Saturday, March 27, 2010

Present Laughter: Maggie Hall LeVine

It’s all in her expression, in the way she talks to folks in the audience as though they’re friends she’s sitting down to coffee with. Receptionist by day, stand-up comic by night, New Yorker Maggie Hall LeVine has a down-to-earth style that works well for her, both onstage and in her blog, “Maggie’s Musings.” “Hey, I like yapping about myself,” she observes. “Why shouldn’t I make it my life’s work?”

Technically speaking, LeVine started doing comedy in the fall of 2006. But, in a very real sense, she has been doing it most of her life…if, as she remarks in that fast-paced way of hers, “you want to call being in seventh grade and wearing clothes that didn’t match and wearing too much make-up because I didn’t know how to wear make-up funny. People laughed at me then, but it was unintentional. Now it’s intentional.”

She acted for a few years, doing some television, indie shorts, dinner musicals, and off-off-Broadway plays. Then she landed a part in George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “You Can’t Take It With You” as Alice, the one normal person in “a family of whack jobs. Even though she was the straight one, you have to have a sense of humor. And, ironically, my next major role was the comic relief in a murder mystery[, ‘A Murder Is Announced’]. I liked it – I felt more natural. And I knew that I preferred doing comedy to doing Shakespeare.”

A life coach advised her to do stand-up comedy: “She thought it would be a good thing for me.” So LeVine started combing craigslist for gigs. She landed a lot of “bringer shows” – i.e., shows that she could do as long as she brought five people to each performance. “It’s very commonplace for new talent to bring in some audience,” says LeVine, adding that doing this is “sort of like your entry fee.”

In the fall of 2007, she began “barking,” which basically meant going out into Times Square to pull in her audience. She now barks three nights a week, which enables her to perform the same number of nights that week. “Every so often, we have a chance to audition with Al, the owner of the Broadway Comedy Club and the New York Comedy Club,” LeVine explains. He sits down and talks with you about how you can improve. Even if he doesn’t pass you, he doesn’t make you feel bad about it.” She also interns at the New York Comedy Club, seating people and making sure they don’t leave without paying. She earns an extra spot during the week for doing that.

Some of LeVine’s favorite bits involve telling long stories, “but you might lose the audience, so I don’t do that too often. I tend to do personal stuff. I try to stay away from sex jokes because people can only take so many. I try to stay away from topical jokes….When the audience is laughing, you know that they get you – or that they’re roaring drunk.”

She definitely prefers stand-up comedy to acting. “The other barkers or performers are like family,” she observes. “Yeah, I think that’s what we are. There’s too much competition in acting – maybe three of you auditioning for one role – whereas in comedy, people are very supportive.” To underscore her point, she tells about a fellow comic who’d been barking for four or five years before he was “passed” and could “get extra spots during the week without having to do extra work for it. That’s a major goal for most comics starting out – to get stage time based on being funny, as opposed to how many people they bring….We were all very happy for him. He’d been working very hard.”

It has been tough.  Once, three years ago, she got shot down in 10 seconds after spending all night in the street, waiting to audition for “Last Comic Standing” – but LeVine, like Simon & Garfunkel’s fighter, still remains. “It’s like a lifestyle,” she muses. “Y’know, I don’t think I ever had a conversation with another comic that didn’t involve comedy. We don’t talk about family. We don’t talk about the weather. It’s ‘I’m doing this club.’ Or, ‘I’m doing a spot.’” Eventually, LeVine wants to perform full-time. She’s that determined. Or, as she puts it, “I guess comedy is one of those things where it’s harder to quit than to keep going.”

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hooked on a Feline: Ingrid King & BUCKLEY'S STORY

Buckley came to Ingrid King when she was working as the manager of the Middlebury Animal Hospital in Virginia. The tortoiseshell rescue with the bent leg wasn’t the first cat to wander into the writer’s life; but she packed an emotional and spiritual wallop that King has yet to recover from. Not that she wants to. “I didn’t realize how much she [Buckley] opened my heart and changed my life until I was in the middle of the changes she brought about,” King admits.

Buckley’s Story (iUniverse, Inc.), winner of the 2010 Merial Human-Animal Bond Award and a National Book Awards finalist, is her tribute to her wise furry muse and mentor, to the “little cat [who] was pure love.” Think of it as a feline Tuesdays with Morrie. “Her freedom-loving spirit inspired me to finally make the leap of faith and work for myself,” King says. “She taught me about letting go of fear and worry and to live in the moment. And finally, she taught me that sometimes loving means having to let go, no matter how painful it might be.”

King had always had a strong spiritual kinship with animals; she had also always been keenly interested in Reiki, a form of energy medicine that dates back to early 20th-century Japan. A little more than a year after Buckley entered her life, the two passions came together for her. She left the veterinary clinic, bringing with Buckley with her, and opened Healing Hands, a home-based Reiki practice. She worked with animals and humans, often sending distance healing to both with powerful results. Her favorite distance-healing story involves a 15-year-old cat down in Florida. “She had virulent nasal discharge caused by calici virus, was not eating or drinking and was very frail and had very little energy,” King recalls. “After just one distance Reiki session, this kitty started eating – in fact, she got up towards the end of the session and went to her food bowl and ate for the first time in days. She continued to improve with subsequent sessions.”

Buckley, her “little Velcro cat,” started out as official greeter to clients but quickly added assistant Reiki practitioner to her duties. She’d “jump up on the treatment table and curl up next to or on top of the client.” It soon became clear to her owner that Buckley was positioning herself next to whichever part of the client’s body needed an energy boost. Clients began reporting “a feeling of added heat or pulsing where she had been.” After awhile, King just skipped sending Reiki to the areas that Buckley had already seen to.

Even in her day-to-day life, Buckley “radiated” a joyful healing energy, “transmut[ing] the energy of the house in general,” King observes at one point in her book. “Cats are sensitive to energies and have the ability to change negative energies into something peaceful and calming…More people commented on the peaceful energy in my house after she came to live with us than ever before.” Amber, the other tortie-in-residence, had “a quieter, more serene energy” of her own. “Between the two of them, they had the vibrational spectrum of aligning with Source covered,” the writer reflects.

The word-picture that she paints of their lives together is lovingly detailed, the colors rich and warm. But the best memoirs, like Rembrandt’s paintings, have a certain amount of sadness and shadow in them, offsetting the glowing hues, and Buckley’s Story is no exception: Buckley, the little cat with the brave, beautiful soul, was suffering from heart disease.

King did everything she could, but she was finally forced to admit that she couldn’t control the outcome. “For a recovering control freak like me, that was not an easy challenge to overcome!” she admits. "It was a gradual letting-go process, but it was probably accelerated by her because of the kind of cat she was.” Buckley fought being pilled and acted up at the vets, thus closing off a number of possible life-prolonging treatments: “It was going to be her choice how far we would take treatment, and when she would be ready for transition.” So King followed her lead, trying not to focus so much on treating the cat’s illness “on a physical level.” Instead, she learned to really connect with her [Buckley] on that deeper level, and to honor both her wishes and my own intuition with regard to what was right for her.”

Buckley lost her battle on November 28, 2008. One of the great strengths of the book is King’s treatment of her beloved friend’s death. She does this without morbidity or sentimentality, only with loving honesty. The shadows that creep into those last chapters only underscore the beauty of their camaraderie.

And, in the end, that is what we take away from Buckley’s Story – that and the loving buoyant spirit of the cat who, like the teacher in the adage, showed up when the human was ready for her. King herself sums it up best. When asked what word-picture of Buckley she’d like to leave the reader with, the writer says simply, “Joy.”

Ingrid King with Amber, one of her beloved torties.

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Monday, March 1, 2010

Goat Magic: Nancy Butler & Lyric Hill Farm

She has gone from being a geology major and a Master Gardener to living a totally corporate lifestyle to making and selling goat’s-milk soap.   This last incarnation is clearly her happiest. “I have goats! I live on a farm!” she chortles. “I learned to drive a tractor! I can milk a goat!”

That one short speech says a lot about how Butler tackles everything. Whole-heartedly. Thoroughly. Her business, Lyric Hill Farm in Granby, Connecticut, has been in operation for a little more than a year. But there were about six months of trial and error, she admits: “Of course, I couldn’t do it the easy way and use somebody else’s formula. I had to make up my own formula. I wanted certain qualities that certain other soaps didn’t have – I didn’t want to have exactly the same soap as every other goat-soap maker around.”

The more you talk to her, the more you realize that all those disparate strands in her life aren’t so disparate, after all. A geology major at Cornell University with a minor in civil engineering, Butler loved working with nature. “Geology was in the engineering department and in the arts department,” she explains. “Geology allowed me to spend time outdoors. Ithaca is a beautiful place. And I got to travel to lots of places to do fieldwork – Wyoming, Montana….And it was absolutely beautiful.”

She did her stint in the corporate world, working for 10 years as an environmental and safety engineer at The Travelers in Hartford, Connecticut. “It was kinda like OSHA [the Occupational Safety & Health Administration] from an insurance company’s point of view,” she explains. “I loved it – I was interested in how things were made.”

And then there was her passion for plants. In 1995, Butler took a Master Gardener course, working as a garden advisor at the White Flower Farm in Litchfield and as a horticulturist at Westmoor Park in West Hartford. She and one of her friends at White Flower Farm were, she recalls, “such confirmed plantaholics, I knew we had reached an all-time low when I was holding her by her ankles while she was rooting, no pun intended or” – she looks up from the Belgian linen washcloth she’s knitting, clearly re-thinking this – “intended, in the dumpster for plants. This arm comes out – she holds it [the plant] up and goes, ‘Tree peonies!’” Butler laughs. “It was like the Holy Grail.”

The goats butted their way into the picture later on, part of her son Austin’s “4H project run amok.” Lyric Hill Farm came about because they had a surplus of goat’s milk: “My kids were getting sick of goat cheese, and they said, ‘This has got to stop.’” Butler had always wanted to make soap, so she set up shop in the kitchenette off the front of their circa-1895 house. She prefers keeping the business small, she says, adding, “I don’t ever want to have large batches because I like the feel of it being hand-made and not a mechanized process. I would rather have multiple small batches that I can make by hand than have a large vat done by machine.” Butler has even begun knitting her own washcloths to sell along with the soap because she refuses to purchase cheap washcloths made in China “on account of their labor practices”; besides, she likes the rougher texture of the linen. And, of course, plant person that she is, she appreciates “the botanical connection. It comes from a plant[, flax,] so it kinda comes full circle.”

But that botanical connection comes into play in more ways than that. “I am very committed and tied into the sustainability of plants and farming and keeping as low a carbon footprint as possible, at least in my everyday life,” Butler maintains. As a cancer survivor, she is intensely concerned about what ingredients go into her soap. Not only does the milk come from the family goats, but the herbal infusions are from her own plants. She does use some “tried and true” essential oils, but everything is food-grade -- excepting, of course, the lye, which is needed to saponify the oils and turn them into soap.

She even uses rain water off the roof to dissolve the lye rather than run the risk of possibly offsetting the process with minerals from well water. “I used to come home from work with my suits and my laptop,” she laughs, “and here I am now with my buckets, getting rain off the roof.”

But it has all come together for Butler. She talks frankly about her bout with cancer – “It shook my world” – but she doesn’t allow it to define who she is. Her garden has helped with her healing. “I don’t have to smell them or ingest them,” she says regarding her flowers and herbs. “They’re just lovely to look at. For me, working in the garden is very spiritual.” And the goats have become part of that healing spell as well. “There’s something very magical,” Butler says thoughtfully, “about looking out on your pasture of goats, and the next day, you’re milking them, and it’s turning into milk for making soap, for making cheese.”

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