Monday musings: Expertise and the imaginary self.


Do you fancy yourself an expert at something?

Expertise looks a lot alike from thing to thing.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re doing cancer research, editing a blockbuster movie,  or cleaning a stove top, being an expert requires attention. There is a task at hand, and it hungers for completion. Maybe it will be “complete” in an hour, maybe a decade.  If we’re bent on top notch craftmanship, and maybe some artistic genius thrown into the mix, the work ahead will demand the some shared characteristics.  Practice. Labor.  Focus of mind.  Detail.   Experimentation. Risk. Technique. Timing. The invention of systems. Discovery.  Awareness and analysis, breaking things down, naming the steps, examining these steps, assessing each steps’ effectiveness, making adjustments, sometimes huge, sometimes minute.  It requires attention.

This has an unfortunate shadow—we become picky, discriminating, discerning. We might become intolerant of slovenliness, perhaps irritable and impatient, downright snarky about other people’s work.  We can’t help it:   We pay attention.

I play pretend.  I pretend I’m a chef, a prep cook, a baker, and member of the cleaning crew. I don my grease-stained apron, and I play expert for a day:  I imagine myself — this is what I do – I imagine…and thus,  I pay more attention.

It’s a rainy Sunday with the NFC championship games on TV.  Could there be a better set of circumstances for domesticity?  For this flight of fancy into culinary adventure? My son, Miles, will saunter over to my house, to join me in playing pretend.  We pretend to care who wins the big games; we invent reasons to root for one or the other team, just for the pure investment of the moment.  We really just root for a close game.

Televised football games have a magnificent way of being able to take up all the space in the room.  They leap out of the little box, now a flat screen, and suck up all other cares in the world with the following pronouncement: “this is all that matters right now!” The urgency and enthusiasm of the commentators are critical to this illusion, as they shout and laugh and josh each other.  They’re our friends, with warm, familiar voices, never threatening, always reassuring.  If  we get nothing done today, it’s completely okay – we’re in the company of the rest of the country, plopped down in front of the TV, watching the only thing that matters right now.

Even better?  Watch football AND cook, bake, clean, maybe darn socks. Part of the challenge—timing your prep work in front of the football game while tending to the stovetop and oven timing.  Move back and forth like a ballet dancer, a figure skater perhaps.

Today I am going to make puff pastry.  Yep… the kind that requires time and patience, slicing chilled butter into a chilled bowl of flour and salt, one tiny pebble at a time. I move my flour and dough board out to the coffee table so I can watch Drew Brees throw passes as I whittle away at high quality butter. I turn the little butter slices into flour-coated little pebbles, slowly, patiently, my hands covered in flour, the quarterback dodging attacks.   Then it chills in the fridge, while I peel beets and carrots. I hear voices in my head:  “only slice the carrots down their meaty center,  check for dark spots on the inner rim of the beets!” This is the master prep cook, barking out instructions to me. Of course, I study with the master.  During halftime, I simmer garlic and onions on the stove,  prep my green beans, and rinse my Chinese noodles. The master chef in my head leans over and reminds me “use your senses, all the time, smell, smell, smell…gotta trust your nose, it doesn’t lie.”  The field goal is good.  Again.  The game goes into overtime. Oh yay, more football on TV.  I am totally delighted with the coin toss.  Is anyone else taken by the quaintness of this gesture?  Millions of people and billions of dollars swirl around the whole game, and a guy throws a quarter in the air, just like the children on a sidewalk.

Company.  Cooking.  Football.  My house is filled up.

I broil some red and yellow peppers, and I burn the carrots just enough to caramelize the edges.  The Rams win in overtime, and my puff pastry dough is doing fine in the fridge. All is right in the world. I slip over to my neighbor’s soiree, dropping in between football games and stovetop pauses.  “It’s all in the Timing…”  just another imaginary voice, coming from another imaginary master chef in my mind. I remind him that this is true in almost everything… in comedy,  in relationships, in decent writing.

I return to the second football game and to peeling apples. “It’s all in the freshness of the apples,” the produce man chimes into my head.  I peel pippins for my puff pastry, while watching the drama between the Pats and the Chiefs.  Wow…good stuff.  The apples too.

With the cooking part of the day mostly done,  I now face the hardest part of the day. How do I make my puff pastry LOOK good? How do I take this ball of sticky dough and turn it into a strudel?  I have skipped all dough-shaping classes in my imaginary culinary curriculum.  Making dough is one thing, shaping it is a whole other level of acumen.  I’m totally willing to fail.  This is an experiment, an expert in the lab taking risks.   I try  several different configurations of dough.  I stare into space, asking myself, “how should this really go? what are the limitations, the priorities, how should I proceed?  I picture the perfect apple strudel in my strudel

I play pretend.

I imagine it all.

It’s something to do.

It fills the empty space.

Like the football game.

I imagine the perfect apple strudel.

I imagine myself.

I imagine myself part of the clean up crew:  I have strong opinions about cleaners and sponges, I’m picky about getting all the way down into the crevices, “ don’t skim the surfaces,  literally”…the guy who oversees the clean up crew is an articulate guy—he enjoys his own metaphors, and sparkles when he uses that word, “literally” because he knows he’s using it accurately. He loves a clean sentence like he loves a clean counter.

The game between the Chiefs and the Pats, too, goes into overtime.  Two coin tosses in one day of championship football!  What a ride.  It is, after all, the only thing that matters today, right? 

It’s 9:30 at night. I’m still  cleaning, wiping up the last of the flour on my coffee table, and picking up stray onion peels off the kitchen floor.  My feet hurt and my back aches a little.  Sigh… a full day.  A day of labor.

Labor is good.  Even better?  Imagining myself … an expert for a day.

It takes practice.  And it requires attention.


Oh, the apple strudel?  The puff pastry?  The beets and carrots?  The results of the day?  You want to know how it all turns out?  Well,  maybe there’s a line between fantasy and reality after all.  But  hey,  it all tastes pretty good.  And it’s real food.


Monday Musings: Old dog, new tricks

In 12 days, I turn 60.  It appears that most of the ink I spill these days is shadowed and/or highlighted by this fact. The good news today is that the old dog can still learn new tricks. old dog If I were certain that my energy and ability to learn new things would stay constant in the future, turning 60 would be a non-starter.

Learning curves are alive and well this week:  2 performance bungles and 1 painful realization,  all resulting in the following “lessons.”


I:   My performance of ArtTalks last week: No minute by minute review here, just a few lessons from Chapter One of Theater Performance:

  1. It was too cold in the gallery for anyone to feel relaxed. If audience members and/or performers are shivering, this is a problem. Just like being hungry or thirsty, these factors interfere with our ability to take in anything with subtlety or nuance.  Wanting to crawl under our warm comforter or imagining a burger and fries definitely interferes with our ability to take in “art.” If it’s cold in the performance space, just turn on the damn furnace, people!
  2. I did not have adequate dress rehearsal time and space…my ability to make it work anywhere/anyhow fell on its face. Some key elements in the gallery had changed since my last rehearsal, and I just couldn’t wrap my performance chops  around these obstacles. I had arrived early enough (I’m not that stupid), but there were so many organizational activities things going on in the space that I couldn’t focus on my work.   Make sure you have a dress rehearsal of sorts.
  3. Try to gather more than 4 people in the audience. Okay, there were more than four, but I had managed to scrounge up only four of my peeps. Sigh. Once again, I did not pound the virtual pavement, advertising my gig. This is such a huge issue for me—to keep producing my own work, imploring my friends and family to come out and see it, but still, it’s a necessary evil.  Suck it up. Get an audience.
  4. The only way to really “transform a performance into a piece of art” is to be alive and present in the moment, rock solid on the material, so you can let go of the material and play with the live experience.     (this is not a new insight, it just flared up like the hot flame that it is) Be rock solid on your material.  Don’t fight the medium.



II:      I sang Karaoke at a small, cramped, worn down, dark, 80s-feeling bar last weekend. I finally joined a group of pals, who have been doing it for months.  A big Fail for me.  Now you might think this a bit strange, since I am performer, an amateur singer,  and the audience isn’t paying much attention anyway, but woe…I was terrible. Lessons to  learn from Karaoke Do’s and Don’ts.

  1. Don’t sing an old jazz standard piano bar song, no matter how much you want to do this crazy thing someday, no matter how many years you wished you could grab the microphone, gesture to your buddy at the ivories, nod, lean on the piano and sing a few bars of Cry Me a Riverpiano bar(looks just like me, right?, all except my spiky, dark hair and heavy spectacles, blue jeans, tennis shoes and baggy sweater)  WRONG. You won’t hear the chords very well, you might never land on the right pitch, be in the wrong key with the wrong notes and not know how to find your way back.  No one will know the tune, and they might even be pissed…what the fuck is this?
  2. Only sing pop tunes, preferably with a dance beat. Sing upbeat tunes that  people know, or can shuffle their feet to, so that even if you’re really, really bad, most people have a good time with your selection anyway. It’s not about you, it’s about adding to the party atmosphere. Sing Motown tunes, always good.
  3. Jump in, and  ignore all advice—what the hell? The stakes are nearly 0, and no one will give you or refuse you a gig after a few bars of Karaoke at an anachronistic bar in the suburbs.

III:  The realization I had this week is more layered and serious.

Oh oh oh…I get it—my own mother’s deep, deep…I mean, deep desire to be in the same room as her kids. Of course, this is dust on the surface of novel, perhaps.  I find myself not wanting my grown kids to leave my little house. I want them to just hang around;  I want to feed them lunch, maybe listen to their chatter from the next room, maybe offer up some conversation and “wisdom” of the ages (ha!), play a game of Scrabble, do a puzzle perhaps… This feeling reaches so far down into my cellular pathways, I cannot locate the escape route.

  1. More lessons learned:Don’t try to stop them from leaving the house. Don’t say, “oh, another thing…” or “what’s your schedule tomorrow?”  In fact, lift your chin lightly, be  nonchalant, say softly, “ Seeeee ya.”
  2. Don’t be afraid that it might be the last time you’ll see them. As irrational as this sounds, somehow it creeps down into those pathways. Mother nature at her cruelest, reminding you of the evanescence of it all.  Try to ignore it (ha!)

lionsiiIt’s Monday, so I’m off to sit in the same room as my 86 year-old mother for the whole afternoon. I get it.







Monday Musings

Just as nature loves a pattern, abhors a vacuum, and chaos leads to order, so goes my blog…finding itself, perhaps, emerging from the mess. chaosMaybe it’s a good day today, as I am equating natural order with making a kind of sense, making form, growing from single-celled organism into beautifully complex human beings.

On a bad day, I might see only the raw, random forces of destruction, assured that a kind of cruel chance rules us all.  In that case, my blog here makes no real progress, condemned to repeat itself and swirl into meaningless over time.  Okay, what side of the bed does one wake up on, anyway?  And does reference point not shift during the week, the month, the year, sometimes by the hour?

So last week,  I let the calendar spark my fingertips to press “Publish,”  surrendering to the cut and dry measurement of time to set my words forth. It occurs to me now that using Mondays to write my blogs may bring a modicum of order to these missives. Maybe I’ll call them Monday Musings…being prone to name things, as I am…This may lean toward list-making, so clean, so  deceptively simple.

LePell’s Index:

Last Monday I wrote a list of things I got WRONG in 2019.  Here’s a list of things I got RIGHT in 2019.    (note how much shorter it is.)

  1. Took a sabbatical from teaching at the college.
  2. Was a student at a different college.
  3. Tried to be more visible online, jumping fully into more social media.
  4. Tried to get away from social media because it was having a deleterious effect on my state of mind.
  5. Made a website and started writing my blog. I committed myself to this work.
  6. Gave myself permission to ignore my blog in favor of my other creative endeavors. I broke my commitment.
  7. Gave myself permission to feel affection and devotion and loss – about my dad’s death.
  8. Gave myself permission to feel relieved – about my dad’s death.
  9. Gave myself permission to sing.
  10. Gave myself permission…

(Okay, this is not an exhaustive list, but I do not want to pummel you with self-help affirmations here. There’s more than enough of those floating out there in the ether.)

More Monday Musings:

  1. Everyone is back to the grind, all semblance of celebratory freedom has ceased, and January brings forth a long haul of dreary chores. For me, this means sticking to my tasks without waiver, using the cloudy, cool mornings to compose. You?
  2. The government shut down drags on—did you miss the memo on this? I agree with David Brooks (he’s my favorite moment in the world of TV news) who so beautifully articulated how we have entered our days of “theater” now; all practical, common sense for a common good has disappeared.  Maybe I like the use of “theater” here as an antithesis of common sense.  Hmmm?
  3. Nancy Pelosi and the veterans of Congress are not too shaken by the whirling enthusiasm and youthful blunders coming into the House… I’m all for the passion of the new blood, but I’m equally compelled by the parental, cautionary tone by the elders.  I’m no prude, but keep “mother fucker” out of the public discourse.  We can argue about this, I’m open…
  4. Confession – when the headline suggested that Julia Roberts made a fashion statement of sorts at the Golden Globes with her toe nails, I opened the article. Oh no, yes, I did!  I hurl vitriol at such things—augh, all these award shows that continue to reinforce how important these celebrities are, in case we missed that memo too –some people are beautiful, successful and important…then there’s the rest of  us.  Who gives a fuck about someone’s gown when the homeless encampment by Home Depot off of Fruitvale in Oakland has grown every day for a month?  Who gives a fuck about Julia Roberts’ s golden toe rings?    I guess I do.  Fuck! I hate that.
  5. Is it possible that “Post Truth” (a book title and cultural nomenclature for these times) is finally a reflection of the general agreement among philosophers, scientists and artists that truth is relative at this point? Maybe politics and journalists are just coming around to a realization that Einstein posited long ago, and that many of us have been exploring our whole lives?
  6. LANGUAGE ALERT: I take issue with the term, “Hot Flash.”  No, no, no,  it is no “flash.”  It is a wave, starting at the edges of the skin, the arms, and the trunk…the heat travels upward, a surge, a pressing wave of heat, rising up the cheeks and forehead. It doesn’t happen in a flash, and it isn’t over in a flash.   I’m quite certain that Hot Waves are not random, but driven by something as subtle as a quick thought;  something is triggered, a valve flipped…I am also certain that we don’t know squat about hot waves, and yet millions suffer from every day!  The fact that we name them inaccurately reflects our ignorance.  This is political, time for a march on Washington.
  7. I’m doing a solo show, art thingy, part of my series called ARTTALKS, at the end of the week. Yes,  the theater artist  in me is alive and well,  needing to jump around in real time and real space…but I still wonder if all that performance is still rooted in an adolescent need for attention?  Theater seems like a childish art form, really, generated mostly by arrested development.  Sigh.  Does Chekhov’s mastery fall into this category?  On second thought…
  8. “How you do one thing is how you do everything.”  This is a quote from a sweet, slim little book on Zen Buddhism.  Oh, could it be true?   Food for deep thought.
  9. I saw an old boyfriend over the Holidays. Cold night. Warm Peets.  Almost 40 years have passed…want the details? Let me know…  He still wants to be a writer,  going on 5 decades.  I remind him of one thing:  Writer’s write.  He doesn’t.
  10. Confession:  I found that chatting with an online assistant for Verizon strangely  satisfying.  Some stranger typing to me, responding to my questions so directly,  Wow.  His little “got it” comments and “what can I do for you?”  conjured warm, full feelings…Had I found a new friend without subscribing to  Why do I assume it was a male?  There’s a new play in there, don’t you think?

Back to the playpen.

LePell’s Index: (Remember Harper’s?)


Hello my dear readers:

I’ve been terribly remiss about writing my blog this past few weeks; I’m getting back on this proverbial old horse, what with the turning of the old calendar, literally, turning the page.

I used to roll my eyes when the news all turned to “most, least, best, worst of…” during the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  Oh god, is there nothing really going on these days? Of course, I exaggerate, what with young children dying at the border or in Yemen, among other horrible and wonderful things in the world.  But I used to think, “oh please, talk about filler?”

But I’ve changed my tune (what? Again?  How consistently inconsistent I am).

I love lists… I used to tingle with excitement over Harper’s Index.   harpersl


I live by them.  They are beautiful, utilitarian, even poetic at times.

I’m all for inventory—in fact, I take inventory almost every day of my life—I’m a little addicted to TO-DO LISTS.

A “Little” Addiction

I could write yet another book for the masses on “how to keep track of your life.”  It might have to include writing 20 pages a day, but hey…that’s no problem, right?
self help

As contrived as it is, New Year’s seems more than apt for such activity. Where have I been, where am I going, where am I today?  So I’m taking on a series of LISTS that you, otherwise, might not see in the daily headlines. Want to join me?  Put aside the grocery list, the chore list, the monthly budget spreadsheet, —time to tackle some not-so-common lists together:


Little things I got wrong in 2018; I mean, substantially wrong.

  1. I thought that writing a blog, getting it boosted and linked and visible to the world would somehow draw some attention to my incredible prose. (okay, I know, that might beg some argument, but hey…I’ll take response over indifference any day.) I thought that if I tickled the world wide web with my pithy observations, then presto…someone out there would read my words and say, “wow…let’s pay this woman to write things for us. Maybe editorials ,essays, fiction, even plays… let’s unleash her pen to the world somehow, it must be done.  This is a rare gemstone and ‘we’ found it here in the billions upon billions (trillions?) of internet musings, aren’t we the lucky ones?”   I was so WRONG.   What with all my piercing insight, sometimes I miss the most obvious thing in the room.  Marketing is marketing is marketing is marketing.  Just because we have this new toy to play with has not really changed the playing field out there.  I’ve been trying to get my work OUT THERE for decades; why would this new platform really play out any differently than the old fashioned submission, resume, ass-kissing methods of yesteryear?  Marketing is marketing is marketing and I just suck at it. Period.
  2. I can’t let my dog off its leash just because I feel like the dog deserves the freedom.  I shunned these laws in the name of liberation, as I said to myself, “hey, deal with it people, a dog running around, we’re outside, we’re in a park, big fucking deal,  you can walk the other way if it’s a massive freak out moment.”  But the rules actually take OTHER PEOPLE into consideration. Go figure. Who wants a strange, barking dog running in their direction while they’re trying to jog quietly, or muse about the formation of  leaves? I get it.  I was so WRONG.
  3. Trying to settle the Family Will issues within 2 weeks of the death of my father seemed the right thing to do—get the whole thing ironed out so we can plan, execute and go with our lives. Bringing dollars and cents into the discussion of the Memorial planning…WRONG.  (obvious reasons? Okay, shoot me)
  4. Sending extra emails to try to get someone to listen to me—oh my, did I fuck up in this regard… I keep expecting people to write me a quick note: “too busy to talk now, I’ll respond soon,” or “got it…more soon.” I sort of freak out sometimes (surprise surprise), and then soon my emails get longer and more strident, more demanding and perhaps just spinning out of the rational universe.  Sending just one more?  WRONG.  Let sleeping dogs lie, and shoot them out of their misery and yours perhaps.
  5. Flying without an editor, convinced that first drafts are the best drafts (at times)—well, seeing as how I do not have one, and haven’t hired one, and don’t want to pay a friend to do it, and certainly don’t want to ask someone to do it for free…I am so WRONG.
  6. I’m transitioning to quick notes here, almost all of which fall under one big heading: WRONG.  Most of these will also fall into the category of having too many and/or too high of expectations… Oh, just that?  Again?   only in 2018?  Are you fucking kidding me?
  7. Wanting my students to acknowledge my spilled blood for their opportunities.
  8. Wanting my boss to read any documents/reports and give me thoughtful feedback.
  9. Thinking that the old friends I find on Facebook and Linked In are tickled to hear from me and immediately want to reconnect.
  10. Thinking that tweeting about NPR would get me followers on Twitter.
  11. Thinking my mom might call me fewer times if I called her first.
  12. Thinking that anyone would delight in my sense of humor as much as I do (in writing).
  13. Thinking that singing in a choir once a week might make a real singer out of me.
  14. Thinking that returning to music would answer all my unfulfilled hopes and dreams of being a jazz singer, leaning on a piano in a smoky bar.
  15. Thinking that swapping Best Foods Mayonnaise with Safeway Signature was a smart choice.
  16. Thinking that feeding my kitty the expensive cat food would make him purr more often.
  17. That observing the changing of the seasons on my morning walks, would turn me into an expert gardener.
  18. That thinking about music in new ways would improve my finger coordination on the keys and my ability to match my pitches with ease.
  19. That going to a bunch of plays and congratulating the director/writer/actors would make them want to work with me on their next project.
  20. That emailing my son’s teachers and gushing about how hard they work would result in higher grades for him.
  21. That I can fix my printer… if I just press “print” over and over.
  22. That expressing my opinion is always a healthy choice.
  23. That holding my tongue is always a healthy choice.
  24. That watching Jeopardy makes me smarter.
  25. That the readers of my blog might actually notice I haven’t written for a bit.



This awful thing happened to me last week. My car was broken into in SF and I lost my computer (I’ll spare you the dramatic details) which housed a lot of my work!  I lost a huge chunk of a play I’m writing for my sabbatical project, so not only is it my creative work, but an actual product with a deadline.

So after a few days of regaining my footing, I’m back at it.  Part of me is always determined to prevent petty criminals from making a victim out of me.  It’s my way of saying “fuck you!”  So shakily, I immediately go to Walgreens to buy shampoo to start replenishing my stolen swimming bag.  “Take that!” I say to the asshole(s) who broke my car window and took all my belongings.

I’ve had to search for files in various places, buy a new computer, and take some deep breaths.  (I was actually WINDED after it happened–someone hit me in the gut).  Now I’m back to the work–I will resurrect my play, praying that the break-in was meant to happen somehow, that my draft was a really a piece of shit, even though I swore otherwise.  Sigh.

Reminder — my blog/my website — Inside.  Outside.  Reflections.  I explore things on the inside, always trying to find their manifestations on the outside.  And vice versa.  Picture a two-way mirror with a line piercing it  through the heart.

Remind me if fail to this, okay?  Also…you think I need to add photos to every blog?

(I lost all my photos too)


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