Mike Birbiglia, Life’s Interruptions, et al.: A True Story

Interruption: March 1, 1993
Interruption: March 1, 1993

In a recent interview comedian-writer-actor-director Mike Birbiglia spoke of becoming a new dad on the heels of a work project, how he timed things in a way he thought he could stay in control, and then—like all brand new babies do—his infant daughter completely upended his best-laid plans while she successfully upstaged him. He’s a funny guy. The bond between mother and child is like no other, of course, and he artfully described it as the beautiful thing it is. And then added he was just kind of there, this third wheel whose main job was to go get coffee.

He described this life-changing event as an interruption. That’s a perfect word to remind you you’re not in control, even with the best-laid plans.

I can trump his interruption story. My own child was handed to me in a grocery store parking lot a few moments after my (now ex-) husband and I had decided it would not happen at all, with about a half-hour’s notice. It’s the truth—you can’t make up this stuff, as they say. We had been trying to adopt for a while through conventional channels, and then were put in touch with a local woman whose life had taken some unexpected turns—interruptions, if you will—that now made it impossible for her to parent a new baby. The connection was through a friend of a friend, more or less, an employee of one of my husband’s clients who was trying to help in this crazy eleventh-hour search for adoptive parents. It is the kind of thing that never happens—a healthy infant landing in your lap—but happened to us in a Kroger parking lot in Knoxville, Tennessee.

The day before that our priest had visited the infant’s beautiful young mother in her hospital room at her request. And the day before that we had visited her, less than 24 hours after our son was born. I sat in the rocking chair by her bed and gently rocked the tiny newborn—hers and ours—as he slept, unaware of the events unfolding around him, while the young woman spoke softly to us. She gave us some phone numbers before we left; hospital staff said the child could not be discharged directly to us, even though we had made an agreement with his mother.

The next day we called her room to finalize our plans only to find she and the child had checked out and were gone. The first number she gave us had been disconnected. We dialed the second number—the mother’s sister and her husband’s; they were not up to speed on the situation and declined to speak with us. We assumed there had been a change of heart and this beautiful boy had slipped through our fingers.

And then hours later on that cold Monday in March our phone rang, an edgy male voice urging us to meet him in a nearby parking lot so we could finally take our new baby home. The whole thing felt sketchy. We had been warned about this man, the baby’s dad, how he might attempt to extort money to support his drug and alcohol habits. While we drove our attorney advised us by phone of the legality of what we were doing (it was legal) but cautioned us about offering any kind of assistance to this man or the baby’s mama (pick up child in parking lot, okay, offer money in exchange for child, not okay). We’ll sort it out later, she told us; you can pay the portion of her hospital bills not covered by insurance, for counseling if she wants it, and offer some temporary living assistance to her. That’s it.

It was the longest 20-minute car ride ever.

The couple was waiting for us as promised, the first thing to go right all day. The exchange was tearful, emotionally charged, really terrible and joyous all at once. The baby’s daddy cradled him for a moment against his idling car’s steering wheel, delivering some unknown message to him while his mother quietly wept in the front seat. We stood between the two cars and watched.

In the end the infant child’s father never asked anything of us except to be good parents to his son.

It was the most loving and selfless action the young couple could have taken, people around us would say later—it was meant to be. But that sentiment, well intentioned as it is, diminishes this monumental thing, the surrendering of a human child, to a silly T-shirt slogan. I could never begin to understand this mother’s agony—nobody who had not lived it themselves could (many years later we would learn a family member near and dear to us in fact had lived it). But standing in that parking lot and bearing witness to what was happening, I felt it now on her behalf like a sucker punch to the gut.

And in the midst of this huge life-changing moment a wisp of strange humor: tucked away in the corner of the grocery store strip mall was a popular eatery, a cafeteria frequented by octogenarians going to and from their starchy 5 o’clock suppers with canes and walkers in tow, now observing an affluent young couple in a Volvo being handed a baby by another young couple in a borrowed clunker. Moments later the pair would peel out of the parking lot throwing up a plume of white smoke in their wake, the whole world’s attention (canes, walkers, and all) now diverted to them. The scene had all the makings of a grotesque cartoon.

Meanwhile the infant continued to sleep. In fact, he slept quietly on the ride home and for a long time afterwards before he finally had something to say.

Home, where our house was in disarray after the busy weekend, dishes piled high in the kitchen sink, dog hair from three inquisitive Siberian Huskies everywhere, an unmade bed, laundry in the basement. And now a new baby.

That’s some kind of interruption. I settled into the beauty of motherhood and my husband brought me coffee.

There have been many more interruptions in the intervening years, and there is also this: if you think your life will begin in earnest after you regain control in the wake of an interruption, not only are you dead wrong, you’ll miss living your life. My life with my new infant will truly begin when the house is spotless (wrong). My life will resume only when this ungodly and untimely retina disease finally goes into remission (wrong). My life ended with my marriage (really wrong). In the face of losing my job and financial security, my life can never mean anything except panic and hard labor from now on (probably wrong).

It’s tough to wrap your head around when you’re a control freak as I am but it’s the truth: navigating the interruptions—that’s life. I wish Mike Birbiglia and his new family a lifetime of beautiful interruptions.

2015
2015

Young Dancer Follow-Up

Julie Kent with Celia Adlin; North Carolina School of the Arts, July 2016. Photo courtesy of Jill Adlin
Julie Kent with Celia Adlin; North Carolina School of the Arts, July 2016. Photo courtesy of Jill Adlin

I’ve been off the grid for some weekend travel, but want to share an update about young Celia Adlin, my former student who has just finished her first American Ballet Theatre summer intensive at North Carolina School of the Arts. She is shown here at the end of last week after her technique class with former ABT principal Julie Kent (artistic director of American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensives programs, recently named artistic director of Washington Ballet). Celia is giddy I am told, wearing stage makup in the photo because she was about to dance in the end of intensive performance. Her mom reports she is more than ever smitten with her ballet training; that is a synthesis of the message, and also an enormous understatement.

And so it goes; ’til soon.

Sometimes You Just Have to Pick at It

Yellow Flower with Bee 2
Beauty and the Bee

Straight from a dog-eared paperback perched on the corner of my coffee table for years came this kernel of wisdom—sometimes you just have to pick at it—one of many from the mouths of babes, a single one on every page. Clear-headed advice from a child seems appropriate just now, as there are a few grown-up scabs I can’t seem to leave alone. But humankind collectively can’t either, as anybody with a pulse knows too well. I have no idea what happened to that little book, but this is the one piece of insight from it that stuck with me; everybody in the world needs a copy.

Archie Bunker’s theme song is a comically tragic scab I’ve been picking at for a while, playing it in my head on continuous loop for several days. Archie and Edith Bunker—America’s perfectly flawed couple, with their perfectly flawed family. A lot of it was lost on me when the show was new, more meaningful as I aged a little and understood the upshot of it all. Everybody knows Archie and Edith, and we’re probably related to them—every single one of us. (Hat tip to the late Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton for their spot-on portrayals.) We need to be honest about that.

Here’s another one I can’t seem to leave alone lately: messages of divisiveness coming from every angle, sometimes buried in language that masquerades as unifying, and even in the words of people who are supposed to lead us. Shame on anybody who knowingly fans the awful flames of what’s happening on our streets right now.

I submit we’re in big trouble if we can’t figure out how to celebrate our differences and rejoice in the things (far more of them) that unite us, and soon. We’re still light-years away from colorblindness, with dystopic rancor looming on the horizon, it seems, as far as the eye can see. At least, this is what the media would have us believe. The whole truth is anybody’s guess, I don’t care where you turn for news.

I have no answers, but a backward-looking approach seems destined to fail—the good old days never existed, as surely as there is no paradise now. My simple (and maybe simplistic) hope for everybody in the world continues to be this: to surround yourself with as much beauty as you can, while you can; to find somebody who needs a friend and be a friend; to treat everybody you meet the way you want to be treated; and to use common sense. I’m still picking at it.

Poor Archie and Edith—you can never go home.

But why on earth would you want to?

Those Were the Days (abridged), by Lee Adams

Boy the way Glenn Miller played
Songs that made the Hit Parade
Guys like us we had it made
Those were the days.
And you knew who you were then
Girls were girl and men were men
Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again
Didn’t need no welfare state
Everybody pulled his weight
Gee our old LaSalle ran great
Those were the days!

Robert Frost House: Rainy Vermont Summer Saturday

Robert Frost House
Robert Frost House, Shaftsbury, Vermont

Yesterday perfectly illustrated what people must mean when they say there’s a “damp chill” in the air—July in Vermont can feel distinctly like October elsewhere, when rain has elbowed its way in and made itself at home right on top of you for a few days. (Shorts? What was I thinking—hand me my sweater.)

It was not that way at all on a June morning in 1922 when Robert Frost tiptoed downstairs in his Vermont cottage so as not to disturb his sleeping family, sat at the dining table and whipped out Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening—very quickly by his own account, nor was there much fiddling with it before it was done, so he said. He’d meant to work on something bigger when this small poem whose meaning would torment students and scholars alike for most of a century spilled out of his pen instead. He would go on to insist there was no metaphor for death in the poem, as so many believed, at least that was not his conscious intent.

Frost’s Vermont cottage sits almost in the middle of Route 7A in Shaftsbury, undoubtedly less pinched before the highway was widened; now it’s a house museum with seasonal hours. I pass it twice daily most days. Every single time it calls out, hey, why in the world have you not stopped by these here woods? Yesterday was the day.

Poetry eludes me, mostly. In college I feigned interest while professors opined about a couplet, but took copious notes, tried hard, and still missed the point. And when the question was finally put to us, What is the poet saying here? hands shooting up all around the room, I sunk lower in my desk thinking, I got nothing—pretty words, though.

So I am deficient in this awful way, a romantic’s nightmare. But I grew to love two poems Frost wrote—Stopping by Woods after I became a parent and obtained a beautifully illustrated copy meant for children and which I read many, many times to my child when he was young. And After Apple-Picking, for its association with a beloved high school English teacher who so beautifully explained the word hoary, and whose reading of the poem made me want to drop what I was doing and go to New England.

So at long last I’ve arrived here, decades hence, and finally visited Robert Frost’s house in the ‘hood. The thrill in it for me was less about the poet and more about the house itself: I’ll always be a student of historic structures, and the opportunity to get right up next to one and photograph it is nothing less than delectable.

As measured even by forgiving standards, the museum itself is a disappointment. Photography inside is forbidden (I would love to record some of the very early building details that remain), and only the first floor is on exhibit. But the house has undergone so many modifications in its 257 years it’s hard to see it as it once must have been, to say nothing of how it looked when the Frost family lived there (only a few pieces of furniture remain). The self-guided brochure promises “the exhibits will make you feel as if you met Frost.”

They do not. What you get instead is a boatload of memorabilia, news stories, photographs, and some bizarre old-style museum wall displays meant to encapsulate a moment in the writer’s life. In fairness, there is a lovely hallway homage to J. J. Lankes, whose familiar woodcut illustrations appear in two volumes of Frost poetry. Elsewhere there are copious missed opportunities. It’s waiting for a visionary with deep pockets, I think, to do it justice. But ‘til then it’s a fitting way to spend a rainy hour.

Robert Frost House South Facing Gable
South-Facing Gable
Robert Frost House South Facing Living Room
South-Facing Living Room
Robert Frost House Front Door
Front Door, Route 7A
Robert Frost House Rear Window
Second Floor Rear Window
Robert Frost House Rear Door
Rear Porch Door
Robert Frost House Foundation Detail
Foundation Detail
Robert Frost House Stone Detail
Stone Detail 1
Robert Frost House Stone Detail 2
Stone Detail 2
Robert Frost House Meadow and Wood
Meadow and Wood
Robert Frost Barn
Robert Frost Barn
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 1
Barn Detail 1
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 2
Barn Detail 2
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 3
Barn Detail 3
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 4
Barn Detail 4
Robert Frost House Barn Detail 5
Barn Detail 5
Robert Frost House Barn Gable End
Barn Gable End
Robert Frost House Meadow and Wood 2
Meadow and Wood 2

After Apple-Picking, by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree 

Toward heaven still, 

And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill 

Beside it, and there may be two or three 

Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough. 

But I am done with apple-picking now. 

Essence of winter sleep is on the night, 

The scent of apples: I am drowsing off. 

I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight 

I got from looking through a pane of glass 

I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough 

And held against the world of hoary grass. 

It melted, and I let it fall and break. 

But I was well 

Upon my way to sleep before it fell, 

And I could tell 

What form my dreaming was about to take. 

Magnified apples appear and disappear, 

Stem end and blossom end, 

And every fleck of russet showing clear. 

My instep arch not only keeps the ache, 

It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round. 

I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend. 

And I keep hearing from the cellar bin 

The rumbling sound 

Of load on load of apples coming in. 

For I have had too much 

Of apple-picking: I am overtired 

Of the great harvest I myself desired. 

There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch, 

Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. 

For all 

That struck the earth, 

No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, 

Went surely to the cider-apple heap 

As of no worth. 

One can see what will trouble 

This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is. 

Were he not gone, 

The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his 

Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, 

Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost House Rear

How Firm a Foundation: Training a Young Dancer for Life

Knoxville Ballet School Student Demonstration
Knoxville Ballet School Lecture Demonstration February 2012, Knoxville Museum of Art; photo courtesy of Xavier Battle

Unrelenting questions, lobbed one after another by a well-intentioned ballet school dad, my back inches from an icy cooler packed with pricey frozen concoctions in one of Knoxville’s fancy new grocery stores. Did I think there was something special in his young daughter Celia? Did she possess a gift for classical ballet? And what about the summer program for young dancers at American Ballet Theatre, still in its infancy at that moment?

The questions were intelligent and purposeful, put to me in earnest by someone still wrapping his head around what ballet training might entail for his child. His wife had already answered them, an erstwhile ballerina herself; now he was merely getting backup from one more trusted source, proof positive that the planets in the squirrelly ballet universe might possibly align for his daughter.

I was emphatically unprepared for the inquisition, almost done with my errand, aimed for the door; moments earlier I had recognized his familiar face and waved hello. We stood there and chatted for a long while. Yes, I said, I believe Celia is special. And I believe the workshop at ABT is worth your consideration if you can make it work logistically. That’s the distilled version of what I told him, anyway.

Knoxville Ballet School ABT Primary Level C
Celia Adlin, Primary Level C Improvisation Exercise, Knoxville Ballet School

It was true: in my opinion Celia possessed what the former director of the prestigious Prix de Lausanne—a renowned international ballet competition—once referred to as “that elusive thing called talent.” She was maybe seven at the time, possibly on the cusp of eight. Possibly. But the idea of sending her (and some of her other talented young colleagues at my fledgling ballet school) to the epicenter of the ballet world for training with stellar faculty was admittedly so alluring. That opportunity certainly did not exist for me at the tender age of seven or eight, nor was I prepared for such a monumental undertaking. But the ABT curriculum in place for only a short time at my small school was already proving its worth in the development of the young children who were learning it.

Making a case to this smart and invested dad was a walk in the park: his daughter was growing up in a ballet family and he was already committed to giving her whatever tools she needed, even if the entirety of that had not quite come into crystalline focus. But explaining the importance of superior training to uninitiated parents—why tuition can seem so costly, why there are school uniforms, why a child should undertake ballet exams, to say nothing of the necessity of travel to far-off destinations for summer training (and perhaps ultimately full-time residential school) and all it entails—is difficult at best, hopeless at worst. (And in truth, that level of commitment is not appropriate for everybody.)

Knoxville Ballet School ABT Level 1B
Level 1A Class at Knoxville Ballet School

Educating parents of young dancers to be intelligent consumers of classical ballet training is a piece of the small private ballet school experience so often missing, I think. You can’t drop the ball: moms and dads need answers to questions, they need to hear them often, and by way of multiple platforms—a shotgun approach, if you will. With any luck, some of your answers will hit the bull’s eye and “stick.” And with each incoming crop of little ballerina wannabes every fall semester, you must start explaining and answering questions from the beginning, painstakingly, and with patience. For me, that moment in the fall always demonstrated so poignantly just how far we—my ballet school community and I—had traveled together over the last calendar year.

Very few dancers from small ballet schools in the hinterlands make it to the professional stage—hardly any of them, as a matter of fact. There are statistics floating around to support this truth, but the bigger point is this: classical ballet training for young children must be worth more than the possibility of enjoying professional life as a dancer. It must be worth more.

Knoxville Ballet School ABT Level 1 J. Ryan Carroll
Level 1 Class at Knoxville Ballet School with Guest Instructor J. Ryan Carroll

So what exactly is the payoff for your child, after you’ve thrown years of your own life and buckets of resources at her so she can pursue something quite possibly beyond her reach? There are enough answers to that single question to fill volumes. But I would say simply, to prepare her for the rest of her life, however that looks. The sum total of her experiences in the classroom and on the stage will follow her wherever she goes, and serve her in ways unimagined when you were writing her ballet school tuition checks or sending her off to residential school or buying her hundredth pair of new pointe shoes. The day she is met with some seemingly insurmountable life challenge as an adult it will have been a difficult message imparted to her once upon a time when she stood at the ballet barre, or in a packed audition class, or in a girls’ locker room, hot tears of frustration possibly welling up in her eyes, to finally help see her through it.

ABT Young Dancer Student Workshop
Celia in Class at American Ballet Theatre, August 2012

As for Celia, her ballet journey continues. Unbelievably she’ll be a ninth grader this fall. Her parents have figured out a way to obtain superior training for her in the absence of our beautiful ballet school in Knoxville where she had her first few years of formal ballet training, and from which she did indeed travel to NYC to study at ABT with two of her young classmates in the summer of 2012. It’s not easy: she must commute to Atlanta for classes and private coaching from Ashleyanne Hensley, another ABT/NTC teacher who has taken up the mantle where I left it and continued nurturing along a special girl who is now looking for all the world like a young woman. This summer she is studying ballet away from home at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; the planets appear to be in alignment as they should be.

North Carolina School of the Arts Celia Adlin
At North Carolina School of the Arts, Summer 2016; photo courtesy of Jill Adlin

Last summer when I was in Knoxville visiting friends and families I sat down with Celia and her mom over a late dinner. We talked for hours, and not just about ballet: Celia has wide-ranging interests, one of them writing. Working as I do now as a professional writer I had the chance to weigh in on the satisfaction that comes from being paid to write, but also its realities, how difficult it is to find work or be published. In some ways it sounded so strangely aligned with some of the challenges of working as a professional dancer. For her part, Celia is excited about embracing her freshman year experiences in the fall at a school much larger than the one she has known ‘til now; ballet is but one piece of her life, albeit a big one, “beloved,” as her mom says.

Celia’s deportment and aplomb impressed me deeply; it’s abundantly clear classical ballet has left its indelible thumbprint on her. This young dancer has had a beautiful foundation indeed; the world is hers for the taking.

A note about the following video: young Celia competed in the Atlanta leg of the Youth America Grand Prix this past winter, her first time to participate in a classical ballet competition. This is rehearsal footage of the Aurora variation she danced from Sleeping Beauty Act III. A rogue snowstorm had just hit the city and threatened to cancel the competition; Celia was sleep-deprived, dancing on vapors, but determined, wearing one of her mom’s revived tutus from ballet days gone by. Her mom graciously granted permission to post the video.

Note: the photos in this post belong to Knoxville Ballet School, Xavier Battle, and Jill Adlin; don’t steal ’em—it ain’t nice.