40, Love

Episode 1—What Would Mary Do?

Series Premiere.  Jon Paul enters therapy when his perfect sitcom life takes a plunge into depression. Guest star: Queen Rania of Jordan.

The call I had anticipated for years came at the conclusion of one of the most important events in my professional career.  In the fall of 2009, I was 40 years old and thought of my life as a sitcom set in the occasionally glamorous world of New York public relations.  While Sex and the City’s cougar Samantha was America’s pop-culture image of a publicist, in my show I was more like a cool and confident panther—think boyish guile of Neal Patrick Harris with the comic timing of Sean Hayes.  My job was to stealthily conduct behind-the-scenes image control for the magazine industry.

That day, a luxury publication had hired me to infuse glamour and gravitas into an event celebrating their commitment to social responsibility.  At Midtown Manhattan’s sparkling Morgan Library, I had run the usual gauntlet of high-powered pratfalls: fixing bubbly Mandy Moore’s video presentation of her trip to the Sudan distributing mosquito nets, begging cantankerous Ed Norton to keep his remarks on the African Maasai tribe upbeat and short, and making a fool of myself escorting singer and Haitian activist Wyclef Jean to the stage.

“The song you wrote for Venus Williams really gets me pumping when I take the tennis court!” I practically screamed.

Later backstage, despite instructions from Queen Rania of Jordan’s Security Chief never to look at her majesty directly, I couldn’t take my eyes off the fabulous shoes worn by the impossibly gorgeous head of state.  When the Queen-by-marriage caught the queen-by-birth staring, I blushed and rushed to retreat.  She caught my arm and clicked her heels like Dorothy.

“They’re Versace.  Pretty fabulous, right?” she whispered, and then winked with a twinkle that melted my heart.

When I waved goodbye to the Queen’s motorcade making a note to take her up on the gracious offer to visit Jordan anytime “as her guest,” my iPhone erupted with the ringtone sound of Joan Jett’s cover of Mary Tyler Moore’s theme Love Is All Around.  One glance at the screen and I knew what was coming.

Associated Press calling.  Care to comment on your father’s death?”

Now that was a loaded question—one that I was hopefully and finally prepared to answer.  Reaching this moment had taken years of intense therapy that I began four years earlier at the age 36, when simmering issues about my famous father came bubbling to the surface—memories I thought I outran when I moved to the Big Apple.


For three decades, my father made a name for himself as the kind of ultra-liberal and activist federal judge that Republicans demonize.  Appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter, U.S. District Judge Jerry Buchmeyer issued groundbreaking opinions taught in law schools across the country.  He insisted that Dallas overhaul its city council election system to enfranchise minorities.  He mandated that the poor have fair access to affordable homes, dismantling the city’s behemoth public housing projects in the process.  Perhaps most famously, in 1982, in a case known as Baker v. Wade, he ruled Texas’ law criminalizing private homosexual conduct as unconstitutional, catapulting himself into the ranks of early gay rights legends.  As a blossoming gay teen of 13, I felt lucky to be in the courtroom for that landmark decision—although my father had no clue about the personal impact his ruling had on me.

While publicly heralded a hero by many, privately Dad was often a villain to me.  He and I suffered through a particularly tricky and nasty relationship.  When he wasn’t ignoring me for his work or passed out from a heavy dose of Scotch and muscle relaxers, he was pummeling me with balls on the tennis court, frustrated that I didn’t live up to his athletic prowess.  He cruelly crushed my dream of attending New York’s Columbia, refusing to spend the money on anything but state school.  Just two years later he cut me off financially during my sophomore year at the University of Texas at Austin.

But his ultimate betrayal was the pronouncement that I was not allowed to stay in his house with my partner for fear of turning my younger half-brother into a homosexual.  Evidently, the early proponent of gay rights could set aside his personal feelings and rule correctly on the law from the bench, but at home when confronted with his son’s sexuality his homophobia was unleashed at home.

An obsession with ‘70s television sitcoms—particularly Mary Tyler Moore—had long been my escape from life’s many dramas.   So in 1995 at the age of 26, I took inspiration from Mary and marshaled the courage to escape the long shadow of my legendary father and move to Manhattan.  Just like Mary, I left behind a tragic mess of a life, but vowed never to lose my optimistic Texas spirit while taking on the Big Apple.

Over the course of ten years, I successfully reinvented myself while what I call my sitcom life hummed along smoothly.  It even had a title—Alphabet City, the nickname for Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood.  When I moved to New York City, it was the height of popularity for Seinfeld and Friends, and many of my cohorts processed their lives through the lens of a sitcom.  Friends in Brooklyn had a show we called Scalin’ the Heights that we thought of as the “lead-in” to Alphabet City.  Each week, I would meet them for coffee for to recap my whacky true-life storylines focused on surviving life as a celebrity publicist.  There was a mishap with Whoopi Goldberg’s Oscar, a mistaken identity as Tyra Banks’ boy toy, a confrontation over honey with Vanessa Williams, and some crazy and sexy adventures traveling the globe for Condé Nast Traveler.

Toward the end of the show’s run, I settled down with a family of co-stars including a foofy dog named Frida, and most importantly my Mexican boyfriend.  He is a classically trained economist-turned-cook, whom I lovingly call Chef—think foodie charm of Alton Brown with the fiery spice of Javier Bardem.  In 2005, as Chef packed his knives for the move to our newly purchased brownstone in Manhattan’s heavily Dominican Washington Heights neighborhood, he could sense my unease.

“What’s happening to your show now that we’re leaving Alphabet City?” he asked.

“I’m not sure.  I feel like I’m being shipped off to another network to launch a spin-off series.”

I rested for a moment on a vintage green kitchen stool we had rescued from the mean streets of the East Village.  On cue, our fluffy dog Frida begged to sit in my lap—all the boxes in our kitchen made her nervous she’d be left behind.

“Who knows, perhaps I’ll become a new character.  Maybe call myself Gary Tyler Moore—you know, Mary’s gay brother.”

“Does Gary learn to cook?  Because that would be helpful,” Chef teased.

The incredible stress of moving from a beloved apartment—the set for my sitcom life over the past decade—was heightened by my father’s worsening battle with dementia.  His illness increasingly required my rather reluctant attention.  Although my sister Paige handled the bulk of the matters, there were still questions about finances, medical care, and a strategy for convincing my father to finally retire from the bench.  The familial bonds I had desperately tried leaving behind in Texas while I reinvented myself in New York were suddenly tugging at me.  At the same time, I began to suspect I had made a colossal mistake leaving the comfort of magazine publisher Condé Nast to take a high-powered job with a global PR agency—I should have known that getting paid that much money meant dealing with a treasure trove of hidden unpleasantness.  If all that wasn’t bad enough, I realized I was increasingly treating Chef like Dad did Mom—financially controlling, emotionally withdrawn, and often times, just plain mean.  But I had no idea how to control myself, and was in danger of becoming an evil character in a Telemundo telenovela.

All told, I sunk into a deep depression that pinned me to the bed for days.  The last time I had felt that bad was in Texas after suffering a painful break up and a professional failure as an independent filmmaker.  At that time, I asked myself, “What would Mary do?”  Back then, the answer was “move to New York.”  Ten years later, I posed the question, “What would Gary do?”  I decided that Mary’s gay brother needed professional help.  In short order, I was perched on a doctor’s couch in Chelsea, joining the ranks of every true New Yorker searching for a therapeutic lifeline.

Dr. Ann came highly recommended by dear friend and colleague Dana—think insight of Julianne Moore with the wisecracks of Tina Fey.

“She’ll be tough on you—and that’s exactly what a big personality like you needs,” Dana advised.

“Is that a compliment?”

“She’ll make you deal with your fucked up family in Texas.  It’s going to be great.”

“Thanks for not putting too fine a point on it,” I said.

In my first rather timid call to set up a consultation, Dr. Ann could practically sense my discomfort through the phone lines.  When she informed me her office was on the far west side of Manhattan between 9th and 10th Avenues, I had an immediate flash that Dr. Ann’s lair was one too many blocks across my comfort zone.  She must have sensed my self-imposed geographic limitations.

“I know it sounds far.  But don’t worry, it’s closer to 9th,” Dr. Ann said softly.

A few days later, after an arduous downtown and cross-town journey, I relaxed instantly upon first glimpse of my potential lifesaver.  She wore simple black pants that showed off her simply expensive Prada flats and sported a mop of dyed black hair with a shock of white—I couldn’t tell if the streak was supposed to be hidden or admired.  She reminded me of all my high school friends’ Jewish mothers who adopted me—think intense eyes of Meryl Streep with the mothering arms of Olympia Dukakis.

“Tell me why you think you’re here,” she began.

“Think?  I pretty much know,” I laughed.

She winced.

I nervously rearranged the scratchy pillows on the oversized gray couch, staring at a framed black and white photo on the wall of a lady holding a baby.  Was that woman really smoking?  Was that Dr. Ann?

“What are you thinking?” she prodded.

“I’m thinking that my sitcom life is unraveling.”

“I’m not sure what that means.”

“Oh, I talk about my life as a sitcom.  For a long time I called it Alphabet City, but I don’t live there anymore.  Right now, I don’t know what to call it, other than a mess.  I feel trapped in a miserable job.  But it pays a lot of money and I just bought a house and support my boyfriend who’s changing careers.  I’m not sure where I’m going or what I’m doing with my life.”

She nodded with a look of extreme concern.

“Do you ever have suicidal thoughts?”

I chuckled.

“Why does that make you laugh?”

“When I was a teenager, that’s one of the first things my psychiatrist Dr. Campbell asked,” I explained.

As I looked up at the framed children’s charcoal drawing of the 23rd street subway station, fond memories of Dr. Campbell flooded my soul.

“He’s one of the people I credit with saving me as a child.  I was a pretty broken kid—lying, stealing, doing drugs, having sex.  Anything to get my parents attention.  They shipped me off to Dr. Campbell to be fixed.”

I told Dr. Ann about the first time I met Dr. Campbell on Christmas Eve of my sophomore year in high school.  My father had been forced to pay attention to my increasingly destructive behavior when the teachers at my tony private school had raised an alarm.  The adult experts theorized that the source of my problems was the living situation with my mother and depressively moody and homophobic stepfather.  My Dad proposed a stopgap measure: I would come to live with his wife and new son until I stabilized.  But things turned ugly at that crisis intervention session in Dr. Campbell’s office and my mother basically washed her hands of me, stopped speaking to me for months, and eventually refused to attend my high school graduation.

“At first, I thought of Dad as this savior.  But then he just ignored me too.  Communicated by leaving post-it notes on the kitchen table.  For the next two and half years, two sessions a week, until I went to college, Dr. Campbell was one of the only adults, other than my stepmother, that I could count on.”

“Sounds like the place we should begin our work,” Dr. Ann said.

“Oh no.  I’m totally over all of that shit.  Please, I dealt with it when I was a kid.  I need to focus on the here and now—my job, my relationship.”

“But over time our perspective can change.  As an adult, it might be time to look at the trauma surrounding your parents’ abandonment of you.”

My stomach churned at the use of such a harsh term.

“Abandonment?  I’d never use that word.  I think of myself as a survivor.    What I need to figure out now is how I can go back to being the together, upbeat guy I’ve always been.  The person the world expects of me.  The sitcom star.”

Dr. Ann shifted in her modern leather recliner and leaned in.

“I feel like this is going to be about really learning to love yourself.  Maybe for the first time.  Especially as you approach 40.”

“Who said anything about 40?”

I practically fell off the couch, doing mental calculations that the big event was still four years away—I was only 36, after all.

“In my experience, many of these issues around career and relationships become more intense as we start to think about our own mortality, especially those of us with aging parents.”

For one of the few times in my life, I was pretty much speechless, with no pithy comeback or laugh track to cover the pain.  I hadn’t even talked about my father’s illness.  Was Dr. Ann a touch psychic?

“Well, our time for today is up.  How do you feel about scheduling a regular appointment?”

“Um, sure.  I guess I could come the same time on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  Twice a week, right?”

Dr. Ann smiled slightly.

“This time around, I think you’ll do fine with just one time a week.”

On the schlep back home across two avenues and up a 160 blocks, I couldn’t help thinking that Dana was right—Dr. Ann wasn’t going to let a big sitcom character like me get away with anything.  But by the time I reached 40, I hoped she might help me chart a new path for myself in the Big Apple while learning to love myself.  One thing was for certain—my session with Dr. Ann had planted a seed for the title of my sitcom life as Gary Tyler Moore: 40, Love.  Had a certain ring to it.

Next on 40, Love:

After a near meltdown with Christie Brinkley, Jon Paul is tasked with the impossible.  “We want consumers to believe that eating Fritos is healthy!”

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