Dystopia No More
Volume 2 / Book 2 / Part 3 of
Living In The Bonus Round
the online AIDS diary by Steve Schalchlin

Steve and Jim get their Oscar Wilde Award from PFLAG-LA
Bill LaMarche presents the award
pic by gail

[ Diary Index ]
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

July/August 1999. Los Angeles. Atlanta. Columbus. Boston.

Saturday, July 31, 1999.
The Oscar Wilde Award.

It was a beautiful day in El Lay, I have to confess. Given the heat that the rest of the country is enduring I've been trying to hide this fact. Please don't hate us. In fact, day before yesterday I walked (WALKED since we still do not have a car -- the mechanic calls us once a week with the same news: "It's worse than we thought and there's a part we can't seem to get...") down to the gym and though it was hot, there was a cool breeze mitigating the effects of the summer sun.

Where was I? The gym! Yes, it was hard getting back into my routine after a couple of weeks on the road. My chest muscles are sore as I type this and no, I haven't gained a single pound yet but I am trying. I swear I'm trying.

The PFLAG barbeque. The Oscar Wilde Award ceremony. Well, I put out an alert on the TLS list last week asking for help and Shannon responded offering to drive us in her big truck since you can't fit three people into Dickie's rolling oven mitt.

We got there right at 2pm. It was up in the hills outside of Pasadena in the woody, multi-leveled landscaped backyard of a guy named Griff. Jimmy and Shannon and I found a table right in the corner while Bea Bernstein's look-alike sister played violin up on a little landing near where they had set up a little keyboard and it didn't take me long to trip over a faucet and break open the skin on my shin. So, I'm limping around there like an idiot.

I thought I didn't know that many PFLAG people here in El Lay. I remember how, when we first opened here, I went to a PFLAG meeting at a Methodist Church and told them about TLS. So, we were greatly relieved to see Dickie and Gail show up to keep up company.

But, one by one, so many people came up to us and told us how the show had affected them. One man said, "I went to see the show without knowing what it was about. My lover died of AIDS and he did not want to take the drugs so I was his caregiver during a very tough time. But I learned more about life during that time than during my entire life. Your show allowed me to go back there in a peaceful and loving way. Thank you. But does that sound selfish? That I loved that time with him even though he was dying?"

I just smiled at him and hugged him and said, "Absolutely not. Death is a part of our lives and the sooner we find peace in it, the sooner we learn to live."

He wasn't the only one. Several more came up to me with the same story and told me how much it meant to them that TLS had allowed them to access painful moments of their lives they had shut away.

So, when it was time for me to play, I don't know why I was so nervous. For one thing, no one had said much and I wanted to be able to express to them how much they meant to me -- how much PFLAG means to me. It seems unbelievable that PFLAG is only 23 years old. It reminds you how young the gay freedom movement is.

Only 30 or 40 years ago, to be gay in America was equal to being a hideous monster. I expressed to them how important it is for parents to love their children no matter -- and how much life they bring by doing so.

I told them about my work on the internet with conservative Christians, hoping to show them that they betray their own values by rejecting their gay kids, how much I love PFLAG-Talk (on the internet) and the way the parents there accept and love conservative parents who come on confused about their own children.

I sang "Preacher and the Nurse" about my own mom and dad, describing how they taught me to love and accept others who were different from me -- and then, for the end, asked them to sing along on "When You Care," saying how I had been approached about allowing PFLAG to use it as their anthem.

After I taught them the chorus, once again, I stopped playing the piano and I just let the voices of these moms and dads and kids waft across the open valley and it was one of the most beautiful sounds I'll ever remember.

After the music, they presented us with the Oscar Wilde Award, which says:

Parents Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays

Oscar Wilde Award

For Their Fabulous Musical


An Outstanding Entertainment
That Also Promotes Understanding
of our Children

July 31, 1999

Leave it to a gay group to use the word "fabulous."

Jimmy gave a beautiful speech and that was followed by an award to Troy Perry who began the Metropolitan Community Church (which at the time shocked people with the notion that gay people were spiritual and moral beings) and to GLAAD for their work to destroy the lies and stereotypes of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in the media.

After the barbeque, Shannon took us to the grocery store and now we can eat for a few more days. :-)

August 1-7, 1999. Sunday - Saturday.
Atlanta Talking Head.
I was very excited to go to Atlanta. Not only was this ABA convention a kind of a big deal -- at the last minute we found out it was going to be taped by C-Span -- but it's the home of the CDC, the Center for Disease Control, and I was invited to join in on a little tour.
(The most vivid image I carry is one that occurred in that "atrium" part of this one building which contains Level 4 labratory. We stood on one side of the atrium on the second floor and, looking across to the wall opposite, there were upright narrow rectangular windows. On the other side of the thick double glass was a man in a blue space-suit hooked to the ceiling by a coiled orange coil of thick "wire.")
My hotel room was wonderful. I could see all of downtown Atlanta. At night the lights were bright and twinkly. And there's this tower before me with a squared conical top made of cross beams. In the daytime, it's dark and industrial looking. But at night the bracings were lit orange. It was dramatically beautiful.

I also like the fact that at night, the cabs have a flat rate of 5 bucks.

Amer. Bar Assoc.:
On the first day, we went and registered for the big meeting.
Thousands of lawyers from all over the country. I cannot begin to tell you the obvious jokes that circulated in my head as I observed buses full of lawyers being shuttled around Atlanta.

The World Congress Center is right across from CNN, which has a HUGE metal "CNN" spanning from the sidewalk to the roof of the big mall. There was lots of construction so I didn't know if this was a new construction or a sprucing up.

Moderator: The Honorable U.W. Clemon, US District Court Judge, Birmingham Alabama
Panel members:
Lawrence Baca, Pres. Native American Bar Assoc.
Matthew Coles, Director ACLU National Lesbian and Gay Rights & HIV/AIDS Projects
Guy James Gray, Criminal District Atty., Jasper, Texas
Bill Lann Lee, Acting Asst. Atty. for Civil Rights, US Dept. of Justice
Rev. Joseph Lowery, former VP of Southern Christian Leadership Conference
Emily Lyons, Alabama bombing survivor
Steve Schalchlin, Composer/lyricist
Phil Valentine, Talk Radio Host
The program began with a 9 minute vivid hate-splashed video presentation produced by Bonny Dore. Then they allowed us each to identify ourselves and our stakes in the hate crimes discussion.

I was sitting next to Emily Lyons who was in the abortion clinic bombing. I looked down at her legs (she needed help walking) and they were a patchwork quilt of operation scars. But what a lady! When it was her turn to speak she got up and hobbled down a ramp to the front of the dais and spoke stirringly about hate crime.

In my intro I mentioned that I had been gay-bashed once in Dallas. And I spoke of my "work" on the net with parents and friends for gay people as well as my conversations across the divide and my belief that conservative Christian parents are not being well served in this issue.

Oh, we had this luncheon beforehand where I met Guy James Gray from Jasper. That's 30 miles from Buna where I went to high school. He could name Cotton Robinson, the old basketball coach and the Stanley family. (NObody's from Buna so it felt really strange but Guy is the man who so heroically handled the dragging death in Jasper.

I felt I struggled a bit later on in the discusson. I'm not a clever politician and I don't have "positions." I only know what I know and I could relate the personal impact of hate crimes from the view of my website, Youth Guard and Pflag online, etc.

My most embarrassing moment:
At one point judge Clemon turned to me and asked, "What kind of policies would you like to see in place, Mr. Shatch-lin?" (Yes, he mispronounced my name) and I just looked at him like a deer in headlights.

I responded (roughly), "Well, I'm just a songwriter. I don't know about legalities and policies. All I know is I can tell you is the effect of hate crimes from the street level view. When Mattew Shepherd was hung on that fence, my inbox was inundated with emails from kids, of course. But even more parents scared for their kids. I said that when the religious right opposes laws protecting gay people, what the person in the pew hears is 'It's okay to hate gay people.'"

At break, a tall man came up to me and handed me his card. He said he was Baptist pastor who is also a judge. We spoke for about ten minutes. He was interested in my assertions that conservative Christian (cC) parents want to love their gay children, but are confused about the messages coming from their leadership.

It was exciting to have him tell me that he felt I was telling the truth and that he wanted to investigate my ideas further.

Just to be clear here, as a citizen I don't completely trust the political establishment on either side of the debate. I'm not shilling for the political left. I simply feel strongly that cC persons are NOT being given permission to love their gay children and neighbors and I think they know deep in their hearts that loving them is consistent with their religious beliefs. love them.

The problem with demonizing the phrase "love the sinner, hate the sin," is that it emphasizes the "hate" word and ignores the fact that the true goal is to love the person. The point is that if cC's truly believed their actions were unloving, they would change on a dime. cC's believe in repentance and if they DO believe that man's natural state is sin, they include themselves in the equation. They believe they have just as much chance to get something wrong as any other human.

I stressed to the Judge that people in the pews do not fully know what it MEANS that their political religious leaders are POLITICAL. Like all politicians, they are people of power promoting an agenda, like all. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. I merely stating it as a fact of politics. (Yes, I'm generalizing. Yes, I could be wrong. No, I don't hate nor disrespect a good politician.)

My point to him was this: Political leaders should NOT be viewed as spiritual leaders -- or rather they should remember that a politician is not a pastor. Just my opinion. I hope I'll be able to stay in contact with him and learn from him, too.

After the panel discussion, I moved to the Roland keyboard they had set up for me and I sang, "When You Care." It sounded really great to me because it was a big echoey room. My voice felt really powerful and though I totally felt like a fish out of water in this room full of judges, lawyers, pastors, spouses and C-Span cameras, it felt good to stop talking and start singing.

Let Jimmy do "Politically Incorrect." (He'd be great!) I think I'm at my best when it's just me and a piano and people who want to listen to me play and sing.

[EPILOGUE: I had dinner with Adam the Renthead who I met through Gail at www.bennytour.com . Hi, Adam! And I thought the city of Atlanta was really beautiful. I ate at this fancy restaurant called "The Abbey." It's an old church with full stained glass windows -- and waiters dressed like monks. They had a grand piano up on the dais and Bonny kept trying to get them to let me play it by telling them I was a world famous painist.

But our story didn't work. They told her that the resident pianist owns it or something, a totally bogus story but whatever. :-)

Oh! Last thing. When Adam told me the Bennytour cast of RENT goes into Atlanta on Monday, I got this feeling in my gut that TLS NEEDS to be in Atlanta. There's something about actually BEING in a city that makes it feel real. Maybe if the RENT fans who are congregating over the next few weeks raise a hew and cry, somebody will hear them. :-)

Well, last year I wanted TLS in Boston and lo and behold, we're doing it. It's only for two nights -- and it's with students, but we're doing it. This next week I'm in Columbus for the Conference on Alternative Jewish Education. And then on the 16th I fly into Boston. I'm really excited to see Del Lewis at Northeastern University Performing Arts Center again.]

August 8-12, 1999. Sunday - Thursday.
An Arena in Columbus.
First I have to tell you the funniest moment -- and it's totally at someone else's expense. At Ohio State, where the Conference of Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE), the organizers told us to be at the place for a 2pm sound check.

The thing is that the school had mistakenly doubled booked some venues CAJE was counting on. So, I felt really sorry for them because I knew they were dealing with a lot of last minute changes and putting out of fires.

Anyway, our event, originally scheduled for a theatre was now being held at the "Schott" Arena, the brand new 21,000 seat arena where they held hockey, basketball and Pavarotti events. Sarah (I was staying with Sarah my social worker friend) and I arrived ontime and found the arena coordinator and the CAJE rep. The arena guy was saying that they had had to cut some things from the stage, sound, etc.

David from CAJE said, "And when does the piano arrive?"

The arena guy responded: "Oh. We CANcelled the piANo," in the most nonchalant tone I've every heard. Poor David looked over at me and then back to the arena guy. "Who cancelled the piano?"

And on it went as they tried to trace down and figure out who would cancel the main instrument of a piano concert.

Sarah and I left the arena and went piano shopping. She had her eye on a refurbished piano store "...where the little man wears an apron." We found it we picked out a very reasonable old Story and Clark console, brightest sound of all the uprights in the room.

That evening we made it back down to the arena, fingers crossed all the way. And sure enough, as we came over the top of the stands looking down on the massive stage set up at the one end of the arena, there on that stage was a gorgeous black Yamaha grand piano being tuned.

And the sound! The sound filled the whole place -- and they had hung a curtain down behind the stage so it suddenly became a very intimate setting. Because of the venue change, we allowed about a half hour (Standard Jewish Time, I was informed) before starting. On first was a scene from "Twilight of the Golds."

I went on next -- and I don't remember the last time I sang for so many people in so massive a place. The audience was quite a ways away and looking down on me, but I managed to see a good number of them.

On Sarah's advice, I began with the new song LAZARUS -- but about halfway through, when I sang the words, "...and the fear you'll have to face the kind of pain you once went through..."

I faded into "Save Me A Seat" explaining that this was the true story of what I went through... And what a reaction in this place! I could HEAR people crying during Going It Alone especially, but when I went into "At Least I Know What's Killing Me," the LAUGH on the first line was so huge, I had to stop singing so they could hear the next line.

God, I love playing on a great piano.

Anyway, I had them sing with me on "When You Care" -- a cappella, natch -- and when I finished, the standing ovation was immediate and thrilling. Thank you! Thank you!

It went all too quickly. Sarah and I barely had time to get reacquainted but she fed me lots and lots. And it's good to be home again. But on Sunday we're off to Boston and to our exciting experiment: Steve as Gideon with students!

Wish I had a video camera and could net-broadcast our rehearsals. Hey! Does Northeastern have a tech department or a video department? Somebody should be getting this all down...

August 13-24, 1999.
Boston Part One: The Rehearsals.
I had a very short time at home with Jimmy (and not having a car) before it was time to run off to Boston. Now, the deal here is that Northeastern University Center for the Performing Arts (run by Del Lewis) is doing a new arts festival called "Artstuff.

What he's done is bring a slew of urban high school kids in and exposed them to intimate workshops with artists from all disciplines, giving them exposure to dance, jazz, theatre, etc., and The Last Session will be performed with students (and me) as a part of the festival.

The first thing that made me laugh was the fact that Sally who plays Vicki is 20 years old, so when she says, "I'll have you know I have the body of a 20 year old..." she really DOES!

All during the rehearsals I kept trying to remembering what I learned from watching Jimmy direct. "Let the actors discover their characters on their own. Wait for them to ask questions. Get out of the way. Don't over-rehearse. Don't over-control." It's sort of a "Tao" approach: direct by non-directing. :-)

The good thing was that the actors worked hard. They came to the first rehearsal with their lines already memorized, the songs almost committed to memory -- so all I had to do was block the show and run it, giving them permission to work their way through the scenes.

Here are their names:

Jim: David Peckham
Buddy: Thomas J. Pullano (TJ)
Tryshia: Ja-Nae Duane
Vicki: Sally-Ann D'Amato

Our stage manager is Kate Asmus and she is one of the hardest working, most reliable people I've ever met. Everyone has worked their asses off. Can't wait for the first show.

Wednesday, August 25, 1999.
Boston: The First Show.
When I got to the theatre tonight, I was fortunate to walk in on a rehearsal of the Urban Bush Women. I had seen them the day before at the first Artstuff event, a community sing. Fantastically talented women. Gorgeous too. Tonight I watched them dance up a storm in their rehearsal. I'm just sorry their performance isn't until Saturday night when I'll be home.

Speaking of home, I am tired -- totally exhausted. It feels like I've been on the road the entire month of August. I just want to go home and crawl into bed and never get out. :-)

Anyway, we got there early and went through a few songs to get ready for the evening performance. I wasn't very worried, though. They had worked so hard I knew we were ready. Backstage, the girls were getting into their make-up and costumes, the boys were hanging out in the hot men's dressing room and I was just telling everyone to be sure to listen for the laughter from the audience -- remember they'd never heard nor seen the show in front of people.

All I can tell you about the show was that it went off like gangbusters. TJ, during "Going It Alone" -- the part in the middle where he, as Buddy, looks over at me -- got to the point and suddenly BURST into tears. He told me later, "I never cry. I can't believe it got to me like that. There was just something about doing it in front of you and knowing it comes from real life..."

After the show, the audience came to its feet and we did two curtain calls. They also stayed afterwards for an audience talkback. Here is something that was posted on the Bonus Round Discussion Board from Liz Augustine:

Hi folks,

I saw the Boston performance last night. Steve was wonderful -- he's a good actor -- but so were his costars. The show is even funnier than it was before. I was so moved. So thank you to the cast for doing the play justice.

I started thinking last night about how I first bumped into Steve on the Web. I was somewhat involved in the AIDS community and saw a message from Steve on sci.med.aids (an AIDS mailing list that tends to deal with treatment and activism). Steve posted a mesage and put his web page address at the end. So I checked it out, thought it was interesting, and then didn't go back for a while.

Around that time, my dear friend Tom was diagnosed with a horrible and eventually fatal infection. A few days after his diagnosis, I got a new office mate, Charlene Wolff. Char was the best support I could have asked for during that long awful summer. She'd debrief me every morning. She'd ask the right questions. She was the first person to see the speech I read at Tom's service. In short, she gave me all the love I needed and more.

Char loved the Web and was involved with online chats, helping gay youth stay alive. (There was one chat group where they even called her Mom.) Char bumped into Steve out in chat land and started talking about him to me. So I went back to reading his diary and it's become a daily habit. I check in every day and occasionally write to Steve.

So Char left the company and we stayed in touch. She never felt great when we worked together. Eventually, she was diagnosed with a horrible illness. At first they thought it was lymphoma (which sounded too frightening. Now of course, I wish it had been lymphoma instead of what she had.

Anyways, (or anyhoo), Char relied on Steve for a kind of support she couldn't get anywhere else. His songs spoke to her. One time she wrote: "For the first time in my life I realize how connected I am. And (for Steve.S) a special thanks - I made it through a whole day just by repeating the song "Connected" - I am sure you understand. Thank you my friend for those lyrics - and I do really understand them now."

Char wrote to Steve about the Friendly Fire (that did eventually kill her before the cancer could finish its job). I think she also wrote about dying and living. I know that she considered Steve to be one of the most important influences in her life.

So last night I kept thinking about the friendly fire killing (or nearly killing) so many of my friends. I thought about how Connected got Char through that one bad day. And I thought about the connections in my life -- Tom, Char, Steve, and now Mark, Char's husband. We are all connected to each other.

With love and gratitude,
-- liz

Thursday, August 26, 1999.
Boston Part Two.
Last night I was entering the green room when two high school boys there for the arts festival came up to me. They had seen the play the night before. One looked up at me and said with a huge smile:

"You're my favorite gay piano player."

I laughed out LOUD and told him I didn't really think of myself as a gay piano player but that I would accept the compliment. (I have a sneaking suspicion he was actually telling me it was all right with him that I was gay, which is totally cool).

His friend asked me if I liked Ray Charles. I said yes. He said he thought my music sounded a bit like his but his friend disagreed and said it sounded more like Elton John.

Hm. A combination of Ray Charles and Elton John. I think I'm just lovin' that.

My friend Deborah Garwood is complaining that my diary is getting too gooky sweet. She's probably right. But my whole life is kinda gooky sweet. I mean my worst problem now is exhaustion from doing the thing I love to do most in the world -- sing, play, act and interact. Thursday night we had another standing ovation with two curtain calls.

I'm not sure I know how to find any drama in that. :-)

Oh, last night we found a brand new laugh in the play. Happened totally by accident. It was in Act Two when Vicki says to Buddy (I won't give away the punchline), "So if you want to go to heaven don't eat [punch line]."

I was standing behind the keyboard and Sally, playing Vicki, was sitting to my right, slightly downstage. I just looked over at her (after she delivered her line) with a blank expression on my face and she looked at me and just smiled proudly. The audience caught it and started laughing.

Well, one thing I've learned from Jimmy is NEVER INTERRUPT A LAUGH. So I just stared back at her totally expressionless and she kept smiling and the audience kept laughing -- but I finally turned to say my line or we mighta been there all night.

We did it again on Thursday night and it worked again but not like the first night when it was a totally spontaneous act.

One thing about this particular production excited me, though. We've been approached about putting together a cast that could tour minority neighborhoods and venues as an AIDS education outreach.

This was based partly on the fact that HIV education has become a crisis in the African American community. Saw a big story on it while I was in Boston. And based on our experiences with the Harlem Community AIDS Center in New York City (our off Broadway producers gave away multitudes of tickets to the clients, many of whom had never seen a theatre piece and the leaders there were very impressed with how much the message got through) I am sure we can be part of the solution to this need.

Anyway, the fact that TLS works so well without sets suggests we might be able to put together a very portable show (with minimum overhead) and perform some much needed community outreach education. We're only now in the thinking through it stage but it's very possible.

Earlier this week I also got to spend a day with my old NAS friend, Blythe Newlon Brown and Linda George (and her husband Jon). I met Linda back in Book One of this diary. Readers might remember she had come to me as a good Catholic woman who was questioning her own attitudes about gays. We had a rather vivid exchange...

And then a month later her daughter came out to her and we had to start over again. Now she is a tireless PFLAG mom and I have become friends with her whole family. Anyway, we all went to the Museum of Fine Arts exhibition of John Singer Sargent.

I feel so cultured.

I also got to see my Bridges-Across friend Mark Orintas. It was his first time to see the whole play.... what else? I can't think of anything else right now.

Oh. The flight back. I got to the airport and was immediately informed that my flight had been cancelled. They had had a big scare in Chicago and everyone was grounded there cuz some guy ran through the security guards.

But they found me another and I spent almost the entire time reading my new book GOD A BIOGRAPHY. Talk about taking the Bible literally! Winner of the Pulitzer it takes God EXACTLY as He reveals Himself, situation by situation in the Hebrew scriptures. It was like reading Jimmy's Sunday Sermons but without the jokes.

I also found out that the Oct. 9th evening Baltimore performance is sold out but there are still tickets for my afternoon solo concert -- and no, don't ask me what I'm going to play and sing because I never know.

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© 1999 by Steve Schalchlin.
You have permission to print from this diary and distribute for use in support groups, schools, or to just give to a friend. You do not have permission to sell it.