Thursday, November 9, 2006

Remembering Danny Shapiro

Minneapolis, Minnesota

I have not made this kind of recommendation before.

Starting tonight and running through Sunday evening, Shapiro & Smith Dance will present "ANYTOWN" at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis.

ANYTOWN is a poetic collaboration pairing the choreography of Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith with the music of Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, and Soozie Tyrell (of the E Street Band). This production has played to standing ovations in New York City and across the country. Addressing the concerns of today's middle and working classes, ANYTOWN follows three ordinary families as they cope with floods, war, infidelity, and one another.

This weekend, ANYTOWN will be performed without the presence of my dear friend, Danny Shapiro.

Danny died October 3, at age 48, after a four-year battle with prostate cancer. Too soon.

I met Danny 10-11 years ago. Didn't really get to know him until he got sick in 2002. Taking the time to know him these last four years was one of the best things I have ever done for myself.

His accolades have been reported on the obituary pages of the Star Tribune and New York Times, and on

Tickets for ANYTOWN can be reserved by calling the Southern Theater, 612-340-1725.

As part of the ANYTOWN performances on the national touring circuit, Danny started the "PSA in the USA" program to encourage men of all ages to take 30 seconds to have their blood drawn for a PSA test to report the early prospects of prostate cancer. He never had a clue that cancer could happen to him; nor did his wife. Early detection can result in early treatment.

Please encourage the men in your life -- including yourself, if applicable -- to take the PSA blood draw. Then, if you live anywhere close to Minneapolis, join me in attending a performance of ANYTOWN at the Southern Theater this weekend.

I loved Danny Shapiro, and I know there are many people who love you -- or who you love -- that should stay around for a while.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Ridgely's Delight: Remembering

Baltimore, Maryland

For some reason, I remember her shoes.

My niece, Bernadette, was wearing "flats" on the sunny spring morning when I drove her and my brother to the Minneapolis airport.

As they got out of the car and walked to the terminal, I saw her shoes and how she carried herself, and thought how "cool" and cosmopolitan she had become at 26.

She was headed back home to Baltimore, and my brother to Denver, following the graduation and party of my mother from college in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

That morning was the last time I saw Bernadette. She made a round trip drive from Baltimore to Minnesota and Wisconsin that summer, but I was somehow too busy to see her, although I did talk to her on the phone from my mother's house while she was en route.

She died in late October that year of 1999, when she fell under the wheels of a train near her townhouse in Baltimore's Ridgely's Delight neighborhood.

She was the first born of my 10 nieces and nephews. A couple years before 1999, she had graduated from Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. At the time of her death, she had applied to medical schools and was working on medical research in Baltimore. You can still Google and find a study for which she was co-author in 1999.

She was the first of what we hoped would be many prides and joys. Being first did not diminish those who followed.

Dealing with her death was, and remains, the worst experience of my life.

In a round-about effort to try and make sense of it all, I set out in the summer of 2000 to tour Kansas for two weeks to find the roots of my grandfather, Harry Peterson. I might have made the trip eventually in my life, but never so soon if Berni had not died.

What I found restored a measure of balance and hope.

I found a wealth of living relatives, and stories of others passed, stretching back to Delaware and the 1600s and, somehow, to Sweden before that.

However, that is all its own separate story.

I knew that if the opportunity ever came my way, I would visit Berni's haunts in Baltimore.

My work at Baltimore's Convention Center ended at 5pm today. I walked back to the Mt. Vernon Hotel to change clothes and set out to walk the 1.2 miles to Berni's last residence at 605 S. Paca Street.

The walk is pleasant enough. Past the University of Maryland Medical Center, past Oriole Park at Camden Yards. In fact, Berni's last home was only three blocks from where baseball is played for 80 games every summer.

You would never know it. South Paca Street is such a quiet oasis, lined with trees, townhouses built to the edge of the sidewalk. A red brick, three-story walkup. Around the corner and a block distant is the dog park where Berni played with her dog. Two blocks away is the gas station. A block further is the pub, Pickles.

Six tenths of a mile further south is the 1300 block of Ridgely Avenue.

Three sets of rusted railroad tracks make a crossing next to an abandoned warehouse.

Two blocks away is the relatively new M & T Bank Stadium where the Baltimore Ravens play football. In between lie acres of surface parking lots.

It is almost absurdly simple to visualize the scene late on a night in October 1999. A car of young people stops short of the railroad tracks on the right side of Ridgely. Berni and a friend get out and wait for a train to come by that is moving slowly enough to try and jump aboard.

The scene is so innocuous now. So ridiculously ordinary and benign.

I have sometimes encouraged the nieces and nephews to dream big and reach high.

Berni had always held a dream of riding the rails. That night, her dream exceeded her reach.

Standing in the middle of the middle tracks, I could feel the possibility of chasing the dream for no more than 30 feet before falling short. I could see the feet touching the ground, running to make it happen.

I saw the shoes.

Oddly, it was not as emotional at the tracks as I had thought it would be -- as it had been when I set out from my hotel in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood.

I stood by on Ridgely for 45 minutes thinking of this and that.

Although I had the sense that Berni was no longer at this scene, whether or not she had lingered for a time, I told her of the amazing stories I had been prompted to learn after she lost consciousness here. I told her I would rather have learned the stories later and in some other way.

I told her she had been the maid of honor at her sister's wedding, and was now an aunt. I told her another sister was now living in Madrid and she would never recognize the cool dude her brother has become.

I told her that her grandmother had had heart surgery a couple years ago but was now standing for election to the Minnnesota Legislature.

I told her we missed her, and that as long as we all lived, so would she.

I told her that she may never have known how much Irish was in her blood, and related the Irish blessing:

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
And the rain fall gentle on your fields.
And, until we meet again, may God hold you
In the palm of His hand.

The train that came by as I walked away had the most mournful whistle -- heard for blocks away. I have heard that train's whistle on the plains of Kansas, next to the childhood home and presidential library of Dwight Eisenhower in Abilene, and next to the homestead where my grandfather was born in Jasper.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

New Orleans: Coda and Capo

New Orleans, Louisiana

Six summers ago, my brother and I wept in each other's arms in Dodge City, Kansas.

We were parting at the end of a journey where we had found our grandfather's roots, roots that extended back to Delaware and the first Peterson's arrival around 1638.

Our lives had been changed on the hot plains of southwest Kansas, and we wanted to hold on and savor the grace of the moment.

Different ones had tears at the end of last night's performance at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in New Orleans.

We all wanted to hold on.

Yet, it is time for this tour to end. As someone remarked, “It feels like we've been down here forever!”

In five minutes, a third of our group will leave for the airport and Minnesota. The rest of us will follow tomorrow.

Finding a New Orleans venue - any kind of venue - had been problematic until very recently. Fifteen churches had said “no” before The Rev. Susan Gaumer at St. Andrew's said, “Yes, of course.”

Afterwards, Susan told James Davies that it all came together for her with a single image: 102 singers massed beneath a 16-foot figure of a resurrected Christ, arms raised in blessing.

In many ways, this was the best performance even though the venue imposed technical limitations.

In one of the week's countless sweet moments, the mother of tenor Michael Lahr flew down to hear his solo in “Michael's Letter to Mama,” by Armistead Maupin.

Several other Minnesotans joined us for the finale.

Acts of creation are acts of faith. This is what gives the arts their intrinsic value.

Some of us are called to create human life. All of us are called to live life daily.

In an interview on the bus on Thursday, Richard Long observed that “When a part of you is smothered, a part of you dies.”

Large portions of New Orleans were smothered, and much of it will die. Many people who left will never return. Those who remain have a hard journey.

However, I feel no guilt about our boutique hotel digs in the French Quarter: we are bringing much needed cold cash to a place that will need tons of it for decades.

The city will grow again. What was not broken will be stronger.

The Great Southern Sing Out Tour has been eight days of collective worship, of living life daily. The grace of the moment, the faces, names, and places, will abide with us always.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Biloxi: You Raise Me Up

New Orleans, Louisiana

They formed a tight circle on the white beach sands of Biloxi, Mississippi. In the center stood Richard Long, 61, and words written for the occasion by a black woman in Minneapolis were read.

They formed-up in two facing columns, two-deep, perpendicular to the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

Between the columns, they unrolled a white fabric runner leading to the water.

As Richard was led through the columns, they joined hands and sang their signature, "Walk hand in hand with me."

Stepping into the Gulf of Mexico, Richard was surrounded by more than 100 brothers singing, "We shall overcome."

No dry eyes on Biloxi's waterfront.

Several of those present were not born in 1965 when Richard was stationed nearby at the Keesler Air Force Base. Black people were not welcome on the Gulf beaches in those days. The power of the federal government, represented by 17,000 soldiers, was no match for the power of attitude in Biloxi, Mississippi.

A reporter-with-camera from the local newspaper was present to record the scene, as were the archival cameras hired by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus to follow their tour of four Southern states.

The day started with a 90-minute bus tour of Mobile, Alabama, narrated by three community volunteers.

Our Magnolia Express bus had the gracious stories of Linda, who told us "You can say anything you want about somebody in the South if you finish with the words, 'Bless their heart!'"

The City of Mobile (pop. 250,000) is built on a swamp, Mobillians claim to have started Mardi Gras with the arrival of the French in 1702. That other city, further west, did not start its Mardi Gras until "missionaries" arrived there from Mobile in 1850.

Live oak trees, 150-200 years old, are everywhere throughout the city. Unlike some people, they are protected by law, and cannot be trimmed in the slightest.

Mobile receives the highest annual rainfall of any urban city in the continental U.S., operates the 15th largest port, and provides 24% of the nation's seafood.

Mobile Bay is only 3-to-10 feet deep in all of its 30-mile stretch to the Gulf.

TCGMC's Mobile partner, Bay Area Inclusion, was exceedingly well organized, and obtained full underwriting for the performance. They feted all of us handsomely afterward, and many went clubbing with some of the guys until the wee hours.

The only hitch in the proceedings occurred when the air conditioning in Bishop State Community College went out yesterday afternoon. Fans were on, wool tuxedos were dispensed with, and artists and audience got "pitty" together.

Seven Mobile police officers volunteered their services for security on their day off, and one of them gave his phone number to one of the soloists.

The three bus drivers who have been with us all week attended for the first time and said they enjoyed themselves a great deal. Their previous gigs have included multi-state transport for at least one George Bush campaign.

Driving along the Gulf Coast today, and into New Orleans, was a sorrowful, sobering experience of disbelief. It is as bad -- and then some -- as the pictures on television.

We have a few hours before starting the pub crawl to hand out publicity for tomorrow night's performance. And -- best news -- we don't have to be checked-out and on a bus by 9am in the morning.

Time to see this city, up close, on foot.

You raise me up so I can stand on mountains.
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas.
I am strong when I am on your shoulders.
You raise me up to more than I can be.

-- Act 1, TCGMC, Great Southern Sing Out Tour

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Jackson: Jeers, Tears, and Many Cheers

Mobile, Alabama

Jesus told us to feed the hungry.

Last night's TCGMC audience in Jackson, Mississippi, was famished. Although our boys looked a touch tired on stage, they acted and sounded anything but as they served a stirring and satiating soulfood.

The audience appeared younger than those in Nashville (Sun.) and Birmingham (Mon.). Individuals later attributed their somewhat reticent responses to not knowing how to act.

"We've never seen or heard anything like this before!"

Invited to stand in place and have their relationships recognized, it took until the last 15 seconds of "Marry Us" before a few dozen couples dared to do so.

This audience, including an 80-something-year-old man, also probably did the most silent weeping throughout the evening.

The first two protesters of the tour, one with a bullhorn, appeared outside the Thalia Mara Hall in downtown Jackson and maintained a vigil all evening. Police restricted them to the sidewalk and away from the city-owned hall. A security guard was posted at the back door, and doors were locked during the concert. After the show, several performers went out to confront the two with song: "We shall overcome!"

We sold as many TCGMC CDs in Jackson as were sold in Nashville and Birmingham combined.

Following the show, Thalia Mara's eight unionized stage crew members donated their labor for the day -- worth $1,200.

Also after the show, a recently-widowed woman offered to write a check to launch a new, Jackson Gay Men's Chorus, and pledged to support it for five years. I am told that she actually wrote the check. She reportedly told a Chorus member, "Every straight person in Jackson should have been here tonight!"

If you have checked TCGMC's web site, you may have noted the story about bass singer Richard Long. When serving in the Air Force in Biloxi in 1965, he was not allowed to join his Caucasian colleagues on the Gulf beaches. Richard has been across the aisle of our Magnolia Express for three days, and tomorrow we are stopping at the Biloxi beach where he will walk and dip a toe in the water.

Last night, a former Biloxi resident sought him out and offered her personal apology for 1965.

During the Civil War, the Union General, William Sherman, burned Jackson three times.

The ornate and monumental state capitol building in downtown stands as a solid testament to the principle of self-government.

Dake Dorris, a Magnolia passenger, served as "City Ambassador" for Jackson activities. As a native of Mississippi, it has been interesting to have his insights about the state and descriptions of the unfamiliar flora.

If this tour was a fashion photo shoot, then Jackson was the "money shot." It would have made the whole trip worthwhile.

TCGMC is a great group of people, doing their best to look after each other. One has spent two free afternoons laundering tuxedo shirts. Another has devoted two days of bus riding to patching and stitching rips and tears.

We lunched in Hattiesburg today. The caravan's arrival in Mobile a short time ago was filmed by a television crew for the evening news, with singing filling the hotel lobby.

The local partner, Bay Area Inclusion has put out the word, which also has spread from earlier stops. Let's see what tonight brings.

If you know people in New Orleans, let them know "curtain time" is 7:30 Friday night, at St. Andrew Episcopal Church, 1301 S. Carrollton Avenue. Admission is free, with a nominal donation of $15 requested. If $15 is a problem, have them ask for me at the door and I will pay their way.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Musings on the Road From Birmingham

Jackson, Mississippi

An enduring conundrum for artistic directors may be found in the differing expectations that audiences bring to performances about the proper mix of high- and low-brow art.

This tour is not all about lifting people up and promoting social change. Some attendees take the music seriously as music.

This morning's Birmingham News carried Michael Huebner's music review under the headline "Message from chorus is it's ok to be gay." Huebner gave four out of five stars for last night's performance to "a taut group with power and precision." []

I learned about touring in the summer and fall of 1970, when traveling Minnesota's parade and county fair circuit with Hubert Humphrey's Senate campaign. Us minions drove VW microbuses around the state while the candidate flew by helicopter or plane. (It remains true today that to generate an instant crowd anywhere, all you have to do is land a helicopter in any clearing.)

Most of my touring in recent years has been with dancers, and then only with nine or 10 other people. We have sent them to more than 300 venues, but never with the logistics of moving 130 people across four states this week.

Planning by this largely volunteer organization, TCGMC, started two years ago, and staff members made a phantom foray along the route in March.

Tour Coordinator Jeff Brand is an icon of effective organization. Had he been in charge of our Iraq adventures, the enemies of freedom would have been defeated and the troops returned home years ago. Our arrivals and departures all happen within five minutes of schedule.

Captains of our three buses -- Southern Belle, Magnolia Express and Delta Queen -- hand out donuts and candy (the Twizzlers just came by), collect trash, and tell jokes. James Davies and I are on Magnolia, the "quiet bus," chosen for reasons of age and temperament.

Tall, green trees line the Interstates in Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, not unlike northern Minnesota in summer. Today's 240-mile jaunt along I-20/59 is the longest segment of the week; more than yesterday's 183 and less than tomorrow's 140.

It's called "hump day," falling in the middle of the five performances. In other words, everyone needs to conserve and renew energies in order to go the distance.

Just after crossing the Mississippi line at 11am this morning, for about 1,500 yards it seemed as though my worst stereotype about the state was true -- that of a snake-infested swamp. The landscape quickly improved, however.

At our lunchstop in Meridian, we talked about how Jackson was never on any of our lists for a visit or vacation -- certainly not in July. But here we are.

There are many reasons why the TCGMC took on this tour. Not being a member, I won't get into their thinking.

Why did I come? First, because I have never been down here. It's also vacation time, and it was a chance to spend time with James Davies. Life has been so relentlessly busy for both of us for too many years. Certainly, I have been mindful of analogies to the civil rights activities of the 50s and 60s, but those were not romantic draws for me.

There are forces abroad in our land that are trying to claim our patriotism, our country, its flag, and its ideals as their exclusive, private property. They use the tools of language and symbol all too well to serve their own crass and selfish ends. They care not who they hurt in the process.

They hide behind symbols and words about "family," "decency," and "Christianity," to hide their efforts to divide and conquer in exchange for 10¢ worth of power. That 10¢ goes a long way.

We need to meet them word-for-word and symbol-for-symbol.

Two younger men stopped by our lobby table in Birmingham last night. They fear for their
jobs and cannot tell friends along this route about the performances.

Of course, we have fearful people in Minnesota, and we can find as many wackos in the woods
of northern Wisconsin as we can here.

We have arrived in Jackson. About 184,000 people live here, the largest city in the state.

Birmingham ... Venues, Audiences and Politics

Birmingham, Alabama

Whoever she was, and whatever else she accomplished in her life, Alys Stephens was the woman behind creation of the Alys Stephens Center for the Performing Arts and the Jemison Concert Hall in Birmingham. This means she probably paid for a good chunk of it.

It is among the most beautiful performance complexes in the United States, and the Jemison is one of the most acoustically exacting spaces for choral music. Alys's life-size portrait hangs in the entry. Garrison Keillor, Diavolo Dance Theater, and River North Dance will grace the center's stages in 2006-07.

The scene at Monday night's continuation of the Great Southern Sing-Out Tour by the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus was another of high emotion for artists and audiences.

The guys are starting to hit their stride as the rhythm of the tour develops and sinks into their bones.

Yesterday's drive from Nashville to Birmingham was uneventful -- save for the truckstop in Decatur that was overrun by occupants of three motor coaches stopping for lunch.

Birmingham, the Pittsburgh of the South, is an old industrial city shaped by the steel mills fed by underground limestone and iron ore. From his perch atop Red Mountain, the Vulcan (the largest cast metal statue in the world) watches over the city with -- for some inexplicable reason -- his butt hanging out of his tunic. This of course required all three buses to climb the mountain for a 30-minute photo op.

Last night's audience was, to say it mildly, enthused. And moved. The music resonates, particularly when you have never heard any of it before. "Marry Us" received a mid-concert standing-O.

"Not In Our Town," possibly the most powerful piece -- and this contention has strong competition -- related the 1993 incident in Billings MT when the Ku Klux Klan announced its presence. A cinder block was thrown through the bedroom window of a small Jewish boy who had placed a menorah there. Although not 100 Jews lived in Billings, thousands of menorahs appeared in windows of homes and businesses all over the city. (You can Google for the details.)

Two groupies from Nashville drove down for last night's show.

There is a Baptist convention here at the Sheraton Hotel, making for a few interesting moments in the elevators and other public spaces.

We head in an hour for Jackson MS for tonight's concert at the Municipal Auditorium.

As I gaze at the countryside, my thoughts are with my mother in Minnesota who, on Sunday, kicked off her campaign for the Minnesota Legislature. She is the Democratic endorsed candidate for State House District 19A.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Gay Men at the Grand Ole Opry

Nashville, Tennessee

This is a great country.

One of several, sustained rounds of applause at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium Sunday night erupted after Joanne Usher, executive director of the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, noted the occasion as the first time a gay organization had performed from the stage of the historic home of America's Grand Ole Opry.

The mostly gay audience lept to its feet with an enthusiasm that appeared to stun most TCGMC members on stage. For the locals, this event brings them into the mainstream of their hometown.

Known for the plethora of historical music stars who have graced its stage for decades, Ryman Auditorium is known as the Mother Church of country music. It has earned its place in America's story by being the people's stage -- and it continued to add to the legitimacy of the claim with Sunday night's performance.

Nashville was the first of five performance stops on the TCGMC's "Great Southern Sing Out Tour."

One hundred two members of the 150 member chorus are traveling for nine days, along with about 24 TCGMC staff, friends, and partners.

One of several emotional highlights of Sunday evening's performance was the rendition of Robert Seeley's "Marry Us" -- during which partners of Chorus members joined them on the historic stage (don't worry, mom, I wore my Sunday best).

The best was saved for last, however, with a fabulous version of "We Shall Overcome" followed by the TCGMC signature song, "Walk Hand In Hand." No one -- least of all Music Director Stan Hill -- will ever forget it.

Excitement about the performance had been building among the singers for months, weeks, days, and hours leading up to Sunday's performance. Few, if any, avoided feelings of humility about their presence on sacred ground -- how would you feel, for example, being assigned to Minnie Pearl's dressing room?!

Nashville has been nothing but friendly. We arrived here in two batches on Saturday morning and afternoon.

Activities have included the "Nash Trash Tour" (an entire article by itself), visits to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, the Parthenon, and a Saturday evening reception at Tribe.

This morning, James Davies and I visited Christ Church Cathedral for divine services.

Beneficiaries of the Nashville performance will be Nashville In Harmony, a two-year old choral group, and the Tennessee Equality Project.

Tennessee voters will decide this November whether to amend their constitution to prohibit gay marriage. The good news is that here -- in the home of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist -- voters favor legal protections for gays by a 60/40% margin, while 60% oppose marriage. More than 40% oppose amending the constitution, however. It takes a majority of all those voting in this November's governor's race to pass a constitutional amendment. If it fails, the issue cannot resurface for four more years.

In just two days -- so many stories, sights, and sounds, including that of the 81-year-old man next to me on the plane from Detroit. He lives in Warren MI and fought at D-Day and through nine European countries before returning home and pursuing his American Dream. But, there is not enough time for that right now.

In eight hours, we are "on the bus" headed to Birmingham, and Monday night's performance at the University of Alabama.