Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Twentieth Century Revival Party

“It's something you learn after your second theme party: It's All Been Done Before.” - Prior Walter, Angels In America
We used to have parties, lots of parties. Post-show parties, theme parties. My first 1980s Revival Party was in 1989. Once upon a time that would have seemed cutting-edge, but seriously. We’re talking about parties.

I had a premonition of dread regarding NYE 2000, which had as much to do with my personal brain chemistry as it did with politics, culture, and the residual fear that Christ was returning and that we were all totally fucked.

We saw the Canadian art-house film Last Night at the Cedar-Lee in December 1999, an apocalyptic comedy with a mean streak of melancholy (speaking of which, Lars Von Trier entirely cribbed the premise for this movie for his Melancholia only eliminating any trace of humor) which left me feeling refreshed, and positive. The world might end, but it’s going to do that, anyway. At least we have had love.

The USO Hall
I looked forward into the 21st Century with a renewed sense of hope. And we all know how well that’s worked out.

To celebrate the end of the Millennium, on December 31, 1999 (numerologists be damned) we invited our friends to decorate our house for a Twentieth Century Revival Party, assigning a different decade to each room.

A salute to Spiritualism was featured in my office, a Roaring 20s speakeasy in the bathroom. There was a Depression-era soup kitchen in the dining room, in the living room a WWII USO party. Cold War martinis and Hawaiian appetizers in the kitchen, the basement was a psychedelic Sixties happening with brownies, both leaded and unleaded.

The password is "swordfish."
In the hallway upstairs I erected a stack of television screens which played a six-hour curated VHS video of 80s MTV clips. Remember when MTV played music videos? Of course you don’t, no one does.

And the wife’s office included computers featuring newfangled "webcams" of New Year’s Eves in New Orleans, New York and elsewhere, and guests recorded messages for a time capsule we will open on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

We gathered in the USO Hall for the countdown to the new century (numerologists, shut up) and the best prank which did not happen was when Brian thought of going into the basement and killing the power exactly at midnight, only he didn’t and just told me about it later.

Video Killed the Radio Star
Practically everyone I knew at the time was there. Certainly, almost everyone engaged in our work with Bad Epitaph and Dobama's Night Kitchen. New Year's Eve is fun, but I don't think anyone wanted to be caught without something special to do that night and I am glad so many chose to come to our party, to be with us.

But that was it. Whether an effect of growing up, losing a child, or having living children, we stopped throwing parties at our house. We looked inward. Certainly, my wife and I continued to be social animals, but turning our home into the site of such loud, animated festivities became a thing of the past.

But who knows. We have teenagers now, and they may come up with their own ideas. After all, we are on the threshold of the "New Roaring Twenties."

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2019

Ten Most Visited Posts of the Decade

The Great Lakes Exposition of 1936
This blog began as an investigation into the year 1936, the Cleveland Centennial. Since then I have written posts both professional and personal, all in the service of my own work as a playwright.

I am not a wildly popular blogger. Some things do go viral, but in general any given post averages somewhere between fifty and one hundred aggregate views. I could look back to the year 2010 and find most posts have, in the past ten years, received a total of thirty, forty, fifty views.

The most viewed posts run the gamut, from dry, investigative work, to personal or opinionated essays on my work in theater.

It stands to reason that those which were written eight years ago have more views than those written two years ago. But Eliot Ness stands out as a person of great interest, garnering almost twice that of Chef Boyardee, which ranks second.
  1. The Death of Eliot Ness (2011)
    detailing the death of a one-time Cleveland Safety Director
  2. Chef Boyardee (2011)
    the true story of an icon you thought was fictional
  3. Ohio Criminal Syndicalism Act (2010)
    a forgotten anti-First Amendment law targeting organized protest
  4. Tony Brown (2011)
    a local theater critic ghosts and how history will pay the price
  5. Funky Winkerbean (2012)
    what happened to you, man?
  6. Styles Court, Styles St. Mary, Essex (2012)
    photos of location shots for David Suchet's "Poirot"
  7. Single White Fringe Geek (2018)
    how a negative review was a blessing
  8. Randall Park Mall (2012)
    a 1976 editorial from the Plain Dealer about northeast Ohio's glorious future
  9. The Famous History of Troilus and Cressida (2018)
    my concept for an outdoor production of "Troilus and Cressida"
  10. The "Santaland Diaries" Diaries (2017)
    notes on one six performance week of the David Sedaris classic
For the record, this is my 1,305th post for this blog since January 1, 2010. The Eliot Ness post has been visited almost 10,000 times, the "Santaland" post nearly eight hundred.

What will the next ten years yield? Will we still be blogging then, or may I deliver my messages directly into your brain?

Read my own list of Ten Best Blog Posts of the 2010s!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Top Ten Moments of 2019

At the devastating conclusion of 2016, I pointed up ten moments from the year which made it worth living, because there needs to be something. The past few months have been spent coping with great anxiety over my mother’s health, and there is yet much to remember and to celebrate about 2019.

1. "Spamilton"

The girl and I went to the Hanna the day after New Year’s to enjoy Gerard Alessandrini’s parody of Hamilton, which was delightful in its low-budget aesthetic, fast pace and cheap jokes. If you aim at a king you must kill him, and it was the versatile comic abilities of the performers which kept us in stitches.

Though my daughter got all the Hamilton references, I did have to help her out a little with the more obscure musical theater references. And by obscure I mean Liza. The kids don’t know Liza.

2. "Witness for the Prosecution"

There are a few non-speaking roles in Agatha Christie’s courtroom drama Witness for the Prosecution and I was asked by Great Lakes Theater to appear as a barrister for a small number of student matinee performances, the very first of which was for an audience of mostly middle school students.

They sat surprisingly silent throughout this sixty-six year-old drama, and we were all shocked and delighted when the place erupted during the final five minutes as Christie revealed first the first verdict, then one twist upon another. It was a unique experience you can only get from live theater.

3. “Awareness” (short film)

This spring I had the privilege of mentoring a New East Tech High School student in creating a public health play script. Actually, it was originally slated to be a live performance, then the screenplay for a short film. The student is a poet, with a great sense of style and humor, and mostly I shared with her what I saw, what I felt was missing, which moments were better reported and which dramatized.

Checking in every other week, she wrote very fast (and on her phone, no less) arranged table readings with her classmate and oversaw the production of the final video product.

4. Melissa & Patrick’s Wedding

My wife and I attended a stunning destination wedding in New Orleans, which was delightful and romantic in so many ways. We once visited the Crescent City together, over twenty years ago, and there is no one I would rather travel with, she is my soulmate in tourism. Also, it was a delight to participate in a richly fantastic Millennial nuptial composed of so many of my theater and actor-teacher colleagues.

5. Women’s World Cup

For feminists (and those who love them) it has been the best of times, the worst of times. But the best moments can be spectacular, like Megan Rapinoe and the utter dominance of Team USA in the Women’s World Cup. You could catch us most matches at a huge, full table at Heights Grill, people by members of the high school team, their coaches and families.

And you would know us by my wife’s mauve do.

6. College Visits

Twice this summer I joined the girl in investigating colleges and universities, first in NYC and then in Providence. It was a joy, stealing this opportunity to spend one-on-one time with my daughter in new places, trying new restaurants, watching her take extensive notes on what she’s discovered.

7. School of Rock presents "American Idiot"

My son was introduced to Green Day early and they are the bedrock of his rock and roll education. I took him to see the Broadway tour of American Idiot at the Palace Theatre when he was nine, and the Beck Center production a year later (Beck’s was better) and when he was cast in the American Idiot show at his chapter of School of Rock I may have been more excited than he was.

8. Crossing the City

I have run from my house to my parents house a few times, at least once each time I have trained for a marathon. This year I did it twice, the second time with my son. He was riding, I was running. It was a hot day, the last ten miles were grueling (much like the race itself) but having the opportunity to share the experience, the city, my training, four hours together making our way from Cleveland Heights to Lakewood, we had an adventure.

9. Mike Doughty plays "Ruby Vroom"

I’m not actually the kind of father who pushes his artistic interests onto his children. No, really. But we have also exposed them to an awful lot of what we like, which is nearly everything. So I believe they have come to their tastes organically.

Making her mark at the Smiling Skull Saloon.
Having said that, the boy has also been a huge Soul Coughing fan and when Mike Doughty announced he was touring the twenty-fifth anniversary of their first album Ruby Vroom I thought that was a father-son experience not to be missed.

Falling as it did this fall in the midst of great emotional turmoil, listening to Doughty and his band conduct a faithful recreation of the album live was surprisingly affecting to me, a stark reminder of my young adulthood. I may have cried (I didn’t actually cry.)

10. Christmas in Athens

It’s been hard. It continues to be hard. But I am so grateful to my brother Henrik for returning from England -- for the second time in two months -- so that one of mother’s boys were home for the holiday, affording me this opportunity to be with Toni’s family in Athens, if only for a couple days.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, best wishes for the New Roaring Twenties.

Friday, December 20, 2019

My 2019 Holiday Letter

O Heavens, is’t possible
A young maid’s wits
Should be as mortal
As an old man’s life.

- HAM IV.v
I feel I owe you an explanation.

My mother has always been a humble and giving person, generous and thoughtful of others.

She is also proud, dignified, first to accept responsibility, to the point of guilt, the last to cast blame.

My mother can seem judgmental, when she is, in fact, the opposite. She reserves judgment to the point of seeming aloof.

This is perhaps why her demeanor has intimidated virtually every woman I have been with, all but one. My wife and my mother share a special relationship, the manner in which mom welcomed Toni into our family is a gift she has never taken for granted.

Mom's sense of privacy, and her respect of privacy for others has kept me from broadcasting her condition. But I thought it was only right, at this time, to share with those who care about her, and care about me, how she is, and what has happened.

Shortly after my father died in 2016 she revealed to me that she has Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). She was diagnosed almost fifteen years earlier, and she didn’t want me to worry. It’s the kind of leukemia you live with until it begins to cause problems.

This summer she discovered that her white blood count was generously high, and she was prescribed treatment to bring it down. At the same time, her immune system began to attack her red blood cells, and so it was that two months ago, in early October, she was hospitalized and nearly died.

She was provided transfusions of healthy blood to keep her alive, and a series of infusions to suppress her immune system so that her blood count might normalize, which it did.

And so the autumn continued, and we all tried to carry on as normal. That includes me, the son who never left Cleveland (my brothers live in Minnesota and in England), my immediate family those relatives and friends who commune with her daily, and also and her partner, Jacques.

Jacques and my mother were high school sweethearts, a romance rekindled after the death of my father. It is a touching and important story, but for now it is enough to say they had a lovely summer together, with hope to enjoy a few more.

But things were not normal. I received his calls; your mother has fainted, your mother took a fall. Each time she would say it was nothing, she did not wish to go to the hospital.

She had regular appointments scheduled with her GP, her oncologist, her cardiologist, and I planned to join her at these.

November I could see her becoming increasingly physically unsteady. But she attended my kids’ high school musical, their fall concerts. Every week or so she might call one off. I was becoming anxious about her condition, but I did not know what else to do. Please remember, she is a private person, and I have always meant to respect her wishes.

Thanksgiving was coming, and my brothers and their families were coming home and maybe then together we’d figure out a course of action. Plans were put into place to have home health care join them a few times a week, to look after mom and to take care of chores.

Over the course of a very noisy week, with two families sharing her home in Lakewood, I could see a sharp decline, not only physically but she was having increasing difficulty in finding the right words to express what she was thinking.

I began spending nights at mom’s house. It was exhausting, sitting with her while she struggled to speak, waiting for the moment in the evening when Jacques and I would muscle her to the toilet, and into bed, as while she stopped being able to send motor commands to her legs.

And I missed my kids, my wife, until that afternoon two weeks ago when she fell out of bed during a nap and we finally took her to the emergency room.

We do not know the course of events. It is enough to state the fact. My mother has developed progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) a rare infection of the brain which can affect those with a compromised immune system.

After more than a week in the hospital, we brought her home. We have converted her woody, carpeted dining room, where we enjoyed a large, Hansen family Thanksgiving dinner less than three weeks earlier, into her new bedroom. She is tended to around the clock, as necessary, by team of nurses aides and those from hospice.

Already there are things I miss. I miss her smile, her voice, her sense of humor. But she is still with us and I try to see her every day.

I worry about her, think about her, how this is affecting us as a family, her partner, and most importantly to me, our children.

Growing up I lost my grandparents over the course of four different decades, in 1976, 1981, 1989, and 2005. The loss of grandparents was to me occasional. Inevitable, to be sure, part of life, but infrequent enough to more easily process the grief.

My own children lost two grandfathers in two years, and only recently. Seeing them watch their beloved Tertia slip away is hard to bear, and it breaks my heart for them accumulate such pain during their teenage years.

We do not know what happens next. My brothers make plans to cycle through town. My wife and I make plans to visit my in-laws for the holidays, taking two cars in case of. The new year is a mystery.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The New Normal

Home tree.
Yesterday morning, I think it was yesterday, I was sitting on the couch in my home, in my bathrobe, in front of the fire. It was five-thirty in the morning, the tree was lit, also the faux-antique bulbs surrounding my wife’s collection of nutcrackers on the mantle.

I was drinking good coffee from a ceramic mug, writing pad in my lap. The children still asleep, not to wake for an hour before rising and getting ready for me to drive them to school. It was a familiar atmosphere, the time I create for myself to sit and think and write.

And it felt like a dream. This was the fantasy, the peace, the comfort, the home-ness of it all. The normalcy. It wasn’t normal.

Because normal, these nights, is lying on an uncomfortable hospital recliner. Mornings are spent in half-darkness, with not-great coffee in a foam cup, writing for a few moments before being interrupted by a nurse, another doctor, or having to go to my mother to get her to stop pedaling her leg in bed, anxiously kneading at the sheets, to encourage her to breathe, relax, and go back to sleep.

Sunday night my wife took the shift for me, affording me a night at home. And so I had a morning to myself. And it felt surreal. And wrong.

As I type, I am seated at a hospital-issue table trying to piece together thoughts as mom dozes in and out of afternoon rest. She may suddenly decide she needs to sit up and go someplace, though not being able to successfully negotiate bipedal locomotion is what got us into this place.

The wife passed off a flask as I checked in last night, I am day drinking bourbon and Cherry Coke Zero. Not my favorite cocktail but I am glad for the comfort and joy.

Atrium tree.
Speaking of the holidays, this afternoon, a table for one at Deagan's. After days of fast food I desperately wanted lettuce and so enjoyed a Caesar Salad ... and a holiday ale and peach cheesecake. I am eating my Christmas. I am drinking my Christmas.

Mom’s frustrated. Confined to an uncomfortable bed, fretting all the tasks which are beyond her present capability, bored with the selection of room service we have already exhausted. And she cannot adequately express what she thinks, and she knows it.

The laughs are further between. There are few reasons for a smile. It gets quieter and quieter.

We await the results of a test. It’s not a pass/fail test. The days are tedious and trying. I am grateful that she has a partner who loves her and joins us and affords me the chance to slip away and take a shower and a nap and return to the room where nothing ever happens.

Tonight will again be restless. Tomorrow evening my wife will return to take a shift. Thursday morning I will rise from my own bed, put on my robe and sit before the fire with my coffee. And it will feel wrong.

The short play "Magic" is available for reading at New Play Exchange.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Lestrade's Lads

Steve Lewis (left) and Henrik Hansen
This photo was staged.
When my brother was in middle school, he and eight of his colleagues formed a local chapter of the Baker Street Irregulars. Theirs was an officially recognized “scion society” of BSI, an international organization of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts that has in its time included such notable members as Harry Truman, Neil Gaiman and Curtis “Booger” Armstrong.

This youthful Bay Village society called itself Lestrade's Lads, after the Scotland Yard inspector who often took credit for Holmes's achievements.

The BSI celebrates the birthday of “the Master” each January 6 with a gala in New York City. In 1978 the Lads were in eighth grade, and they were content to sit together at our house, listening to vinyl records of 1940s radio adaptations starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, sharing trivia, and hoping Big Chuck and Lil’ John might play one of the films.

One of the more notable things about members of the BSI is their engagement in the game, or the belief that Holmes and Watson were not fictitious and that Arthur Conan Doyle was merely a literary agent for Dr. Watson. The “fun” part of this game is creating a realistic timeline and character biographies from Doyle’s fifty-six short stories and four canonical Holmes novels which can be wildly contradictory.

These mental exercises are beyond my ken, as I have never been a great follower of the character of Sherlock Holmes in any medium, beyond the recent incarnation as performed by Benedict Cumberbatch. Even then I only watched two seasons.

But having been assigned the responsibility of writing a new mystery for the character, I did not wish to stumble blindly into a chronology so richly mined. I hoped to create a pastiche, and not merely fanfic. A possible, brief adventure that could fit into the established narrative, and because I wanted him to have a young female companion, I needed Watson to be absent.

In 1962, William S. Baring-Gould published what has come to be regarded as the definitive “biography” of the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. He writes:
Watson, in the winter of 1900-01 and the following spring, was much too busy writing his narrative of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" to share many cases with Holmes, but his narrative was in the hands of the publishers by May of 1901, and he was able to take part in a case destined to become a classic in the annals of criminology -- that of the Priory School.
And so, the adventure of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street takes place over the course of a couple of days in early spring, 1901. For good measure, I even sent Watson out of the country for a fortnight on a family matter.

Each of my brothers were in town for Thanksgiving. Henrik, a life-long Anglophile, has been living in England for over a quarter-century. Shortly before he departed this afternoon, we went through the few childhood belongings that remain in the attic of my mother’s home.

These include a massive, two-volume set The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook, magazines, photographs, paperbacks, and newspaper clippings, and the three-album set of radio dramas Lestrade’s Lads listened to more than forty years ago.

To be continued.

Bay’s Baker Street Irregulars: Sherlock Holmes ‘never said all that’ by Cynthia Roberts, The Chronicle Telegram (1/1/1978)
The Baker Street Journal: An Index to an Irregular Quarterly of Sherlockiana (Vol. 20:1 - Vol. 43:4)
Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, A Life of the World’s First Consulting Detective by William S. Baring-Gould (Bramhall House, 1962)