Sunday, May 19, 2019

'The voice' rewarded...

“One who knows others is intelligent
One who knows himself is enlightened.”
­– Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

The text was short: “224 miles to Deming NM √”

We had decided we would not say good-bye. After our conversation, Douglas slipped out the front door, climbed into his Chevy Tahoe. We gave each other a salute as he backed out of the driveway, and as curiously as this man entered my life in December 2013, he was gone – one of the more fascinating people I have ever met.

Who knew then...
We moved to Oro Valley in mid-November of that year. Biking was a great way to poke around and get familiar with our new digs. On a bicycle trail near our home that December, I had a flat tire – an experience I wrote about at the time (

Just finishing the fix, I heard a voice, "Hey, do you need any help?"

As I wrote:
"I turned around to see a fellow about my age, bike parked on the other side of the path. "I'm sorry, what?" I said. "Do you need any help?" he replied. "No thanks," I continued, "I'm just finishing up," turning back to my bike.  He tethered the conversation a little more by saying, "You're lucky it was the front tire.  A back-tire flat can be a bitch to change!" I was thinking, "Listen, man, thanks, but I have a tire to fix here and get home." Then I had that little voice in my head saying, "Hey, pay attention here.  Do you think this guy stopped by accident?..."

Any number of people had ridden by, while I was replacing the tire. None of them even nodded in acknowledgment. Yeah, it was time to pay attention.

As it turns out, Douglas had been in Oro Valley only a day or two. Enroute to San Diego, he had diverted to Tucson because of a life-threatening situation with one of his dogs (Tucson has a 24hour veterinary emergency service). We stood chatting a little. As he turned around to head back the way he had come, I mentioned he could do a loop if he followed me to my neighborhood. At the front gate, I got his email and thanked him for stopping. His reply:

“No, thank you! I didn’t really have any tools with me to be able to help, I just felt to stop and was rewarded. I was depressed and needed to talk about my dog…your company filled the bill.”

I wouldn’t see him again for more than a year. He was off to San Diego to winter. We emailed sporadically. I sent him the blog.

From here, the details are a bit fuzzy, but our next encounter was when he left San Diego to see a friend in Tennessee.  He stopped through looking for a veterinarian to check one of his dogs. We ate Chinese. He was off again.

Closer to now…
Next I heard from him was in the fall of 2017 when he had barely escaped with his life from the California wildfires that fall. He lost everything (an Air Stream trailer with all his belongings), fleeing with literally seconds to spare.

Escaping the trauma, physically, if not mentally, he would winter 2018 in Tucson.

Through the first quarter of the year, we rode bicycles weekly, occasionally more often. It was conversational riding and converse we did – old fella riding filled with old fella talk. Exchanges based as much on philosophic and spiritual topics as our life journeys. We reached deeply into one another during these rides and quiet conversations in other places.

I learned many things about this former East Coast elite fellow. Trained at the best prep, university, and business schools, he had been so successful as a Wallstreet trader that he retired in his early forties. He knew there was more to life and was determined to explore it.

Now in his late 60s, he is an intellectual Don Quixote. Not fighting windmills but canvassing this great country and engaging life as few that have the time, resources and curiosity to do.

Last spring, when the temperatures began to heat, he hitched up his Air Stream and headed for a fifteen-thousand-mile adventure to Alaska and back. By this time, we had bonded and regularly emailed back and forth…him sending lots of stunning pictures with commentary and me basically responding with iterations of ‘WOW!’

When he returned, we rode again. But he seemed to tire a little more quickly than before. Visiting his local physician for a checkup and routine removal of a couple of lipomas (benign fat accumulation pads) he was confronted with devastating news. As a matter of routine, the tissue samples were sent to the lab for biopsy where it was discovered he had stage-four, diffuse B-cell lymphoma.

Excluding the detail of six-months of chemotherapy and the eventual removal of his thyroid, I learned even more about this man…this time it was the strength of his character and the fiber of his soul. I have been around chemo patients any number of times in my life, but few have demonstrated his focus and fortitude.

After the shocking mortality-confronting-news, he put his head down and stepped into the abyss with unwavering commitment to do whatever it took to pass through the gauntlet successfully. The ups and downs of chemo/prednisone therapy cause enormous stress to the body. Killing cancer requires killing parts of the protective immune system, making the pilgrim’s body even more vulnerable. Sleeping, eating, exercise, (if possible), and attitude all become tortuous, and yet he carried it with grace and wit.

A little over a week ago after nearly six months of treatment, he was given a clean bill of health. It is impossible to reflect the joy he expressed when learning he was about to be released from prison. Indeed, it was not easy for him to articulate it. But his countenance was radiant as he knew he was free to roam again.

This time, he was off to Canada, where in late summer, he will head to Michigan to meet some traveling friends. From there, they will drive in tandem to the eastern Maritime Provinces of Canada and finish the season. After that?...

I have gotten short daily progress texts since his departure. I have little doubt there will be emails with photos and commentary as his adventure continues. I will reply with a few words and thoughts experiencing a sense of vicarious satisfaction. But when I reflect on that stranger from that bike path and the time we spent together – WOW!

- ted

Sunday, May 5, 2019

To end is to begin…

“There is an end to everything,
to good things as well.”
– Geoffrey Chaucer,
Troilus and Criseyde

It was a quiet day. Actually two.

Monday morning was different because I didn't wake up thinking about ‘Henry Albertson,’ a character that had consumed me for several weeks. While meant to be comedic relief for a ‘life metaphor’ that is the musical The Fantasticks, there was a certain pathos to this fellow and his companion attempting to relive adventures of irretrievable bygone days.

Henry was like an earworm from the beginning of rehearsals. Early morning walks, driving in the car, practicing in the back yard, nodding off to sleep, first waking thoughts, even those nocturnal dehydration moments…yes, playing the character of Henry was an all-consuming adventure.

When Monday arrived though, there was not a whisper of thought for that character that had been so much a part of me for several weeks…He had slipped into the nether regions of my mind, evaporating like a nocturnal apparition in the early dawn.

The cast? That was a different story. As the day passed, I visited each of them. Their smiles, voices, energy, backstage green room humor, and camaraderie drifted like a neuron fueled scrapbook across my mind, reminding me of the human and theatrical experience.

The plan was to start the day getting ready for the summer physiology class that begins at the end of the month, but I was more tired than I had anticipated. Monday, then, was a reverie of thought, a little rest, some exercise and mental refreshment.

Tuesday arrived with much the same sense of the gentle and generous folk with whom I had played, prepared, and performed. But I could feel the tug of anticipation beginning to build for the next project.

Now a different day…
I had needed the time to reflect and immerse myself in remembered hard work and pleasure of being part of a team on the stage. Now it was time to turn the page. This one a solitary voyage where instead of Henry, it would be hormones, heart, respiration, the immune and other systems occupying my mind. For me, in its own way, as exciting as being involved in a theatrical production.

The next few weeks will be filled preparing to teach an accelerated eight-week hybrid physiology course to youngsters interested in a nursing future (Hybrid meaning half of the course is lecture and half online). It will be a new experience for them and me. Whereas a regular semester is sixteen weeks - each week dedicated to a different system - this course will present a new system with every lecture. The material comes a lot more quickly with much more attention and responsibility placed on the shoulders of the students.

When I taught last fall, it was a traditional lecture-lab-test format. I hadn’t been in the classroom for many years and it was the easiest way to get back on the horse. For the shorter course, I’ll use an active learning model, meaning the students will be a functioning part of the learning experience. They will work in small groups and will even do a little teaching themselves.

Life is not static…
New experiences involve change. Change often acts as a roadblock because it requires stepping through doorways when it is unclear what is on the other side. It is the willingness to say ‘yes’ that makes the difference. It would be disingenuous to suggest there have not been helping hands to encourage me through a number of those doors. We are, after all social creatures that depend on one another. Many who have helped me, may never know who they are…some do. Those people know who they are.

Embracing the unfamiliar is no less uncomfortable for me. There is the looming ever-present specter of failure, with which I am intimately familiar. And yet, I have been driven to engage the unknown throughout my life. Discomfort is an old friend with whom I have become accustomed. The key? Don’t look back and take the next step.

Wrapping up…
I sent out an email recently with some pictures from The Fantasticks. An old army friend with whom I have kept contact wrote regarding Henry, my character: “Your willingness to completely humiliate yourself is your greatest asset.”

I could not have received a greater compliment.

- ted

Sunday, April 21, 2019

The end is near...

“Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow.
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow…
Try to remember and if you remember then follow…”
- music Harvey Schmidt, lyrics Tom Jones
The Fantasticks

“I am Henry Albertson. Perhaps you recall my Hamlet?”

And so my character in The Fantasticks introduces himself to ‘El Gallo' (El-guy-o), the protagonist and narrator for this musical. Henry is an over-the-hill Shakespearean actor, who along with his companion/dresser, Mortimer provide some comic relief to this lovely and poignant story of romantic love experienced, lost, and regained.

The love interests are Matt and Luisa, teenagers who believe their adoration is ordained to be happily ever after from the very beginning. Their fathers (Huck and Bell), in an attempt to secure and cement the youngster’s love, create a fictional conflict, because they believe that if you tell a child they cannot do something – in the case telling their respective children they cannot see one another – the youngsters will do just the opposite. They do not realize it was not necessary to create an artificial dispute, because the girl and boy are already desperately in love.

In their misunderstanding, they hire the knave, El Gallo to stage an abduction of Luisa by two actors (Henry and Mortimer). These two along with El Gallo allow Matt to rescue and save Luisa. It looks like love has conquered all, but in fact, it is a charade. As the tale unfolds, Matt and Luisa both realize none of the abduction nor rescue were real – Luisa never in danger, Matt not a real hero.

In the ‘evening’ of this realization, Matt and Luisa break up. He to a world of unknown adventure, she to a fantasy enchantment with El Gallo. “Time,” as El Gallo says, teaches both of them the harsh lessons of reality.

In the end, Matt returns – broken. Luisa, betrayed by an infatuation with El Gallo – heartsick.

They now look at life and their love through the lens of reality and realize what they feel for one another is real but not the fairytale they imagined.

The team…
We have been rehearsing for several weeks under the steady creative hand of Judi, our director. She is intelligent and insightful, intimately knowing the stage after having produced, acted and directed in untold numbers of productions.

Clearly, the actors are important. They are, after all, the ones who convey the story.  But without a clear road map, there is no way for the story to be told. That begins with solid direction, proper blocking (movement to the right place on stage at the right time), and nuanced dialogue expression. Behind the scenes, Marty, the producer oversees the props people, set builders, costume designers, and makeup! And in this case, the musicians who add the lyric tapestry vital in bringing the story to life.

The work…
The amount of time it takes to get the lines is significant. Even with the minor, comedic relief characters of Henry and Mortimer, it has been mind-bending to appreciate all the things necessary to meet the bar for a good performance.

This is my third stage performance and I don’t apologize for my childish awe in watching the time and energy it takes to put talented people into a complicated production. Since this is a musical, everyone sings. Our cast has professional voice training – four of them operatic background. Mortimer and Henry have a mercifully few bars of a chorus to sing.

We will rehearse again today (Sunday), tomorrow, Tuesday, Wednesday and appear before a live audience Thursday evening. A four-performance set, we will also do Friday evening, and a Sunday matinee and evening show.

The aftermath…
As mentioned, I have limited exposure in theatre. I have, however, had consistent experiences in those productions. The top of the list, a richly felt affection for the whole team. The actors have a particular bond, becoming a transient family. It is not easy to express how good it feels.

That said, on the last night, we will strike (take down) the set, and all of us will go our separate ways. There is a sense of melancholy and loss with that. The band of brothers and sisters who pulled together with such vigor and support for one another will slip away, leaving a small hollowness in my heart. Working with smart, talented people is a real joy. Saying goodbye is "…such sweet sorrow…"

I may never step on the stage again, but because these experiences have been recorded in the recesses of my heart, I will be able to revisit them at will.

And so, it is:

“Goodnight, sweet prince/and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest…" Horatio, in Hamlet

- ted