Monday, March 21, 2011

Dancing In Heaven: In Memory of Erica Trantham

Unity In Chicago, the church where I've played music almost every Sunday for the last 4 years, just lost its beloved minister, Erica Trantham. If there is an afterlife, Rev. Erica is surely partying there now. She was a prime example of my old therapist's dictum that "people are complicated." Erica was simultaneously serious and fun-loving, intellectual and silly, spiritual and earthy. Although she led this church for just 5 years, she wisely shepherded both the community and the business through difficult times. And she did it with grace, compassion and a gentle, loving touch that will not soon be forgotten.

Rev. Erica often said that she was "born into Unity" but she took a circuitous route to become a minister. She grew up in a Southern Baptist household, then made her way to New York City in the 1980's to be an actress. On the way, she earned degrees in theatre and entertainment law, taught high school and worked as a "suit" in the programming department of HBO for 12 years. She finally heeded the call to go to ministerial school in her 40's. Erica regularly intimated that her lifestyle in New York was both excessive and spiritually formative. She did what most young people do - pursued personal pleasure and material success. But she also came under the powerful influence of Eric Butterworth, minister of The Unity Center of New York and a legendary icon of the New Thought movement.

From what I gather, Rev. Erica took over the leadership of Unity In Chicago during trying times for the church. Attendance had apparently been falling off and the collective energy of the community was flagging. By the time I was hired to play Sunday services with my close pals Peter Polzak and Sarah Allen, Erica had firmly taken charge. She vigorously championed "light, love and laughter" while admonishing everyone to focus on how they could best use their talents to be "of service" to others.

Erica regularly began her weekly message with a joke, often poking fun at herself or some absurd aspect of religion. Irreverence was part of her personality and it served her well when she did get serious. Erica could be notoriously long-winded. She had so much information to share; sometimes her enthusiasm would lead to multiple digressions, causing some teeth gnashing by those of us who wanted the service to end in a more timely fashion. But unlike too many of her colleagues in the minister business, Rev. Erica never put herself above her congregation. She made it clear that she was struggling right along with us to remember and practice Unity's principles. I believe she saw herself as a conduit for the collected wisdom of previous scholars and teachers. She loved doing research into metaphysical Biblical interpretations and relished the opportunity to reveal the etymology of words often used incorrectly in spriritual parlance. She got a kick out of the "gotcha!" moments uncovered by her studies.

Erica was also a huge ham. From my perspective, ministering is a form of show biz, and Erica played the role to the hilt. One of the high points of her career at Unity was the weekend production of "Always, Patsy Cline". The always fabulous Megon McDonough sang the role of Patsy and Erica played her loud-mouthed Southern friend who narrates the story of their meeting and ensuing lifelong relationship. I was lucky to take part in this labor of love for Rev; she had so much fun with it. And the congregation ate it up.

There is a lot I still don't understand about, Unity but that is not Erica Trantham's fault. I have problems with what I perceive as the "magical thinking" elements of the New Thought philosophy. I'm disturbed by the pseudo-science and the language of "We know..." when applied to aspects of life that are inherently mysterious and unknowable. And, if God is in and around all of us, exactly what entity are they addressing to when they end meditations with "thank you God" (chanted 3 times, of course). But in the few substantive exchanges I shared with her, I felt that Erica respected my point of view. I don't think she ever presumed to have "the answer". This humility was one of Erica's many strengths.

Rev. Erica most impressed me by the way she handled her illness. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after taking the job at Unity. She took very little time off, only missing a Sunday when it was absolutely necessary. She didn't hide the illness from the community but chose not to make her cancer the subject of her lessons. She didn't preach about her illness and what it "meant"; she focused on her mission to educate and inspire people with Unity's spiritual and practical message.

Rev Erica's final message expressed her gratitude to the congregation for providing the opportunity for her to fulfill her lifelong goal of spiritual leadership of a highly receptive community. She strongly urged those present to support the growth of the church and to bring about positive change in the world through our actions. She said that the greatest gift we could give her would be to continue moving forward in the work that needs to be done. It was a selfless, graceful and impassioned lesson - one of her best.

For me and for so many people whose lives she touched, Sundays just won't be the same. (Rev, if you can hear me, here's a final rendition of Brick House for you.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Joe Vito: An Appreciation

Joseph Vitaterna was the name given to him by his parents, but among at least three generations of Chicago musicians he was known simply as Joe. He was like Prince or Madonna in that regard; no last name required.

One doesn’t acquire that kind of recognition easily, especially among working musicians – we’re a tough crowd. Joe Vito was a truly larger than life character, evoking a smile or a chuckle whenever his name was mentioned in conversation. He was much more than an excellent pianist, accompanist, accordionist and arranger. He had a long and very successful career in a business that can eat you alive. Joe accomplished so many things with grace, effortlessness and one of the most wicked wits I’ve ever encountered.

There are a thousand stories. There’s the long collaboration between Joe and violinist Johnny Frigo, his legendary capacity for liquor and long monologues, the many cornball jokes, the high profile gigs with Luciano Pavarotti, the Chicago Symphony, countless theatrical and corporate shows, recordings etc etc.

But I’ll mostly remember the man who treated me with the utmost kindness and professional respect - way more than I ever deserved. Joe hired me to play the memorial concert at Symphony Center for his beloved pal Mr. Frigo – that was a high honor. I played his “return to action” gig after some fairly serious surgery a few years ago. The two of us carpooled up and back to a very goofy duo gig at the Kohler compound in Wisconsin (yes, I did have to drive home). Joe was the most frequent visitor at the Chicago Hilton and Towers when I was working there in the late 80’s with my dear friend Peter Polzak and John’s son Rick Frigo.

Many of us who knew him have favorite Joe lines. Mine was more of an admonition: “Never try to bullshit a bullshitter.” And, of course, the infamous “You don’t know…” followed by a long story.

Joe Vito left us on July 28, 2010. He had long suffered the pain and indignities of cancer. One of his final projects was a recording he’d been working on for a long time with his wife Carole March Vito, an amazing musician and woman in her own right. I’m sure it’ll be outstanding, just the way everything else Joe ever touched was.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In Memory of Victor D'Altorio

“Wow, great boobs!” I exclaimed.

“Wow, great boobs,” she deadpanned, looking aghast and taking a small step backwards.

“Wow, gr-r-r-reat! boobs!” I growled, eliciting nervous giggles from the room.

“Wow, great boobs,” she countered, crossing her arms over her chest.

Thus began one of my earliest experiences with The Repetition Exercise in class with Victor D’Altorio, an instructor at The Actors’ Center in Chicago. It was the Spring of 1996, and my life was about to be forever catapulted forward by this man, although, of course, I had no idea at the time.

Victor died in November 2009, after an excruciating bout with cancer and some unrelated issues with his back. I didn’t know he was ill nor that he had left this earth until now. I’m stricken with shock and sadness and gratitude. This is my personal eulogy for Victor D’Altorio, actor, director, teacher and mentor to many.

I initially thought that Vic was the most outrageous person I’d ever met. He was adamant about his homosexuality, brutally honest with his judgments and generally blunt in a way that I had never before experienced. At the time I was rather bottled up emotionally, so the contrast between our personalities was disconcerting, to say the least. It was also very refreshing. And life changing.

During my first semester at The Actors Center, I began learning Sanford Meisner’s acting techniques as interpreted by Victor and Eileen Vorbach.* The basics for The Repetition Exercise are this:

Two actors go up onstage. One actor begins by making an observation about his or her partner. The other actor must repeat exactly what the first actor said until something changes. The goal is to freely allow whatever happens in each moment to direct the action between the two people. This is way more difficult than it sounds, because each of us has a variety of blockages – parts of ourselves that we are unwilling to show to the world. The “work”, then, is to progressively get one’s self-consciousness out of the way to allow the reality of the moment to flourish. The rules are simple:

Observe the look, sound and behavior of your partner.
Speak the truth.
Keep your attention on your partner.
Say the first important thing that pops into your mind.
Stay in the moment.

Victor would alternately cajole, wheedle, berate and coddle us to get the results he wanted onstage. As demanding as he was, I can’t remember a class where he neglected to remind us that “this is a process” and that it takes time to develop the ability to respond and behave truthfully in each given moment onstage.

Victor sent me up onstage with the busty would-be actress that day because he thought I’d “be the only one in class brave enough to say it.” Vic encouraged courage and rejected fakery of every kind. He wanted his students to be as real, raw and forthcoming as possible. He stopped many an exercise by yelling “Too safe!”, and sending the mortified pair of actors back to their seats.

The process was often terrifying. There’d be times when I’d be sitting in class trying to will myself into invisibility so that I wouldn’t get called up there to face the heat. Victor would occasionally remind us that no one had yet died while doing the exercise in one of his classes, despite the fact that it often felt as if death was imminent (and perhaps would be welcome at certain moments).

When an actor had a breakthrough of some kind, Vic would say something like: “Good. You opened that door. Now put a brick in there and don’t let it close on you.” He likened the basic human emotions to drinking taps; you need to have all the taps (fear, joy, sadness, anger etc) open and flowing if you want to be an actor. When students were especially resistant, Vic would ask us why we wanted to be actors if we didn’t like exposing our inner selves. Of course, it wasn’t so much dislike as it was our fear of being fully seen that got in our way.

It was in the area of sexuality that Victor was most insistent. He was very good at sussing out the variety and shades of attraction that we so liked to avoid during our improvised little scenes. His sexuality was so out in the open and present; he wanted us to unfold ours in order to be able to use the myriad emotions that get stirred up via our sexual impulses: joy, shame, guilt, fear and so on.

In the Spring of 1998, I was fortunate enough to get cast in a production of Edward Albee’s The American Dream, which Victor directed. The rehearsal process was, for me, an intense extension of the work I’d been doing in classes. It was a challenging and difficult time, but ultimately a very rewarding one. Victor had some unusual methods: at one point he came over and started pounding me on the chest to demonstrate how the behavior of one of the characters should (literally) hit me. I got to work with some great people and the production was, by most accounts, a success. It felt great to be a part of the entire experience.

It is difficult for me to accept that Victor is gone. I hadn’t seen him in many years, but I think of him often. Many of the scenes I witnessed or took part in continue to be present in my consciousness. I have incorporated many of the principles Vic taught into my life as a musical performer and teacher. I truly feel that Vic was the best “therapist” I ever had; his classes had a profoundly liberating affect on me. I also know that he touched many other people in similar ways. He will not be forgotten any time soon.

I don’t know if Victor was buried or cremated, but if he has a headstone I know what it should read. In the spirit of stripping away our fears and social conventions in order to behave truthfully onstage, I’d like to propose a quote from Mr. Meisner himself:

Here lies Victor D’Altorio.

"Fuck polite!"

*The classes at the Actors Center were team taught by Vic and the wonderful Eileen Vorbach, who is thankfully very much alive and kicking actors’ butts as I write this.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Kucinich (Once Again) Says It All on Health Care

There's no way I could say it better or more succinctly then Dennis Kucinich:

"Forty-seven million Americans are without health insurance. Why? Because they can't afford it.

And what's Washington's solution? Require people to buy private insurance with the government providing a subsidy to the health insurance companies.

What a pathetic state of affairs that our national government cannot respond to the needs of the people and must first respond to the needs of Wall Street and the health insurance industry and their stock prices.

I am going to continue to fight for single-payer. And I'm going to continue to try to get in the final legislation a provision which will protect the rights of states to be able to move forward with single-payer health care plans of their own.

It is time that we broke the chains, which the health insurance companies have on our political process. It's time that we have a government that we can call our own. And it's time that Congress respond to the needs of the American people first, and recognize that health care is a basic right in a democratic society."

Or watch the video:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gratitude with Latitude: Giving Thanks for Curmudgeons and Other Realists

I think by now most of us realize that the historical reality behind the Pilgrim Myth is one of the many horrifying chapters lurking in this country's past. It would probably be best to give thanks on any day other than the one that celebrates the theft and ongoing brutality perpetrated by our Anglo-Saxon founders against the indigenous people of this continent. But I'll save that rant for another day (lucky you).

So how does a non-theistic, peace- and compassion- loving, politically progressive realist come to terms with "Thanksgiving"?

The answer, for me, is to attempt to remember how fortunate I am as much of the time as possible. I can't compress all of my gratitude into a sentence or two; I can't remember all of my blessings at once; I can't will myself into a state of thankfulness on this one day. The reality is that there are so many aspects of my life that inspire gratitude that I can't contain them, nor would I want to do so.

There is a constant ebb and flow of opposites in our lives: good days and bad days, income and expenses, joy and anger, friends and enemies. It is easy to feel grateful when things are going "my way". But remembering my good fortune when things are falling apart is the real challenge and, I would argue, far more important in the big picture. Do we only feel love for our fellow creatures on Christmas or New Year's or (insert holiday of your choice)? Of course not. We need love, gratitude and (I would argue) compassion to be our constant companions, as difficult a goal as that may be.

A couple of years ago I listed many of the things I felt grateful for at that time. Today I am deliberately omitting this ritual. Reciting my private list of "gratitudes" would not be an act of thankfulness on this day, this year. Saying thank you out loud for specific people or things doesn't make me any more or less thankful - right now it would feel cheap and inauthentic to do so.

Much like the rigorously enforced nationalism of the 4th of July, there is a palpable social pressure to perform public pronouncements of gratitude on Thanksgiving Day. I would argue that we'd be far better off to spread the good vibe year-round rather than use it all up at one dinner.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Bill Moyers on the Health Care Public Option

More and more members of the mainstream media are coming to their senses and starting to report the real story of Max Baucus and his committee. They've been bought and paid for by health insurance company lobbyists and we cannot trust one damn thing they say. What they're offering is not what the majority of the American people want, and what I'd argue, need.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Health Care Is A Human Right

Today I am inspired by a recent editorial by New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, in which he eloquently (and not for the first time) makes the case for the so-called “public option” in our nation’s pending health care reform legislation. Mr. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, are the Pulitzer prize winning authors of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. I will have more to say about this book in a future post.

Kristof and WuDunn are human rights advocates. In the Times piece, Kristof offers a common sense argument for expansive health care coverage for all Americans:

“Throughout the industrialized world, there are a handful of these areas where governments fill needs better than free markets: fire protection, police work, education, postal service, libraries, health care. The United States goes along with this international trend in every area but one: health care.

The truth is that government, for all its flaws, manages to do some things right, so that today few people doubt the wisdom of public police or firefighters. And the government has a particularly good record in medical care”.

He cites both Medicare and the Veterans Administration as examples of efficient, effective and highly rated government-run health care systems. Kristof continues by gently pointing out the most regressive and egregious problem with our current system:

“But the biggest weakness of private industry is not inefficiency but unfairness. The business model of private insurance has become, in part, to collect premiums from healthy people and reject those likely to get sick — or, if they start out healthy and then get sick, to find a way to cancel their coverage.”

In plain English, the current paradigm can only be described as criminal. Any business that financially benefits from withholding medical care from people who need it, refusing to insure those who are already ill (those pesky pre-existing conditions), or canceling coverage for people who have the audacity to get injured or sick is corrupt, anti-democratic and cynical to the core.

The health insurance industry (backed up to a great extent by the for-profit health care providers and the giant pharmaceutical companies) is engaged in a life-or-death battle to ensure that their morally indefensible business model is preserved. So its no wonder that they will use any means at their disposal to save themselves and protect their billions in profits pilfered from the American populace.

Exhibit A: Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. According the NY Times,

“Mr. Baucus has successfully strong-armed several lobbying groups into muting their criticism of his health care legislation, part of a concerted strategy of reassuring [health insurance industry] interest groups. Even as Mr. Baucus has tamped down criticism, he has continued collecting campaign contributions from industry interests, including drug companies and insurers.”

This week, Chairman Baucus presided over a committee that produced a health care bill that is “an absolute gift” to the insurance industry, according to Wendell Potter, who went on to say that “the bill might as well be called the Insurance Industry Profit Protection and Enhancement Act." You can read the full article HERE.

Mr. Potter, by the way, is a man who knows the industry from the inside. He enjoyed a nearly 20- year career as the chief public relations representative for Humana and Cigna, two of our nation’s largest health insurance companies. After a crisis of conscience in 2007, Wendell Potter is now a senior fellow at the Center for Media and Democracy. He is putting his intimate knowledge of the health insurance industry’s insidious PR strategies to good use combating the misinformation being fed to and spouted by the opponents of substantial health care reform. Here’s his pithy decoding of the arguments being used by these folks to pummel health care reform:

“whenever you hear a politician or pundit use the term "government-run health care" and warn that the creation of a public health insurance option that would compete with private insurers (or heaven forbid, a single-payer system like the one Canada has) will "lead us down the path to socialism," know that the original source of the sound bite most likely was some flack like I used to be.”

I highly recommend that you read the text of a speech Potter recently gave, called How Corporate PR Works to Kill Health Care Reform

...or watch this excellent video:

The battle over health care reform should not be about politics, federal deficits, ideology, “creeping socialism”, or anything other than the simple fact that, as human beings, each of us deserves access to excellent, affordable health care. It is not a privilege, it is a basic human right. This right is not only guaranteed by our constitution but is also an essential part of what it means to stand for liberty and justice for all.

The ongoing public debate often conflates health care reform and health insurance reform. This country must have the kind of reform that will provide equal access to health care for all Americans, regardless of the consequences for the health insurance industry. The days of the hegemony of business interests over the needs of people must end. Americans of all political persuasions, ethnicities, geographical locations, ages, sexual orientations etc need to come together on this. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be bullied, fooled or coerced into accepting a health care policy that doesn’t address the real needs of ALL of us.

Here is a video in which Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor, explains the “public option” and debunks the idiotic criticism coming from the health insurance companies:

I have to add a hearty thank you to the public figures who are standing up for justice with regard to health care for all. This list is not inclusive, but these people are heroes in my book:

Quentin Young, M.D., physician, human rights activist, strong proponent of a single payer health care system

Michael Moore, filmmaker, whose film Sicko has galvanized millions of Americans to improve health care in the U. S.

Representative John Conyers, author of H.R. 676, legislation that would establish a single-payer, Medicare for all type of system.

T. R. Reid, author of The Healing of America

Senator Dennis Kucinich, tireless champion of a single payer healthcare system

Ralph Nader, consumer advocate, presidential candidate who crusades for the interests of real people over those of large corporations

Wendell Potter, former Cigna exec now working tirelessly for a better solution to our healthcare crisis

Nick Krystof, author and NY Times columnist who is helping shape public opinion using facts and high ethical standards