Sunday, December 06, 2009

Remembering Denny: Now Cracks a Noble Heart

Good friends stand out in our best memories, having shared our happiest moments. Our best friends are those who were also there in less happy times, who stood by us with a strong shoulder when we needed support. But the greatest friends are those who planted seeds inside us, causing us to grow and blossom in new directions, not only enriching the quality of our lives, but altering their course. We are lucky who know even one or two such great friends in a lifetime, and I was so lucky to have known Dennis. He was my gay "big brother", my partner in the great Shakespeare quest, fellow traveler across three continents, my opera and classical music mentor, enthusiast of fine dining and cooking, fellow cyclist and snowboarder, rock solid shoulder to cry on when needed, the greatest friend and a huge part of who I am today.

I first met Dennis on a sunny Sunday morning, Jan 6, 1991. He was the Vice President and Ride Coordinator for Different Spokes, a gay and lesbian bicycling club, and he was leading a 30-mile bike ride that day, the first of a series designed to get us in shape for the Solvang Century, a 100-mile ride in March. Denny's confidence and encouragement, not to mention his playful charm and dazzing smile, motivated me not only to do the whole series of rides, but to plunge into the bike club in a big way, eventually becoming an officer myself.

As we got to know each other, we quickly learned we had much more in common than cycling. I was enthralled by his wide-ranging and passionate interests, from cooking to music, from art to film to history. How often do you meet a friend who, when you say "Hey, they're doing an authentic staging of an ancient Greek tragedy outdoors at the Getty Villa", he says "Awesome! Let's go!". He was a consumate companion for a Shakespeare history play, because he knew his English history cold, and could fill me in on all the backstory of who's allied with whom because this one's grandfather got cheated by that one's uncle in the royal succession. And Denny's knowledge of music was vast and intense. I thought I knew classical music, but his contagious passion blew my mind open to whole new vistas, from opera to medieval chant, from Monteverdi to Shostakovich (not to mention jazz crooners and dance club mixes).

I learned so much from Dennis, and even when I was able to teach him new things, he would engage voraciously and take them to a whole new level. I taught him to snowboard, but he was the one who lead us into the snowboard park when Bear Mountain first put one in, and soon the two of us were hurtling ourselves off of ramps and into the air, alongside kids half our age. I took Dennis to his first Shakespeare play, but he was the one who came up with the idea of the quest. Standing on the steps of Royce Hall after we'd seen our second Shakespeare play, exhiliarated by the language, the drama, and the galvanic performance, I said, "So, you're really liking Shakespeare? We should see some more." Denny gave me an enthusiastic look, and said "Let's see them all! How many do you think there are? 20? 50? I'll find out. Let's make it a mission, a life quest!" So for the 14 years that followed, we sought out Shakespeare in theatres large and small around town, and even made trips to San Diego, Oregon, and New York to find the more obscure plays, until a few years ago when we made our triumphal pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon to complete the quest.

Denny had a genius for making things extraordinary. Anyone who's been to the Hollywood Bowl with him knows this. The pre-Bowl picnic was always an extravagant affair, and while lots of people bring picnics to the Bowl, the other picnickers would look on in awe as the tablecloth, the dinner service, the stemware, flowers, wine, and exquisite cuisine were spread out. And we had a number of decadent trips up to San Francisco to see the opera and dine at great restaurants. San Francisco is a dressier opera crowd than LA, so we often went up in black tie and tuxedos, which suited the classic beaux arts beauty of the SF Opera house. I remember one time we were flying up for a Friday night performance, and we were going to have to go straight to the opera from the airport, so we flew in our tuxes, and Denny was going to bring something to eat on the way up. I thought we'd just have sandwiches or something, but once we'd boarded (and this was before 9/11 of course), Denny pulls out his carry-on bag and, to the amazement of the flight attendants and surrounding passengers, starts unpacking cheese and pâté and caviar and wine. "Well, you didn't think we were going to eat peanuts, did you?"

With Denny, even the ordinary could be extraordinary. I remember going over to his place one night for a "casual" dinner before I knew him really well. I thought maybe pasta or something. But I show up, and he's got prosciutto-wrapped melon for us to munch on, while I watch him pressing fresh sage leaves into veal medallions for saltimbocca, which he then flipped in the sautée pan with his signature flourish. Another casual evening, we had seen an afternoon movie in Westwood and were driving back to his place, when he says let's go catch the sunset at the beach. So we pull down to Santa Monica Beach, and watch what turned out to be one of the most spectacular sunsets either of us had ever seen, with red and orange and pink and gold, and I swear there was even a bit of green patina in it. And while we're sitting in his car, awestruck by this visual symphony, the most perfectly glorious music is playing, what sounds like choirs of angels singing in the perfect musical expression of this extraordinary sunset. After the sun went down, and we're driving back, I asked him "What was that music?" "Oh, you like it? That's John Rutter's Requiem. He writes some beautiful sacred choral music." So, not only an amazing sunset, but another expansion of my musical education. Just a casual Sunday with Dennis.

When we first met, I was just starting to venture out as a gay man, yet to have my first boyfriend, having no local gay friends, and making my first tentative forays into the gay community. As Dennis and I became friends, he took me under his wing like a gay "big brother", and held my hand as he introduced me to the world of West Hollywood, dance clubs, and circuit parties. I was intimidated by all the beautiful boys, never feeling like I belonged, but Denny was supremely self-confident and would plunge in anywhere. In a dance club, he immersed himself in the music, the lights, the freedom of motion, and the throbbing mass of bodies all moving to the same beat. His exhiliaration was contagious, and a bit of his confidence rubbed off on me when I was with him. Sometimes we'd dance together and other times we'd foray in independent directions. But like the great friend he was, he'd always give me a prod when I needed one -- "just go up to that guy!" -- and he'd just hang with me when I needed that. I felt secure knowing my loyal friend was always looking out for me.

Denny was fearless. Not just in dance clubs or on the ski slopes, but throughout his life. When we were in France, he confidently drove our car along the windy corniche above Monaco, with its dangerous corners and steep cliffs. "Uh, Denny, aren't you worried, isn't this about where Princess Grace went off the road?" "Yeah, I think so, this is great!" He wasn't intimidated by Paris at rush hour either, even when we had to plunge into the notorious Place d'Etoile, a free-for-all where twelve major streets come together. He just grinned with delight as we went around it several times. When we were in Australia, he held my hand while gently laughing at me as I faced my fear of heights, first when we climbed the Sydney Harbor Bridge, along cables and catwalks over rushing cars and the harbor hundreds of feet below, and later when we rapelled down an 80' waterfall where the only way down the canyon was to grab a rope and step backwards over the edge of the falls.

If I had to pick a single photo to represent our 18+ years of friendship, I know the one. It is Denny meeting me at the finish line of the AIDS Ride, pouring champagne over my head. I have just finished a 565-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, having raised over $3000 for AIDS care and services, a feat both physical and financial that a few years earlier I could not have imagined myself doing. I would not have ever done it without the seeds of change planted in my life by Denny -- the motivation to participate actively in the bike club, the inspiration for leadership in community organizations, and most of all the encouragement for reaching beyond my limits. So there he was, my faithful friend, cheering me on across the finish line, and playfully greeting me with a bottle of champagne, shaken up and sprayed all over me. I love his puckish grin in that photo, presiding over this moment of accomplishment, the fruition of seeds he planted, pouring champagne on my head, and pouring his benediction on my life.

Early on, I knew that Denny was a keeper. We'd talk sometimes about sitting together on the porch of some old folks home, looking back on a lifetime of friendship and adventure. We knew that we would be friends our whole lifetimes. I just thought it would be longer. We must remind ourselves, a life should be measured not by its length but by its depth. Every play we saw together, every castle explored, every bike ride through oak-studded California canyons, every ski run riding our boards like we were flying and dancing on the snow, every night spent dancing till dawn, every elaborate meal, and every extraordinary sunset with Dennis was a gift and a treasure. Dennis lived. He lived more life in his 54 years than many live in a much longer span.

They say you should end these things with a quote, and I would be remiss if I didn't read some Shakespeare. Denny read Shakespeare at my wedding, so I should read some Shakespeare here. In the final act of Hamlet, the prince is finally resolved to face his fate, and his loyal friend Horatio is giving him one last chance to change his mind. You don't have to face this, Horatio tells Hamlet, you can duck out the back, and I'll cover for you. But Hamlet says:
Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?
So off Hamlet goes to meet his fate. A few flowery lines, a sword fight, and a bit of poison later, Hamlet, along with several others, are dying or dead. Hamlet asks his faithful friend to live on to tell his story, and then dies at his feet. Horatio says:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.


Nancy Taylor said...

Tom, What a wonderful tribute to obviously a wonderful friend. I wish I had been fortunate enough to have known him. You were blessed to have had someone like Denny in your life. Much love in what must be a sad time in your life. Nancy

different said...

now that's a love song for a dear friend :)

so sorry for your loss, but thankful you had Denny for the years you did and all that you shared in the meanwhile.