Instead of writing a long post today, I’m going to give you the text of my remarks from the pulpit of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham that I delivered this morning.
If you’d rather hear it or watch me be nervous in the pulpit, it’s available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYB_s1AhLxs&t=2308s The message starts at 38:15
SERMON – Book Writing and other Happy Accidents
When Reverend Julie asked me if I would do a Sunday in the pulpit for her during her time away, I immediately said yes. One does not cross Reverend Julie. She asked me if I could base it in some way around my recent writing, so I immediately came up with a catchy title – ‘Book Writing and Other Happy Accidents’. I then promptly forgot about the commitment until a couple of weeks ago when I realized that the date I had agreed to was rapidly approaching and that I had better get something down on paper so as not to look like a total fool in the pulpit.
This is not the first time I’ve stood before you. The first time was August 5, 2001. You might ask how I remember the date so exactly? It was four days after the death of Steve, my first husband. I had agreed a few weeks before his death to give a talk from the pulpit about aging, using a lot of the materials I use in my teaching of older patients and their families and even though I was grieving and suffering from significant loss, I decided the best thing for me psychologically, was to get up there and keep moving and keep living. I was 39 years old, had been with Steve for 13 years, and recognized that even though his life was over, mine was not and I had better begin the process of figuring out a life that could no longer include him on a day to day basis.
Those of you who have been around for a while might remember Steve. You never got to see him in his full robust health, but even in his diminished energy as his disease slowly turned his lungs into hunks of useless, fibrotic tissue, he was a force of nature and had a huge impact on our new friends in Birmingham, where we had only been for a short time. His wit, his impish humor, his artistic talents. They all made an impression. Steve had originally come out as gay at the age of 14 in 1962, at an age and in a time when such things just weren’t done. He fought his entire adult life to be recognized as a unique and valuable human being against a society that spent most of its time trying to silence him and he wasn’t about to let that happen. When we met, in 1989, he was forty years old, had been through the fire of the AIDS crisis in the LA area over the previous decade, losing most of his close friends, and his relocation to Northern California to take care of his terminally ill mother, which ended up bringing us together, had him determined to live a different, more coherent life and I ended up being the one with whom he built it. He may have been fourteen years my senior, but I was the mature one.
His death left an enormous void, and it did a couple of things that ended up impacting my life in enormous ways. I didn’t plan them. They became happy accidents of the type that have guided my life over the decades. The first was it allowed me to begin separating my identity away from that of my professional career as physician. This process had actually begun several years before, but Steve’s illness and needs over his last few years greatly accelerated it. You see, I set foot on an educational treadmill around the age of four when I first headed off to pre-school three days a week. Preschool led to kindergarten (where I was a challenge as I could already read – I was a precocious little twerp) led to elementary school led to middle school (best forgotten) led to high school led to college (two majors as one just wasn’t enough) led to medical school led to residency led to fellowship led to faculty appointment.
At this time, I was trying to play the game to work my way up the academic ladder to a deanship or some such by balancing a research with a clinical career. However, I ran afoul of politics in the University of California system in the late 90s – a miserable experience at the time but it ended up being yet another happy accident as it required a swift relocation to UAB due to my need for a steady paycheck. I was hopeful this deep south adventure (I had never set foot in the state of Alabama until I came for my initial interview) would last for no more than four or five years, but Steve’s illness manifested roughly a year after our arrival. He needed me at home, and he needed my energy. Something had to give. What gave was my ability to play the games needed to move forward academically or with a research agenda. I settled into a purely clinical/education role where I had more control over my schedule and hours. Another happy accident manifested itself, after he was gone, I found myself with unstructured time and energy and no real idea what to do with it all.
UUCB to the rescue. The then congregation stuck me on the board under the presidency of Ellise Mayor. I didn’t really know Ellise Mayor well but knew she had grown up in the church and was an important part of how everything functioned. At my first board meeting, I was tired. I kicked off my shoes. Put my feet up and asked What Now? Ellise took one look at me, twiddling my socked toes in a board meeting, and decided I was her kind of person. We remain fast friends and co-conspirators. The first thing she asked me to do was to help put together entertainment for the Stewardship dinner. So, in the fall of 2002, I found myself hauling out my very rusty theatrical skills. I had been a stage manager, director, and all around techie for theater in my teens and early 20s but had given it all up when I hit residency. Every third night on call and theater simply don’t go together. She asked me if I might want to perform and together, we cooked up a vaudeville in which I played a figure derived from the Emcee from the musical Cabaret and she played a variant on Marlene Dietrich. We didn’t know it at the time, but the first seeds of the Politically Incorrect Cabaret had been sown.
A few days before the one and only show, I accepted a blind date with a guy I had been chatting with online. His name was Tommy and over the next few weeks we ran into each other in a number of contexts. He had attended UUCB in the past and had decided to come back. He was given my name as a resource for aging programs he was developing at his job – he was the chief nursing officer for Birmingham Healthcare at the time. After the third time we ran into each other, I decided the universe was trying to tell me something; so, we went out again. And again. And ten months later he moved in. Our relationship was another happy accident. I had been dating a series of highly inappropriate men over the course of the previous year and had pretty much concluded that I needed to swear off dating and romantic entanglements and I spent the first six months or so of our dating life trying to figure out how to politely dump him as I knew that a second relationship was just never going to succeed. Fortunately, even I was eventually able to see that what we had was working so I gave up on that plan.
Tommy and my courtship was held in full view of the UUCB congregation and quickly received a stamp of approval from various sources including then Rev Karen Matteson, and various senior congregants who had been worried that I might turn into a recluse or, worse yet, move back to the west coast. I was really thinking seriously about it. I had been interviewing for jobs in California, Oregon, and Washington – none of them had panned out. Some were not a good fit for my skill set. A couple didn’t like the fact that I was an openly gay man. One strung me along for some months, basically using me as a motivator to get an internal candidate to say yes and sign a contract. UAB figured out I was looking and, not wanting to lose me, cast around for something that would nail my feet to the floor for a while. Another happy accident – a wealthy donor decided just at that time to endow the clinical geriatrics program with a sum of money that would allow me to redesign the geriatrics clinic from the ground up in my image and to my specifications. I wasn’t going to get anything better than that on the west coast, so the job hunt ended.
With Tommy and I now a stable couple and work having new purpose, I still found myself with excess time and energy. Tommy, having always been involved in the performing arts as a classical musician, suggested we go through the door that Ellise and UUCB had opened, and that we start getting involved in the local music theater scene. So, we did. I found that I was actually not untalented as a performer, as I had long believed, and Tommy started to slide from performance into more production roles – stage management, wardrobe, and of course wigs. The wigs were another happy accident. I was playing the mayor in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at the Virginia Samford Theater and Tommy was hanging around backstage one night during tech rehearsal. A good friend of ours was costuming and also appearing on stage and was getting frazzled as there was too much for her to do. She looked at Tommy and asked him if he could do finger waves in a set of 30s period wigs for the opening number. His response was ‘I don’t know. Show me’. She did, he plunged his hands into a bunch of acrylic hair and realized that he really enjoyed working with it. He approached his wig work as sculpture, just using highly unusual materials and it didn’t take long before he was the go to person for theatrical wigs in Birmingham. I would never have predicted a full wig studio as part of my home.
For fifteen years, happy accident followed happy accident. A major downturn in Tommy’s work life as a nurse executive led to his returning to school to get the music degree he had always wanted. Production problems at Opera Birmingham which we were able to solve led to my ending up in the opera chorus and Tommy as the managing director for the opera. We became fixtures in the performing arts community of Birmingham. We hadn’t intended for it to be that way. It just happened as one thing led to another. We thought it would go on like that for decades. It didn’t.
As most of you know, in the spring of 2018, Tommy became rapidly ill with previously unrecognized heart disease and died suddenly in the hospital of complications from his treatment. I’d been through this widowhood thing before and thought I could handle it. What I hadn’t counted on was how much remained unresolved from my first widowhood some seventeen years before. I also came to the realization that widowhood at 39 and widowhood at 56 are somewhat different. At 39, you know you’re still young and that you have a life spread out before you, even as a gay man where 39 is considered about four years dead and buried. 56 is a bit different. You’re looking more at retirement rushing down on you rather than at decades of career and life building. I wasn’t sure what to do or how to handle things.
In those first few months when I was starting to try and take stock of my life and what should come next, I had to come to grips with the fact that I was very definitely an elder, especially in the gay community. My peer group were starting to become grandparents. People were starting to discuss investments and retirement portfolios at parties. I had to face up to the fact that, without ever having bothered to have children, I was a paw paw. I’ve made a professional study of aging for decades. I know a lot about it, and I’ve seen the psychological adjustments that older adults have to make, and I realized that I needed to make some of those for myself.
One of the things I have learned is that it is the natural and proper role of the elder to be the storyteller – the keeper of culture and of wisdom. I had any number of stories from my life and now no one to share them with so I started to write them down. I had written a few long posts on Facebook to update friends on Tommy’s illness and death, so I kept them up. I wrote about my day. I wrote anecdotes about my and Tommy and Steve’s lives. I wrote my reactions to politics and social trends. Obviously, I had not taken the lessons of Ginny Weasley and diaries that write back at you to heart; people started to read these posts and to comment and to encourage my writing and I kept at it. The posts eventually became a blog. It had no specific intent. It was just one confused and lonely man trying to make sense of muddle.
In the early winter of 2020, I had been writing for about a year and a half. I was concentrating mainly on work and on what I was up to theatrically. There were whispers in the media about a new and rapidly spreading coronavirus half a world away, but I was naïve enough to assume that the agencies of the federal government designed to protect public health would swing into play and life would go on. It didn’t. I was pretty sure I knew where we were heading in late February, but I didn’t want to write about the epidemic that was rapidly moving towards a pandemic. Writing about it would make it real. Make it something I would have to face and grapple with head on. Finally, on March 10, 2020, the day before the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, I sat down and wrote the following:
I am a doctor. It is time to make sense of my existential angst. My brothers and sisters in health care professions are feeling it. We’re all watching a viral pandemic unroll in front of us in real time right in front of us. We all know far too much about the ramifications of where the coronavirus may lead.
It was the first entry in what I would end up calling The Accidental Plague Diaries. Once the flood gates were opened, I began to write about the coronavirus frequently and in depth, trying to parse out the narrative of what was happening to our society and to make sure that I understood trends – societal and scientific – properly.
After about a month, I looked back on what I had written and realized I was writing a plague diary. It’s a literary form that’s been around for millennia – it’s usually written by a private citizen chronicling what happens to their society under the pressures of pandemic illness. They become valuable tools in understanding the social impacts of disease, concentrating on the more mundane aspects of daily living that are often left out of government reports and chronicles. I hadn’t intended to. It was an accident. I received a good deal of feedback from people thanking me for my writings as they seemed to help make sense of the pandemic and the societal changes in reaction. There’s nothing like having someone say that they like your writing to get you to write some more, so I kept on.
By midsummer, I looked back at what I had written and started to wonder if what I was writing was something more than Facebook or Blog posts. Was my Accidental Plague Diary something that might be helpful and of interest to those outside of my immediate circle of acquaintance? I contacted an old friend, whom I have known since elementary school, who is in the micro-publishing business. I sent him what I had written so far and asked him what he thought. He thought it was book and that he would be publishing it. I kept writing.
How did I learn to write? I did have an expensive formal education which included a top ranked prep school and Stanford University, but I don’t think they were really responsible. They gave me a background in grammar and an ability to be a decent technical writer but that’s not really my forte. Again, another happy accident, this one involving genetics. I have told my patients for years that the most important thing one can do to age successfully is to choose their parents carefully. I lucked out with my mother. The daughter of British emigres, she had a love of language and words and taught me more about a well turned phrase than any professor I ever had. And then there was Stephen Sondheim. As a musical theater nerd coming of age in the late 70s and early 80s, he was my Shakespeare. His ability to choose exactly the right word to form a lyric that would both cut you with its emotion and shock you with its cleverness played right into my personality type. I’ve tried for years to even begin to do what he did seemingly so effortlessly. I don’t think I ever succeeded (although he did call a piece of mine that a mutual friend sent to him brilliant -so there is that…) Thank god he lived long enough for me to be able to send him a copy of the book. The chapter titles are a homage.
At the end of last year, my publisher and I decided that we had a fully formed book that just required editing. It wasn’t a book I had intended to write. It was yet another happy accident. I kept the Accidental Plague Diaries as a title because I’d gotten used to it. I pluralized it deliberately. Both because the book was written accidentally and also because the plague itself was accidental. If it had hit at a different time of history with a different administration in power, it would likely not have taken the same form that it did. Will there be another? A Volume 2? The Accidental Plague Diaries 2 – Delta Dawn? The Accidental Plague Diaries 2 – Electric Deltaloo? I don’t know. The material is written in blog form. It could easily be converted to another book. I just don’t want to repeat myself or bore my audience. I figure I’ll wait until something happens in the next couple of months and the next happy accident ricochets my life in a way that will let me know what’s next.