Saturday, October 28, 2017

Adoption Stories: Sure of You

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind.
‘Pooh!” he whispered.
‘Yes, Piglet?’
‘Nothing,’ said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw.
‘I just wanted to be sure of you.’

I have been reduced to writing blog posts on recycled scraps of paper. In pencil. A particularly dull Number 2 pencil. Because my desk has been looted of both my beloved mechanical pencils and my pencil sharpener. And because the girls have commandeered both computers to finish interminable writing assignments for school.

My disparate daughters have the same 7th grade core class, Language Arts/Social Studies, but they were placed in very contrasting sections. I’ve met both Mr. Sturm and Mr. Gillman. One is a hip dude, sleep-deprived and woozy from new fatherhood. The other is a tightly wound ultra-marathoner. Even though both daughters are studying something called “The Middle Ages,” it makes perfect sense that one is writing a thought piece about feudalism interspersed with dialogue transcribed from the CW network’s Riverdale, while the other is weaving/annotating the story of Macbeth in the style of the Bayeux tapestries, but with emojis.

At our house these days, Writing is the new Reading. I have to compete with the girls for computer time. But so far this year the family's best piece of writing was by my son Oliver, in a home-made Mother’s Day card.

Children with two dads grow up comfortable talking about adoption. We’ve always tried to be honest in an age-appropriate way, answering questions and engaging issues as they arise. All three kids came to us during the era of “open adoption,” long after child psychologists and social workers recognized the harm wrought by prior decades’ secrecy and shame. Still, I’ve observed the same fundamental dynamic at work in a wide variety of adoptive households: For every child curious about her origins, there’s another who is more interested in animals or sports. And for every birthparent who wants to reach out and make a connection, there’s another who still isn’t ready and may never be.

The schools in Bellingham do an excellent job welcoming children from all different kinds of families. The kids’ teachers always remember they need to make at least two Father’s Day cards. Meanwhile, Grandma is the recipient of the Mother’s Day cards and various other objets lovingly created each May.

This year, however, my son came home from school with a card and letter addressed to his birth mother rather than Grandma. In the letter, Oliver explained that he misses his mom, but he understands she’s been busy dealing with stuff, and he hopes that she’s doing well and can see him again soon. He made me promise to mail the card to her. So I tracked down a current address in another part of the state, added a few extra pictures and a note from me, put some stamps on a bottle, and sent my son’s hopeful message out into the world. 

This week my parents invited the kids and me across town so they could check all four of us for signs of scurvy. Grandma observed the girls have grown almost as tall as her. Inspired by signs of incipient maturity, for the first time she assigned Oliver to set the table solo before we all sat down to an excellent meal.

Later that night, as I tucked him in bed, Oliver whined about Grandma’s slave driving. But he knows I will defend my mom no matter what, just as I will defend his birth mother, too. As we lay in the dark a few minutes later, my son quietly asked why his mom hadn’t responded to his Mother’s Day card.

I said she probably didn’t feel ready yet, and it might make her sad to see how much he’d grown in the last seven years. I assured Oliver she’s welcome to spend time with him, and reminded him that no one can take him away from our family, even though she will always be his mother. I said she might be afraid he would judge her, or worry that he wouldn’t have enough love left for her. But I told my son he has such a big heart that I know he has enough love for all of us.    

Oliver sleeps in the queen-sized guest bed, and ordinarily I have lots of pillows and space to myself when we cuddle at bedtime. But last night he pulled me next to him and tightly held my arms as he fell asleep.

Click here for more episodes of Adoption Stories.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Get Out and Stay Out

Despite a title that could have come from one of Harvey Milk’s speeches in 1978, this story is not about the closet (except in the sense that all of my stories are about the closet). The title actually refers to a song by Dolly Parton, from the Broadway musical version of 9 to 5.

One way we know things have gotten better is that LGBT folks no longer wait till their thirties and forties to come out. My best friends in Bellingham and Vancouver both happen to be flakey 20something gay millennials with naturally curly hair. The Vancouver curls are a little darker and longer. My children refer to him as “Your friend from Chorus with The Hair.”

The first time my Bellingham friend hitched a ride with me to Vancouver, he stopped by to check out the Vancouver Men’s Chorus rehearsal. Out together at the pub later, more than one catty VMC queen observed “Hmm, we can see Roger has a type – and it runs the gamut from Light Roast to Dark Roast.”

Before leaping to any conclusions, however, you should be aware that my best gay friend in Seattle is a forty-eight-year-old African-American who shaves his head.  [Ed. note: Does that make him Extra Dark Roast?] Shame on you for your mean stereotypes and hasty generalizations.

Unfortunately/fortunately, my Bellingham friend was so impressed by VMC – both during his initial visit to rehearsal and then over his beer with the guys afterwards at Pumpjack – that he came back the next week, auditioned the following Wednesday, and has joined the Chorus. Now I’m doomed to months of leers and bad jokes. I’ve already gotten “I didn’t know your son was old enough to get into a bar.” Twice. Sigh. At least now I have someone to car pool across the border with. 

In addition to weekly chorus rehearsals from September to June, Wednesdays are also Show Tune Night in Canada. After I had been singing with VMC for a year, someone finally told me I could have clicked my heels together at any time and gone across the street to a club called XY. There I would find a little piece of Marie’s Crisis, my favorite piano bar in New York.

One night a week, coincidentally (?) right after chorus rehearsal ends, anyone in Vancouver can hear and sing great music live. The audience is a mix of middle-aged show tune fans like myself, of all genders and orientations; a bunch of overconfident drama types from the University of British Columbia and/or local theaters; several chorus divas who don’t even bother making an appearance at Pumpjack any more; and a few drunks who probably were expecting to watch hockey on TV. Everyone loves to sing along, even the drunks. It’s fascinating to see who knows the songs from each era. My own tastes and knowledge are pretty comprehensive, other than a gap from 2005 to 2011 when young kids interfered with theater trips.

Previously, my friends Light Roast and Dark Roast would humor me by accompanying me across the street. (Dark Roast would humour me.) But piano bars are not really their thing. So I’ve given them permission to stay at Pumpjack on Wednesdays with their own tribe.

Several talented pianist/singers regularly play on Wednesdays, but the headliner is Kerry O’Donovan, a 30something straight millennial with good hair. Kerry grew up in Vancouver. He makes his living as a musician, stringing together enough local music director and performance gigs to follow his passion. That's a lot easier to do in Canada, with socialized medicine and a real safety net.

Kerry is an exceptionally gifted musician. I haven’t seen him in other settings, but as an habituĂ© of piano bars in New York and elsewhere, I can testify Kerry performs at the very highest level. He could make it anywhere, so we’re lucky he’s right across the border from Bellingham. Some weeks the only reason I go to chorus is to hear Kerry play “Piano Man” and “New York State of Mind” after rehearsal.

Tonight is a special celebration for the second anniversary of Wednesday Show Tune Night, and I’ll be there. Not at Pumpjack. Well, maybe after one beer with the boys.

Live shows have the potential for magic no film or recording can conjure. Every night, the audience and the performer experience an unrepeatable moment. Sometimes everything just comes together. For example, in September 1985, Lincoln Center in New York hosted a concert staging of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. An unparalleled cast of Broadway legends sang some of Sondheim’s best songs. (Barbara Cook sings “Losing My Mind”! Carol Burnett sings “I’m Still Here!” Elaine Stritch rasps her way through “Broadway Baby”!) As James Kirkwood wrote in his liner notes for the album, it was one of those extraordinary events that leave people asking “Where were you on the night of September 6?”

That’s how I felt last week a little after midnight. Without fanfare, Kerry introduced the next song by saying “I love this song so much I asked my friend _____ to come sing it. It’s by Dolly Parton, from 9 to 5.

I know now that Dolly wrote “Get Out and Stay Out” for the Lily Tomlin character Judy to sing near the end of the show. Judy finally has the courage to say no when her abusive ex-husband wants her back. But I’d never heard the song before. Instead, it unfolded for me as a blonde stranger, accompanied by an amazing pianist, began quietly pouring out her soul. The final chorus was triumphant, ending with “So get out and stay out, I’m taking back my life.”  

After the audience’s rousing ovation, there was a moment of awed silence. The tallest of the UBC boys said, “Well, I guess we can all go home now.” But Kerry is such a good musician he managed the transition to his next set, and I enjoyed some more songs and my buzz. Note that after almost two years with VMC, this was my first week where someone else was responsible for driving across the border. I really enjoyed more songs, and especially my buzz.

For the first time, I also had a cozy booth to myself, rather than an uncomfortable and exposed stool. After receiving the usual cryptic millennial text followed by radio silence, I assumed Light Roast would eventually come get me after giving Dark Roast a ride home from Pumpjack. So I let the music wash over me, and mused about some writing I'd been working on. The buzz took me into a trance where I would visualize who might slide into the booth next to me ideally – my date from the week before who hadn’t returned my last text? My drama queen daughter? The cute new tenor? The ambiguously gay UBC theater dude who always asks Kerry to play that song I don’t know from Spring Awakening?

Eventually the fantasies got even wilder: my Seattle choir crush from 1992, now bald? My long-dead childhood best friend from Burnaby? Prince Charming?

When I opened my eyes, Light Roast and Dark Roast were both there to take me home. It’s good to have friends.

More Showtune Night Stories:

"Missing Marie's Crisis" (5/6/17)

"Six Degrees of Kristin Chenoweth" (10/31/18)

"Comfort Animals" (4/24/19)

"I am Third" (5/29/19)

"Spongeworthy" (6/13/19)

"Maybe I Love Showtunes Too Much" (9/17/19)

"Do Gay Androids Dream of Electric Brunch?" (2/26/20)

"A New Brain"  (5/5/20)