Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Process Observed

I've been thinking a lot about my brother lately. What he loved. His relationships. His occupation. His hobby. His choices. Why he did and did not do certain things. What motivated him. What he might have thought about. His secrets. His regrets. His pain. His fears.

In other words, my brother has at last become a character to me.

This is a good thing.

I've been writing about my brother since 1994. First, in my journal as I recorded the unfolding real-life drama that resulted in his death-bed, our vigil, and the aftermath of grief turned depression that engulfed me for several years after.
The raw, emotional entries are contained in various styles of journals. Some with lines. Some without. Some with inspirational quotes on the cover, others plain black. Some bound. Some spiral. I was not consistent in my choice of journal like some people are. It has made for an uneven mishmash on my bookshelf.

Yes, on my bookshelf.

I've kept them all. I've not counted how many there are. And I've not burned them.

I have re-read some of them occasionally wincing along the way. They are a chronicle, a real-time record of my experience during a time of despair and descent into a health care system when AIDS was still relatively young.

In case of a fire, I would grab my journals before other precious keepsakes, they are that important to me.

As the years went on, my writing transformed itself into a collection of poems and essays. Some good. Some bad. What began in my wild scrawl in the journal as a synthesis of my experience ended up typed on a page with titles.

A first step in distancing myself. A first step toward transforming the pain into art. A first step toward clarity and meaning.

This went on for years. In workshops. On the beach. In my bed. At my desk. The typed pages tucked into a sunflower folder. Depending on my circumstances or emotional state, the folder would either sit on top of the desk - a priority. Or be stuck in a drawer for up to a year at a time. When we moved, the folder and journals lived in file boxes in the garage. I published a few individual pieces. My musician friend even wrote music for a few of the poems for a dramatic reading during Lent.

Over the past two years, I began to weave the individual pieces into a narrative - a memoir of sorts. I spent most of last summer on this project at my desk. I turned the memoir over to my writing teacher, Cecilia Woloch, who made comments on it and returned the manuscript to me

Fifteen years, and I was finally able to edit the most important story of my life. Phrases, lines, images, metaphors that I'd clung to were with one stroke of the key deleted.

Distance was serving my art.

My writing was no longer therapy. It had become craft. New questions began to emerge. What story am I telling? Whose story is it? How do I tell the story? What genre? Memoir? Opera? Oratorio?

Years have passed. The AIDS journey has changed. My story is now a period piece. A new distance.

I've spent my entire career in the theatre as an actress, director, and teacher. Two weeks ago, I sat down with my memoir and a stack of journals and I began writing it all over again.
This time as a play.

Only something incredible has happened. The characters have had the impulse to sing.

My brother is once again, my muse.

Only this time, our collaboration is on a musical.

C.S. Lewis published "A Grief Observed" a year after the death of his wife.

Mine has taken over fifteen years and I'm starting over.

Or am I?

Maybe these characters are singing because I have at last found my voice.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sage Voices - A Reading

Purple Sage Authors
Read their own work
Tuesday February 23rd
7:00 p.m.
Academy of Performing Arts
St. Paul Lutheran
111 Las Palmas Drive
Mary Aposhian, Stan Beatty, Loree Brooks,
Judie Dee, Diohne Gormley, Jim Haddad
Glory Hucko, Barbara Littrell, Betty McCallister
and Connie Wolf

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Do No Harm?

The fall from grace. Drama is full of these stories going back to the Greeks. The tragic hero, of noble birth in the classic form of tragedy or of high ranking in the more modern treatment, experiences a down fall or reversal of fortune as a result of some flaw in his character. Pride, hubris, denial, power, and greed seem to be recurring themes in tragic stories from Oedipus Rex to Richard Nixon leading to an awakening or insight.

Only yesterday did I come face to face with this dramatic story line yet again when I ran across a news article published in February of 2009. My heart caught in my throat when I read Prominent Laguna Beach Aids Doctor Admits to Under Dosing Patients. Faces up to Fifty years in Prison.

The cost to medicare and other agencies was estimated to be over $600,000 but the cost to human life, incalculable.

A chill ran through me. Is it possible that this is the same doctor who had taken on nearly mythic proportions in the story of my family? Could it possibly be the same doctor, who held my brother's hand so tenderly and who skillfully maneuvered the labyrinth of health care options for us in 1994? The doctor who seemed to know how to work the system so well, that my brother, who had no insurance at the time of his diagnoses, received what we thought to be adequate and appropriate treatment? According to a 2009 article in the OC Weekly, it was indeed this Dr. Kooshian.

The doctor to whom I'd written a tearful and heartfelt letter of thanks for rescuing us at the lowest point in our lives?
My memory flooded with scenes from that time - Dr. Kooshian - in his office - in his tennis togs - aggressively advising us on how to take my brother in to ER at midnight at UCI in order to have a shunt inserted for his hydrocephalus. Advice, by the way, we did not follow as it seemed an extreme measure in a hopeless situation.

This Dr. Kooshian, was found to be defrauding the system and worse, playing with the lives of his patients by consistently administering lower doses or in some cases, vitamins instead of the anti-viral medication they desperately needed and trusted they were getting?

The violation of his hippocratic oath to "Do No Harm " is shocking. Scoundrel. Monster. Liar. I feel on the one hand outraged by the revelation that the man in whom I placed the life of my brother turned out to be a crook. On the other, I am fascinated by the duplicity. The potential for a person to be a real life Jekyll and Hyde.

My direct experience of Dr. Kooshian was that he was tender, caring, and generous. How could he have been driven to such deceit? To say I am saddened is an understatement. Kooshian wouldn't know me or remember me because my brother's death was mercifully quick and I am quite sure Kooshian did not contribute to it in any way. Whether he bilked the system in my brother's name, I have no way of knowing.

I only know that today there is a hole in a tiny corner of my heart where once I held Dr. Kooshian.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

San Clemente

There is a strand of beach that runs along the south face of Southern California on which I ran as a child,
wind in my long blonde hair,
wet salt spray on my face.
I was two.
I was ten.
I was sixteen.
I was twenty.
Everything was possible.

Sure footed I ran
across dense, corse, sand
my feet leaving permanent imprints, I thought
until, never looking back,
the next wave washed them away.

Closer to the water's edge,
danger lurked.
A chorus of black, glistening, rocks,
sang their song
as the water retreated
and roared with its return.

The rhythm of my childhood.

I danced with my father on the shifting sand
as secure as the castles he built
until, never looking back,
the next wave washed them away.

Relentless surf.
No mote could protect them
or me.

The tides would have their way.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Analysis of Normal

So here's the deal. I've listened to the score of Next to Normal twice while driving in my car.
The question I keep asking myself, the question I asked myself as I sat crammed into my seat at the Booth Theatre in New York buried in coats, scarves and gloves, and the question I asked at the Algonquin over a post-theatre drink, is "how do I feel about this story?"

My struggle is highly personal on both an artistic and experiential level.

Artistically I appreciate the way the story points of Next to Normal are revealed in pieces like a puzzle. I marvel and cringe at its through -sung style. A powerful, startling, piercing lyric here, a cheap rhyme there.

I will admit, the operatic style is not my favorite. I think it takes immensely nuanced compositional skills, married to just the right lyric, and just the perfect execution by the singer to convey the exactness of an emotional moment. The phrasing, the melody, the harmonic discord, the orchestration, come together through the singer whose vocal quality, timbre and expressiveness control the moment. And let's not forget the director's role in birthing the moment. One moment, influenced by dozens of artistic choices coming together to make it happen just so. A tall order. I think Les Miserables succeeded at this as did Weber's Evita. I find the short coming in through-sung musicals to rest largely in the artificiality of recitative as opposed to the actual songs.

Another problem with this genre of musical is the inability to tightly sustain the dramatic through- line. In a straight play or musical play, every word, every line, every lyric needs to have a purpose to advance the story. A well written play shouldn't have a wasted word. One verse too many in a through- sung show stalls the momentum, especially if the lyric is forced or manipulative, which I feel at times is the case with Next to Normal.

This is where Stephen Sondheim, in my opinion, is unparalleled. The master. And the original Broadway cast of Into the Woods, whose recording I've listened to hundreds of times, achieves near perfection. Though not through-sung, the songs are the primary story-telling device and its psychological complexity every bit as layered as the subject tackled in Next to Normal.

Without a doubt, Next to Normal, if not an artistic triumph, is an artistically challenging, albeit uneven piece with flickers of genius. The prescription pill patter song is clever, capturing the mind boggling confusion of pyscho-pharmacology. A perfect match of form and content. And the song "Who's crazy" points up the whole issue of the identified patient and the dysfunction of a family system.

But, after listening to the score twice, I think the first few verses of the opening number of the show are flat out misleading. While in the theatre, I didn't know where we were headed, listening to the CD has caused me to bristle at the lyrics of the central character, Diana who sings, "My son's a little shit, my husband's boring and my daughter, though a genius, is a freak." Without revealing here the surprise elements of the story, these lyrics feel like something from a stupid TV sitcom. These lyrics set up a largely unfulfilled expectation about the family whose lives we are about to enter.

The show made me appreciate the musical, Rent, more than I had in the past. In its opening number, the composer and lyricist, Jonathan Larson, sets the story of Rent in motion with a seires of sung voice mail messages introducing characters that lead to the central character, Rodger's poignant and revealing song One Song, Glory. In it, we see Rodger's urgent need to leave a mark "before I die, glory." We are not misled. We know this character's trajectory.

From an experiential level, I think Next to Normal captures the inherent problem with diagnosis of mental illness, the continuum of mental health, the triggers, the coping mechanisms, the difficulty in treatment protocol and the danger of labeling disorders.

I've lived some of that. My husband, after the show, dazedly said, "I've lived parts of that story." I don't think he found it to be entertaining. The character of the husband - undaunted, blindly optimistic and hopeful hit the mark and caused some squirming in our seats. In my case, thanks to a gifted and insightful therapist, I was rescued from mis-diagnosis and mood stabilizers and restored to a balanced, feeling, and functioning human being after a deep depression brought on by tragic circumstances largely out of my control.

But where my life experience and the show really become reflections of each other is in the whole subject of grief and in the revelation of what can happen when grief goes unprocessed and pain is anesthetized.

(Spoiler alert)

I was a daughter born two years after the death of a three-year old brother whom I never knew but whose life and death loomed like a great unspoken ghost. Details hazy. Never revealed by my mother. Pieces of the story coming to me throughout my life. A phone call. Tonsillectomy. Anesthesia. Hemorrhaging. Mother throwing herself on the casket at the funeral. Sedatives. Jamie's sweater in the back seat of the Buick. A baby girl born. Joy restored to the family.

Unlike Gabe, the dead son in Next to Normal, my brother Jamie was never demon. He was only angel. The demon-grief was exorcised with my labor and birth. And my mother, though understandably possessive and over protective of me, did go on.

It is in this very intersection of death, loss and re-birth that Next to Normal misses the mark for me. While a very dramatic story point, the fact that the daughter was so invisible to her mother - in essence she is the lost child - born after the death of her 18 month old brother - simply runs counter to my personal experience and to what as a grief counselor I have observed. While there is no replacing the life of a dead child, I have witnessed the resilience of the human spirit in the face of the most tragic circumstances. It does not ring true to me that Diana would have experienced a psychotic break so deep that she would have been unable to even hold her new- born daughter after her birth.

But somebody did their homework on this very question because eventually, Diana asks, "what happens if the medicine wasn't really in control? What happens if the cut, the burn the break was never in my brain or in my blood but in my soul?"

After sixteen torturous years, this revelation, followed by Diana's decision to allow herself to feel her grief without the medication combined with her husband's fear and denial of the grief, is completely on target and authentic.

There are many songs and moments in Next to Normal that are heart wrenching. Painful truths and aching questions - "If you never grieve me you'll never leave me alone" and "Some hurts never heal and some ghosts are never gone. But we go on."
One brilliantly ambivalent and stunningly nuanced moment comes when Diane drops a bomb on her husband that begins in a barely audible and cracked voice, "So anyway...I'm leaving."
It is at once unthinkable, seemingly heartless and in her case, completely right. The choice serves the story.

Next to Normal is a courageous musical. It has stayed with me. It has forced me as a writer to examine how the creators, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey chose to tell this story. Ultimately, I believe it succeeds because, as Arthur Miller said, "The theatre makes us more human." What could make us more human, than to look squarely into the human psyche and to admit that "You don't have to be happy at all to be happy you're alive."

This ambivalent, less than idealistic statement certainly reframes the notion of what it means to live happily ever after.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Six Word Birthday Memoirs

Fifty-one today
plenty to say.

write the damn play.

songs to be sung.

you've only just begun.

Brother was dead
at fifty-three.

Lesson enough
fifty-one years Amy.

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Weekend in New York

A new stage of life has begun. With each, a labor. This morning, I sit at JFK airport ready to return to my life in California. Last night I put Gillian into a cab at midnight from the Hyatt back to Brooklyn and into her life in New York.

The back of her head through the taxi cab window was familiar. As she drove off, the same feeling came over me that had that late night in Prague when, after our last meal together, I sent her off from a Hyatt to an apartment in some remote neighborhood in the Czeck Republic. Hyatts, taxis, Gillian and a wave of emotion so deep that it almost makes me dizzy.

That lonesome feeling again. Only this time I know it will pass once I get back to a routine.

This trip has been anything but routine.

A red eye Thursday night.
An endurance test as we made our way bleary eyed to Brooklyn with two suitcases full of books and stuff that Gillian could no longer live without for a furniture assembly-project. That task fell to Steve, who, soldiered on through the Ikea illustrations to build a bed and a desk. My voice had a Kristofferson- like quality to it until about four o'clock when I finally had a double shot latte to wake up.

Then again, it was not unlike my experience with Gillian in Prague. Dragging a suitcase over cobblestones, through the subway back to the West Village - where we made our home for two nights at a friend's loft.

It was off to the theatre where we saw Next to Normal, a musical I am still processing and one that will no doubt make an appearance in a later blog entry once I've landed and taken a breath.

A late night drink and conversation in the lobby of the Algonquin, home to Dorothy Parker and the Round Table. We talked of poetry, plays, and the creative process with Gillian's artistic roommate, and former student of mine, Jen who is now at NYU in the poetry program.

New York seems to be overflowing with former students all of whom are doing exciting things. On Saturday night, we visited with Emma, another former student and writer who plans to study poetry at NYU.

There was a shorthand, a mutuality to these conversations. We know each other. We share an appreciation of one another in this soulful, idealistic world of writing, theatre, and poetry. I felt right at home. And there in the center of the conversation, my absolutely marvelous, vibrant daughter. And suddenly at fifty-one, my life felt alive with possibilities. They say, as a teacher, by your students you'll be taught. I was amazed by the reciprocal nature of these exchanges.

After a light dusting of snow and a blustery Saturday, Sunday morning brought the sun and the Super Bowl to the city and the flu to Steve. An unfair blow to a father who so faithfully serves his wife and daughter. Confined to bed for the day, he missed one of the finest theatre experiences of all time -A View from the Bridge. Clearly the hottest ticket in town, we gave Steve's away to a woman who was down on her luck and was hoping for SRO.

A fully realized production. As far as I'm concerned, this is the highest compliment I can pay to this astonishing two hours of drama. Arthur Miller is our greatest playwright. This production, a master piece.

In the lobby, a voice, "Mrs. Barth!?" Another former student - a young man I directed in Tina Howe's Museum several years ago. Both of us in awe of what we had just seen, we talked quickly of theatre and Miller's power to capture the human experience.
It was one of those priceless moments.

After playing the autograph hound, Gillian managed to get two on a poster from the show, we headed back to the West Village where, in the dark, Steve still lay in bed. We packed up for our move to the Hyatt where Steve's conference runs through the week. The city was eerily empty due to the crowds holed up watching the New Orleans Saints win the Super Bowl. Gillian and I joined my nephew, Rob, for a steak and after dinner drinks.

And then, at midnight, I put Gillian into her cab.

Steve is better this morning. I'm hoping to dodge whatever it was he got hit with. And now after having written this, the loneliness has lifted.

Does that mean that writing is routine?

I hope so.