Emmy’s Turn

I have written a few posts about how my life in show business has spilled over into our kid’s younger years, especially with our middle son, Neal. But our daughter, Emily, also had her fair share.

Like the time when she was in third grade at St. Norbert, the Catholic elementary school.  Of course she was in Girl Scouts and she told us that the next day at their meeting in the school Cafetorium, they were going to take turns going up onto the stage and sing along to their favorite recorded song.

During dinner when we asked her what was her favorite song that she wanted to sing along with she promptly told us “Dance Ten, Looks Three” from A Chorus Line. (This song is also known by its more popular name “Tits and Ass.”) After Nancy and I got over choking on our glass of wine we told her “no way, she couldn’t sing that song at St. Norbert’s” and she had to pick another song.

After giving it some thought she decided she wanted to sing “Frank Mills” from the musical Hair.  Of course Hair was equally inappropriate for St. Norbert’s, but the song “Frank Mills” was a sweet enough ballad – except for the one line about the Hell’s Angels. You can judge for yourself:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlN6GwZtTkI&list=PLmE-nbZ89BYZVdAmSxDyfh8yC8Eu2co4k&index=18

Not wanting to totally shut down Emily’s creative impulses, we decided it would be ok for her to sing that song.  However, we made her swear on a stack of bibles that she and her Girl Scout leader would ONLY play track #18 from the Hair cast album. God help us if they would have played any of the other songs from that show for the Scout troop. I’m sure our kids would have quickly been kicked out of St. Norbert.

Fortunately, Emily made sure #18 was the only song played that afternoon and all went well. I think she even earned a badge for it, but I don’t remember what the logo was on the badge. I can only imagine!

A Gift

I am about to reach the two year anniversary from my stem cell transplant for my Acute Myeloid Leukemia treatment.  This was my transplant at Duke that used my brother Kyle’s donated stem cells.  That was a tough, tough three months’ worth of treatments.  And my recovery took until just a few months ago for me to be about 95% back.

I realize how lucky I am.  The odds for someone my age with this Leukemia are only a 25% chance of surviving for five years or more.  That’s not very encouraging!  However, my doctors have told me that the majority of patients whose Leukemia relapses usually happens in the first two years after the transplant.  After that, the chances of the Leukemia coming back drop off dramatically.  So I am not in the clear yet, but each month that goes by without a sign of relapse puts it further and further in the rear view mirror.

It is so crazy to think about what I have been through and survived.  When I had my first stem cell transplant at Duke seventeen years ago using my own “cleaned up” stem cells for my Multiple Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) treatment, I was humbled by my experiences.  I was very grateful for my recovery from those treatments and subsequent relatively good health. At the time I was told that I would be lucky to live for three years and yet I have beaten that prognosis by a mile.  I think my doctors don’t quite know what to make of me.

But as the years went by and I continued to show no real signs of a relapse of that cancer, I grew complacent.  I did not retain my realization of how lucky I was to still be alive and I lost a lot of my gratitude for what I had been given.  Maybe that was just the result of living my life again.  While I did appreciate the big moments with my family – my two son’s weddings and the birth of my first two grandchildren – I let myself get caught up with the grind of daily life.  I let work issues start to run my life (again) and I eventually became a very stressed out, impatient and unhappy person.  And as a result, I was not nearly as good of a person as I should have been.

Then I got hit by the Leukemia train.  After several brushes with not surviving, I am now on the other side of that meat grinder!  During the past two years of treatments and recovery I have regained my deep appreciation for the third chance I have been given.  I fully realize that I am not out of the woods yet, including the high probability that my Multiple Myeloma will likely return at some point.  But I am not wasting a moment of the gift I have been given.

I am now a much more patient and forgiving person.  Someone is driving too slow ahead of me – who cares?  Someone says something that I don’t agree with – so what?  And the job I have now is the perfect place for me to be at this point in my life.  I am helping raise donations to provide free transportation for people in need to reach their critical medical treatments.  How totally great is that?

I can’t believe that it has taken two cancers for me to finally get my head screwed on straight.  But what matters most is that I am here now and I will continue to appreciate every day of this gift of life I have been given and do as much as I can to help others for as long as I am here.

Kyle

My brother, Kyle, is three years younger than me.  I call him my “younger brother” instead of my “little brother” because there is nothing little about him.  He is a tall, big man.  The kind of big that when I hug him, my arms can’t reach all the way around him.  And his heart is as big as he is, as is his sense of humor.

When we were younger and driving down the street, we passed a church with a sign that said “…Church of Christ” except the “f” had fallen off the sign.  Without missing a beat Kyle quipped “I wonder if they are chock full o’ Christ?”

He went to the same all-boys Catholic high school as me and my other brothers, but he was always getting in trouble for goofing off.  He tells the story of the day in class the teacher came down on him for something, so Kyle pulls an oversized rubber knife from his backpack and starts yelling “I can’t take it anymore” and commences to stab himself.  Remember, this was back in the late seventies.  Anyway, the teacher did not think it was very funny and neither did the Dean of Discipline, the aptly named Mr. Rock.

Then there was the time in his college writing class, when the professor had them sit in a circle and each tell a story of something really scary that happened to them when they were children.  The young lady before Kyle told the story of her and her family’s escape from Viet Nam when she was a child.  She recounted the late night trip in a leaky boat with soldiers shooting at them and how they had to stay crouched down in the boat to avoid the bullets.

After this somber story it was Kyle’s turn.  Having grown up in suburbia Orange County, all he could come up with was the story about the time he got lost at Disneyland.  “Oh, and did I say it was really scary until my parents came and got me?”

Kyle is also my bother that donated his stem cells to me when I needed a transplant to fight off my Leukemia and stay alive.  I love that guy!  Like I said, he has a heart as big as he is.  It is crazy to think my blood and immune system is now an identical match to Kyle’s.  Thank goodness he didn’t have any allergies to be passed on to me, but I do wish I had gotten a little piece of his great sense of humor.

It Isn’t Easy

Sorry I haven’t posted anything in a while, but I have been a little sidetracked by the holidays, good family stuff and a new job. Yeaa!

For some reason today I started remembering my time early in my show business career when I had the great privilege to work as the stage manager for Juliet Prowse and her show.  The last year or so of her time doing shows in Las Vegas she did a show centered around “dance.”  It was a natural and perfect topic for her, considering what an amazing dancer she was. 

In the show she and the company would perform new dances to several classic songs, everything from “Shall We Dance” to “Mr. Bojangles” to “All That Jazz.”  But the highlight of the show for me was at the very end after all these awesome song and dance numbers she would walk onto stage all by herself, dressed in her simple dressing robe, stand still at center stage and sing a song written by Billy Barnes – “It Isn’t Easy.”  The lyrics went:

Dancing looks easy, doesn’t it?

You sweat a little, get out of breath a little

But by and large, it looks like a simple thing

So what’s the great big deal?

If given half the chance

You climb upon a stage – hell, anyone can dance.

Right?????

It may look easy – it isn’t easy

It may look simple – it isn’t simple at all

When you consider all the hours and hours of rehearsing

The millions of steps and combinations

The lifetime of classes, lessons and learning

The training the body, the stretching and turning

It may look painless – it’s very painful

It looks like nothing to it – it isn’t nothing at all

To spend a lifetime dancing in some depressing little hall

It isn’t easy at all

But ask a dancer what she’d do if she had a second chance

This dancer would tell you – I’d dance.

Then she would say good night, take a deep bow and we would bring the curtain down to end the show.  I LOVED that number and the way Juliet performed it.   I still remember every word of it today.  And through the genius of Billy Barnes, it perfectly summed up Juliet’s life.

My Show Business Kids

In one of my earlier posts I told the story about the time our middle son, Neal, was in first grade at St. Norbert and Sister Rose Mary came to me very worried because Neal had said he wanted to have a rum-bull on the school playground.  The poor little Irish nun had never seen West Side Story, so she didn’t know what Neal was talking about.  I assured her that everything would be okay and I would make sure Neal did not start a gang fight with the other first graders.  This is what happens when your kids see too many of the shows that you are producing.

Around that same time we were walking through Nordstrom with Neal and in the distance we heard to store piano player.  Neal froze and said “they’re playing Shapoopi!”  And they really were!  Why, I don’t know but also why our five year old knew the music to the big dance number from The Music Man is a whole other story.  So of course we had to find the piano player and Neal asked him to play it again.

By then the piano player had moved on to another song and he didn’t want to dig out his sheet music for Shapoopi, so he asked Neal if there was another song he wanted him to play.  Maybe something from Sesame Street?

Neal thought for a minute then said “yeah, do you know anything from Gypsy?” 

We literally fell over laughing.  For those who are not familiar with the show, Gypsy is the ultimate show biz musical about the loud stage mother pushing her daughter to eventually become Gypsy Rose Lee. Leave it to our five year old Neal to come back with that line.

And no, Neal did not go into show business, thank goodness.  But to this day we will catch him singing a little bit of a show tune or knowing all the Broadway musical answers on Jeopardy.

Motivation

When I was originally diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) I was told I would be lucky to live for three more years.  Well that was sixteen years ago, so the joke is on them!  I think my doctors don’t quite know what to do with me. 

And when I was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia I was given a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the next six months.  Then I was told that only twenty-five percent of patients my age live for five years or more.  That was two years ago and here I am still going strong!

During all of these “bonus years” I have seen my two sons and one daughter graduate from college, watch my two sons get married to wonderful women and now been here for the births of three awesome grandchildren.

We have had more than our share of tough times, but by sticking together we have managed to have many more fun times.  You will notice the family similarities.

 

 

For those of us who are fighting through the tough times, our motivation is not to make more money or to become famous.  It is to gain as many precious moments with our loved ones that we can squeeze out of the time given to us.

 

(from left:  Anne, Nancy, Wyatt, me and Porter)

Talk about motivation! As I have said before, life doesn’t get much better than this.

This is What I Choose

It was just two years ago I got the dreaded phone call from my oncologist.  I had been fighting Multiple Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) for the previous fifteen years and I had suddenly started seeing bruises all over my chest and arms.  After a couple weeks of blood tests and a bone marrow biopsy – where they “drill” into your hip and pull out a sample of your bone marrow for the lab to run tests on – my oncologist called to tell me I had Acute Myeloid Leukemia. 

My brain had a hard time registering this info.  I knew Leukemia was pretty serious stuff, but why would I have it?  It turned out the drug I had been taking over the past several years to fight off my Multiple Myeloma and very much keep me alive had likely caused my Leukemia.  My oncologist informed me I needed to go into the hospital the next day, where I would be for a month starting some heavy duty chemo treatments.  I said “come on, really?”  I needed to go into the hospital for the entire month of December?  Then he informed me that if I didn’t I would be dead in two weeks.  Well, guess who went into the hospital the next day? This guy!

That was the start of a long treatment process that included more stays in hospitals, more heavy chemo and eventually a stem cell transplant at Duke using one of my brother’s donated stem cells.  Love that Kyle!!  At the time I was told I had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the next six months of treatments.  Hell, that’s a flip-of-the-coin.  But I told myself I could do it and I chose to be in the positive side of the fifty percent.  I was also very lucky to have such a great oncologist in Norfolk (Dr. Dean McGaughey really is the best!), all of the terrific doctors and nurses at Duke and most importantly the bottomless love and support from my wife, Nancy, my entire family and all my friends.

It was a tough fight, but I made it.  Several months ago I heard about someone dying from Leukemia and I got thinking that you never hear of someone living after Leukemia.  So I GTS (Googled that shit) and found out only twenty-five percent of people my age and up who have Acute Myeloid Leukemia survive for five years or more.  When I saw my doctors at Duke I asked them if this was true.  They told me sheepishly “yes, this is mostly true but we don’t talk about it much.” Well I would think not! 

But they told me I was on the younger end of the spectrum of people with this kind of Leukemia, so that was in my favor.  They also told me the majority of people who relapse usually do so within two years of their treatments.  Again, I chose to believe I would be in the twenty-five percent and here I am now three months shy of my two year anniversary of my stem cell transplant and doing great!!  Also, with the exciting new treatments being tested, especially the promising new CAR-T Cell therapy treatments there is starting to be a real chance for a cure.

As you can tell I am a firm believer in the “you make your own luck” theory, which is what I mean by “I choose” how things are going to turn out.  While I also know there is a lot more than that going on, like great doctors and a loving, supportive family, it all starts with you and your attitude.  Even if things don’t work out, at least you know you went down swinging.  As my Dad once told me “never give them a standing target!”  Thanks, Dad!

Multiple Myeloma Birthday

Nancy just reminded me that in another week it will be sixteen years since my first stem cell transplant (using my own stem cells) at Duke. Wow! Not bad considering at the time they said I would be lucky to get three years.

I was initially diagnosed in early April with a full blown case of Multiple Myeloma – nearly 85% of my bone marrow had been taken over by the Myeloma cancer cells.  I then went through seven months of aggressive treatments to beat down my cancer to the point when I could have a stem cell transplant.

During my treatments I wore a small pump under my business suit that was pushing timed doses of chemo into me; all the while I was still working as the Executive Director at Virginia Opera.  I remember sitting in Board meetings not letting on that anything was wrong and thinking how surreal it all was.

Even though the treatments were pretty intense, fortunately I managed them fairly well and never missed much time at work until November and December when I had to go to Duke for my transplant.  In hindsight, even that went well.  I mean it knocked me out and I had a few close calls with infections, but by early January I was back to work.  I wasn’t at 100%, but I managed.

Unfortunately I returned to a rather unwelcoming work environment.  The founding Artistic Director at the Opera did not like the fact that prior to my illness I would stand up to him and say “no” to his capricious and often volatile whims on how the company should be run.  In fact I learned that while I was at Duke, the Artistic Director used that opportunity to tell the Board the company could not afford to have its Executive Director die on them so it would be best to let me go.

As a result, on my first day back at work our Board President (who was a good guy) took me out to lunch and informed me that the company would not be renewing my contract when it expired.  Also, they had determined that it would be “confusing” to the staff to have me continue in my position knowing that I wouldn’t be staying with the company so I should just stay away from work until my contract ran out.  Welcome back!!

I was crushed.  Nothing like that had ever happened to me before.  And needless to say, I was very angry at the Artistic Director for his underhanded way of doing things.

But a couple years ago when I was in the hospital dealing with my Leukemia treatments I had a lot of time to think about things, including what happened to me at the Opera.  I realized there was no point in carrying my anger at the Artistic Director along with me.  It wasn’t helping matters and it certainly wasn’t healthy for me.  I came to understand that it was the Artistic Director’s issue, not mine.  It was incredibly “freeing” to let that anger go, like a load of rocks had been taken off my heart.

So November 20th is always a bittersweet day for me.  It was the day of my first transplant and is considered a person’s “birthday” because the transplant process brings you close to death then back to life again with the infusion of your stem cells.  While it marks a very difficult time in my life, Nancy, my family and I all consider it a day for celebrating.  And who can’t use an extra birthday?

Theater Ghost Stories

In honor of Halloween, I thought I would recount my interactions with theater ghosts throughout my career.  First off, I am a believer that some forms of ghosts do exist.  All you have to do is sit in a church or a theater and feel the energy from the crowd to know that emotional energy is very tangible.  And since they say energy cannot be destroyed, I don’t think it is farfetched to believe that some form of that energy remains in a place and can sometimes be experienced physically.

When I was young and working at the Sacramento Music Circus tent theater, we were doing a production of Camelot.  Since it was summer stock with “star” casting, John Gray was King Arthur, Anne Jeffreys was Guinevere and Harve Presnell was Lancelot.  Even though this was a long time ago, it was still probably the oldest cast to ever play those roles!

There is a scene in the show when Lancelot supposedly brings a fallen knight back to life.  Now Harve Presnell was known best for playing light-hearted roles, but one evening when I was standing at the rear of the audience’s seats and Harve played that scene I swear I could feel the waves of emotion pouring from the audience.  It was as real and physical as if I was in the ocean feeling the waves roll over me.  It was really something.

Another time when I was stage managing Juliet Prowse’s show, we were on tour in Australia.  One evening we were loading into a beautiful, hundred year old opera house in either Adelaide or Melbourne.  I wanted to check out the acoustics of the house so I worked my way from backstage through the dressing rooms up to the top balcony.  It was pretty cool how well I could hear the crew’s voices all the way up in the rear of that balcony.

As I worked my way from the balcony, I went down the front stair cases through the theater lobbies.  Most of the lights were out but I was able to feel my way along with the help of the hand rails.  Off to the side of one lobby I saw the lights on in a room and the shadows of a crew cleaning up in a kitchen.  Along with that I heard the typical sounds of a kitchen clean up – the clanging of trays, voices and the sound of glasses being put away.

I called out a “hello” and suddenly the sounds ceased and the shadows disappeared.  All of the hairs stood up on the back of my neck and I hustled the rest of the way back to the stage.  When I got to the stage, I mentioned to some of the crew that I saw the catering kitchen off the lobby.  They all looked strangely at me and said what was I talking about?  There was no kitchen up there.  Yeesh!  They must have thought “just another crazy Yank.”

I also worked for thirteen years at the Wells Theatre, a beautiful one hundred and five year old theater in Norfolk, VA.  Over the years I heard many credible stories of the five different ghosts who haunt that theater.  While I never personally experienced any of them specifically, there were many times when I was in there alone and I could definitely feel their presence.

Boo!

Living Your Life Thirty Days at a Time

Most cancer patients who are undergoing treatments know that “see you in thirty days” is usually the time between doctor appointments.  You have thirty days to worry if the other shoe is going to drop or you can try to live your life.  Learning how to live your life in thirty day increments is a process and it takes a while to get to the point where you can accept your situation and strive to make the best of it.

It all sounds well and good when you write it down or repeat it to yourself, but it can sometimes be a real struggle to keep the “what if” thoughts from pushing their way from the back of your head to the fore front of your thoughts.

I have been very lucky in beating back my Multiple Myeloma (bone marrow cancer) and more recently my Leukemia.  But the odds of the Leukemia coming back are not at all in my favor.  They say that only twenty-five percent of the patients in my age group survive for five years or more, with the vast majority of recurrences happening within the first two years.  Being on the younger end of the patient spectrum is definitely in my favor, but still I am now a year and seven months from my stem cell transplant so I definitely feel the clock ticking.

I wish I was smart enough to give folks a magic formula on how to keep the clock’s ticking sound from drowning out everything else.  All I know is to keep myself busy and keep reminding myself to truly appreciate every day and all the good things that I have in my life right now.

And those good things all start with my family – my amazing wife Nancy, my three great kids and two daughters-in-law (who are like two of my own kids) and my two wonderful grand kids (with #3 on the way!).  From there the ripples of gratitude quickly extend out to my folks and the rest of my huge extended family and all of my dear friends on both the West and East coasts – and Europe come to think of it.  I am a very, very fortunate man, cancer be damned!