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    SIP on the Eve of Phase 2

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    We have come to know the word shelter as many different things. Most of them have to do with a temporary spot. The concept of a shelter is that it provides a transition between things: homeless shelter, women’s shelter, animal shelter. And now, we have corona shelter. And we have a new phrase in our “normal” lexicon: shelter-in-place (SIP).

    It’s not the first time it has been used, just the first time it has been applied to hundreds of millions of people at once. The term came into use when chemical, biological, or radiological contaminants were released accidentally or intentionally into the environment. It was then used to describe precautions to be taken when violence has occurred and the perpetrator was believed to still be in the area.

    What do you do when, rather suddenly, you are told to SIP? Having no experience with such things, you do the “normal” things you might do if planning a longer vacation than you have ever actually taken. You get ready as best you can. You gather the things you think you’ll need. I’ll bet you never departed for an extended trip and stocked up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer before! On March 17, 12:01 am, when our local six counties were issued the SIP ordinance, we all thought it might be two weeks. Four weeks was unimaginable at that point. Stretched to six and now, with Phase 2 as the next threshold and still another two to go after that, it will have been 2 ½ months. That’s a cruise around the world!

    When SIP began, it was rough, but there was a bit of an adventure involved. I immediately began posting a “Shelter in Place Day 1” message on Facebook. How fun would that be for the two to three weeks we would be sipping? I’ll share a few of those posts along the way. It got really old!

    Day 1. Take stock of the pantry. Get toilet paper and hand sanitizer and wine. Found “Emotional Support” M&M’s. Seriously.

    Then, everything changed. Physical distancing has most definitely had an enormous toll on all of us. SIP has especially dealt a very specific blow to artists and arts groups who rely on performing to survive in every possible way: artistically, spiritually, and economically. The proverbial rug has been thoroughly pulled out from under us and sent off somewhere to be cleaned. Will it come back in one piece or smaller pieces? Will it come back at all? Instead of greeting, “How are you” we ask a more honest question, “How are you holding up?” Instead of “goodbye,” we say, “Stay safe.”

    Those of us in the LGBTQ community, and of a certain age, can link the fear, hysteria, poor information, and social judgement to the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Who has it, how did they get it, and did they pass it onto me? Add to those: why isn’t she wearing a mask or standing further apart?  It’s now socially unacceptable to hug you on the street. Will I get arrested if I’m not in my neighborhood? I guess it could also be compared to Gideon from The Handmaid’s Tale.

    Day 4. Started a Jigsaw puzzle of lots of brown puppies.

    The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was only two weeks from our spring concert at Davies Symphony Hall when SIP was enforced. It was to be with the Palo Alto High School Choir, four young actor/singers from Oakland School of the Arts, and guest star Alex Newell. That simply disappeared. Three months of learning our music, choreography, and staging. Our annual fundraiser Crescendo, slated for April, was cancelled, as was our Pride extravaganza for June. We have created contingency after contingency and a strategic plan absolutely chock full of “what ifs.”

    We have all learned much. We learned Zoom! Even more important for us, we learned you can’t rehearse a chorus on Zoom. The very act of “choir” depends on creating, communicating, and crafting a sound together.

    Day 9. First San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus Zoom rehearsal with 162 attending. It doesn’t work.

    We’ve learned how to use and how not to use disinfectant! And we’ve learned what it’s like to wear a mask. I think it’s a good thing we got to break those in while sheltering. Getting used to wearing masks is hard. And you should hear singing from behind a mask of varying materials. It’s not pretty.

    All that said, we have learned a great deal about ourselves. We are a resilient lot. And we’ve learned how creative we can be when forced to prepare meals at home. Three times a day! People have gotten creative with hair color—and cuts—by themselves or by SIP partners. Baking fabulous items never before dreamt. And did I say Zoom? Some of us who were lucky enough to SIP with another person.

    Day 15. Created exercise video to Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Eat Cereal.” Using beer bottles and chardonnay for hand weights.

    For the chorus, this has definitely meant punting. As most of you know, we’re not just a choir. We truly are one of what Armistead calls “logical” family. We work hard at our music, but we also work hard at the family aspect of what we do. So, we not only lost our music, but also the people we hang out with multiple times a week. And, for such a huge group of people, it’s impossible to retain the closeness we took for granted. Groups within the chorus got together to bake online, do make-up online, watch movies together, workout together, all online.

    Day 19. Clara (9-year old granddaughter) learned to sew masks.

    Of course, the first thing we did was try to figure out how to keep engaged during this time. We needed a way to take care of our twins: Music and Mission. The first thought for everyone on the planet was the internet. We began to strategize what we could do to use that during this time. So, what else but create SFGMC TV. It’s not really television, but it does come to you on a small screen.

    Day 28. Changed to paper plates!

    What is it, you ask? Well, we do have quite a bit of archival performances on video that we have not released to the public before. We are doing that on a weekly basis. But we also created three additional categories: Behind the Curtain, an interview format of movers and shakers; Out in The Community, non-performance related activities such as our youth outreach program RHYTHM; and, Inside the Chorus, for a look at how the chorus works.

    Day 31. Washed the dog. Again.

    We now have four episodes out there. We “launch” a new episode every Thursday. All of the content is at https://www.sfgmc.org/

    Our Executive Director Chris Verdugo and I host the Behind the Curtain interviews. At this point, we have interviewed Broadway stars Laura Benanti, Billy Porter, and Britney Coleman. We’ve also interviewed Broadway composer Andrew Lippa, skater Adam Rippon and, wait for it, Chasten Buttigieg! All of those are available for you to watch, with more added every week!

    We launched SFGMC TV with our virtual chorus rendition of “Truly Brave.” It has now reached a quarter of a million views, including praise from the two composers of the two songs: Cyndi Lauper, “True Colors,” and Sara Bareilles, “Brave”! It’s been an auspicious launch.

    Day 34. Facials.

    Last week, we released the uplifting song, “Dance with the Storm,” by Andrew Lippa. Both this piece and “Truly Brave” are with gratitude for, and in honor of, first responders and those who continue on the front lines making our lives livable.

    Just like you, we are ready for life to get back to the “new normal.” We are ready for our sheltering phase to come to a natural end. We know that it may come again. We’ll be better prepared in every way. Patience is not one of my spiritual gifts.

    Day 40. 40 days and 40 nights. And God said, “Go to your room and think about what you’ve done.” (That was actually our friend Laura Benanti.)

    One day soon, we’ll be able to sing together again. Even that won’t be the same for a fairly long time, but I can absolutely guarantee it will be performed with even more gusto, fervor, and joy than ever before—and we had a lot of all that. There is still a world out there waiting to hear music. Heart-warming, life-changing music.

    Today is Day 52. I stopped my daily updates more than a week ago. The fun of doing them wore off along the way. I was certainly not doing anything interesting or out of the “new normal.” I found myself with daily days.

    How do we come out of this? We know less about that than we did what it was going to be like when we started this grand experiment. I’m pretty sure we won’t be experiencing the song “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over.” I’m pretty sure it is going to more like the proverbial “out like a lamb.”

    I think it is going to be like approaching a cold swimming pool. We’ll be testing the water with a finger, then a toe. Starting at the shallow end, we go in ankle deep and acclimate before slowly moving up to our private parts where the cold really gets our attention. But we keep going, and at some point, we find ourselves half in and half out. Nothing bad happened, so we go all the way. Next stop: high dive! For me, that high dive is the day I will get to stand before the chorus, raise my arms, signal the downbeat and they sing! And you will be behind me soaking up that glorious sound once again.

    I’m more than ready.

    Stay safe.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.

    Published on May 7, 2020