About Carolyn Cook

I’m an actress, teacher, and explorer. I’m passionate about the arts, travel, and my amazing family. I have spent my adult life seeking ways to balance rich personal relationships with a fascinating and challenging career.

An Open Letter to a First-Year Medical Student

Dear Friend,

Thank you for choosing to be a doctor.

You have an arduous journey ahead, of study and internship and residency and specialization and long hours and grueling schedules. I don’t envy you one bit. I hope you help lots of people and make lots of money and one day have a lovely home and a cabin on a lake so you can finally relax.

In the meantime, I have a favor to ask.

Please, if you can find it in your heart, go into geriatric medicine. And change it.

The elderly population of this country is going to explode in the next twenty years, and the chances of anyone over 85 getting dementia are about fifty-fifty. Pretty soon there will be millions of people out there with dementia, and millions more middle-aged people trying to help them, not to mention the millions of rational octogenarians trying to help their demented spouses. We need doctors, and we need them to understand.

Take my mom and me, for instance.

If you do become a geriatrician, please understand that when I come to your office with my mom, I’ve had to convince her to go to the doctor, which she doesn’t want to do because she’s from the greatest generation (whatever that is) and she is not supposed to get sick. It took work to get her to you. So you have two people in your office who need your help.

Please understand that she can’t tell you exactly what’s going on, even though she sounds utterly articulate, because she can’t access information in her brain the way she used to. She says what she believes is true, what she thinks you want to hear, or what makes sense to her in that moment. If her knee is bothering her, she might tell you she remembers falling, and you might diagnose a bruised knee and send her on her way. But she believes with all her heart that she fell because someone tripped her, and she can name this person, and she can tell you that this person cursed her out for getting in her way and left her lying there in pain.

And that may be true. But it’s probably not, because (a) no-one would do that, and (b) it’s the same story she uses to explain the arthritis in her finger and the pain in her hip. She will tell you with a straight face about the time she was knocked down and left on the ground with a broken hip. But she has never had a broken hip. Really. I think I would know. So that bruised knee diagnosis might not be accurate.

You’re right to take her seriously, look her in the eye, and treat her as an adult. She is your elder. Please, do be kind to her. She’s been on this earth many years. She has had a career and a marriage and three children, and has excelled at everything she has done. (I’m not exaggerating. Even her hobbies have been brilliant: just look at the framed needlework on her walls.) She nursed her own father through heart disease and was with him when he died. She nursed her mother through dementia and was with her when she died. She nursed my father through cancer, and you guessed it, was with him when he died. She is my HERO. Respect her.

But respect me too. If I’m looking over her shoulder and mouthing the word “dementia,” find a reason to step out in the hall and talk to me. Set up your office or your examining room for that. I don’t know how. Let’s figure it out. Let’s reinvent this thing.

Work with me. I’m with her a lot, and I can help you decipher her meandering stories. I can tell you what drugs she’s on, and when she eats, and how to notify the assisted living staff about a change in medication. I can be your partner. I have a keen eye and a level head (most of the time), and I’ll help you if you’ll listen to me.

One more thing you should know, though. Just a little perspective:

I am watching my mom slowly die, slowly disappear, slowly become a person I barely recognize. She’s scared, and I’m scared. She’s my mommy, the first warmth I ever felt, the first body to embrace me, the first drop of milk in my mouth, the first to stand me on my feet and say, “you can do it.” And she is disappearing. When she’s scared, or angry, or hurt (which she often is, because she’s losing impulse control and executive function so it’s hard for her to calm herself), I want to make things right. I want to move mountains to make my mommy happy again. It’s not just that I admire her and care about her well-being. I do, but it goes deeper. At some gut level, I am still that tiny child she cared for, and if her world is not safe for her, then my world is not safe for me. If Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. I know I’m a grown-up now and have all kinds of agency, and I know I’m safe and secure and have money in the bank. But the three-year-old who lives in my body and chatters away in my brain is terrified, because Mommy is not okay.

So, dear friend, dear sojourner on the path of healing, I need you. I need you to understand. I need you to reassure me that you get it. I need you to return my calls, to listen to my worries, to trust my instincts. If you will be my partner in Mom’s care, I will calm my inner three-year-old and work with you to find the best path forward through the threadless labyrinth of dementia.

Geriatric medicine. The care and keeping of old people.

It’s not glamorous work; it won’t get you a Nobel Prize or a prestigious job at a research hospital. But it will help my mom, and millions of people like her, live decent, dignified lives. And it will help middle-aged children like me breathe easier, knowing that their loved ones are getting the care they need. It’s a high calling.  Think about it.

Good luck with medical school, my dear. Get some sleep; eat healthy meals; laugh. I wish you happy times, true friends, and much success.  And about that cabin on the lake: be sure to put some rocking chairs on the front porch.

Because God willing, someday you too will be old.

Deedie and June + Circle photos, Sept. 2013 006

Two of my favorite eighty-somethings.

Out of Work

I have rejoined the ranks of the unemployed, and let me tell you, it would be easy to fall into the Pit of Despair right now. I’ve been glancing down into its depths since my last show closed.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’re aware that my life is a tightrope walk between domesticity and artistic fervor. Sometimes I’m a consummate homebody, as I was last week during our winter weather event, cooking and eating at an open hearth. Other times I make my home at the theater for days, grabbing food on the go and hoping there are enough frozen dinners at home to keep the family from starving. Most of the time I’m balancing between the two, walking the high wire, knowing there’s something wonderful at each end.

This time, as I perch on the domestic end of the wire, I’m finding it harder than usual to see the other side. I think it’s a universal truth that actors believe their last job really was their last. No matter what we’ve accomplished, we’re sure no-one is going to hire us again. It’s been fun, but it’s over. Time to buckle down to a Real Job. Or at least clean up the house.

What would that real job be, exactly? I have no idea. Theater is what I know and love. I’ve considered every other use of my talents imaginable, including teaching middle school math (no joke, really), and I can’t come up with anything I could do for more than six months without losing my mind.

Which brings us to the question of what to do “between engagements.”

I do voice over work. I teach the occasional acting class. I coach individual students. I do some dialect coaching. I don’t do film or television (yet); I’ve never really gotten the hang of keeping in touch with an agent and doing on-camera auditions.

But mostly I just live. I get up, I make tea, I do a little yoga, and I realize – again, again, again – that life is what you make it. I can be lonely and sad, or I can reach out to other people and give them a tiny smile of recognition. I can tumble faster and faster into my own well of doubt and depression, or I can look up and see how much I have to be grateful for. In other words, I can feel sorry for myself, or not.

I won’t lie; when I’m between jobs, self-pity is always a temptation. I can certainly justify at least a modicum of sadness over my mom’s dementia. But then I read something like this  and realize (again) that I am not alone, that other people are walking this path with me. I can worry about the job I didn’t get for this summer. But then I remember that nobody owes me a job, that, in fact, every job – every minute of life – is a gift.  What’s more, I remind myself, I do have other work lined up. I can choose to focus on the tasks before me instead of on the disappointments behind me.

Where does this leave me today? At home, in my messy kitchen, with time on my hands to go pick up Mom and do a little volunteer work for a small theater company I care about. At my computer, with internet access and the chance to schedule a meeting with someone who might have interesting work for me down the road. At my table, giving thanks for good food to eat and loved ones to share it with.

I am so lucky. The only question is how clearly I see my good fortune. And how well I keep it in focus as I step back out on the tightrope.

Why Yes, We Are Old-Fashioned

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of my daughter’s childhood friends called us “old-fashioned people” when she saw our fireplace and cast-iron dutch oven. The name seems particularly fitting this week. I have felt like a pioneer woman, preparing for a huge ice storm by bringing multiple loads of firewood to the back porch and stocking up on things we could cook on the hearth. My husband filled the oil lamps and put new batteries in the radios and flashlights, so we’d be ready when the power went out.

So far (knock on firewood) our power is still on, though the storm did come as predicted. The trees and power lines are glistening in their icy coats, but we’re safe and warm in the house.Ice storm, Feb. 2014 007b

 

Ice storm, Feb. 2014 015My husband is sleeping at work (part of his job in bad weather), so my daughter and I are weathering this storm as we see fit – and we see fit to knit. By the fire. Like old-fashioned people.

Ice storm, Feb. 2014 029We’ve kept a fire going each afternoon and evening, and we’ve made great progress on our knitting projects. Hers is much more elaborate than mine, and she’s using yarn she spun and plied herself, so she gets the gold medal for old-fashionedness. But I’m catching up. Today she offered to teach me how to spin, and for the first time I held a drop-spindle in my hands and turned a tiny bit of wool into yarn. Will wonders never cease?

Ice storm, Feb. 2014 022I’m glad I don’t have to make my own yarn, dip my own candles, weave my own cloth, and cook all my meals over an open fire. I like modern life far too much to want to go back in time. But there is something deeply satisfying in the old-fashioned arts of homemaking. After a hectic few months of work, it’s lovely to stop and enjoy the simple life.

Time to pop some popcorn over the fire . . .

Ice storm, Feb. 2014 033

Object Lesson

Every week, WordPress issues a photo challenge. So far, I haven’t been ready to grab my camera and shoot pictures specifically for a post, but this week’s challenge reminded me of some photos I’ve been wanting to share.

The theme this week is “object”, and the challenge features a compelling picture by Cheri Lucas Rowlands. The object in the photo — a clear ball on a beach — is simple, but it grabs my attention and makes me want to step into the picture.

The obvious photo (but it still makes me happy)

The obvious photo (but it still makes me happy)

The object of my recent photo shoot was a vase of flowers. (When I take my mother grocery shopping with me, she often insists on buying flowers for me and chocolate for herself, so we both win).  I had these flowers on my dining room table and was struck by the way the afternoon light played with the glass, water, and clear marbles in the vase.

I’d been reading The Unforgettable Photograph by George Lange with Scott Mowbray.  (This cool video will tell you what the book’s about.)  I photographed the vase of flowers using the advice in Chapter 4:  Move Your Eye.  I love Lange’s exhortation:

“Keep moving until you find the place where, suddenly, you’re seeing things differently.  Forget about what is right and be open to being seduced by what you might have thought was wrong.  Always be hunting for a new angle.”  (p. 60)

That’s what I tried to do with my vase of flowers.  Here’s a sampling of what I got.

I love the tiny bruise on one petal.

A bruised petal

The porch railings reflected in the glass drew my eye first.

Porch railings in light and shadow

Glass in water in glass.

Glass in water in glass

Lange’s book is for everyone, not just photo geeks.  I highly recommend it.  Who knows what you might capture, if you let yourself see things differently?

 

 

Tap Dancing In Cleats

When I was a teenager, I drew a clear distinction between the worlds of art and athletics. My high school excelled at both. We had a championship football team and an award-winning band. We had a chorus that regularly took top honors at competitions, and we excelled in basketball, tennis, and track. We had professional visual artists teaching in the classroom and outstanding coaches for all our athletic teams.

And, lucky for me, we had a serious extracurricular theater program that rivaled any performing arts curriculum in the state.

But arts and sports were separate fiefdoms, and in our sports-obsessed culture, athletics reigned. A few people participated in both (like the football jocks in the spring musical), but mostly we went our separate ways. To excel, we had to specialize. Those football players could never have been in our fall theater production. They practiced at the same time we did, and like us, they still had homework to do when they got home.

Add to that my family’s passion for books, music, and art, and you can understand why I didn’t wind up playing sports. But as an adult, I’ve come to see striking parallels between sport and art, particularly theater. Both require focus, attention to detail, physical stamina, and team work. But the strongest link between sports and theater is grounded deep in the human psyche: the mesmerizing appeal of conflict.

By way of illustration, imagine this: you’re at a professional basketball game, settling into the stands, getting ready to cheer as your team enters the arena. Here they come: a group of top-notch athletes and a couple of referees. They tip off and head down the court to shoot a perfect basket! Score!

Then they all head down to the other end of the court, dribbling and passing flawlessly, and shoot for the opposite basket. Score! And that’s all they do: dribble, pass, shoot, score! Nobody blocks, nobody steals the ball. Nobody loses. Nobody wins.

Now, is that interesting? Of course not. Without opposition, there is no game. Without conflict, there is no drama.

Let’s imagine another scenario. You’re in a gorgeous theater, settling into your plush seat, and silencing your cell phone as the house lights dim for the opening scene of your favorite play, Romeo and Juliet. It’s so romantic; these two young people from feuding families fall in love! Their parents call off the feud, invite all the relatives in from out of town, hire a band, and have a big Italian wedding! End of play.

Oh wait, that’s not how it goes, is it? Of course not. Without opposition, there is no story. Without conflict, there is no drama.

And we need drama. We need to gather in large groups and watch people act out our primitive urge for conflict, struggle, and triumph. Sports arenas, black-box theaters, elegant opera houses . . . these are all places where people come to laugh, cry, gasp and cheer as we experience together “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.”

My dressing table for Lombardi

My dressing table for Lombardi

I’m currently performing in Lombardi at Aurora Theatre, a play about legendary football coach Vince Lombardi and a perfect example of sport as art. On opening night, I heard Producing Artistic Director Anthony Rodriguez speak about the value of theater, which he discovered in high school. (He was one of those football jocks in the spring musical.) The worlds of art and sport are not so different, he said. They bring us excitement, suspense, and hope. They call out our passions. They bring us onto common ground.

These days I find myself smiling backstage as one of my fellow actors practices a time-step in his cleats, then runs onstage to portray the great Paul Hornung, then stays after the show to work on a Shakespeare monologue. I am living at the intersection of art and sport.

I never expected to find myself here. But as long as I’m in this game, I’m playing to win.

An Open Letter to My Blog

Dear Blog,

Stamps photoI’m sorry I’ve been out of touch. I promise I still care about you. I think about you all the time. I’ve just been busy. It’s like that Elvis song, “You Were Always on my Mind,” which is basically a lame excuse for spousal neglect couched in a sappy ballad, but still. It’s sincere.

Anyway, it’s true: you really are always on my mind. When I’m with my mom I think of ideas for posts about aging, or dementia care, or mothers and daughters. When I’m with my daughter, I dream up posts about the college search, or learning to let go, or mothers and daughters. When I’m at the theatre I compose mental posts about a life in the arts. Or mothers and daughters.

When I’m with my husband I forget about you. (Sorry. I’m just so happy to see him.)

Well, okay, sometimes I think about you even when I’m with him. Like this morning, when we swung by the library after our weekly Waffle House breakfast date (oh, there’s an idea for a post). Anyway, we were at the library because he needed something, and I browsed the non-fiction shelves and grabbed a few books that looked interesting. And then I thought about how I could take a picture of those books just to show you how wildly diverse my interests are right now. I thought you’d like that. See? You really are always on my mind.

But I’ve been so busy.

And there’s something else. If we’re going for full disclosure, darling blog, then I must confess that I’ve cheated on you. A little. I’ve been writing to someone else. Don’t worry; I’m not leaving you. The person I’ve been writing to doesn’t want me to leave you. The person I’ve been writing to thinks you’re great. See, the person I’ve been writing to is me.

Yes, I admit it: I’ve been journaling. It’s selfish, I know.  But like Greta Garbo, sometimes I just want to be alone.

I promise, my dear, I haven’t forgotten you. I’ll write to you again. Until then, trust me. You are always . . . well, you know.

Love,

Me

P. S.  I am working on a post entitled “Tap Dancing in Cleats.”  Watch your inbox. . .

Effort and Acceptance

One of my favorite presents this Christmas was a five-class card for a local yoga studio, given to me by my darling husband, who pays very close attention to what I say starting November 1st and always gives me exactly what I want. (Got that? Amazing, right?)

So yesterday I used the card to take a hot yoga class. The room was packed with sweating bodies, all moving in unison to the instructor’s calm voice. Her theme throughout the 75-minute session was acceptance, followed by effort: accept your body as it is, and then make the effort to take it farther, but only as far as it will go today.

I heard the word “acceptance” over and over as I stretched and moved and sweated and stopped for water. I had no trouble accepting my physical limitations; that was easy, because I knew what they would be. (I have been doing yoga within my limits for a long time.) But the word wormed its way into my head and applied itself to my relationship with my mother . . . as all things do at this bittersweet time of her life.

The hardest part of dealing with dementia is acceptance. In my head, I know that this is my mother’s condition and that it will only get worse. But my heart is silently screaming NO. No, no, no, no, no.

Effort is easier. I spend a lot of time figuring out what I can do to make her life (and by extension, my life) more bearable. I read books on dementia care and apply the principles in them to the best of my ability. I try to anticipate her needs. I visit her six days a week and take her out to do things I think she can still enjoy.

Lest you brand me a saint, bear in mind that I have a lot of help. My mom can afford assisted living so she doesn’t have to live with me; my sister, brother, and cousin are deeply involved in her care; and I have that amazing husband (see paragraph one).

Still. I get caught up in effort, because acceptance is just so hard. How can I accept that my brilliant mother, the scientist, the math teacher, the violinist, the seamstress and baker and dancer and civic leader and sweetest off-key-bedtime-lullaby-singer in the whole wide world is losing her mind? How can I accept her suffering?

I don’t have an answer for that. It just seems like the right question. I’m curious about the concept of acceptance before effort. I wonder what would happen if I could accept everything about this painful situation, just as it is, before taking one more step to improve it.  I may never find out.  But I wonder.

Twas the Night Before

Tomorrow is first rehearsal of my next project, Lombardi at Aurora Theatre. I always get nervous before first rehearsal. I always have and I always will. This time, I’ve channeled some of that nervous energy into housework (not that you can tell), and the rest into research on my role.

I’m about to play Marie Lombardi, wife of the famous football coach for whom the Superbowl trophy is named. (I learned that in my research. That’s how little I knew.)

The play by Eric Simonson is based on the book When Pride Still Mattered – A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss. I read the book – all five hundred pages – and learned a great deal about both Lombardi and football.

I had to do this, because I was not raised in a football family. The only time I remember seeing football on my parents’ black and white TV was when guests were over for major holidays and somebody wanted to follow a game. My dad was a Georgia Tech man, so I knew who to root for (Tech, and whoever was playing Georgia), but I knew absolutely nothing about football, and there was no-one in my house who could teach me.

In junior high I tried out for cheerleading because it seemed like a cool thing to do. I made the squad, mostly because of my ballet background and acting experience, which made it easy for me to learn the routines and yell really loud. I was not a natural sports fan. The other girls had to teach me what was going on. If it hadn’t been for them I would surely have made a greater fool of myself than I actually did.

Having broken my foot two days before the first pep rally (don’t ask), I spent the entire football season on crutches. But I cheered anyway, to the best of my ability, and moved on the following year to my natural habitat, the high school drama club, and thence to my eventual career.

Which brings me to the present moment and my dramatic need to understand the game of football. I’m a serious actor, so I attacked the challenge with my usual zeal. I was feeling rather cocky about the depth of my research when I realized that, as much as I’d read and Googled and looked up on youtube, I hadn’t actually watched any games.

So, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I sat down with my husband and daughter to watch the annual grudge match between the Universtiy of Georgia and Georgia Tech.

Ouch.

It did not end well for my team. As Lewis Grizzard wrote in his column on one of the rare occasions when Tech beat Georgia, “I don’t want to talk about it.” But I learned something: when you know even a little bit about football, it becomes deeply engrossing. And when you care about the outcome, it can become all that matters.

Bright and early tomorrow morning, I will walk into rehearsal, knowing at least that much. For the coach’s wife, that may be a pretty good start.

Today

I haven’t blogged in a while, and I was mentally berating myself for laziness, and worrying about everything I want to accomplish, when I decided to stop and read Dale Carnegie again.

Yes, again.

I am one of those people. I like self-help books. Hardly any of them say anything new, but the good ones don’t claim to. They simply distill the wisdom of the ages, or find a new way to phrase some common-sense precepts our ancestors took for granted.  When I’m feeling sorry for myself, I can count on a few to kick what needs kicking and get me back on track.

I have Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living on my Kindle, and I turn to it periodically for a refresher course on living peacefully in the present. Carnegie started teaching his principles for success almost exactly 100 years ago, but his accounts of “modern” men and women overcome by anxiety and worry could apply equally well today. We think we invented stress. We didn’t.

So here’s today’s lesson for Carolyn: there is only today. Worrying about what I should have done yesterday or need to do tomorrow is a waste of precious time.

Or as Mr. Carnegie puts it, right in chapter one: “One of the most tragic things I know about human nature is that all of us tend to put off living. We are all dreaming of some magical rose garden over the horizon – instead of enjoying the roses that are blooming outside our windows today.” 

Outside my window today are brown, rain-soaked autumn leaves, but I get the point. This is it. There is only now. What I haven’t accomplished doesn’t matter; what I will accomplish is yet to be seen. Whether I even accomplish anything today is not important, because today isn’t about me. It is around me.

I just have to pay attention to it.

Tree House

Autumn has been glorious in North Georgia, USA. We had an unusually rainy summer, and the old folks tell me that a damp summer brings a colorful fall. The leaves are vibrant yellow, deep red, burning orange. And we have a lot of them. Atlanta is a city in the trees; if you’ve ever changed planes at our airport, you’ve looked down on our forest of vegetation. I don’t know how they manage to fit the buildings in.

I lived in trees as a child. Not literally. I was just an avid tree climber. When my family moved to a house that had only tall pine trees, with limbs too high to reach, my dad hung a thick, knotted rope from the lowest branch so I could scramble up and disappear into the evergreen needles. I was six.

My husband and I bought our first house (our only house, so far) when I was thirty-five. One of the many things we loved about it was the yard full of hundred-year-old oak trees. Unfortunately, we soon fell into a multi-year drought that killed several of them, and despite the best efforts of a good arborist, we lost another to insects. As a result, we have fewer trees and a preponderance of dead wood, which the tree people cut into fireplace lengths and my husband splits with an ax.

We use it. One of the first things we did after we bought the house was have the previous owners’ gas logs removed from the fireplace. We may want that convenience later, but for now we love the crackle of a real wood fire. We heat water in a camp kettle for tea, and on rare occasions I make biscuits in a cast iron Dutch oven. (When our daughter was little and had friends over to play, one asked me, “Are you old-fashioned people?”)

My Kitchen, Oct. and Nov. 2013 002

Tonight I’m sitting by the fireplace, warming my toes and marveling at what the trees have given us: shade, beauty, color, heat, nourishment. And the cycle continues. I recently noticed that a weed I’ve long neglected in the garden is turning into a healthy little oak sapling. I thought about pulling it up, but I think I’ll leave it right where it is, and move the garden when the sapling gets tall enough to make shade.

I want there to be plenty of trees for the next generation to climb. They might be old-fashioned people too.