March 14, 2020

(200218) — WUHAN, Feb. 18, 2020 (Xinhua) — Photo taken on Feb. 17, 2020 with a tilt-shift lens shows a temporary hospital converted from Wuhan Sports Center in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province. The temporary hospital converted from Wuhan Sports Center designated to treat the COVID-19 patients in Wuhan has been in good order since the hospitalization of its first batch of patients on Feb. 12. (Xinhua/Xiao Yijiu) Xinhua News Agency / eyevine Contact eyevine for more information about using this image: T: +44 (0) 20 8709 8709 E: info@eyevine.com http://www.eyevine.com

It’s late at night and I, like most of the rest of the world, am sitting up late wondering just what’s to become of us all over the next few weeks. I’m not worried about physical health per se. The virus, if and when I catch it, isn’t likely to do much more than put me in bed for a week (I have a couple of risk factors for complication,but in general my health is pretty good so the odds are definitely in my favor). I’m worried about other things. I’m worried about becoming a vector for all of my frail elder patients and transmitting virus to them in a subclinical phase. I’m worried about getting sick and being put on quarantine at the time when doctors are going to be most needed. (My ICU skills are rusty and several decades out of date but I remember the basics). Therefore, I’ve decided to do the most responsible thing I can think of and pretty much either go to work or stay home. No eating out. No going out other than for walks or into someone’s house where no one is sick (I have to do that anyway as the housecalls part of my job). It’s going to be quiet and a bit lonely in my off hours but it’s the one thing I can do when not at work that can help my older friends and my friends with chronic health issues. It will likely also help me in the coming weeks if we succeed in flattening the curve by making it less likely that I will be exposed in my profession and less likely that I will be called upon to do things way out of my usual scope of practice.

As I’ve got more time on my hands than I had anticipated and as I am as full of angst about all of this as the next person, I’ll probably write a lot more of these meditative posts in the coming weeks than I had been. People tell me they help them process and understand various complex issues but they’re really about me trying to make sense of things myself and I’m happy for anyone who wants to to come along for the ride. This whole Corona Virus Crisis has been fascinating for the intellectual part of my brain and it makes me head down weird rabbit holes via Google and Twitter as I try to learn more about what’s really happening in Italy or in Seattle. The emotional part of my brain, however, is having the heebeejeebies as my overactive imagination, Taurus stubbornness, and library full of books keeps creating various apocalyptic scenarios. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve been binge watching The Walking Dead. No, Corona Virus isn’t going to create any mutated zombies nor is it going to off most of the population but I’m over identifying with our heroes as they try to make sense of a world turned upside down. Think about it. Would you have believed this past holiday season we’d be where we are prior to Easter?

The family in Seattle are all fine, I’m checking in fairly frequently. Like here, much of the usual life of the city is shut down. My sister’s tattoo business is booming as college kids on unexpected break come in for more ink. My brother is learning the quirks of on line instruction for high schoolers. My father, whose building is on lockdown, is getting a bit bored. We haven’t made the final decision to postpone my mother’s memorial, currently scheduled for April 26th, but my guess is that will have to happen. My sources in the medical world of Seattle say things are holding up so far. The biggest issue is lack of personal protective equipment like gowns and gloves for health care workers. Some hospitals are down to less than a week’s supply and with all of the problems in the world, the usual supply chains are disrupted. I’m continuing to keep my ear to the ground so I can pass things along to both UAB and the VA which might be helpful as we continue to prepare around here.

I have this high minded ideal that I’m going to spend my extra alone time doing constructive things like working on my Rosetta Stone German, reading improving literature, and cleaning out all the drawers and closets in preparation for moving. What did I actually do today? Spent way too much time on line reading up on the latest CV news. Answered emails, texts, DMs and the like from various friends – my general advice for everyone is pretty much the same. Wash your hands, stay out of crowds, don’t go out if you don’t have to, don’t get on an airplane unless absolutely necessary. Caught up on my progress notes from last week, answered a bunch of calls from the hospice I medical direct for, took a constitutional for exercise, watched three episodes of the Walking Dead, and downloaded the most recent version of Civilization for Xbox and started to learn its ins and outs. (This one is VI – II remains my favorite). The big adventure for tomorrow is the laundry.

Of course I remain in escrow for the condominium purchase and have to get moved at some point. It’s a little tough to plan all of that when you’re not sure if the country is going to go into lockdown for a few weeks. I was going to hire a professional pack/move company for the move but I’m thinking I’ll take that money and hire my actor friends whose income is disappearing as the gig economy shuts down and who will need the dollars for rent next month. It strikes me that will be worth a few broken dishes and some scratches in my not very expensive furniture. The one exception would be the piano. I’ll have the piano movers do that. My futurizing brain is creating all of these scenarios where I won’t be able to sell my house or where changes in the health care system lead to me losing my job and the whole thing becomes a financial bloodbath but, compared to the other issues we’re all facing, that’s minor.

The day I’m most reminded of at the moment is late October of 1999. Steve and I were on St Martin at a resort with several hundred other gay men when hurricane Jose came barreling down on us. The day the hurricane struck there was an incredible sense of anticipation in the air. Everything had been canceled (which didn’t stop a couple of hundred queens drinking every drop of liquor in the resort) and after noon the wind started to pick up getting stronger and stronger. The deep sea birds, albatrosses and the like appeared out of nowhere, hovering over the beach and looking out to sea in the direction of the storm. The land birds fell quiet. It was an eerie calm. Steve and I went back to our room as darkness fell, the electricity went out and the rains began to pour around 10 PM. As we were in a cheap room, not ocean view, we were spared most of the weather and did not have to spend the night hung over in a bathtub like a couple of guys of our acquaintance. This weekend has that same anticipatory feel – I just hope that everything’s lashed down tight when the storm hits.

March 12, 2020

The feeling of dread is no better after forty eight hours of rather unbelievable news from all quarters. I feel like I’m trapped in one of those movie scenes where someone is hurtling towards disaster and everything switches into slow motion while our hero tries to prevent the crash/murder/gory accident/breaking of the irreplaceable clue, usually to no avail so we can set up the third act of the story. It’s just that things have switched into such super slow motion that it takes hours and days to get to the next chapter rather than twenty seconds.

It has become pretty clear to me, and to most of us who work in medicine and public health, that governmental entities have failed in a rather spectacular fashion when it comes to dealing appropriately with the corona virus rapidly sweeping the land. The one thing that encourages me about all of us this is the stepping up of private and public entities to stop the mixing of too many people in too confined a space for the near future. Social distancing, which seems to be public health buzzword de jour, is the one thing that we as ordinary folk can do to protect our fellow citizens by making it harder for the virus to leap from person to person. The corona virus is new to humanity. None of us has immunity. Even though it’s not likely to cause serious consequences for most of us, it’s still going to be very problematic for a small subset and if that small subset all gets sick at once, our health system will look like that in Northern Italy within a month. 2.5% seems pretty small until you realize that 2.5% of 330 million people is roughly twice the population of the state of Alabama.

As a gay man who survived the 1980s,I am not in the least surprised that the federal government is playing politics while peoples lives are at stake. Been there, done that. And when the LGBTQ community figured out that they were considered a disposable population,they rallied and saved themselves by creating community organizations and services that still endure. Communities are going to have to do that again, looking out for each other and not expecting a federal white knight to come riding over the hill to the rescue. The federal track record over the last couple of decades has been pretty dismal – Katrina and Maria in Puerto Rico come to mind. The canceling and closing down of life is painful and difficult but it is the one thing we can all do in the fight. Most of us aren’t virologists. And this is an enemy you can’t fight with your stockpile of AK-47s. Viruses don’t care about your bank statements, your passport, the color of your skin, your religious beliefs or anything else. They only care about replicating and moving on to the next host. I’ve heard more than one state official here make reference to some sort of godly intervention that has so far kept our caseload down. In my cosmic view, god is the god of viruses as much as of humans. Maybe s/he is on their side this year.

The closing down of society includes me. The opera has cancelled both the annual gala which was to be this Friday evening (to be rescheduled at a later date) and the actual opera itself which was to be performed next week. The plan is to carry the production forward to 2021 and reassemble as many of the cast and staff as possible at that time. It may be a good thing that Birmingham is to be spared the sight of me in full drag as one of ‘les filles d’altesse’ trying on the shoe at the end of Act IV. Ah well, there’s always next year. This, of course, frees up the next couple of weeks considerably so I suppose I’d better start my downsizing sort a bit earlier than I had originally intended. Who am I kidding, I’ll binge watch a couple of things on Netflix, read a few of the books in my tsokundu pile, and take some nice walks now that the weather is warming up.

We’re open for business at work, of course, but everything is a bit skewed as we all prepare for the unknown. A month ago, Italy had a handful of cases and now its health system is on the verge of collapse. Will we follow that pattern? Our transition of our health care system over the last few decades to a health care industry has demanded that the system become lean and mean and operate at pretty much all beds full during normal times to maximize profits. This means there’s not a lot of excess capacity for an emergency. It doesn’t make money to have extra beds sitting around unused or to pay staff who aren’t on the edge of overwork. If the worst happens and the ventilators are all occupied, I’m likely to have to spend a lot of time having a lot of very difficult conversations with patients and families. Can I do it? Yes. Do I want to? No. But it will be necessary work and I just hope I have enough of a reservoir of kindness and compassion from which to draw to be up to the task should I be handed that particular cup.

I had pipe dreams this last year of retiring at 62. I haven’t had the heart to check my retirement account balances after hearing about the carnage on Wall Street over the last week or so but I have a feeling early retirement is now off the table. At least I had a meeting with my financial people in January and reallocated everything into a new portfolio to begin minimizing my risk now that retirement is starting to look me square in the eye. It’s all monopoly money and numbers on a spread sheet at the moment anyway and we’re all in the same boat.

I have found, quite possibly, the worst film I have ever seen on Netflix so I’m going to finish it up and then MNM is going to have a field day with her column tomorrow evening. There’s a new column due out in a day or two and this one will follow that. You’ll have to stay tuned to find out what it is and what she thinks about it.

Be well, eat right, get some sleep, steer clear of large crowds and, above all, wash your hands. Holmes and Semmelweis were right.

March 10, 2020

Coronavirus

Time for a long post to make sense of all my existential angst. I’m sure all of my brothers and sisters in health care professions are feeling it too, watching a viral pandemic unroll in front of us in real time. We know far too much about the possible ramifications of where the corona virus may lead and it’s tough to walk the knife edge between the hopeful news that the majority of us will weather an infection without too many ill effects and the despair that a sizable minority may suffer and die but also might bring our wobbly health infrastructure down with them. I live in a state without reported cases… yet. Does this mean it has not yet reached us? It is here and circulating but among untested populations? What is the correct amount of societal change and social distancing to put in place at this time locally? Is it better to over react and cause major disruptions and financial hardships or is it better to wait until there is proof positive that such measures might have an actual mitigating effect? People come to me because I am a doctor with some training and all I can really say we can’t treat it, we can just support someone while they heal themselves. Wash your hands, avoid sick people, use common sense. There are some estimates that pretty much the whole human race will be infected within the next few years. Most of us will make it. Some will not. The mitigation factors won’t prevent the spread, it will just slow down the rate of spread so that society has the resources to care for the sick while they recover.

I have a number of risks personally. I’m over fifty (I find that hard to believe sometimes but it’s true). My health is pretty good, but not perfect and I have some chronic disease burden which tends to accumulate in all of us with time. I’m a doctor. The price I pay for societal respect and a decent salary is the expectation that I will put my body on the line in this sort of situation. I’m used to being coughed and sneezed on, to catch whatever the viral crud de jour is, which rarely lays me low enough to miss work. If I get something this winter (and I’ve been pretty lucky so far), do I get tested? Stay home for days throwing clinical schedules into havoc? When I get viral bronchitis, as I do every few years, it tends to linger with me for weeks and weeks. Does this put me more at risk? If the virus becomes endemic and my hospital becomes flooded with patients and it’s all hands on deck, do I brush off my rusty critical care skills and volunteer for extra shifts to spell exhausted colleagues? Will my hospital be able to cope? My frail elder patients, many of whom I have taken care for decades and who trust me implicitly, are most at risk. How can I protect them? This disease has the possibility of profoundly altering my professional life for the rest of my career. What will that look like? Can I really prepare?

My family, of course, are all in Seattle, epicenter of the US infections. Seattle seems to be running about ten days to two weeks behind northern Italy in terms of case load. The Italian health system is buckling and it’s not some third world system, it’s as good and robust as our own. Will Seattle look like that in three weeks? My 87 year old father’s senior living facility is on lockdown. Everyone in their own apartment, no visitors, meals on trays. My brother found out today that an infected child had been running rampant through the high school at which he teaches for several weeks. So far, so good and everyone is fine but will it remain that way? I am scheduled to go to Seattle in six weeks in order to attend and speak at my mothers memorial. Will it have all blown over by then? Will the whole region be on lockdown? We’re all playing it by ear and will, of course, reschedule as necessary. A lot can happen in six weeks. Six weeks ago, corona virus was but a whisper of a problem someplace in central China.

This was probably not the time to enter a major real estate transaction, what with volatile markets and interest rates so I’m sitting here thinking ‘Oh lord, I’m not going to be able to sell my house and I’ll be saddled with two mortgages’. But that decision was made before current events started to take shape and I will roll with the punches. I never seem to have a lot of luck with real estate transactions. I guess I should be used to it by now. I’m going to start the process of cleaning out the week of the 23rd so anyone who wants to help, let me know and we can sit and sort through the detritus of Steve, Tommy and my lives while listening to Sondheim CDs. Sondheim is always my go to in times of trouble just as Jerry Herman is the best for house cleaning.

ASO Chorus. You can actually find me in this shot.

On the good news front, performances of Mozart’s Requiem with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and Chorus went very well this last weekend. I’ve always loved the piece (ever since seeing Amadeus with my mother at the Guild 45th theater one evening) but this was the first time I’d had a chance to sing it. I used Tommy’s score from his last time singing it and it was comforting to have all his little handwritten notes and IPA symbols staring up at me while singing a mass for the dead. I think he would have appreciated that. Tommy never feared death. He was as matter of fact about it as he was everything else. His motto was you live, then you die. Rehearsals for Massenet’s Cendrillon are going well and it promises to be great fun. Once that’s over, nothing theatrical for some weeks while I clean out, pack, and move.

We haven’t had societal wide bad in the USA for about 75 years so I think the thing I’m most afraid of is what happens to us and our society if certain structures start unraveling. Will we turn to each other and help each other overcome and rediscover ourselves as one people of many creeds, colors, and beliefs, or will we let the stresses exacerbate our factionalism becoming more distanced from each other than ever, perhaps violently. No one under the age of 80 has really known a society without abundance, choice, freedom of movement and if those things start to disappear, all sorts of unforseen issues may start to arise. As the old curse goes, ‘May you live in interesting times’.

February 23, 2020

Lets hear it for deep muscle spasms

I’m sitting here nursing a sore shoulder on the right. Last week, suddenly, my subscapularis went to spasm for no particular reason and has continued to give me trouble ever since. I’m doing all my usual tricks but I assume it’s going to resolve itself when it feels like it on its time, rather than on mine. We live in such an over scheduled, over committed world that the least little thing throws a monkey wrench into plans with cascading effects. I haven’t had to modify much of anything yet, but one never knows, does one.

I am wondering if this is my body’s way of saying the stress level is a bit too high (registering now roughly 14 out of 10 on my patented stress-o-meter). It wasn’t too bad with the work stuff and the theatrical stuff, but then I had to throw moving into the mix and between the racing around collecting things up for the mortgage people, dealing with all of the little real estate things, looking around the house and recognizing that I have to either pack or purge everything in it over the next six or seven weeks, and it just becomes a bit overwhelming. I haven’t really started the P and P thing yet. I have to get into the new condo with a tape measure and make a floor plan and start figuring out what’s going to fit before I do anything else. I’ve also got performances of Mozart’s Requiem in two weeks and Massenet’s Cendrillon in four. I have bowed out of the play I was going to do in March/April as something absolutely had to give in order for me to maintain sanity.

The moving decision feels right and I know a few months from now, when I am settled and happily opening boxes and asking myself ‘Why do I own this crap?’, everything will be fine. It’s just the actual physical move that’s got me in a tizzy. I did it four years ago and survived so I’ll survive this one to. I have to keep reminding myself of one of my favorite Sondheim lyrics. (There’s a Sondheim quote for everything): “I chose and my world was shaken; so what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not. You have to move on.”

I’ve been very quiet this weekend. Every time I sat down, I nodded off so I took that as a sign that I needed some down time. I wasn’t completely a sloth. I did complete all I need to do for my income taxes and will have that in to the accountant on Wednesday. I also managed to watch a film and will shortly get back to MNM columns. I haven’t written one in over a month. Every time I try to do so, it just won’t flow. I think it’s because I set her up to get involved in a production of Cabaret. Her world usually parallels mine in some way. I just wasn’t expecting my experience with the show to be as profound as it was and I think my emotional reaction to this production is what’s blocking moving forward with her story. I figure I either have to reverse courses to something else quickly or I have to figure out how to channel that emotional energy in some different way.

We’re in the process of planning my mother’s memorial service in Seattle, the weekend of April 25th (which is, of course, in the middle of moving time for me – a few days away from that maelstrom is probably a good thing). Any of you in the PNW who might like to attend, send me a PM and I’ll make sure you get further details as they become available. Last I heard, Sunday afternoon was the most likely time but various things are still up in the air such as venue availability. I’ve been asked to write and deliver the family piece of the eulogy. I haven’t started it yet, but I’m thinking about how to strike the tone that pays tribute to her as an individual with a strong personality and a wicked and very British sense of humor. It was she who introduced me to such things as Monty Python.

All sorts of people have reached out to say they will help with sorting and packing and moving which is incredibly kind. I will have a local moving company do most of the packing and carting of things to the new digs. The sorting may require some help. I have donated all the contents of the wig studio to Red Mountain Theater Company. If they will come in the next few weeks and pack that all up and take it away, that will free up a place for me to start hauling things that I won’t take with me but still have useful life. I figure I let me theater friends paw through it and carry away what they want and then whatever’s left can go to Goodwill or Lovelady. Better call RMTC this week and make those arrangements.

I wonder what Tommy thinks of me selling his house? I told his family this last week. They didn’t think much one way or the other. Tommy is one of the reasons I want to move. It was bought for Tommy based on his wants and needs and everything about it has something to do with a past that’s cherished in memory, but no longer exists in a practical present. I think he would approve. Tommy was always looking forward to the next project, the next phase of life, the future. He had next to no sentimentality and rarely looked back. He always found that unimportant.

February 17, 2020

The new digs

And just like that, life turns on a dime and all of a sudden you realize that you’ve just complicated your life and added another stressor. I’ll be moving in late April/early May. Relax, I’m not quitting my job or leaving town. My plan for some time has been to downsize into a condo I can stay in until I’m 80 with minimal supports. I was going to do this next year or the year after, but the right unit became available, interest rates are good and Forest Park is hot right now so I should be able to get a good price for my current house. Therefore, Arlington Crest, here I come. My offer has been accepted and we’re heading into that fabulous time of arranging mortgages and inspections and all those other escrow things. Fortunately, having just done this four years ago, I’m feeling relatively calm about the whole process. The only thing that’s scaring me is the actual physical business of moving and all that entails.

The condo, is about two thirds the size of the house so not everything can go so I have to start thinking about what goes and what gets rehomed. Once I know what I’m keeping, I’ll let my young local bohemian friends in need of decent furniture know and they can come get things. I’ve been cleaning things out some since Tommy died but I have a lot still to do and a symphony concert, an opera, and a play to ready while doing this all. I may be looking for volunteers to help me with what remains so if you’ve ever really wanted to help me go through closets and filing cabinets, now is your chance.

Am I sad to be leaving this house? Not really. To me, it’s always been Tommy’s house. He picked it out and we set it up to suit him and the kinds of things he liked to do. I’ve always felt like a bit of a squatter in it, especially since his death. My husbands have always been the ones who called the shots on domesticity so it’s been well over three decades since I lived in a space that was purely mine or about me and I’m kind of looking forward to that. The condo has a view, a private terrace, two bedrooms, a study, and a fairly up to date kitchen that I’m likely not to use. It has a handicapped accessible master bath, high ceilings, and new floors. I feel good about the decision. But it will need to be painted. I am not a Richard Tubbs taupe kind of guy.

The last move I made by myself was in the mid 1980s when I moved into the apartment I lived in during medical school with a rotating series of roommates. It was a large apartment. The small building in which it was located obviously had no idea what to do with the basement so they just made the whole thing into one unit. As it was dug into the side of a hill, it was kind of dark but that never bothered me. It was walking distance to the med school, had decent parking, and was big enough for me to spread out however I wanted. When I moved out of it in 1988, my friend Mark Sandberg and I moved me down to Sacramento in a U-Haul. Mark was an incredibly talented musician whom I had gotten to know during my med school days. My last hurrah in Seattle theater was a production of Sondheim’s You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow at the Cabaret de Paris at Rainier Square downtown. I directed, he music directed. Sondheim was kind enough to give us permission to rearrange some of the material and do a few extra numbers. He even set us a copy of his manuscript to Country House from the London production of Follies which had recently opened to use (so as far as I know, we had the American premiere of that song). Mark was a brittle juvenile Type I diabetic. He suffered a stroke in his 20s not long after I moved to California which robbed him of his ability to play the piano. I only saw him once more, that next spring when Steve made his first visit with me to Seattle. Shortly after that, another stroke took his life.

Steve was around for all the various Sacramento moves. (First apartment to second apartment, second apartment to condo, condo to house) and, of course for the big one from California to Alabama. Tommy was around for the quasi-move when we redid the old house and for the major one when we came down the hill. Now I don’t have anyone to plan with and fight with and procrastinate with and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I have the resources now to hire people to pack and unpack, and this is, if life goes according to plan, the last move I will make until my nieces pack me off to the home in my dotage but it still seems like a bit of an overwhelming undertaking without a companion at my side. I suppose I could go out and find one next week but needing someone to help move does not strike me as the way to begin a lasting relationship.

I have been tired and cranky and not doing much of anything for the last week. I think it’s post show syndrome. The amount of psychic energy expended doing Cabaret for three weeks drained the well and it’s just going to take a little bit of time to fill it up again. It’s put me behind on various projects although I did manage to pull together everything for the taxes this past weekend. I better get a nice fat refund to pay for moving expenses.

February 2, 2020

Me and Celeste Burnum in Cabaret

It’s 11:30 PM on a Saturday and I am way overdue for a long post. I’ve kept coming up with excuses for myself to keep from writing over the last few weeks; some of them around the show, some around other aspects of life. But, I promised myself I would do some writing this weekend at some point and this seems as good a time as any. When I have a performance, I come off stage somewhat energized and it generally takes me a couple of hours to calm the brain down and get to the point where I can get some sleep, so I’ve been staying up past midnight most of the last few weeks. The alarm still goes off at 6:45 on work days so I’ve been operating in a bit of a sleep deprived state. It doesn’t bother me too much but every year that goes by, it gets a little harder and a little harder to put in the fourteen hour days between medicine and music/theater. I’ll be 58 in a few months. It seems slightly unreal. It’s also one of those ages that just seems dull and uninteresting, not even a prime number.

The big events of the last few weeks are two. The first, which I wrote about when it happened, was the death of my mother. It was not unexpected as a concept as she had been suffering from late stage dementia for a number of years but there was no period of decline or warning and her sudden death in her sleep caught us all a bit off guard. One of the great ironies of my life, as a geriatric physician skilled in the management of dementia and family systems with demented elders, is my inability to do much of anything to mitigate the course of my mother’s disease. Her dementia was not of the common Alzheimer’s type. The pattern was more of a frontal lobe Picks type with the first deficits coming in language and memory issues only making themselves known later. This was cruel to my mother with her love of language, words, and literature. It’s a familial disease. We have family letters and other documents stretching back 150 years referring to elders of previous generations ‘going mute’ as they reached their 80s. Her grandmother had a similar pattern. Her mother died at age 75 and so was too young to have manifested any issues. As these disease processes tend to be autosomal dominant, I have a 50% chance of carrying the genetic propensity to a similar fate should I live long enough. It’s a good thing that I have no plans to live to a hundred and five. I’ve seen far too much of what happens when you outstay your warranty.

We’ve decided we will have a memorial service in the spring, probably in late April (as this will work best with the various schedules that have to be coordinated). I’ll give further details as they become available for those in the Seattle area who might wish to attend. I’m trying to bury my more recent memories of my mother, the ones caught up in dealing with the realities of her disease and disabilities, in favor of more distant memories of a healthy and vibrant woman with a myriad of activities and interests. The one who encouraged my career choice when I serendipitously fell into Geriatrics, the one who tried to be a good mother in law to Steve, and later Tommy, even when it was difficult, the one who found my MNM columns riotously funny and who always got even my worst jokes and puns as they all came out of the very British sense of humor I inherited from her. When I was a young adult, my mother and I would go to British films at the art house and laugh uproariously at jokes that went over the heads of most Americans. She had been raised in a culturally British household and I inherited that sensibility from her as her eldest child. From a very young age, I inhabited a world of English talismans – Beatrix Potter, Mary Poppins, the Andrew Lang fairy books, The Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers, and all the other fantastical characters of British juvenile literature. Read aloud by my parents, pored over on the floor of my bedroom – many of the volumes remain on my shelves to this day. I don’t remember being taught to read. I just did it. My parents claim I taught myself somewhere around age 3, marching in to them and demanding to know what this or that word was. All I remember was arriving at kindergarten capable of reading the newspaper and the teacher not quite knowing what to do with me when it came to reading lessons.

I wonder what she would think of Cabaret? My parents are of the Silent generation. Too young to have participated in World War II but very aware of its horrors as children, having been 6 when it began, 9 when Pearl Harbor catapulted America into the war and 12 at the end when the horrors of the camps were revealed. When I was in elementary school, I went through a World War II period where I read everything I could find in the library about the Nazis and the war in Europe and I remember asking my mother about it. She told me a little bit about what it was like to have the news coverage come in through the paper and Life magazine, about blackouts and air raid drills (she was from San Francisco and after Pearl Harbor, everyone assumed the bombs would begin to fall there next). But she never went into much detail. She wasn’t one to ever really talk about her childhood and adolescence. Even my father, married to her for 63 years, knows little about her early life. Over the years, I’ve had to glean a lot from my cousins. Their mother, her sister, was more open about their girlhood than my mother ever was. When I was about ten, I remember my parents going to see the film version of Cabaret when it was new. I was left with the babysitter. The next day, I asked my mother to explain the movie to me. I don’t remember much of what she had to say but I did get the impression that she had enjoyed it, that it had something to do with the Nazis, and that there was a nightclub involved. I didn’t see the film myself until I was in high school when I went to see it at The Harvard Exit, one of the classic revival houses that were everywhere in the 70s until the rise of home video. A few years later, in college, I worked on the show for the first time as a stage hand and had a brief appearance as a Nazi in the first act finale.

Cabaret finale – me in the hat

This production of Cabaret is taking a lot out of me. Not physically, it’s not that hard a role, but the amount of psychic energy is draining the stamina. I come off stage energized, but drained at the same time. Some of that is the impeccable direction of the show by Dane Peterson. He has found the key to the show, recognizing it as a seduction of the audience by all the tawdry titillating detail of the collapsing Weimar Republic but which, shortly before the first act curtain, turns everything on its head and ultimately makes the audience complicit in the horrors that are to come through a dark and unrelenting second act. The cast has become comfortable enough with the material and production over the last few weeks to really listen to the audience at both act finales and the gasps and sobs that come at certain moments make us recognize how powerful the piece is. We’re also the beneficiaries of historical accident. The headlines in today’s newspapers are reflected in the politics of the show in some very uncomfortable ways. A friend after the show tonight said something about how some lines seem to have been interpolated or punched up for the current political moment but they’re not – they’re the same as they’ve always been in the script. We’re just now primed to hear them differently.

Birmingham no longer has a daily newspaper or theater critic so I can’t link to a formal review of the show. The buzz from people who know something about theater has been very positive indeed so we’re all pretty certain that this is a solid production. I’ve been getting a lot of compliments on my performance – things like charming and full of heart. Schultz and Schneider are the heart of the show. They’re the real emotion as compared to the superficial ersatz relationships that characterize most of the rest of the cast. They truly love each other, not relying on transactional decision making, and their being pulled apart by political changes beyond their control is heart breaking. It’s such a great role. I get to laugh, cry, kiss, get drunk, show up in my underwear, sing a couple of great songs, and dance a romantic waltz. I could easily continue this show for months, especially opposite the lovely Celeste Burnum who is so damned good that it makes my job easy.

I’ve had my ‘it’s winter and I’m doing a musical’ cold the last few days. It started to lift today. it made me a bit raspy, but fortunately no major laryngitis. Even with yesterday’s performance when I was at my worst, I was able to hit my notes. It wasn’t always pretty, but then again, that’s the character. I’ve always been able to sing in character without being the least bit self conscious. Ask me to sing as myself and I get all nervous and worry constantly about how bad I am compared to all of the highly trained professionals I work amongst. I can’t explain it. It’s just the way I’m put together.

I had the broken grates leading into the basement all repaired finally this afternoon and covered with wire mesh. I set a live trap in the basement before departing for the theater and returned home to find a very unhappy possum inside. He has been returned to the backyard where he can continue to eat insects to his hearts content. I rather like possums. I just don’t want them in the house. I think he’s been coming in and out of the basement for some time. I’m going to reset the trap tomorrow just in case he has a friend who’s still hiding in one of the dark corners behind the washer or something.

I’ve been writing for an hour now. I don’t know if I’ve accomplished anything or if it’s all so much drivel. Time for a hot shower. (The post herpetic neuralgia is still there from this summer and a hot shower before bed helps a lot). Then a little Netflix before falling asleep. I should begin on an MNM column but I think that will have to wait for tomorrow, after the matinee. Cabaret doesn’t really lend itself to matinee performance but one must consider the audience that doesn’t like to drive after dark.

January 22, 2020

My parents on their wedding day

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday,I don’t know. The famous first line of Camus’ The Stranger was the first thing that popped into my head when I got the long expected and long dreaded call from my father this morning that my mother had passed away quietly sometime in the night. The employees of the care home found her this morning when they made their early rounds. The woman that was my mother has actually been gone for some time, robbed bit by bit of memory, personality, speech and emotion by the relentless process of her underlying disease, a hereditary dementia of the Picks type which has been part of all our lives for thirteen long years. I’m still not sure what to feel. Sadness that she is gone. Relief that she no longer suffers, trapped in a body and brain that could no longer do her bidding. Heartache for my father who finds himself truly alone for the first time in sixty five years. All of them at once.

We don’t do funereal death rituals in my family. Quiet cremation and a later memorial service that can be planned around everyone’s busy lives. My brother and sister in Seattle have all of the details of the business of death handled on their end so there’s really no role for me at the moment. I think in part they want to spare me as I’ve had to deal with all those myriad details in my own life far more often than I would like. I’ll keep tabs on my father and, if I think he needs my presence, I’ll go out early next week for a day or two. In the meantime, I’m soldiering on with work and Cabaret performances giving my life structure.

Who was my mother? Alison Beatrix Saunders Duxbury was the elder daughter of a British South African colonial from an upper middle class social climbing family who emigrated to this country in the 1930s to join the faculty at what would become UCSF school of medicine. Here in the new world, her father set about climbing the academic ladder eventually becoming dean and chancellor. Her mother was an earthy practical Scot from Edinburugh with a steely resolve that got her through medical school in the 1920s, practically unheard of for women, and then became the quiet power behind her husband’s rise in California. My mother rarely discussed her San Francisco girlhood and adolesence. Her father wanted his daughters to marry into the existing power structure (her schoolmate Dianne Greenberg was always held up to her as an example. Miss Greenberg eventually became more famous under her married name of Feinstein). My mother had other ideas, throwing over the young doctor that was picked for her for the oceanography student of no particular family who became my father.

My mother was one of the last generation before the onset of feminism and women’s liberation, taught from infancy to subsume herself to the needs of husband and family. She was brilliant, could easily have had a scientific career the equal of my father’s but decided her children were more important than a PhD, was a devoted stay at home mom during our early childhood and then, when she got the last of us into school, went back to work and had an impressive community college teaching career for several decades. She wordsmithed the textbook she wrote with my father that went through eight editions and funded their comfortable retirement. She quietly and competently ran every organization that came her way from the community club, to the girl scouts, the cub scouts, the PTA, and ended up helping to found the high school from which my sister graduated. She taught me far more than any teacher I ever had in school. More than anyone else, she was the one who taught me how to write clearly, cogently, but with a bit of a flair for the esoteric.

I am very much my mother’s child, my brother was very much my father’s child and my sister always marched to her own drummer and laughed at all of us and our foibles. As I sit here and reflect on my mother, hundreds of moments and images collide from all phases of her life. Her grabbing me and running down the road at a campground in Banff when I was four becuase a bear was invading the tent next door. A major fight she had with Steve when we were all stressed out about the collapse of my career at UC Davis. Her coming to Birmingham to see the first musical I had directed in decades, Kiss Me Kate and getting to meet my theater family. Her beaming at my graduation from medical school. Walking with her along a mountain trail on one of our many day hikes in the Cascades discussing the books I was reading in high school. Even long after I had left Seattle, we would get together over cups of tea on my rare visits back and discuss all sorts of things, always picking up where we had left off. And I always knew that my parents would have my back no matter what.

And now her watch is ended and I am now, and shall always be, eternally grateful, that she was my mother.