South Africa

The other day a friend reminded me that it was Juliet Prowse’s birthday and we shared some memories of what an amazingly talented dancer and performer she was.  I also remember from working with her how kind and gracious she was.  There was the time in her dressing room in Las Vegas between shows when Elvis showed up to see her.  Of course we were all hanging around her dressing room lounge area and I still remember Juliet admonishing Elvis if he was really taking all the vitamins she had had given him.  “Yes, mam” was all he replied as he hung his head with embarrassment because we all knew he wasn’t taking them.

I was also lucky enough at the age of twenty to travel to South Africa with her show in 1977 to perform in Johannesburg and Cape Town.  I’ll never forget flying into Johannesburg and seeing the rich deep red clay soil mixed with the white stucco houses with red clay tile roofs and all of the blooming purple jacaranda trees – really beautiful!

And there was the time in Cape Town, which I thought looked a lot like San Diego, when I visited a guy who had a tomato farm up in the hills outside of town.  As we stood in his field eating big tomatoes off the vine we looked out and I could see where the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans merged off the cape. I could clearly see the different colors of the water bumping up against each other.  Also, really beautiful.

But for all of the county’s natural beauty, we were there during the period of apartheid and to me being a young white guy from suburbia Orange County it was truly an eye opening experience.  In Johannesburg we played in a huge tent theater, but having already worked the tent theater at the Sacramento Music Circus I knew my way around.  But I found the African crew members didn’t quite know what to make of this young white guy who pitched in and worked alongside them.  I came to find out that was not the typical way things worked there.

The terrible toll of apartheid really struck me late one night after a show when I was walking through downtown outside our hotel.  I saw the garbage truck driving down the street picking up the trash – except the truck never stopped.  It just slowed down a little bit and the African crew who were emptying the cans into the truck had to run to keep up.  The truck kept moving and the crew had to keep running just to stay up.  I realized that if they didn’t, they would lose their job and their permission to be in town after dark. So, so very sad.

I will be forever grateful to Juliet for providing me with so many amazing opportunities.

Welcome To Tech Theater

Show Business and theater has a rich collection of traditions, which is not surprising considering how long theater has been around.  I am sure that among the first groups of cave men, there were a few individuals who were the storytellers.  I wonder if those special individuals were revered or made fun of as it seems to be today?

Books have been written about some of these traditions, like how it is bad luck to whistle backstage in a theater (someone might take it as their cue to lower a sandbag on a rope onto your head) or how it is bad luck to wish someone “good luck” before a show.  Instead you are supposed to say “merde” or “break a leg.”  Why? I have no idea.  And don’t get me started on where “break a leg” came from.  I have heard a bunch of different explanations for the source of that one.  And how it is bad luck to say the name of a certain Shakespearean play, so instead you say “the play whose name we cannot say.”

Then there is the tradition of teasing the newest and youngest person on the technical staff.  When I was getting started in theater as a young Production Assistant a loooong time ago, the sheets of colored material that you put in front of a stage light to get certain colored light were called “gels.”  I believe this was because they were made of some form of gelatin.  So the trick was to tell the new technician their job was to wash some of the gels.  What they didn’t know but soon found out was that when you put water on the gels they would melt into a messy goo.  Naturally the older technicians would take this very seriously while the young technician would freak out.  Ha ha ha!

But then the industry ruined this prank by making the gels out of plastic so they no longer melted.  But being the creative types they are, the technicians moved onto a new prank to pull on the young staff.  To be heard onstage, actors all wear small body microphones.  In order to keep the microphone pack (about the size of a box of cigarettes) from short circuiting from an actor’s sweat, the packs were put into rubber condoms.  Problem solved!  So at the beginning of each new show or season of shows, the tradition was to make the youngest, newest technician – man or woman – be given he job to locate and go out and purchase a whole case of condoms. Again, ha ha ha!

But now with the internet, a person can go online, place an order and have the case delivered to the theater – which still raises several eyebrows from the FedEx delivery person.  Those trashy show folk!  Now that I have been away from show business for a while, I have lost track of what is the most current form of torture that is inflicted on the new technicians but I sure they have come up with a few good ones.

What Have I Done Lately?

I never put much belief in the concept that there is a God watching over everything, meting out help only to certain people who prayed hard enough.  If this were true, then why do bad things happen to good people? To test us? I don’t think God is that cruel.

So are we just pin balls bouncing around our world?  In some ways we kind of are, but with the big caveat that by our actions toward others we can help create a much better world to be bouncing around in.  We may not be masters of our destinies, but I really do think we have the power to form a good path for our lives to follow.

But sometimes for no apparent reason our lives will fall onto a very difficult, rocky road.  Instead of belaboring why this has happened, I think the right thing to do is work to make the best of the situation either for ourselves or by helping others.  And yes this can be very hard and sometimes things do not go the way we want them to and things continue to get worse.

But I firmly believe that how we make the trip and live our lives is far more important than any end result.  The beauty truly comes from the efforts we put forth, not necessarily the finished product.

Instead of focusing on the selfish, immoral actions of a few people, I choose to celebrate the caring, loving, selfless actions both large and small that so many people make every day that makes this world a better place. Look at all those amazing young kids who are doing great things to raise money for the poor or cancer research or even animal rescues.  And how about the people who are donating their kidneys and parts of their livers to help others in need?  And on and on and on.

I am humbled by all of these people and their actions.  What have I done??  While it is smaller than donating a kidney (I don’t think anyone would want mine anyway!), I believe being there to help others in their time of need is hugely valuable.  When we do this, the bad things in life seem to shrink down and become more manageable.  And at the same time we become much better people by our actions that we take to make things better for others.

While believing in God and praying can create a good solid base for your life, I think what really matters most is not how hard you pray but how you act toward and for others.

Do Not Read Before Driving

I think it is hilarious how many warnings drug manufactures feel they need to state in their TV commercials for their products.

For a drug to fight depression: “may cause extreme anxiety or depression.  If this occurs call your doctor immediately.” Honestly! That’s what they said!

“Do not take before operating heavy machinery.”  OK, so my asphalt roller/flattener is out.  How about driving my fork lift or my corn combine?

“May cause an erection lasting four or more hours; if so, call your doctor.”  Are you kidding? If that happened I think the woman would be calling the doctor to save HER.  In the meantime the men are saying “great, sign me up!”

“This medicine is not meant for weight loss, but many people experience some loss of weight.”  Again, are you kidding? Sign me up!  It will take care of my problem AND help me lose weight.  But if they said “this medicine might make you smarter” nobody would care or be motivated to buy that drug.

“Do not combine this drug with large amounts of alcohol.”  Help me out here – define “large amounts.” No one should be drinking large amounts of alcohol anyway, drug or no drug!

For a smoking cessation drug – “may cause the urge to consume large amounts of alcohol.” See above.

“Do not take this drug during the day until you know how it will affect you.”  Check!  But if you take it at night, you will be asleep and not know how it is affecting you.

Or the ones with lists of side effects that goes on and on – at least half the time of the commercial.  But my brother in law heard the best one – buried in the list was “may cause anal leakage.” Ouch!

Time Heals Everything

That is a great expression – “Time heals everything.”  In this humble reporter’s opinion (to quote the late, great Howard Cosell), it kind of does and it kind of doesn’t.

Time alone certainly doesn’t heal some illnesses (like cancer) but I have found it does work wonders for softening and eliminating memories of having been done wrong by someone or some other slight.  Not only does fighting a life threatening illness put things into a rather harsh perspective, but so does time.

I will be the first to admit that when you are younger, this is hard to believe.  At that time things seem so much bigger and worse than they eventually turn out to be.  I think that is in part because of our abilities to (mostly) take whatever bad things have been handed to us and then work to make the best of it.  And it usually takes time and perspective to see and understand that.

And this is what makes it so important to “be there” to help others as they struggle with whatever bad thing has been handed to them.  Very, very few of us can work through the big negative things in our lives without some help.  I have always believed that life is a team sport.  Sometimes you are the one needing help and sometimes you are the one helping others.

At the end of the day on this road of life, that is what really matters most.  Were you there to help others?

Ode to Rip

I have had the pleasure of working several shows with Rip Taylor who is still out there making people laugh, but the first time was a loooong time ago when he performed his act at the Sacramento Music Circus under the tent.  I still remember a great bit he did where he sang small parts of many songs, jumping from song to song without a stop.  If my old man’s brain remembers correctly, some of it went like this – and it works best if you sing them without a break between them:

(sung to the tune from Oklahoma)  I’m just a girl who can’t say n-n-n-n-n-n-n-

(sung to the tune “What’s it All About, Alfie?” – younger readers may have to google that one!) What’s that in the pool, algae?

(sung from the tune from The Fantasticks) Try to remember …umm….

(sung) We stand up for Jesus, we stand up for Jesus, we stand up for Jesus (spoken) Well sit down for Christ’s sake!

Applause, applause, applause, take a bow Rip, then exit aisle 7!

There were more that I just can’t remember, but I still think of Rip doing this bit whenever I hear any of these songs and it makes me smile!

Balloons – Cool – Duh!!!

When I was younger I was the Associate Producer for several years under Marty Wiviott at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera.  There we would produce five large-scale musicals a year and perform them for three week runs at the huge 3,000 seat theater in Long Beach, CA.  And we really had a blast doing them!

One year we were producing The Merry Widow.  It was a light operetta starring Ann Blythe, Ed Evanko and a huge cast.  Actually, it had a cast of about 40 actors, an orchestra of 30 musicians and a stage crew of at least 25 stage hands.  So it literally was a production with over a hundred artists.

As I said, it was a piece of fluff show and during one of the last run thrus the Director turned to Marty and me and said “you know what this show needs? A balloon drop during the final number.”  We agreed wholeheartedly and I went to work with Gerry Griffin, our amazing Technical Director to make that happen for the next night’s dress rehearsal.

Gerry worked his usual magic and rigged up a huge fabric sleeve in the fly loft above the stage and filled it to the brim with red balloons.  When it came time in the final number, the balloon drop worked flawlessly and a huge shower of red balloons fell onto the stage.  The problem was that the hall’s air conditioning system pulled all of the balloons downstage and they fell directly into the orchestra pit.  At the time we didn’t think much of that detail and congratulated ourselves for such a great end to the performance.

Well the happiness came to a screeching halt when the show ended and Steven Smith, our terrific Musical Director and Conductor came onto the stage and started screaming “who was responsible for the balloons?”  Being the good soldier that I am, I stepped up to Steven and said it was me.

Steven was blowing a gasket.  We stood onstage a few inches apart while he screamed, and I do mean screamed, at me how irresponsible it was for us to do that without warning the orchestra.  He went on and on.  His point was the musicians were all concentrating on reading their music and playing their instruments when all of a sudden a shower of objects started to fall on their heads.  They were all scared to death.

While I did not appreciate Steven screaming at me, I stayed calm and conceded that he had a good point and I apologized deeply for what happened.  Eventually Steven calmed down but it was one of those scenes out of a movie where we were standing onstage with Steve screaming at me and everyone on the crew kind of slinking back into the shadows.

But the crew got the last laugh because the next day when everyone showed up for the performance and Steven went to his dressing room, when he opened the door it was filled floor to ceiling with red balloons.  Being a good sport Steven laughed it off.  Good job, Gerry Griffin!

I’ve Got That Funny Feeling

Sixteen years ago when I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, my initial treatments included massive doses of Thalomid (Celgene’s version of the old banned drug Thalidomide).  That’s the way it was done back then.  Over the next few years they gradually reduced my doses and eventually replaced the drug with the next generation drug, Revlimid. 

In addition to the terrible side effect of potential fetal deformities, another side effect (of many) for Thalomid was peripheral neuropathy.  That is, the killing off of the nerves in your extremities like your hands and feet.  Revlimid was engineered to have less of this side effect, but it is still there to a smaller degree.  I did develop a deadening of the nerves in my toes and finger tips and along the outside of my little fingers.  I even lost the nerves and sense of taste on the tip of my tongue.

I was always told that once you get peripheral neuropathy that was it.  There was no getting rid of it or restoring the feelings in the affected areas.  I guess I was lucky because over the course of a several years I regained the feeling in the affected areas, including my tongue.  Weird!

However, I think it was not a case of the nerves healing, but rather the other nerves around the damaged areas making up for the lost sensations.  I say this because last winter when I was out in the cold for a long period of time shoveling snow from our driveway, the extreme tingling came back in my hands and fingers.  The good news was that after a couple of months it went away again.

It was good that my doctor and I caught the peripheral neuropathy early enough and were able to mitigate its negative affects by reducing the doses of my drugs.  Lesson learned – don’t be afraid to speak up about personal issues with your doctor!

Potty-mouth

A little over a year and a half ago I had to go into the hospital for the month of December to start my treatments for Leukemia.  It was not a fun month.  At the time I was told I had a 50/50 chance of surviving the next six months of treatments.  While I didn’t dwell on it at the time, it has recently occurred to me that it was basically a coin flip whether or not I would make it.

Obviously I did make it, and that first month of treatments was made light years better by my little sister Santina coming out and spending about a week with me and Nancy.  I say “little” when I should probably say “younger,” but no matter how old we both get she will always be my little sister.

My hospital room in the oncology ward was several stories up and I had a window looking out on the construction site of the new wing they were adding to the hospital.  Right away Nancy and Santina noticed there was a row of rainbow colored port-a-potties at the side of the construction site.

Every day we all had endless laughs over the stories Nancy and Santina made up for the workers using the port-a-potties.  Sometimes a worker would go down the row opening each door to inspect the situation before he entered.  Other workers would carry a newspaper in with them.  And yet others seemed intent on selecting a particular colored john.  It went on and on.  I never knew how creative Santina and Nancy could be with their story telling, but they kept us in stitches – bad pun for a hospital stay!

To this day I can’t drive past a construction site with port-a-potties without cracking up.

The New Normal

So you have made it through a stem cell transplant and are now mostly recovered.  Awesome, congratulations!  But be sure to adjust your expectations that you will quickly return to your baseline physical and mental condition from before your diagnosis.  While you will feel pretty good, know that it takes a long time to fully get back to what you were.  And some people never get back to 100%.

It really becomes a matter of managing your expectations and gradually working on your physical and mental recovery.  Just like the way you worked through your treatment regimen – patience and one day at a time – is the same thing you need to do with your long term recovery.  Stay with your daily workout routine, which should include walking, and try to gradually increase the level of workout and distance covered.  “Gradually” being the operative word here.  Don’t push yourself too hard or too fast, or you will find yourself being set back.  Just resolve yourself to the reality that you can’t rush things, no matter how badly you want to speed up your recovery time.  And you should also find something to challenge yourself mentally to give your brain a workout.  I found playing Scrabble worked well for me.

You will eventually get to a good physical and mental condition.  It might not be fully what you were before, but it is certainly better than the alternative!  While your physical recovery will be fairly easy to measure, your mental recovery is a trickier thing to quantify.  Depending on the level and intensity of your treatments, “chemo brain” can be a very real and annoying condition.

Don’t let yourself get too frustrated when you find you can’t remember things that you know you knew before your treatments.  You have to cut yourself some slack and admit this is what happens to a person after they go through the tough treatments you did.  At the risk of being the bearer of bad news, I don’t know if it ever comes back 100%.  I am now sixteen years post auto stem cell transplant and I still experience chemo brain moments.  And this was before my Leukemia treatments started a year and a half ago!  Maybe it is a bit of senior-ites, but I don’t think so.  Nancy is close to my age and she doesn’t seem to have these issues.

I think the best answer is to keep at it and to admit to yourself that it is okay when you hit a wall of physical endurance or mental clarity.  After all that we have been through, we deserve to be given a break once in a while.