It’s Monday evening. I survived another double clinic day at UAB without too much disastrous happening. Most patients were in for what I term their well baby checks – a four to six month follow up to make sure their chronic diseases aren’t acting up to much, they’re still functioning as independently as possible, their medication list makes sense, and their health maintenance is vaguely up to date. It takes about 20-30 minutes to do this for your average octogenarian so, with another patient coming in every half hour, there’s not time for the fifteen or so minutes required to craft even a short electronic health record note so they are all batched and I get to them sometime over the weekend, having to do somewhere between ten and thirty on either Saturday or Sunday. This is why it’s somewhat difficult for me to take weekends off. If there is a bit of downtime in the clinic, it’s spent on the sixty portal messages and forty faxes that arrive on the average day. And I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years. When I start to multiply it out, it comes to tens of thousands of patients and tens of thousands of hours of work. And I am getting tired. I can tell that I just don’t have the energy at the end of the day that I once had. I’m trying to keep up my usual pace, balancing medicine and performance and writing but it doesn’t come as easy as it did even five years ago.
I returned from my Augusta jaunt this past Wednesday evening. The drive back was uneventful other than hitting Atlanta at rush hour making the forty mile trip from beltway to beltway take something like two hours. I had to go through the center of the city as I had a late lunch/early dinner with an old friend Brad Greene who lives just north of Piedmont Park. Brad was the first friend that Steve and I made on moving to Birmingham in the late 90s. We met him when he sold us a desk at Storehouse Furniture at the Summit. He was in and out of our lives over the next few years and was incredibly supportive of both of us during Steve’s terminal illness. Brad left Birmingham not long after Steve’s death for Atlanta and has bopped around the Southeast quite a bit over the years but we’ve always remained in touch and try to catch up occasionally.
Waiting in my home email when I finally got to the condo on Wednesday night (I detoured to church choir rehearsal first), was the script to Two Boys Kissing, an oratorio for men’s voices and instruments by Joshua Shank from the young adult novel by David Levithan. The piece, which is for men’s chorus, requires six narrators who tell the intertwining stories of gay teenagers in a small town. One of the six slated to do the performance with Birmingham’s gay men’s chorus, Steel City Men’s Chorus, had had to drop out and I was asked to be a last minute replacement. Fortunately, it did not require me to memorize the script, but I still had to learn how my lines fit in with the other actors, the choral music and the orchestra parts. I was able to read it Thursday morning in the car heading for house calls, got a tech/orchestra rehearsal Thursday night where I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, a dress rehearsal on Friday night, and off we went to the races on Saturday night. The composer was in attendance and told us that we were the best set of narrators this work has had so I must have dome something right.
I found it interesting that the composer considered the piece an oratorio. They are usually defined as a long work, using soloists, chorus, and instruments, to tell a story, usually on a religious theme. They were very popular in the Baroque period, the most famous example being Handel’s Messiah. Two Boys Kissing doesn’t strike one as being a particularly religious piece of material (and more conservative denominations would shriek with horror at the very notion) but the more I was immersed in the work, the more I felt that it was exactly the right way to describe it. The chorus and the narrators function as Greek chorus, commenting on the stories. It doesn’t take long for us to understand that they represent the previous generation of gay men, the ones lost far too young to HIV, whose souls remain to watch over the younger generations coming up and help tell their stories, both comic and tragic to an indifferent world. There was something religious about a group of gay men, most of a certain age who have real lived experiences with the HIV epidemic, singing and speaking in the voices of their dead peers to an audience with younger gay people and their allies about their generation as seen through older and sadder eyes. But isn’t that one of the most important functions of religion? Transmitting the culture of shared values through story and song? As I was up there performing, ghosts of my past – men who should have been my mentors, my allies, my supporters – kept rising up in my brain demanding to be remembered.
This whole weekend has very much been about the power of narrative. On Sunday, I went to see the tour of Come From Away which played this week in Birmingham. I had seen the show in New York a few years ago and thought it was one of the best directed pieces of theater I had ever seen – a cast of twelve playing thirty odd roles on a simple set with some tables and chairs and you never lose track of who or where they are. Christopher Ashley absolutely deserved his Tony for direction. Originally, I wasn’t going to go as I didn’t want to disturb my memories of that terrific Broadway production but my friend Mackey Atkinson convinced me otherwise and I’m very glad I listened to him. The show was every bit as good on tour as it had been in New York. Often times smaller shows get swallowed in the barn of the Birmingham Jefferson County Convention Center concert hall but this one felt OK there. For those of you who don’t know it, Come From Away is the story of what happened to Gander Newfoundland on 9/11 when US airspace was suddenly closed and sixty planes with 7,000 passengers were diverted to its airport, straining the abilities of a town of under 10,000 in terms of coping. It’s funny, tragic, brilliantly written, and above all human, showing the best of what we can do for each other in times of crisis. One of its major themes is the importance of story. Of the twists and turns that happen in the lives of both Newfoundlanders and plane people as they are suddenly thrown together. If you haven’t seen it, there is a pro-shot video of the Broadway production available on Apple TV.
All of this informed my other major task for the weekend. I am scheduled to give the pulpit message at church in two weeks and I needed to get that written for pastoral review. I was asked to talk about my writing and books but was otherwise given fairly free reign. The essay I’ve crafted is entitled ‘Unfinished Stories’ and weaves together my writing and whence it comes, the losses that have powered it, the need for story and how unfinished stories are sometimes the ones that are most needed. I’ll post the text and the link to the stream of the service after I give it.
This entry, however, is finished. I’m tired. To bed, to bed…