1. I'll start with the big one. Death. When I was young I thought that death was something that only happened to other people. Then I watched my birth family die and now I see friends pass from the stage. It's hard. And yet I cannot agree with the celebrated novelist Gore Vidal who says "What is a long life but a nightmare of endless repetition" For me, a long life is an opening up of new sensations, new friends, and for every loss, a small gain, even if it is only the stoicism that allows us to accept what was once unacceptable.
As I aged I grew more political, less moderate in my views, more convinced that government had to do the hard work of protecting the least fortunate among us and make a better life for a middle class that is under tremendous pressure to stay afloat. And so I became the opposite of that axiom that all men should be liberals in their youth and conservative in their age.
2. Illness. Having lived through all the major food groups of illness, you name it: TB? Cancer? I had it, so I know illness intimately, and I also know that it is all too easy to become defined by what is wrong with you rather than what is right with you. It is a struggle, but one worth fighting, resisting the impulse to become the sum of your illness. I am pleased to say, as the lyric of the Sondheim song goes, "I'm still here."
3. Broadway. Having brought up the name of Stephen Sondheim, who celebrates his 80th this year and is commemorated with a Broadway tribute headed by the superb singing artist Barbara Cook, I agree that the man is a wonder of wit and theatrical genius. But he should not be the only one among the living honored for their work in this remarkable art form -- the American Musical. Putting aside the rock composers who have turned today's Broadway into a mosh pit, still living among us are such greats as Jerry Herman, Charles Strouse, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, and the lesser known but no less talented Will Holt. And among the deceased my late writing partner, composer Wally Harper. All of whom are/were working in the tradition of melodic story-telling. It is not and never was a one man show. And the wonder of it is that all of the living are in their eighth decade, although it is harder with today's multi-million dollar shows to get their new works onstage.
4. Second Chances. It was my privilege to work with the great composer Richard Rodgers in my youth, and our show, Rex, a musical about Henry VIII was tops in flops. In the past decade its lyricist, Sheldon Harnick, and I, the librettist, reworked and rewrote this show thus enabling some of Rodgers most beautiful and moving songs to shine again. "Away from You, and "The Pears of Anjou," are but two of the great songs from Rex, which in its revised form had a triumphant premiere this year in Canada. This made me feel terrific. Rodgers himself was the subject of a tell all biography a few years ago, one which tripped over itself in its search for his human failings (wine and women, but almost forgetting the song) neglecting to properly appreciate the 20th century's greatest musical genius, a man who I viewed as a portrait in courage as he continued to write magnificent music into his ailing old age. That book and various newspaper stories dissecting his private life stained his centenary but couldn't lay a finger on his legacy of great music.
5. Luck. I am a lucky man blessed with a long marriage and three -- count 'em -- three young grand-daughters: one, a brilliant girl aged 5, and the wonder twins 19 months. Okay, bring on the string section now. Watching them come to life, discovering flowers, insects, birds, words, books, feelings, banging a makeshift drum, pounding the keys of a piano, screaming with joy as they cut through the air on a swing, has been my great pleasure these past few years. All my own disappointments disappear in their presence. It's my good fortune that they live close by and I don't have to get on a plane as most of my friends do when they want to visit with their grand-kids.
6. Privacy. Whose life is it anyway? What is this business of outing famous people? It has nothing to do with our right to know. It has everything to do with a violation of privacy. I see gay rights as inseparable from human rights and I cannot imagine why anyone would want to prevent two loving people from making a commitment to each other, raise children, and enjoy the good, the bad, the thrilling, sometimes stomach turning roller-coaster ride of an ongoing marriage. As someone who has worked in the theatre and television for much of my adult life I have been fortunate in my friendships with amazingly talented gay men and women, people I consider friends without the prefix of gay. So who gives a damn if a celebrated TV hostess keeps her closet door closed, except a Kitty Kelley? I know the 21st century didn't invent scandal. This interest in other people's sex lives has been with us since all that juicy stuff about Sodom and Gomorrah, Solomon and Sheba, David and Jonathon and David and Bathsheba, but that doesn't make it any better. We are smirking our way to a new form of stupidity, one that is dangerous for the health of the country. Whatever happened to "mind your own damned business"? The only outing I ever cared about was when I said "out" and my beloved dog Gus, long gone, fetched his leash and my wife and I went for a long and bracing walk with him along an esplanade.
7. Politics. I have never seen anything like the obdurate selfishness and the lack of concern for the public good that I have seen in today's Republicans. They are attending the mad tea party hosted by Glen Beck, with Sarah Palin winking her way towards the Apocalypse. When I was a boy we had visiting carnivals and I keep thinking of them as I watch Palin who acts both as barker and main attraction at her "amazing" tent show. Where I see fraud her supporters see frank speech and the salt of the earth. Well, folks, we are learning that salt is real bad for us. It can kill you. I can't wait for her to pack up her tent and move on -- in our world -- moving on means the next cable TV channel rather than small town. The irony is that the very joblessness and government bail out which allegedly causes the outrage among her followers was brought about by the past Republican administration's failure to give oversight to Wall Street as the housing bubble exploded, wrecking the economy. Not to ignore the fact that they got an assist from some Clinton era Democrats who helped turn Wall Street into an orgy of greed and irresponsibility. But that's no popcorn we are smelling at the Palin fairgrounds. It's the rancid odor of racism in the air, the inability of some prosperous white Americans to accept the first African American president as their legitimate leader.
8. Obama should have heeded that warning, "Be careful what you wish for," in his case, the presidency. He appears to be a good man -- a bit too cool, upright and proper for my taste -- but that may have little to do with his effectiveness as President, although I wonder. Lyndon Johnson was an SOB, yet he ushered in Civil Rights and Medicare, and the egregiously dishonest Nixon brought us a dialogue with China which meant peace and trade. There is sometimes a strange disconnect between a person's politics and their qualities as a human being. I recall one of my college roommates, no longer alive and nameless here -- a guy who became a rich, famous award winning playwright and screenwriter, and a mover and shaker among the Broadway and Hollywood worlds. He was a man who espoused strong left wing views, he embraced the downtrodden wherever he could find them. And yet for all his far left liberal views he was a deceitful, selfish, envious, and ungenerous man. And that's only half of it. I have known a few conservatives who believe in the ridiculous bootstrap theory" "let 'em pull themselves up by hard work and sober living," this about people living in a culture of poverty that cries out for government intervention, and yet on a personal level they, my right wing friends, are loyal, generous, decent men and women who would do anything to help you. Life is strange that way. Pigeon-holes are best left to pigeons.
8. Wall Street's criminal behavior. Cutting through the mystery of derivatives and Wall Street-speak, fraud is what it's all about, although the laws governing the dishonorable trading and secret schemes were not in place to stop them before the crash or probably there to punish them now. Still, most of us would like to see these men who claim they were doing God's work do it behind bars for a few years.
9. Church Scandal. As far as the cover up of the pedophilia of some Catholic priests goes, this is the worst news for the church since Martin Luther started nailing his papers on church doors in Germany. What were they thinking when they failed to report these crimes to the police? The sexual violation of children is a vicious crime not to be passed off as a treatable psychological problem for wayward priests, and hidden from view by the Vatican. This is no scandal. Scandal is Eliot Spitzer and call girls; its Tiger Woods and Jesse James, its Larry King who proves over and over that wisdom and judgment are not always the companions of old age. Sadly, pedophilia is world-wide, as shown in the recent PBS documentary on the Afghan boys who are sold into sexual slavery. Watching that one was rough for me, knowing that nothing in that culture of child abuse, sexual exploitation, corruption and murder will be changed by our presence there.
10. The Afghan war. Putting our troops in harms way in that Godforsaken place is beyond my understanding. Don't tell me it is saving us from another 9/11 from the crazy old bearded man in the cave. Hogwash. That's medieval slang for bull-shit. I don't believe a bit of it. Nothing we are doing there justifies the death of so many young soldiers, innocent civilians, and the waste of billions needed here at home to heal our own ailing country. We are drowning in debt and lack the public education we need for our children so they can prosper in their lives. The day we leave Afghanistan, as we must, is the day that it all goes back to the tenth century tribal wars.
11. Yes, I know that Barak Obama has been doing a better job than any Republican could or would do in this time of crises, but better is still not good enough. It is important that liberals hold this President to the same standards that we did for W. who seems to have disappeared into darkest Texas to be written up in their fantasy history textbooks as the best US President since John Quincy Adams by those who never seemed to notice how he piled on insupportable debt for the country and lied his way into a monstrous war. Afghanistan is a mistake under Obama as Iraq was under Bush, even if the death count is less and we are there with the alleged cooperation of its alleged government. If it's about winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, forget about that. No foreign force will accomplish that with missiles, bullets, goats, or good intentions. Well, this grumpy guy has had his say. Onwards and upwards towards a better tomorrow, which of course would surely happen if they would only take my advice.