I loathed musical theater when I was growing up. My first exposure to the genre came during my college years in the late 1980s and early ’90s when I attended SummerStage performances at the Capitol Theatre in my hometown of Rome, New York. The productions featured college students from across the region who were majoring in drama or theater studies, and I remember seeing many shows, including Guys and Dolls and South Pacific.
My mother, Carmella, and my stepfather, Bill, would buy me tickets, and in a failed attempt to impress the many young women who attended the performances, I would “dress up” in a black blazer that I had purchased at the Salvation Army store in Rome; yet my appearance and fashion sense drew no positive feedback from the females in the audience.
And while I wanted to go to the Capitol shows because they were summer social events, I was afraid that if I actually liked them, and expressed this appreciation, I would get laughed at or be regarded as effeminate by my friends in our sports-obsessed city.
Once the lights went down and the curtain opened for a show, I would snicker when the actors would break into song in the middle of a conversation. I wanted to stand up and scream, “This is absurd. Why am I the only one laughing here?”
Live musical theater seemed even more preposterous than its cinematic equivalent, which I had been introduced to as a kid while watching my mother’s obsession—the 1965 film The Sound of Music, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. And just like with TSOM, I could not suspend my disbelief and accept the characters speaking dialogue one moment and singing the next. Yet I seemed to be the only one dismayed by the experience because the packed houses at the Capitol responded to the final scenes with thunderous applause and standing ovations for the performers.
As we would leave the theater, Mom or Bill would often ask me what I thought about the production. I would say something like, “I thought it was stupid. I just hate how they just start singing.” And my mother would shake her head and say, “Oh you never like anything. I don’t know why we even bother to bring you.”
What I didn’t share with my mom is that at the time, seeing the musicals on the Capitol stage tapped into the dark experience of my maturation from a boy to a man.
I had been diagnosed with a pituitary tumor when I was fifteen. In 1984 neurosurgeons performed a craniotomy to remove the tumor and then swept up the remnants in a follow-up surgery in 1988, after my freshman year at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, New York. Endocrinologists also treated me for panhypopituitarism, as I lacked all of the hormones the pituitary gland normally produces. I was prescribed synthetic human growth hormone and testosterone shots during this period.
So even though I was in college when I attended the SummerStage performances, I still looked like a fourteen-year-old boy who had not passed through puberty. Lacking secondary male characteristics like facial hair, an enlarged Adam’s apple, and a deeper voice, I was sometimes mistaken for a girl, both in person and when talking with strangers or customer service professionals over the phone.
The women at my college were not interested in me romantically, and my low self-esteem grew into rabid self-hatred. I despised my youthful appearance and feminine features, and I became angry over my body’s inability to “catch up” to my chronological age.
So when I went to the theater with Mom and Bill, I resented the easy solutions to problems as presented by the actors. For example, a couple would be on stage bathed in bright amber or violet lights, and they would converse about some family dilemma or obstacle to their romance. Circumstances would appear bleak; and then they would start singing and dancing, and their fate would change and their drama would be resolved.
I couldn’t accept this. Life wasn’t like that. I could not alter my situation or “become normal” through song and dance. My problems stayed with me after I walked out of the theater. And so I hated musicals because they represented an unrealistic portrait of the world.
Of course I was only seeing things through the narrow prism of my personal experience. I wasn’t able to look out, beyond myself, in order to enjoy the artistry of the action on stage.
Years later I underwent a reversal and evolved to love musicals, especially the films featuring Judy Garland, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, and Gene Kelly. My all-time favorites are The Wizard of Oz (a given), Young at Heart, and Singin’ in the Rain.
I also attended many live musical theater performances. So what changed? How did I come to appreciate the genre I had hated so much in my youth? For one thing I grew up and matured.
But I also had a more practical reason for liking musicals. I began working at Syracuse University in 2007 and from time to time would receive staff discounts for tickets to performances at Syracuse Stage, Central New York’s professional theater. I took advantage of the deals and soon attended many of the plays produced by Syracuse Stage, including the musicals Fiddler on the Roof, Little Women, Godspell, Oklahoma!, and Rent.
I would buy a single ticket, usually close to the stage, orchestra left or right (one of the cheapest seats in the house). And because I paid for the tickets, I convinced myself I would enjoy the shows no matter what, so I wouldn’t feel like I had wasted my money.
Also, even though I was single at the time I started going to the shows, I tried not to focus my thoughts on my bachelor status or become discouraged because I never brought a date with me to the theater (although sometimes I couldn’t help being envious of couples holding hands as the house lights dimmed).
Instead, I turned my attention to the action in front of me. Unlike when I watched the SummerStage shows in Rome, I was able to get out of my head, to look outward instead of inward.
I also surrendered my desire for logic in the plot lines of the plays. In 2008 I began dating my future wife, Pam, a theater actress from the Philippines, and she helped me to suspend my disbelief. She told me, “Just enjoy it. Let yourself go and don’t worry if it doesn’t make sense.”
And in watching a number of musicals unfold before me, I no longer expected a realistic interpretation of the world; it didn’t bother me anymore that the actors behaved irrationally.
I simply allowed the experience to wash over me and marveled at the production values and collaboration involved in bringing the action to life on stage.
I also viewed the plays with a more critical eye and appreciated how musicals combine elements of multiple disciplines. They encompass the verbal, as represented by the words in the script; the visual through the costumes, lighting, and set design; dance and movement through the choreography; and the aural through the music and sound effects. Musical theater appeals to all senses, even including smell when smoke is used in scenes.
And I discovered what my mother had understood years earlier when watching The Sound of Music—that musicals offer escapist entertainment as the viewer lives vicariously through the characters, relating to their struggles.
I remember rooting for the character of Jo March in Syracuse Stage’s 2009 production of Little Women, hoping she would hold on to her independence as she strove to find her way in the world.
I remember being captivated by the song “Astonishing” and its soaring lyrics: “I may be small, but I’ve got giant plans to shine as brightly as the sun … I will be fearless, surrendering modesty and grace.”
And sitting up close for the performances I saw how hard the actors worked—the sweat pouring off their faces and brows and soaking their costumes as they belted out the songs and danced breathlessly on stage. In the dusty glow of the stage lights I also noticed the smiles on their faces and a flicker of light in their eyes. It was clear they loved what they were doing; and that joy translated to the audience.
I remember seeing Hairspray with Pam at Syracuse Stage in December 2014, sitting in row B, left orchestra. And during one of the songs—either “Good Morning Baltimore” or “You Can’t Stop the Beat”—I turned my head around in the same way Audrey Tautou’s character did when she visited the movie theater in the French film Amelie. In the darkness I scanned the crowd seated behind me, gazing at the mixed audience comprised of older couples, young professionals, and college students. And their smiling faces matched the expressions of the actors on stage; the emotional connection was palpable.
And I joined in on the fun. I turned my head around and nodded my head and tapped my foot as I listened to the music and let the show carry me away. I also thought that if my mother were still alive, she would have loved the performance too.
When I headed to my office Thursday morning to go to work, I noticed several small envelopes scattered throughout the Food.com cafeteria area inside the Newhouse Three building. All of the cards read something like, “Open Me! A letter for you.”
No one was around and so I decided to open one. I found a card inside that had a gold design with word “Wassssssup?” written on the front. Inside, this greeting appeared, written with a blue marker:
give up, there
is no such thing
as an ending
just a new
A small slip of paper tucked inside the card listed the social media accounts of Campus Cursive at Syracuse University, the SU branch of the national More Love Letters program, “lifting and empowering individuals through tangible acts of love.”
The idea of anonymous letters given to strangers is so appealing to me. Someone I’ve never met actually took the time to purchase a card, write a warm greeting, stuff the card in the envelope and then place it in a location where it would be discovered.
I loved the feel of the heavy paper and the handwritten words on the page, and this random, tangible act of kindness is so much more meaningful than a Facebook “like” or a text message. It demonstrates the positive impact of real human connection, and I am happy to know that a bunch of merry well-wishers are spreading joy and love in the universe. No doubt our world needs it!
Do the dead still have voices? That’s the question I asked myself on Saturday night as I left the Onondaga County War Memorial after game two of the Syracuse Crunch-Rochester Americans Calder Cup playoff series. The Crunch won 6-5 to take a 2-0 series lead.
The question about death was incited by a solitary moment I experienced early in the game. With about five minutes left in the first period, I left my seat in section 19 to beat the rush to the concession stand. I bought a coffee, a bottled water and an order of chicken tenders and then wandered through the concourse until I stepped into Memorial Hall, the grand space that honors the brave men and women from Onondaga County who gave their lives in battle.
I let my eyes wander around the room. Sunlight streamed through high windows and a row of American flags lined one side of the hall. There were two huge murals on opposite walls (painted by G. Lee Trimm) and bronze tablets with the names of those who died in the line of duty. The mural closest to me displayed figures dressed in World War I uniforms who appeared to be scaling what looked like a large block of white granite.
In the bottom left corner of the painting a man stood with his right arm raised, an American flag sweeping down near him, and the words to the poem “In Flanders Field,” written by John McCrae, inscribed over the man’s torso.
According to PoemHunter.com, McCrae was a Canadian poet, physician, author, artist and soldier during World War I.
I read the poem and the words struck me.
In Flanders Field
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
(John McCrae, 1915)
The poem made me aware of the transitory nature of existence and gave me the sense that death looms even in a place like a hockey arena bubbling with life—with kids screaming, loud music blaring, and fans chugging beer and yelling until their throats become hoarse.
It goes beyond honoring deceased veterans; the poem should make us all feel grateful for the time on earth we’ve been granted, for the opportunities we’ve been given and for the people we love and who love us back. But I think McCrae is also telling us we will all face our Flanders Field in one form or another, and so we had better enjoy living while we can.
For me, living meant savoring four of my favorite things intersecting in one place and at one time—art, poetry, coffee and hockey. And that’s not a bad way to spend a Saturday night.
The calendar may say April but Old Man Winter is still holding on in central New York, refusing to step aside and let spring take over the scene. So while temps fail to crack 50—at least for now—I will offer a fictional, cold weather-themed poem from my latest collection.
The woman in 309B rolls over on her side.
She reaches across the bed,
seeking the warmth of her lover’s body.
But no one is there.
And she remembers sending her man away.
She recalls a conversation filled with words
like freedom, space, and separation.
At this hour, though, she would trade them in
for flesh in her bed,
the presence of a person she no longer claims.
She can accept failed love, a relationship fizzling.
The end is not so awful
when examined with the passage of time.
She does not need the man.
She can excel on her own.
But with soft light entering her room,
and the radiator wheezing as it releases heat,
she realizes no remedy exists
for the empty feeling of being alone
in bed on a winter morning.
So she gets up,
makes a half-attempt to straighten the covers,
then goes out to the kitchen to fix a pot of coffee.
And the tasks of the day will help her
to shake off the loneliness, keep it at a distance,
until the following morning, when the yearning
for someone else nearby will return.
But let tomorrow take care of itself, she thinks.
She resigns to stop wasting time
on these cold mornings, replaying her regrets,
and bemoaning the absence of a man in her bed.
I also wanted to mention that poet Elinor Cramer, author Jo Lynn Stresing and I will be reading from our recent books on Friday, May 4, at 7 p.m. at the YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center in Syracuse. The DWC is located at 340 Montgomery Street and you can find out more information at its website.
With wings outstretched,
A hawk hovers overhead.
I look up, admiring its flight.
The bird remains aloft,
As a gust of air carries it along
In the stillness of the afternoon.
The hawk soars between the campus buildings,
Then disappears from my sight,
As it pursues a quarry or
Scans the horizon for a perch.
But “no,” I think:
That’s not the way to end the poem.
The lines fail to capture the
Majesty of this creature.
And I realize any words I write
Are doomed to fall short,
As poetry can never improve
What nature has made perfect.
It takes one fall
on the icy sidewalk
for your life to be ruined.
That’s right, just one tumble—
legs scissoring in the air,
back parallel to the ground,
eyes looking up at a gray sky
unable to intervene—
in a brief suspended
moment before wham—
skull meets ground and blackness ensues.
Traumatic brain injury follows,
and you slip into a coma.
Your family huddles bedside,
waiting for you to rouse,
to wake up and rejoin the living,
like a grizzly bear stepping out
of its den after hibernation.
If you do come out of it
with some brain activity intact,
you may be a shell—withering
in a long-term nursing home.
And while you exist inside,
the costs mount for your family,
and the world outside your window
drags on, unaware of your predicament.
All this because some ice tripped you up.
So don’t be surprised if you see me
walking gingerly on the
glassy surface of the sidewalk,
digging my heels into a
pile of rock salt near the curb,
spreading it around on my soles,
strapping on a pair of
Yaktrax over my boots,
or cutting across the snow-covered lawns.
I guess I don’t mind dying,
or being knocked unconscious,
but I would feel awfully foolish
if a patch of frozen moisture does me in.
I wrote this poem recently and it seems fitting for a day dominated by a lake effect blast.
How to Survive Winter in Syracuse
The only way to survive
a Syracuse winter
is to think of the snow
as a friend and not a foe.
When you scrape the ice
crusted on your windshield
and the snow clogs the streets,
when your tires spin,
or your car veers off the road—
regarding the snow
as a friend and not a foe
will help you to endure the season.
Even when the snow lashes
your face as it blows sideways,
or frozen clumps melt inside your boots,
making your feet cold and damp,
you must remember to
view the snow as a friend instead of a foe.
And what a friend … a friend that keeps on
giving and giving and giving
six months out of the year.
To which I say:
thank you my dear friend,
but I don’t need your generosity.
This coffee-stained, handwritten message was tacked up outside of the Dunkin’ Donuts on South Crouse Avenue. I had turned toward a wall filled with placards, looking at advertisements for apartment complexes and Syracuse-area concert notices. Then I saw the scrap of paper; the question posed by the writer of this note made me examine my conscious. Do I care about the homeless in CNY? Answer: yes, sort of. What am I doing about it? Not a whole lot.
And this makes me wonder whether a financial contribution to the Rescue Mission or the Salvation Army would make much difference. Would it really help someone?
I always feel like I am being scammed when panhandlers ask me for money when I’m walking in downtown Syracuse or in the Marshall Street area near Syracuse University. I get the sense my money will be used for drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Sometimes I politely tell the person I have no change. Other times, if I am in a hurry, I’ll just put my head down, avoid eye contact and walk briskly past the person. But as a Christian I feel guilty for rejecting someone who is asking for help. I know Christ would not snub the person, and a passage from the Gospel of Matthew instructs us to be charitable to those in need:
Matthew 25:40 (New International Version):
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
But I also understand spare change will not solve our city’s and our nation’s homeless crisis. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to the problem. Maybe the first step is to recognize the homeless exist and maybe try to treat them with dignity. Maybe that’s what the writer had in mind when he or she posted the missive.
One of the poems in my new collection Sidewalk Stories explores the issues of mental illness and homelessness. I’m sharing it here because it seems relevant; yet in reading it again, I realize the poem is pointless because it raises questions without offering solutions—in short, a lot of words but no action.
Where do those with mental illness go?
What worlds do they navigate in their minds?
Are they able to restrain their thoughts?
Can they find a place of rest in society?
To exist without hurting themselves
Or someone else?
Go downtown in any decent-sized city,
And witness for yourself the ghost people—
The mumblers, the droolers, and loiterers.
They are fragile, cold, broke, and alone,
Dressed in tattered clothes caked with dirt.
The men wear shaggy beards
And flimsy baseball caps
Topping their matted hair.
You see them pacing at bus stops,
Begging for change outside Starbucks,
And sprawled out in city parks,
With their pushcarts and
Garbage bags filled with empty
Soda cans and plastic bottles.
I force myself to observe
The unbalanced people out in public.
I refuse to look away.
I am not gawking.
I am not a voyeur who finds humor
Or pleasure in studying the deranged.
But I do want to remember
The way they look,
To record their facial expressions
When they say things like: “Go away,”
“Stop touching me,” and
“I will devour your children.”
Whose problem is this?
It’s a dilemma with no easy solution.
And I wonder, just where do we start?
How did we begin the process
Of trying to restore the street people?
Are we obligated as human beings
To care a little bit?
To notice the other life forms
Walking toward us?
Instead of quickening the pace,
Looking at the ground, turning away.
Of course there is an element of fear in us,
A desire not to be attacked
By the crazy people.
This instinct is natural and correct.
But what do we owe our fellow citizens
Who have no intention of harming anyone?
And what do we demand of ourselves
When we see others
Who are suffering a few feet away?
Look, I know it’s not your problem,
And it’s not mine either.
But it does exist and these souls
Are not going anywhere.
We can’t avoid them,
Or force them out of our cities.
So is there anything we can do,
Anything at all to make things better?
And can we at least take a moment
To think about it,
Before dismissing the idea,
And being on our way?
Have you ever gone into a store with the intention of buying one thing but end up selecting another? You want a black belt, but you decide the brown leather one looks and feels better encircling your waist? Or you crave pancakes, but when the waitress comes around, you order a Denver omelet with home fries and wheat toast?
This happens to me frequently when I go to the library in search of a particular book. I write down the call number and head off in the direction of its location. But when I roam through the rows of the repository, my attention gets diverted, I discover a different book, and I choose that one instead.
Here’s an example. On a recent Sunday afternoon I climbed the steps of Carnegie Library at Syracuse University, walked through the grand Reading Room, filled with students studying, and went into the upper level stacks in search of a nonfiction book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression by Andrew Solomon (with a call number in the range of RC537).
I had scribbled the call number on a scrap of paper, and perhaps serendipity led me in a different direction because I went to the wrong row, as I had transposed the call number in my head. I started scanning the shelves in the area of RC357, and there, amid a plethora of books about amnesia and other medical problems, a title jumped out at me and seized my attention. Its name: Be Glad You’re Neurotic.
“Wow, was this battered blue and gray hardcover placed in this exact spot just for my eyes?” I wondered. “Am I the intended audience?”
I grabbed it and flipped through the book, and my cursory glance indicated it offered some self-help advice, which, with all of my odd predilections, proclivities, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I am willing to accept.
Be Glad You’re Neurotic was written by Louis E. Bisch, M.D., Ph.D., and published in 1936 by Whittlesey House, a division of the McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. Its earliest library check-out date was January 6, 1965; and the last stamp is dated October 7, 1997.
I’m hoping the book will do me some good. A sentence in the preface reads, “Neurotic states are more common than the common cold.”
And some of the chapter headings inspire me and make me feel better about myself. Chapter I: I’m a Neurotic Myself and Delighted. Chapter II: To Be Normal Is Nothing to Brag About. And Chapter IV: Your Neurotic Development Was Inevitable.
I haven’t read any further yet, and that’s because I have a stack of books I am still waiting to tackle; currently I have five books checked out from the library, while also reading two others via Kindle.
And this experience at the library made me realize two things. One—how sad it is that I’ll never have the time to read all of the books I want to. Many titles on my “to-read” list will remain unread. I consider it a metaphor for how there are certain things in life you’ll never achieve or get to do. My dream trip to Ireland and Italy—well, keep dreaming.
The second revelation is that I’m fed up with always seeking out the next book instead of thoroughly enjoying the one I’m currently reading. As a voracious reader, this book lust is a real problem for me. All it takes is a New York Times review or an interview with an author on Fresh Air with Terry Gross to set me off in search of the title in question. My Amazon “wish list” has hundreds of books sitting in the queue.
So after I plow through the pile of books sitting on top of my bedroom dresser, I will try to limit myself to reading only one novel and one nonfiction book at a time—a two-book limit. But I am not sure if I will be successful. I don’t know if I can stop myself from going to the library before I finish reading them both. And I still need to check out a copy of The Noonday Demon.