Thursday, June 23, 2022

My Triple Axel Family


Vancouver Men’s Chorus recently finished a successful series of concerts titled “R-E-S-P-E-C-T:  Celebrating Women’s Music.” It was the chorus’ first return to our cozy cabaret space on Granville Island since coronavirus silenced every choir. VMC and our audience were overjoyed to be together again. 


Gay Olympians Gus Kenworthy and Adam Rippon

Like selecting a team of Olympic athletes, VMC chooses our repertoire through a labouriously competitive yet collaborative process. Under the direction of our elected Board of Directors, the “Concert Planning Committee” confirms the performance schedule and selects each concert’s overall theme. The “Music Selection Committee” generates an exhaustive list of potential songs, artists, and sub-themes. Then the Section Representatives and other volunteers on the Music Selection Committee gather for a series of wine-infused meetings where they haggle over their favourites. Lucky songs on the bubble end up in one of VMC’s celebrated medleys.

 

Our incomparable conductor Willi Zwozdesky founded VMC forty-one years ago. Willi quietly nudges the entire music selection process forward, then works with our stable of arrangers to create a program of mostly bespoke songs, each written for VMC’s voices. Talented choreographers and dancers from the chorus add pizzazz. Ultimately Willi shapes all this material into an entertaining and powerful concert.  



Willi has always endeavoured to include women’s voices as part of VMC’s mission. Nevertheless, an entire concert with the theme of “Celebrating Women’s Music” presented unique challenges for a bunch of gay men. 

 

The original music selection process for “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” occurred more than three years ago, just before I became a fulltime single parent. As it happened, this was the only time during my tenure with VMC when my complicated personal schedule permitted me to attend meetings of the Music Selection Committee. Even though none of my suggestions made it into the show, I was fascinated by the collaborative process. (Because we were in Canada, the process was pronounced “PRO-sess,” not “PRAH-sess.”)

 

We barely began rehearsing the music the Music Selection Committee chose for “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” before Covid arrived in March 2020. During the pandemic we gathered remotely on Zoom, and created a couple of one-off video concerts. It wasn’t the same and it wasn’t enough.

 

Meanwhile, delaying performances of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” until 2022 gave our arrangers extra time to finish medleys with titles like “Girl Groups,” “He Had It Coming,” “Great Shoes,” and “The Empowerment Medley.” During the pandemic, VMC President Yogi Omar discovered Rina Sawayama’s song “Chosen Family” and championed its inclusion in “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” “Chosen Family” became the emotional heart of the concert.

 

An evening of gay men singing songs by and about women requires a little extra context. Willi therefore asked for volunteers to introduce several of the numbers with personal stories about their connection to the songs. I was one of three singers who introduced “Chosen Families” at our performance over the first two weeks in June.

 

Paul told about how he and his husband Gerry moved to Vancouver from the U.K. and found a home with the chorus. Two years ago, Gerry died of cancer in Paul’s arms, surrounded by friends from VMC. Yogi’s story is about how he came from Indonesia to Vancouver at age 18 knowing only two words in English. His biological family had given him two months to choose between “stop being gay” and leaving the country. Now Yogi is a pillar of the arts and queer communities, and President of VMC. 



I introduced “Chosen Family” at three of VMC’s performances of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” Rather than use notes, I spoke directly to the audience as if it were a stand-up set. At our first Saturday matinee, I told the story of becoming an adoptive father, then a single father, then a PFLAG father. My speech was a success by the most important measures:  I made it to the end without a PTSD meltdown, and numerous people said “I never knew you were so funny, but I hate you for making me cry.” 

 

One of the soloists complimented me after my presentation at the matinee. “But could you make it a little longer at the show tonight?” He explained that his partner is one of the dancers, and they needed a little more time for his costume change before they sang “Chosen Family.” 

 

While preparing for the evening performance, I wondered what else to say. I jealously admired Paul’s remarks on opening night, because in addition to telling the story of Gerry’s death and the loss of their “romantic” family, Paul also drew an elegant parallel between the support of his “chosen” and “biological” families. I was already covering “chosen” and “adoptive.” Wouldn’t it be cool if I added “biological” too – like landing a triple axel? 

 

As I wrote in “True Story,” I looked down and saw my rainbow “PFLAG LOVES YOU” wristband. I’m not just a PFLAG father, I’m a PFLAG son, too. So I decided to acknowledge my mother by telling the story of how I got my wristband. 



When I added a few sentences about my PFLAG mother to my original stand-up script, the evening audience saw me losing my balance. We all paused for a moment. But I wasn’t scared, because I felt the support of everyone around me. I made it to the end with only a bit of a stammer. It was like pulling off a triple axel but with a little too much spin, and not quite sticking the landing.

 

Before it was my turn to speak again the following week, I had time to revise my chosen/adopted/biological family story. Here’s the final version, which the VMC audience heard the third and last time I introduced “Chosen Family”:

 

When I was a kid, one of my friends was teased about being adopted. I remember her telling the bully “Your parents had to take you, but my parents chose me.” 

 

Thirty years later, my partner and I had the opportunity to adopt a baby girl, who we named Eleanor. Next we adopted Rosalind and then Oliver from the foster system. My daughters are now 17, and my son is 13. Several years ago my ex disappeared from the picture. So I’m a single parent raising three kids alone.

 

My children are the best thing that ever happened to me. But as the saying goes, It Gets Better.

 

During middle school, my daughter Rosalind came out to me in a text. Actually two texts. The first said “Papa, just letting you know I've been going to the Queer Student Alliance after school.” Her second text said “Don't make a big deal about it.”

 

This month is Pride. One morning last week my daughters and I went into Starbucks on the way to school. Rosalind slipped this rainbow wristband on me. It says “PFLAG LOVES YOU.” “PFLAG” stands for “Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays.” They’d left a bunch of these wristbands at Starbucks in a rainbow-trimmed basket for Pride. 

 

In contrast with my daughter Rosalind, I was a late bloomer in every possible way. I was twenty-three before I kissed a girl, twenty-six before I kissed a boy, and thirty-one before I came out to my parents, rather than 13 like Rosalind. 

 

Actually I attempted to come out when I was thirty, and my first boyfriend moved in with me.  The next time my parents visited the apartment in Seattle, they saw that I’d moved my bed to the larger bedroom where my roommate used to be. When we got to my old bedroom there was just a desk. My father asked, “Where does Josh sleep?” I swear I started to say, “With me, of course,” but my mother interrupted me to say “Look, the futon folds down.”

 

A year later, we finally had “the talk.” I drove up to see my parents in Bellingham, where they’ve lived in the same house for the last 40 years. I told them I was gay, that Josh was my boyfriend, and I’d quit my miserable corporate lawyer job in Seattle so I could move to Chicago  and be professional homosexual. I became a gay rights lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union. 

 

I had five amazing years in Chicago with the ACLU (and a couple of okay years with my first boyfriend). Meanwhile, back in Bellingham, my mother joined the board of our local PFLAG chapter. She served for the next twenty-five years. She sewed the fifty-foot rainbow flag they carry in the Pride Parade. As I told Rosalind at Starbucks last week, my mother made the rainbow basket where my daughter found my PFLAG wristband. Even before I adopted my children, I was already blessed with the best family anyone could have chosen.

 

Last weekend was the high school’s first Prom since Covid. Both of my daughters went. Eleanor looked radiant in a sequined Marilyn Monroe dress next her to cute nerdy boyfriend. Rosalind looked awkward but completely herself in one of my tux jackets. Rosalind and her goth girlfriend rode to the Prom in a lesbian classmate’s car, together with my daughter's gay boi best friend – a classic skinny twink, with Timothée Chalamet hair. 

 

The morning after Prom, I went into Rosalind’s room and found the four of them asleep on her king-sized bed – three lesbians and a twinkie, half naked and all intertwined. It looked like the dancers’ dressing room backstage. 

 

Our next song is by Rina Sawayama. She’s a young queer singer-songwriter who was born in Japan and raised in Britain. You may have seen the video of her singing a duet with Elton John of this song, which is called “Chosen Family.”

 

I had to wait and grow up and join a gay chorus before I found my chosen family. As a PFLAG son and father, I’m thrilled my daughter is already finding hers. Please enjoy hearing our chosen family share Rina Sawayama’s message.

 


After the evening show, fellow tenor Xavi congratulated me on landing the triple axel. Xavi knew I was going for it because he saw me practicing the night before at PumpJack. (The cute couple on a date at PumpJack also saw me talking to myself, and moved further away from the table with the crazy person.)


When my mother read the final script she complained about my recycling the futon joke. She’s embarrassed she didn’t realize I was gay for so long. I told her I didn’t realize I was gay, either. My father sees people more clearly than the two of us. 

 

Our incomparable accompanist Stephen Smith reported that he didn’t tear up the third time he heard the story. I confessed I didn’t weep this time either. Adding an extra anecdote provided more of a safety net for my tight wire act. It also sacrificed some of the shared immediacy the audience, chorus, and I felt the first two times I spoke. Every live performance is a unique communal moment. Even with a little more emotional safety net, I could tell the audience was moved.

 

The next day one of the baritones said my speech made him cry. Hugh hadn’t heard me speak before because he was out of town at a wedding. I told him he would probably have cried even more if he’d been there the week before. Hugh said it was probably for the best – because he had to sing the “Chosen Family” solo right after I spoke. I was so relieved to be finished I didn’t notice it was him singing. 


Elton & Rina singing "Chosen Family"

  

Tell me your story and I'll tell you mine

I'm all ears, take your time, we got all night

Show me the rivers crossed, the mountains scaled

Show me who made you walk all the way here

     “Chosen Family,” by Rina Sawayama

 

At the cast party, Willi saluted everyone who contributed to making “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” a smashing post-covid success. He thanked all of us who introduced songs, but told folks we shouldn’t expect another concert with forty minutes of spoken word any time soon. This year, however, our stories were essential. In addition to placing the examples of “women’s music” chosen by the Music Selection Committee in a respectful context, these stories also helped VMC’s fragmented community reconnect after two years of isolation.  

 

VMC President Yogi underscored what everyone already recognized: the theme of the concert turned out to be our chosen family. The song “Chosen Family” itself came as a powerful quiet moment before our extravagant finale, which was a Lady Gaga/Madonna mashup that involved everyone dancing, even me. “Chosen Family was proceeded by a Girl Group medley that started with the Andrews Sisters. We ended the medley with the dancers strutting to “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge, before segueing to “Wings” by Little Mix:

 

We don’t let nobody bring us down
No matter what you say, it won’t hurt me
Don’t matter if I fall from the sky
These wings are made to fly.

 

The audience leapt up for an early standing ovation as they recognized the message of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”:  Empowerment and Sisterhood.



In our differing introductions to “Chosen Family,” Paul and I added the twists of our “romantic,” “biological,” and “adoptive” families. In contrast, Yogi focused entirely on how his chosen family gave him an incandescent smile – like a figure skater with one amazing move. 

 

As gay men, it’s not enough to come out of the closet and find our tribe. I hear it’s not even enough to find romantic love. Whether we’ve been out (or married) for months, years, or decades, we also need to find, create, and sustain our chosen families. I was personally blessed with an amazing biological and adoptive family. But I would not have made it safely here without the chosen family I found in Windy City Gay Chorus, Seattle Men’s Chorus, and now Vancouver Men’s Chorus.  


Behind Yogi’s smile: gay Olympian Gus Kenworthy 

joining VMC from across the bar at our cast party


The cast party gave me a rare opportunity for casual socializing. A group of new tenors asked if I planned to move back to Vancouver fulltime after the girls graduate from high school next year. I told them the story of when my children decided they also want to move to Vancouver eventually.

 

PAPA:             Because I don’t have dual citizenship like my younger brothers, we’ll probably need to find me either a job or a husband in Canada.

 

ELEANOR:    Hmm. You’d better work on your resume.    

 

The tenors helpfully began pointing out single guys across the room, and asking whether I think they’re cute. I reminded them I’m still recovering from PTSD and social anxiety, and barely over face blindness. I sheepishly confessed that after six years in VMC, I’ve still never been on a date or kissed anyone I met at chorus, and only seen any of them naked during bawdy skits at Retreat.  

 

My VMC brothers are so Canadian and nice. They offered to help me finally find my “romantic” family. But you’ll have to wait a while for me to live, then write, “Quadruple Axel.”






Sunday, June 19, 2022

Infinite Joy


Yesterday I received the nicest compliment ever. 

 

It was closing night of a successful series of Vancouver Men’s Chorus concerts entitled "R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Celebrating Women's Music." Afterwards a woman came up to me in the parking lot on Granville Island to say how much she enjoyed watching my face during the performance. She said, “Years ago in high school, my choir conductor kept telling us to smile. Now I know what he meant.”

 

I said thank you, and told her they were a great audience. Then we discussed how the first tenor next to me had the second-brightest smile in the chorus – so maybe our conductor Willi should consider spreading the joy and separate us a little. (Not coincidentally, when an elderly couple came up to compliment my smile after an earlier performance, they said the nearby “Asian guy” and I seemed to be enjoying ourselves more than anyone else on stage.)

 

The reason our gushing patrons noticed my smile was because despite many challenges these days I’m happy, the kids are alright, and I’m enjoying the best mental health of my life. It shows.

 

More importantly, they were able to observe my freakishly expressive face because I stood in the front row. Previously the combination of anxiety issues and terrible dancing would have protected me from being placed in such a vulnerable and exposed position. In fact, after twenty-five years singing in gay choruses, Willi was the first person to put me in the front row of anything. 


I joined Vancouver Men’s Chorus in January 2016, just two months after the shock of being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Abusive workplace dynamics at my new job in Bellingham had triggered a host of strange new anxiety symptoms. A few months later, they fired me based on my disability. This further exacerbated my injuries, and exposed long-avoided psychological fault lines. Rock bottom occurred during my first year in VMC. 

 

I spent the last six years slowly rebuilding my mental health, while simultaneously dealing with distractions like raising three kids during a pandemic and suing my former employer. At this point I accept that many of my tics and twitches will never go away. Fortunately, I’ve learned to recognize triggering situations, identify reasonable accommodations, and mitigate the impact of trauma. 

 

Meanwhile, I’ve finally begun making progress on the social aspects of my disability. Before getting the correct trauma-based diagnosis, I used to think I was just a typical introvert who struggled with social anxiety. Now I recognize that even without the effect of trauma I would still be neurodiverse. I could have grown up to be the gay English Major version of Sheldon from Big Bang Theory. Trauma merely bumped me a few notches further along the autism spectrum. As a result I’ve lost much of my already dubious ability to read ordinary social cues. Paradoxically, despite having an exceptionally expressive face myself, other people's emotions remain a mystery. I can’t tell if someone is hitting on me, or challenging me to a duel. So I mostly stay quiet. 

 

As I faced various challenges over the last few years, Vancouver Men’s Chorus provided my greatest lifeline other than my family and my writing. In particular, VMC allowed me slowly crawl out of my shell in the safest possible corner of humanity: a gay Canadian choir. 


Ironically, however, my disability disproportionately affects my relationships with other gay men. When I began singing with VMC, I was practically catatonic – barely able to engage in any social interactions, and completely unable to speak to strangers. I was also essentially face blind. Eventually my brain started adapting. But it still played weird tricks, like remembering guys only as cartoon characters. Then covid closed the border and silenced choirs for a couple of years.

 

Fortunately, by the time the border reopened and we began rehearsing again last fall, I was thinking much more clearly. I could finally tell guys apart. But I still have problems with basic things like eye contact, and knowing when to start or stop talking. So I seldom initiate conversations with anyone other than the handful of other tenors I’ve known for years. Socially I’m like a vampire – someone else has to be the one to open the door and invite me in.


 

One way to measure mental health progress is to compare the story of my smile. Five years ago, I published “If You Just Smile” after my very first VMC concert. The opening anecdote was eerily similar to this years essay:

 

Vancouver Men’s Chorus recently finished a successful run of concerts on Granville Island. After one of our final performances, a middle-aged straight couple came up to me in the lobby. They both loved our show, and gushed about the marvelous singing and entertaining dancing. They sought me out afterwards to say “You had the best smile! Only a few of you up there looked like you were having fun the whole time, but you definitely did!”

 

I get that a lot. I have a mime-ishly expressive face, often without realizing it. (Sometimes your eyes just roll.) After forty years of performing, I’ve embraced numerous directors’ and conductors’ admonition to let the audience see you are enjoying yourself. But I smile almost all the time offstage as well. Everyone says my smile is my best feature. Seriously – eHarmony has statistical data proving this. … 

 

If that straight couple had come to opening night of the recent Vancouver Men’s Chorus concert, I know they would have loved the fun but less polished show. They might have not noticed me fiddling with fuzzy green things offstage to distract myself from pulling my hair out. But unless they are both legally blind, they would have seen the smile of an anxious second tenor overwhelmed by the scrum of gay men backstage, and remembering such a low percentage of his choralography he should not be placed in the front row. Ever again. Hint, hint.

 

“If You Just Smile” told the story the story of how my personal traumas began. When I was a teenager, my family moved from Vancouver to a repressive Mormon small town in Utah. I got the nickname “Smiley” from my bullying classmates. I began compulsively clenching my teeth and smiling because I knew if I started to cry instead I would lose it all. I spent the next thirty years blinding people with that same smile, regardless of whether it was real.


At my first VMC concerts my smile was just as bright before and after I learned the choreography. But Willi sensed my discomfort, and never put me in the front row again until this year. 


Elton & Rina singing "Chosen Family"


As I wrote last week in “True Stories,” an evening of gay men singing songs by and about women requires a little extra context. Willi therefore asked for volunteers to introduce several of the numbers with personal stories about their connection to the songs. I was one of three singers who introduced the song “Chosen Families.” It wasn’t a diva solo or flashy dance number. But it came at the emotional climax of the concert.  


Willi is an expert at guiding audiences on an entertaining and cathartic journey. Sure enough, each of our three very diverse stories about chosen families left the audience and chorus in tears. Paul told about how he and his husband Gerry moved to Vancouver from the U.K. and found a home with the chorus. Two years ago, Gerry died of cancer in Paul’s arms, surrounded by friends from VMC. I spoke about being both a PFLAG son and a PFLAG father. 


Yogi’s story is about how he came from Indonesia to Vancouver at 18 knowing only two words in English. His biological family had given him two months to choose between “stop being gay” and leaving the country. Now Yogi is a pillar of the arts and queer communities, and President of VMC.  



So how did I end up smiling at the audience from the front row?

 

Yesterday between shows, Willi asked me whether I enjoyed my experience standing in the front row. I explained that my “Executive Function” had been challenged by the cumulative effect of multiple stressors, including kids, legal work, commuting from another country, foreign language memorization, and – my traditional nemesis – choreography. But I survived. 

 

I also told Willi about the audience members who had complimented me on both my speech and my smile. Willi was pleased. He said he was confident I would have said something to him if I thought I couldn’t handle the pressure.

 

As a writer and a lawyer who has cross-examined numerous witnesses, I have an acute built-in bullshit detector. This set it off. Willi is a brilliant conductor and programmer. He is also one of the most Canadian people I know other than myself. This means he’s preposterously kind and nice, but also passive-aggressively manipulative and ruthlessly efficient. 

 

Over drinks at PumpJack last month, I already told Willi about my first-row struggles. He said he would change the configuration at the next rehearsal. Then he “forgot.” It wasn’t merely his glass of wine. During that conversation, alarm bells also went off when Willi explained I belonged in the front row because of my “height.” I sing in a gay choir filled with Asian tenors. Lots of guys who are just as tall or shorter than me spent the concert safely hidden on the second row. 


But I forgive Willi for pushing me a little, and thank him for the opportunity to share my story and my smile.  


Here’s how Yogi began his speech:

 

“People ask why I’m always smiling. I guess it’s because I’m so happy.”

 

Yogi’s and my blinding smiles each began in trauma. But now they’re real. And according to the woman who complimented me after the last concert, she could feel our joy.



Wednesday, June 15, 2022

True Stories


Tell me your story and I'll tell you mine

I'm all ears, take your time, we got all night

Show me the rivers crossed, the mountains scaled

Show me who made you walk all the way here

     “Chosen Family,” by Rina Sawayama

 

This week Vancouver Men’s Chorus performed our first post-covid concerts at Performance Works on Granville Island. Our theme this year is “R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Celebrating Women’s Music.” VMC’s intrepid Music Selection Committee and our stable of skilled vocal arrangers curated a marvelous collection of songs, mashups, and medleys. 

 

An evening of gay men singing songs by and about women requires a little extra context. Our conductor Willi asked for volunteers to introduce several of the numbers with personal stories about their connection to particular songs. For example, Lenny explained how his generation made “Secret Love” a gay anthem, sharing how he grew up going to Doris Day movies with his mother and recognizing he had a crush on Rock Hudson. Basil, who immigrated to Canada as a child from Yemen speaking neither English nor French, introduced the “Empowerment Medley” with the story of aboriginal Australian singer Thelma Plum, who wrote “Better in Blak” about her experiences with people “trying to take the colour from the conversation.” And Mark closed the first act by convincing the audience – as he had convinced the Music Selection Committee – that a medley called “Great Shoes” would work. (It does, spectacularly.)


Elton & Rina singing "Chosen Family"


Rina Sawayama is a young queer singer-songwriter who was born in Japan and raised in Britain. Last year MTV News described her song “Chosen Family” as “the budding queer anthem uniting global fans.”

 

At one of the last rehearsals for “R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” the conductor announced that no one had volunteered to introduce “Chosen Family.” Willi asked if anyone had a story to share about their connection to the song. Three of us came forward. 


Yogi’s story is about how he came from Indonesia to Vancouver at 18 knowing only two words in English. Now he’s a pillar of the arts and queer communities, and President of VMC.  


Paul's story is about how he and his husband Gerry moved to Vancouver from the U.K. and found a home with the chorus. Two years ago, Gerry died of cancer in Paul’s arms, surrounded by friends from VMC.


Here’s my story:

 

When I was a kid, one of my friends was teased about being adopted. I remember her telling the bully “Your parents had to take you, but my parents chose me.” 

 

Thirty years later, my partner and I had the opportunity to adopt a baby girl, who we named Eleanor. Next we adopted Rosalind and then Oliver from the foster system. My daughters are now 16, and my son is 13. Several years ago my ex disappeared from the picture. So I’m a single parent raising three kids alone – an amazing job that typically is seen as “women’s work.” 

 

During middle school, my daughter Rosalind came out to me in a text. Actually two texts. The first said “Papa, just letting you know I've been going to the Queer Student Alliance after school.” Her second text said “Don't make a big deal about it.”

 

Last weekend was the high school’s first Prom since Covid. My daughter Eleanor went with her cute nerdy boyfriend. She looked radiant in a sequined Marilyn Monroe dress. Rosalind looked awkward but completely herself in one of my tux jackets. Her goth girlfriend wore a black dress. Rosalind and her goth girlfriend rode to the Prom in a lesbian classmate’s car, together with my daughter's gay boi best friend – a classic skinny twink, with Timothée Chalamet hair. 

 

The morning after Prom, I went into Rosalind’s room and found the four of them asleep on her king-sized bed – three lesbians and a twinkie, half naked and all intertwined. It looked like the dancers’ dressing room backstage. 

 

Our next song is by Rina Sawayama. She’s a young queer singer-songwriter who was born in Japan and raised in Britain. You may have seen the video of her singing a duet with Elton John of this song, which is called “Chosen Family.”

 

I had to wait and grow up and join a gay chorus before I found my chosen family. As a PFLAG father, I’m thrilled my daughter is already finding hers. 



Paul introduced “Chosen Family” at our opening night performance on Friday, which meant he also gave his speech at the dress rehearsal in front of the guys the day before. I drew both the matinee and evening shows on Saturday. 

 

After the concert Friday, I stayed overnight in Vancouver at a friend’s place. On Saturday morning I walked along the seawall around Stanley Park practicing my remarks. I wanted to be able to speak directly to the audience without notes. I choked up every time I said “As a PFLAG father, I’m overjoyed my daughter is already finding her chosen family.” I tried repeating it 20 times in a monotone, without any decongestion. Fortunately it’s the last sentence.  

 

Back at the theatre on Saturday, there wasn’t time for me to do a run through. Backstage between acts, Willi asked if I was ready. I told him I expected to make people laugh and cry, including myself.



My speech at the matinee Saturday was a success by the most important measures:  I made it to the end without a PTSD meltdown, and numerous people said “I never knew you were so funny, but I hate you for making me cry.” 

 

As with the speeches, chorus members share some of the solos, including the duet in “Chosen Family.” Dan and David, a recently married couple, were scheduled to sing the duet Saturday evening. During the break between shows, Dan complimented me on my presentation at the matinee. “But could you make it a little longer?” He explained that David is one of the dancers, and needed a little more time for his costume change before singing “Chosen Family.” 



“Chosen Family” comes at the end of the second act, right before the finale. So I had time to ponder. Where could I add a couple of extra jokes? Did I have anything else I wanted to say? 

 

I was jealous of Paul’s remarks because he drew an elegant parallel between “chosen” and “biological” families. I already had covered “chosen” and “adoptive.” Wouldn’t it be even cooler if I added “biological” too – like landing a triple axel? 

 

As I was seeking inspiration, I looked down and saw my rainbow “PFLAG LOVES YOU” wristband. I’m not just a PFLAG father, I’m a PFLAG son, too. So I decided to acknowledge my parents by telling the story of how I got my wristband. 

 

This turned out to be a mistake.



Performance Works is a cabaret space, which underscores the difference between matinee and evening audiences. As usual, the afternoon crowd was smaller and quieter, with a higher proportion of blue hair. In contrast, the evening show was sold out, and the raucous audience took advantage of the bar both before the show and during intermission. The vibe resembled a combined bachelorette party and tea dance. 

 

Public speaking with a hot crowd is always more fun for everyone, but it can be unpredictable. I didn’t expect “I’m a single parent raising three kids alone” to be a big applause line, which threw off my timing. When I reached the new story about my PFLAG wristband, I choked up. The audience was totally with me, but I could tell they were worried I wouldn’t be able to finish. So was I.  

 

Stand-up is like walking a tightrope – losing your balance can be perilous. As lesbian Australian comic Hannah Gadsby wrote in her recent memoir Ten Step to Nannette, when a stand-up confronts trauma, the process can also resemble therapy. The speaker’s job is to guide both herself and the audience safely through the punchlines to catharsis. 


Fortunately, with the support of my family and the chorus, I’ve made immense progress with both PTSD and social anxiety. Although my speech Saturday evening triggered more of my stammer than at the matinee, we arrived home.



Here’s a smooth version of what I was I was attempting to say when I lost my composure at the Saturday night performance. I can’t even type the words without tears in my eyes:

 

It’s Pride month. Last week I was at the Starbucks near the high school with my daughters. Rosalind slipped this “PFLAG LOVES YOU” wristband on me. “PFLAG” stands for “Parents & Friends of Lesbians and Gays.” Someone had left a bunch of wristbands at Starbucks in a rainbow-trimmed basket. 


I told Rosalind my mother probably made the basket. 

 

I was thirty before I came out to my parents. My mother spent the next twenty-five years tirelessly serving on the board of our local PFLAG chapter. She sewed the fifty-foot rainbow flag they carry in the Pride Parade – and made all those baskets full of PFLAG wristbands. Even before I adopted my children, I was already blessed with the best family anyone could have chosen.



I thought I wasn’t ready to tell the story behind these stories publicly yet. But after the matinee Saturday, I posted a copy of my remarks to the VMC group page on Facebook, together with a bunch of Prom pictures. When I logged back on to Facebook after the evening show, I discovered that dozens of friends had already “liked”my post. Because I was using my phone instead of the computer, I’d accidentally posted it to my own Facebook feed instead of the private VMC page. By the end of the weekend it was my most popular Facebook post of the year.

 

I’d already shared my speech with Eleanor, Rosalind, and her queer Prom posse when I got their permission to tell our story to the concert audiences. But now that my remarks were out there in writing, I realized I needed to make sure my daughters were cool with the final product.

 

When I got back to the States, I showed Eleanor and Rosalind the published text. Rosalind said “You took out the word ‘goth’ before ‘girlfriend’ – that was my favourite part.” So I put “goth” back in. Eleanor read the speech to her “cute nerdy boyfriend.” He said “I’m not nerdy! I have abs!” 

 

True story.


Read “For Good,” a story about how I become attached to my first dog, 

in the recent anthology True Stories Vol. IV


Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Best Things That Ever Happened To Me

Barbara Cook singing "Anyone Can Whistle" on YouTube

Every musical theatre nerd mourns the loss of Stephen Sondheim, our adoptive artistic father, who died in November 2021 at age 91. I heard the incomparable composer speak a few years ago when I was still a lawyer in Seattle. Frank Rich interviewed Sondheim on the stage at Benaroya Hall in an event presented by Seattle Arts & Lectures. 

 

The year my mother turned sixty, I bought us tickets to see Barbara Cook perform at Benaroya. She was touring with a concert consisting of music by Sondheim, plus a few other showtunes he told Barbara he “wished he had written.” For her encore, Barbara sang an unadorned arrangement of “Anyone Can Whistle,” accompanied at the piano by her longtime musical director Wally Harper.

 

Anyone who gets to share Barbara Cook singing “Mostly Sondheim” with his mother is a pretty lucky fella.



This week’s “Must See” list in New York magazine highlights Thursday’s extraordinary musical event:

 

In a big Carnegie Hall celebration, MasterVoices honors one of Stephen Sondheim’s earlier, odder cult favorites, a 1964 satire written with Arthur Laurents about fake miracles, asylum patients who take over a town, and a corrupt (or playful?) solution for public health. Revivals of Whistle don’t come along often, but concert productions have kept its weird flame flickering. Vanessa Williams plays Cora, the crooked mayor. 

 

A young Angela Lansbury was destined for musical theatre immortality after originating the role of the mayoress, even though the original production closed after just nine performances. I’ve never seen Anyone Can Whistle. No one has. But in addition to tackling mental illness, the show introduced Sondheim standards like “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “I’ve Got You to Lean On,” and “Everybody Says Don’t.”

 

Obviously I know the original cast album by heart, as well as the recording of the famous AIDS benefit at Carnegie Hall in 1995. Madeleine Kahn played the mayor, Angela Lansbury narrated, and Scott Bakula was mysterious stranger J. Bowden Hapgood. Bernadette Peters played Nurse Fay, who sings the title song.


Read “For Good,” my story about the dogs, 

in the recently published anthology True Stories Vol. IV


I’m almost to the end of my first book manuscript, entitled Anyone Can Whistle: A Memoir of Religion, Showtunes, and Mental Illness. I’ll finish writing the memoir as soon as I finish living through this part of my story – hopefully later this year.

 

A couple of years ago, I went through The Narrative Project’s flagship “Finish Your Book!” writing program. Under Cami Ostman’s expert guidance, I found a writer’s community where I learned to write through and about trauma. The nine-month program offered the perfect opportunity to practice my craft with the support and encouragement of other writers – even as I endured gaslighting lawyers and stonewalling bureaucrats, and single parented three teenagers through a pandemic.

 

I thought I would finish writing my memoir during the formal The Narrative Project program. Instead, I made immeasurable progress toward mental health and happiness. Meanwhile, after over half a million words of public blog essays and an even greater volume of legal filings and private journaling, Anyone Can Whistle needed to find its own voice and structure as a book. And to lose weight.

 

So I ruthlessly edited out all the tedious lawyer stuff, exiling it to a future sequel. The title will be Too Many Lawyers, an homage to my favourite mystery novelist Rex Stout, who published “Too Many Witnesses,” “Too Many Cooks,” “Too Many Clients,” and “Too Many Women.” Everything Is Connected became the working title for my research and writing about neuroscience and psychology. It would be my dissertation, if they awarded graduate degrees for reading a lot of interesting books while recovering your mental health. 


As I sit at my desk each morning, I ask myself whether today’s best story will be about a Father, a Writer, or a Lawyer. Readers vote overwhelmingly for “Father.” So as soon as I’m done with my tedious lawsuits and can finish telling my gay Mormon PTSD story in Anyone Can Whistle, I’ll focus on writing about Gay Sitcom Dad.



As I wrote in “Buster,” last month I was one of the writers reading from our recent work at the launch of a new anthology. My contribution to True StoriesFor Good,” comes from the chapter of my memoir where I explain that Im not really a dog person.


Bear and Buster are purebred Aussiedoodles – one of the most popular of the trendy class of “doodles.” My ex and his husband were friends with a local breeder. I never wanted a dog myself – to the contrary, I was comfortable in my role as the dogs’ fabulous gay uncle. Besides, if I’d chosen a dog, I would have picked what in my day we called a “mutt.”


When my ex and his husband divorced a couple of years later and I ended up with three kids and two dogs fulltime, Bear turned out to be the comfort animal I never knew I needed. Although many of the dogs Bear and I encounter on our walks look like mutts, their owners always refer to them as “rescue dogs.” I feel like a “rescue human.” A rescued human.

 

Each of the chapter titles in my memoir is the name of a showtune, such as “If You Were Gay,” “Turn It Off,” and “I’d Rather be Sailing.” The title for my dog chapter is from Wicked. I’ve seen Wicked three times: (1) the original production on Broadway with Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel; (2) with my mother for her 70th birthday at a lavish benefit for marriage equality at the Paramount Theater in Seattle; and (3) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver with my daughter Eleanor for her ninth birthday. It’s hard to pick a favourite performance.


For Good” comes near the end of Wicked. Elphaba and Glinda sing “I don’t know if I’ve been changed for better, but because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”



Stephen Sondheim won his Pulitzer Prize for Sunday in the Park with George, which is a musical about Children and Art. In addition to his artistic genius, Sondheim was a born teacher who often said his greatest regret was never having children. 

 

I came to fatherhood unexpectedly and late in life. The President of the Mormon Church when I was born was David O. McKay. President McKay’s famous motto was “No amount of success can compensate for failure in the home.” Growing up as a closeted gay Mormon during that era, I was taught that fatherhood was essential to human happiness – yet impossible for me. 

 

It Gets Better. I was forty-one years old when I watched my daughter Eleanor being born. We adopted Rosalind three and a half years later, and Oliver the following year. Having children transformed my life.

 

Every science fiction fan knows there are fixed points that connect the multiverse. The most important moment on my own timeline occurred in Spring 2011, when we salvaged Oliver’s adoption. Since 2011, I have made numerous mistakes I would reverse if I could. I have been beset by plagues I would have avoided with the benefit of Doctor Who’s or the Flash’s time traveling abilities. I would love a do-over of the last few years. 


I also made a lot of mistakes before 2011. I suffered trauma that still haunts me. But I would not change a single moment that led me to my daughters and son.



The first Sondheim show I saw on Broadway was Into the Woods with Bernadette Peters. I also saw his next two Broadway openings, Assassins with Neil Patrick Harris and Passion with Donna Murphy. Sondheim and others describe Passion as his most personal work, because he wrote it after falling in love for the first time in his life.

 

If I had a favourite song it would be “If Love Were All,” from a forgotten 1928 musical by Noel Coward. Bitter Sweet is about an English maiden who must choose between her stuffy nobleman fiancé and her dashing Austrian music tutor. (Spoiler alert: she runs off with the musician.) The song is actually sung by the musicians plucky ex-girlfriend – sorta like Eponine pining after Marius in Les Miserables


In her classic cabaret album It’s Better with a Band, Barbara Cook sings a lovely version of “If Love Were All.” But the definitive performance is from Judy Garland’s legendary Carnegie Hall concert on April 23, 1963. You can listen to Judy for yourself on YouTube.


If wealth were all, I would be a failure.

 

If professional success were all, I would be bitter.

 

If art were all, I would be grateful for my own talent to amuse, and the mental health to finally use it.

 

If social justice were all, I would be proud of what I’ve accomplished so far.

 

If romantic love were all, I would be as lonely as Judy Garland sounds on her Carnegie Hall concert album.

 

But if love is all, then I consider myself to be the luckiest man on the face of this earth.



The chapter of my memoir where I write about gay choruses in general and Vancouver Men’s Chorus in particular is called “The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.” Windy City Gay Chorus, Seattle Men’s Chorus, and Vancouver Men’s Chorus represent my tribe at its best. 

 

“The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me” is the title of a song from Sondheim’s final Broadway musical. Road Show tells the story of colourful brothers Addison Mizner and Wilson Mizner from the Klondike gold rush through the Florida real estate scams of the 1920s. Addison Mizner and Stephen Sondheim both were gay. Sondheim came from a generation that survived homophobic psychoanalysis, yet continued to take comfort from the closet for decades. The composer worked on this particular show for years as it evolved from Gold! to Wise Guys to Bounce before finally opening as Road Show in 2008. “The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me” started out being sung by Wilson Mizner and his wife Nellie in Bounce, but ended up as a comic love duet in Road Show between Addison Mizner and his lover Hollis Bessemer. 

 

After the Omicron covid variant temporarily shut down choirs once again, Vancouver Men’s Chorus gathered online for Zoom rehearsals and weekly fellowship. In January we watched the video of our 2018 concert “Gays of Our Lives,” which showcased songs from our communal history of activism and anger, pride marches and prejudice, loss and love. Sondheim was represented by “The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me.”

 

You can find a recording of the song on YouTube by the actors who played Addison and Hollis in Road Show on Broadway. But my favourite version of “The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me” will always be the duet between tenor David Browning and baritone Alex Burns, backed up by the rest of Vancouver Men’s Chorus.



I spent last Wednesday evening with my two favourite Ukrainian-Canadians: my sister-in-law Kyla Moojalwsky Leishman and VMC founder/conductor Willi Zwozdesky. 

 

I saw Kyla while visiting my brother Doug on the spine floor at Vancouver General Hospital. Then I went to VMC rehearsal, where Willi conducted the entire chorus together in one room and off Zoom for the first time in two years.

 

Willi grew up singing Ukrainian folk songs among immigrants on the Prairies before founding Canada’s first LGBT choir in 1981. At rehearsal on Wednesday, Willi handed out the sheet music for “Mnohiji Ljita,” which means “Many Years” in Ukrainian. It’s the celebration song Ukrainians sing at birthdays. Willi picked “Mnohiji Ljita” because we only had to learn two words repeated over and over. You sing the song twice at normal speed, then a third time very slowly and dramatically.

 

Like every other Ukrainian folk song, “Mnohiji Ljita” usually sounds either like Rachmaninov’s Vespers sung by the Yale Slavic Chorus as a soundtrack to the classic Soviet-era silent movie Battleship Potemkin, or like a vodka-infused group of soldiers linking arms in a Kyiv pub. Sung in four-part harmony by 100 voices from a chorus that survived one plague as a band of brothers only to be silenced temporarily by a new pandemic, “Mnohiji Ljita” sounds like Hope.



In addition to our first real VMC rehearsal in two years, the recent liberalization of BC’s covid restrictions also meant that after rehearsal a group of us were able to gather for drinks at our longstanding watering hole PumpJack. (Sadly, showtune singalong night remains homeless and on indefinite hiatus.)

 

While at PumpJack I chatted with Xavi, a fellow Second Tenor who also happens to be a regular reader of my blog. When I asked him which kinds of anecdotes he prefers, Xavi voted for Gay Sitcom Dad. So over a couple of ginger-infused cidres I regaled him with unprintable stories from my less than fabulous life. Before heading for the border, I thanked Xavi and told him I couldn’t remember the last time I had the opportunity to talk to someone who wasn’t named “Leishman” or “Bear.” (Xavi realizes Bear is the name of my dog, not my porn fantasy.)

 

At rehearsal last week we got copies of the new songs for our June concert that VMC’s stable of arrangers completed during the pandemic. “Chosen Family” is by Rina Sawayama, a Japanese woman who lives in Britain. (Here’s a YouTube link to her singing it as a duet with Elton John.) The lyrics include “We don’t need to be related to relate, we don’t need to share genes or a surname – you are my chosen family.” The best things that ever happened to me are my biological, adoptive, and chosen families.