Sunday, April 28, 2019

Ungilding the Lily


Readers occasionally ask “Roger, are your stories true?” Lots of readers – not just my mother and my daughter Eleanor.

Absolutely.


On the other hand, I never promised the whole truth, or nothing but the truth.

Unlike practitioners of certain dubious fiction genres, a memoirist can't get away with describing too many implausible coincidences in a row. Nevertheless, these stories all involve my bizarrely logocentric/charmed/cursed life. As you may have noticed, coincidence abounds. 

Numerous ruthless deletions are therefore necessary in order to avoid straining credulity, or exhausting readers’ patience.


For example, my recent essay about an off-Broadway-inspired epiphany begins with the sentence “Sometimes the universe speaks directly to you through music.” As you read “Comfort Animals,” you probably guessed something like this was going through my mind last Wednesday at Showtune Night:

“Here I am sitting at the piano bar in Vancouver, pondering a major life mystery – say, what’s this intriguing showtune I’ve never heard before?”

That's true. But here’s how the draft essay originally began:

The piano player at Showtune Night in Canada, Kerry O’Donovan, likes to point out when he’s playing a “hat-trick” of three songs connected by a single theme – such as Kander & Ebb showstoppers made famous by Liza Minnelli, or anthems introduced by Disney villains. 

Last Wednesday, Kerry surprised us by announcing his first “double hat-trick” – six songs from different shows, all focused on the same word. As the audience leaned in, Kerry started with “Times Like This,” from Lucky Stiff:

A friendly face
The kind of face
That melts you with a grin
The kind of eyes that welcome you
The minute you walk in
A tender glance
You simply can't refuse

Times like this, a guy could use ... a ________.1

Sometimes the universe speaks directly to you through music. Despite my recent plague of boils and other challenges, I’ve been in a shockingly good mood lately....

Snore. Too much clumsy exposition. Even if it's all true.

1I’m not filling in the blank. Put down your knitting and go read Comfort Animals.” It’s pretty good. Particularly the editing.


More than one reader has accused me of endlessly meandering before I get to the point. Would it comfort you to know that, at least in their early drafts, most of my blog essays started out with at least three additional introductions, and two bonus conclusions? [Ed. Note: Just like Lord of the Rings.] You should be grateful all the extra prefaces and postscripts are usually composted before publication.

Writing is like sculpture: sometimes the most important part of the artistic process is chipping stuff away.


Every edit is intended to serve the story, to find the right word, and to make the narrative flow. I wouldn’t add or omit anything that fundamentally alters the story. The truth is usually more than enough.

On the other hand, “materiality” can depend on context. The same obviously exaggerated detail in one telling might be misleading in another account, when were focused on different themes or events. 

You’ll have to trust me. Don’t I strike you as a pretty reliable narrator?

For example, I was indeed pondering the reason for my suspiciously cheery mood just as Kerry introduced "Times Like This." However, I did not attempt to transcribe the lyrics from my memory of what he actually sang last Wednesday. They're a blur. Instead, I found a comprehensive educational webpage with reliable links to theatrical lyrics. I picked the verses of the song I wanted to quote, and divided them into the two short excerpts that ultimately appear in “Comfort Animals.”

I made a few minor edits to the lyrics, such as omitting the plot-specific introduction, and changing the text to suitably gendered pronouns. I also borrowed the revised phrase “At times like this a person could use another ____” from Katherine McPhee’s charming version of the song on YouTube. 

So it's a true story. More or less.


Face it, deep down I’m an English Major. I can’t just turn off my editor function – I’m not Microsoft Word, or Apple autocorrect.

Or, if you prefer, you can blame my obsessive editing on the traumas I endured in my past. As with other PTSD sufferers, those traumatic events left me with various compulsive behaviours, such as hair pulling. And copy editing.

Regardless, the Oxford comma is not negotiable.




Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Comfort Animals


Sometimes the universe speaks directly to you through music.

Vancouver’s weekly Showtune Sing-a-long Night is back, so last Wednesday after chorus rehearsal I was in my usual corner of the bar, sipping water. No alcohol – I was finishing a round of antibiotics to kill what currently looks like a mere bullet wound in my chest. 

Despite my recent plague of boils and other challenges, I’ve been in a shockingly good mood lately. My attitude seems even sunnier than would be justified by my improved mental health and my imagined career prospects. As I sat listening in the dark, I wondered what mysterious X-factor had been giving an extra lift to my spirits since the beginning of the year.

The piano player, Kerry O’Donovan, is a student of obscure musicals. Last Wednesday he introduced a song from an off-Broadway show I wasn't familiar with, Lucky Stiff. (Apparently it has a convoluted plot involving a contested will, Monte Carlo casinos, corpses with mistaken identities, and stolen diamonds.) Just as I was musing about what recent development might be boosting my cheer, Kerry began singing “Times Like This”:

Other people need
Romance, dancing, playing around
Other people need constant fun
Well I'm not one
I have my feet on the ground

Give me a quiet night
A stack of books
A tuna melt on rye
A simple walk together
Underneath the starry sky

And, suddenly, 
The night is something grand
And all because
There's someone special there
Who's gazing at the view
His head upon...your shoes

At times like this
I sure could use....
A dog

(Click here for a short version on YouTube sung by the lovely Katherine McPhee.)


Over the holidays I had to move out of my comfortable Bellingham rental house. Since then, my ex and I have been experimenting with letting the kids stay full time in one place. That means I’ve been spending alternate weeks in a ranch house with two charming Aussiedoodles. I’m loving it.
                 
As I recently wrote in “Guncle Again,” my kids are pretty useless as pet-owners. But they provide enough help to keep the dogs from feeling like a burden. More importantly, my ex and his husband are down the hill at the apartment if any real problems arise. Alternate weeks I’m away in Vancouver, or at my parents’ animal-free house. The dogs are ecstatic when I return. I feel like a fabulous gay uncle again.


Even the most adorable pet is not the same thing as a comfort animal. Moreover, neither a pet nor a comfort animal qualifies as a service animal. Here's a free legal primer:

The narrow definition of “service animal” includes

any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disabilityOther species of animals, whether wild or domestic, trained or untrained, are not service animals for the purposes of this definition. The work or tasks performed by a service animal must be directly related to the individual's disability…. The crime deterrent effects of an animal's presence and the provision of emotional support, well-being, comfort, or companionship do not constitute work or tasks for the purposes of this definition.1

            1If you relish raw legalese, you can read the full federal regulation itself at 28 CFR § 35.136. Or, if you prefer, here’s a handy FAQ published by the US Department of Justice  back when it was into justice. 

Under both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination, every government agency and every place of public accommodation must welcome service animals. If it isn't already obvious that the dog is a service animal, proprietors may ask only two specific questions:

(1) Is the dog a service animal required because of a disability?  
(2) What work or task has the dog been trained to perform?
Service dogs do not need to be specially registered or certified as trained. However, Washington now imposes a $500 fine for falsely identifying Fluffy as a service animal. 

As a separate matter, employers must consider any disabled employee’s request to bring a service animal to work under the same legal framework that requires a “reasonable accommodation” of the employee's disability, based on the circumstances of the particular employment situation. 

There’s exactly one exception to the rules limiting service animals to dogs:  miniature horses. Apparently they’re a thing.


The definition of a “comfort animal,” also known as an “emotional support animal” or “assistance animal,” covers much more than service dogs:
An assistance animal works, provides assistance, or performs tasks for the benefit of a person with a disability, or provides emotional support that alleviates one or more identified symptoms or effects of a person's disability. For purposes of reasonable accommodation requests, federal law does not require an assistance animal to be individually trained or certified. While dogs are the most common type of assistance animal, other animals can also be assistance animals.
Recently we’ve seen an increasing variety of comfort animals in two contexts covered by different federal laws. The first is transportation. According to an article in Forbes, US airlines carried a million animals in their passenger cabins in 2017, mostly supposed comfort animals – representing species from peacocks, to monkeys, to snakes. The airlines and Congress have been pushing back at passenger abuses, and the Department of Transportation is working on new regulations that are likely to impose significant new restrictions.

The second area is housing, where comfort animals are here to stay. Landlords from college dormitories to public housing projects to fancy apartment complexes are busy developing policies that override anti-pet rules. They must accommodate a wide variety of comfort animals, while attempting to balance the rights of nondisabled residents.

Outside of the transportation and housing contexts, individual businesses are generally free to make their own decision whether to welcome comfort animals. Or plain old pets.


Although I’ve never been a pet person myself, I’ve observed how pets brighten many other people’s lives. Just like country music, and knitting.

However, I learned the power of comfort animals on the night I hosted the worst dinner party ever. I’ll save the details for some occasion when I’m in a sufficiently safe place – i.e., after I find a job, an apartment, and a boyfriend. As a preview, no host should have to explain to a guest’s date that just because you're from the South doesn't mean you're allowed to use the n-word in the hot tub. 

I suppose the fiasco was partly my fault. I’m a big believer in the Greek concept of “xenia” or gracious hospitality, so I try to accommodate everyone. Moreover, as a codependent person I acquired a stable of needy friends and acquaintances whose dysfunctions I (formerly) could not resist enabling. Nevertheless, even codependent hosts do not anticipate having two separate dinner guests bring small yappy dogs without prior notice or permission. 

For now, I'll limit myself to explaining how one of the dogs showed up on Whidbey Island. Let’s call the non-Southern dog-bringer “Hot Mess.” He’s a longtime Seattle friend who comes from a similar religious and mental health background as mine, but with bonus substance abuse issues. Still, he’s a nice guy, and in the past he’d enjoyed fun visits to the island. I’d told him he was welcome to come back for another weekend if he could make his way up to the Mukilteo ferry himself. However, as Hot Mess went through yet another difficult period, I was confident that he was incapable of the complex organizational tasks involved in coordinating various buses, boats, and trains.

I did not realize that Hot Mess had acquired a small comfort dog. Apparently it fits inside his leather jacket, and soothes him when he has an episode. After alarming numerous public servants and fellow travelers along the way, Hot Mess and his dog arrived on the island just in time for dinner and the ensuing chaos.


Recently I went over to the other house to help my daughter with homework, even though it was my week staying across town with my parents. Afterwards I took the dogs for a long walk through the arboretum. For a little pick-me-up.

So I should have been more prepared for my epiphany at Showtune Night, when Kerry sang about what a couple of Aussiedoodle comfort animals can do for your mental health:

My idea of company would be
A friendly face
The kind of face
That melts you with a grin
The kind of eyes that welcome you
The minute you walk in
A tender glance
You simply can't refuse

Times like this, a guy could use...another dog

He listens when you tell him things
There's nothing you can't say
And unlike certain people
You can teach him how to stay

And if the world
is giving you the blues
He cheers you up 
by chewing up the news

It's things like that
That make you choose...a dog


But.

When I arrived home from Showtune Night in Canada, I discovered my favorite jammies were missing. It turns out worn flannel is just as irresistible to chewy dogs as bad news and holey underwear.

So I sighed, and temporarily banished Bear and Buster from my bedroom. Facing codependency is all about establishing healthy boundaries. With dogs, it’s good to be a Guncle.


More Showtune Night Stories:


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

"Get Out and Stay Out" (10/18/17)

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

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

"Spongeworthy" (6/13/19)






Sunday, April 21, 2019

Shazam!


I've never been into comic books, and I grew up before Christopher Reeve’s Superman kicked off the cinematic superhero renaissance. Instead, I saw my first superhero on Saturday morning television. My introduction to the caped-crusader universe was Shazam!, which ran on CBS from 1974 to 1977.1

1Adam West’s TV Batman is not an actual superhero, and he doesn’t have real superpowers. He’s more of a camp icon, like RuPaul.

“Shazam” is the magic word teenaged Billy Batson says when he transforms back and forth into his buff alter ego. It’s an acronym that comes from the names of the six heroes who give Billy his superpowers during the series’ animated title sequence - Solomon, HerculesAtlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury.

When the character made its comic book debut in 1939 he was named “Captain Marvel.” Subsequent trademark disputes left DC Comics owning the character but not the title, so he’s been re-branded as Shazam. The exclamation mark must be a surname.


Appropriately for its 1970s Saturday morning timeslot, Shazam! was a blatant Public Service Announcement, with cheesy production values. Billy rode around California with his unimaginatively-named mentor “Mentor.” He performed such heroic deeds as preventing reckless joyriding, and catching high school students who cheat on tests. Each 30-minute episode ended with a clumsy moral lesson. I don’t remember much else about the show, other than the rad mobile home and the mounds of feathered hair.

Shazam! was paired with The Secrets of Isis, which Wikipedia helpfully encapsulates as a show “about an Ancient Egyptian superheroine resurrected in the body of a schoolteacher.” Like Shazam, Isis would say her ancient name in order to switch between alter egos. However, instead of provoking lightning bolts, her transformation involved an eerily diminishing echo: “Oh Mighty Isis” (“Isis Isis Isis Isis….”). I still mimic its timing in my head every time Vancouver Men’s Chorus sings a decrescendo.   

Gratuitous chorus shout-out - #vmc70sShow
Tickets go on sale Wednesday at www.vancouvermenschorus.ca

My son Oliver is currently in fifth grade, which means this is the last year we’ll enjoy elementary school early release on Thursdays and get to see matinees without his sisters. 

It's been a while since we went to a movie. Oliver turned up his nose at Missing Link and How To Train Your Dragon 3, and I vetoed Hellboy and Pet Semetary. Obviously we’ll be seeing Avengers: Endgame soon. In the meantime, this week we agreed on the new Shazam! movie.


We both enjoyed Shazam!  In contrast with DC Comics’ recent string of dark and brooding movies, it was refreshing to watch a superhero having unadulterated fun.

As I’d gathered from the pre-opening buzz, Shazam! is reminiscent of 1988’s charming Big. Like Tom Hanks, actor Zachary Levi does an excellent job of channeling teenaged Billy’s glee with his new powers to zap things and to buy beer without an ID. The homage is not limited to subtext. During a chase in a mall, Shazam comes upon an oversized piano keyboard on the floor, and can’t resist pausing to stomp out a few notes.


What surprised me about Shazam! was how long it took to get to the fun – and the emotionally bleak landscape we had to wander through first. 

The movie begins with a couple of flashbacks. The future hero and the future supervillain both are rejected by their families of origin, and grow up bitter and broken. Young Billy Batson’s story begins with his single mother at an amusement park. His mom wins a lame plastic compass at a seedy arcade game, rather than the cool tiger Billy had his eye on. She tells him the compass will always lead him home. Billy immediately drops his compass, and then gets lost in the crowd as he tries to retrieve it. His mother disappears, and Billy grows up in the foster system. 

During the next decade, Billy runs away from numerous foster homes because he’s on a quest to find his mother. For the first thirty minutes I kept wondering if we'd wandered into the wrong movie theatre. 


Billy’s foster system origin story shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. When I saw the Shazam! trailer the last time Oliver and I went to the movies, my favorite moment came when Billy meets his new foster brother. Freddy is a motor mouth who can’t help joking about disaster, and everything else. He ends his spiel to Billy with a deadpan “You look at me, and you’re like ‘Why so dark, you’re a disabled foster kid – you’ve got it all.’”

Midway through the movie, Billy is placed in an ideal group home, headed by an interracial couple who both are alumni of the foster system themselves. My favorite character in the movie indeed turned out to be Freddy, who copes with challenges he can’t hide by saying too much. The other foster kids in the home take different approaches to their situation: the wordless big guy, the overachieving good girl, the Asian teen who disappears into technology, the excessively-affectionate little black girl. Like all coping mechanisms, eventually each approach can get in the way of your growth. 

The group home’s multiracial mix feels like the kids were ordered off a menu from Central Casting. But one of the pleasures of a non-biological family is how it stirs up the gene pool. You’re much less likely to end up with four brothers sharing identical foreheads and the same stoic sarcasm.

After some initial prickliness, Billy bonds with his new siblings. The Asian hacker brother tracks down Billy’s birth mother, and he confronts her in a brutally unsentimental reunion. She’s in another abusive relationship, and can’t let him into the apartment. She admits that she saw young Billy after he disappeared into the crowd at the amusement park, but she decided he was better off without her. Before returning to the group home, Billy gives her the plastic compass, saying she needs it more than him. His mom doesn’t even remember it. As one critic observed, the scene is an example of “what Shazam! gets right about the emotions of foster children.”

As I’ve previously recounted, the foster system is filled with tragedies and epic failures. Nevertheless, there really are heroic foster/adopt parents out there who take on tough challenges like Billy and Freddy. Kudos to intrepid foster parents like Amanda, Goran & John, and Jack.


This June for Pride Month, Netflix is releasing a sequel to the classic miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis will return as Mary Ann Singleton and her mysterious landlady Anna Madrigal. 

Maupin titled his recent memoir Logical Families. Like Maupin’s novels – and indeed like a significant percentage of all queer literature – his memoir focuses on the “logical” families people find or create when their “bio-logical” families cannot or will not welcome them. Gay choruses, lesbian friendship clusters, LGBT softball leagues, and similar chosen families provide the safe space we all need to thrive.

Watching Shazam! with the son I adopted from the foster system reminded me of the wide variety of non-biological families that can rise from the ashes of tragedy and disappointment – still broken in some ways, yet stronger together. 


These final two sections are adapted from an essay I published in October 2017, “Sure of You”:

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.

A couple of years ago my son came home from school with a homemade Mother's Day card and a letter addressed to his birth mother. 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. 


A few weeks later, my parents invited the kids and me across town so they could check all four of us for signs of scurvy. Inspired by signs of incipient maturity, for the first time Grandma assigned Oliver to set the table solo before we all sat down to an excellent meal.

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. [Ed. Note: Oliver’s birth mother still hasn’t responded.]

I told Oliver 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 him 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 that night he pulled me next to him and tightly held my arms as he fell asleep.


Happy Easter from Bellingham and Vancouver

Click here for links to more essays about our family’s experiences with adoption 
and the Washington state foster system




Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Holy Underwear


My son Oliver’s wicked gaming skills have earned him an invitation to some kind of Fortnite all-star tournament. According to Oliver, there’s a $1 million prize. He says that if he wins he won’t get anything for his sisters. But the first thing he’ll do is buy me a new car.

Me too.


I have a social worker friend who worked with military families for many years. When I told him about my PTSD diagnosis, he asked when I anticipated being back at work. I said I hoped it wouldn’t take more than six months. He looked at me, paused, and said “Trauma can take a long time.”

One of my writing files, labeled “Longterm Unemployment,” includes my increasingly voluminous musings on the various implications of having your life derailed indefinitely. Most of the stories are too triggering or at least too disheartening to share yet. But I think I’ve made enough progress to tell this one.


Before Vancouver Men’s Chorus rehearsal on Wednesdays, I usually go to my favorite coffee shop on Commercial Drive. The regular barista and I are buds. A few weeks ago my receipt had the tell-tale coloured stripe signaling it’s time to change the ribbon. I laughed, and told her I’d done laundry that morning. You know it’s time when you’re down to the pair of underwear that’s wholly holes. 

When the barista brought my quad americano to the table where I was typing on my laptop, she smiled and said, “Did you know economists can predict when a recession is about to end by observing when men start buying new underwear?” 


Deferred maintenance, whether it’s involves your house, car, wardrobe, or body, is something you think you can ignore forever. Until you can’t.

Still, I was doing fine before I moved into a house with two Aussiedoodles.


Bear and Buster are chewers. Their favorite chew toy, even more than bones, socks, or fuzzy things, is stolen underwear.

Considering I still don’t have a real job, can either of these items of intimate apparel be characterized as “sexy” holey underwear? 


Yesterday I drove to Seattle for oral argument at the Washington Court of Appeals in my lawsuit against the bottom-feeding private investigator firm that colluded with my former employers to evade their responsibilities under the Washington Law Against Discrimination and the Rules of Professional Conduct. The court will issue its ruling in a few weeks. On a Monday. I offer no predictions, but I remain hopeful. 

Regardless of the outcome of the case, I’m glad to reach the end of this particular chapter of my life. To celebrate, on the way home to Bellingham I stopped at the Premium Outlet mall, where I bought two heavily-discounted packages of underwear at the Calvin Klein store. 

No holes yet. Except for what looks like a bullet wound in my chest where the recent alien bacterial infection had been burrowing.1

1Trust me, you don’t want to see pictures. And this comes from the guy who posted a photo of his inflamed left nipple on the internet last week.

At the courthouse - last beard picture until Fall




Wednesday, April 10, 2019

“Can I order the frogs instead?”


After surviving Spring Break with the kids, last weekend I drove back up to Canada for Retreat with Vancouver Men’s Chorus. Since 1990, the men of VMC have spent an annual weekend together at an environmental education center halfway between Vancouver and Whistler. (If you watched the television show Legion on FX, you’ll recognize our cafeteria as the good guys’ hideout.) 

In addition to fifteen grueling hours of singing, Retreat is filled with numerous traditional bonding experiences. This year the Friday evening rehearsal segued to a welcome social, drag contest, disco dance, and mega-Twister game. Each night we stay up till the wee hours for s’mores, alcohol, and sing-a-longs at the fire pit. Eventually it will be late enough to burst into our conductor Willi’s cabin and serenade him with his least favourite song, “Amazing Grace.” Ah, Tradition.

On Saturday night we have “Skits.” We bring our own custom-made theatrical curtains and lighting equipment. Each of the four musical sections prepares a skit using themes based on our current concert season. The trophy for the winning section looks like the Stanley Cup, and is more coveted. Because our June concert is all music from the 1970s, the theme this year was “The Carol Burnett Show.” All four skits featured at least one outfit with a curtain rod, as well as multiple be-wigged Carols.

This year the Basses edged out the ever-deserving Second Tenors for the Skits trophy. Then I went straight to bed.


The first couple of times I attended VMC Retreat, I was still in a state of shock from my PTSD diagnosis and the horrific treatment by my incompetent and bigoted former employers. One of the worst of my new symptoms was a crippling increase in social anxiety, particularly around other gay men. As a result, at Retreat I mostly sat in corners and avoided making eye contact with anyone. 

As I’ve attempted to document through my writing, my mental health has greatly improved in the last couple of years. So I was particularly looking forward to Retreat this year. I signed up to stay in the cabin with the fun Second Tenors. I brought a couple of bottles of Barrister red wine from Trader Joe’s. I talked to strangers. I even started a mental Top 10 list for the category “If I were buzzed enough to finally kiss someone from the Chorus, who would it be?” (As I’ve previously mentioned, at my parents’ insistence no one under age 30 is allowed in the top five slots.)

Sadly, it turned out to be yet another thoroughly anti-social weekend in the woods.


As with Seattle Men’s Chorus and Windy City Gay Chorus, VMC’s annual mantra is “what happens at Retreat stays at Retreat.” After reading this essay, or at least after seeing a couple of the pictures, you may agree that’s a good rule.

What happened at Retreat this year was on Friday evening I noticed a tender red bump on my chest. I couldn’t find evidence of an ingrown hair or anything, so I assumed it was the kind of random allergic over-reaction to a spider bite that occasionally happens to me. (One time I needed a Benadryl shot because I reacted to a seafood stew by turning red as a lobster, but only from the waist up.) This time I felt like you do when you wake up with a sore nipple because some guy insisted on kneading it for hours – “he wasn’t that hot, this is totally not worth it.”

When I woke up Saturday morning, there was a swollen red area covering a quarter of my chest. It felt like aliens had heated a strand of barbed wire and implanted it under my left nipple. I understand there are guys in the Chorus who think that sounds sexy, but they’re confusing my situation with nipple piercings on the outside of your skin.

All day long the blotch got bigger and hotter. I tracked down some Benadryl and Voltaren, which seemed to slow down the red expansion. But I still had to spend most of my non-singing time hiding in my sleeping bag, shaking with pain and chills. All weekend long I lived in terror that Fabyo, our personal-space-disregarding Second Tenor, would hug me and provoke a piercing Banshee scream.

On Saturday night I didn’t want to miss the Skits. But the pain was excruciating. So I roofied myself with a cocktail of herbs, spices, Benadryl, red wine, Allegra, etc. I made it through all four skits, although one friend accused me of closing my eyes during the Baritones’ performance. I do remember seeing the evening’s obvious highlight – David as Humphrey as Marie Kondo – before passing out in my sleeping bag. In any event, I managed to undo months of progress with my social anxiety. Once again, everyone in the Chorus must think I’m some kind of zombie.


On Sunday evening I limped home to Bellingham. I collapsed in a heap at my parents’ house, as I have invariably done in times of crisis for almost forty years.

Ever since my daughter Eleanor was diagnosed at birth as a Drama Queen, I've been seeking a suitable antonym for “hypochondriac.” Currently I favor “la belle indifference.” Mosby’s Medical Dictionary defines this term as: “an air of unconcern displayed by some patients toward their physical symptoms.” Despite my daughter’s hypochondriac example, I’ve never been to a hospital or an emergency room on my own behalf. Interacting with my parents this week reminded me exactly where I get my belle indifference.

My parents expressed sympathy and horror at my throbbing breast. But their advice was completely predictable:  “Get some sleep and we’ll see where things are in the morning.” Frankly that’s the same thing I would tell my kids, or anyone else. (Best Heuristic Ever.) It’s good to know where I get my excellent judgment from.

I also realized that as long as I retain any voluntary muscle function, I’m never going to be sick enough to go to an emergency room. Fortunately, being surrounding by loving family means that if really need medical assistance, someone will take me to the ER as soon as I lose consciousness. Then the emergency room stops being an indefensibly profligate expense. That’s another irrationally frugal rule I inherited from my parents, along with our prohibitions on long-distance telephone calls, buying food at movie theatre concessions, and paying for parking when you can walk a couple of blocks or miles instead.


I’ve come to accept that Divine Providence has a Purpose for all the various plagues besetting me over the last few years:   they were meant to bring me home to live with my parents so I can explain technology in terms they will understand, since apparently no one else speaks their language. 

Confidentiality obligations prevent me from revealing any details about this week’s Wi-Fi and cable TV consultations. But let me tell you about my parents’ thermometers.

Before going to bed on Sunday, I wanted to confirm that I didn’t have a serious fever. Even I know there’s such a thing as Too Darn Hot. So my mother sent me up to the medicine cabinet in what is still referred to as “the boys’ bathroom.” I found two primitive glass mercury thermometers that were obviously purchased in a previous millennium.

Roger:             I was expecting something that beeps.

Grandma:        Ooh, they’re much too expensive.

Roger:             They cost less than a candy bar at Walgreens.

Grandpa:         When I donate blood, they have a thermometer that doesn’t even touch you.

Roger:             Those ones are much too expensive.

I tried to take my temperature with these archaic instruments, but neither worked. In an amusing role reversal, my parents made fun of my lack of technological prowess. (“Have you tried turning it off and on?”) However, on closer examination, we discovered there wasn’t any mercury left in either thermometer. So we all went to bed.

I want to know where the mercury went, and when.


On Monday morning I went to the walk-in clinic that’s included with our insurance. The first time I visited was a couple of years ago, when my daughter Eleanor “absolutely” needed an updated school sports physical exam “that day.” 

By now it felt like the aliens had implanted a radioactive Easter egg under my left nipple, with a barbed-wire garnish on top. I’ve been trying to figure out what the shiny little lump looks like – a scorpion? Ruth Bader Ginsberg? A penis? You tell me.   

The doctor prescribed a round of industrial-strength antibiotics. She warned me that the infection was still progressing, and there was a 50/50 chance I’d eventually have to come back and have fluid drained. In the meantime the alien intrusion is huge, rock hard, horribly tender, and itches uncontrollably. It's started oozing blood and ruining my shirts. Nevertheless, I'm still driving up to Vancouver for Chorus rehearsal and Showtunes Night. Remind me that the antibiotics will make me projectile vomit if I try drinking alcohol.

Before I left the clinic, the doctor got a sterilized Sharpie out of its packaging, and marked the extent of the red blotch as of Monday at 10 am. But first she hesitated. “This is how we’re supposed to track changes in the inflammation, but I’ve never had to draw a circle on someone there before.”