June 9, 2023

Dateline: London, England

Today was another low key, but busy day. It started with a morning rehearsal of the piece for tomorrow night. It just keeps getting better and better and I think we’re going to be proud of the end result. The composer was in attendance at the rehearsal and seemed pleased and he will be at the concert. It’s a new piece, having only been written in 2019. It’s been recorded but not yet released due to Covid delays. It’s been done in Belfast and Kent and some other places in the British Isles but this performance will be the London premiere. Fingers crossed that there won’t be any major hitches tomorrow but the folks behind Vox Anima seem to know what they’re doing and everything has been efficient and well organized so far.

After rehearsal, as it was another day of simply glorious weather, I wandered down past Buckingham Palace and St. James’ Park to Westminster where Vickie had spent her morning. We met up and headed over to Westminster Pier and took a brief cruise down the Thames from Parliament to Tower Bridge and back. It gives another perspective on the city which would not exist were it not for its vital, navigable waterway. The Thames has been a water road between sea and countryside since the ancient Celts and Britons. The Romans used it and constructed their town of Londinium around what is now Tower Hill. Then came the Angles, the Saxons, the Danes and the Jutes each adding a layer, culminating with the Normans in 1066 with William the Conqueror who began construction on his great fortress, the White Tower of the Tower of London in 1075. And here we are nearly a millennium later, the Tower stands. The monarchy William founded stands, although greatly changed. The English people stand despite some of the recent idiocies of their government.

Apres boat tour, we grabbed a quick snack and rode the London Eye. Vickie had never been on it and I had never been on it during daylight hours. The weather was perfect, the views panoramic, the crowds somewhat dismaying. Fortunately, we had had the good sense to pay extra for Fast Track passes and were able to jump the queue. We eventually descended to earth, after sharing our pod with, from what I could tell, was an extended family of Germans, and several French couples, and ambled up the south bank toward the National Theatre where we had our show for the evening. We were several hours early, so we found a table in the shade outside of the NT where a riverside stage was occupied by the London company of ‘A Strange Loop’ who were having a tech rehearsal prior to doing some preview work for their opening next week. I haven’t yet seen the show but I quite liked some of the music we heard.

This evening’s show, Dixon and his Daughters, at the National Theatre was a compact play about the effects of domestic violence and sexual abuse on family systems. The six actresses in the cast were all fantastic. The script is tight and nuanced, but it’s not the most comfortable of things to sit through. I’m glad I saw it, but it’s not a feel good night at the theatre. It was in the small house in the complex formerly known as the Cottlesloe and now known as the Dorfman. Vickie and I, being theater people, immediately assumed that it was named after Ariel Dorfman, the Chilean/American academic and playwright of Death and the Maiden. We couldn’t figure out why the NT would be honoring him so. I then looked it up and it was renamed in honor of a Lloyd Dorfman who gave the NT a rather enormous sum of money. Oh well…

The show was not long so we had dinner after at a South Bank eatery called Giraffe. Why I could not say as there was no giraffe on the menu nor was there anything about the decor to suggest the savannah. Forty years ago, nay even twenty years ago, the South Bank was pretty much a desert. It’s been transformed into the place where young Londoners go to relax and party and avoid the tourist crush in the West End. Restaurants, bars, musical entertainment, and lots of Gen Z and aging Millennials doing what young people do. At times I miss being that age and not being able to keep up with them but then I remind myself that I’m exactly the right age for one born in 1962 and I had my chance to be a twenty something in the 80s and it’s somebody else’s turn now.

Some thoughts about London today: There is construction everywhere and the skyline is dotted with construction cranes promising more and more large buildings and public works. The service workers are cheerful, kind, and really want to help. I presume that this is because those sort of jobs are paid better and the pandemic hasn’t decimated the workforce as it has in the US so those remaining in the sector aren’t overly worked and stressed out. They also don’t have the issues of employment based health insurance here which lead to so many problems on our side of the pond. It’s a cosmopolitan and welcoming place. It’s June and there are pride flags everywhere and no one seems to care at all one way or another. I am reminded of Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s famous quote regarding homosexual relationships. ‘My dear, I don’t care what they do, as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses’.

Long day tomorrow… and so to bed….

June 8, 2023

Dateline: London, England:

No out of town trips today as it’s the first of three days where the major order of business is musical performance and the whole reason I’m here this week. The ASO chorus (at least those who wanted to come, are joining together with other groups (Birmingham, Oxford MS, Fort Collins CO, Wales, and England) to perform a concert at Southwark Cathedral on Saturday evening. The work we are doing is a recent setting of the Latin Mass by Philip W. J. Stopford called Missa Deus Nobiscum – a hundred or so voices and full orchestra. It’s a relatively easy sing, melodic, and, judging by this afternoon’s first rehearsal with the maestro, going to be very very good. It was coming together quite well at the end of three hours. We have another rehearsal tomorrow and then dress and performance on Saturday.

The rehearsal was in St. Peter’s church, a small parish church in Belgravia on Eaton Square. It has marvelous acoustics in the sanctuary which made even some of our more lackluster moments sound quite good. It’s a relatively new church. The original building took a direct hit during the Blitz destroying most of the sanctuary and killing the then rector who was on the front portico doing fire watch that night. (During my wanderings later in the day, I ran across the monument to the firefighters of London killed in the bombings of World War II. The list of names is extremely long and a sober reminder of what the city endured not all that long ago.)

Rehearsal wasn’t until one PM so Vickie and I got up this morning, had breakfast and headed for the Tate Britain for a museum fix. it wasn’t at all crowded (the National Gallery has been a mob scene when I’ve walked past) and filled with five hundred years of British art including an enormous number of Turner paintings, drawings, and sketches. I’ve always admired his later work which seems so modern and far ahead of its time. I’m not so keen on the modern stuff. Damien Hirst’s animals suspended in formaldehyde tanks do nothing for me. I do, however, like Hockney and find Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud both interesting and disturbing. I left the museum around noon to get to rehearsal leaving Vickie to amuse herself for the afternoon and then met up with her later at St. Paul’s where she sat with her bag full of gorp, rather than crumbs. The pigeons weren’t interested.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare ; Production ; Cast: Sam Crerar as Lysander ; Sarah Finigan as Egeus/Snug ; Mariah Gale as Bottom ; Vinnie Heaven as Demetrius ; Jack Laskey as Oberon ; Molly Logan as Flute/Fairy ; Francesca Mills as Hermia ; Anne Odeke as Hippolyta ; Marianne Oldham as Titania ; Rebecca Root as Quince ; Michelle Terry as Puck ; Isobel Thom as Helena ; Tanika Yearwood as Snout/Mustardseed ; Musicians ; Percussion: Zands Duggan ; Saxophone/Clarinet Sophie Creaner ; Musical Director/Saxophone/Clarinet Zac Gvi ; Trumpet/Hang Drum Adrian Woodward ; Tuba Hanna Mbuya ; Director: Elle While ; Associate Director: Indiana Lown-Collins ; Set Design: Paul Williams ; Casting Director: Becky Paris ; Composer: James Maloney ; Costume Design: takis ; Costume Supervisor: Sabia Smith ; Fight & Intimacy Directors: RC Annie Ltd ; Globe Associate: Movement Glynn MacDonald ; Magic Consultant: John Bulleid ; Movement Director: Annie-Lunnette Deakin-Foster ; Voice and Text Coach: Tess Dignan ; Shakespeare’s Globe ; London, UK ; 5 May 2023 ; Credit and copyright: Helen Murray http://www.helenmurrayphotos.com

We headed across the Millennium Bridge to the South Bank, admiring the views as the day had morphed into a perfect sunny day full of golden hour light, and had dinner at the Swan Pub attached to The Globe theater (fish and chips for her, shepherd’s pie for me without actual shepherd peppered on top) before taking our seats for A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the Globe stage. I picked up some ideas for staging and line delivery for the production I’m directing starting at the end of the month (and also picked up a few things that I know I don’t want to do). The company was strong. The production interesting. But there were no real standouts in the cast other than Hermia – who was played by a woman with dwarfism who could both act and do physical comedy. And, with her size, she dominated every scene she was in.

Sometimes I wonder what Shakespeare would think if he could time travel forward four hundred and some years and see his plays are still being performed, with his original ideas and language relatively intact, and that they’ve even built a full reproduction of his original theater for them. I think he’d be pleased but also a bit confused, given that he wrote them as popular entertainments and not as literature to last. I’ve been telling my cast that Midsummer is a sex comedy, sort of a 1590s American Pie and it need not be approached too reverently.

Rehearsal again in the morning. To bed! To bed!

June 7, 2023

Dateline: Portsmouth and London, England

Up early and off to Waterloo station for the train to Portsmouth. I love catching trains in the UK. It’s always so 1930s Agatha Christie. ‘I say old chap, I’m off to Waterloo to catch the 9:08 for Portsmouth via Stepney on Green, Twickenham and Tooting Bec.’ I know what I just wrote is a geographic impossibility as they are stations on different rail lines, but let me have my fun. I hadn’t been to a British seaside town in some years, the last having been Brighton in 1984, and it was nice to see that rural towns in the UK look about the same as they always have, either from the window of a railway carriage or from walking along the high street.

The trip to Portsmouth was uneventful. The ASO gang that went headed off en masse to the D-Day museum which was very well done. The centerpiece is an 83 meter long embroidery in 34 panels which tells the story of the Allied Invasion, inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry which detailed the Norman Conquest. I suppose D-Day was sort of the reverse of that on some level. I had never heard of the Overload Embroidery before but I’m glad to have seen it. From the museum, we headed off to lunch on the harbor. The lunch was good but the restaurant’s organization of a large party was not so that curtailed a visit to the historical docks as Vickie and I had to get back to town as we had theater tickets this evening.

Tonight’s show was the new environmental/immersive production of Guys and Dolls at The Bridge Theatre that has received a great deal of positive press. We snatched a couple of last minute tickets, not the best seats, but good enough for the small theater in the round. Much has been made of the three hundred tickets for standees who surround and become part of the set moving from place to place as the set shifts around, directed by stage crew marshals costumed as New York City’s finest. We decided that our sixty plus year old knees were not up to three hours of standing, no matter how good the show, and opted for seats up in the gallery.

Guys and Dolls is an old chestnut but this production is brilliant in terms of its staging. I’m not going to give away all of the tricks in the set and the stage and how new life has been breathed into a seventy five year old show but I was captivated from Runyonland on. And I have rarely seen a show that creates such an atmosphere of exuberant joy in an audience which makes the post curtain call dance party seem like a necessary expression for both cast and audience. An understudy was on for Sky who probably doesn’t have the voice of the principal but otherwise the performances were top notch, especially Adelaide who was funny and endearing rather than annoying. Arvide remains a bucket list role for me so if anyone reading this is planning a future RMTC or VST season, keep that in mind.

The Bridge Theater is just below Tower Bridge so we got to walk across it once in the late afternoon golden hour light, and once in the dark with the city lit up. Movie London would have you believe that Tower Bridge is just downstream of Parliament. It’s actually about three miles away. I think we’ll be down in Westminster tomorrow and we’ll see if the weather continues to hold and there’s a possibility of some good pictures of the houses of Parliament then. Both Vickie and I have been to London multiple times so we haven’t felt a particular need to hit the usual tourist spots but we’re picking up some of the classic views on the way to and from theater. The weather remains perfect for walking. Mid 50s in the early morning warming up to the 70s as the sun comes out. It warms the cockles of my Seattle heart. I (and my pedometer) are happy.

June 6, 2023

Dateline: London and Taplow, England

I slept hard last night for something over ten hours and feel like I am starting to become time adjusted. At least I don’t feel like I’m in a fog, although I did fall asleep several times while sitting in railway and underground carriages when I didn’t move for more than ten minutes. Today’s agenda, after the typical tourist hotel breakfast buffet (meh – everything was edible but nothing was really good and the coffee was pretty awful in general), was to catch the train for Taplow, a village in Berkshire. It’s not a lot more than a wide spot in the road and a pub but it is the train stop for Cliveden House, home of various notables, most recently the British branch of the Astor family. Those of you of a certain age will know who Lady Astor, the first female MP in the House of Commons was, and others will know of Cliveden from its supporting role in the Profumo affair (which involved Lady Astor’s son and the swimming pool).

Both Vickie and I have a connection to Cliveden. Back in the 70s and early 80s, it was the site of Stanford’s British overseas campus and she lived at the house for six months. She had not been back since graduating and wanted to see it again. My connection is more slender. Back in the days when the Astors were in residence, my grandfather, being tall, athletic, charming when he so chose, and single at the time, was in demand as an ‘extra man’ at weekend house parties and he was invited to Cliveden several times as a guest. How he knew the Astors, I know not but he was of good and social climbing family, had an uncle who was a national hero, and other connections so someone pointed him their way. He had stories of T.E. Lawrence tearing up the drive on his motorcycle and through the front door, various politicians grousing around the dinner table and Mrs. Astor trying to give him life advice (which he took from no one).

The house is now owned by the National Trust but leased out as a boutique hotel. We were able to go into a few of the larger rooms with a tour (which Vickie says are similar to what they were on her sojourn but now with nicer furnishings) but could not wander willy nilly as it is a working hotel and the guests are paying rates equivalent to my monthly salary to pretend they are the super rich of a century ago. We spent most of our time exploring the grounds, including formal gardens, woodlands, and a walk on the bank of the River Thames, far upstream from London where it is a placid country river. The views of the west country from the house, on a bluff above the river valley were gorgeous. Thomas Hardy eat your heart out.

After several miles of walking, our feet were tired so we hopped the train back into town and rested briefly before dinner and show. The dinner? We both had duck l’orange at an Italian Restaurant off the Embankment and then went to see the new production of Cabaret. I had seen it on the previous trip but Vickie had not and I thought it innovative enough to be worth a revisit. The leads have changed from six months ago. (The MC is better, the Sally is not as good) but the who remains pretty phenomenal and really a must see. Vickie and I owe our forty plus year friendship to that show. A misadventure of a production at Stanford was how we originally met each other and started to get each other. I’ve started to realize how lucky you are in life to find even a handful of people who get you and with whom you remains sympatico year after year and she is one of them.

We have to get up to catch a train again in the morning. I’m trusting her to wake me up.

June 5, 2023

Dateline: London, England

And so I have returned across the pond to the motherland, less than six months since my last jaunt. It was never my intention to schedule two weeks in London in such close proximity; it’s just how life worked out, what with the winter trip having been postponed a year due to Covid and this summer trip a pleasant add on to my singing with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra Chorus for the last seven or eight years. The ASO folk are joining together with a number of other choral groups to present a program at Southwark Cathedral this coming Saturday night the 10th. I have a couple of friends coming, whose lives have led to them being in London on the correct date. I hope we sing pretty. (I’m pretty sure it will go well as the piece we are singing, a modern setting of the Latin Mass, is melodic, and neither harmonically nor rhythmically terrible challenging, unlike other recent pieces we have faced.

I am accompanied on this trip by my old college friend, Vickie Rozell, a friendship that extends back more than forty years and has encompassed times of being roommates, official and unofficial, other theater trips, kibitzing on each others theatrical projects, and just general camaraderie. The third member of our little college troika, my dorm roommate Craig Mollerstuen, was supposed to turn up as well but the state department had other ideas and delayed issuing his passport renewal. We will make do.

The trip has, so far proved uneventful. I spent the end of last week desperately trying to clean up various undone things prior to departing and, as far as I know, I managed to get them all done and the notes written and the various people on non-profit boards communicated with and the writing that needed to be done completed. This, of course, means that I have forgotten a minimum of three significant things which will be highly overdue on my return and I’ll arrive to a series of panicked emails and text messages. Vickie arrived from California on Saturday afternoon, on time and none the worse for wear for her early start from San Jose airport. We had a barbeque dinner, nice conversation, and then I went home to finish my much delayed packing for our departure for London the next day.

We Ubered over to our local dead mall at Brookwood the next morning early to meet the bus to ATL (cheaper by far than flying us all out of BHM). The bus ride was only marred by someone being left behind as they were checked off as being on board when they obviously were not. We took a little stop at the Alabama/Georgia border allowing him to catch up and get on the bus with a somewhat higher blood pressure, but otherwise, none the worse for wear. Then on to Atlanta, the Southwest quadrant of the belt way, and the international terminal of ATL which was not overly crowded on a Sunday afternoon. We had plenty of time before boarding so we opted for the Concourse F Chinese fast food place… don’t. It wasn’t that the food was bad – it’s no better or worse than any other fast food Asian, but the inefficiency of the five people behind the counter resulted in nearly an hours wait for my plastic tin of orange chicken and defective fortune cookie. Just another reminder of the decline and fall of the service economy post pandemic.

The flight was the usual – wedged into a seat much too small for my build whiling away the hours with the in flight entertainment system. I caught up with three films that I had meant to see: Damian Chazelle’s opus Babylon about the early days of Hollywood, which I truly despised. Up second was Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical ‘Meet the Fablemans’, which I quite liked, and Billy Eichner’s comedy ‘Bros’ which tried too hard do be a crowd pleaser while requiring a niche understanding of the jokes about gay life and relationships. It missed more than it hit. I had just switched to a Bollywood movie about ghosts that seemed to involve a lot of singing and dancing in skimpy clothes in a Himalayan snowbank. I hadn’t quite figured all that when bang crash and we were down on the ground. More minor dramas, this time a missing passport, and we headed to the shuttle bus which delivered us to our hotel.

No early check in, so Vickie and I dropped our luggage and headed up Glouscter Road to Cromwell Road, passed the Natural History Museum and popped into the Victoria and Albert for a dose of art and history We then continued on up into Knightsbridge and went to Harrod’s. It was no where near the zoo it was at New Years. I looked at the souvenir sets of Charles and Camilla tea bags and biscuits in the Food Halls and decided not. Vickie went back to get some rest before dinner, but I sallied forth again and went for a walk in the West End. The temperature is low 70s and sunny. Perfect walking weather. We then got together for dinner at a Portuguese chicken place near the hotel. We have opted not to theater tonight as we are both running on fumes and would just sleep through whatever.

Tomorrow and Wednesday are side trip days and theater nights. More to come… But now, to bed.

May 30, 2023

The woods are just trees. The trees are just wood. Would it were so simple. My life is full of woods at the moment. Artistic, spiritual, philosophical… the only thing that’s missing is an actual ramble through a woodland. Perhaps I should take a mental health day and schedule myself some time at Ruffner Mountain or Oak Mountain or Red Mountain. For those of you not of Birmingham, they are three great urban wilderness parks covering the slopes of the tail end of the Appalachians here in the metro area. The ultimate plan is to connect the three with walking paths, bike trails and greenways. When those come to fruition, there will be something truly special here.

The first woods were recreational. I took the Saturday of the long weekend off from my ‘To Do’ list and I and my long time friend Mackey Atkinson road tripped it up to Nashville. We had tickets for the evening performance of the National Tour of the new production of Into the Woods. As we arrived in Nashville some hours before show time, we decided to continue the fairytale theme and went to the immersive Disney animation exhibit. It’s another of the son et lumiere shows that have become popular in recent years, beginning with Van Gogh five or six years ago and now reaching out into all sorts of visual media. Classic Disney moments, both old and modern projected on enormous screens, animated floor coverings that responded to your movements, familiar songs, it was quite enjoyable. I am not a Disney fanatic but I do like letting my inner child out to play from time to time. And Jiminy Cricket singing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ gets me every time.

I can’t say much for Broadway and honky-tonk country music Nashville. Rubbing elbows with drunk examples of Fraterniticus Memberus has never been my idea of a good time, even when I was that age. The other major sighting were of gaggles of Bachelorettia Celebrationes, all dressed alike, three sheets to the wind, and wearing little pink cowboy hats and boots stolen from the Ron DeSantis collection. At least a lot of them had the good sense to stay aboard their various party busses, party minivans, and party tractors so you didn’t have to dodge their stumbling on the sidewalks. Apparently a sunny Saturday afternoon in Nashville has become the new Bourbon street, just substitute country for jazz. We poked around downtown, had a surprisingly good dinner at a restaurant/coffee bar improbably named The Frothy Monkey, and headed over to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center for the show.

I have long had a soft spot for Into The Woods. Not only is it a Sondheim show, it’s also the first Broadway show that I actually got to see on Broadway (third week of the run with the original cast). It was my first trip to NYC (I was there for residency interviews) and my vivid memories of sitting in the Martin Beck theater and watching the show unfold and not really knowing anything about it other than ‘fractured fairy tales’ remain strong. The indelible performance of Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife. The audience gasps at the unexpected deaths. The applause when Rapunzel’s tower appeared. Bernadette Peters’ witch transformation. I can still feel that emotional state when I think back. I was 25 years old then. Steve, Tommy, my career – they were all still in the future. I remember not being very impressed with the second act, feeling that James Lapine had bitten off far more than he could chew. Now, 35 years later, I read very different things into the show than I did then and I realize that I often have to venture off the path and into the woods for the things I require to succeed – and they’re usually not so simple as the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slipper as pure as gold.

A different magical forest is taking over my summer. In a fit of temporary insanity I agreed to direct A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Belltower Players. We had preliminary auditions last night and this evening and have run into the usual problem with plenty of women and a short supply of men. I can do some fudging with gender from Shakespeare’s original casting but I will still have to beat the bushes for a couple of parts. If you’re male, comfortable on stage, and owe me a favor or two, expect a call….Given budgetary constraints, full Elizabethan is out of the question but I think I have come up with some design concepts that will work and will make the show interesting and a bit more immersive than that space has usually done. There goes July and the first half of August…

The metaphorical woods are those I am hacking my way through in trying to finish up the third volume of The Accidental Plague Diaries. I feel like it should come together relatively easily over the next two months and we should be able to have it available in August. So there is light peeking through the trees there. The big question becomes, of course, and then what? Do I keep working on it by trying to raise its profile through PR? Maybe more appearances like this one… (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Nt_TASNGRY&t=132s) Do I find the money to get electronic and audio editions out? (And would anyone buy them?) Do I go back to the idea of turning it into a Spalding Gray/David Sedaris type monologue? I have this fantasy of workshopping it locally, getting quite a good piece out of it, taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it’s a sensation and it then becomes a success d’estime off Broadway. As if any of that will ever happen. Or do I just say ‘Done’ and cast about for some new project to fill that particular creative void.

And then there’s the thicket of briar which is the American health care system and all of the issues which continue to dribble down onto geriatric care – the decline in professionals with geriatric care skills, the lack of support staff. the aging of the population, the generational characteristics of the early boomers, now in their 70s who have unreasonable expectations regarding biology and human experience. There are days when I truly love what I do professionally. There are other days when I want to drop kick the computer terminal off the third floor into the atrium, and then tear off all my clothes and run screaming out of the building. There are days when a 72 hour involuntary psychiatric hold sounds like a much needed vacation.

Speaking of vacation, three more work days until I depart for my second trip to London in six months. My next long posts will likely be back to travel diary mode for a while. Given the people I will be there with, shenanigans will be had.

May 24, 2023

I just finished writing the last major piece of text required for the third and last volume of The Accidental Plague Diaries. The book isn’t done. It still needs one more round of edits, a bit of reordering, a major proofread, and layout before it can be considered finished. We should be able to accomplish all of that by mid July and have the book out in August. At least that’s the current plan. There are always unforeseen issues and delays.

I’m trying to decide how I feel about completing what amounts to nearly a thousand pages of book over the last three years, especially as I never had any intention of writing any of it. Life and COVID had other plans. I guess the next step, after the last volume is released, is to get on the stick and try to sell some more copies and increase my readership. My immediate circle of acquaintance seems to have read and enjoyed it so far but if it’s going to have any staying power, it needs to reach beyond those who have actually met me.

I was a guest on a podcast this past weekend. One of the hosts is an old friend and the other is a man I have never met. He read the first volume prior to the recording and I found his response to the book fascinating. He told me that reading it brought back all of the emotions he felt in the first few months of the lockdown. Even though the particulars of my experience were very different from his, my reactions to the changes in society and health care felt very similar to what he was feeling in his world. Those feelings may still be too fresh and raw in many of us to want to revisit them but in a year or two, we may all want to have a better understanding of what happened to us and then the books may really speak in ways that they have not yet had a chance to do. I’ll post a link to the finished podcast when it’s up.

Somebody tell me I’m crazy, but I have agreed to direct a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream this summer for Belltower players. Rehearsals begin June 26th and the performances are the second and third weekends in August. Now that I’ve said yes, I’m sitting here with the script trying to decide on cuts, concepts, staging ideas, and how to make the show work on a limited budget. Any Birmingham performers who are free July/August and have always wanted to do Shakespeare with me at the helm, drop me a line. I have tickets to Midsummer at the Globe in London in a couple of weeks. I hope I pick up some good ideas and don’t leave wanting to slit my wrists because I can’t possibly equal what they do. I just wanted to play Bottom. (No bad innuendo jokes please…)

I trudge through my work life. The NP I have relied on the last few years leaves at the end of the month. I’m sorry to see her go as she has done a phenomenal job holding the UAB ambulatory clinic together. We have new people coming in to replace her who promise to be equally as good once they have a bit of seasoning. It’s not the first time I’ve lost my right arm for my clinical care. It’s happened over and over again in my career. A social worker, an NP, a trusted colleague has moved on to something new or better and I remain, day after day, year after year, older and older trying to do the best I can by my patients. I’ll keep doing it a while longer. I want to make sure the clinic can survive my retirement and we’ve got new staff and a physical relocation coming up so things won’t be stable for a while and I’ll keep on keeping on. After 25 years, there’s little that can be thrown at me that will topple me off my balance point. I don’t know what that says about me. Am I a chump for having stayed this long or am I some sort of folk hero? Almost no one else has been able to make it past 7-10 years.


On the VA front, the rural house calls program continues to work well. There’s definite changes brewing though. The World War II vets are essentially gone and the Korean War vets are going. Most of our new admits are Vietnam War vets and even some Gulf War vets. They tend to be sicker than their elders, more difficult to care for, and less able to change ingrained habits for better health. I don’t force anyone to do anything. I simply provide expert advice based on my training and knowledge base. What people do with that advice is up to them. The newer admits want miracle cures and quick fixes as they believe that’s how health care is supposed to work. The idea that when you have chronic disease, you need a long term partnership to work to stabilize you at the best you can be, rather than restoring you to age 25 in a week seems alien to them. I have my work cut out for me. Fortunately, I can keep my cool in most situations.

I’ve been tired this week. I think I’m going to put on some bad TV and go to bed early. I’m trying to finish up the last season of You on Netflix, but I keep losing interest. I think it’s gone on a season too long.

May 19, 2023

I had one of those wake up at 4 am, brain churning and raring to go mornings. I have no idea why. Usually when that happens, there’s something going on up there that’s trying to get out and some writing helps free up whatever the psychological issue is that’s rattling around the darker recesses of my brain. But whatever it is seems to be eluding me this morning. I’ve started this piece a couple of different times and it’s petered out after a paragraph or two. Am I approaching writers block after vomiting up three volumes over the last couple of years? Is a return to more normal social patterns taking energies that were going into writing when life was more isolated?

The conversations among the family when I was back in Seattle for birthday weekend centered around this being a time of transition. The political and social upheavals fueled by the pandemic and other recent events are rolling over my generation of the family in profound ways. For myself, I am having to consider retirement and what my legacy to the world of geriatric medicine is going to be. I know I’ve touched a lot of lives, inspired a few people to make career shifts this general direction, built better ways of handling older people into our local health systems but is there anything I can do to ensure that this work survives my day to day presence and constant attention? Do I phase in retirement over a few years slowly reducing responsibilities or do I just walk out the door and not look back? Will my financial plans actually work in a world where congress keeps threatening to torpedo the world economic system in a fit of pique as the most extreme (and ignorant) elements are given outsize platforms for media ratings? Do I continue to function as a physician in retirement (which will mean figuring out things like licensure and malpractice insurance without a large institution behind me)?

My brother, six years younger, retired early last year after thirty years of teaching high school English and is now working as a paid soccer coach for the high school premiere leagues in Washington. He seems happy. His athlete’s body will probably hold up to this for a decade or so but is it enough? My sister in law sold her athletic wear company she had built over the last fifteen years or so. The changes of the pandemic on retail made her feel it was the right time to get out. My first cousins who are quasi siblings are dealing with elder caregiving issues, adolescent children and empty nest syndrome, career changes, and all of the other issues that come with middle age. My sister, who moved her tattoo business to a home studio a year or so before the pandemic, seems to be moving serenely through life but she has been coping with some extended family eldercare issues which are rattling her usual nonchalance.

Perhaps this is the new norm for those of us in the middle age of the 50s and 60s. The trends towards later childbearing, divorce/remarriage and expanding family networks, fewer children to support aging parents, natural processes of aging leading to body betrayal, financial strains of higher education for the younger generation and care for the elder, and continued political uncertainties are pushing all of us in the late boom/generation Jones/early generation X into feelings of things are in a state of flux. Personally, I don’t do well with unknowns when it comes to change. I’m fine when I can see the path ahead or the other shore coming closer but when it’s all terra incognita out there, I tend to start futurizing and the anxiety level starts to increase and that’s never good.

So I guess I better hold on to the vague certainties in life. I have enough money to meet this month’s bills. I’ve more or less been told by my employers that I have a job for as long as I want to work. I am off to London for a week next month with good company (and a few theater tickets are bought). Rosy fingered dawn is showing outside my bedroom window so the sun is coming up again as it has for eons. I can hear Binx busily clawing away at the living room couch as he does daily. No matter how many scratching toys I provide, he prefers the furniture. There will be people in my waiting room this morning whom I will be able to make feel better by putting on my doctor persona and giving them some basic information that will help them cope better with the problems of aging.

As for all those existential issues and problems out there. I can’t fix them. I really should stop worrying about them. I need to focus on the little bits that I can do… Calling my legislators about particularly heinous bills pending in the statehouse, a few well directed dollars to economically troubled arts organizations, being there for a friend, a little self care (something I’m not especially good at). And perhaps that will give me the spurt of energy I need to complete a few projects this weekend to help with my own transitions.

May 13, 2023

Dateline: Seattle, Washington

I’m spending my birthday weekend with the family in Seattle. I hadn’t been up here for six or eight months so it was time to check in on everyone, especially my 90 year old father and my uncle who also turns 90 in just a few weeks. Geriatric assessments are done. Advice has been imparted to various family members. There are no major looming disasters and I just have to get through my usual talk to the residents of my father’s senior living community in order to complete my busman’s holiday. I haven’t done much the last few days other than be with family. Not strictly true, I allowed my sister to give me a second tattoo as a birthday present. When the cover artist for your books is also a tattoo artist and a close relative, it was only natural to have the cover character emblazoned on my left shoulder in celebration for having actually completed somewhere around1000 pages of accidental published writing over the course of the last three years. When the last volume comes out this summer, it will have been less time than I spent in high school, college, or medical school from the time I wrote the first words of what became The Accidental Plague Diaries until the completion of the project. And that is with working full time and all the other things I do. I figured a celebratory tattoo was worthwhile. I’ll post a picture when it’s healed up a little.

I would be remiss if I did not send out a huge message of thanks to all of you who reached out by phone, text, message, Facebook etc. with birthday greetings. (Something over 600 at last count). Having been raised to acknowledge some things, I did try to thank everyone individually. Of course, by typing Thank You many hundreds of times, I fell afoul of some Facebook algorithm and was blocked from posting anything for 24 hours for ‘violating community standards’. I’ll remember to tell Zuckerberg that apparently thanking people is verboten and not to be borne next time I see him. It’s always interesting to scroll through the greetings, no matter how brief, and see the names of those who sent them and then recall how and when they entered my life. Elementary school playmates, high school and college classmates, old colleagues, performers I’ve worked with, internet buddies – they’re all there. When I get grumpy and down and worried that my efforts in life have not been particularly worthwhile, I need to go back and look at that list of how many lives of how many kinds have intersected with mine and realize that yes, each of us is a thread in the pattern and every thread is important for the tapestry’s picture to be whole.

Seattle is having lovely weekend weather. I’m going out for a walk to enjoy the sunshine in a bit. And then, after my talk, the family gathers for grilled salmon and conversation and catching up on everyone’s life. I am fortunate in my family. We all seem to have matured into adults who are friends and we don’t fall back into traditional roles from childhood when we get together. There were some family traumas in the late 80s/early 90s that forced us all to confront each other as mature adults and reforge relationships. I can’t recommend that particular method of learning to get along better with siblings and parents but the end result was a positive one. No, I’m not going to go into specifics on what all happened as much of it is not my stories to tell. I try to tell my stories (or dead husbands stories as they no longer have their own voice) but not the stories of other living people. That’s their business, not mine.

The flights out were uneventful. I was seated next to a very nice couple on the cross country flight who were traveling with two small dogs, a maltese and a bichon. Both animals were very quiet and well behaved in their carriers and I didn’t hear a bark all flight. They did come out and were lap dogs for a bit midflight. I have no objection to other people’s animals and they both gave me a bit of a tongue bath. With all my house calls, I have been around other people’s pets in close proximity more times than I care to count. I am fine with being sniffed, jumped upon, licked, but I draw the line at biting. Those that bite must be put up before I’ll come in the house. I’m even OK with the occasional ferret, parrot, and snake (as long as it’s not going to wrap itself around my neck).

Flying in these post pandemic days isn’t the most pleasant. The airports cannot hire enough people to staff its services so lines for food and coffee are long and slow. The planes are stuffed to the gills with minimal service. I’ve taken to paying extra on Delta for their Comfort plus seats so that I’ll at least have a bit of leg room for my longer shanks. I wedge myself in my window seat, put on bad movies, or read a page turner and hope for it all to be over soon. My current plane book is an alternative history novel about modern America had the Revolution been lost and the scientific method regarding medicine never developed. A cholera epidemic has started and is spreading. It’s a prepublication proof sent to me by the publisher who have asked for a cover blurb from the author of The Accidental Plague Diaries. It’s not bad so I will oblige. Someone somewhere is reading them…

May 9, 2023

I was sidelined this weekend by a medical issue (relax – it was just a routine colonoscopy and I’m fine) and a couple of days of enforced inactivity for prep and anesthesia recovery did not sit at all well. It made me wonder if retirement will be good for me. I get very antsy after just a few hours of doing nothing. There’s a part of my brain that feels its necessary to be productive during all waking hours and that leisure, vegging, and wasting time are not to be borne. Culturally, I received the protestant work ethic but I think it’s been magnified in me by life experiences which have had me call into question the ability to ever have enough time to accomplish everything in life that one should. Tommy, years ago, was a member of the IATSE crew that worked the touring shows that come through town and when The Lion King came in the early 2000s for a five week sit down, he was the wardrobe laundry person eight shows a week – forty loads per show plus all of the hand washing of the beaded and specialty pieces. His souvenir T-shirt read ‘The Lion King Crew – More To Do Than Can Ever Be Done’ which is a lyric from the opening number, The Circle of Life and was certainly one of his mottos and he passed that style of living on to me during our years together.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, working in a primary care discipline during the slow, but inexorable collapse of the American health care system has certainly left me with a continued scramble to keep all of the work tasks up to date and the clinical systems for which I have responsibility, in a vaguely working order. But if I were to remove all of that from my life, just walk away (which I am occasionally tempted to do…) what then? I say I would put that time and energy into the performing arts here in the greater Birmingham area (and I have a few ideas as to what that might look like) but would I really? I have a feeling I had better take a more measured approach to retirement and a more gradual slow down over several years rather than something abrupt – health permitting of course. I’ve worked in medicine long enough to know there are absolutely no guarantees in that department. Body betrayal can happen at any time, usually when you’re busy planning something else.

I’m in the process of editing the last part of the manuscript for Volume III of The Accidental Plague Diaries. If all goes well, it will be out in late July or early August. I am, again, looking at material that I wrote less than a year ago and it feels like I was writing about a completely alien time and place. The end of the pandemic has had ‘normalcy’ spring into place like a bear trap, and its making me feel like I’m being detached from my recent past in peculiar but very real ways. The three years from March 2020 to early 2023 is starting to feel like a bad dream and it’s certainly messing with my perception of time. It’s almost like that period has become nonexistent in my calculations so 2018, which was five years ago, feels like it should only have been two years ago.

I’m trying to write a fitting epilogue to Volume III that will sum up the whole experience of the pandemic, not just for me, but for our society. I haven’t been able to find the right words yet. The attempts so far? Maudlin and trite are the words that come to mind and they’re really not what I’m going for. And how to acknowledge that even though the acute phase of the pandemic is over that Covid remains a significant and continuing cause of morbidity and mortality that is likely to remain throughout our lifetimes? And how to honor the over one million dead in the US and the millions more whose physiology has been irreparably harmed?

Two local journalists of my acquaintance, John Archibald and Kyle Whitmire were awarded Pulitzer Prizes this week, John for reporting and Kyle for commentary. Once I get the third volume done, I’ll submit the whole thing for Pulitzer consideration next year. And I won’t even make the short list. I have to keep reminding myself that those two have been writing for decades (I’ve been reading their stuff for 25 years, since I first moved to Birmingham) and I’ve only been published for two. I’m thrilled at their success. I love it when good things happen to deserving people. And it’s nice to know that even though Birmingham no longer has a daily newspaper (thanks to the greed of the Newhouse family), we still have a tradition of top notch journalism that finds a way to shine a light on the more corrupt elements of our society.

Thirty-six hours from now, I’ll be on a plane heading for Seattle for a little family time. I may write while there, I may not. I will most certainly try to get some more editing done as, once again, enforced down time is not my forte. It’s going to be a bit of a working weekend as I have some private geriatric assessment to do and I’m giving a talk on aging issues at my father’s senior living community as I usually do. At least I’ve gotten smart enough in recent years to make those off the cuff Q and A so I don’t have to spend a lot of time preparing in advance. Thank god for Jeanmarie Collins and the improv training over the years. It may not be what Viola Spolin envisioned when she was putting her technique together but I’ve been able to use it to impress a lot of senior adults.