It’s the last day of January, the end of the first month of this new year. And what a month it has been politically. I would like to think that things will start to settle down into the old patterns where the news out of DC simply drones on in the background of life, but I’m not so sanguine as all that these days. We’ve still got an impeachment trial, an ex-presdient who has spent all his time in politics shattering norms and is almost certainly going to continue to do so, and a major political party that seems unable to police itself against spokespeople minimizing sedition, nattering on about nonsense such as ‘Jewish space lasers’ , and certainly doing nothing to dispel the Big Lie that the recent election was somehow stolen. This suggests that all of the forces that have been rending the social fabric won’t be going away any time soon.
I’m no expert in politics, but I have studied my history and have had a career that’s brought me into contact with many different people from all walks of life. It’s one that’s required me to develop my sense of empathy far beyond where it once was and, once you have it, you can’t really turn it off. Emotions, especially negative ones like anger are still running high. There’s a lot of belief that government no longer works to support ordinary citizens. On the left, it takes the form of government is a rigged game benefiting the wealthy at the expense of others. (Currently playing out in the Game Stop short sell market where the tech bros have figured out how to leverage technology to beat Wall Street). On the right, it takes the form of government is taking my hard earned tax dollars and giving them to the lazy ‘other’ (playing out in nativist and white nationalist sentiments). It doesn’t really matter which side you’re on; if enough of the population loses faith in the government for any reason, the government will eventually collapse and we will be left to forge something different. These peiods of revolution and reformation are usually turbulent and violent and I really have no interest in living through one so let’s all put our faith in understanding that government, of any stripe, is the mechanism by which we can help each other beyond the circle of our immediate acquaintance. Big problems like pandemics require big solutions and they can only be provided through government. No other human institution is large enough.
The long and short of it is we’re in interesting times, as the old curse goes, and they’re going to stay interesting times for a while. On the public health front, things are a bit easier locally. The number of hospitalized Covid cases continues to slowly descend and the rate of increase is not what it was a month ago but it’s still a good deal higher than it should be. Vaccines are rolling out, and vaccination centers will start taking everyone over 65 as of February the 8th. A number of high risk occupations are also becoming eligible such as teaching and working in food service and retail. Our local metro area has a number of mass sites up and running, the only limiting factor being supply of vaccine. There are still some issues to be worked out such as the classism of relying on sign up systems that require on line registration.
Work continues apace on editing these musings into a coherent book manuscript. I’m up through last July and has I reread, cut and paste, and take my editors suggestions, it’s been interesting to see where we all were compared to where we are now. It’s only been six to nine months, but we’ve all had to become used to a radically different world bit by bit. I haven’t completely decided what the book is. Is it strictly a diary? Is it a memoir of a certain time? Is it a compendium of my philosophies of health care using the pandemic and our response (and lack thereof) as a structure? Is it a story? I am inclining towards the last. It’s the story of a journey – of an individual, of a society, and of a health care system as it faces down pandemic illness, bringing out its best and its worst.
I like writing stories, but I’ve never been good at writing sustained narrative fiction. Like all of us, I feel like I have the great American novel inside me somewhere but I’ve never been able to get out more than a chapter or two before running out of gas or being side tracked by some other project. Short form has always worked better for me. These pieces. The insane world of MNM and her movie reviews. The one place I have been able to write long form fiction has been in playwrighting, having a number of those under my belt, some of which have gone on to independent life.
I started playwrighting back in the 1980s when I was in medical school. Lauren Marshall, an old friend from Stanford, had also ended up in Seattle after completing both undergraduate and Stanford Law. We had collaborated before in college, most notably when she directed and I assistant directed Hello, Dolly! for the big spring mainstage musical her senior year. In the late 80s, she had this idea for an educational musical that could teach legal concepts to high schoolers. She got some grant funding, we sat down to write book and lyrics together, found a composer and Whadda ‘Bout My Legal Rights? was born. It had grant money attached so The Empty Space Theater picked it up for an Equity tour through Washington High Schools (it was about 50 minutes long, designed to fit in an assembly period) and it’s still available from Samuel French should any of you wish to produce it.
Our next collaboration was a farce, Terrorist in the Family Room, which we drafted out together character and plot wise, but then I was returned to California for residency while she stayed in Seattle so she moved on to other projects. I rewrote and finished Terrorist and send it out occasionally to see if anyone wants to do it. While everyone loves the script, it’s never been produced. I should get it out again and do another rewrite for the age of Trump as its themes that the terror we wreak on ourselves are far worse than what terrorists can do to us are resonating again. People think that the title refers to the central character, an international terrorist taken in by a suburban family by mistake. It actually refers to the TV set. Perhaps I need to change that to social media.
Ten years or so ago, Ellise Pruitt Mayor, then running The Seasoned Performers, the second oldest senior theater group in the country, asked me to write some touring scripts for elder actors to perform for elder audiences, predominantly in senior living facilities and senior centers. Being the good geriatrician that I am, I dutifly went to look up what there was on writing for senior audiences and didn’t find much. So I turned to what I knew from decades of working with older generations including how to communicate with those with hearing/sight impairments, how to work with those with mild cognitive issues, and generational concerns. The result was two scripts. The first was The Green Room, a fantasy in which the traditional fairy tale villains including the wicked witch, the big bad wolf, the troll, and the evil step mother are tossed out of their stories and made to wait together in the green room of the eternal theater while cultural forces beyond their control try to reshape the power of narrative. They escape with the help of the audience by breaking the fourth wall. The second, Nightcall Nurses, had older actresses from a radio drama of that name coming back to the studio as honored guests, recognizing that they’re being belittled for being older, and taking over the broadcast on their terms. I always thought I should write one more and then could publish them as three plays for senior theater.
In between, I’ve written more editions of Politically Incorrect Cabaret than I can shake a stick at. I’ve always wanted to write something serious and dramatic for the stage, but I always seem to veer off into snide humor. When I write comedy, I write it for me and for jokes that I find funny, even if no one else gets them. For instance, in the very first Politically Incorrect, we did a spoof of The Trojan Women as if they were survivors of the Iraq war. It was the midst of the Bush years so Andromache had a line ‘We’re getting our own No Child Left Behind program. They’re starting with my son Astynax.’ I thought it was hysterical but it probably went right over the heads of 99% of the audience.
These pieces to are written for me, to help me understand a changing and changed world through the power of narrative. I’m happy so many of you have jumped on for the ride. In the meantime, wash your hands, wear your masks, keep your distance, and tell the story.