I’m not keen on emotions. I don’t understand them very well. When I feel something swell up inside me, I have a difficult time determining if it’s something positive or negative (I can usually figure it out eventually from context) and what my reactions should be to it. I tend to draw back from it, get quiet and try to analyze it and figure out just what it should be rather than let go and feel it. Perhaps that underlies my affinity for Sondheim as so much of his writing is for characters trying to move from the outside of intellect and analysis to the inside of emotional connection. Time to put on ‘Anyone Can Whistle’ for the umpteenth time. At least I have a new recording of that score to enjoy courtesy of Jay records. It’s also likely why my only successful romantic relationships have both been with men who were creatures of instinct and emotions strong enough to batter down all of my carefully constructed walls. Keep that in mind before you try and fix me up with someone.
I just know that at the moment I am feeling and it’s a combination of positive and negative things. Today was the first live in person rehearsal I have had in nearly a year. I was bouncing up and down in my chair at work all day with excitement. It’s been a rare week I’ve gone without a rehearsal or a performance of some sort since launching myself into my late life performing career back in 2003 and it’s now just two weeks short of year since I last sat in a seat with other people and we joined our voices together to make music. I’m playing one of the policemen in a truncated, outdoor version of The Pirates of Penzance produced by Opera Birmingham going up at Avondale Ampitheater in April. We’re rehearsing masked and outdoors. We’re maintaining social distancing in both rehearsal and staging but when we began to sing the counterpoint of ‘When The Foeman Bares His Steel’ and ‘Go Ye Heroes’ I wanted to cry. It’s my favorite piece of music from the show and to be enveloped in those 150 year old melodies with a group of people just as grateful to be there as I was as special a moment as I have had in a while. We’re rehearsing in a covered parking garage so the acoustics aren’t bad, the cast is talented and full of old friends, and I can’t wait until we have the next one. So, it you’re around 6th Avenue South in Avondale the next month or so and you hear operetta drifting by on the wind, you’ll know what’s going on.
This feeling, which I suppose is joy, is getting thoroughly mixed up with another one which I suppose is sorrow as I continue to work through the impact of Covid on my world. We’re at 508,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Counter, out of 28.4 million US cases. We’re still a few days from the first anniversary of a death from an observed US infection (February 29, 2020 – the few deaths earlier were traced back months later using blood and tissue samples). We’ll end up somewhere around 510-515 thousand deaths at the one year mark (37th largest city in the USA between the population of Atlanta and Sacramento). That’s roughly ten times the number of flu deaths in the worst flu years and twenty five times the number of flu deaths in light years. Flu is practically non-existent this year. Our good health habits are keeping it from propogating. I know the devestating impact that death of important people has had on my life. Those of you who have not been widowed have no idea how much that process turns your life and your world upside down. This year has created hundreds of thousands of new widows. New single parent families. New orphans. A new crop of parents burying their children before them. And all having to be done while navigating a myriad of new social customs and rules, many of which keep us from being together. There are really only two things that heal grief – time, and the presence of others in our lives and that latter one has been hard. What does grief deferred due to an individual? To a society? I think back on the generations that survived World War II or the Civil War and wonder what lessons they have to teach us about coping in healthy ways.
Steve died twenty years ago this year. It’s a long time and I’ve had a whole other life in those years but I can still feel his presence, hear his voice and his laughter as if he had just left the room. His death, as it was a prolonged process of several years, caused me to make some life decisions that continue to have repercussions. When he became ill and I needed to spend more time and energy at home with him, I took myself off the fast track to academic success, leaving behind research interests and the very long hours that would have been necessary to position myself where I would be competitive for the department chair and deans level jobs. Could I have done both? Possibly, but likely at significant cost to my humanity so I didn’t want to try. Plus, I had the added burden of being openly gay at a time when few medical school faculty were and those in my generation learned early and often that if you were open, you had to be twice as good to get half the credit.
Steve’s death boomeranged me into a different career trajectory, maybe not as rewarding in terms of money or professional accolades, but certainly more fulfilling and it allowed me the time and the energy to become a fully realized human being with my rediscovery of theater under the tutelage of Tommy. I’m sure Tommy’s death has also pushed my life in a new direction that’s not yet fully clear. I’ve made certain decisions about what’s important in my professional and personal lives that made me decide that downsizing and simplifying were something I needed to do. They also have made me decide that pulling up stakes and trying to vault up the ladder somewhere else (something I was looking at together with Tommy prior to his death) is not likely to happen. Tommy’s been gone nearly three years now. That wound is far fresher and there are times I mourn. For some reason, last night, rather than doing something constructive (sorry people to whom I owe that Topics in Geriatrics lecture), I opened his Facebook and scrolled through the whole thing back to 2007. Was I feeling sorrow? Was I feeling joy at what was? Was I feeling nostalgic? I really can’t say. I just know that I was feeling. And I think it was brought about by a combination of the joy of impending rehearsal and the sorrow of being surrounded by so much death and despair. The feeling of being alive. (There goes Sondheim again and I didn’t even intend it…)
Be like the singers of Opera Birmingham. Wear your mask (singing through it is… interesting). Wash your hands. Sit six feet apart. Make the world a better place with music.