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 last 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.”






1 comment:

  1. Roger, you poor booger! I sincerely apologize if I hugged you. I don't believe I did because I have this vague suspicion that that would invade your space. I am rather a hugger, but I have learned in VMC that hugging can appear to be taking liberties and might even have a sexual connotation. I have always made it a policy to avoid touching the younger men in the chorus.
    I played piano for the National Ballet School for 32 years. Of course, I would never touch a student. Being with young adults coloured my approach to being socially physical outside The School. My motto was "No hair? Don't go there!" That was my rationale for deciding if someone was too young to risk appearing intimate even if I was just being friendly.
    I was only 24 in 1976 when I started playing for The School, so that involved a bit of work because those grads were almost my age when they were starting their professional careers. I had just come from university where it was acceptable to be intimate with guys ~ because they were in university.
    Anywayz, back to your blemish...I sincerely hope you were able to have SOME fun at Retreat despite dealing with that horrendous discomfort. The singing was great, and the skits were fun...mostly. I will not get into any of that.
    I am hoping you will be feeling much better very soon.
    Are you going to attend the CANTUS concert tomorrow or the Van Man Summit on Saturday? I understand you have the family to spend time with.
    BTW your description of your family dynamics was SO funny. I love how you write.

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