Lawrence Howard

Fridtjof Nansen’s polar express

Lawrence Howard's Armchair Adventurer series heads toward the North Pole with the tale of the great Norwegian explorer and statesman

East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. But Rudyard Kipling didn’t say anything about north and south, and as Lawrence Howard points out, when you’re living on a globe, eventually they do meet: It’s inevitable.

Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater and spinner of a string of Armchair Adventures, has chronicled in several tales the travails, disasters, endurance and occasional triumphs of the men who attempted to conquer the South Pole in the early years of the 20th century: Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, and their crews.

Lawrence Howard reimagines the icy north. Photo: Scott Bump

With his new solo show, Nansen of the North, Howard for the first time in his polar adventures heads north instead of south. And he travels backward into the 19th century, a place he’s taken us before with his Armchair tales about The Essex, a Nantucket whaler that was rammed and sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, thus inspiring Melville’s novel Moby-Dick; and John “Babacombe” Lee, a Victorian thief and laborer who survived three hangings after being convicted on slim evidence of slitting a seaside spinster’s throat in 1884.

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Way down under, trapped on ice

Fertile Ground: Lawrence Howard spins a tale of bravery, isolation, and endurance in Antarctica in "Shackleton, the Untold Story"

Lawrence Howard, Portland’s best-known armchair adventurer and one of the city’s most engaging raconteurs, returned to the stage at Alberta Abbey on Saturday night with another tale of gritty endurance and testing of mettle at the ends of the world. Shackleton, the Untold Story unfolds the adventure of the other, less glamorous, and in certain ways more calamitous arm of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, his failed but valiant attempt to make the first land crossing of the Antarctic continent, a brutal trek of 1,800 miles through the most forbidding climate on Earth. (The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had made it to the South Pole and back three years before, but not across the entire continent.)

Lawrence Howard, onstage with a map of Antarctica. Photo: Mike Bodine

Lawrence Howard, onstage with a map of Antarctica. Photo: Mike Bodine

The Untold Story, a fresh piece from Portland Story Theater that is part of the Fertile Ground festival of new works, expands on a tale Howard first told in 2012, Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare: The True Story of the 1914 Voyage of the Endurance. This time around, Howard concentrates on the disaster that beset the expedition’s support crew, whose task was to approach the continent from Hobart, Tasmania, sail into the relatively well-known Ross Sea, and establish a series of supply camps from the ice floes to the Beardsmore Glacier that the main expedition could use for rest and sustenance on its way across the continent after reaching the South Pole. But, while Shackleton’s Endurance got caught in the ice floes during foul weather and set adrift with the crew aboard during its approach from the South American side, the 10 members of the support crew suffered a far more perilous disaster: their ship, the Aurora, broke loose in a gale and drifted back across the ocean, finally landing, unmanned, on the southern shore of New Zealand, thus alerting the public for the first time that the largely inexperienced crew was marooned on the ice.

It was not until January 1917 that the Aurora, having been repaired and refitted, returned to rescue the survivors. In between lay a tale of disaster, extreme fortitude, mistakes, bad decisions, near-misses, and the stresses of life at the extreme. Dogs, those essential workers and companions, perished. Terrifying storms set in. Isolation dampened men’s souls. Rash decisions and brave actions became grueling commonplaces. Scurvy ravaged the crew, bending and weakening men already tested to the physical limit. Death arrived, sometimes inevitably, sometimes foolishly.

As a teller, Howard takes his time, without letting things drag. This is about a two and a half hour journey, including intermission, which is of course a snap of the finger compared to the excruciatingly frozen ticking of the Antarctic clock for these men, who had no distractions from the elements and the moment-to-moment need to survive. But Howard is an excellent guide, an amiable and quietly compelling companion, and it’s worth the time. He’s a bit of a storytelling engineer, or mechanic: he builds his tale on a careful construction of details that suggest the intense tedium of these men’s lives on the edge, and yet keep us constantly enthralled by the large picture of human challenge and adventure. At key points he cuts back to the story of the main Shackleton expedition, so that we know more about what was happening than anyone in either party knew at the time. In the end, he does what storytelling does best: he sits us down beside a virtual fire and tells a tale of adventurous deeds. We get to shudder, and marvel, and then go safely home.

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Shackleton, the Untold Story repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday, January 30, at Alberta Abbey as part of the Fertile Ground festival. It’s also scheduled to play at The Pavilion in Cascade Locks on March 26, and at the Cascades Theater in Bend on April 16.

 

 

 

Once upon a time: true stories

Portland Story Theater brings it home to Alberta Abbey with a season-opening six-pack of true and intimate tales

By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE

The relatively recently opened Alberta Abbey in Northeast Portland is a warm and comfortable venue, reminiscent of Southeast’s Aladdin Theatre, but with 1950s movie theater chairs. It exudes a glow that only older stages carry. A star-shaped microphone is placed on the left-hand side of the stage, the sort of mic, you might imagine, that Buddy Holly would have used. A small jazz band, carrying the large name of Bamberger, Engel, Hines and Eave, greets the guests, and, to set a trend for the evening, the keyboardist is barefoot. The audience is personable, engaged in conversation that isn’t loud or raucous, slightly above a hum: the pleasant sort of sound heard at dinner parties.

It’s Saturday night at the Abbey, September 12, and the opening of a new season for Portland Story Theatre – its 11th season, and second at the Abbey. Company founders Lynne Duddy and Lawrence Howard, who are also wife and husband, take the stage and announce the evening in a way that only a couple who have been in love for decades can: with an appealing intimacy and soul-sharing capacity that inform the storytelling theater they founded. Portland Story Theatre specializes in the telling of personal stories – real, intimately revealed things that happen to real people.

Tellers and band take a post-show bow. Photo: Mike Bodine

Tellers and band take a post-show bow. Photo: Mike Bodine

Tonight’s show, a one-night stand like most of Portland Story Theater’s, is called Founders, Friends and Faves. Its performers are a special invited group of three women tellers before intermission, three men after; and while the title is catchy, the evening’s real focus is connection, and especially family bonds.

Leigh Hancock, a petite brunette with a gentleness in her motions and an earnestness that also will continue in waves through the evening, starts the show with Peaches. Leigh is a Reedie, and tells the story of returning to the Voorheis Peach Farm, where she found a second home after moving from her small town to academic life in Portland. Her tale bounces between the journey with her family and the hopes she had of sharing her young adulthood with rose-colored heavy-hanging fruit falling from trees; of canning in an old farmer’s kitchen and recreating the intimacy with her son and husband. Memory often elaborates the smaller experiences we have, when we’re looking for a home, a place to sit. It connects to movement; travel that becomes a thread all of the evening’s storytellers weave. As the saying goes, “You can never go home,” but Leigh reminds us that sometimes home is not a physical place, but one of personal history.

Leigh Hancock, telling tales. Photo: Mike Bodine

Leigh Hancock, telling tales. Photo: Mike Bodine

Duddy follows with the story of her Forever Friend, Maureen. It’s the wayback time when Lynne, age 14, goes to a rock festival with her friend, Maureen, age 16. Lynne drinks “electric wine” and gets to see Wishbone Ash perform live, the pinnacle of her short days. But, as at so many festivals of the time (cue the Woodstock soundtrack), there are rain, mud, and two or three people who don’t handle “electric wine” so well, including the stark-naked man with an erection and a hatchet. Maureen, the “woman” of the two and far more relaxed with mores and responsibility, leaves Lynn at the festival, hundreds of miles from home with only her sleeping bag and wits. Lynne soon realizes she’s just a little girl who had depended on the sadder, but wiser girl, Maureen. Lynne reminds us that in the end, we have disappointments in the people closest to us, but by overcoming them and seeing the longer and bigger picture, we maintain and enriches our bonds. History, as historians continually try to persuade us, is ledgers of people and wars. But the more important histories are the ones we build with the people who share our lives.

Next, the fiery redhead (aren’t they all?) Penny Walter takes the stage to tell a story called Never Alone. Many in the audience and outside have come to know and love her as the lively, boisterously singing star of her one-woman puppet theater, Penny’s Puppets. Tonight, though, we’re seeing a different side of Penny. She weaves in and out of memories, all the way back to school days and her teacher Mrs. Eden, who wears a long pink polyester suit and dons a long apron with deep pockets. Inside are finger puppets. Mrs. Eden invites the children in the extra ed class to get a reward each time they do well, and Penny is hooked. Her story circles to her imaginary friend, Motz, who runs marathons with her on the outskirts of the defunct farm where she grows up. They banter, fight, and make up in the sort of relationship that a true friend gives you: the challenge to believe in yourself.

A few tears fall at the end of Penny’s performance as she recounts losing the real and physical supports in her life the last few years: her parents. This is where the true nature of Portland Story Theater’s approach to storytelling comes into play. In our time of social media ad infintum, a lot of lonely people overshare, and then turn back into their shells once the catharsis has hit. The story theater is a different place to be – one that nurtures experience, dignity, and the up-down staircase of being alive. The stories are about the person telling them, but more than that, they’re about the thread that unites us and takes us all to an even ground through the telling. We all have one or two great storytellers in our lives, people who can take a simple motion like buying a lemon at the grocery store and turn it into a real saga, giving it gravity, purpose, or laughter. It’s important to realize the struggles and victories, small and big, that we all share. This is the premise of Portland Story Theater: one person, one story, and our listening.

Lawrence Howard, arms wide open. Photo: Mike Bodine

Lawrence Howard, arms wide open. Photo: Mike Bodine

Time seems to go by very quickly with each storyteller. I feel engaged with the differing personality and vulnerability of each. After intermission Duddy introduces Lawrence, the first of the men storytellers, and it’s sweet to see her give him a kiss and a good-luck sentiment: it makes the community around Portland Story Theater seem more authentic.

Like Duddy, Howard easily has you in the palm of his hands. I’m delighted that he makes reference to the old television Western hero Paladin in the title of his story, Have Ladder, Will Travel. Storyteller by night, paralegal by day, Howard gives us a glimpse into the struggles of contemporary Portland. He was a hippie cabinetmaker at one time, but fell into a white-collar job to pay the bills. Being a craftsman, he took his job seriously and invested all of his work ethic into it. One day at the law firm, he was handed two bankers boxes full of files for a wrongful death suit involving a man named Bob Sharp, who was atop a 40-foot metal ladder near a power line when he died. Howard came to have a connection with Bob Sharp’s mom, and an understanding of a down-on-his-luck guy who took an under-the-table construction job to try to set his life straight. At the end, we feel a sorrow for Bob Sharp’s short life and death, but come to realize the parallels in the two men’s lives. Portland’s economic crunch and housing crisis fall on many people. Howard has no plans to climb a 40-foot ladder, but his law firm is closing, and he, like many contributors to the city’s cultural landscape, has lost his all-important day job. As with the women storytellers, Howard takes us to a visual space through geography and time: what would take a cinematographer and film editor hours to accomplish, a good storyteller can do in minutes.

An all-out playfulness surrounds each storyteller, but by far Warren McPherson seems the most gregarious in nature and tale. His loss is the aching of not having a parent. In an odd switch of gender roles, the male storytellers all have untraditional incomes. Warren is a stay-at-home dad with two children, ages 3 and 5. He’s a muscular guy, and a former wrestler, but he lets us know his two kids are the toughest match he’s ever had: The Funk and the Fatherhood. He doesn’t want to fail them; he has an Olympian list of all the things he’ll do with them and give them. But the reality of the every moment, he declares, is kicking his ass. Tiny people have more energy than any athlete can aspire to: “Parenting is a mad rollercoaster through a twister with puppies.” He wants, like any good parent, to be a better parent than his own absent father. Warren has me an the rest of the audience enraptured: his focus and attention to words came through like a hurricane.

Warren McPherson: of funk & fatherhood. Photo: Mike Bodine

Warren McPherson: of funk & fatherhood. Photo: Mike Bodine

John Mink’s My Portland Girl closes this fascinating and intimate evening on a high note. He knows and is comfortable with his wild and heartful nature, which complements Warren’s kinetic fire and calls back to the earnestness of Hancock’s tale. Mink’s story fits together the evening’s common themes: belonging, travel, chosen transformation, and loss. He’s introduced as a philosopher, and he is that, but not the sort you might expect. He appears onstage with a beer and a leather-brimmed hat, then delivers the quiet sort of cowboy reading you’d expect in the dead of winter in Elko, Nevada – but not, probably, in 2015. He tells of traveling to Alaska, where he takes up a butcher job, just as he’d had in his last town. Every time he ends his shift, he sees the mountains, and knows he has a different choice. Caught between earning a paycheck and following his heart, he spends years looking for someone, instead of the trees, mountains, rivers to tell him, “Yes.” That is how this evening ends, with a “Yes” from his Portland Girl. Sometimes, it seems, love can take a man from a goldmine onto a motorcycle and across a continent.

In a time where our daily digest arrives in snippets of information from friends, our interests, and news around the world, Portland Story Theater asks us simply to sit and believe. No story is the same, and none is memorized: through a story-building workshop, the group in the company’s signature Urban Tellers series supports and brings out the best of each narrative. The point is to not make the best story, but to bring out the best in the storyteller. I hope that as the season continues Portland Story Theater will bring in more of our histories, in a diversity of voices. I believe it will: the magic is already there.

Portland Story Theater’s next performance is Spellbound, a Halloween show hosted by Sam A. Mowry, on October 24. Ticket information is here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FG review: a whale of a tale

Lawrence Howard's 'The Essex' recounts the adventure of the 1820 oceangoing disaster that inspired 'Moby-Dick'

The Essex

Premiere production; Portland Story Theater at The Alberta Abbey; performed Jan. 2-24

When the Essex set sail from Nantucket on August 12, 1819, it was considered a lucky ship. At about 88 feet it was smallish for a whaleship, but it had had many profitable voyages, and there was no reason to believe this one would be otherwise.

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of "Whaling Voyage Round the World," ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Wreck of the Essex. Detail of “Whaling Voyage Round the World,” ca.1848, a panorama by Benjamin Russell and Caleb P. Purrington. Wikimedia Commons

Nor was there reason to anticipate that, on November 20, 1820, two thousand nautical miles west of the edge of South America in the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean, a sperm whale almost as long as the Essex itself would turn on the ship, speed toward it, and ram it, then ram it again, until the Essex splintered, tottered, keeled over, and eventually sank. So much for luck.

The ship carried a crew of 20. After 93 days adrift on the ocean in three small whaleboats that survived the attack, five emaciated men reached safety (three other men elected to stay on a small desert island, and were eventually rescued). They had endured starvation, extreme thirst, fevers, and a descent into cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead and, in one case, drawing lots to see who would be shot so his body could feed the others.

The tale of the Essex became legend in whaling circles, eventually reaching the ears of young Herman Melville, who heard it aboard a whaler from the son of one of the Essex disaster’s survivors. The fantastic story became the seed that sprouted Moby-Dick.

It’s also the fifth and latest in storyteller Lawrence Howard’s Armchair Adventurer series, which has retold the exploits of the Antarctic explorers Shackleton, Amundson, Scott, and Mawson, as well as the tale of John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was hanged three times and survived each attempted execution.

Howard

Howard

Howard, the cofounder of Portland Story Theater, is at home in the world of extremes, and he tells the story of the Essex true and well. His style, interestingly, isn’t overly dramatic, although he can amp up the tension when it’s called for. He recounts his tales in an easy, familiar, colloquial style, mixing in a few wry observations, pinpointing moments of valor and foolhardiness and desperation, and drilling down on the essence of character among these historical adventurers when they are faced with the most dire of circumstances. And he links them, casually but carefully, to details of his own life: how he gained his enthusiasm for adventure stories from his father; how learning about the endurance of the sailors on the Essex helped him deal with his own weakness from cancer radiation treatment. It all seems matter-of-fact, the way Howard tells things, and then you realize you’ve been sitting there listening to him for two solid hours, and he’s held you every step of the way.

As Howard tells it, the story of the Essex is more than the story of a disaster. It’s also a story about leadership, and the lack of it, and the tension between a young captain and a younger first mate who continually challenged his authority. And it’s about varying kinds of courage, and the mettle that men find, or don’t find, in their souls. Howard also tells a lot about the economics and practicalities of the whaling trade (whale oil lit city streets and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution), including the arduous and filthy business of actually killing the whales and rendering them. Like Moby-Dick, which takes long side trips from its adventure story to talk about the practicalities of the sailing life and venture into philosophical speculations, Howard’s version of the story carefully places the adventure within its economic, historic, and cultural context, a particularly important decision considering the 21st century’s radically different moral and environmental views on hunting whales. Yes, it slows the story down a bit. The payoff is a deeper understanding of what was at stake, and, eventually, of how the survivors were greeted and treated once they reached home again.

The Essex, directed by Howard’s wife and partner in Portland Story Theater, Lynne Duddy, had its premiere as part of the Fertile Ground festival with performances Friday and Saturday at the Alberta Abbey. Howard’s next scheduled performance of it is at 7:30 p.m. April 17 in the Solo Speak series at the Cascades Theatre in Bend – a landlocked town, but surely one primed for a good old-fashioned oceangoing adventure.

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East Side Storytellers

Portland Story Theater's impending move to the Alberta Abbey shifts the city's eastward-leaning cultural map

“It’s kind of a big risk,” Lawrence Howard says. “We’re excited and a bit nervous about it.”

Howard isn’t talking about 33 and ⅓, the dual storytelling program about their third-of-a-century life together that he and his wife, Lynne Duddy, are performing this Friday and Saturday night at Hipbone Studio, although any storytelling performance, and especially one that gets two people tangled into the act, is a risk.

He’s talking about Portland Story Theater’s big move, come September, from the funky and intimate Hipbone space on East Burnside Street to the funky and much bigger Alberta Abbey, on Northeast Alberta and Mallory, a couple of blocks around the corner from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

A Portland Story Theater crowd at Hipbone. Photo: Mike Bodin

A Portland Story Theater crowd at Hipbone. Photo: Mike Bodin

Howard and Duddy are the story theater’s founders and driving forces, and the move north is a carefully considered gamble. It immediately expands the story theater’s capacity from an overstuffed 110 or 115 at Hipbone to 400 in the old church building on Alberta – 300 in the main auditorium and 100 in the balcony.

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A catch in the throat: the storyteller’s story

Lawrence Howard kicks off the 'Singlehandly!' festival splendidly. But the tale is far from over.

Howard, with unfamiliar apparatus. All photos: Scott Bump

Howard, with unfamiliar apparatus. All photos: Scott Bump

In an otherwise familiar scene last Friday night at inner Northeast Portland’s Hipbone Studio, something unusual happened. Veteran storyteller Lawrence Howard walked onstage wearing a little microphone clipped behind his ear. This was odd, because even in a whisper Howard’s easy baritone ordinarily reaches the farthest corners of a room. He fidgeted with the gadget a bit, clearly unaccustomed to the vagaries of artificial amplification. He’d had a little throat procedure, the crowd was told casually, and didn’t want to strain his voice.

Then he started talking, and any clumsiness faded away. “My mother’s name was Gloria Howard,” he said calmly but potently, “and she died in January, just a couple of months ago. She was 86 years old.”

With those simple words, Howard kicked off Portland’s fifth annual “Singlehandedly!” festival of long-form solo oral stories. A shaggy bear of a fellow who seduces listeners with his wry ramblings and then grips them with the incisive tension of his tales, Howard founded the festival’s producing company, Portland Story Theater, with his storytelling wife, Lynne Duddy. He’s one of the city’s most celebrated practitioners of this age-old craft, known in particular for “Shackleton’s Antarctic Nightmare” and other tales of endurance and deprivation on the southern fringes of the world.

On Friday night he was undergoing his own unfolding tale of endurance, a story beneath the story. And if he didn’t tell that story, it’s understandable, because he’s not sure yet how it comes out. But like so many good stories it’s an adventure, filled with obstacles and determination, and it’s dogged by a shadow of mortality.

Howard, 58, has a way of making his stories personal, even when they’re about a Shackleton or a John “Babbacombe” Lee, the Victorian manservant and possible murderer who astonishingly cheated the hangman’s noose three times. This new story he was telling began with his mother’s death and soon looped off into circles of family memory that rambled from a visit with his dad to a whaling museum on Long Island to a recitation of “Casey at the Bat” to camping trips in the Adirondacks and, quite hilariously, odes to the pleasures of unfettered flatulence and the manly art of dirty poems.

Lawrence2

“My dad was the limerick king of the Western Hemisphere,” Howard reminisced, and soon, astonishingly, he had Hipbone’s crowd of a hundred-plus laughing and clapping and reciting dirty rhymes along with him. The tale, “Legacy of Limericks,” was a rude and funny re-immersion into the liberating excesses of adolescence, tinged with the rueful shadings of age. His father had died 10 years ago, he noted, and that was a huge loss. His mother survived courageously for another decade, and when she died, the void was somehow different: Losing both parents, Howard noted, leaves you lonelier. Eventually he wound back to Brooklyn and his sister’s cramped apartment and the traditional community farewell to his mother, which ended up being not entirely traditional, after all. “It was pretty clear that no one had ever heard limericks sung at a shiva before,” Howard noted wryly. “But that’s the kind of family we are.”

A helluva story, all in all. And it had a poignant moment early on when Duddy walked through the crowd and gently readjusted Howard’s microphone – his voice was a little too boomy – then smiled and walked back to her seat. “Legacy of Limericks” lasts about an hour, which is an hour of being all alone onstage, speaking the entire time, and even if you’re speaking softly, which much of the time you’re not, it’s an exertion. Howard felt the exertion keenly, and no wonder: only four days before he’d been feeding through a long tube inserted in his nostril. And that’s where the backstory begins. Or rather, continues.

It began last summer, when Howard “started feeling a little burning, an itching in my throat whenever I ate anything sweet or spicy or acidic.” For Howard, who’s a fair hand in the kitchen and bottles his own hot sauce, this was an annoyance. He went to his doctor, who checked him out and didn’t see anything: no strep, no nothing. So he went home and pretty much forgot about it.

Then, in January, he began to notice the burning again. And the timing could hardly have been more complex. He was about to open his new Babbacombe show. As he was giving his first Saturday performance, his sister texted from Brooklyn: Their mom was doing poorly, and might be near the end. Lawrence and his sister talked later, and he decided to stay to complete the next weekend’s run. On the following Saturday morning, his mother died. He did his final show that night, then flew to New York.

2013-4-19 Singlehandedly 164Meanwhile, Portland Story Theater had a busy schedule. An Urban Tellers performance, the showcase that follows several weeks of workshops on personal stories with a handful of often novice storytellers, was set for February 9. A special Valentines Day show was in the works at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Finally Howard got back to his doctor, who this time sent him to see ear, nose, and throat specialist Dr. Michael Flaming, who also had operated on Howard’s nose in 2008 to correct a deviated septum from a long-ago injury. Flaming pulled out a laryngoscope, a long tube with a microcamera on the end used to examine a patient’s glottis – the vocal cords and the space between them – from the inside. He inserted the tube down Howard’s nasal passage. “And he says, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s something really ugly down there. Really gnarly. We have to do a biopsy.’”

The result: cancer. Squamous cell carcinoma of the throat. More specifically, the cancer was centered at the base of the tongue, where it attaches to the throat, and very close to the voice box, an essential biological instrument for a storyteller.

On March 28 Howard was wheeled in for surgery at Providence, where Dr. R. Bryan Bell, chief of the hospital’s head, neck and throat cancer clinic, undertook the complicated procedure. “The surgery was very long,” Howard said. “Like nine hours.” And it involved a procedure that not so very long ago might have seemed like science fiction. Bell operated using a Da Vinci Surgical Robot, an expensive apparatus – each machine costs about $2.5 million, in addition to steep maintenance costs – that has up to five arms, each with a separate instrument at the end, and which is capable of doing very tiny and delicate work while the surgeon directs it from a distance via computer screen and controls.

“It’s a crazy machine,” Howard said. But despite some criticism, in cases like Howard’s it has real advantages. The Da Vinci system allows for minimal invasion compared to traditional surgery: “In the old days, to get to the tumor, they would have to fillet your face. So of course nobody did that. They would go straight to radiation, and it’s not as effective.”

Still, Howard’s neck was slit from ear to ear: you can see the scar now, which looks like a thick welt running just below his beard. In a traditional part of the surgery not involving the Da Vinci system, Dr. Bell took out 65 lymph nodes. Three were cancerous. Howard spent four days in ICU, and another four days in a hospital room. He had “a million tubes,” for breathing and for feeding, and because his throat was raw, they had to be inserted through his nose. Nerve pain in his ears, neck, and upper chest was intense, and the drugs had him feeling “so loopy. So crazy.” In ICU he woke up disoriented and pulled out his feeding tube: “The nurses were very upset about that.” The surgery had cut into the connecting muscle of his tongue, which is what pushes food down the throat. “Of course I couldn’t eat; I couldn’t swallow. The whole geometry of my throat changed.”

On the ninth day after surgery, Howard came home, still trailing tubes. “Everything I ate or drank had to go through that nose tube. Medicine, we had to crush. It was terrible.” Salt water, at least, was soothing. Finally, he had a little close-to-solid food. “I made a pot of chicken soup and matzo balls,” he said. “The Jewish soul food.” He made sure, he added wryly, to make the matzos light and fluffy.

Post-surgical therapy has concentrated mainly on retraining his muscles for swallowing: His therapists were surprised that his speech seemed barely affected. Howard can tell small differences: “I’m still having a little trouble with my l’s and my r’s.” But to other ears he sounds normal. That’s important, because Howard needs his voice. His car carries a bumper sticker: STORYTELLERS DO IT ORALLY. And he’s not quite sure what he’d do if it stopped. “I love this. I live for this. This is my favorite thing.”

On Monday, April 15 – seventeen days after his surgery, and four days before his scheduled performance of “Legacy of Limericks” – he had a post-surgical checkup. “I all but begged them to take the nose tube out,” he said. “And they did.” Good thing. Otherwise, he’d have canceled his show: “There’s no way I could’ve subjected the audience to that nose tube.” It was, in more ways than one, a healing moment: “The doctors left the room, and Lynne and I were alone there, and we did the happy dance.”

Duddy and Howard made a little joke about the neck scar, which reminded them of the jaw bolts below the ears in movie depictions of Frankenstein’s monster. “My tumor’s name is Frankie,” Howard said, “and Frankie has left the building.”

2013-4-19 Singlehandedly 191If you’re looking for an immediate happy ending, you’re running ahead of the story. Because the cancer had spread to Howard’s lymph nodes, he still has to undergo radiation therapy. And that’s an intense, sometimes debilitating process: six weeks of treatments, five days a week, and sometimes it makes people too sick to get through the whole thing. “This is a little window,” Howard said. “Right now I feel good, and I can eat, and I’m talking well.”

Howard also works as a legal researcher and writer for the law firm of Gaylord Eyerman Bradley PC, which has been, he said, immensely supportive. Hospital costs alone have been $148,000 so far, with much more in related costs to come, and “my percentage of it is zero. Thank you, thank you, thank you for health insurance.” He’ll begin radiation treatment in a couple of weeks, and as anyone knows who’s gone through it or knows someone who has, it’s a nasty procedure.

“The radiation basically burns the inside of your throat,” Howard said. “People describe it as getting a very bad sunburn inside your throat on that tender flesh.” It also messes with your salivary glands. And if the radiation goes slightly astray, it can cause damage to the voice box. His chart will note prominently that he tells stories for a living, and he needs to keep his vocal cords unscathed. The danger’s still there. But the potential payoff is worth the risk. If he succeeds in finishing the six-week radiation program, he’ll join the group of people who have a 90 percent chance of living cancer-free long term. “I’m going to endure,” he said. “We’re made of good Russian peasant stock, and that’s what we do.”

All of this was on Howard’s mind last Friday as he prepared to tell a bunch of dirty limericks to a roomful of friends and strangers. “An hour before the show I thought, ‘Oh God, what am I doing? What was I thinking? I just want to go home and take my pain pills and go to bed,’” he said the following morning, after a long night’s sleep. “But then my friends started to show up.”

His friends, in fact, started to pack the place. “The whole time I was up there I was just high on the energy of the crowd. It was great.” Then came the standing ovation, mostly from people who didn’t know the backstory at all.

It’s been a long, perilous journey, and there’s a lot of slogging still to come. Keep listening, because the story isn’t over. But Lawrence Howard is home.

*

NOTES:

 

The Singlehandedly! Festival continues this weekend with performances Friday and Saturday nights.

Here’s what’s happened so far:

  •  Last Friday, Howard’s “Legacy of Limericks” was followed by “A Taste for the Abyss,” Kriya Kaping’s exuberant, funny, and sometimes harrowing tale of her misadventures in South America as an 18-year-old would-be do-gooder who learned much more from her hosts than she could begin to impart. Keep an eye out for Kaping: she’s worth following.
  •  Last Saturday, Duddy told her tale “Twice Born: A Story of Adoption,” and comedian Brad Fortier told “Improv Junkie,” his tale of “how a mild-mannered, gay, gaming geek learned how to live ‘out loud’ after becoming addicted to improv theater and performing internationally.”

And here’s what’s coming up:

  •  Friday, April 26: Musician/clown/yoga teacher Annie Rosen tells her story “Cosmic Friend,” and Eric Stern – leader of Portland’s Vagabond Opera – tells “To Catch a Thief,” about some less savory aspects of his pre-vaudevillian life.
  •  Saturday, April 27: Annie La Ganga tells “The Major Arcana,” a tale about her “long and sometimes troubling relationship with tarot cards”; and storytelling veteran Penny Walter tells “Con Mucho Gusto, With Pleasure,” about her life as a puppeteer.

Performances are at Hipbone Studio, Northeast 18th Avenue and East Burnside Street in Portland. Ticket information is here.

2013-4-19 Singlehandedly 178

 

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