Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Homage: my sister Peny and the Challenger

Peny Jil Cosgriffe Hayes was a beautiful and
talented sister who died 27 years ago this week. 


(Editor's Note: This essay, by Christene Meyers, was first published three years ago. It is reprinted today by request, on the 30th anniversary of her sister Peny's passing.)

TWENTY-SEVEN years ago, the world was mourning the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Our family was saying good-bye to our beloved Peny Jil, my sister, who was enduring the last few days of a nine-month battle with leukemia.
I was on my way from Montana to University of California Medical Center in San Francisco, on one of 25 flights to see sis since her diagnosis on April 5, 1985. It was the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, and I’d raced into an airport lounge in Salt Lake City to watch the Challenger launch. Waiting for my connection, I grabbed a cup of coffee and headed for the TV. I watched in disbelief as the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into flight. Soon, everyone knew that all seven crew members had perished. I’ll never forget the anguished faces of Christa McAuliffe’s parents, Ed and Grace, as their joy turned to horror.
FOR MY family, it was sorrow upon sorrow.
"Evita" was the last pay the sisters saw.
My father and mother, Richard and Ellen, were experiencing their own grief as the doctors in San Francisco told them that morning that Peny would not survive. The ardors of chemotherapy, radiation and failed bone marrow transplant had weakened her beyond recovery. We had been so hopeful  – battling the odds – conferring with doctors, reading everything, hoping for a miracle. She slipped into a coma the night before and although I had just left San Francisco, hope in my heart, I headed back to say good-bye.

Christa McAuiffe left the planet
the same weekend as did Peny, 27 years
ago during the Challenger launch.
PENY WAS BORN in 1949. Christa was born in 1948. They would have been friends. Both were gregarious, over-achieving, loving, fine teachers, intrepid adventurers, with daring, charisma and humor. Christa became famous as the first teacher to train for a space flight. Peny was a ground-breaker, too. She left Montana to live in a commune in northern California, taught aerobics, grew her own vegetables, was an accomplished cook, singer and seamstress and made blueberry pie instead of birthday cakes. She never missed an opportunity to hear a jazz concert or take in a play. As children, she and I were known as Cookie and Peny and we toured a song-and-dance act to Montana towns, performing for many functions, including a gubernatorial inaugural. Our musical mother dressed us like twins until we were in our teens. In our last years together, we began a tradition of a sister weekends in San Francisco, seeing plays, going to clubs, ordering room service at midnight. Our last play together was “Evita” and I think of Peny every time I hear “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.” I wonder if Christa’s sister, Betsy, thinks of her sister every day. Even after 27 years, I’ll bet she does.
Peny, on mother Ellen Cosgriffe's lap, and Cookie, 1952, at right.
The sisters performed and dressed alike until their late teens.
PENY JIL Cosgriffe Hayes had gorgeous red hair and a lilting soprano voice. She learned to play the viola in days and stopped the show with her passionate dancing. She also mastered piano, guitar, trombone and flute. In her last weeks, she played her flute in the cancer ward, greeting other patients, her instrument in one hand and her portable IV in the other. She was also an accomplished artist and was building a successful porcelain business with her husband Jim when disease struck.
Both Peny and Christa were married happily and had small children. Christa’s children, Scott and Caroline, were nine and six when they lost their mother. Peny’s children, Amarylla and James, were twelve and nine. I am devoted to my niece and nephew and follow their lives with pride. I often wonder how Christa’s kids are, how their lives have gone, what they’ve become.
I KNOW Christa would be proud and I’m certain Peny would be pleased that her children have full, happy lives. She loved both town and country and her kids have many of her wonderful traits – one each living in the two worlds she loved. James is the country boy, settled in rural northern California where he grows and markets organic vegetables and eye-popping flowers. Amarylla lives in the Bay Area where she is taking time off from her marketing and catering career to be a busy mom. Both have loving partners. I gave each couple a holiday gift of a video my own partner put on a DVD. In it, their mother sings a leading part in a Christmas cantata in 1984.
From left, sisters Cookie, Olivia and Misha, with their niece Amarylla,
Peny's only daughter, of whom she was proud.  
That long-ago rehearsal is one of the few remnants we have of Peny in action, along with a funny tennis match with her husband Jim, filmed at Flathead Lake in Montana during the summer of 1983. My late husband, Bruce, provides a hilarious commentary for the match, the youngsters’ antics in the lake and the picnic we shared later in the day.
ONE OF MY late mother’s favorite Cookie-Peny stories was of a holiday performance Peny and I gave in the Congregational Church in Columbus, Montana, in the early 1950s. We were singing “The Lord’s Prayer,” with our grandmother Olive accompanying us on the organ. I was four; Peny was three, “Irish twins,” as we were known. When Peny began fidgeting with the brass rings on the velvet curtain framing the altar, I slapped her hand. She slapped me back. The fight continued, all without our missing a note and offering a teeth-clenching “amen.” The congregation was in hysterics and the minister was laughing so hard he had to remove his glasses.
I CELEBRATE my sister’s rich but brief life and her robust 36 years on the planet. Christa had only a year longer. How much more could these two wonders have accomplished had they lived? How I wish Peny were here with me now, for I’ve recently settled in California. We would see even more of one another, enjoy the jazz and the plays. She would cherish her grown children, and her adorable grandson. We’d meet again at the Fairmont or St. Francis to toast with chardonnay and order chowder at midnight.
WHAT I KNOW about loss is that it becomes a permanent part of our lives. Each fallen loved one holds a sacred place in our heart and history. Our affection never changes. Our sadness in their leaving never abates. But slowly, miraculously, the debilitating sorrow gives way to wistful thanks. Thanks for their having been here. For since their existence has altered ours, they are forever with us.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Wow! My 100th cruise awaits!


Today while perusing journals, I began a tally of cruises I’ve taken. The result surprised me!
View from the promenade deck on your ship where
art is part of the enticement.
The grand total:  99!  So my next cruise will be my centenary.  I am excited.  What and where will it be?  Crystal, Oceania, Princess, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Cunard, Holland America, Carnival, Disney? Although born in land-locked Montana, I am a water baby.  I’m happiest on a cruise ship.  My one hundredth cruise will be within the next few months, to an unknown destination, probably Hawaii and the South Pacific, taking advantage of our San Diego winter location.  Cruising has produced many of my most happy moments – with my two husbands, with my siblings, with my parents.  I cruised the Caribbean with my daddy and Europe multiple times with my mother.  I cruised the West Indies with my brother Rick only two weeks after the death of my husband, Bruce, watching “Brideshead Revisited” on the Sea Goddess and playing piano at the ship’s request when the Bulgarian musician came down with the flu.  It was a healing balm of a trip and Rick jet skied off the back of this wonderful ship. We sipped carrot juice each morning, took long walks and let the water work its magic.
Your cruise ship's lights glitter in the staterooms and restaurants.
My mother’s final trips to Europe were on Celebrity and Princess – grand tours and evocative memories of her pleasure in each detail, each port.  My late husband Bill and I traveled to Europe on Royal Caribbean out of Galveston, enjoying the wake in a stern penthouse. We cruised out of Stockholm through northern Europe and into the Baltic with Crystal from a gorgeous suite with our own Turkish butler. Then my last voyage on the Queen Elizabeth 2 before she was retired:  the Norwegian fjords, where we met distant cousins.  I’ve cruised Oceania and Crystal with my friend Corby, who prowled Greek ruins with me after we took in the string quartet at afternoon tea.  Before our QE2 Norway swansong, I crossed the Atlantic seven times on Cunard’s venerable and stately grand dame, now docked in Dubai. I long to cross again on perhaps the larger Queen Mary!  
A cruise nightcap: your program for
the next day and a pair of swans.
I've cruised into exotic ports in Vietnam and China.  I've cruised into New Zealand's south island and fished for trout the size of salmon. Cruise ships have taken me to the wonders of India and Turkey, the splendors of St. Petersburg. Barge cruising has taken me to the chateaux of the Loire valley, to sipping and supping in Champagne and Burgundy, to tulip time in Holland and a marathon of plays in England. My sisters and I have cruised Holland America to the breathtaking Alaskan fjords, and deep into the Dutch Antilles on Princess, Royal Caribbean and the lovely Odyssey.  I twice cruised on the splendid Norway, formerly the SS France, one of the great liners of her day. Ah, cruising.  Such memories, such advantages: you pack and unpack once, wake up in a new port each morning, meet new lively friends, dine on delicious, custom-prepared
Cookie and Keller and  a shipboard sunset in November
photos by Bruce Keller
fare, hear port lectures, check out videos and books, gamble and imbibe without lugging a purse or wallet around.  The entertainment is top notch, the jazz band plays for your dancing pleasure. Each day, the fairies slip a program under your door so you can highlight lectures, wine tastings, land tours, fun stuff for the next day! Once you have signed on and have your boarding card, you are in a cashless world. You can even charge your tips. And someone else does the cooking, ironing, and making of your bed. You may even find a dolphin, swan or monkey crafted of towels when you return from the night show, content after another fabulous day at sea!  

Where will my 100th cruise be? Stay tuned.
Remember to explore, learn and live.
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Israel, Egypt and Middle East enticement

Morning sun lights up the port of Alexandria, Egypt.
Photo by Bruce Keller
Just a note to let you know that our Middle East feature is available for viewing -- Cookie's story and Keller's fabulous photos.   Please enjoy (click the link below or copy and paste into your browser).  And please remember to sign up for our posts, which include our travels both internationally and locally with lots of good stuff on nature, theater, art, film and "Downton Abbey."
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Coming soon:  communing with the migrating grey whales and San Diego's fertile theater scene and its Broadway connections.
Here's the link on the Middle East newspaper feature:

Saturday, January 26, 2013

All the world's a stage

Jason Heil, left, and Matt Orduna face off in "Clybourne Park."

 It’s been a double-header week for theater – and we’ve spotted the grey whales on their way to the Baja.  We continue our revels as grateful members of the audience for all things natural and theatrical.
We’ve been rocking out to Beatles tunes, thanks to a lively performance of “Backbeat” at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles.  Last night, a stellar performance at the Lyceum in downtown San Diego featured a top notch performance of the Tony and Pulitzer prize winning “Clybourne Park.”  An interesting, exhilarating pairing in two magnificent venues.  The Ahmanson is part of Center Theatre Group’s trio of beautiful theaters including the Mark Taper and Kirk Douglas, where we also enjoy world class performances.  We’ve twice stayed at the Omni, with its artful grounds and dog-friendly policy (they even deliver treats to Nick and Nora!). After several trips to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for the Oscars, it’s fun to stroll past the dramatic Walt Disney Concert Hall and into the Ahmanson, and not have to race right to a phone or computer to file reportage.  I can do so in a leisurely fashion – even a few days after.

"Backbeat" tells the story of the rise of the Beatles.
We attended “Backbeat” with friends Bob and Sue Hulbert, who hosted us to a stay in their Downey, Calif., home, and took us for a spin in their convertible.  Bob is one of Keller’s oldest friends – their paths crossed nearly 40 years ago as divers, surfers and students of the sea, in their university days at the Aquatic Center here in San Diego.  Their bond stretched across continents to the Red Sea. Keller’s two years in Saudi Arabia inspired Bob’s employment there, too.  Both were divers, charged with surveying the coast line.  So the weekend included a slide show of those long-ago days, along with much reminiscing and a surprise or two.  Cookie learned that Keller was briefly JAILED in the Middle East – for splashing water on the jeep of a construction boss.
That’s another story. (Thanks for the tip-off, Bob. Keller never mentioned this bit of trivia!)

Back to the Fab Five Then Four:  what a trip down memory lane to hear all the famous standards from our long ago youth……. I remember returning from a high school basketball game in the winter of 1965 listening to “She Loves You” in the band bus with my saxophone tucked under my seat.  The L.A. play’s storyline deals with the “fifth Beatle,”  and the band’s rise to fame in the seedy clubs of Hamburg.  It was beautifully acted with inventive staging. The cast included several of the London actors who conveyed the essence of the individuals, the spirit of the rising stars and the energy of the music we all still love. The standing ovation lasted for 15 minutes with a half-dozen encore tunes and an enthusiastic audience singing along and even dancing in the aisles. Lots of grey hair and bifocals caused us to wonder “Who were all those old people?”
The San Diego play, in two acts, deals with the happenings within a single house 50 years apart.  While the theme is racism as relating to neighborhoods and real estate, it’s a play of many layers and much subtlety.  Another fabulous cast and impeccable acting.  Each actor played a double role, no easy task.  Kudos to the Rep, and director Sam Woodhouse.  His staging of “The Three Penny Opera” remains one of my all-time favorite productions in a lifetime of theater going.  “Backbeat” runs to March 1 and “Clybourne Park” to Feb. 10.  In March, we will see “The Mountaintop” at the Rep, and “Over the Rainbow” at the Ahmanson.  Several other venues capture our time and imagination – we won’t miss “Chicago” at San Diego Musical Theater, and August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town, where we saw smashing performances of “Man of LaMancha” and “Sweeney Todd.”  We’re hearing two unique choral groups Valentine’s week (more about those down the road), and we’ll fly north to Ashland, Oregon, for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in late February!  Recent sightings of the migrating grey whales provide Keller with exciting photo ops!  The abundant marine life, birds and Yorkies continue to engage and entertain with their own unique “acts.”  Play on. 
This migrating grey whale goes back to the deep, raking the sea floor for food enroute to the Baja for calving. --
Photo by Bruce Keller

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nick and Nora, nicknamed Hodad and Wingnut by Keller, enjoy
beach life  at Wind and Sea, a world famous surf spot.

The drama continues here in “SoCal” – which has nothing to do with social reform  or calories, but is what locals call this lovely little corner of the planet.  We’ve been watching seals, surfers, actors, birds and last night a wonderful classical guitarist.   The Yorkies and I are happy to be away from the cold of Montana, although the month-long winter hit under the Big Sky had its pleasures. Chief among them: migrating birdies, including two kinds of grosbeaks, inspiring Keller’s hundreds of photos of them, the deer and big horns.  Here in San Diego, even when it’s chilly, we can be outdoors in only a sweater to watch surfers brave the waves. (Sissies call 48 degrees “the cold” here. Weather’s a relative thing.)
Hershey Felder appears in his impressive play
 about a young Army doctor tending Lincoln. The play looks
back from the Depression to the Civil War.

 Theater life is fertile and varied.  Northcoast Repertory Theater near us is presenting a lauded production of Willy Russell’s “Educating Rita”  -- I interviewed Michael Caine for the film version years ago -- and  we’ll soon be among the audience for “Clybourne Park,” downtown at San Diego Rep.  The work won both the Tony for best play, and the Pulitzer Prize.  Sunday’s matinee featured Hershey Felder in “An American Story,” a wonderfully imaginative and prodigiously researched work written by and featuring Felder.  The one-man-plus-orchestra show tells the true story of a young Army surgeon Dr. Charles Augustus Leale, who happened to be in Ford Theater that fateful Good Friday, April 14, 1865, when Booth shot President Lincoln.  The character tells his tale from the perspective of a 90-year old man looking back. Felder imbues his doctor with grace, wisdom and a sense of irony.  The venue, the 1928 Birch North Park Theatre, reminded Cookie of the old 1931 Billings Fox which was in its glory when she saw the greats perform in Community Concerts as a child growing up in the 1950s.  Among the distinguished retinue to pass through Billings:  the Barrymores, Marian Anderson, Gregor Piatagorsky, Jascha Heifetz! Thanks to my parents and grandparents for seeing that a musical kid and her Columbus siblings were exposed to many of the great artists of the 20th Century.   Wherever you are – in that lush concert hall in the sky – know that you made a Broadway baby and lifelong play and concert goer out of this redhead. 
The Children's Pool in LaJolla has been "occupied" by pregnant seals.    Bruce Keller photos

The Yorkies continue to accompany us wherever doggies are allowed – only certain hours on the beaches.  They waited patiently in their car bed while we heard an hour of acoustic guitar last night at our terrific North University Community Library.  Lorraine Castellanos charmed with her jazzy “I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter” which she both sang and played, a difficult Bach chaconne and pieces by European and South American composers. (We heard a preview of her master’s piece for San Diego State University.)
Off to the seals, who are pregnant and basking in the warming weather.  They’ve taken over the Children’s Pool, a protected water park donated by the Scripps family.  That controversy is for another time, another story. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The play’s the thing.

Cookie and pups enjoy the Natural Stage
Based in San Diego until Montana has the good sense to warm, we are thrilled that we can play outdoors in only a light wrap -- and see at least one new play per week in San Diego’s burgeoning theater scene.  Life here combines our two greatest passions:  the natural world and the world on the formal stage.
In the past couple years we’ve seen several world premieres and a half-dozen Broadway bound productions.  Besides “Memphis,” “The Jersey Boys,” and “The Book of Mormon,” we saw a brilliant play, “Restoration,” by Claudia Shear (of “Dirty Blonde” Tony winning fame), “Bonnie and Clyde” about the infamous  outlaws, and “Hands on a Hard Body,” a touching show about a marathon to win a car; the contestants must keep at least one hand on the car.
The freeways north of us, near Los Angeles, had snow earlier in the week but we are snug in 50-degree weather here in San Diego.
Keller is still a working stiff and Cookie has writing, gym and teaching obligations, but we make a weekly ritual of at least one live theatrical outing and we enjoy nature’s great performance with daily sunset treks.  There, in vistas up and down the coast, long loved by native son Keller, we plot the next couple days’ activities.  Yesterday, we saw the green flash and the outlines of the islands of San Clemente and Catalina.
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Sunday’s theatrical performance was in a gorgeous, restored 1929 theater and featured a world premiere by a brilliant young playwright who also stars in the production (more about Hershey Felder and “An American Story” next week.)   The Golden Globes and “Downton Abbey” lured us home after a quick sunset post-matinee stop.
We have a bird’s eye view of surfers and seals, exotic birds, fishing boats, troop transports, cruise ships and all the latest military aircraft the world has to offer. Plus world class theater and some of the country’s finest restaurants – all minutes away.
The next weeks of plays and play include a return to Los Angeles to the Walt Disney Concert Hall (reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House), and the nearby Ahmanson Theater. We’ll hear a concert and see “Backbeat,” a musical about the launching of the Beatles’ career.  The gorgeous Omni has become a favorite hotel, is dog friendly (complete with treats) and is within walking distance of the theaters.  It also has a fabulous restaurant and delicious sushi. We also have a standing overnight invitation at a private Los Angeles home – a perk from Keller’s near 40-year friendship with a fellow diver-sailor-surfer from their long ago university days.   On Martin Luther King Monday, we’ll visit a dog-friendly Harrah’s Hotel for a little foray in the casino; shall we say play within the play?
Keller at sunset dreams about surfing.
We have some splendid choral concerts in early February, and later in the month, we’ll hit the road for the Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon, which co-incidentally is scheduled with the ninth annual Oregon Chocolate Festival. Nothing like gilding the lily.   We’ll stay in the historic and now pup-friendly Ashland Springs Hotel, about which we’ll write (we remember when it was the decrepit but much loved Marc Anthony Hotel.)  And we will see five days of plays and enjoy the Greek, Thai, English, Italian and French food that has distinguished this little gem of a town since Angus Bowmer set up a boxing ring and staged the first play more than 70 years ago.

Until then, have a chocolate, pet a pup, savor a sunset, play. And see a play.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Soaring into the second week of 2013, we spent Sunday watching dramas unfold – man-made and nature’s creations.
The migrating gray whales off the coast of  San Diego did a dance for us while paragliders whished and whooshed across the sunset. Pelicans stretched under the rainbow and Nick and Nora sniffed about.  They were welcome on the hike above Black’s Beach because it was past 4 p.m., when dogs are allowed during  the parks’ winter hours.
Then home to watch the season premiere of “Downton Abbey,”  our favorite Public Television soap opera! Witnessing quality TV in this internet age is a fabulous experience and for Cookie, a thrill to see two of her all-time favorite grand dames share a scene.  Maggie Smith, who plays the dowager countess of Grantham is serenaded by Shirley MacLaine’s charater, new to the series. She plays Lady Cora’s mother, and is the fabulously rich and tart-tongued American granny to the manor’s three rich girls. Smith is nodding off in a parlor chair while MacLaine’s character sings “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” The two actors flirt a bit – whose scene is it? – and Cookie smiles to remember interviewing them both – Smith at the premiere of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” in 1969 and MacLaine during a press preview of “Terms of Endearment” in 1983.
 Keller has immersed himself in the series – as a latecomer – learning the ins and outs of life upstairs and down in the Crawley Mansion and getting the skinny on more than 30 colorful characters. And meanwhile, life glides by – the pelicans with fuchsia flesh and the whales mating their way to the lagoons of Baja.

Photos by Bruce Keller

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Bighorn porn and pelicans diving lure adventuring twosome


Blog tidings – from the Beartooths of Montana to the coast of southern California.  In three days, we’ve seen bighorn sheep mating and pelicans diving, making us aware of our good fortune in having two wonderful states to call home. Back from a month in Big Sky Country, we’ll winter in San Diego.
Our goal for the new year is to provide regular posts of our travels, both global and domestic.  Last year, we traversed three continents in addition to making bounteous treks in North America. 

 In the months ahead, we plan trips to Ashland, Oregon for the Shakespeare Festival, to New Mexico to perhaps help friends finish a retirement home, to New York for plays, to Barcelona for a trans-Atlantic crossing, and a transit the Panama Canal.  Who knows what else? Whale watching is on our agenda, plenty of music, a writing workshop and exciting construction projects.  If you like what you see, and would like to be part of our ongoing adventures, please sign up for e-mail updates and tell your friends!