irreversible damage has been done.

If Raif is allowed to join his family in Canada, he will never fully recover from the physical and mental blows he has suffered. Perhaps he will fear speaking out again. Perhaps when his hands hover over the keys of his computer, he will feel that searing pain in his back from the lashes and his hands will tremble. Where will he find the courage to speak freely when this terror seizes him? Maybe I am simply projecting my own cowardice on a man who is braver than I can comprehend. I also think of his wife and children in that foreign land. Kept from the land they love, the culture and community that is in their hearts. If he is allowed to join them in exile, he and his wife will suffer the pain of the exile for the rest of their lives, that separation from the daily, small, beloved aspects of life in their homeland. Their daughters will grow up in an alien country and will never fully comprehend what they have lost by their uprooting. They will never retrieve the sweet feeling of comfort they once had in their native home; and some intrinsic measure of their culture will remain forever lost to them. Will they ever feel at home in the world?

How will Raif be treated if he is allowed to flee to Canada? He is a Muslim and an Arab. I don’t know what it’s like in Canada these days, but in America Raif would be suspect because of his appearance, his accent, his clothing. Sadly, most Americans stereotype Muslims and Arabs (even thinking all Arabs are Muslim), and they are often viewed as terrorists (no questions asked). Ironically, Raif, who has suffered so much for denouncing fundamentalist Islam and terrorism, would be at risk because of this stereotyping. In the current climate, he would be at risk of being shot for putting his hand in his pocket at the wrong moment. Where in the world will Raif find peace and justice?

As I sit here in the safety of my study, relatively secure in the belief that I will not be persecuted for writing these words, I am seized by a flash of fear. Am I as safe as I believe? When I press the key to put these words out into the world, will I start a chain reaction that could cost me my life, my health, my sanity? That could endanger my family? That scenario is unlikely; but if they came for Raif in the morning then they could conceivably come for me in the evening. They put out a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses and he and his wife were forced into hiding. When I press the key to put my words into the world, there is a tiny chance that they will go beyond the small circle of my readers. There is a tiny chance that I could find myself in a Kafka-esque predicament, a fatwa out on me, the need to hide, to leave my home. Because who knows where words will go and what consequences they will bring? So I hesitate. My hand shakes. Am I safe in my obscurity? Am I safe in my country? How far removed am I from Raif and his horrific fate? Is my safety an illusion? 

As I prepare to press that key and release my words, my heart beating loudly in my ears, I must ask you:  If ever I am imprisoned, beaten, tortured for words that I have said, will you stand up for me? Will you speak up for my life and my right to say what is on my mind? If ever I disappear, will you come find me and set me free?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Taking the Bait

How is it that I so frequently find myself trapped in conversations that I would rather not be having? I must have a weakness for taking the bait and feeling compelled to say something. It’s a character flaw. I can’t refrain from speaking in the provocative, to which a reply appears, and suddenly I can’t find the exit. I’m forced to keep moving forward into a swarm of buzzing words. Why can’t I just keep my mouth shut?

This is how I wind up burning valuable minutes that I might have used writing the Great American Novel, instead, on Facebook discussing the pros and cons of having a colonoscopy. Do I have a passionate interest in colonoscopies? No, I do not. So what possesses me to post my opinion on this topic? I have not the faintest idea. I can only conclude that I am brain-damaged.

Or perhaps I find myself at a dinner party and someone who doesn’t follow football, has no clue about football, cannot comprehend the appeal of football, this someone starts slamming football because lately it appears to be politically incorrect to like football. The concussions. The disregard for player health and safety. The domestic violence. The distorted media frenzy material all rolled up into a big fat ball of upper-class distaste for a salt-of-the-earth game. Clearly the anti-football person is on the moral higher ground and not absorbing anything I have to say about football, but I can’t help myself. I take the bait. I step into the mess and start arguing. I am really not that contentious. Truly. Yes, I am passionate about football; but, no, I do not get anything out of arguing with someone who wants to abolish the sport. I would have much more fun and a much more productive conversation with someone who loves football. Sigh. I football on. (Empathetic brain damage from watching, I suppose.)

If only I could recover all the minutes and hours spent in inane conversations that went nowhere, proved nothing, did not strengthen relationships or solve problems or educate me or make me laugh or educate the person with whom I was speaking or make them laugh or crystalize the meaning of life. Maybe I expect too much from a conversation. Best to football on.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine complained to me about how a discussion we had both participated in had gone off track and failed to focus on the purpose of the evening. She and I had both attempted to get that discussion back on track. But it didn’t happen. She and I were both looking for a meaningful discussion that night and instead the group talked fluff. I let it go. I like that group of folks. Usually we do fine. They were just a bit flaky that particular night. But here’s the thing. My friend said, “I was frustrated because you and I were trying to have a serious conversation and everyone else kept talking about inconsequential things.” I replied, “To be honest, most conversations seem pretty inconsequential to me so I’ve just gotten used to it.” I shocked myself by admitting to such a level of condescension. Eek. It’s not like that.

I’m content with many conversations that yield nothing more than good will. There is much to be said for the value of friendly “small” talk. I enjoy the process of talking with someone I like, whether the actual conversation does anything for me or not. Because often the conversation is nice but not stimulating and I am grateful for nice. How adolescent to shut down any conversation that, in one’s own narrow perception, appears insubstantial? But lately I have had twinges of that adolescent mean streak and I find myself wishing I could spend less time in conversations that yield nothing. I wish I didn’t take the bait and get involved in so many empty conversations. For instance, all those arguments for the sake of argument; disagreements that will never be resolved because of hard-and-fast beliefs and perceptions. (Why can’t we all just be friends? And wear tie-dye and make daisy chains?) There are some differences that will not be resolved. Cannot be resolved. Period.

I am willing to bet that any topic could be fascinating, even life-changing, depending on how it is discussed. And I want more of those intellectually stimulating and transformative conversations. I cherish them when they happen; a miracle bursting forth from a teacup. If only I could bottle those conversations and sprinkle them on the ridiculous discussions of under-inflated footballs and colonoscopies and creamed peas and dust. I mean, where is the passion? The real talk? The depth? Forgive me. I sound like Prince Andrei in War and Peace; Prince Andrei who is so bored with life until he lays dying. And I’m not like that. I’m not as intolerant and disgusted as all this sounds. Seriously. The beauty and the grace are not lost on me. I appreciate. I’m grateful. I just yearn to talk more often about what matters. Like football.