Creative Marriage

In writing class, when we read writers’ memoirs, we are all a bit like voyeurs. We like to see how others do it — how they get along with their partners.

It is always interesting, to me any way, to read about marriages. How much are the lovers’ lives, like vines, intertwined? Although I know the topic is tantalizing, my marriage is difficult for me to write about.

My daughter recently texted me this picture of me and Chris — I think it was from the premiere of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village.

jcj and mbc

(Pictures are always fun when people are not looking at the camera.)

Let’s face it, I have always been a bit secretly jealous of Chris’s amazing acting career. It’s true I have my own IMDb page and when one of my students discovered this, he has begun greeting me as Sabrina Von Savage, my character’s name in We Might Be Superheroes. Alas, I never achieved the same status as an actor that my husband did. Men have it easier, even in film. And yes, if you say, in his defense, he’s a greater actor than most (including me), I will have to agree.

But still. I am not without my achievements. I did and do achieve greatness through my writing and, hopefully, through my teaching. These successes, however, are harder to quantify.

So back to marriage, that equal partnership. As I wrote yesterday, there is no greatness or genius without a team or a partner behind you. I have been able to expand myself because of Chris. (And, no doubt, I have limited myself too.)

Chris’s Parkinson’s Disease has slowed his ability to move. Diagnosed about 15 years ago, he needs more physical support than ever. He uses a walker or walking stick to get around. It can be taxing on me physically. Does he need more emotional and psychological support too? Maybe. Executive function skills? Yes, these are slipping.

And me? Yes, I need more help, but I am not good at asking for it. Or expressing my vulnerability. This is the lesson from the Dr. Blasey Ford — you tell your truth and you will be glossed over, or worse, ridiculed by the president.

Times are tough for women and for caregivers, who, let’s face it, are mostly middle-aged women, a slice of the population so easily dismissed. But I refuse to be written off. I refuse. I am, after all, a proud feminist and I do believe that I have a professional contribution to make to the world — in addition to, but not limited by, my caregiving for and with my family members.

On Monday, we are going to Chris’s neurologist, who, too, is named Dr. Ford. I am compiling a list of questions for the good man. We always ask about the trajectory of the illness — i.e., ‘if he is at this point, when will he slide to the next low point?’ The docs are always cagey in their replies. They don’t have crystal balls. They refuse to give up on anyone.

Well guess what? Neither do I. I am a member of the creative resistance. Je refus.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas

Violent Images

Last night Chris and I saw the play Tamburlaine. At the 30-minute intermission, I told Chris, "This is the best production of Tamburlaine that I will ever see. And the worst." I said that about Cymbeline too. Glad I saw it. Don't need to see it again. 

John Douglas Thompson (photo courtesy of Nigel Parry and NYMag)

It has my favorite actor, the Marlon Brando of our time, John Douglas Thompson, in it. Tamburlaine reveled in his own psychosis and had such a lusty love of blood-letting.

Thompson, in fact, is a gentle man, a bit of a friend. He played MacBeth when Chris played the porter in the Scottish play. Chris says of him, “He doesn’t shy away from the big parts.” (Othello, Emperor Jones, Julius Caesar). He is all in. So good. Exciting to see such commitment. And the whole stage rocks with turmoil.

But to what end? The play is loaded with buckets of blood and plenty of gore, including a scene where a tongue is cut out. Eeeeew! The play by Christopher Marlowe was first staged in 1587.

I overheard an audience member say, “This hasn’t been done since 1957 on Broadway.” And with good reason. It’s just an endless parade of marauding death.

On the way to the beautiful Theatre for a New Audience in Brooklyn, Chris realized he forgot his medicine.

“Do we go back home?” I asked.


“I will just be slow.” Chris’s Parkinson’s medicine helps him move. Without it, he freezes. After the play, I put a hand on his back. On the way home, I pushed him along.

He was extremely slow walking to the subway, heading back to the Upper West Side. Then we got home and I had to tell Catherine she could not watch Django Unchained.

“It’s not a problem,” H. said. “She looks away during the violent parts.” He loves having a companion with whom to watch movies.

“I’m sorry. No,” I said.

“You’re too protective.”

“Yes,” I said. Believing that they secretly like that. Even thinking maybe Catherine wanted to be told not to watch that.

“Why? Why can’t she watch it?”

“I don’t want her to have those images in her head — of such violence.” I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve heard. And yet, Tamburlaine filled my head with violence too. I don’t think I’m worse for it. Maybe it would’ve been okay. I don’t know. We live vicariously. But plays are different. The cast comes out for a curtain call.

We know it’s fake. We love the artifice.

We go slowly home.

Mental Health is Wealth

I’ve blogged after a celebrity death before. And I don’t really want to do it again. I have nothing new to say. What does it matter whether it was a celebrity, friend or family member who committed suicide? It’s horrible.

Chris in the movie Awakenings, played Dr. Sullivan.
Chris in the movie Awakenings, played Dr. Sullivan.

Robin Williams worked with Chris once. Chris played a doubtful doctor in the movie Awakenings. And he said Robin Williams was very funny, acerbic, a great mime on the set. He was always on and creative. Chris liked him.

I felt sad. As if I knew this guy. That he was one of us.

And then I felt angry too. Shit. He had it all – career, money, relationships, friends. But wait — he was missing one important thing – he didn’t have mental health.

I have only occasionally been sick. It sucks. Physical illness sucks. Mental illness sucks too. If I just have a little cold, I’ll tell you about it. But depression is another beast. A lot more than a psychic cold.

I think I was depressed deeply, 20 years ago, when my ex and I split up. All food tasted dry. I didn’t feel like eating much. I lost about 20 pounds. But I got myself back (with the help of friends, family, comedy, and cinnamon rolls, oddly – something about their gooey sweetness made me feel glad to be alive.) It was a situational depression. It abated. It was about the loss of my first marriage.

Sometimes I feel slight depressed about my situation now too. I wish that Chris was who he was before he had Parkinson’s Disease. When he was in big movies. But this morning in the Adirondacks he and I played tennis and then we swam out to the reef (what is that? Like a mile?) How lucky — how blessed are we?

Tomorrow I’m picking up our daughters from camp. And Friday, I’ll pick up my son and his cousins from their flight from Chicago. Next week all five the Coudal siblings and their kids and our parents will be together. I have so much to be grateful for.

But mostly, I have good physical and mental health. That’s not nothing.

Memories of Meeting Chris

It was about 1992 and I’d recently come back from a retreat offered by Marble Collegiate Church about relationships. I realized three qualities I wanted in a partner were brilliance, creativity and financial independence. And after a few times hanging out with Chris, (thanks to a Kirk Douglas film he was in with a mutual friend), I realized Chris had those three qualities. And more. He was a good listener. I was attracted to these qualities.

He had been an English major and so had I. He was the only person ever to express an interest on the topic of my Master’s thesis – deconstructionism and psychoanalysis. English majors just generally tend to get (and love) one another. When I met Chris, he was reading Updike’s Memories of the Ford Administration. Here was a guy who loved Updike and was a good listener? Nice.

So life ensued. We married in ’95. The kids came along in ’97 and ’99. And after a bout with prostate cancer about 10 years ago, Chris was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease about 9 years ago.

Chris and Cat watch the trailer for the Endgame Project.

While I know many of you love Chris as an actor and an artistic colleague, and I, too, love the brilliance and the creativity, but there is another quality Chris has brought to my life which may not sound so sexy: his steadiness.

He is not literally steady, because Parkinson’s does cause his hand and arm to shake, but figuratively, he is a rock. When the kids were little, one preschool director, Holly, commented that she’d never seen a dad so involved with the kids as Chris was.

He’s a real family man. And even as the disease progress, Chris is aces as a parent. He still cooks and shops and walks the kids home from late-night parties.

And he listens well. He’s steady. And I like that.

He no longer reads Updike the way he used to, but then again, who does?

Chris is making a documentary with a buddy who also has Parkinson’s about putting on Becket’s Endgame. To see a clip of the documentary, link to: The Endgame Project.

Christmas Carol

Last night, I went to the opening night of A Christmas Carol, sitting beside my husband who had played Scrooge for at least four years about ten years ago in this production at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, New Jersey.

It is unlikely, due to Chris’s Parkinson’s Disease, that he could still act a huge theater role like Ebenezer Scrooge. We reminisced in the car about how he was making the M. Night Shyamalan movie The Village at the same time he was in Princeton performing as Scrooge.

Chris as Scrooge, watching himself as a boy.

Acting is an art, like painting or playing the cello. But in the US, unlike maybe Russia, the performing arts get short shrift in a culture that worships celebrities (and then delights in their demise).

Acting is hard work. It is physical labor. It is not putting on make up and posturing. It requires depth of emotion and focus and athleticism.

In this production, Chris as Scrooge flew down from the rafters and flew back up again. He foisted Tiny Tim on his shoulder and jumped on the bed. (He particularly disliked having to do those last two things.)

So watching the show last night, I think Chris felt pride in his past work, but also sadness, and a sense of letting go, a resignation to having physical limitations.

I have seen this production at the McCarter a billion times. Still, it makes me cry. Why? Because, like Scrooge, I discover again the reality that we are made to love another, not to dismiss our loving tendencies by criticizing Christmas or other people. I remember that I am mortal and my time is limited. I must seize this day. There is so much joy in the scene when Scrooge realizes it is not too late to live — never too late to love.

The play is so good. This adaptation by Tommy Thompson is beautiful and simple and elegant, as is the direction by Michael Unger.

Chris has recently had a lovely success with a play he translated, Cherry Orchard by Checkhov at the Classic Stage Company, so I don’t think he was not sitting in the audience wondering, Why aren’t I up there, playing Scrooge?

I drove back and forth from the city. Chris fell asleep, off and on in the passenger seat beside me. When we talked, I told him, “You have had a great life in the theater and I’m so glad I got to see so much of it.” And yes, his theater life continues in a different direction.

My take-away from last night? Be like Scrooge, seize the day, buy the biggest turkey, jump on the bed. Or be like us, see a play, reminisce, have a life in the theater, have dinner with friends, (thanks KP and Wayne!).

Cherry Orchard

Turturro lets the stuffing out of the chair. (photo by Richard Termine for the New York Times.)

My husband’s translation of ‘Cherry Orchard’ was so naturalistic. A few minutes into John Turturro’s opening scene, I squeezed Chris’s arm and whispered, “So good. Genius.”

Chris (John Christopher Jones) did a brilliant job of situating the audience right there with the family at the grand Russian estate as it falls into disrepair and bankruptcy, sold to the local boor — or is he a self-made man? — played by Turturro.

An actor at the cast party told me it was the only of Chekhov’s place that the author considered a comedy. (Actors can be so smart — like real artists, not just empty-headed celebs!)

Chris worked hard of this translation, obsessed by it for months. He spent a lot time sitting in front of the computer. I know how hard it is to write.  It is mostly about keeping your seat in the chair.

I have seen Chris in a number of Chekhov plays. From those plays, I can see what life was like back in the day before people realized you should work out to lift your spirits. Or perhaps, people, try some anti-depressants?

In Chekhov’s plays my heart always breaks for the way the characters ridicule the intellectual, the perpetual student. Ugh.

This production is not depressing. I loved the party scene where the family, led by Dianne Wiest, and the guests wait to hear about the fate of the estate. The party goers’ spirits were as light as the stuffing from the chair that flew around the stage when Turturro ripped open the furniture.

For some reason, I always imagine the cherry orchard bathed in late afternoon light, like in the Van Gogh painting of the olive orchard. The cherry orchard never appears on stage yet it is a character in the play, once great and now parceled away — like so many nations, families and nature itself. 

On the cab ride home from the opening night party, I read Chris the The New York Times Review of ‘Cherry Orchard’ off of my smart phone, hitting bumps and speeding up Third Avenue. It was a triumph for Chris.