November 24, 2018

Dateline: Birmingham, Alabama-

Just a quick update to let everyone know I have safely returned from the Pacific Northwest. As it’s about a ten hour journey, there hasn’t been time for anything else today besides travel. I don’t mind distance travel. Wedge me in a window seat and leave me alone for hours and I’m good. This round trip gave me the time to read Erik Larsson’s In the Garden of Beasts about the early days of Hitler’s rise to power from the perspective of the then American ambassador to Germany and his somewhat free spirited daughter. I enjoyed it, but it’s not as good as his Devil in the White City from some years ago. I also watched a bunch of films on the in flight entertainment system so I suppose that means I have to write some new columns. The one that had personal meaning was Lady Bird about high schoolers in Sacramento in the early 2000s. Sacramento is very much a character in the film and it was fun recognizing so many of the locations such as the McKinley Park rose garden which was about five blocks from my and Steve’s house.

I’ve decided to do as little as possible the rest of the weekend. I haven’t had veg time for a while. I do have a dinner appointment with friends tomorrow but other than that I shall lounge around in my Harry Potter sleep pants and an old t-shirt watching Netflix, playing Xbox and eating unbalanced meals. Then three more weeks of work before the big vacation. I probably won’t write a lot during that time, but you never know. The oddest things set me off…

November 23, 2018

The American Branch of the Saunders clan – my generation. Early 1990s. From Left – Jenny Hellmann, Jeannie Duxbury Rae, Tom Hellmann, Jack Hellmann, Alec Duxbury with me in front

Dateline: Seattle, Washington-

I didn’t write last night as I was somewhat languorous after a fine Thanksgiving meal and wasn’t up to much afterwards other than drifting off to sleep to digest. It’s been a very structured couple of days. Yesterday was devoted to catching up on some work work in the afternoon and then the gathering of the clan in the evening. Today was devoted to some family catching up and my taking advantage of Black Friday to do the Christmas shopping for the family while I am here and get it wrapped and assembled into a gift basket so it’s over and done with and I don’t need to worry about it at all in December.

Tommy and I tried to make either Thanksgiving or Christmas up here over the years as those are the two important festivals at which the clan, also known as the American branch of the Saunders family, gets together. We missed both last year and this was, of course, my first one of these festivities since his death. In general, we had had more luck with Thanksgiving than Christmas in recent years. Considering that Christmas at our house the last five years or so consisted of Tommy wigging the Red Mountain Holiday Spectacular which would go into tech Thanksgiving weekend and usually required about 80 wigs, Opera Birmingham’s holiday performance which he would organize, do the set for and cater, singing the Messiah with the Alabama Symphony, prepare the kids at church for the annual pageant and create the props and costumes, Christmas Eve service at the church which he would lead the singing, cook dinner for the fifteen members of his family for Christmas eve, and prepare food for 200 for our annual holiday open house. My jobs were decorating the house including all of the trees, doing the Christmas shopping for both families, and running beyond Tommy and keeping him sane and on task. (And people wonder why I’m not doing the holidays at all this year…)

Frederick Anastatius Saunders, my great grandfather, was one of the younger sons of a huge Victorian family from Peckham, outside of London, trained as physician and ended up in practice in Scotland in the town of Crail, near Edinburgh, When his first wife developed TB of the spine, he moved her and their young children to South Africa for the salubrious climate. She died anyway and he went back to Scotland, quickly found a suitable candidate for wife number two and so my great grandmother, Lucy Meiklejohn, set sail from Edinburgh to Grahamstown South Africa in 1891 to marry him. We know a great deal about those events as Lucy kept the letters sent to her monthly by her mother Jane Cussans Meiklejohn full of family news and they survived to come to my mother who transcribed them all and they are a wonderful window into late Victorian/Edwardian family life.

Me with the only non-American member of the Saunders clan I have ever met, my second cousin Helen Lawlor deVillers and her husband Jonathan deVillers. San Francisco 1989

Fredrick and Lucy produced five surviving children including three sons who had families of their own. Reginald Saunders stayed in South Africa but his children and grandchildren have emigrated to the UK, Australia, and elsewhere. Philip Saunders emigrated to Canada. My grandfather John Saunders, along with his wife Alison Jean Maxwell-Wood, emigrated to the US ending up in San Francisco where they raised two daughters, my mother Alison and my aunt Margery. After they grew up, both marrying academics, the two sisters lived in various placed but, starting in the late 1960s, both ended up in Seattle as both of their husbands had faculty positions at the University of Washington. With three children each, the American branch of the Saunders clan took shape under their married names of Duxbury and Hellmann.

Thanksgiving and Christmas alternated between households with a set, traditional menu, inherited from my Saunders grandparents who would come up from San Francisco as often as they could. Turkey, with a green olive/bread dressing and garnished with sausages, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, bread sauce (a very British condiment), a green vegetable (which was allowed to vary some) and, for the Christmas meal only, flaming plum pudding with hard sauce. The meal and the traditions remained immutable and unchanging for decades. As my generation grew up, married, reproduced, and dragged additional family members into the circle, it changed somewhat. I first brought Tommy to one of these feasts at Thanksgiving, 2003. We had been in Los Angeles for some reason. (I think I had some meetings or maybe they were his meetings? I no longer remember) but we added a few days to the business trip, went to Disney together for the first time, and flew up to Seattle and back for a couple of days. I recall telling him about the idiosyncracies of the family meal but I don’t think I did a very good job as he came in expecting a turkey stuffed with whole green olives and festooned with ropes of sausages, which is not what we do. He teased me about it for years.

My father’s senior community is very conveniently located a block from a major shopping mall so I walked over this morning expecting huge Black Friday crowds. It wasn’t more crowded than a usual weekend which does not bode well for the retail season. I took an hour to wander and look at things, then decided it was to be an appropriate book for everyone and headed for the Barnes and Noble and knocked out the shopping in an hour or so. I like books as gifts. They last, they give pleasure, and they’re easy to wrap. Tommy, who had inherited the gay gene that allows one to take some tissue paper, old toilet paper rolls, and a box of Crayolas and emerge after an hour with a parade float, was very fond of gift baskets and he would create these elaborate confections of presents, ribbon, ornaments and clear cellophane every year. I, who did not get that gene, managed to learn just enough to be able to put together one basket for the family as long as the contents are fairly regularly shaped and that is now assembled and staring at me from across my father’s apartment.

I had lunch with my cousin Jenny. She is the closest to me in age and in temperament of the six Saunders descendants in my generation. She is two years younger than I, but was only a year behind me in school as she skipped a grade and we went to high school together and she then followed me to Stanford. We’ve always been very close and pick up just where we left off, no matter how long it has been since we last saw each other. Her life, like mine, has been marred by a certain amount of tragedy and we know we have always had each others backs since toddlerhood. She’s an attorney, but much prefers teaching art so just does the legal work to pay the bills and does her art the rest of the time. We are also physically very alike and we’ve joked for decades that we should play Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night. (I actually did end up playing Sebastian for Park Players back in 2005 but, alas, she was in Seattle at the time). We’re probably a bit long in the tooth for it now.

Dinner tonight was en famille with my brother, sister-in-law and nieces. (My sister and her boyfriend having departed today for a week in New York). My sister-in-law, Sally, is the founder of Oiselle, a company that makes women’s running apparel so we went and toured her first store after dinner. I bought a little something for my female running colleagues, The Geriots of Fire. Now, I am reflecting on family, tradition, fifty some years of Saunders genome in the Pacific Northwest, and preparing to go to bed early as I have to get up at some ridiculous hour to get to Sea-Tac and catch my morning flight back to Dixie.

November 21, 2018

Family at Christmas – early 1990s. My parents stage left standing

Dateline: Seattle, Washington-

I started to write my usual musings last night, but fell asleep after just a couple of words, so I’m returning to the task this afternoon. Not a lot of excitement either yesterday or today. Hanging out at the senior living residence with my father, some visits to my mother at her care home. Dad is in decent shape for his 86 years. Mom remains in late stage dementia from what I presume to be a genetic variant of Pick’s disease. She was pretty unresponsive yesterday, but was more awake this morning and smiled a few times and definitely enjoyed her M&M cookies and coffee.

Seattle has been cool and gray, low lying fog in the mornings, a mix of intermittent sunshine and drizzle in the afternoons. In other words, typical weather for the time of year. The big freeze that was promised has yet to arrive so I’m fine with just my polar fleece that I break out for my visits to the Pacific Northwest. One does want to dress like the natives…

I took some time yesterday to look about the city. Hasn’t changed a lot since my last visit in the spring. The enormous rebuilding south of Lake Union courtesy of Amazon continues at a prodigious speed and I have so far stayed out of that part of town as I have no idea how they’ve redone the streets. It’s not like I have a particular reason to go there.

It’s been thirty years since I last lived in Seattle. When I moved away in 1988, I always assumed I would be back once the career was established, but life, as it often does, has other plans and I’m not sure that I will ever return to live. I can’t afford it. The amount of money I could sell my historic Forest Park home for might buy me a garage on the local real estate market.

I’ve been thinking of my best friend from my medical school years a lot the last few days. My usual pattern in life is to usually have a straight male best friend who gets me and in whom I can confide. (Some of you reading this may recognize yourselves in that role…) From 1985 through 1988, that part of my life was filled by Jan Zabel.

Jan and Teresa Mosteller – I have no idea what they’re studying so intently

I had spent my first year of medical school in Pullman, Washington (about as far from Seattle as you can get and still be in the state) and moved back to Seattle when that year was over. There were a couple of months between the end of the first and the beginning of the second year and I spent some time finding an apartment, getting settled for the next few years and, after having taken a year off, getting reinvolved with theater. There was a company in town, Evergreen Theater Conservatory (founded from the remains of a previous company MusiComedy that had gone belly up) which was starting up production in an old warehouse space on Capitol Hill. They took me on as ASM/props for their first show, Brigadoon. I was working auditions when Jan came in to sing. I don’t remember what song he sang but he had this full, rich lyric tenor that made you stop what you were doing and listen to it.

He was, of course, cast, and we got to know each other over the rehearsal period and five weeks of the run. We liked each other a lot, found that we had much in common, and quickly started to spend a lot of time together. Over the next three years, we were involved in various theater productions, became an axis of the musical theater community in Seattle of the mid 80s and planned all the usual great plans of 20 somethings. He found a girlfriend and there were parties and shows and movie nights and all the other things that young adults busy themselves with.

Steve, Sue Mitchell, Jan and Barry Roitblat

When I moved away to California and then met Steve, things changed. For one, Steve was very suspicious of our emotional relationship and the two of them had a huge fight (much to my discomfiture) but it was probably a necessary thing. They made up a few months later and we all stayed friends but the intimacy between me and Jan was no longer there, having been quite rightly transferred to Steve. Jan broke up with the original girlfriend, found a new one, eventually married her and the two of them together founded an educational program in children’s music.

During my California years, Steve and I would come up to Seattle a few times a year and we would all get together and catch up with each other. Then all hell broke loose at UC Davis and I ended up in exile in Alabama followed shortly thereafter by Steve’s illness. This one two curtailed my ability to travel and I was unable to get to Seattle for several years.

During that time, Jan’s life fell apart. His marriage ended and he spiraled into depression and poverty. We would talk on the phone occasionally, I dumping my sorrows about coping with Steve and his illness, he with the latest on his collapsing life. After Steve died and I was finally able to travel again, I made it to Seattle and Jan and I had lunch. I had not seen him for four or five years at this point and the stress in his life had so changed him physically I don’t know that I would have recognized him out of context. The one thing that had not changed was his gorgeous voice. We talked. He was renting a room from a woman whom he had become friendly with and, as she was Greek, they were talking about starting up an import business.

Six weeks later, after I had returned to Birmingham, I got a call from my cousin Jenny. Jan was dead. His landlady’s son, thinking that Jan was somehow trying to scam his mother, had shot him in the house, carried him out to the car in broad daylight and stuffed him in the trunk and driven off. The neighbors had of course seen this and called the police who soon stopped the car. Jan was still alive in the trunk but died later in the hospital of his wounds. To this day, his loss so hard upon the loss of Steve, stirs up emotional stuff. And I can’t hear some standards sung (especially As Time Goes By which was his usual piano bar number) without immediately hearing his voice.

November 20, 2018

My siblings – more years ago than I care to count…

Dateline: Seattle, Washington-

Got up at the usual time this morning, through things out of the suitcase from the quick South Carolina trip and repacked it with some heavier clothes for the Pacific Northwest. I may need to make a trip to the mall for some long johns before the week is over as the weather report is now suggesting arctic air may descend on us by Thursday and I didn’t bring a lot of wool and down. I’ve lived in much more southerly latitudes the last thirty years and most of those items have long since left my wardrobe.

The trip, consisting of planes, trains, and automobiles, was uneventful. All the flights were on time. The luggage did not get lost (which has happened repeatedly on flights to Seattle in the past). The airports were not yet overly crowded. I knew there was a reason I flew on Monday rather than Wednesday. The biggest issue is the inching together of the seats in economy so that I now have to stick my knees up my nose in order to fit in my own little corner. I usually sit in the window seat so I don’t have to get up but with the contortions I now have to undergo, at the end of a five hour flight, my knees are incredibly sore and they may take a day or two to come back to their usual baseline.

They have finished the light rail from the airport into town. When the northern line is finished, I’ll be able to take it to within a block and a half of my father’s senior living facility, but it still dead ends at Husky stadium. My brother met me there and took me the last leg and we got to start catching up with each other. I spent a little time with my father, Alyn C Duxbury, then went over to my sister’s house to spend time with her, her boyfriend and her biological mother Jennifer Chapman. My sister was adopted, reunited with her birth parents twenty years or so ago and, in the manner that my family operates, they’ve been pulled into the family circle along with the rest of the motley crew and it’s always good to see them. I first met my sister Jeannie’s birth parents at her wedding in the summer of 1999. The marriage didn’t last, but the expanded family has.

I don’t think I’ve written a lot about my siblings. We love each other, we’re friends, but we’re all very different sorts of adults, each marching to a different drummer. I’m five years older than my sister and six years older than my brother so I was in a different generation of kid-dom from them and I was out of the house when they were in middle school. Of the three, I’m the academic, my sister the artist, and my brother the athlete although we cross pollinate in various ways. They also call me things that no one else in the family uses. My sister calls me Drew and my brother calls me Buzz. The origins of this come from when they were around four or five years old. They decided one day that it would be incredibly funny if Andrew became Androopy and, as they saw it irked ten year old me, they kept at it. My sister shortened it to Droopy which ultimately became the more normal Drew. My brother, the future English teacher, showed quite the way with etymology as he somehow changed Androopy to Buzzoopy which he ultimately shortened to Buzz. Neither one ever caught on beyond the sibling that created it.

Now, as my knees hurt, and I’ve been traveling all day, I’m going to sign off and find some bad television before falling asleep. More tomorrow.

November 18, 2018

Dateline: Birmingham, Alabama –

I must have felt safe and comfortable at Frank and Laurel‘s house last night as I slept for more than ten hours and could easily have slept a few more if I had tried. Given the fact that I am in general having trouble sleeping more than six these days, my relaxed physiology is the greatest compliment I could give to my hosts. As it was after noon by the time I was up, moving and breakfasted, there wasn’t much else to do with the day as I had the six and a half hour drive back to Birmingham to contend with.

My initial plan was to stop in Atlanta for dinner with an old friend, but those plans were derailed by a sick horse (a long and tangential story which does not bear repeating here…) so dinner ended up being fast food Bojangles fried chicken near the Pilot Truck Stop outside of Carrolton, Georgia. Bojangles always reminds me of Tommy. He was very fond of it and when he didn’t feel like cooking, I would often pick up a Bo-box on the way home. The one thing of theirs he could not stand was their iced tea. He was always very particular about that beverage. He drank it unsweet, unusual in a southerner, but had very definite feelings as to how it should taste. Tommy was one of the 1/1000 people known as a super taster. Their taste buds are wired differently than most and they can pick up very subtle flavors and combinations that most of us cannot imagine. In addition, Tommy was a synasthete with crossed taste and visual senses. Tastes had color and, when he was cooking, you could often hear him muttering things like ‘this tastes too brown’ and then the spice and herb jars would start flying. We always had a big spice cupboard, but once he discovered Penzey’s Spices in Homewood, he laid in enough to be able to season anything and everything.

I got back about 8 pm and got the suitcase ready to pack again in the morning after doing some laundry and taking care of the cats. I don’t think the cats had even noticed my absence. They’re like that. As long as the litter box stays scooped and there’s kibble in the feeder, they’re content. Up tomorrow to catch the plane to Seattle. As it’s Monday of Thanksgiving week, it shouldn’t be too horrible a trip. Looking forward to some family time.

I’ll start thinking of some stories to tell and get a couple of columns written while I’m on the West Coast.

November 17, 2018

Here we go again…

Dateline: Columbia, South Carolina-

Ten minutes after leaving Oxford this morning, I ran into another massive slow down on I-20. I had visions of a repeat of yesterday’s adventure, but fortunately this was due to garden variety construction work and it cleared up after a couple of miles. The rest of the drive was uneventful. Other than passing through the middle of Atlanta- navigating that freeway system is always a joy what with six million people living on infrastructure built for two million.

The purpose of this trip is a visit to old friend Frank Thompson and his lovely wife Laurel Posey. He’s been busy with a production of Mamma Mia! that he directed and in which he plays Sam (the Pierce Brosnan part). About an hour outside of Columbia, I get a text from him that the actor playing Bill (the Stellan Skarsgard role) has been unwell and, in looking at all his options, he wondered if I might be able to step in, book in hand. I have visions of the actors nightmare come to life but fortunately, William Arvay was well enough to perform so I could relax a bit. Chatted for a bit and then Frank, Ripley Thames, and I headed for Camden SC and the Kennesaw County Fine Arts Center.

I enjoyed the show and post show drinks with cast and crew at a local watering hole before heading back to Columbia for more conversation. All the usual topics of chatter: memories of shows past, dissection of show present, dreaming of shows future. It’s been decided that I need to play the John Lithgow role in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I’m available if someone will produce it.

No story tonight as it’s two in the morning and I’m tired and typing on my phone which I still find somewhat difficult.

November 16, 2018

Evacuating Hurricane Gustav

Dateline: Oxford, Alabama-

Time to pick up the travelogue as I will be doing the planes, trains, and automobiles thing for the next week or so. I’m not off to the most auspicious start. I left Birmingham last night late after my concert planning on spending the night in Atlanta somewhere. However, a major traffic accident that completely shut down I-20 East bound had other plans and, after something over three hours when I had only made it as far as Talladega, I decided to give up, call it a night and stay at the next available Hampton Inn which happened to be here in Oxford. Hampton Inn is my go to when I’m on the road. It’s left over from all my trips to rural West Virginia and Kentucky where it was the nicest hotel in town so I’ve been racking up the Hilton points for decades. I figure I have enough for a free stay at some posh Hilton in some world capital one of these days.

As I was sitting there in stop and go traffic, I couldn’t help but think of the hellacious traffic that must have existed as people tried to get out of Paradise, California last week. I lived for ten years in Sacramento when I was in my 20s and 30s and so I’m familiar with the gold rush towns of the Sierra Foothills and the roads in and out. I don’t think Alabamians have a clue as to how big a small town it was. Paradise was roughly five times the size of Jasper, the closest mountain town to Birmingham that would be an equivalent. (For the Seattle folks, five times the size of North Bend). I spend a good portion of my professional time these days doing rural house calls for the VA. Between that and all my years with the mine workers in and out of small town Appalachia, I have a pretty good picture of who lives in these areas. They are full of people with poor health, limited mobility, and straitened financial circumstance who cannot afford to live anywhere else. The ultimate death toll is likely to be in the hundreds.

I’m writing this on Saturday morning as I was in no mood to write last night after idling on the interstate for hours. It did bring my one and only experience with mass evacuation to mind. The year was 2008. Tommy and I, as we often did, decided to go to New Orleans for Labor Day Weekend. Labor Day Weekend in NOLA hosts a large festival for gay men known as Southern Decadence. Cheap drinks, street parties, lots of eye candy, a parade, and more. We arrived on Friday night, only to find out that Hurricane Gustav, which had been idling out in the gulf, was heading towards town. It was only three years after Katrina so everyone was on edge and the powers that be decided to close all the hotels as of Saturday at noon. Having just got there, we decided not to immediately head back (as the earliest landfall was predicted was early Monday morning) but rather to enjoy our Saturday as planned (and we had a place we could crash on Saturday night). Then, on Sunday morning, as we were finishing up brunch, the mandatory evacuation order for NOLA went out. Ah well, time to head home anyway and we had a full tank of gas. A little caravan of Birmingham friends headed off together for I-10 east bound across Lake Ponchartrain and then up I-59 through Mississippi. Unfortunately, we were joined by the entire population of the greater NOLA area. Even though all six lanes of the freeway were directed outbound, traffic came to a dead stop by the time we hit the Ponchartrain bridge and continued at a slow crawl through Slidell, Hattiesburg, Laurel. We eventually gave up and decided to try some back roads and became hopelessly lost for a while in the wilds of rural Mississippi. Sometime after midnight, we found I-20 near Meridian and were able to make it home. The trip which is usually between five and six hours had taken eighteen.

What I remember most vividly about the trip, other than Tommy and I sniping at each other out of boredom and because we had finished all the audiobooks we’d brought (pre downloading from Audible), was the relative good humor of all the evacuees. I didn’t see a lot of impatience or road rage. I also recall images of cars full of chronically ill and infirm people. We carry a hidden population of those who can’t do well for themselves in this society and we aren’t very good about helping them out in crisis situations. I wonder sometimes what sort of impact the inevitable aging and decline of the boomer is going to have on this particular piece of public policy. It’s a generation that has demanded and gotten what it’s wanted because of it’s size and demographic placement. Things are going to get awfully interesting starting in the 2030s when they hit their mid 80s. I should be retiring in the nick of time. God help my younger colleagues.