Wait for It...
“A man walks down the street.He says, "Why am I soft in the middle, now?Why am I soft in the middle?The rest of my life is so hard.I need a photo-opportunity.I want a shot at redemption.Don't want to end up a cartoonIn a cartoon graveyard"
As I exit the calendar year 2023, I pause to reflect on my accomplishments. I cannot think of anything remarkable, except that I finally had my picture featured in a calendar. This is only remarkable because, when I was a young and fit collegiate athlete, I was nominated to be in the Men of Davis Calendar, but I did not make the final cut. Somehow decades later, when my fit is dadbod at best, my hair is thin, and my skin is no longer smooth and supple, I get featured in a calendar.
I am forced to include a picture because most will not believe that it was ever the case that I was male pinup material. I was once called, “a paragon of physical excellence,” and, even if it was just a joke, someone wrote on the mirror of the men’s bathroom of fifth floor Gilmore Hall, my freshman dorm, in black lipstick liner, “Derek Taylor is the sexiest man I know.” Still the same, I never thought of myself as potential pinup material, until that day on the quad when a young sorority girl approached me and said that she wanted to nominate me for the “Men of Davis Calendar.” She asked for my permission and my phone number, and she said someone would call me about a photoshoot.
I half dismissed the idea with extreme skepticism following only making first runner-up in the Mr. Gilmore contest. Nonetheless, early the next week I decided to get a good hair cut, just-in-case. Now, getting a haircut always caused me great anxiety because of the awkwardness of having to tell someone how I wanted my hair cut. My freshman year it was made easier by a barber shop being extant in the Memorial Union with some skilled men who had cut a lot of hair through the years. Unfortunately, while I was away from school a couple of years sorting through the emotional residual of my childhood, the Memorial Union had been remodeled and the barber shop was no more.
I resorted to calling a local salon in town. More awkward than having to tell someone how I wanted my hair cut, I was compelled to ask the uncomfortable question, “Do you know how to cut black hair?” The woman assured me that she knew how to cut all kinds of hair. I should have suspected by her matter-of-fact tone that she might not have known I meant, not the color black, but the thick curly nap typical of black people. We were less than 4% of the student population of Davis at the time.
All skepticism was confirmed when I arrived. The stylist did not reveal that “Oh, you are black!” look that I have seen on other occasions. My skeptic alarm was sounded when she wet my hair with a spray bottle, and I started screaming in my head, “NO, THAT’S NOT HOW IT IS DONE” when she started pinching clumps of my hair between her fingers and cutting it with scissors. Still, I felt it would be impolite to question her technique. I remained calm until she finished and held up a mirror. Even then I remained calm, thanked her, and tipped her.
I went to the home of Kind Art Tutor, my then girlfriend, and she immediately was astounded at what had been done to my hair, “What was she doing, modeling the surface of the moon? Your hair is full of craters. It looks like abstract art. You should have just let me cut it.” That became the eventuality as I broke out electric clippers and let her try to even things out. The sides were too uneven, so they had to be taken down to zero. I ended up with something between a flat top and a Mohawk at the end of the day. Nonetheless, it was fashionable.
I wore it like that for a few days. Then Friday night at home, I decided to do further remediation which brought up the sides even higher. I was looking very Marine DI. But then inspiration hit, and, inspired by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now (1979), I decided to go all the way, and just shave it all off.
I was surprised by the reception I got that Friday night at the party. Several females came up and just wanted to rub my bald head. I was getting more female interaction than that moment just before the Mr. Gilmore bathing suit contest when five women from my dorm floor stormed into my dressing room and rubbed my body down with baby oil while I stood in shock wearing nothing but a bikini brief.
I did not get such an enthusiastic response when I showed up for the Men of Davis Calendar photo shoot on Monday. It was not the look they were expecting. The photoshoot was the furthest thing from my mind when I did my close shave Friday night. If I had thought about it, that close shaven look had gotten me stopped by the police a few times in the Bay Area because I “fit the description” of a suspect. It was a look the police seemed to want to know better, but it was not the look they wanted in their calendar, so I did not make the final cut.
That is what makes making the final cut of the 2023 Alzheimer Biomarkers Consortium — Down Syndrome Study (ABC-DS) calendar so amazing. To qualify, I am not the main feature of the September pages. That distinction goes to Jimmy Day Keith, who plays Benny in Champions (2023) starring Woody Harrelson, Kaitlin Olson, and Matt Cook. I am honored to be featured in the insert above the days of the month, since I am hardly one to be pictured with the celebrity crowd.
What really makes being featured in the calendar so momentous is that The Divine Speaks in Irony, like when I was my most attractive by conventional standards, I was rejected, but years later when I am old and spent, I am sought out for a photo opportunity. I believe that we're are all involved in a divine comedy, but unlike Dante’s work we do not need to wait until the afterlife for the punchline. Many of the frustrating difficult moments of our life are just set-ups for a punchline that may not be delivered until years later.
In my life, one set-up, one which I struggled to resolve during my undergraduate sabbatical, was that my mother told me, “You are not normal like the other kids. You belong in an institution.” After my parents’ divorce, I took the option to go to Germany with my father because my mother told me, “Your sisters and I are going to California. You can come to California with me or you can go to Germany with your father. If you come to California with me, and you act the way you do, I will have you institutionalized.” My experience in Germany included certain adverse events, and after two years I came back to California for high school. During high school I stayed involved in sports, music, and academics. My strategy was to spend as much time at school as possible and avoid conflicts with my mother which would lead to me being institutionalized. I did not know that I was in the setup of portion of part of my life.
The punchline was not delivered until after I got my first job after college at the State Developmental Research Institute at Fairview Developmental Center affiliated with the University of California at Irvine studying self-injury in persons with developmental challenges, mainly autism spectrum disorder. I was hired for my training and experience in neurochemistry, but the punchline was that I was finally institutionalized at exactly the kind of institution my mother wanted to place me, but I had keys. Having keys makes all the difference at such a facility.
The follow-up to the punchline was that halfway through the interview with the director, The Sandman, I knew I had the job because the conversation had turned to skiing. During my undergraduate sabbatical, not part of the standard UCD curriculum, I worked a season at Heavenly Valley Ski resort in Tahoe. The Sandman had taken a ski sabbatical between completing his master’s and starting his PhD. During his career he had founded the Winter Neuropeptide Conference (WNPC) which met in Breckenridge Colorado, during the second week of February each year. For five years during my time at SDRI, I got an expense paid trip to Breckenridge for WNPC, and all I had to do was present a poster.
A corollary to that punchline was meeting the postdoc running The Sandman lab at the airport. That was back when the terminal at Orange County Airport was just a little shack. Nonetheless, the postdoc walked past me four times, even though I was the only man with an athletic build wearing a dark blue suit and magenta tie, as I said I would be. When he passed me the fourth time, I called out his name and he wheeled around and gave me that classic, “Oh, you’re black!” look of surprise. However, the Sandman’s look upon seeing me was “Oh, you’re black,” but more an expression of pleasant discovery. The Sandman was the graduate student involved in the civil rights movement at LSU back in the year that it got its first black graduate student. Thus for The Sandman, I was the hitting the trifecta: I was black, I had working knowledge of neurochemistry, and I could ski.
One of my favorite characters in the movie “Larry Crowne” (2011) is Dr. Matsutani, a slightly maniacal economics professor played by George Takei. During the first lecture for his course, Dr. Matsutani tells a series of economic jokes, and then burst out into manic laughter as if extremely amused by his own wit. The students just stare at him with a look of bemusement and trepidation. At the end of the movie right before the final he does the same, but abruptly halts his laughter to admonish his students, “By now you should be laughing with me.” This is that moment in this story, but I get the sense that not all of you are laughing with me.
That’s OK, because even though I call them punchline moments not all of them are funny-hah-hah, LOL or ROFL moments. Some of them are somber but poignant giving meaning to my life. Also, even though it is said, “Tragedy plus time equals comedy,” sometimes the set-ups are too painful to ever yield anything laughable, deeply meaningful but not laughable.
Case-in-point was October 5th, 2023. At 9:00 pm that evening I was on the phone with friends who were dealing with a child who was hospitalized for severe depression. I had the sense that the call was a divine appointment, but I did not know my role. At first I thought my role was to use my knowledge and connection from years working for departments of psychiatry to find an outpatient treatment referral for this young person. It took me a moment to gain the insight that I could best be a peer support to the parents. I had experience walking my goddaughter through years of her struggle with bipolar disorder. However, highlighting that this was a true punchline moment was that it was October 5th.
October 5th was the birthday of a dear friend from high school and college who committed suicide. That loss had a profound effect on me. Initially making me hesitant to ever form such a close bond with anyone. Yet, at the same time, causing me to realize that I had been blessed with something my friend had not, emotional resilience. I realized that when I was sitting in the hospital with him trying to do the math on why he was depressed, and I was not. It was years until I got the first hint of the punchline. On October 5th 2010, Dr. Willeumier and I got the go-ahead from our boss, Daniel Amen, to try to publish an analysis I had done of “Decreased cerebral blood flow in the limbic and prefrontal cortex using SPECT imaging in a cohort of completed suicides” (Translational Neuroscience; 2011). Oddly enough, the results of that study gave insights into why my friend was blocked on a physiological level in being able to maintain a positive view of self, independent of present circumstance. In addition to mourning the life of my friend, I have had to fight back the encroachment of depression numerous times in my life, but that experience was part of the setup to that moment on October 5th, 2023.
All along, it was as if there was a voice saying, “Wait for it. . . Wait for it…” That is one of the most important things I have learned in this life is to wait for the punchline. Some setups are painful and not all punchlines leave you laughing, but instead hit deep. However, The Divine speaks in irony, and in those moments, you find meaning, often of a profound nature, of your past suffering. Enhancing the punchline of being featured in the ABC-DS calendar is that also featured, as talented musician, is Dr. Ira Lot, who was one of the progenitors of the line of research that led to examining the parallels between Alzheimer’s dementia and Down's Syndrome. Years before that Dr. Ira lot was my mentor who taught me to do neurological exams, and collaborated with me on addressing poly-pharmacy issues at individual development team meetings for clients in my first job at SDRI at Fairview Developmental Center. The punchline of our paths converging once again, makes me smile.