Monday, October 19, 2015

Honey Psalm

Reverence for the Lord is pure,
lasting forever.
The laws of the Lord are true;
each one is fair.
They are more desirable than gold,
even the finest gold.
They are sweeter than honey,
even honey dripping from the comb.
~Psalm 19: 9-10

Blessing pouring over me,
Warm and heavy,
The rich, amber thickness on my skin and hair,
More abundant than any vessle can contain.

From his own body flows the golden sweeness that encloses me,

Filling my mouth
Drop by drop on my tongue.
Whispering love, light, life,
A winter fire.

He has opened his storehouse to me;
I will never lack again.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Week of Comings and Goings

Survivors, Warriors, Victors
Graduation Time

While many of my friends were sending their children back to school, we at LIVESTRONG at the YMCA were celebrating our participants return out into the world. For twelve weeks, they laughed together, sweated together, wept together, and worked toward the day when each could look back at the accomplishments and say with pride, "I did that." I love this program. Everyone who has ever had cancer should have the chance to be a part of it. (If you are so moved, I invite you to support out work using the form on the right.)

The Value of Names

For some time, it was a source of embarrassment, and even shame to me that I did not know the names of most of the people in the classes I teach at the Y. I mean, I have seen some of them four or five times a week for almost three years now. It just feels disrespectful to me to see someone so often and have to call them, "Buddy," or "Sister," or "Sugar," (you might not want to use that one north of the Mason-Dixon, by the way.) So this summer, I decided it was  time to make a change. Every class begins and ends with the ritual Remembering of the Names. The participants are amazingly good sports about it. We always share a smile when I get them right, especially when we're outside the pool. ("I hardly recognize you with your clothes on!") An unexpected side benefit is that they are learning each others' names, too. It's a little thing, and it isn't the same as actually knowing a person, but it's a start.

Wellllll... Yes, and no...
Love and Hope

Someone who has been a faithful friend to me for a long time, and has had a stormy voyage on the seas of love has finally found safe harbor. Seeing their happiness gives me joy and hope for my own future. Love is always possible. And it is never too late.

On the Other Hand...

You know that book where Colonel Brandon just hangs around for years, being a great guy until Marianne realizes that he is her soul-mate? Turns out that just showing up in a real woman's life every few months makes her feel really uncomfortable and creepy. And so ends the career of an unintentional, well-meaning stalker. Sometimes it's just better to smile, say thank you, and move along. (different lady, by the way. I'm not that creepy.)

Should have studied harder...
Good News and Bad News

Experienced the double edged sword of negative test results from my sleep study last week. Turns out that I'm actually quite good at sleeping. I move a little more than usual, but am well withing normal ranges as far as breathing, snoring, alpha waves, and REM sleep. So while I was glad to learn that I won't have to wear a CPAP machine for the rest of my life, I got to hear the unsettling news from the doc: "I have no explanation for your excessive fatigue." Sometimes, even bad news is better than no news. So it's back to the drawing board.

Over Fifty Singles
Birds of a Ruffled Feather

I am part of several special communities: show folks; cancer folks; depressed and bipolar folks. Our common struggle helps us find our own strength. Well, I find I am part of yet another tribe: divorced folks. Being over fifty and single can feel like you've been dropped onto another planet where the inhabitants are all strange creatures who are at once suspicious and fearful of one another. Nothing works the way it did when you were dating in your twenties. I am finding friends and even, Lord, help me, a "singles group," where we aren't on the make, just hanging out together, learning how to be whole people again. When I was first alone, I thought life would never feel real again until I'd found someone to hug and kiss and share breakfast with. But I'm starting to think that there it might be a good thing to spend some time becoming a person I can love instead. Sounds profound? Trust me, it's a work in progress.

Just Keep Learning

The first half of my year was dedicated to professional development. I read, traveled, took classes, and earned certifications that have made me a better qualified, (and better paid,) teacher and fitness trainer. For the rest of 2015, I am investing in my artistic life. When I was 10 years old I started singing in church, "impressing the grown-ups." Unfortunately, the ego boost turned into a kind of neurotic arrogance that refused to accept any criticism of my voice. I had several teachers who tried to help me, but I always balked, terrified that this one thing I did really well might not be perfect. But life is the best teacher of all. If you can get to your fifty-fifth birthday without learning humility, you have wasted your life. So, I have found a vocal teacher. After all those years, I am finally learning to sing. I don't know how this will turn out. Maybe I'll never be good enough to impress anyone but the people in the pew in front of me at church. But who knows? If I can become a marathoner and an aerobics teacher, there's no telling what other surprises I might have inside me.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Let it Go... Let it Be...

Just a quick thought: I have never been able to wrap my mind around the idea of "let it go," when something bad happens (whether in real life, or in my imagination.) But what if I change that to "let it be?" Let the pain be what it is. Sadness. Loss. Grief. Hearts take time to heal, and nothing I can do will make that happen any faster. But sadness can not keep me from living a life that is meaningful and fulfilling. I can let it be what it is: a temporary emotional state. It will pass, like traffic on the highway or water in the river, and some new feeling will take its place. I have never been any good at letting go of hurt. But maybe I can let it be, and bring it with me as I live a life that is about the things that matter to me.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Pennsy's Night in the Sleep Lab

I won't say I was tearful, but I was pretty agitated.
"It's been five years since my cancer treatment, Doc, and I'm still so tired all the time. I can't work for four hours without going home to nap. By Thursday, I'm out of gas. I wouldn't even try to balance my checkbook on a Friday. I can run a marathon! There's got to be a way for me to work a 40 hour week again."
She nodded sympathetically and maybe a little bit wearily. "So many people come in saying they are tired. And the truth is, we really don't know why. But the best place to start is with a sleep study."

If she had said that the best place to start was by plunging needles under my fingernails and setting them on fire, I would have seriously considered it. I'm a little desperate.  I have big plans for my life. I want to act more. I want to teach more classes and do more personal training. I want to get off of disability insurance, and stand on my own feet. And most of all, I want to get a full-time job at the Y. And I can't do any of those things if I can't stay awake for a normal work day.

Ever since my treatment ended, my surgeon had been asking if I thought I might have sleep apnea: the condition that makes a person stop breathing and wake up smothering several times a night. It can have lots of causes: overweight, drinking too much, high blood pressure, bombarding the muscles in your neck with toxic doses of radiation. I was a likely candidate. So, after my last class finished at 8:00, I drove over to the sleep lab.

The building is only a sleep lab at night. During the day, it is the receiving area where you go to wait to be escorted to the big, radioactive trailer where they do the PET/CT scans. Yes, I had been here before. I sat in the parking lot for a while, waiting for my 9:00 appointment. Taking in the creepy coincidence. Preparing to sleep for science. Would I be self-conscious? Would the instruments annoy and keep me awake? Would the nurse be weird and give me strange dreams? I really didn't know what I was walking into as I approached the door and rang the buzzer.

A pleasant, apple faced young woman whose name tag said she was "Kimberly" popped into the lobby and opened the door with a smile; a little too quickly, I thought. One might be slightly more cautious about who you let into a place where people were essentially wired down to beds all night long. I told her my name, and she greeted me. Kimberly showed me to my room, a small, pleasantly dim little nook with a closet, a bathroom and shower, and a Tempur-Pedic bed. There was also a TV with a DVR player overhead. I wondered if that would help me sleep, or keep me awake all night. I decided to ignore it.

Kimberly told me she had another study start across the hall. I should relax for about 30 minutes, and try not to fall asleep. I changed into my pajamas, and tried to check Facebook, but got no signal for my phone. It occurred to me that this might be a real plus. No playing Words with Friends until 1:30 in the morning. Kimberly tapped on the door, bringing me a glass of water. I gulped down my pills, finished the drink, and started thinking about what would happen if I had to pee with electrodes and straps all over my body. I took a couple of quick trips to the bathroom while I waited for her to return.

The room was silent. the only movement was the turning of the ceiling fan over the bed. It chilled me in the air conditioned dimness as I tucked the blankets up under my chin and started to read. I'm working on a book that a friend recommended, and haven't really gotten into it, but knowing that I had half an hour to kill helped me to stay engaged. I noticed that the story was a lot better than it had seemed before. I also noticed myself becoming more calm and relaxed.

Finally, the time came to connect me. Kimberly eased back on the AC a little and the temp rose to a more comfortable level. She asked if I would be sleeping with our without my shirt, (no need for a hospital gown,) and I said I'd just as soon leave my shirt on, if that was OK. She was fine with that and we chatted softly as she placed pads on my legs, my chest and back, my scalp. There was a weird contraption like the cannula on an oxygen tank that went around my head and up my nose. She knew the surgeon who had discovered my cancer, and we discussed his reputation and bedside manner. She asked me about my cancer, and about my work at the Y. I was very much at ease in her hands, and when she was finished, I laid down on the bed, signed some papers, and she plugged me in to the wall. Kimberly explained that if I had to get out of bed during the night, I should buzz for her so she could help me get the whole rig to the bathroom. I assured her she would be hearing from me several times. Finally, she turned out the light and said she would be talking to me for a moment over the intercom, just to make sure everything was connected properly.

There in the silent darkness, I noticed a circle of red lights, near the ceiling across from the bed. It was an infra-red camera. Yes, Kimberly would be recording a video of me for the next few hours. I was glad I had decided to change clothes in the bathroom, and wondered if there was a second camera in there. After a few seconds, I heard her voice in the dark. She asked me to hold my eyes open, which I did with some effort. I was already getting pretty sleepy. She asked me to look to the left and right, up and down, blink 10 times quickly, hold my breath for ten seconds, and move my legs. Then she said good night and I was alone.

Silence. Darkness. No Netflix. No email. No texts or Facebook messages asking "Who's awake?" I closed my eyes and practiced mindful breathing, my mind's eye drifting gently from image to image. Friends I loved. People in my classes. Women I had dated or wanted to date. I don't know how long I lay there in the dark, but if it was 5 minutes, I would be shocked. Several times in the night, I remember vague awareness of having things stuck to my fact and hair. Once I felt a little warm, and kicked the blanket off of one foot. But I never tossed or turned. I never needed to use the bathroom. When Kimberly greeted me with a gentle "Good Morning," at 5:30, I was in the same position I had been when I fell asleep.

She asked me to step over to the chair so she could unplug me, then warned me that there would be lots of stickum on my skin and hair. Letting the hot water flow over me in the shower would take care of that in no time. She gave me a clipboard with two questionnaires to fill out, then left me to change. One of the forms asked how I slept and how I felt now. I slept wonderfully, but I felt pretty groggy. I had to re-read most of the simple questions several times before I understood them. Of course, I hadn't had any coffee yet. The other asked about my experience at the lab, which was stellar. There was no mistaking it for a hotel room, but it was certainly more comfortable than any hospital room I'd ever been in. I dressed, and after a lengthy search for the large, clearly marked box in the lobby, I deposited my paperwork into the slot and made my way to the car. I went directly to Starbucks, then home where I had another cup of coffee, then fell back to sleep for another two hours.

Kimberly explained before the study began that she would not be telling me anything about the data or what she saw during the night. That is the doctor's job. So I'll be waiting for a while before I know what they found out. But I do hope they learned something that will help me to have more energy and stamina during the day.

After all, I have big plans.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Long, Last Look Down 42nd Street

Are you auditioning for 42nd STREET?
Audition? Seriously? Don't you know who I am?
 My friend encouraged me to take a shot. 
"I don't tap dance," I replied. 
"Abner doesn't dance," she answered, recognizing a lame excuse when she heard one. 
"They are auditioning Equity talent all over the country. They are not going to hire a local actor for a principle role. Besides, I'm tired. I need a break. No, I won't be auditioning for 42nd STREET."

Had I been honest, I would have admitted that I was intimidated as hell. On the community and semi-pro stages of Lexington, I was a big shot. Now there would be real pros in town: people who had paid their dues, not given up on their dreams like I had done. Auditioning for these companies would mean competing with artists who had been honing their craft for thirty or forty years. Bottom line? I was scared.

I told myself I was a serious actor, not some song and dance doofus who mugged and chirped for the crowd. I was King Lear. I was freaking Frankenstein's monster. So I stirred some arrogance into my cowardly stew and skipped the Lexington auditions.That decision, but for the grace of God and a couple of Guardian Angels, could have turned out to be my biggest mistake in a long, long time.
My Guardian Angels

Angels with a Dream
Jeromy and Lyndy Franklin Smith worked for years to bring  locally produced, professional musical theatre to Lexington. I met them ever so briefly last year when I was featured in the opening number of a musical review at the University of Kentucky called A Grand Night for Singing. They impressed me with their professional demeanor, their creative partnership, and their joyful spirit. Still, when Lyndy reached out to ask if I was interested in reading for the role of Abner, (yep, same role my friend had suggested) I was shocked. They had already been to audition sites all over the country. Now they wanted to see me, the clumsy actor who couldn't hold a candle to legitimate, trained singers, and couldn't even remember the dumbed down choreography they came up with for me. But for some reason, they believed in me. I auditioned. They hired me. And so began my post-graduate education in the art of professional show business.

The BEST People are the Best PEOPLE

Mr Big Shot
Two decades of considering myself as "The Pro From Dover" left me with some very bad habits and a shitty, shitty attitude. Many people here have always treated me like a Big Shot. The newspapers write about me. Younger actors tell me how honored they are to work with me. Directors put up with my wise cracks. I started thinking of myself as a star, and expected to be treated like one.
Karen Ziemba: A Leading Lady in every sense of the word
The pros showed me the best are also the best people. Nobody ever humiliated or ridiculed me when I screwed up. When I missed an entrance on opening night, the four-time Tony award nominee who I had left hanging on stage met me in the wings to laugh and tell me how much she was getting wrong that night, too. When I blew my last line and brought the show to what felt like a screeching halt just as we were racing toward the big finale, a 22 year old actress stood behind me before my curtain call and told me how well I had covered. When I would wise crack during rehearsals, begging for attention and approval from the people around me, people didn't judge or tell me to shut up, they just continued about their business, showing me in the kindest way possible that there were more important tasks at hand at the moment, and that we could be friendly and funny later. And, surprise! Even without my bag of tricks, I still received love and respect from everybody in the cast. 

The Iconic Opening Image

The Grandest of Finales
Something else about the pros: they work their asses off. I used to stand in the wings at the end of a 10 hour rehearsal and marvel at the energy and commitment the dancers threw into every turn and fah-lap ball-change. They never settled for good enough. Perfection was good enough, whether it was at 10:00 AM atwarmups, or 9:50 PM for the thousandth try at making a line laser straight or a fifty heel stomps sound like one. We started principle rehearsals 10 days before our first audience, and I probably saw someone carrying a book for lines about four times. College kids sat next to seasoned professionals pouring over their scripts, working every free moment to get the text down flawlessly, as if we were playing Shakespeare, and not musical comedy. And nobody complained. The crew busted their humps getting enormous set pieces on and off the stage. Lights and sound never seemed to stop fine tuning, right up to the moment the ushers let the first audience members into the auditorium. The dancers massaged their muscles, taped their ankles, iced their bruises, grabbed a snack, and jumped back on the stage for take after take. Two days (!) of ten hour (!) tech rehearsals were conducted with joyful patience. We all knew that something special was happening. And we trusted each other to be there when the time was ripe.

Back Dues to be Payed
They taught me a lot about myself. I need to be better prepared for the first day of rehearsals. We were two days into a five performance run before I felt really ready to open. I won't make that mistake again. I lost a lot of time feeling intimidated by people whose experience and training made them better at their jobs than I was. I have always coasted on my voice, but never really kept up my training as a singer. It's time to change that, too. And finally, I have gotten used to people making accommodations for me. If I don't have my blocking quite right or if I learn my lines wrong, I let others work around me. The Diva act stops here. Too much depends on precision and coordinated effort for me to play fast and loose with other people's work.
I don't want to come away from this experience with a bunch of empty resolutions that disappear as soon as the next Shiny Object catches my attention. I just spent two years becoming the best water fitness instructor I could be. I can put that same level of intention toward my acting. I've already started. I'm working with our musical director to find a voice coach who can help me sing at a more professional level. A generous photographer has offered to make me real head shots: the first I've had in about 30 years. I've started re-working my resume to make it a document I can be proud to send to any casting director anywhere. And I am assembling the repertoire of audition pieces that every true pro has at their fingertips. Just in case I meet Steven Spielberg at the Y some afternoon and he wants to see two minutes of comic Shakespeare. I don't have any intention of leaving Lexington to go off in search of my fortune on one of the coasts.  But it's time I started treating my art with the respect it deserves. Maybe then, I won't feel like I need to work so hard to pry attention and approval out of the people around me.


Come On Along and Listen
Along with my determination to improve, I felt a sense of glorious triumph. My Lord, that curtain call! It wasn't because people were clapping for me. Hardly. But, every night I stood on the apron of my hometown's beautiful Opera House stage, and saw hundreds of people smiling and applauding and celebrating something that ALL of us had accomplished together. The kids from local universities, the troupers from all over the country, the experienced pros, and one very grateful Big Fish from a Little Pond in the Bluegrass had joined with an audience that nobody was sure would show up and made an amazing evening of theatre happen. Proud of myself? Sure, a little. But I was so damn proud of Lexington as we stood together and grinned and waved and hooted at one another. I believe that my theatre family's world changed forever during those five performances. I know that mine did.

And it all happened because a friend, two angels, and a company of artists believed in me more than I believed in myself. I will never forget it.

Side by side, They're glorified, 
Where the underworld can meet the elite

Friday, July 24, 2015

Give Up On Giving Up

Are you dead yet? No? Then why are you chasing dead people's goals?

I have at least half a dozen books going right now. I could actually use a few more book marks. One of them is almost finished. The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris has affected me deeply. It is based on ACT therapy, a school of cognitive psychology that emphasizes acceptance and commitment. The idea is that we can't change reality by wishing things were different. That only feeds a cycle of frustration and pain. A healthier approach is to accept feelings, ideas, and circumstances as they are, and include them as part of our journey toward a life that is purposeful, meaningful, and fulfilling. It's about a set of  skills, and it requires a lot of practice. My own therapist filled my mental medicine cabinet with them, and I return to them constantly as I navigate my own life's voyage. I won't try to summarize The Happiness Trap here but I did read an especially meaningful passage today that I want to share.

Don't Set a Dead Person's Goal: Never set as your goal something that a dead person can do better than you. For Example, to stop eating chocolate -- that's something a dead person can do better than you because, no matter what, they'll definitely never, ever eat chocolate again. Or to stop feeling depressed... they'll never feel depressed again. Any goal that is about not doing something or stopping doing something is a dead person's goal... You need to ask yourself, "If I was no longer doing this..., what would I be doing...? How would I be acting differently?"  (p. 186)

God didn't create the universe by getting rid of the stuff He didn't want. He made choices, the way a painter or a point guard does; but instead of dipping a brush into colors or throwing a pass, God spoke new things into being. We are not gods, but each of us is an artist creating our own lives.

Can you imagine trying to teach someone to dance by telling them, "Don't step there. No, not there either. And don't move that way." How meaningless! How impossible. No, you learn to dance by choosing where your body will go, and then discovering how to put it there.

What do you want from life? Do you want to stop being fat? To quit smoking? Lose weight? Banish depression from your life forever? Good news! You are guaranteed to achieve all those things... the second you are dead.

Give up on giving up. Don't waste another second trying to destroy the parts of your life that are not meaningful and fulfilling to you. Instead, try imitating the Creator. Ask what will I do with the next second, the next day, with this year, with this one, long, beautiful lifetime? What direction will I choose that really matters to me? What kind of person do I want to be, and what kind of life can I live as I become that new creature?

Me? I'm starting small. I think I'm going to re-budget some of my late night ice cream hours toward reading books that insightful, compassionate people write. I like the kind of man they are helping me become.


Thursday, July 23, 2015

#TBT Happy Anniversary, "Widow Maker"

I didn't realize it until Facebook reminded me. But today is an anniversary for me.

July 23, 2010 my 36th and final radiation treatment for head and neck cancer. Surgery had left me without a tonsil, a jugular vein, or the ability to raise my right arm above my shoulder. Chemo had shut down my immune system. I was so weak from radiation, my legs were almost useless. I could wobble to the bathroom to puke or to the car to endure the agonizing ride back to the Markey Cancer Center. The outside of my neck was burned black. The inside of my throat cooked to the point that sipping water felt like gulping ground glass. I woke up so Mrs P could feed me or wash me or give me pills. I wrote. Saw guests. Wrestled with God. And I was getting sweatier and dizzier by the hour. Death had been coming to me in my Percocet flooded dreams for weeks. That morning, he took his best shot.

Saddle Embolus. "The Widow Maker"

My doc ordered a CT scan after that day's treatment to look for a reason for my erratic blood pressure. That's when they found it. They rushed me to the ER, and started pumping me full of Heparin: the nuclear option when you are trying to blow up a blood clot. The Pulmonary specialist's first words to me were, "You are a damned lucky man. You have Saddle Embolus, a clot we call "The Widow Maker." I later learned that her kill rate is 80%. I had been living with 50/50 odds of living till Christmas. Suddenly I had a 2 in 10 chance of seeing the next click of the second hand.

The clots formed deep in my legs: Deep Vein Thrombosis, a result of treatment and weeks of lying in bed, stoned on pain killers. One clot, a big one had broken loose and gone on a little riverboat cruise up the Inferior Vena Cava, through my heart, (Sweet Jesus, through my heart!) and hung up at the fork where the pulmonary artery feeds blood into the lungs. It became a dam in the river, keeping blood from getting to my lungs. Had it been a millimeter larger, had another clot followed up behind it, it would have completely blocked my circulatory system. It would have killed me faster than I can type its name.

Now, maybe you don't believe in miracles. Maybe you believe in coincidence or good luck or just random events that come and go for no particular reason, but whatever you believe in you can believe this. Five years ago today, Death pressed his boney nose right up to mine, stared me cold in the eyes, and just as our lips were about to touch, he changed his mind. He pulled away, whispered something in my ear, and stepped back out the door. What he said was a secret between him and me. What he did changed me forever.

Five years. Recovery. Depression. Weight loss. Muscle gain. Crawling, walking, running, racing. Depression. The YMCA. Two full marathons. A Divorce. A nervous breakdown. Therapy. Friendship. Playing King Lear. Becoming a teacher. And tonight. Oh my gracious God, tonight...

Abner Dillon: Investor, Optimist, and Joyful Dreamer
July 23, 2015 I am opening as Abner in an Equity production of 42nd STREET in my own home town. I am part of something that is the polar opposite of death. Today, I play a tiny part in making decades of dreams come true for hundreds of people. Five years ago, I was a dead man. But today I am again what I always have been in my heart. Today I am a professional actor.

There is a classic speech in 42nd STREET. Peggy Sawyer has been pulled out of the chorus to replace the injured star. It is her first night on Broadway. The moment is part of the mythology of the American stage, but it isn't just about show business. Director Julian Marsh's words to her are for everyone who has ever had to choose between giving up and going on; between playing it safe and risking everything. This is what life is about, in or out of the theatre...
Now listen and listen hard. One hundred people. One hundred jobs. One hundred thousand dollars. Five weeks of grind and blood and sweat. And it all depends on what you do out there tonight. Oh, I know what you're thinking. Here comes March with another one of his pep talks. Well, this is the last of them, Sawyer, and it comes straight from the heart. Our hopes, our futures, our lives are in your hands. Go out there and make them shine with your golden talent!
Sawyer, you're going out there a youngster but you've got to come back a star!
You're damn right I believe in miracles; I am one. I don't just believe in God's grace; I have it flowing through my veins. I believe that my life kept squeezing past that lump of clotted blood so that five years later I could say this to you:
There is no last chance in this life. There is no such place as hopeless. No such thing as an impossible dream. Your life is more important and more valuable than you will ever understand. You're going to want to quit a thousand times, But I promise you, there are blessings ahead of you beyond anything you can ask or imagine. As long as you have life in you, use it to reach for the stars.
Whatever role you are playing today, wherever the next scene turns out to be on your life's stage...

Break a leg, kid.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Week We Changed Everything

Hundreds of people I know and love share a dream. In the next seven days, it starts coming true.
Since I came from New York to work at Actors' Guild of Lexington in 1995, many of us have dreamed about that elusive next level: a real professional theatre for adult audiences. Over the ensuing years, artists and producers have tried and failed to make that dream a lasting reality. A stream of talent flowed to other cities for opportunities that our town could not offer. Many who remained came to doubt that Lexington would ever support a local professional company. Seven days from now, we won't need those doubts any longer. 

The Lexington Theatre Company has assembled a company of national and regional professional artists, and blended them with local singers, dancers, designers, and actors to produce 42nd STREET: a classic American musical about hope, hard work, and the way a big enough dream can change everything. I didn't think they could do it. I didn't think I could be a part of it. 

I have never been prouder of being wrong. 

When a friend told me about auditions, I dismissed the idea. "They are seeing people all over the country. They won't cast anyone from here." I said I didn't want to be a bit player to a bunch of put of town ringers. But the truth was, after all these years as a big fish in a small pond, I didn't believe I had the chops to hang with real pros. I was wrong about them, and about myself.

I was invited to audition for a supporting role, after the nationwide search didn't produce anyone the director liked for the part. She gave me a fair hearing; I showed my best stuff, and I got the call later that day. Pre-production was as well organized as any I was associated with in New York. When the cast list came out, I realized I would be on stage with people I had only read about. I arrived at the first rehearsal in a kind of fearful awe. But as I looked around the room I saw other familiar, less famous faces. Performers I had watched grow up at SCAPA. Designers whose sets I had built and whose lights I had played under. A stage manager I first met in the heat of the June sun at the Arboretum. And a director who had grown up in Lexington, paid her dues in regional theaters, and climbed all the way to the Broadway stage before bringing her talented husband and their dream back to her home town. 

Our home town. 

These weren't carpetbaggers. These were Kentucky producers who believed that our city, our artists, and our audiences were ready to work with the pros. And guess what? They were right. 

I have spent the past week sitting on the house slack-jawed as nationally known performers crafted their roles. And right beside them, Kentucky's own were dancing, singing, earning laughs, and perfecting stage fights. These young people are learning lessons about the profession that they will never forget.  I know they are, because I am. 

Our theatre community has the opportunity of a lifetime here. We have so many smart, talented, hard-working people. There is no question about our passion or our willingness to sacrifice. What we lack is a true flagship organization: a locally grown leader that can put us on the map, and help point the way toward making our city a professional home for all kinds of artists. 

Look, I'm not a glamorous actor. I have always preferred grit to glitter and substance to spectacle. I know I'm not going to make my living as a song-and-dance man in Broadway musicals. I'm an Off-Broadway kind of guy. But I also know that you can't have Off-Broadway without Broadway. 

The people who make theatre in Lexington are my family. And I believe my family needs this company to succeed. I hope you will support the LEX however you can. I hope you see the show. I hope you talk it up. I hope you share this post. And I hope that 20 years from now, I will remember this week with pride and say, "That was the moment that this city decided to go for the brass ring. And together, we changed everything."

Click here to learn more about the show, the company, and ways you can buy tickets to be there when we take our first step together.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Into the Woods

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms. (Henry David Thoreau. Walden: Or Life in the Woods.) 

I know of no better cure for the melancholy of lonesomeness than a walk in the woods. Here in the Bluegrass, it is our good fortune to have just such a place only a few minutes from downtown Lexington. At the Raven Run Nature Sanctuary, our city has wisely set aside 734 acres of wildlands as a nature sanctuary for plants, animals, and the dramatic geology of this stretch of the palisades along the Kentucky river. The trees and meadows are home to all kinds of bug, bird, reptile, amphibian and mammal. But Raven Run's 10 miles of hiking trails are also a sanctuary for human critters. Although I have only recently begun to explore them, these ridges, rivulets and meadows are quickly becoming sacred places to me.

The first time I went to these woods, I was caught in a dark mood that threatened to slip into one of the depressive episodes that I have managed to stave off for so many months. "The woods," I thought, "will be a good place to go, sit on a log, and have a good cry until all this sadness is wrung out of me." 
I was disappointed to find the parking lot packed with cars that Sunday afternoon. The sun was blazing, but as I searched for a spot, it seemed to me that hundreds of people must be filling the shady trails. I feared I might never find the solitude that my planned catharsis required. I soon discovered that the woods of Raven Run are lovelier, darker, and deeper than I expected.

The sanctuary sprawls up and down hollows and hills, with trails that ascend to ridge lines and trace along beside the many tributaries that feed into the Kentucky River to the east. Minimal construction has left the woods pristine, and those few bridges, stairs, and railings that are necessary are built so unobtrusively that the almost seem like organic parts of the landscape. It wasn't long before I had managed to hike down into a lonely valley where I could no longer see or hear any of my fellow humans up the trail. I found a suitable resting place, and sat down to sob.

And the damnedest thing happened. 

My head filled with the musty fragrance of moss and the decaying forest floor. I heard a strange brushing sound overhead, and turned my gaze upward to see an aging cedar, gently bending in the wind, rubbing on his neighbor for support. Below me, a tiny stream chattered over the rocks and logs that had tumbled into its path. And somewhere in the distance, I am sure I heard the scolding cry of one of the great black birds from whom these hills take their name. And there in the shadows, hidden from the glare of the high summer sun, I found myself breathing deeply and easily, without the slightest inclination to shed tears. The sweet earthy air, the music of the trees, the cool water had all conspired to create such a sense of serenity in me that I felt not just refreshed; I felt redeemed. 
My father introduced me to the woods of Western Pennsylvania when I was a boy, and it wasn't long before I felt his calming spirit settle down on the log next to me. I am never in the trees long without him, and on that mystical, healing afternoon, he came to me with the same comforting presence that he always had when he was alive. I could sense his quiet breath beside me, and the warmth of his arm as it rested across my shoulders. It's been more than 20 years since I bowed over his coffin and kissed his face for the last time, but there in the woods, I could smell the tobacco stained fingers as they gave my neck a squeeze.

We did not speak. We hardly ever do any more. No need. After a few more moments, we rose and walked together under the green canopy: father and son striding confidently through the branches, smiling quietly to ourselves as the great black birds scolded over our heads.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Integrity of Ambivalence

Ridha Ridha “Normal Ambivalence”
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7:15, NRSV)

Honesty is telling the truth—in other words, conforming our words to reality. Integrity is conforming reality to our words... This requires an integrated character, a oneness, primarily with self but also with life. (Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, pp. 195–196).

A beloved preacher used to say, "We are living in the In-Between-Times." He was speaking of our place in the unfolding Biblical narrative: between Gospel and Revelation; creation and reconciliation; light and shadow.We live in an age of ambivalence.

The past week's news is packed with affirmation of his message. A mass murderer receives mercy from the families of his victims. A nation of equals is forced to confront the racism brewing just beneath the surface of even our best intentions. A law designed to protect the weakest among us barely survives a relentless assault by the strongest. And finally, a day of great celebration and great grief over the affirmation of a love that so many people find to be hateful.

Frank Gorshen as Bele of Cheron
(Star Trek, "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield")

As it is with our world, so it has been in my life this week. Almost daily, I have found that my actions are not consistent with my principles. At times, my principles have not even seemed consistent with each other. I want to serve, but grasp at praise and approval. I shed tears of compassion for suffering  neighbors, then cut them to the heart with sharp words.

There is something comic in Paul's struggle to articulate the conflict. "I do not do what I want to do... I do do what I do not want to do..." Doo-bee-doo-bee-doo. Comic? Yes, but like all true comedy, there is pain behind the laughter. Who among us has not experienced the gap between the person we are, and the person we want to be? The shame of actions that fall short of principles?  haven't we all whispered in spirit, Paul's prayer, "[Wretch] that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?" (Rom 7: 24)

I'd like to offer an easy answer. I wish I knew the magic words to comfort a devoted mother who lashes out at her demanding child, or a shame-filled son who obediently pees in a bottle so his father can pass a drug test. What peace there would be in whispering away my own conflicted feelings of love and anger; desire and apprehension.

Disintegration of Earth, (Sebikus)
How do such deeply flawed people walk in integrity through a disintegrated world?

For Paul, the comfort comes from God's Grace and the promise of Glory yet to come. And that would be a perfect answer if we were  standing in the perpetual light of Heaven. But we live in the cracks of the In-Between-Time. What are we supposed to do until our story ends happily ever after? What's the secret?

Maybe by undertaking the difficult task of forgiveness: offered, sought, and accepted. And by showing kindness and mercy to ourselves: the most difficult task of all. Believing that our failure is not final. Ambivalence is not the end of hope. 

There is something seductive about a Heaven of black and white. Heaven knows, plenty of people have grown rich and powerful peddling such a place. And maybe one day we will live there. But until then, we can only do our best to be our best in the world we have: a world of light and shadow where all the boundaries are gray. This is not a time for indignant, easy answers. This is a time for compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. This is the In-Between-Time.

Friday, June 26, 2015

If I've Seemed a Bit Weepy Lately...


The doctors left the port in her chest, so that she wouldn't need a new IV every time she got a chemo treatment. Some days, her left arm is so weak, she can hardly bend her elbow. Last week,they told her that the disease was not responding, and is much worse than they thought. She needs radical surgery, but they can't do it until she is stronger. She works out as if her life depends on it. Which, in a way, it does. I was spotting her in the weight room this week. Shoulder press with dumbbells. Hard for anybody. Nearly impossible for her. Our faces were inches apart when I saw the tear roll down her left cheek, same side as the tumor. "It hurts." "What hurts?" I asked quickly. You don't take pain lightly in my business. "Everything." I was about to stop her, then my glace fell to her jaw. It was set steel cable tight. "Two more reps," she growled, her lips barely moving. She ground two more presses out like an NFL linebacker, then dropped the weights to the floor, leaned into my chest, and soaked my shirt with tears of courage.


He was my best friend for a long time. A class mate. An ordained minister. A Christian education director. A flamboyant, joyful man, trapped behind the barely latched closet door that his church forced him to hide in. He was the one who reassured me that in spite of my curiosity, artistic temperament, and unsettling dreams, I was most definitely not a homosexual. One night, just after Thanksgiving break, he passed a joint and rubbed his eyes dry with the heel of his hand as he told me about coming out to his fireplug of an ex-Marine father. He trembled in fear as the old man smoked quietly for a long time, finally breaking the silence when he asked, "Ok. So, what is it that you do, exactly?" They talked long past midnight, gradually unpacking fears, truths, and a couple of stories about life in Greenwich Village in the 70's that still make me cringe. My friend was prepared to be disowned. Instead, he found a father's confused, but unconditional love. By the time he finished telling me about it, we were both crying tears of gratitude, cross-legged on the floor of his dorm room.

Bear Hug

The week before your first Marathon is not the time to discover a lump in the shower. No time for this shit right now. That Sunday, he broke four hours, and hoped the nub would go away. Three months later, he joined the 1%: only 2200 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. "Lucky me."  In spite of his initial denial, the docs said that they caught it early. Minor surgery seemed successful, but left enough doubt room for error that several rounds of chemo followed. Hair loss. Sunken eyes. Disappearing muscles. See-saw emotions. Weight gain. "Less than a year ago, I finished a marathon. Now I have to stop and rest when I walk to the john. I have to run again You have to help me run again." "I'm only a trainer," I told him the day we met. "I can't take a step for you. But as long as you're willing to run, I'll run beside you." For months, he was always early to class. inundating me with questions about nutrition, and exercise. He banged out reps in the weight room. Rocked the rowing machine. Made the stationary bikes hum. Soaked the treadmill belt with sweat before the rest of us were even warmed up. He was dragging through the front doors as I was clocking out after teaching an aerobics class this morning. "What's with you?" I ribbed. "You look like you've been pulling a plow." He glanced around the lobby with a weary sparkle, as if to be certain we were alone. "Last night. 3 miles in 32." Runners and cancer survivors: we have a shorthand all our own. We wrapped our arms around one another in the sunlit lobby: a big, back-slapping bear-hug that quickly became the kind of long embrace a proud father gives his son just before it's time to leave for college. "You son-of-a-bitch," I whispered. "Guess you'll have to run by yourself. I can't keep up with you now." He punched me in the arm, laughing. I was careful not to raise my head until I could duck into the men's room. I soaked a brown paper towel with salty pride.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Lessons from Coach Dad

Yesterday, I was asked to help a group of personal trainers at the West Side Y in New York City to  prepare themselves for leadership in the LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program. I doubt that anyone who has ever been a teacher will be surprised to hear that I learned a lot.

I told them my cancer story via a speaker phone . I've told it so many times that it has grown a little stale to me: the discovery; the preparation for treatment; the faithful, tireless support from my wife and my mom and my friends. How I didn't die. Started walking, running, fighting for my life. How finding the Y and the program gave me a source of focus and encouragement to achieve things I never thought possible.

Blah, blah, blah.

But I am not only a survivor, I am also a coach. I had something else to tell them. I told them that they were not ready.

They were not prepared for the tears they would shed as a room full of men and women told their stories of suffering and courage. How no PowerPoint presentation could get them ready for the miracles they would witness as victims became survivors and warriors and victors. And nothing on earth could prepare them for the funerals; for saying good bye to a heroic warrior whose battle had come to an end.

What advice could I offer them, these deeply compassionate, well-trained caregivers who were about to have their hearts broken with joy and sorrow on a daily basis? I told them to take care of themselves. To maintain professional boundaries. To never forget that their job, no matter how consuming or holy it might be, must never become their whole life. I told them to get their own workouts in. To stay in contact with friends. Read. Go to the movies. Go on dates. To have a life that mattered OUTSIDE the Y and the program.

It was good advice from a veteran of the cancer wars who had learned it the hard way. It is advice I need to take more seriously myself.

This Fathers Day one of the things I remember about the great man who was my Dad is that he did not take that advice either. He worked. He volunteered. He sacrificed. And he never did a damn thing to refresh himself or his own life's energy. He would have considered it selfish. He was 58 when he died. He maintained his automobiles with his own skilled, powerful hands, but drove his own tired body until the wheels fell off.

I guess my Dad taught me as much about being a Coach as my YMCA mentors did. Be a good steward of the God's gifts to you: your body, your mind, and your soul. Courage is a great virtue, but it only if you have the Strength to carry it out. Don't just do your best; BE your best.

So thank you Coach Melissa, for inviting me to help welcome the next generation of trainers into the program. Thank you to the five new trainers whose faces I never saw, but whose hearts and minds I did my best to reach through the wires. And thank you, Dad. In life, you taught me how important it is to serve. And in your death, you taught me the price of losing yourself, no matter how holy the work you are doing.

I'm going to imitate the best parts of you, and learn from the rest. It's the only way I can make sense of the way you lived, and the way you died. I think you'd be proud to know that you are helping cancer survivors learn to fight for life on the streets of Manhattan.

Because I sure am proud to have had you for my teacher. Thanks, Dad. Live Strong.