Saturday, April 26, 2008

Clown Under a Truck

Old habits die hard. In the midst of directing the play I’m currently involved with I was also desperately trying to finish my cd in time for the May 6 benefit and also flying down to LA for a couple of benefits organized by the patron saint of off-beat performers, Jeannine Frank. Now this may not seem like a ridiculous amount to do but don’t forget that fatal illnesses are – among other things – huge time sucks. I returned from LA spent and wondering if I could continue directing the show.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The benefits were amazing. It featured artists that most people have never heard of but who have racked up impressive bona fides over the years and who I’d go see over famous people any day. As I belly-laughed over the musings of people like Bob Duvak, Betsy Salkind and Ray Jessel or marveled over the beautiful voice of Marie Cain or the brilliant mind of Kres Mersky and all the other wonderful artists I couldn’t help but think what a miracle it is to create works of art. I completely forgot why I was there and just thoroughly enjoyed myself. I feel the same way in rehearsal sometimes. Life will not be ignored. It goes on in all it’s clumsiness, hilarity and absurdity despite our little tragedies and that’s a marvelous thing.

I was trying to explain comic tragedy to my students. We have a new recruit in our play ( in the war movies they always call them “Cherry”) who wears a giant cherry costume with a stem coming from his pith helmet ( or pit helmet – get it?) and who explodes in his foxhole leaving only a bunch of cherry pulp. Another recruit tastes it and says “Fuckin’ Cherry.” It was hard to explain to them that tightrope that we dance on between absurdity and tragedy. I likened it to running over a clown. It’s horrifying and unbearable to have killed the clown and yet …peering over the hood of your car all you see are giant shoes. The paramedic tries CPR and is squirted with a flower. Or maybe a horn honks. Unfortunately as I tried to explain this I went into an uncontrollable laughing fit until tears flowed. I feel like that clown sometimes because this shit is so funny and so tragic.

But back to the benefit. So many beautiful people were there to offer support and love. Jeannine put together two great shows and Danna Hyams ( who is mentioned in 2006 blogs on this site) hosted the second night and made it her 50th birthday party! What a cheery birthday event – an ALS fundraiser. Only Danna is loveable enough to have people show up for a party theme that makes Mary Tyler Moore’s parties look like a laugh riot. I was so deeply moved and had such a great time. The highlight for me was Betsy Salkind doing a joke by a fellow comic that may have horrified other audience members but had me in stitches. It went something like this: Can you imagine how surprised Lou Gherig was when the doctors told him what he had?

That’s funny. I’m going to adapt it and steal it for Yoshis.

It was tremendously difficult to perform the second night – maybe fatigue, maybe being back at a theater in which I’d performed, who knows? Yet despite my challenges, the whole evening was funny and beautiful and deeply moving – Chuckles under the wheels of a hybrid suv – his tiny little bicycle crushed. Jeannine was amazing, loving and indefatigable in her mission to create this wonderful event. It shouldn’t surprise me that she would be like that – this is a woman who works tirelessly for wonderful and talented artists who are unlikely to ever make her any money – Broadway Danny Rose with more discerning tastes or as she puts it “ a cross between Mel and Murray in Flight of the Conchords”. You all love her now too, don’t you?

The work of entertaining has become so difficult for me and yet I’m still good at it. I can still make people laugh and cry – in the same set! I can still come up with arresting visual images and hilarious/horrifying sight gags ( Osama in an I love NY t-shirt). I can still occasionally sing the hell out of a song. It’s work that I believe is valuable and where I believe I can contribute to the world. It’s work that fulfills me. It’s hard work and it’s getting harder and harder. Time to pull out the giant shoes and the squirting flower.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Why I haven't been blogging...

The show I'm directing opens tomorrow night. It's called War and PeaceMeal - The Musical. It's at College of Marin April 25, 26, May 2,3, 9 and 10 at 8pm and May 4 and 11 at 2pm in case you want to laugh your ass off. Also I'm singing on a benefit ( for moi) at Yoshis on May 6 ( also Mac's 16th birthday). More info on that at or at My cd will finally be done and on sale at that gig. I hope to be back to blogging this weekend - in the meantime, be well!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Sing With the Voice You Have

I don't actually write poems but I wrote this poem anyway after a brief but inspiring discussion last night with a colleague. Thanks Bill for your support and inspiration.

Sing With the Voice You Have

“Sing with the voice you have,” he told me.
Sing even though it makes you feel like a grounded plane some days.
Disregard the cracks in your voice because they are really the cracks in your soul
And slivers of silver light escape and dance for us.
He quoted the passage “the forest would be a quiet place if only the best birds sang”
And I thought of the 86 year old man on an oxygen machine singing Fix You by Coldplay.
Sometimes the only thing we have to offer is our pain.
Sometimes it is our sweetest song.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Partici-blog Two - the final frontier

I wrote about a wonderful woman in the blog entitled Orange Carpets and Little Deaths…or something like that. She came over again last week and we finalized the Advanced Medical Directive and living will. I was proud to have created a Living will that made her laugh out loud. P is a woman who has helped shepherd many terminally ill people to the end of this life and she has a remarkably poetic and mystical and at the same time brass tacks way of approaching it.

The day began with Kathy bringing my week’s supply of food over, lovingly cooked by Cecilia and very delicious. I had another fall – my first with someone besides Mac around to witness. For some reason it was very hard to have someone around for that. You’d think the opposite. That fall and then ensuing pain which crept in throughout the day plus the meeting with P resulted in one of “those” days.

I sit perched between two worlds. One foot is in the world I have always inhabited. In that world I have been so happy and fulfilled making shows, making music, making love, making jokes. It’s an action-packed universe where I am this energetic force barreling my way from adventure to adventure, making people laugh, connecting, doing. I have always loved this world and I don’t think I’ve squandered too much of my time here. Okay, there was that brief addiction to General Hospital and maybe a little too much time in Target, but beyond that, I’ve lived, I think. I’ve lived.

My other foot beckons the rest of me to join it. The pull to this other, quieter place is seductive. In this world I can read the same poem all night, sit and gaze at the Berkeley Hills for hours, and feel myself drawn to a place where my inner universe completely overshadows the world of the other foot. It is the most amazing journey – vast and infinite and impossible to describe. It’s only mine you see and the closest I can come to a definition is Ps who described it as being akin to a medium – a foot in both worlds.

Trouble is my weight is centered between these worlds. I’m in limbo and its painful sometimes. Letting go of the trappings of the first world, clinging to the things I’ve loved so dearly. Observing my body betray me or maybe not. Maybe it’s leading me to this deeper knowing.

There are times when I’m so excited for this adventure. There are times when I think I will turn into pure love. The other times, the times I long for what is lost, are almost…but not quite…unbearable.

The trick to a happy ending is this: don’t decide the ending ahead of time – leaves too much room for disappointment.

I’ve been thinking about bucket lists lately ( a la the Jack Nicholson/Morgan Freeman movie). When I first wrote about my list it was unrealistic. It included being around for events over which I have no control. My updated bucket list is reassuring because besides the clich√© of traveling to places I’ve never been, the rest are very simple. Many involve things I’ve done many many times and enjoyed thoroughly.

The list includes using a hotel minibar in flagrant disregard of the financial ramifications, sitting in front of a roaring fire with a snifter of brandy and driving in a limo with 70s music blaring, sticking my head out of the roof window and yelling woohoo. It also includes driving my convertible one last time, singing in front of a big band and being reckless about love.

If dying well is a lesson in living well, this is what I glean from the list:
1) minibar: don’t let money be your guiding principle. It’s fine to be prudent but if your financial choices stand in the way of your happiness or the well-being of someone you love, spend the damned money.
2) Brandy: make the quiet, peaceful moments as big of a priority as the daily checklist. Trust me – when you know you’re going to die the checklist doesn’t mean jack shit and it sure as hell doesn’t make the bucket list.
3) Limo: have fun.. Duh.
4) Driving: it’s a gift to be able to drive. You don’t know that until you can’t anymore but take my word for it. Enjoy every little thing you do.
5) Singing: well that’s just me.
6) Be reckless about love: why not? Tell someone you love them even if you don’t know if they reciprocate. Give your love freely and without expectation. Love begets love though not necessarily from the place you expected. Also don’t be afraid to write Hallmark-esqe blogs. Corny is also true and if you’re sharing corny shit because you love your readers then who cares if one person out of a hundred thinks you are too precious.

Also on my list – go to Pacific Grove and get up at dawn to watch the butterflies open their wings, slow dance with a cute guy ( this one is time sensitive so help me out fellas!), go to Disneyland with Mac ( no really!) and love, love, love all of you.

OKAY – so here’s the homework: Hit comments and leave your bucket list. Then make plans to do something on the list and report back with a comment. By the way folks, the comments are the best part of this blog. Check them out and be prepared to be amazed!

Saturday, April 05, 2008


I went to a memorial today for Rolf. He worked in the box office at my college for 10 years. I was already in tears before the service began, looking at the slide show his son had compiled. Here's the little boy in Hamburg who walked 200 miles home after the war, ducking American and Russian soldiers as well as artillery planes. Here's the young bride and groom delirious, hopeful, in love, the entire family on the beach - him lying on his side, her head resting on his ribs, a look of sheer content on his face, the children all nearby. When I looked at the photo I could almost feel the sun on his face and the quiet glow inside him as the woman he loved reclined on him and I wondered if in that moment he had ever so briefly stopped to survey his life and felt satisfied. There was one slide that really got me - he and his wife intently playing chinese checkers not even noticing the camera. The little moments, so important.

Later in the afternoon the daughters and son would recall the man who would drive all day for them, who would carry them on his shoulders, who loved listening to music, who taught his son the value of work and of just showing up and once again it hit me like a thunderbolt that all this running and searching and chasing we do, all our accomplishments, all our acquisitions are nothing compared to those moments - walking home, lying next to someone you love, showing up for people, driving them - these are the things that we remember about someone who passed - these are the real accomplishments.

There is so much I wanted to accomplish in my life that I didn't. I feel like my performing career was just taking off when I got this diagnosis. Now I can no longer do my show at all and yet all those little seemingly insignificant moments in my life are still there regardless and I can call them up whenever I need them. My son telling me the latest current events, a friend I haven't spoken to for awhile on the other end of the phone, walking to the bus stop to meet my dad after a long day of work. Pure gold.

The play my students and I are creating is based on a play by Aristophanes in which a man goes up to the heavens to persuade the gods to rescue Peace who has been buried by War. He succeeds. In our play, however, Peace is not buried. She is right there where everyone can see her. They just don't see her. And in the end, our heroine goes to great lengths to find Peace and is literally leaning against Peace....but doesn't notice. Life is like that I think.

This n' that

I made it through the night. Sounds like a song by Neil Diamond or someone like that. It’s a wonderful thing to sleep 8 uninterrupted hours. Besides the stomach issues which are better but still annoying, one thing that wakes me is the macabre dance of the fingers on my left hand. They jerk around like William Dafoe dying on the battlefield in Platoon only in this case there’s no Barber’s Adagio for Strings to accompany their poignant jitterbug. They seem to keep a schedule so never more than one finger is going nuts per day. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. The thumb is particularly vexing since it jerks out sideways as if to defect from my hand. My attempts to stop the twitching are right out of a Charlie Chaplin film only in the middle of the night, I ain’t laughing.

Around six am comes the leg cramps, which go away as soon as I stand on them but some days it takes longer to get out of bed than others. The other morning I needed Kaila’s help (she kindly slept over a couple of nights) since I rely on stomach muscles to vault myself into a seated position at the edge of the bed and my stomach wasn’t having any of that.

I read last night that even positive stress is bad for ALS and weakens the body. I have no doubt that directing this show is taking its’ toll but what is my alternative? Give up all creative expression except for this blog? Too too sad. No thanks.

I love the process we are undertaking. It is going to be a great show – guaranteed to have several huffy Marin patrons walk out mid performance. My delightful students suggested I park my scooter at the exit door and look sad with a sign saying “Don’t leave, I have ALS.” They also suggested that I pop out of a coffin at the end of the very funny opening number saying “What? Too soon?” They get through the tremendous challenge of having a woman with a fatal illness falling over as she tries to demonstrate a jazz square, or not having enough air to finish a sentence or inexplicably bursting into tears ( an ALS symptom) by testing the boundaries of humor. Just what kind of joke IS okay? I welcome all of them if they’re from people I love.

Yesterday I went back to my therapist after 2 years away. She is treating me for free which is astonishing to me. I think what we will work on is how hard it is to take in all of the kindness I am receiving and not be able to reciprocate except with this blog. I think the blog works best for me when you all write in a la the Partici-blog and share something that is going on for you. The lady whose son joined the Marines blew me away. Hearing the little things that light your day or present a challenge and knowing that so many other people are reading your comments is nourishing. We are weaving together this community through this instrument of the internet which can be such a source of alienation. Write a comment about anything you want. It can stay anonymous. Keep writing about what makes life worth living ( have you checked lately? The list keeps growing) and I’ll think of a new partici-blog and post soon.

IN other news, I’ve mentioned this before but we’re drawing close to the actual dates: if you know people in LA, please tell them about the fundraisers happening on my behalf. The performers are all really funny and I’m going to get up there and sing a bit and try to make people laugh.

For info on all the fundraising efforts you can send people to - a website started up by Wendy ( one of my angels) and the other details are here.

Just the Facts: A CARLA-BRATION for Carla Zilbersmith: A Special Variety Night to celebrate & support a friend and artist in need!
When: Saturday, April 12 at 8pm
Where: Steinway Hall @ Fields Pianos * 12121 W. Pico Bl. (one door w. of Bundy * Level P2 under the store) * Park free in lot!
Price: $25 suggested donation
Reservations & Info: or (310) 471-3979

When: Monday, April 14 at 8pm
Where: The Hayworth Theatre * 2509 Wilshire * Los Angeles 90057 (between Rampart and Alvarado)
Price: $25 suggested contribution
Reservations & Info: or (800)838-3006

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Here I sit, broken hearted….

It’s 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s quiet except for beeping noises down the hospital corridor, the occasional nurse calling out a question to the one on-call doctor. Most of the rooms are empty. Edith and I sit quietly, occasionally launching into the kind of conversation you can only have in the pre-dawn hours. Quiet. Slow. True. We talk a little about the emergency room at Children’s Hospital where she spent her share of time when her son had leukemia. We don’t talk about it often. It seems to me like another lifetime. I have that luxury since it wasn’t my kid who was sick. Now he shaves and writes research projects on octopi.

Edith looks unjustly attractive and well put together. Way too nice for someone whose friend has called them up at 1am and said “ I need to go to the hospital now” to look. She wears her usual unflappable look (though I’ve seen lots of flapping in the last few months – an honor) and as Kris says she exudes calm. She knows how to hold the silence and when to break it to make an always useful suggestion or ask the perfect question.

“Please go” I implore her several times but I’m met with a look that is both loving and condescending. As if to say “if you think I’m leaving you’re insane.” Sometimes no look at all, just a quiet grin or chuckle. She’s like that. I try a few strategies until finally success – she’ll call Lisa at 5 and go home, rest then catch a nasty cold from staying up all night. I know Lisa will say aye and I will take her word – but Lisa is another profile for another day. Today I will tell you about Edith.

I'll tell you about a port in a storm, a blanket of calm over a scary and profound evening, full of tremendous, childbirth-level pain and sweet moments of connection and the utter hilarity of scab nurses. I think of myself as pretty stoic but it was a tough tough night made tougher by the indignity of the circumstances. All this fuss for a little constipation. That’s right. Tried to shit but only farted. ( now you understand the title of this blog, don't you?) No appendix, kidney stones, pancreatitis – just a rilutek/als side effect – a new fun thing to watch for.

But back to Edith. No vibe about waking her up, leaving her kids alone. She just says “I’ll be right there”. And she is. Edith deals with financial issues for me, drives me and Mac around fixes my jewelry, frames my pictures, calls social workers and healthcare professionals, makes my thank you cards, shops for me and most importantly just sits with me if I need to cry. One day while at the bank setting up a fund for my medical needs she says to me “ I thought of something I can do for you…” “Well it’s about time you chipped in” I quipped. I mean really – when do these women stop giving?

Edith is the glamour puss of my group of friends. She always looks perfect. Perfectly accessorized, perfect color combos – a walking work of art. She doesn’t die her gorgeous black hair so it is streaked with silver and looks glorious. She never wears contact lenses. She looks the same with or without makeup ( I found out that little tidbit at 1am….the bitch!) and she calmly dispatches her self-imposed duties with the √©lan of Grace Kelly. She also has a wicked sense of humor and is not afraid to deliberately run a red light when her friend is in pain. She runs red lights in a very dispassionate way (“oh this is silly.” Then Vroom!) Very independent movie.

Edith was there the day of the diagnosis and told me she and Kathy were there with me all the way. I knew they weren't just words. I love how Edith smiles impishly about her kids even when she's reporting that they are doing something less than adorable. I love how her husband has just stood in my general vicinity of late and I've felt his support even though we haven't exchanged many words. I love that her parents and sibs have supported me even though her sister is the only one I really know that well and all I really know about her is her penchant for cuddly kitten T-shirts and 85 year old lovers.

I like that Edith finds the same people insufferable that I do. Just before administering the morphine, the scab nurse at the hospital said “Praise the Lord, Jesus and Mary “ or something to that effect with this smile that made her look like she was a cartoon character that had just been hit in the face by a two-by-four. I looked over at Edith who seemed as alarmed as I was. I don’t want someone religious putting drugs in my arm…..unless she knows I’m still a sinner and I’ll be going straight to hell if she isn’t very careful….but I’d hate to think some chick thought she was doing me a favor to send me to Jesus. I could tell Edith was on my side on this one and understood the mantra I repeated over and over :“most hospital deaths are a result of medical error. most hospital deaths are a result of medical error. most hospital deaths are a result of medical error.”

Speaking of Jesus, I had this image of him reading The Secret up in heaven and all the other gods making fun of him and him saying “Hey, if it’s good enough for Oprah, it’s good enough for me.” I’m going to put it in the play.

There are other magic moments to this bizarre evening: Lisa lovingly massaging my feet and hands, brushing my hair, putting sweet smelling lotion on me and later me wiping a tear from her cheek, Kathy sweeping in with such purpose and strength that the X Ray tech said admiringly “Man, she’s on it!”, Natasha the nurse hitching her pants down and shirt up so I could see her “Made in Canada” tramp stamp ( that’s a tattoo on the low back for you older folks), the homeless man leaving robe untied in back with the IV still in his arm shouting “Ya’ll be hearin’ from ma’attorney!”, Kris offering to be the go-to gal in the ever-daunting 4 am hours, Kaila overcome, crying “Oh my god, your dad wrote a blog comment” and giving me her amazing and haunting CD dedicated to me ( and someone named K. Mell which sounds suspiciously like a rapper name) and finally, lying in Alison’s lap while she stroked my hair and cooed to me softly.