525,600 Minutes

This past weekend, I went with my wife, my elder daughter, and her boyfriend to see a local production of Rent, the winner of the 1996 Tony Award for Best Musical. The show is based on Puccini’s La Bohème, and it tells the story of a group of young adults who live on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, facing life with the threat of HIV/AIDS all around them.

This particular show, part of the young adult theater series of our local, quite excellent Footlite Musicals, was well-done and energetic to the max. The production happened to be directed by the drama coach from my daughter’s high school (but believe me, we ain’t talking High School Musical writ local, here: this was the real deal), and the female romantic lead graduated from that school a year ahead of my daughter. In the chorus were three of her classmates, one of whom has been one of her best friends since middle school. Old home week, in other words.

The show was loud. It was raw. It was great. It was Rent.

Both Bohème and Rent are stories of the young, of dreams and love fulfilled, of dreams and love lost. La Bohème, however, is anything but a score for the young: Puccini is at his best in his opera, with arias, duets, choruses and more that require voices that have aged at least ten or so years beyond their characters’ ages in order to realize the full depth of their emotional power. It does take a Pavarotti and a Freni to walk off stage and hit those high-C’s at the end of the first act in such a way that you will forever doubt that musical bliss belongs solely to the angelic.

Rent, in contrast, is for young people with young voices, still with that raw edge, that ache of early adulthood that bores through a musical score and slaps an audience smack dab across the face. Both romantic leads were probably only months older than my daughter, a rising college sophomore. The narrating lead is a medical student here at Indiana. I could easily one day walk up to our inpatient service and find him in the conference room ready to present the previous night’s admission. The members of this cast are the members of the generation I am charged with encouraging into the future.

They also are the members of the generation whose peers are trying to serve honorably among the poppy fields of Afghanistan, who are hoping against hope to avoid dying honorably next to those fields, who too often find solace back here in the States with the economic fruits of those fields, who end up in my office begging for relief from that long-forgotten solace, not even sure whether they dare pray for a meaningful future beyond a pill, a medication strip to keep them from jonesing one more day.

The signature song of Rent is “Seasons of Love,” the opening number of the play’s second act. The first act tells the story of a group of young women and men who come together on Christmas Eve to find some meaning–and hope for some love–in lives in which they are only peripherally participating in the “meaning” and “hope” that modern American society appears to demand of its young.

The second act tells the story of their following year together. The act opens up with the entire company on stage (and in this production, in the aisles), singing “Seasons of Love.” Anyone even vaguely familiar with pop culture over the past fifteen years will recognize the tune upon hearing.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes,
Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes.
How do you measure, measure a year?

In these few days since I saw the show, I can’t get this tune out of my head, not because of its haunting beauty, though that, true, plays its part. Instead, that song reminds this much older man of a meaning, a hope that he too once held, that fortunately he found in the life he made, that he desperately hopes that the young men and women in his life, whether at home or at the hospital, will find in the lives that they are trying to make themselves.

In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights
In cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife.
In five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure a year in the life?

Certainly I could measure it in my daughter’s boyfriend, a great young man who is bringing her so much happiness, with his quick, quiet wit that can make me guffaw–and, look, the guy acted as if he wasn’t dumbfounded by the fact that, yes, I was playing Bach’s Toccata in D Minor on the accordion, right there in front of him, whether or not he did think it was the looniest cornpone he’d ever seen. Big-time points in my book for the fella, let me tell you.

Or I could measure it in her childhood buddy who danced his heart out on that Rent stage, with whom I spoke only briefly after the performance, yet who I could see was loving every minute of the life he was creating, exactly in the right spot as a musical theater major at Indiana University, himself in love, smiling like all get-out, dreading the dissolution of the company of singers who had come to mean so much to him in such a short time.

Or I could measure it in her own life, in her continuing excitement over her trip to Greece and Rome earlier this summer, in her anticipation (such a puny word) of the rock group Coldplay coming to Chicago in a mere few weeks, mind you, weeks!

Or how about the life of her sister, who is sooooo excited that the air conditioner is finally fixed, who will hound me endlessly until we finally learn Italian together, who will one day be such a wonderful companion as we explore the byways of Milano and Bologna.

Or how about the life of her brother, who can reverse-engineer a yo-yo like nobody’s business, who found the meaning of life in his own–his very own–laptop that he doesn’t have to share, that is ready to bring him whatever latest YouTube thrill he craves, who still gets a tad peeved when the pay-per-view messes up his enjoyment of The Dark Knight, but who finds a way–eventually–to come to some detente with the Forces of the Universe, God bless us all.

Seasons of Life, Seasons of Love pass, day after day, month after month, year after year.

Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes!
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan.
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?

In truths that she learned,
Or in times that he cried.
In bridges he burned,
Or the way that she died.

Or alternatively, I could measure it in the lives of others who have passed through my life this week so far, ones whom I’ve known, ones whom I’m meeting for the first time.

For example, there’s the man mentioned in my very first post, New Year, Old Challenges. Once again, his situation has become “complicated,” and I find myself trying to track him down, all the while managing conflicting opinions from fellow treaters.

Or how about the man from Quite the Handful? His nightmares came back in full force this week, who knows why. Yet he’s afraid to go to sleep lest he see that seventeenish-year-old he had to shoot, still uncertain what the guy had been trying to do, night after night watching the blood not trickle, not gush, just flow out of him, steadily, flow. He looks exhausted. He bargains for sleeping pills.

But then there’s the man who was the inspiration for Will Do, Sir. Fortunately he’s doing great–well, sort of great, if it weren’t for his tendency still to say the wrong thing to his girlfriend at the wrong time, with his subsequent feeling guilty, his subsequent trashing of himself, repeat ad lib.

Or should it be the man from No Trouble At All? We too have been negotiating around medications. I don’t worry about his trustworthiness. Instead I worry about the depth of his symptoms, their range, their frequent ferocity. He’ll come in my office and fight back tears, but then assure me that overall he’s doing OK, but then call later because he can’t get his ex-girlfriend out of his head, but then assure me that overall he’s doing OK, but then tell me at the next visit that he desperately wants to contact his dead buddy’s family, but is afraid to do so, but then assure me that overall he’s doing OK, but . . .

What about the guy from Maybe a Letter? He didn’t show today. Is he OK? Will leave a message, but then . . .

No worry: the guy from Youth Remembered, Youth Blown Apart, Youth Renewed is heading out on vacation, one that he feels more ready to enjoy than he has at any time since his deployment. Good.

But . . .

. . .there’s the elder brother of that guy’s best friend, the one whom my other patient (the Youth Remembered patient) himself calls his “big brother,” the one whom my other patient followed into the military, same branch, the one who went to the Middle East six months before my other patient did, the one who only lost a couple of men in his unit, thankfully, yet the one who saw dead body after dead body after young dead body after old dead body, the one who is finally ready to admit that he drinks more than he should, to forget, that he has used pain pills more than he should, to forget, that he can’t forget what he tries to forget, the one who is about to lose his wife and two kids if he doesn’t get his life together, the one who calls me at the hospital on Tuesday morning to say that he’s driving down, right then and there, that his “little brother” said I wouldn’t make him feel stupid, that I’d take him seriously, the one who comes in shaking like a leaf in spite of his perfectly sculpted body that looks as if it would be up to the task of any lumberjack contest anywhere, the one who begs me, through tears that he admits he doesn’t care if I see, “Please help me. I’m going to lose everything. I don’t want to die. I’m ready to change. Please.”

Oh, yeah. Him. And then how about . . .

It’s time now to sing out,
Tho’ the story never ends
Let’s celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends

Honestly, my life is not divided into hope at home and pain at work. Pain occurs at the former, hope definitely at the latter. The Will Do, Sir guy has indeed grown tremendously, has found much more love in his life. The Youth Remembered guy smiles more broadly than he once did. Maybe a Letter is fine, and we’re getting together later this week. No Trouble At All feels more understood than he has in years. There are indeed minutes, days, aspects of lives to celebrate, even after a War.

Remember the love!
Seasons of love!

La Bohème ends quite sadly, with Rodolfo belting a “Mimi!!” on a G sharp that pierces the soul. Rent ends more hopefully, although certainly not overly so, for if Rent stands for anything, it stands for hope having to be tempered with reality. Both are stories of love. Both are stories of love embedded in time.

I am a fortunate man. Although not without pain, my world is one of very deep love, for my wife, for my children and those they love, for family, for friends and colleagues who put up with me (although, admittedly, without having to make a decision about the accordion).

And, in a way, it is a world of love for my patients as well. “Love” in the context of therapy is always an iffy proposition, but if by the word we mean “meaningful connection,” “faithfulness,” “willingness to try, try again”? Then, most definitely.

The young often need to be reminded of the number of minutes in a year, reminded that their own numbers of minutes will have its limit. As I get older, I find myself a bit more able to remember the latter more effectively. Yet 525,600 is a big number. You can measure a lot in that time. Trust me.

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