Saturday, July 6, 2024

My First

The very first concert I ever attended was at the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah, in September 1981. I saw Barry Manilow.

I’d arrived as a clueless freshman at Brigham Young University three weeks before. During my time at BYU, I was confused about my own sexual orientation. I was also oblivious to the fact that most of my college friends were gay, too. And the fact that Barry Manilow is gay.

Years later, a friend who had been part of BYU’s secret gay underground told me a story about the Barry Manilow concert. Apparently afterwards an unmarked car full of BYU security officers followed Manilow and his posse forty-five mile north to the Sun Tavern, Salt Lake City’s gay bar.

Last week I drove with my daughter Eleanor for seven hours so we could see singer-songwriter Noah Kahan at The Gorge Amphitheater. I waited for five hours in the desert, mostly in arbitrary lines fueling monopolistic profit. It was too hot, too muggy, and then too cold. We got home at 3:30 am the next morning. It was amazing.

I’ve been to other classic outdoor concert venues, like Red Rocks and Ravinia. I saw Sting play Park City, with Stewart Copeland sitting in on drums. Seattle used to host concerts on a waterfront pier where I saw artists like Indigo Girls and Lyle Lovett sing as sailboats passed by.  

I’d heard of the Gorge, of course, and its reputation as a concert venue. I’d had opportunities to attend shows before. My inevitable response: “All that driving just to sit in the desert?”

I’ve always been more into theater than music performances anyway, except for eras when I’ve gone to concerts with the handful of partners whose musical taste I absorbed. With my mother I’ve seen Great American Songbook masters like Barbara Cook and Kristin Chenoweth. My boyfriend in Chicago was a lesbian, at least musically, so he dragged me to Ani DiFranco, Tori Amos, Alanis Morrisette, and Natalie Merchant. My ex in Seattle was more twee – we saw Belle & Sebastian twice. 

Now Eleanor is my go-to concert date. Our first show after covid was Harry Styles at the Tacoma Dome.

Eleanor went to her first concert with a friend. It was also Eleanor’s first outdoor concert, at the Muckleshoot Tribe’s Wind River Amphitheater near Seattle. She saw the Jonas Brothers. As we drove to the Gorge, I asked Eleanor which Jonas brother is “the cute one.” She picked Joe. (Wrong – the correct answer is Nick.) 

According to Eleanor, the highlight of the Jonas Brothers concert was their opening act, a rising country star named Kelsea Ballerini. On the same day we went to the Gorge, Noah Kahan released a new duet with Kelsea:  “Cowboys Cry Too.”

Noah Kahan’s concert at the Gorge sold out long ago. Thirty thousand people stood on the darkening hillside for his entire two hour set. We watched a talented and suddenly successful young musician connect with the crowd for a one-night-only performance on the day his breakthrough single “Stick Season” hit a billion Spotify streams.

Kahan writes openly about living with anxiety and depression. His charity benefits mental illness programs. As an extra encore at the Gorge, Kahan performed “Young Blood.” He introduced it as the first song he ever wrote. Looking out at the vast crowd, he told us “I remember feeling really lost. I wrote this song so that when I got older and if I had a music career, I could remember where I came from and what it was like to feel alone.”

It Gets Better and Better. If I were a little smarter, I would have recognized fatherhood was my destiny a little sooner. But then I wouldn’t be going to amazing concerts with Eleanor.

Sunday, March 3, 2024

Where Everyone Knows Bear's Name

As my health improves and my legal cases wind down, I’ve begun applying for post-lawyer and law-adjacent jobs. Recently a friend suggested I reach out to a local bar leader to chat about his experiences. Although we have mutual friends, I wrote in my introductory email that we hadn’t met.

He graciously invited me to lunch next week. But he disagreed with me:

“By the way, we have already met in Fairhaven. Your dog Bear and my dog have met at least.”

Everyone knows Bear. And Bear knows everyone – especially everyone who’s ever offered him a treat.

Bear’s ideal walk is a six mile “Grand Slam,” which involves three treats in Fairhaven, two along the Boardwalk, and four downtown. The newest addition to our route is the bank. Recently their security guard saw us in the parking lot and asked where we were going. I told him I was using the ATM after going across the street to the post office to get my mail and Bear’s treat. The guard told us our longtime Chase branch also has treats. Now Bear is a regular customer.


When the tellers first met him last month, Bear was still wearing a tee shirt to protect his bite wound. I got to tell everyone the story of how an unleashed bulldog named “Bubbles” almost killed Bear at Christmas. On our next visit to the bank, the goofy bro teller was the one who brought out the dog treat. He asked if my wife had been in a couple of days ago with Bear. He remembered a lot of the details about Bear and Bubbles. But he didn’t remember me. 

Most days our first stop is at Village Books in Fairhaven. As Bear lunged toward the front door yesterday, I heard a gentleman on the sidewalk with his golden retriever marvel “They let dogs into the bookstore?” 


Not only are dogs welcome in Village Books, but there are treats waiting behind each counter. Bear knows our rule – only one treat per establishment per walk. But he’s allowed to say hi and get backrubs from his friends at any counter. So Bear will try to get me distracted enough for him to bum an extra biscuit off some weak-willed bookseller.  


I heard the internal Village Book staff newsletter announced Bear had a haircut this week. Everyone is startled by the contrast. Yesterday a clerk at one of the counters leaned down to ask my dog if he wanted a treat. Then she saw me and realized it was a shorn Bear. 


At least she recognized me. But she only knows Bear’s name.

The best treats are at Chrysalis Inn, the biggest treats are at Rumors, and the most treats are at Village Books. But Bear would say the best company is at Acme Ice Cream. 

A sign on the door identifies Acme as “dog friendly.” The photo montage of canine regulars on the wall prominently features Bear. In addition to sharing waffle cone fragments and gourmet treats from Mud Bay, the ice cream scooping baristas have taught Bear to shake. On busy days, Bear charms new customers while patiently waiting in line. On quiet days, the ice cream scoopers and I socialize while Bear enjoys getting scratched. 


When Bear and I started our long daily walks during covid, the manager Maddie asked me to introduce myself. Since then every Acme employee has always greeted both Bear and me by name.

When Eleanor and Lynn had frequent braces appointments on the other side of downtown, Bear and I would often go on waterfront walks through Squalicum Harbor. There used to be a coffee shop in the marina with homemade dog treats. Whenever we’re in the neighborhood years later, Bear will drag me across acres of parking lots to see if this particular coffee shop has reopened.


The former coffee shop’s owner recently opened a pastry place downtown. Yesterday I went in to check out the wares, tying up Bear outside. The cashier looked out the window and exclaimed “I love Bear’s haircut!” She told me she knows Bear because she’s friends with one of the ice cream scoopers at Acme. 

The bank, post office, and gay bar are all closed on Saturday mornings, so Bear’s only treat option downtown is Avelino Coffeehouse. I go to Avelino for the exceptional baked goods and to show off Bear’s manners.


Yesterday a man with two canes ahead of us in line was invited to give Bear his treat at the counter. The man walked out beaming, and said “That made my day!”

I never tasted coffee until I was twenty-five. Now I’m a terrible coffee snob. In fact, since the Terminal Building burnt down in December, there’s only one place in Bellingham where I’ll order coffee.   


A couple of years ago Facebook kept sending me links to articles with headlines like “Best Coffee Shops in America!” that highlighted Bellingham’s Camber café. Eventually Bear and I passed Camber on one of our walks downtown. Here’s the sign next to the door:

We love dogs, we love your dog, however:  for health and safety reasons we must ask that you do not bring your dog past the front counter. The only exception is if they are a registered service animal with a vest.


Please wait outside with them and we will bring your drink out to you.

Everyone is very welcoming to Bear as we wait to be served at the counter. Then Bear and I go outside on the patio where I give him water and a treat from my backpack. 


I’m sure their dog treats would be delicious, but Camber doesn’t serve pets. Instead, Camber has amazing coffee. The ambiance is elegant yet comfortable. And they remember my drink. Last month the barista came outside and said “the order said an Americano with walking room and three shots, but I assumed it was a mistake and you wanted four.” 


Although I only visit Camber a couple of times a month, I’m always greeted by name. The last time I stopped by alone, the woman at the counter called me “Roger” and asked how “your dog” was doing. I’m sure all the baristas at Camber know Bear’s name. But they know I don’t need to hear it with my coffee.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Kosher Dogs

I was ten or eleven years old when I saw my first musical. It was a touring show at Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre called Saturday’s Warrior. After the Broadway successes of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, a group of musicians from Brigham Young University attempted to translate Mormon culture into musical theater. Saturday’s Warrior is about a family resisting worldly temptation and trying to get back to heaven together.


December 2023 found me back at the Queen E. This time I was onstage at the Vancouver Playhouse in front of sold-out crowds, singing carols together with a hundred of my gay brothers in Vancouver Men’s Chorus. And pretending to be Jewish.

Despite three decades in gay choruses, I’m still too much of an introvert to audition for an actual solo. But I have impeccable comic timing and a freakishly expressive face. Over the last few years I’ve confronted my anxieties by volunteering for micro-solos in VMC’s Christmas show. Each occasion involved a primarily dramatic rather than musical role. It turns out the contemporary choral repertoire includes a striking number of holiday songs where a lonely Jewish singer attempts to sing about dreidels before being shushed by Christian supremacists. Despite my Scottish / Mormon heritage, I keep getting faux typecast as the outnumbered Jewish guy.


For example, the Midwestern a capella group Straight No Chaser has created a raucous polyphonic “Christmas Can-Can.” It’s a cheery race between the chorus, a small ensemble, the orchestra, and the conductor. I signed up to be part of the small group when VMC introduced the song a few years ago. At our first rehearsal we had to assign a handful of short solo lines. “Not gonna do the kick line” went to the Asian bass. Next we needed someone to tell the audience “It’s not fair if you’re Jewish!” Without thinking, I pointed out I can easily play Jewish, and got the part. Afterwards I remembered PTSD was still a whole new adventure for me. There was a significant chance I would freeze when the time came to sing or say my four nebbishy lines. 


Fortunately, my fleeting solo came and went each night without any microphone glitches, wardrobe malfunctions, or PTSD episodes. Unfortunately, hundreds of blue-haired ladies and cute gay guys now labor/labour under the misapprehension that I’m Jewish. 


In subsequent years I’ve been assigned similar roles in other holiday songs. After one performance I got a message from a charming stranger who said the concert was “lovely” and I was “cute.” I hope his mother won’t be disappointed to find out Im not really Jewish. 

Mark Burnham Photography 


The theme of this year’s VMC holiday show was “Cheers,” which meant lots of drinking songs. One of our recycled numbers was the “Christmas Can-Can.” I signed up to be part of the small ensemble because I’m too lazy to learn the chorus part. I was ready to let someone else take their turn being Jewish. But at the first rehearsal both the conductor and guy directing our ensemble pointed out “Roger already knows the solo.” I took the hint, and enjoyed being part of a revival. One longtime chorus member told me “It feels like Christmas when I hear you being Jewish.” 


However, current events made our repertoire fraught. The festive “Christmas Luau” was pulled after fires devastated Maui. Then war erupted between Israelis and Palestinians. Our perky “Boogie Woogie Hanukkah” number was replaced with a choral anthem in Hebrew. Nevertheless, our conductor chose to keep the “Christmas Can-Can.” He trusted the audience, and had faith in my experience and timing.


Each of my beleaguered Jewish lines gets smiles and laughs if it lands just right. Normally a missed landing wouldn’t be a big deal – there are a lot of other things happening on stage, and twenty other songs in the concert. But with the Holy Land in turmoil, I was terrified I would create an offensive distraction.


Although it stressed me out every night, I safely landed each comic Jewish line. And then I enjoyed the rest of the show.

Mark Burnham Photography

Rehearsals have started for VMC’s next show, which has the theme “Icons.” Our concerts are in June, so were still learning new music. In the meantime we’ve been asked to sing three songs at a fundraising gig next month. Two of the songs were part of our set at the Canadian LGBT choral festival in Halifax last May. I was pleased to discover I still have both songs memorized, including a surprising percentage of the choreography to “Don’t Rock the Boat.” 

The third number is an Irish drinking song from our concert in December. Unfortunately, when the conductor waved his baton I suddenly realized I don’t know “Nil Sen La.” 

One of my favorite psychology experiments tested the intelligence of farmers before and after harvest. The researchers found what they called a “scarcity mindset.” Before the harvest, while the farmers were still worrying their crop might fail, they tested an average of thirteen IQ points lower than their intelligence after a successful harvest. Chronic stress “makes you distracted, defensive, less rational, and effectively dumber.”


I have a lifetime of experience as a performer and public speaker. I can handle ordinary stage fright. At our June concert a couple of years ago, I kept my poise while introducing the song “Chosen Family” with a tear-jerking speech about being both a PFLAG son and father. But as a PTSD survivor I’ve learned to recognize the impact of extraordinary triggers and stressors. During our recent concerts, I thought I was phoning in “Nil Sen La” because it’s too high and I was saving my voice. In reality, I was so stressed about the four tiny solo lines coming up right afterwards that I couldn’t remember a word in Gaelic, or even the words “Dum Dee Dum.” Now I’m frantically memorizing “Nil Sen La” in preparation for our gig next month.

Bear and I walk for miles every day along the waterfront. My dog has both an uncanny direction sense and a perfect memory for establishments that offer treats. As I observed in “Fairhaven,” our local gay bar Rumors has the biggest treats, but the kitchen door at Chrysalis Inn has the best:  huge chunks of roast chicken breast diverted from the bourgeoisie’s Caesar salads. Bear will also drag us back to any place that has served him lamb or duck, long after the café itself has been boarded up.


When the Chrysalis Inn is out of chicken they usually substitute cheese. Which is fine – Bear loves dairy. The other day they had alderwood-smoked bacon instead, which looked delicious to me. But Bear is meh about bacon and pork.


I’m not Jewish. But Bear might be.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Grand Slam

Today Bear completed his first ever Grand Slam of Dog Treats.

Bear has both an uncanny direction sense and a perfect memory for establishments that offer treats. Our walks usually start in Fairhaven with stops at Village Books, Acme Ice Cream, and Bay to Baker Trading Company. Then we walk to Boulevard Park, collecting treats at both ends of the Boardwalk from the kitchen door at the Chrysalis Inn and then the walk-up window at Woods Coffee.
Today Bear led me along the rest of the waterfront trail to downtown Bellingham. There Bear finds treats at a coffee shop, a bank, a post office, and a gay bar. The bank is Bear’s newest conquest. Last week the security guard asked where we were going after he saw us park in the bank lot. I told him I was using the ATM after going across the street to the post office to get my mail and Bear’s treat. The guard told us our longtime Chase branch also has treats – who knew?

As I observed in “Fairhaven,” Rumors has the biggest treats, but the Chrysalis Inn has the best – huge chunks of roast chicken breast diverted from the bourgeoisie’s Caesar salads. Along the way, bookstore clerk Nathan gives the best scratches, and the baristas at Acme are Bear’s buddies.
Downtown schedules give the nine-element Grand Slam its high degree of difficulty. The bank and the post office are closed on weekends. The old post office is only open from 11 until 5, and Rumors doesn’t open until 4.
On the way home we walk off-leash through Western Washington University so Bear can kiss the boys and bum cigarettes off the girls. According to both Bear and my iPhone, today we took the shortest possible Grand Slam route: 6.6 miles, in two and a half hours.