November 26, 2021

Dateline – Seattle, Washington

Whether we want them to or not, the times they are a changing. Five minutes before I sat down to write this, I found out the king is dead. Stephen Sondheim left us at the age of 91. I’ve been expecting to hear this news for a decade or so now and was recently idly wondering how I was going to feel when it finally happened. Now I get the chance to find out. Sad, tired, not especially emotional. He’s been a huge part of my life since I discovered him as a teenager in the late 70s but as an Olympian or at least a demigod – out there in the ether, occasionally interfering in the lives of us mere mortals, not as living, breathing human full of flaws and contradictions. I was lucky enough to meet him a couple of times, to have him compliment me on some of my work, both parody and original, to have intermittent correspondence with him over the years, and for him to have lived long enough to receive my book and appreciate the compliment in the chapter headings. One of the ways I have processed loss for decades comes from one of his early lyrics. And it’s a song someone better sing at my memorial service someday. ‘Crazy business this, this life we live in. Can’t complain about the time we’re given. With so little to be sure of in this world. We had a moment…’

Will there be another to take his place? Unlikely. His life story from teenage protege of Oscar Hammerstein to being part of the quartet of queer Jewish geniuses that created West Side Story to his redefinition of what musical theater could be with the Hal Prince shows of the 1970s to the brilliance of dramatizing the creative process with Sunday in the Park with George. No one is going to be able to ride that particular trajectory of music/theater again. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is the closest thing currently in music/theater circles is an entirely different animal dealing with entirely different finances and power players and with three or four more decades of creative abilities, he may end up going in very different directions as he develops additional skills as a film maker.

Me with Patty McDonald

Not only did I lose a king this Thanksgiving weekend, I lost a queen. Patty McDonald was not internationally famous. She had no shelves full of awards for her creativity but, in her own way, she was just as important in my theatrical life as Sondheim. Patty who was married to a US naval commander, settled with her husband in Birmingham when he became a power company executive after his retirement from the navy. Widowed about the same time I entered the Birmingham arts scene, she spent the next two decades championing the performing arts in Birmingham, serving on the boards, leveraging the connections and the funding, dressing to the nines with her halo of platinum blond hair and her glamour canes and attending every performance of music and theater she could. Tommy and I adored her and loved being next to her at opera dinners, music fund raisers, and a hundred and one other events over the years. When Tommy died, she wrote me a lovely four page letter that I treasure. She was an original who lived to make Birmingham a better place through the arts. Being on stage behind her as she sang ‘Proud Mary’ is one of my performing highlights. (You had to be there).

This thanksgiving weekend, I have to give thanks for both of them and for all of the other people in my life that sustain me and allow me to do what I do, in all three of my careers. I couldn’t do any of this in a vacuum. It takes the proverbial village. As time goes on, I will lose more and more of the people in my life until it’s finally time for my train to depart the station. I’m not worried. I’ve had sixty very good years. I’d like a couple more decades as I feel I have a lot more to do , but I won’t be able to complain that I’ve been shortchanged if I have to leave the party early for some reason. That’s one of the things I work on with my patients a lot. Helping them understand that one of the crucial tasks of aging is learning how to say goodbye. To people in your life, to your younger body, to a generation that understands the world in the same way you do due to your common experiences. But as for today, I am safely in Seattle with my family, playing catch up after a glorious meal last night which all of the Seattle based family were able to attend.

Time to return to the world of the coronavirus. The news this morning is full of doom and gloom headlines regarding the emergence of a new variant in South Africa. This one, in keeping with the Greek letter system that WHO has been advocating, is known as omicron. In plowing through the headlines, it appears that the actual knowledge regarding the variant is limited. It has a significant number of mutations in the spike protein which means that it could possibly evade current antibodies and vaccines but it hasn’t been proven to do so yet. It appears to be pretty much limited to central South Africa around Johannesburg with a couple of cases having popped up in Israel and Hong Kong in recent travelers. There’s been a huge reaction from the western world with air travel from South Africa being shut down. It’s a stark reminder that Covid is a global problem, not a national one. We live, given the developments of the last sixty or seventy years, in an interconnected world and what happens anywhere on the globe can affect anywhere else on the globe. Goods, services, and people go everywhere. Trying to use a sort of fortress mentality on a national level to keep variants at bay is likely to ultimately fail because of this. No locality can draw an absolute cordon sanitaire around itself and survive. Ultimately, we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that planetary problems require planetary solutions and the 19th century model of the nation state is inadequate to the task. The rich countries may wish to ignore the developing nations of the world most of the time but those populations will require vaccination and other public health members just as much as the population at home to win the war.

I’m not sure what to make of Omicron yet. The information circulating out there is minimal and there’s not a lot of good science yet available to parse and determine what it may mean going forward. At this point, I think the best thing to do is apply the usual common sense. Get your shots and your booster, practice good hygiene, be aware of the health needs of others. The significant unvaccinated population in the US remains a more imminent danger to local public health than what may or may not be happening half the world away. But that could change depending on what the actual properties of the variant are. The one good thing that has emerged is that it does not appear to cause worse clinical disease than any other variant. While this is a relief, this doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t take Covid seriously – it remains a virus you don’t want in your body, no matter the variant. I am starting to see more and more post Covid syndromes in my patients where six months or a year later there’s still significant physiologic dysfunction and they simply cannot live the lives they could before falling ill.

I feel like I should be writing some big think pieces this weekend, but I’m still dealing with my own version of long Covid – not the physiologic (as I never had it to my knowledge) but rather the psychologic as I try to come to terms with my changed brain after having lived through the last two years. Not to mention the nine minute monologue I have to have memorized by Wednesday. It’s about two thirds there so I should make it. I believe in challenging myself. It helps keep me young. But sometimes I want to beat myself up and say ‘You idiot! You’re not twenty-five anymore!’

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