And home again, home again. But not before being invited to enjoy Lobsterfest at St. Thomas’s church in Huntsville by Sam Barnett and Laura Kilgore Barnett. Sam grew up in the church and tries to come back for this big bash of theirs every year. Mind you, I never really thought of Huntsville as a New England seafood capital but the lobster I cracked and ate was pretty darn good. It’s been a while since I’d eaten a whole lobster fresh from the pot and I’d forgotten how good they can taste. As I was sitting there, all I could think of was the opening to Act II of Carousel and I was expecting the assembled crowd to break into ‘This Was a Real Nice Clambake’.
Then, the uneventful drive home to Birmingham, a bit of catching up on things like mail and litter boxes and off to a party at Kimberly Kirklin and Stephen Mangina‘s house for a few hours. Now I’m curled up in bed with the laptop, binge watching Gotham Season 3 on Netflix and working out what I have to do for the next couple of weeks. I’m home for the next two weeks on regular schedule before taking off again, this time to Seattle for Thanksgiving and family time. Long posts and travelogue will resume then.
Today is International Dorothy Dunnett day. I celebrated by listening to Queens Play as my audiobook during my drive today. I think this is my fourth time through The Lymond Chronicles and I find something new every time. Some day, I’ll be in the UK in early November and be able to go to one of the major gatherings that happen there on November the 9th. We Dunnett fans are small in number but mighty in curiosity and intellect. Sybilla. as described, sounds exactly like my Scottish grandmother so that’s whom I always see in the domestic scenes. I, however, am nothing like Francis Crawford of Lymond.
I have a talk coming up in a week for a community forum on the topic of compassion. I have no idea what I’m going to say. Something will eventually come to me; it usually does. But, if any of you has a brilliant idea…
So I was lazy today. I slept in and didn’t do a whole lot this morning and I decided to keep driving to a minimum and return home via Huntsville. The rain and wet have passed and been replaced with an arctic cold front so, while it was a much nicer day to get in a walk in Nashville, it was much too cold to do so other than to the local Starbucks for a hot caramel macchiato. And what is with their asking if it should be iced or hot? Are they completely ignorant of the frigid temperatures behind the bar? I suppose it’s protocol Tawny Stephens could tell me.
Last night, at the behest of Ellise, I did make it to the Nashville Rep’s production of the curious, but ultimately uplifting theater piece ‘Every Brilliant Thing’ – a one man monologue about mental health, maintenance of sanity, coping with mental illness in loved ones, and the making of lists of all of the little things that make life worth living. Kudos to Mark Cabus for lovely performance. He’s an old friend of Ellise‘s which is why she wanted me to go. I was unaware as to the amount of audience participation going into the evening and Mark, not having yet met me, randomly selected me to play his father in a few scenes requiring relatively simple direction. Thank heavens for Jeanmarie Collins and Spolin classes and years and years of Politically Incorrect Cabaret allowing me to think on my feet and I felt I acquitted myself rather well. The people next to me were sure I was a plant. My additions to the list of brilliant things in the lobby as i departed included audience participation theater, public speaking skills, and Viola Spolin’s improv technique.
Today, after the relatively short drive to Huntsville, I spent an hour or so walking through downtown, the Twickenham district and the park near the Von Braun Center. It was still quite cold so that was plenty of outdoor activity and I retreated late afternoon to the hotel for a nice hot shower, central heating, bad television and a session with my lines for Dear Brutus. This is not going to be an easy script to learn due to the rather flowery Edwardian language. Fortunately, almost everything I have is two person dialogue and that does make the task a bit easier.
The last time I was in downtown Huntsville around the courthouse square, Tommy and I had come up for one of Susanna Phillips Huntington‘s classical music programs for her home town crowd. Central Huntsville looks about the same, but the city seems to be spreading into more and more suburbs and exurbs. Most of my experience with the town has been with the Politically Incorrect Cabaret. We’ve brought the show to Huntsville four times over the years, each time in a new and even more interesting venue. Our first trip was with the original show back in 2004 (and a lunch stop at the Waffle House on our way up led to the birth of the Waffle House Lady character who continues to live on). We played the Flying Monkey Arts Collective which at that time was in a metal Butler Building. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was June in Alabama and there was no air conditioning and we were all suffering from heat exhaustion by the end of the performance. Tommy had had back surgery only a few weeks before and my cousin Jenny, whom I talked about yesterday, came down for a few weeks to help while he recovered and was here for this show. While hanging out, she made a few of the costumes that still exist including my finale Lederhosen and Ellise’s finale dirndl – the number being ‘Springtime for Homeland Security’ to the tune of Springtime for Hitler from the Producers.
A year later, we were back at the Flying Monkey, which, in the interim, had moved to an old boot factory. A cavernous brick building full of dirt and decay and with no heat. This also would have been fine, but it was February and down around freezing and it was a show in which a couple of my costumes were next to non-existent including the infamous emperor’s new clothes outfit that consisted mainly of body paint and a strategically placed bunch of grapes. Fortunately, I don’t believe any photos survive. I was a good deal younger and in better shape. I wouldn’t want to pull that one off these days. The third trip was a few years later where we were actually in a sort of theater space built into an old house. Little exciting happened that time. Our last trip was back to the Flying Monkey, which has finally moved into a space in a sort of alternative arts mall and which comes with climate control and working plumbing. That show is most famous for my completely going up on my lyrics in the opening number. (The tech people hadn’t turned up for the tech rehearsal so the first time we had lights and sound was the performance. They hit a light cue, I was unexpectedly blinded by lights that I hadn’t known were there, and every lyric flew out of my brain.) As I approach sixty, it’s just getting harder and harder to learn roles. I suppose it’s good brain work and practice but it is torturous. I can already wait to age to the point where I have an earpiece and stage management can feed me all my lines.
Tomorrow, I am meeting some friends here in Huntsville for lunch before returning home. The rest of the weekend shall be devoted to housework and more line learning. Now it’s time to settle in to The King and I on PBS with Ken Watanabe and Kelli O’Hara. Tommy and I saw the production in New York a few years ago and enjoyed it.
And another quick jaunt, this time for business purposes. I was hired as an expert witness to defend a large Nashville academic institution in a legal matter which I cannot go into the details to in public forum so, if you’re really interested, you can ask me next time you see me. I drove up last night, fortunately ahead of the storm and became ensconced in my hotel room (yet another Hampton Inn…) on West End Avenue which sounds like it should be in Manhattan or in London, but isn’t. I conked out relatively early and there were router problems so I wasn’t able to get on line and write things up.
I got up this morning to a blustery day. Cold, wet, windy, and definitely not the type of weather conducive to city touring. I felt in need of exercise, so I walked the mile or so to the attorney’s office under Tommy’s University of Montevallo golf umbrella that I keep in the car for such purposes. I got a number of dirty looks as I think the locals assumed it was LSU (same colors). The Vanderbilt campus was grey and wet. Centennial Park was grey and wet and the Parthenon was hidden behind a large construction site. I did eventually find the attorney’s office, got checked in, transported to the courthouse, and then spent several hours on a bench outside the court room as the trial was running long and my 10 am testimony was delayed to sometime in the afternoon. Then another grey wet walk to lunch and back to the hotel where I should be working on my lines for Dear Brutus but am reading Stephen King instead. Priorities. Tonight, I am off to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center to see a good friend of my good friend Ellise in a one man play called Every Brilliant Thing.
I was going to spend an extra day or two in Nashville, but the hotel prices are ridiculous so I am leaving tomorrow. I don’t need to be back until Saturday so I’ll make a side trip somewhere for Friday night. I was thinking Huntsville. I haven’t been for a while and it’s apparently been growing by leaps and bounds. My other thought was Memphis where I also haven’t been for donkeys years. I would just need to make sure I got there in time for the march of the Peabody Ducks. When in Memphis…
My first visit to Nashville occurred when I was two and I have absolutely no recollection of it. It was to meet my cousin Jenny as an infant. My mother, Alison Saunders, had one younger sister, Margery. They were close their entire lives and both eventually ended up in Seattle where my mother’s three children and Marge’s three children, my first cousins, all grew up in a tumble together. In the early 60s, as Marge’s husband, my uncle Don, was establishing his career, he spent a brief time on faculty at Vanderbilt which is why Jenny, the oldest of the three Hellmann kids, was born there. Jenny is two years younger than I, but skipped a grade so was only a year behind me in school and we followed many of the same patterns in adolesecnce and young adulthood, going to the same high school and to Stanford together. Life sometimes throws us together intensely for a while. Sometimes we barely see each other, but whenever we’re together we always pick up exactly where we left off. We look very alike and had a standard joke that someday we would play Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night (she is as tall as I am in heels). Fifteen years ago, I did play Sebastian but, alas, Jenny was in Seattle and Karla Stamps had to fill in as Viola. I’ve always suspected that late in life, the two of us will end up living together for mutual support and family convenience, a pair of distaff relatives in Edwardian eccentricity, sort of like supporting characters in one of the lesser novels of E. M. Forester.
Jenny and I, as the two eldest, have very strong memories of a trip to San Francisco together when she was two and I was four, to visit our mutual grandparents. Our grandfather, who at the time had been recently fired from the chancellorship of UCSF after running afoul of UC politics, was in no mood for toddlers underfoot and the two of us had quite a time exploring our mothers’ childhood home under the indulgent eye of our grandmother who, as a pediatrician, knew quite a lot about the healthy development of children. There is a famous photo of the two of us sitting in the pot cupboard under the sink in the kitchen, having taken out all the pots for very important childhood reasons. I’ll post it if I can find it.
I didn’t return to Nashville for some years. Steve and I came up for a long weekend sometime in the late 90s. I think it was in that brief window between our move to Birmingham and his illness which precluded travel. There was some sort of geriatrics meeting which I went to and he saw the sights. I remember making a trip to the Hermitage with him (he always wanted to go to anything that connected with 18th and 19th century American history) and I think we went to the huge Opryland hotel for some reason which had nothing to do with American history and more to do with American excess. Tommy had a professional meeting at Opryland for one of his music conferences about ten years ago and came up for a week and I joined him for the weekend portion. We stayed across the street from the Opryland hotel for a fraction of the cost. He want to music educator stuff. I went to the outlet mall and bought polo shirts. I really don’t recall anything else about either one of those trips. I might recall more if I got out into the city, but not in this weather.
One of these days I’ll go to the Grand Ol Opry for a show. Modern country really isn’t my thing but I do like the classic country of the 50s through the mid 70s. I was once in a burlesque of the Grand Ol Opry – a show within a show called the Down Home Opry from The Phantom of the Opry. (Phantom plot – classic country music. My character was the Fermin equivalent). I was in the World Premiere cast. To my knowledge, it’s never had another production. I’ll leave it to you, gentle readers, to determine why.
My head is a whole jumble of things tonight and, as I have an extra hour courtesy of our 19th century agricultural time change system, I might as well do a little writing to sort things out. Anastasia the cat is snuggled up and not being too demanding and the house is quiet. It’s too cold for the teens to get raucous in the park across the street as they are want to do on Saturday nights when the weather is fine.
The first feeling is one of a deep tiredness. I’m not sure if it’s physiologic or psychosomatic. It’s been going on for a month or so now and seems to come over me in waves. It’s never bad enough to keep me from meeting all of my obligations but if I stop and sit down and do nothing, I have an unnerving tendency to fall asleep rather quickly for about half an hour. I have to keep going and keep moving or I am just no good. I’m sleeping reasonably well and getting enough so I don’t know what the trigger is. The biggest issue is choral rehearsals after a long day. If I sit still and try to focus, it just doesn’t work so my mind tends to wander and off I go. Perhaps I have new onset ADHD at the age of 57. The second feeling is an odd one of time being compressed and the past and the present starting to coexist. I think this was started up by the reunion last week which brought up a whole lot of who I used to be stuff so now my various past selves have taken up a little bit of real estate in my central nervous system and are competing with my present self. I can do something as simple as drive down University Boulevard coming home from work and I suddenly feel like it’s 1998 and 2004 and 2019 all at the same time. It’s very strange. Memories of the same activity or the same surroundings just seem to be layering one on top of the other. It’s an interesting texture but I expect it will fade some over the next few weeks, at least until I go to my 40th high school reunion next year, presuming it’s held a weekend I can actually go.
The major project of the week was singing with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra Chorus – we had a Brahms piece, Nanie and Borodin’s Polovstian Dances with the rest of the evening being made up of Grieg’s Peer Gynt. About five years ago, Tommy more or less twisted my arm and made me go audition for the group. I hate auditioning, especially musically. I always feel horribly self conscious and like I have absolutely no talent whatsoever and my Impostor Syndrome takes over like nobody’s business. Tommy had faith and, as I sang for Philip Copeland, he at least didn’t stop playing the piano and stare at me and I got an email a week later saying I was in. I enjoy choral singing. It’s the one time I feel like I can sing just as myself. I don’t like singing solo as myself as I feel so inadequate. The one exception is singing in character. Give me a role to play and I can sing whatever. When I pack myself away in order to act, I seem to be able to pack the Impostor Syndrome away along with that piece of my ego. Strange, but true. The concerts went well, especially the Borodin. The bass part seems to consist mainly of screaming high Ds and E flats fortissimo but when you have fifty guys doing it together, it sounds pretty good. There was a small boy of about five sitting up in the balcony with his family tonight. When the orchestra played ‘The Hall of the Mountain King’ section of Peer Gynt (you know it – it’s used in every other movie trailer), he jumped to his feet, was crashing his fists together with the timpani and the look of pure joy on his face was amazing and a good reminder of why we do what we do and how important serious music is. I have to give a shout out to Chris Confessore who conducted this concert. He is one of the easiest conductors for a chorus to follow and its very simple to stay with him and give him what he wants. While watching him at work, I also noticed how much he conducts with his mouth. It’s unusual but it works and something the audience will never see. (Sorry if I’m giving away a trade secret).
I was a judge today for the Trumbauer Competition, the Alabama High School Theater competition – sort of like the playoffs for the team sport for those who are not athletically inclined. I’ve done this off and one for over a decade. The people I was doing theater with fifteen years ago have now become respected high school theater teachers and they rope their friends into judging. Melissa Bailey called first so I showed up at Mountain Brook High School at 8 am for District 6 semi-finals and was assigned to men’s dramatic and comedic monologues – both novice and varsity, for the next six hours. Some very talented kids, and a good reminder, now that I am old enough to be their grandfather, of the urgency and angst and emotions of adolescence. Over the last couple of years, I have really started to feel myself settle into elderhood and the natural role of mentor, counselor, and storyteller to the young. This was just an extension. It was also interesting to hear monologues from plays that were new in my era being treated as venerable classics. Let’s face it, the 1930s were the same distance away from my high school years as my high school years from today so the world of my youth is as ancient to them as Bonnie and Clyde was to me.
The general tiredness has kept me from moving ahead on some projects as fast as I would like. I have to get cracking on my lines for Dear Brutus. (I have a good sense of the character and the shape of the scenes but the words, not so much). I have two chapters of the book I’m working on, one on dementia and one on death, that I’ve started but which I can’t seem to break the backs on. They don’t want to flow the way I want them to. And, per usual, I need to knock out an MNM column or two. I have been working on this year’s CME and nearly have that done. I’ve also been preparing for a trial I’m testifying in next week up in Nashville. (Prepare for some brief travelogue moments). I also got all of Tommy’s vocal and piano music that I have no real use for boxed up and down to the University of Montevallo for distribution to the faculty and students. It’s not easy watching pieces of him go but it’s better that things like that get out into the world where they will be appreciated and used rather than sit on shelves gathering dust in some sort of silent shrine. I still have a lot more decluttering/downsizing to do but I figure if I get one project done every couple of months, I’ll remain on my schedule of being prepared to move into a condo in a couple of years.
A couple of last thoughts about the Stanford Reunion before I close up shop. The first is how the bell curve starts to spread with age. I know this well theoretically professionally but it was in such evidence when I looked out over hundreds of class of 84 gathered together. We’re all roughly the same age but we looked like we covered a twenty year span of mid 40s to nearly 70. We all have had relatively soft lives, as lives go in the upper middle and upper classes with access to health care and reasonable nutrition so I think a lot of the variability is genetic chance. The first rule of aging, as I have told my patients for decades, is to choose your parents carefully. The second was how much physically smaller many of them were than they were in my memories. I’ve been thinking about why that is and I think I’ve figured it out. I was a very small child. Not only was I small, but I was also a late bloomer. I was the smallest boy in my grade up until about 7th or 8th and I didn’t hit five feet until I turned fourteen. I then proceeded to put on five inches the summer between 8th and 9th grades and another four over the course of the next year. By the time I got to college, I was just under six feet (topping out at just under six foot one) but I still considered myself a very small person as I had been one for most of my life. I didn’t really start to embrace my adult size until my mid 20s, after I had left college, so I think my Stanford years and the people I knew there are seen through a lens of feeling small that no longer exists. Running into them again without it, I can see their physical sizes more clearly.
I will tell one story. When I was a sophomore in high school, my school, The Lakeside School in Seattle, went through a capital campaign and expansion which included building a new theater which opened in the middle of my junior year. The first time I walked into the building and looked up into the flies, I knew I wanted to learn how to use the space and I volunteered for tech theater. The first show I worked on was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a guy named Graham Winton as McMurphy. Graham went to Stanford with me and then off to Julliard. He had a role on a soap, some stage success and a couple of films. I helped build the set, ran sound, and was a general stage hand. By the end of the run, I was hooked and over the next year and a half, did pretty much every backstage position there was. I found that I was best suited to stage management, rather than design or carpentry or electrics and moved from there into directing. I looked at people like Graham who had talent and were magnetic on stage and was sure I could never do that – I’d leave acting to actors, besides which I had colossal stage fright. I had no idea that in my maturity I’d have that conquered and be able to hold my own with the truly talented.
It’s late and so, in the immortal words of Samuel Pepys, to bed.
What’s going through my head is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies from early in the show as the ex-Follies girls gather for their reunion among the ghosts of their past selves. Dimitri Weissman, the producer says ‘…a final chance to glamorize the old days, stumble through a song or two and lie about ourselves a little. I have, as you can see, spared no expense. Still, there’s a band, free food and drink, and the inevitable Roscoe, here as always, to bring on the Weissman girls’. I’ve gotten old enough now to understand that show, the double meaning in the title and, as I finish up my long weekend on Campus for my 35th college reunion, understand more than ever the idea of the ghosts of our past selves occupying the same temporal space when a reunion occurs.
I’ve spent the last few days in a bit of cognitive dissonance. Surely my Stanford years were only about ten years ago rather than nearly forty. It doesn’t seem like it could have been that long. How can the campus have changed so much? Where are some of my familiar landmarks? As I wandered the campus looking at old dorms, old classrooms, and all sorts of other things firmly imprinted on my past, I was operating with a mental map that’s decades out of date. The east side of campus in particular has been wholly redone – no physics tank, no Albers wall. The chemistry building in which I did my undergraduate research completely gone. The main chemistry building, which was an island in a sea of green lawns, now hemmed in by any number of new massive structures devoted to advanced sciences and computing.
There’s something about the air and the light of the mid-Peninsula that is unique. Everytime I’ve ever been back I’ve felt it. There’s a mild golden haze, an undertone of eucalyptus in the air and the breeze coming in off the bay with the promise of saltwater and the slight decay of marshes that takes me immediately back to my younger self. Standing in the quad, I could close my eyes and breathe and suddenly feel the person I used to be once upon a time, back when the world was full of infinite possibilities, back before roads were taken, partners met, and age began to take its toll. Maybe I can bottle it somehow and keep it at home and when things get to crazy, just breathe it in as some sort of primitive aromatherapy.
Stanford has changed how they do alumni reunions. It’s no longer an every class for itself kind of thing, it’s now a big blow out weekend every year and all the classes get invited back every five. So, this year, it’s all the class years ending in four and in nine. Huge parties, pavilions everywhere. Lots of food and drink. For the class of 84, lots of late 50s on the cusp on retirement and grandparenthood coping with elderly parents and the existential questions of did I make the right choices? Am I happy in my life? What did Stanford as a launching pad mean for me and my life? Sitting around tables, drink in hand, listening to snatches of conversation ‘running the American division of multinational conglomerate’…’senior hedge fund manager’…’redoing the vacation house in Vail’ it’s easy to feel entirely inadequate and then people ask about you and your life and are amazed that I’ve been able to find a balance between medicine and theater and that I’ve continued to write in one way or another and a few, who are Facebook friends tell me that my musings over the last year and a half have really helped them understand their issues better and you feel maybe you did make some good choices along the way.
I’ve run into a lot of people I haven’t seen since the 1980s and have gotten my spiel down to an elevator speech of ‘medical school, academic clinical geriatrician, two husbands, widowed twice, no kids, back to theater in my 40s’ which seems to cover most of the basics. It’s interesting to hear other peoples variations on this, compare it with what you thought might have happened to them over the years and then move on to the next. The alumni folk, having it down to a science, equipped us all with very large font name tags so we don’t have to guess. I’d say my friend/peer group is mainly not here as I seem to only know about 10% if that of the 84s. Must be the Econ majors that have turned up in full force.
I registered and got my swag on Thursday morning and then met Craig Mollerstuen for lunch. We were roommates three out of four years. (The fourth was the year we weren’t guaranteed on campus housing so we had some very odd wandering around…) The two of us went on a nostalgia walking tour looking at old dorms and the like and catching up on each others lives. Then it was the big fancy dinner party for everyone in the main quad. Boeuf Bourgingon, Salmon, Roasted Brussell Sprouts, too many drinks and joined by Elizabeth Chavela Bryant. She’s actually class of 85 but she wanted to hang. Friday, various reunion panels. mini lectures highlighting what the University is up to, dinner with Vickie Rozell and then the class of 84 party at a restaurant in Palo Alto. This morning, after breakfast where we added Renee Fallon to the mix, the theater folk all got together on stage at Memorial Auditorium. It was nice to see some of the old time faculty and staff who are still around like Bill and Barbara Cleveland and Paul Strayer. Bill Eddelman, who was my musical theater professor back in the day, turned up and I got to thank him for my life. He wrote the letter of recommendation that was probably the one that was most responsible for getting me into medical school.
I did not go to the football game this afternoon. Sitting in the sun in an open stadium for hours just didn’t appeal. Instead, more walking, a trip to the Stanford Museum and Shopping Center and then back to Vickie’s house where I’m busy typing away at this and a couple of other projects.
I won’t tag everyone I ran into this weekend or sought out as it would take me too long and I would inevitably forget someone important. You all know who you are and I’m grateful to have seen you and hope it’s not quite so long until our paths cross in person again.
Actually, I’m just across the city line in Menlo Park, a few blocks from the great wall of Facebook headquarters, staying at my friend Vickie Rozell‘s house. I decided this year to return to my Bay Area roots and attend my 35th Stanford class reunion. The only other one I ever went to was the 10th and I was still in California at that time, living in Sacramento so it wasn’t that big a deal to go down to the city for the festivities. Steve went with me and was having quite the temper tantrum that evening about something which I’ve totally forgotten so I don’t remember a whole lot about the party other than dinner with David Kudler at a restaurant that had seen better days.
The journey here was uneventful. Planes were on time, the weather was fine, I paid extra for a Delta Comfort+ seat so I didn’t have to sit with my knees tucked under my chin for hours on end and I watched a couple of movies so MNM will have something to write about later this week. The San Jose airport is a good deal larger than it used to be back in the 80s and south Bay rush hour traffic is worse. I didn’t get in until mid evening so I haven’t made it to Campus yet to see who else turned up. That happens in an hour or so.
My memories of my four years on the farm are vivid and it certainly doesn’t feel like it’s been more than a third of a century since I was here spreading my wings as a young adult. I wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had not gotten into Stanford and had gone to college elsewhere. How different would I be? The education, while good, was probably no better or worse than I would have received elsewhere. The biggest difference being a smaller student body than a big state school so big enough for a full immersive college experience and small enough not to get lost. Of the roughly 1500 incoming Freshmen in the fall of 1980, I got to know about a quarter over the course of my four years. (I’m OCD enough to have kept track). Some of them have gone on to have brilliant careers and recognizable names. Most are living relatively anonymous upper middle class existences somewhere. There are a half dozen or so who remain part of my life and who will always be part of my life, no matter where we live or what paths life takes us on. We were all thrown together in that brief period between the aftermath of Watergate and the rise of HIV for some golden years in the California sun of a nascent Silicon Valley. I think I ended up the better for it, even if I have to have the occasional skin cancer removed as payment later in life.
My mother saved all my letters home from college (and I have all of her letters to me from that time period in a box somewhere). The Stanford archives was looking for this sort of paired correspondence from various eras so I think I’ll dig them all out and send them along. It amuses me to think that some scholar in a couple hundred years might try to use them to reconstruct everyday life in the Reagan years. My contribution to history from being a pack rat.
I do have a little trepidation at heading off to campus. My memories of most of these people is of young adults, full of life and possibility and the imaginings of youth and I’m going to find a lot of folk who are on the cusp of their Medicare years, thinking about retirements and grandchildren. But that’s the way the world works and railing against it doesn’t change the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. I have a feeling I’ll come out of this weekend either enthused and enlivened, or melancholy and regretful about the roads not taken. It remains to be seen which one.
I went to the theater tonight to see David Strickland and Caleb Clark in Terrific New Theater’s production of ‘The Story of My Life’. It’s a two person chamber musical about which I knew next to nothing but I always enjoy watching both of them on stage (and I’ve been sharing the stage with David since he was twelve) so I knew I couldn’t miss it. It’s the story of Tom and Alvin, childhood friends who grow up, eventually grow apart but who always remain part of each other’s lives and stories. Tom, the more traditional one, becomes a famous author. Alvin, the more eccentric one, stays in the small town running his father’s bookstore. The book and the lyrics are structured around the stories of their time together, and separate and how their young lives cast long shadows on their maturity. It ended up being very moving for me as it rang all sorts of personal chords. How do you compose an obituary for someone who is the other half of your story? (I’ve had to do that twice). Why is it necessary to tell our stories and what do they mean to us? (Which is I suppose what I’ve been doing with my infamous long posts over the last eighteen months). What is the process of writing and what do books mean? (A big question for me who has always been affected by tsondoku (google it if you don’t already know what it means)).
The performances were superb. (I could never handle a two person musical. We’ll see if I can handle a two person play this spring). Tam DeBolt‘s direction and Sam Tumminello‘s music direction were both spot on. I just wish the score had been a bit stronger. Way too much was cribbed from better pieces – mainly Sondheim (a lot of Sunday in the Park and Pacific Overtures) but also Stephen Schwartz (with a big ballad straight out of Meadowlark). It will have a long shelf life as it’s a showcase for two strong male talents that has minimal technical requirements. If you’re in town and free either this weekend or next, by all means go.
I kept tearing up at odd times, not at the moments that script and score was telegraphing, but at quiet things where two male characters were just comfortable with each other and enjoying each others company. I think it’s because it would bring on flashes of times spent with Steve or Tommy or maybe with a number of other close platonic male friends I’ve had over the years. I don’t really have one of those at the moment and really haven’t since Thurston Howell III moved to South Carolina and I think my psyche misses having someone around to fill that role.
Today, October 11, is National Coming Out Day. The first one was in 1988, just before I officially came out. I think I was aware that it was happening and I was, at the time, grappling mightily with whom I was. I had moved to Sacramento to start my internship the previous June and, with being, in a new city, was dabbling with dating men. At the time, I was hopelessly smitten with a man I had met in New York City a year or so earlier but whom I had recognized as a pathologic personality. I had sent him packing, but we had corresponded some by mail and then, in that October, he had suddenly turned up in Sacramento on a Greyhound bus. When i did not welcome him with open arms, he immediately joined the navy, washed out of basic training within a month,and then turned up on my doorstep again around Thanksgiving. I ultimately bought him a bus ticket back to NYC after his pathologies continued to rear their ugly heads and never saw him again. (He did pop back into my life briefly several decades later looking for money. To date, I think he’s the only person I’ve ever had to block from my Facebook. Some things never change.)
By the new year, after that whole experience, I was emotionally exhausted, confused, starting to come out socially but still firmly closeted at work, and in the middle of internship in an era before the rules on work hours took effect. Not a good combination. In short, I was a mess. That is how Steve found me when we met in February and his force of nature personality helped free my emotional self and allowed me to put all the pieces in place to live an authentic life as an out gay man. By the second national coming out day on October 11, 1989, we were a couple, I was out in every facet of my life and finally on my way to becoming a whole adult. I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I had not met Steve and I shudder.
One of my biggest problems regarding my coming out process was a significant lack of role models. In the late 70s disco era of my high school years, I was aware of gay society in Seattle and where to find it on Capitol Hill but it was full of, to me, much older men who were only interested in superficial things. There was no one, to my knowledge, at my high school or in my group of friends who was LGBTQ or whom I could confide my confused feelings about such things. College wasn’t much better – there were gay men involved in theater but I had this studious double science major side to me that didn’t gibe with them particularly and then, being in the SF Bay area at the beginnings of the HIV epidemic, really clamped down my feelings further.
Medical education comes with an enormous unwritten curriculum about what a doctor is and should be. Everything you do is scrutinized as the system tries to mold you into a certain type. I don’t cotton well to such treatment and rebelled in lots of little ways. This led me to a lot of unhappiness (and the worst depression of my adult life – there was a time in my third year when I could barely get out of bed) med school sponsored therapy sessions with a very nice counselor (with whom I never mentioned my sexuality – I wonder if he guessed that was the elephant in the room), and a feeling that if I wanted to be a success in my chosen career field, I would need to remain closeted. Or, if I should happen to come out, I would have to go into HIV medicine – that was seen in the late 80s as the only really acceptable choice for openly gay men. Residency, when I got there, wasn’t much better. There were a few faculty I suspected were LGBTQ but they were firmly closeted.
Then, everything changed. The early 90s brought new visibility. I came out. Several med students arrived who were open from the get go. A faculty member friend came out. I wasn’t alone. I had Steve at home who believed in me. I fell into the correct career path. I no longer hid who I was, I decided to live a complete and authentic life and let the chips fall where they may. I’ve lost out on career opportunities as a gay man that a straight man would have been offered and, especially early in my career, I realized I would have to be twice as good to receive half the credit, but the ability to live and breathe and just be one flawed but striving human being has more than made up for that. These days, when I am lecturing to med students, I’ll usually casually drop in a reference to the fact that I’m a gay man. I think it’s important for them to hear that. And I know there’s a student out there who needs to know he or she will be successful despite what they are feeling about themselves. If I’d had role models and encouragement in my early training, life might have turned out different but it’s meant that in a lot of ways I am one of the pioneers of out gay medical faculty and maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.