Saturday, December 20, 2008

More Lights

It appears a tradition has been born. Last year, for the first time in 4 years, I spent a fortnight in Los Angeles. I used to visit much more often, but the regular routine faded, and my trips became more sporadic. Last year was the first time I had made the trip during the holiday season, and I found it to be so much more fun and rewarding than visiting during the summer, which was my previous habit. I lived in LA off and on, mostly on, for 20 years, and developed a tight-knit group of friends whom I now consider my family. (I wrote about them last year in these pages.)

This year, my plan to visit was not finalized until it became clear that I would have no work over the holidays. The less said about that, the better, though my continued unemployment allowed me to return to LA for more holiday fun. So, I suppose being Out Of Work is really a Christmas Blessing... yeah, I'll go with that.

My buddies Scott and Drew graciously offer me digs whenever I visit, in their spacious home in the hills above the San Fernando Valley. I have my own bedroom and bath, which allows me to stay out of my hosts' hair whenever possible. That was even easier than usual this year, as I arrived to a deserted manse, and had to pop next door to the French neighbors to pick up the house key. The Boyz were completing a two week cruise, so I was on my own for the first four days of my stay. I've been in their house many, many times, but I admit it was a bit eerie to putter around the place alone. Thankfully, they had failed to mute their home answering machine, so an unrelenting beep kept me company. An unrelenting beep. An UNRELENTING beep.

I'm lucky that another of my chosen family, Judy, tosses a bit of teaching my way whenever I show up in California. She runs the theatre dept at a prestigious private school, and she has the ability to hire me to teach a few workshops during my stay. I enjoy this part of my LA trips immensely, as I find her students focused and enthusiastic. And it gives me something to do during the day, when all my friends are working or otherwise unavailable to hang out. The only downside to this routine is the fact that these courses are all scheduled at ungodly hours of the morning. I suppose when I was in high school, I started class at 7:45 AM too, but my body does not remember those long ago days. The commute across the Valley, during morning rush hour, was the only negative aspect of my trip.

Well, that's not exactly true. This year, my visit was marred by an insidious bug which I apparently picked up from one of my flight mates on USAir. (Another reason I despise the strangers with whom I travel.) I did not begin to feel the effects of this germ until the very moment Scott and Drew returned from their travels, on my fourth day in LA. I came down, quickly and hard, with a sloppy cold, which turned from a sore throat into a hacking cough in 24 hours. I infected my hosts, who themselves were getting over illnesses contracted on the high seas, so we made a fine tubercular trio.

Nostalgia always plays a part in my Los Angeles sojourns, as I usually take the opportunity to catch up with various cronies from Days Long Gone. This year, I shared a meal with a grand gal I had not seen in over 20 years. Barbara and I were fast friends for several years right out of undergrad, and as students of my treasured acting coach Bobbi, we shared a real bond. Barb was one of those people who became very very important in my life for a brief while, then, for some reason, faded out. The last time I saw her, I visited her and her husband in the Hollywood Hills apt. they shared in the mid-80s. Barbara parlayed her interest in theatre into a career as a therapist, and now conducts a booming practice, catering to the loonies who make LA their home. Her husband Sam was a working actor back when I first met him, and has maintained a consistent career ever since (here he is in Lost, in which he plays mild-mannered dentist "Bernard").

But the highlights of my visits to LA are always the times spent with Scott, Drew, Claudia, and Judy. Together or separately, they remain my family. This year, as last, we spent a lovely evening decorating the Christmas Tree in my hosts' den. Though I see them separately during the week, that night is extra special, as it's the only time we five are together. Lots of laughs, lots of food, a good bit of booze, and lots of love. Humor is always central to the evening, but it is enhanced with a feeling which can only come from a long shared history. Claudia has been in my life since high school, so we are celebrating a whopping 35 years as friends. Judy and Scott came into my life over 30 years ago, and Drew, as the youngster of the group, has still been one of my closest friends for a quarter century.

It is Drew, actually, of whom I think when I wonder if this December Trip to LA has in fact become a tradition. He had a sad and chaotic childhood, the effects of which taught him to create his own traditions (and he has a buttload of them). The Annual Decorating Of The Tree has now become one, an evening which isn't really about hanging ornaments on branches. It's about our family.

The routine goes like this: as Drusis and Claud and Judy circle the tree, and I try to stay out of the way, Scott observes from his throne (the armchair), "It needs more lights."

(I wouldn't dream of contradicting him. He likes a BRIGHT tree.)

Ornaments are hung, a few traditional glass balls, but mostly, sentimental pieces Scott and Drew have picked up over the years. They reflect their interests and their loves. Peanuts and Ziggy and other whimsical items give the finished tree a distinctly original look. All the while, we five catch up on our lives, reminisce a bit, eat, drink, and laugh. It's not the wildest gathering ever created, but it is meaningful.

And I've discovered that I need it. I can't predict that I will be able to get out to LA every year at Christmas, my life does not have that kind of structure. But I like this new tradition of Drew's, and will do my best to make it happen as often as I can.

It hasn't been the best year for me, or for several others in the group. We've all had our dark times. But I've noticed, this year and last, that by reconnecting with my Scott and Drusis and Claud and Jude, it's not quite so dark.

When I see them, this family I chose, I get more lights.