S.A.D. and Me

6 Feb

 After going home to Texas not once but twice this winter, I realized that I come from a place that is so bright and wide open that even on the bleakest winter day, sunglasses are necessary. While I am writing this blog post it is approximately 70 degrees in my hometown. It’s no wonder that every winter in New York I find myself in the doldrums. These past few weeks, I’ve been dragging; I’m exhausted, and feel like my life is going in a really bad direction. It seems like nothing is ever going to look up.

My journal entries from last year paint a similar picture:


Exhausted all day. Why is work so boring? Came home and watched Battlestar Gallactica (2 episodes); went to bed.


Couldn’t wake up this morning and can’t seem to get motivated. So tired. Work was sooooo loooonnnggg. Starbuck has decided to leave Gallactica to find earth. Now there is nothing to look forward to.

I’ve realized that its time to make a change. I refuse to be in the dumps for the entire season. Since I am not in a position to move to Texas, Florida, Arizona, California or any other sunshiny place, I’m going to have to use artificial means to lighten up. But how?

My symptoms point to a fairly common ailment known as Seasonal affective disorder, or S.A.D. There are several ways to treat the disorder (therapy and anti-depressants are among them), but most appealing to me is light. Yes, light. That seems to be what I’m missing more than anything. A warm climate would be nice, but I think it’s the darkness that really gets me down.

At any time of year I have a tough time waking up, but something about the winter turns me into a zombie. Last summer, I purchased one of those expensive Philips wake-up lamps on Amazon. Not only was the model I bought weird looking, but the wake-up alarm function was defective. Besides that it wasn’t a special light at all, just an incandescent light bulb encased within a white plastic cylinder with a cheap alarm clock attached. Ugh. No thanks. I returned it and decided it was just too ugly to try and exchange for a fully functioning unit. So that was that. UNTIL I found The Lighten Up! Sunrise Simulator, a product that mimics the effect of the rising sun using an existing lamp, oh and it only costs 19.95.


(photo courtesy of naturalsunrisealarmclock.com)

Here’s how it works. You plug the unit (a small box) into an outlet and then plug a regular lamp into that. Eight hours later the lamp turns on, casting a very slight glow, and for thirty minutes after that it glows brighter and brighter, mimicking a sunrise. I’ve used it for approximately three weeks, and can say that as long as I don’t accidentally (or on purpose) turn it off or pile pillows in front of it, the light works. Now I don’t jump out of bed fresh as a daisy, but I do feel better. Not as shocked, not as prone to hitting the snooze button six times or being lulled back into sleep by NPR.

The second part of my plan is to incorporate a SAD therapy light into my daily routine, so based on Amazon reviews, I purchased a small Omega brand device that emanates a blue glow of 10,000 Lux

Omega Front

I wish I could say that this light is the ticket; that its made a huge difference during the past few weeks. But it just hasn’t. I purposely chose a small unit, thinking that it would be handy to transport the light between the office and home. But the effect is more spotlight than soothing glow.

beam of light

There’s nothing cooler than sitting in a cubical with bright blue mood lighting right on your face. What’s really put me over the edge with the Omega is that the kickstand has already broken off of the unit. 

Omega Back

I think that’s a little pathetic for an item that’s less than a month old, don’t you? I’m going to find a bigger and higher-quality therapy light or at the very least adjust the settings so that the light isn’t quite so “in  your face.”

I may still be cranky and struggling a bit, but at least I’ve found something that helps me to wake up in the morning. That’s better than nothing. In the meantime, I’ve booked a mid-February trip to California. If I can’t bring the sunshine to me, I’m going to have to fly to the sunshine.


The SPARC Grant: Part Two

8 Sep
These hands
Pain and joy
These hands
Changing my grandson’s diaper for the first time
These hands
Feeling my father’s stubble
These hands
My family
These hands
My dreams, touching the lions
These hands
Feeling strong

 “These Hands” was created by my students using a visualization exercise that guides participants to focus on their hands—where their hands have been, what their hands have touched, and who their hands have cared for—throughout their lives. Each week the group would reminisce on a different subject: superstition, holidays, and life lessons, for example. Sharing memories generated a palpable sense of community in class, but I couldn’t figure out how to turn these reminiscences into content suitable for a performance. Should the stories be scripted? Turned in to poems like “These Hands” and read? Made into songs?  In the meantime, I worked with the group on basic acting and long-form improvisational skills (despite my prior difficulties with Syd and his cohort, I couldn’t abandon the genre entirely) and we continued delving into the past.

Terry, one of my savviest students, suggested that the group develop an “immigration office” scene and with little effort they improvised a funny and moving story  of a poor widow, a skilled  tradesman, and a rich lady who interact with an immigration agent and police officer in Ellis Island.

Doris and Terry

The standout performance is Blanca’s portrayal of a rich lady who avoids the perils of Ellis Island due to her social standing. With nothing but a borrowed cane, she is transformed into an elegant  and wealthy woman from the 1920s. She doesn’t overplay it, she just lifts her chin and assesses the other characters—this is a woman who knows what she’s worth. Inexplicably, Blanca understands that controlled stillness is the key to capturing an audience’s attention. Watching her perform makes me want to keep trying, it reminds me of the reason why I feel in love with theater when I was six years old. The ability to transform into someone else is the only magic I’ve ever known.

In addition to the Ellis Island scene, it was decided that the students would share their American stories for the final performance.  There would be no forced theatrics, no songs or dances, it would just be them. It would be enough. Blanca’s story focused on her admiration for John F. Kennedy, Doris theatrically described her great love for the American flag: both her birthday and the anniversary of the day she became an American citizen fall on Flag Day.

Doris and the Flag

Andre discussed his many blessings in this country, while Ann and Terry shared their long and rich family histories.

Ann and her Dad

There was just one problem, at the end of our final dress rehearsal we’d never been through the show without stopping.  I (like many directors before) accepted this and hoped for the best.

The week before our final performance I received a cryptic email from my most dedicated student, Ann.

The subject line read: EMERGENCY! Call me immediately.

I raced to the phone to call Ann at home.  Luckily I caught her on the first ring.

“Everyone is fine, it’s not medical. Robin, our props have been sold.”


“They took our props and sold them.”

Our props and costumes, stored in a locked closet in the senior center, were mistaken as a donation to be sold “garage sale style ” at the center. Thankfully, Terry was there to rescue most of the goods, but a few things went renegade. Apparently posters of Ellis Island and unmarked CDs are hot items in Sunnyside,Queens. I arrived at the center on Sunday for the final performance to discover that only a few essential items were missing. Poor Blanca had to run to the store to buy a new skirt, but we made it through.

I went backstage to lead the students through a final warm up and felt myself swell with pride when I realized that we made it, this show was really happening. Ann asked if she could lead us in a prayer and my eyes welled up with tears when I realized that this would be the last day of my class. The performance was perfect, the audience laughed, cried, and were right there with us.  Words can’t express how proud I am of my students and their accomplishment.  Their validation.  There is a heaven for has-been acting teachers like me.  And this is what it will be like.

The SPARC Grant, Part One.

4 Sep

In September of last year, an email from Queens Council on the Arts landed in my inbox to announce SPARC: Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide, a community arts engagement program that pairs teaching artists with senior centers across the five boroughs of New York City.  As I scrolled through the email I thought, there is a grant program for artists who want to work with seniors? Why haven’t I heard of this? The answer was simple, it was a brand new program and this was the very first round of grants. I nervously applied, wondering if it was the right choice for a washed-up, has-been, failed acting teacher like me.

A few years ago I spent some time teaching in a nursing home on the Upper West Side and—as rewarding as interacting with my students could be—I felt a little like a fraud. Acting is just so touchy-feely and weird.  Selling the merits of improv was especially challenging.

“Improvisational theater gives us the opportunity to write our own performance as we go. You’ll be stunned by how fun and engaging it is. Who’s ready to give it a try?”

Stan’s eyes glaze over. Lena breaks into a coughing fit as a nurse rolls her away. The rest just stare back at me, bewildered. The silence is broken by the BINGO caller next door, “B 93. 9-3.” I continue on, wishing I were a BINGO caller instead of an acting teacher.  At least I’d have more than five participants.  I continued the lesson.

“There is only one basic rule to start improvising, it is imperative that you keep the scene going by saying ‘yes, and…’ rather than saying ‘no’ to your scene partner.  That’s the only key: never say no.”

Syd, a former judge, chimes in,

“I’ll say no whenever I damn please”

“Of course that’s true in real life, but in improv its better to say ‘yes, and…’”

“But that’s not reality honey. What if we’d said, ‘yes and…’ to Hitler? Where would we be now?”

“I see your point”

My students quickly mastered “yes, and…” but I ultimately couldn’t shake this feeling of being miscast as an acting teacher. Something just wasn’t right. Eventually, I invited a talented colleauge to take my place.  I sighed to myself and thought, well that wasn’t for me…

Despite my initial hesitation, I decided to take a leap of faith and apply for the SPARC grant, resolving to make up for my shortcomings as an acting teacher by focusing what I am good at: theater production. In the grant narrative, I proposed to develop a play—written by and starring the students—that answers one question: what does it mean to be an American? The idea came to me while visiting Ft. Ticonderoga in upstate New York. Everything there felt so “American” the trees, the green-green grass, even the solemn reinactors manning the cannons. The air even smelled American. (In case you are wondering, America smells like cut grass, pine trees, and lake water.)  I thought, this is America to me, Robin Benson, but what is America to somebody else? Somebody who lived through WW2 or someone who emigrated here? As cannons blasted around me, I closed my eyes and wished that half of my students be old-school die-hard lifelong New Yorkers and the other half be new Americans, ready to share their stories with me.

On an icy December day, I found out that I received the grant. Not only that, but I was placed in Sunnyside Community Services in Queens, home to one of the nicest senior centers in New York City.  After the initial thrill, a felt a pang in my gut:  how am I, a known acting teacher hack, going to pull this one off?  Panicked, I dusted off my old senior theater and intergenerational theater books off and came up with a plan.  The class would broken up into three major components: a development segment (12 sessions), a rehearsal segment (8 sessions), and a technical or final rehearsal segment (2 sessions).  Instead of focusing heavily on improvisational exercises or acting games (as I had with Syd and the gang), I resolved to activate students’ memories through reminiscence exercises, visualization, and sense memory.  The resulting content would then be woven together to create the final performance.

The class met in a small classroom adjacent to a much larger multi-purpose room that housed Sunnyside’s daily BINGO game (also known as the hottest ticket in town). Sometimes living in BINGO’s shadow is the best one can hope for.  I came prepared with a laptop, my iPhone (to capture whatever needed recording), and pages of typed notes.  I quietly prayed, asking God to meet me halfway. I assumed that this would be the biggest failure of my life, that my students would hate me, that there would be no final performance.

“Good afternoon, everybody. The purpose of this class it to develop a performance piece by asking ourselves the question, what does it mean to be an American? I don’t know what the final performance will look like, but I do know that the content will come solely from you.”

Ann looked thoughtfully at her hands, remembering someone, something important.  Andre broke into a huge grin. Terry leaned forward in her chair and nodded. The rest smiled back at me.  Ready to engage.  Ready to remember.  Half were immigrants, half were old-school die-hard New Yorkers from Queens. I could feel my heart lifting out of my chest.

Lunch Hour NYC

25 Jun

Lunch Hour NYC

On Friday, Lunch Hour NYC, an exhibition celebrating the history of lunch in this fair metropolis opened at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A Schwarzman Building.  When I received an email announcement of the event, I squealed in my cubicle like a giddy teenager.  Could there be a more perfect way to be a lunch break tourist?

Did you know the concept of lunch didn’t exist until the 19th century? Until then, workers would return home for “dinner” with their families at midday. Industrialization changed this dramatically: employees traveled farther for work and ate a shortened, midday meal at their places of employment while dinner was pushed to later in the day.

Lunch Hour NYC explores not only the evolution of lunch, but the history of the New York City school lunch program, ethnic influences on New York lunches, power lunches, take out, and my favorite, the story of the Automat.

Automat - Pies

Before coming to New York, I’d always dreamed of visiting one of the world famous Automats I’d seen in old movies. For the record, I could write a book about all of the glamorous and exciting things I was expecting when I moved to New York (1930s style train cars, supper clubs, tea parties) contrasted against what I really found (thumping JLo and 50 Cent music, the filthiest GAP imaginable, and obscene prices at the Times Square McDonald’s).  When I moved to New York in 2003, the glamour of the Automat was a long distant memory.

Automat History

The first New York Automat was opened in Times Square almost a century ago by Joe Horn and Frank Hardart on July 2, 1912. The concept was simple, if a person was hungry, they could drop a nickel or two into a slot, open a little compartment door, and voila: fresh, homemade food. Basically it was the restaurant version of a giant vending machine. The food was famous for its high quality, great taste, and low price point.  The other draw was the world famous Automat coffee. What I would give to try just one sip?

Automat Coffee

By the 1950s the popularity of the Automat began to diminish as office buildings opened their own cafeterias and fast food chains emerged.  Due to declining quality and a lack of consumer interest, the last Automat closed its doors in 1991. The good news is, the exhibition includes free, take-home recipes of famous Automat dishes. I grabbed baked beans, burgundy sauce with beef and noodles, and pumpkin pie.  Now I can have my own Automat experience at home! I’ll just cook dinner, put it in my cupboard, pretend to put a nickel in the slot, open up  my cupboard again and enjoy my automated treat!

Take Home Recipes

As much as I was hoping to complete the exhibit in under an hour, it just can’t be done!  There is so much interesting ground to cover, I’ll definitely be back soon for a second visit.

Lunch Hour NYC
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street
New York, NY 10018-2788
Open until: February 17, 2013
Cost: Free

Lunch Break Creative: Tourist Edition

11 Jun

Working in an office environment can be stimulating and challenging: the day flies by when solving expense report mysteries like a corporate Nancy Drew. Sometimes though, I feel a tad stifled and in need of a little creative stimulation.  In my last post, I shared my personal mission statement, “live to create and serve” and resolved that I would find ways to incorporate creativity into my working life.

What could be more inspiring than a visit to the New York Public Library’s Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, Gallery?

The current exhibition is Shelley’s Ghost:  The Afterlife of a Poet which focuses on writer Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) and his second wife Mary, best known as the author of Frankenstein. The gallery is tiny, perhaps 200 square feet, making it the perfect size to tackle in less than 20 minutes.  Particularly enjoyable were Shelly’s notebooks, a necklace made of P.B. and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s hair, and a copy of “A Cat in Distress,” Percy Shelly’s earliest known poem.

The thoughtful design of the exhibition was another highlight, evoking a creepy, gothic feeling.

In addition to the ephemera locked behind the cases, are small takeaway note cards with various quotes from Shelley.

One card reads:

MUSIC when soft voices die,

Vibrates in the memory –

ODOURS, when sweet violtes sicken,

Live within the sense they quicken.

Shelly’s Ghost:  The Afterlife of a Poet
Now through Sunday, June 24, 2012
Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery
Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street
Cost:  Free

After enjoying the exhibition, I took some time to lollygag through Bryant Park, located directly behind the library on Sixth Avenue between 40th and 42nd Streets.

Bryant Park boasts many wonders, one being an outdoor Reading Room with various books to borrow while sitting in the park.

Near the Reading Room, Istumbled upon a discussion of Jen Lancaster’s new book, Jeneration X hosted by In Her Shoes author Jennifer Weiner.

I thought, wait a second – there must be more events where this one came from!  And as soon as the thought popped into my head, a copy of the Bryant Park spring guide manifested before my eyes.  I snatched the precious pamphlet from the bored, teenaged attendant and realized that there is an author’s discussion every Wednesday at 12:30!  The series is titled, “Word for Word Author” and its purpose (according to the guide) is for “Bestselling authors [to] share tricks of the trade, answer questions, and sign copies of their latest books.” There is a similar program for poetry on Tuesdays at dusk (of course the poets have to be dramatic about it and have their program at sundown). On select Tuesdays at 12:30, the Reading Room hosts a book club of favorite Oxford University Press classics.  If you sign up early enough, a free copy of the book club selection can be yours.

Folks, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  There are also writer’s workshops, nonfiction discussions, and classic movie groups; and those are just the literary activities.  Other Bryant Park events include Yoga, Tai Chi, fencing, birding, juggling, beginner and intermediate language classes, and (be still my heart) knitting lessons. Not to be missed are both the world-famous HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival, beginning on June 18th and my personal favorite, Broadway in Bryant Park, beginning on July 12th.  Did I mention that every single event is free?

Who could have known that so many engaging activities are waiting for us just outside the doors of our climate controlled, sterile offices?  Let’s try something inspiring and new.  Let’s get lunch break creative.

Lunch Break Creative

25 May

After reading The 7 Habits for Highly Successful People, I took Stephen Covey’s advice and drafted a personal mission statement.  I felt sheepish about this endeavor and wasn’t sure if it was prudent to spend so much time focused on ME, GLORIOUS ME.  Despite my hesitations, the exercise was immensely helpful.  For instance, if I don’t feel clear about something—or need to take a mental shower—I turn to my mission statement. I feel muddled all of the time, so this has been a big help in boosting my happiness. Here’s what I came up with:

Live to create and serve.

Make time every day for creative activity and welcome challenges.  Don’t give up because it’s hard.  Take pride in mistakes and learn from them.

Put first things first: if you are hungry eat, if its cold, put on a sweater and so on—this can also be applied to matters of work and spirit.

My home will be a comfortable, orderly place of beauty.  It is a reflection of my inner, creative spirit.

In all times and in all places, establish a culture of peace.  (This means work, too).

Family comes first.  Call family multiple times during the week—while walking home, waiting, doing dishes, preparing meals, etc.

Engage in positive, uplifting, and creative activities.

I’ve recently left the comfort of my Foundation job for the wild, unkempt garden of a law firm. This was a tough decision: working at a law firm doesn’t sound like me at all. Would this position lead to nothing but long hours and cranky lawyers in suits? I imagined running out at midnight to pick up another case of diet coke for the haughty attorneys while my children (currently unborn) sat at home crying for their lost mother. Despite my negative fantasies, I felt compelled to accept this unexpected position because it offered me something that my beloved Foundation could not: an opportunity for growth. Someday maybe, if I play my cards right, I won’t be an assistant.  If I work hard and put in my long hours (yes, the hours are longer than what I was used to) there is hope for something more substantive. In the meantime—while slogging through expense reports—how can I remain creative? How can I inject bits of creativity into my day?

My solution – become a lunch break creative.

What I have: the New York Public Library, Bryant Park, the firm’s break room, an exciting location, one hour, my hands, my heart, and my ideas.

The library boasts free Wi-Fi, a stunning facility, and endless research opportunities. Why not bring my laptop or iPad to spend time writing or researching projects?

Bryant Park also has free Wi-Fi and can’t be beat for writing or researching on a sunny day.

The firm’s break room offers coffee, snacks, and an endless supply of diet coke.  There is also a TV and long tables.  Hmmm, could I start a scrapbooking group using these fantastic tables?  I haven’t met one crafty person at the firm yet, although I’m sure they are out there.  A sorority sister of mine is both a lawyer and one of the most prolific crafters I know. Hope springs eternal.

My new office is located in the crossroads of the world, Times Square. There have GOT to be some creative outlets right outside my window. I just need to open my eyes and find them. Why not take a mini-vacation on my lunch break by checking out historic and noteworthy places?  I’ve used Forgotten New York as a resource for this in the past. *Gasp* I should speak to my former Foundation colleague and travel blogger, Action JoJo for ideas.  Stay tuned!

Do you have any hints for staying creative during the workday?

The Christmas Card Letter

12 Dec

One of the reasons that I love the holidays is that I see them as an opportunity to be creative by baking, crafting gifts, and writing a Christmas card insert. Before Facebook and Blogs, annual Christmas card inserts or letters were the only way to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family. Folks have very strong opinions as to what should and shouldn’t be shared in a Christmas insert. Growing up, my family made a sport out of reading the letters aloud to each other – and every holiday season named the worst of the year, which usually went something like this:

1993 has been an interesting year with some real ups and downs.  Mother had bowel surgery and lost a 4 foot section of her intestines. Uff-da! She’s recovering ok, despite needing round-the-clock care (including hot sponge baths provided by my sister-in-law Greta) and a colostomy bag.  Went on vacation to Minneapolis for a weekend with Marge and the girls.  Marge really knows how to make a hot dish, I tell you. Some of my favorites are hash brown casserole, and everone’s favorite: green bean casserole. Maybe this year Marge will find the husband that she deserves.  She’s a real gem, fellas!  Wink. Wink.

This would continue on for a full single-spaced page.  Here’s why the letter doesn’t work; it includes:

  • Personal (and specific) medical information about a family member,
  • Vague details about a trip to the local big city,
  • Notes on casseroles (although Jell-o salad can and will make it into my Christmas letter), and
  • Comments on a friend or family member’s marital status (this is a personal pet peeve of mine and happens more often than you would think).

Let’s try and re-imagine the letter in a more appropriate way:

In March, I visited my cousin Marge and her two daughters at their beautiful new home in Minneapolis. She’s become quite the chef and we enjoyed many wonderful meals together.


Thank you to everyone who has kept my mother in their thoughts and prayers.  We celebrated her 82nd birthday as a family and look forward to many more birthdays together.


Not everyone has a jet-setting, fabulous life.  We don’t all make yearly trips to Europe or the tropics. This year I struggled with my Christmas letter because the farthest I traveled was Lancaster, PA.  I thought, “I’m such a loser, I didn’t do anything anyone cares about!  Even my crafts suck!  I hid my sewing machine in the closet because it was upsetting me!”

The truth is, people don’t care. They just want to see what you are up to in under 200 words and with a couple of photos – especially if you have kids.


  • In addition to your Christmas letter, write something by hand. Just a couple of words expressing good tidings, best wishes, or whatever floats your boat. There is nothing worse than a Christmas card with no signature, no note, no nothing. Take the time or don’t bother.
  • Include pictures (hopefully not all of you, this isn’t match.com)
  • Feel free to send cards late or not at all.  This should make you feel good, and not be a source of stress and bad feelings.
  • Have fun with fonts and graphics if its your thing, if not just keep it simple.
  • Inject some humor, or if you dare…irony!

I hope I’ve covered the basics and that you’ll enjoy constructing a quality Christmas insert!