At 50

For my 50th birthday, I bought a bottle of Balvenie Portwood 21 year-old Scotch and sought out the people who’ve been important in my life to offer a toast of thanks. Some weren’t close enough to clink a glass, so I started writing virtual toasts. That’s where this piece came from – the easiest, most pleasurable writing I’ve ever done. It should go without saying that what follows is woefully incomplete; this is but a small sample of how I’ve been blessed by so many.

Susan, you’re first and last, the one who’s known me longest and best. The deep, affirming love you’ve continually given was first healing, then my guiding light. I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to tell you about every part of my day, every thought in my head (you are extraordinarily patient!) I was first attracted because of how giving you were to those cast aside by society – now you’ve devoted your life’s work to them, and I still marvel at how much you care. I particularly remember dancing at Amy’s for birthday breakfasts, our wedding pictures on stage at the Stanley, our 10th anniversary trip in Europe (me with pneumonia), the surprise 40th birthday party you threw for me… Also our daughter, our dogs, and the fact that you’re simply the best damn followspot operator I’ve ever worked with. 459.

Cathy, my oldest friend – I’ve known you since you were born, just 27 days after me. My most effortless, bone-deep friendship, a gift from our parents. We created the best games (I still play the Reading Game every day), as well as the most shockingly brutal – Pirate would probably kill one of us now. I think of you every time I hear Springsteen’s Bobby Jean (“She said there was nothing that I could have done, there was nothin’ nobody could say…” He wrote that song about us.) We used to say we’d live in the same neighborhood someday – Cape Cod, the Adirondacks, somewhere. You still in?

Champ, friend of my heart for 35 years and counting… We did what we set out to do. It was hard, which made it worth attempting to begin with. The years and the miles have always been more enjoyable with you. Although we’ve had times when this moment seemed unimaginable to me, the fact that we’re here now, that we’ve MADE IT not just today but in our lives, overwhelms me with satisfaction and gratitude. THANK YOU for sharing the journey, this traverse, and I look forward to our next adventure.

Richard, I was singing with a Christian rock band on a flatbed trailer in a Utica city park, and nobody from my church was in the audience… but you were, the Friend Who Shows Up. I remember our first trip to NYC, 19 years ago, when you’d somehow convinced an Off-Broadway theater to present the one-man show you’d written. I didn’t believe someone from Utica could cold-call his play into an actual New York engagement, but you did. I was so nervous that we’d be spending 16 hours together, mere acquaintances at the time. That trip led to dozens more, and lunch almost every Friday for fifteen years and counting. You make me laugh, which is no small part of friendship. Still, it all begins with just being there and sharing life – you’ve nailed it, my friend.

Santini, you taught me about the science of relationships – energy and chemistry. Your great gift is that you can make friends with anyone, and I’m proud not only to be in that group but to have watched you work your magic with so many others. Seeing myself through your lens has lifted me when I’ve been down, just like Carole King sings: “Winter spring summer or fall, all you have to do is call, and I’ll be there…” That, and you’re the only person I know who can quote Bull Durham better than me.

John, I’m pretty sure you’re the only friend who’s literally saved my life. You invited me to stay for a few weeks during the summer when I was between housing situations. I ingested campylobacter that the Health Department later traced to a frozen yogurt place, and spent the better part of 24 hours dehydrating myself in all of the usual disgusting ways, in your bathroom. You drove me to the ER, where I had the BEST DRINK EVER, once they got the IV going. More than all that, you’re a man of principle who seems immune to the whims of crowds – everyone should be more like you.

Rachel, you’re one of the people my daughter means when she marvels at how I’ve remained close with old friends. You and I agreed once that we were like brother and sister, but with none of the baggage – I stand by that. I want to be on stage with you again, and endure months of rehearsals with you again, because 1) I finally understand what a fabulous diva you’ve always been (hindsight is good, but I want to watch you work TODAY) and 2) We’re old enough to drink legally now. I’m going back to theatre someday, and I hope you’re around for that fun. In the meantime I’m so proud of you, for everything you’ve fought, endured, and triumphed over.

Patti, there have been two stages in our friendship – we met because of church, then renewed our connection later on our own terms. I remember when you reached out to apologize; a shock at the time, but so welcome. You see the best version of me, and push me to live up to it. Moss Island exists because of you; I love our daylong conversations about EVERYTHING; your design for The Gondoliers is my favorite ever. My toast to you isn’t just because you’re one of my closest friends – it’s because we survived.

Joe, you were the right person at the right time. We’ve been to NYC, Toronto twice, ran the Boilermaker together, saw Springsteen (also TWICE) and watched how many movies, Oscar ceremonies and Super Bowls together? When I turned 40, you were assigned to keep me distracted while Susan got the surprise party ready; we ended up locked in the Colgate University Bookstore – mission accomplished.

Sarah L, ten years ago you approached me from a crowd watching the Riders for Missing Children, and asked if I’d run a half marathon with you. An acquaintance became a friendship, built on countless hours and miles together. Thank you for asking, and for everything else since.

Aunt & Uncle – I used to look at you, then at me, and wonder if I was actually yours. (You said something like that a few years ago, too.) A constant in my life – because you were always there but also in the sense of something SOLID, family to rely on. When I didn’t go to college, you gave me a graduation gift anyway. When my first marriage collapsed, you took me to dinner and gave me a check to help with expenses. You invested in my business when banks wouldn’t. At 50, I don’t wish anymore that I was yours, because you always treated me as if I were.

Grandma Ruth, the kindest person I’ve ever known – your worst censure was a Chiquita Banana sticker over a face in a picture. I remember New Year’s Eve parties in your attic apartment – M&Ms, hot chocolate with marshmallows, Doritos, Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve on TV… Breakfast, when your smoke alarm would go off because of the toaster (our delight was mostly because of your frenetic reaction)… and especially post-run snacks when Cathy and I were training for the Boilermaker 15K – Campbell’s Minestrone Soup, a microwave baked potato, tuna salad sandwich, and angel food cake for dessert (oh the carbs, you old-school woman.) The perfect Grandma.

Mike, you took me into your home and stuck with a teenage boy who didn’t yet know the way. The moment I hold most dear was sneaking back into the house in the middle of the night, to find you waiting in a chair. You said “I don’t understand you, but I love you.” That’s all. It’s what eventually turned the tide.

Kym, my first kiss, my teenage love story that set a stage against which everything else has been measured. Besides that kiss, you created a second pillar in my musical taste – Beatles, Genesis, Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, The Who. It can’t be overstated how important those additions were – where would I be if my Barry Manilow / Neil Diamond / Barbra Streisand obsession had remained undiluted? You left the world much too soon.

Jerry G, you gave me Dylan, Tolkien, and Pablo Cruise. Your 4th grade classroom was the first time school turned me on.

Baynes (we always called you Baynes), the teacher who gets credit for who I am, where I am. Exhibit A for all teachers, for all time – why they’re so important. You introduced me to the movie It’s a Wonderful Life. You were the faculty advisor when I started the Fairport High School Film Appreciation Club (and when we showed our first and only film, Apocalypse Now.) But this more than anything else: “You should take the AP English exam.” I don’t want to. “Take it anyway.” I can’t afford it. “Just show up. I’ll cover the fee.” You thought I’d score a 5, despite the fact that my grade was near the bottom of both AP sections that year. You paid the fee, I showed up and did score a 5, to my astonishment. You said “Don’t forget this.” I haven’t.

Lonnie, it was fun to meet for a drink a few years ago and get a new perspective on my years in your classroom and on the FHS stage. You’d seen more than I’d realized, and cared more than I knew. My best music teacher, your gift has enriched my life ever since.

Dave M… In 8th grade, we convinced the powers-that-be to present a second musical: You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Somehow, we also convinced them to LET US DIRECT. We re-wrote the script to add a dozen characters (not so legal, as I discovered much later.) You played the best Snoopy I’ll ever see, and nothing has been as funny since you’ve been gone. I miss you every show I do.

Dale, my first great boss (still a short list.) Not just because you saw something in me and pushed me to excel, but because you consistently tried to make things better for all of your charges and the company too. Capitalism doesn’t deserve you, but wouldn’t have gotten this far without you, either. Reconnecting recently for our monthly brewpub conversations has been pure pleasure.

Jim, my first job in Utica was as projectionist at MWPI, where you introduced the movies. Then I did the lighting for one of your shows, and you brought me Matts Premium beer in the booth, because I wouldn’t drink anything stronger. Just this year, I was along for THE BEAR and to see you finish your 46th High Peak. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Dave W, the fact that I’m toasting those on this list with a Scotch I feel confident in can be traced to your patronage. Thank you for expanding and enriching my taste.

Matt, everyone so far has been much, much older than you (they’re older than me too, but by fewer muches.) At 50, I need younger friends, but I haven’t found anyone where it goes both ways, where the rapport seems right, until recently. Even if I don’t end up on your toast list in 20+ years, I’m putting you here now because 1) We’ve presented four of the best shows I’ve worked on; 2) You were one of “those” teachers to my daughter. Thank you.

Sarah, I’m proud of you every day. You amuse and amaze me. My best wish for you is friends like the ones I’ve written about – they’ll make you more than you knew you could be.

Susan, you’re first and last…