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 cafĂ© 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.