Gone Today, Here Tomorrow: A Memoir by Topangan Randy Neece

From Vol. 31 No. 17
8/23/2007 – 9/5/2007

Gone Today, Here Tomorrow: A Memoir by Topangan Randy Neece

by Lee Michaelson

Thursday, August 16, will mark the release of a new book that by all odds should never have been written. A book authored by a mensch of a man whom, had fate run what seemed to be its course, none of us here in Topanga should ever have gotten to know.

By all rights (if such a word can even be used in this context), by January 1996, Randall Neece should have been dead of AIDS, or more precisely, one of the many cruelly devastating bouts of opportunistic infections that beset him unrelentingly from the time his HIV status, discovered in 1988, developed into full-blown AIDS in 1993. That is, if he hadn’t taken his own life with a Seconal overdose before then in order to spare himself the misery and indignity of constant disabling illness and his partner for life Joe Timko the burden of tending him as he literally disintegrated.

By that point, Neece had lost so many of his friends to the so-called “gay plague” that he was left to wonder if there would be anyone left but family to attend his funeral. As it turned out, his worries were both ill-placed and premature.

Through a combination of faith, love, and perseverance – and perhaps a measure of plain dumb luck – Neece lasted long enough to see the arrival of the AIDS drug cocktails. In four weeks after starting on a Saquinavir-based cocktail in March 1996, Neece, who by that point literally had one foot in the grave, saw his viral load plummet from 580,000 to zero, news that seemed miraculous at the time. His nearly non-existent T-cell count had quadrupled from 12 to 48. His battle with AIDS would not be over, but now there was hope for something more than one debilitating round of illness after another. Now there was hope for creating a life.

That’s how it came to pass that in 1998 Neece and Timko moved to the Canyon and created Canyon View Training Ranch for Dogs, a business that has contributed heavily to local charities while totally redefining the way most of us understand the term “kennel.” It’s how countless Canyon hounds have come to learn their “Ps” and “Qs,” find human and canine companionship while owners are away, and also have their lives saved through Canyon View’s free annual Rattlesnake Avoidance Workshops. It’s also how Randy Neece came to join Topanga Coalition for Emergency Preparedness (T-CEP), where he energetically helped Topangans network their neighborhoods, receiving a T-CEP Volunteer Award in recognition of his efforts last year.

And it’s also how Neece came to write Gone Today, Here Tomorrow. Billed as a memoir, the book is equally a love story. Neece tells the tale of growing up in a conservative Quaker household in Granada Heights, California, and his struggle to deal with his sense of “difference” as an adolescent coming of age in the oh-so-straight, small town, Southern California sixties.

For lesbian and gay readers, Neece’s story of coming out, first to himself, then to friends, and finally to his (not initially accepting) family will seem all too familiar. Straight readers have no need to fear uncomfortable gay sex scenes, however. A fairly innocent game of swimming trunks tug-o-war with a likeminded pal as a thirteen-year old is about as graphic as things get.

What will resonate for many readers of all backgrounds is the emptiness of one-night stands, and Neece’s search for true love, which he ultimately found in 1983 in the arms of Timko, a transplanted Jersey-boy who had moved to Laguna after a stint as a ski instructor and blackjack dealer inLake Tahoe. By the time they met, and fell in love at first sight, Timko was working in aquarium maintenance and Neece (who had gotten his break as a sitcom director while working as a driver for Norman Lear) was working his way up the ladder inHollywoodgame show production.

Neece’s professional career alternated between game show development and the production of educational videos for Kaiser. Over the years, he produced and directed more than a dozen game shows for CBS, NBC, Lifetime Television, the Family Channel, and for syndication. He is the recipient of more than 20 national and international awards, including an Emmy Award for the AIDS drama Secrets, winner for Outstanding Achievement, Children or Youth Special, and Best for Show for his drama In Anyone’s Heart, from the Health Communications Association.

One of the projects on which Neece worked with Kaiser in 1988 was AIDS Encounters, a video to help physicians deal with issues surrounding HIV and AIDS, breaking the news to patients that they were HIV positive, discussing safer sex with gay patients, and related issues. The project went on to win numerous awards, and Kaiser was so proud to have its name on the project that they released it to hospitals and doctors all over the country.

At the time, Neece had no idea that he might one day be on the receiving end of a positive HIV test result. From the time they began living together in 1983, and committed themselves in a personal marriage ceremony (regrettably still not legally binding inCalifornia) five years later before friends and some relatives, Neece and Timko had remained faithful to one another. So when word of AIDS-related deaths among gay men began to spread, the couple believed they were safe. No one knew at the time that the virus could lie dormant for years.

On the eve of his wedding, while applying for an upgrading life insurance policy, Neece got the bad news. He was HIV positive. Fortunately, Timko was not infected. At first, Neece argued for calling off the wedding, but Joe insisted that “now it’s even more important than ever to celebrate our life together.” The pair ended up tying the knot at their doctor’s home.

Neece maintained his health without incident for the next couple of years, attempting to build up his savings as much as possible against the prospect of impending medical bills or prolonged disability. In the interim, he focused his energy on his educational work, putting out another four-part series for Kaiser, Now That You Know, covering a range of topics from emotional issues to medical information for people of various backgrounds infected with HIV. Kaiser donated a set of the tapes, and a compassion booklet, to every nonprofit AIDS organization in the country.

While Neece continued to grapple with his own diagnosis, he lost his mother to a rare blood disease (myelofibrosis), as well as one of his closest friends, John Watson, to AIDS complications. Neece never told his mother of his HIV status, not wanting to burden her, but spent hours by her hospital bedside, as well as tending his friend. By 1991, Neece’s own T-cell count began to dip, and he began treatment with AZT.

In Neece’s own words, “For just about everyone starting on AZT, the first three or four weeks were usually horrendous, like having the most intense flu imaginable. I didn’t have any symptoms of HIV at the time, so taking AZT was like going to the dentist for a simple routine cleaning and walking out with three root canals and all four wisdom teeth pulled. Miserable didn’t come close to describing how I felt. The hardest part was swallowing pill after pill, knowing that it was going to make me feel even worse, and never knowing when, or if, it was ever going to let up.”

Neece continued to maintain his career as he broke the news of his HIV-status to his sister, his father, and his Uncle John, seeking their understanding and their help in the event he was no longer able to support himself and his partner as his medical condition grew worse.

In 1993, Neece took off on the terrifying roller coaster ride that is full-blown AIDS. As Joe entertained guests visiting theirLaurelCanyonhome for an August afternoon barbeque, Neece found he could not keep up; his fever was rising precipitously, he was drenched in sweat, and he could not stop coughing. Timko wrapped Neece in blankets and rushed him to the hospital where he received the diagnosis: pneumosystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), an opportunistic infection of full-blown AIDS.

From that point on, Neece’s life was in a downhill spiral, best described in the book itself. Apart from the physical misery of constant illness and the side effects of the drugs used to treat those illnesses, there was the loss of his career, his livelihood, his identity as a self-sufficient and independent provider.

Other books have described the pain and loss of this terrible disease. Two things make Neece’s book truly different. First, while readers of late have been feted with so many stories of protagonists who face their impending deaths with stoic dispassion, Neece in the poet’s words, does “not go gentle into that good night.” Not only does he “rage against the dying of the light,” he kicks, screams, cries, pounds his fists, and at times outright bitches and moans. Through all this, Neece writes with remarkable courage, unflinchingly exposing his own shortcomings in the process. While his story illuminates the triumph of faith and love, he is quick to share his own moments of doubt, selfishness, and negativity. Indeed, unlike the authors of many a memoir, Neece makes no effort to make himself the hero of his own tale. If there is a knight in shining armor, Neece puts the spotlight on Timko who is constantly by his side with a word of hope or cheer, who gives up his own job to nurse Neece at home through fevers and infections from which Neece mercifully spares the reader the gory details. It is Timko who time and again dissuades Neece from ending it all, and Timko who, after Neece unpredictably becomes sick enough one night to have to drive himself to the hospital while Timko is seeking a brief respite from Neece’s nagging complaints in a few games of pool, leaves his broken pool cue in the bathroom with a note begging forgiveness and promising never again to leave his side even for a moment. In putting so much focus on the roles of his life partner and friends in helping him make it through, Neece shows the kind of man he is, but he perhaps gives too little weight to his personal courage, leaving it to the reader to remember, in spite of all his shortcomings, just how much valor it takes simply to keep putting one foot in front of the other, day-after-day, in the face of chronic illness.

Second, in other books, AIDS has always had the final word. “Gone Today, Here Tomorrow marks the next phase in the evolution of the AIDS narrative,” writes Barbara Meltzer. “If Paul Monette, activist and author of Borrowed Time, An AIDS Memoir, gave the pain of loss to the disease its most enduring and beautiful expression, Randy Neece does the same for the joy and wonder, as well as the guilt, of surviving it.”

Neece even has a name for it – the Lazarus Syndrome, that “weighed upside-down cake of emotions…that comes of having been raised from the dead.” Here Neece sat, hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt on his credit cards (which would have been no problem had he actually died, but was a big problem now that he was alive and expected to pay them), with no job and unlikely to get a job in his profession as he was uninsurable. He was no longer at death’s door, but had no idea how long that would last; he did know he was still weak from years of being sick, and a routine of 48 pills a day added to his nausea and fatigue.

How does one go about rebuilding a life? ┬áIn a nutshell, Neece’s friends in Hollywood get him a couple of stints in the director’s chair by enlisting the aid of a back-up director named Chris Darley; by Neece’s account, having Darley back him up was like having Pavarotti back up Barry Manilow, but it enabled the producers to get insurance. Which was fortunate, because Neece had a few more bouts with AIDS-related infections while the show was in production. Nonetheless, he was able to get his credit straightened up.

Second, while Neece had been ill, he and Timko had adopted a show-quality Tibetan terrier named Max, and later, a mate for him named Hello Dalai. Timko proved so adept at training and showing dogs that in 1998, he and Max took Best of Breed at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show inNew York’sMadisonSquareGarden. Recognizing Timko’s skill and passion for training animals, Neece had encouraged him to apprentice under aSan Diegodog trainer. On the way home fromWestminster, Timko and Neece envisioned opening their own training and kennel facility.

After checking out several kennels for sale in the general area (of which Neece writes, “Alcatraz had more charm.”), Neece decided that what he had in mind was not “putting dogs behind bars with a pail of water in the corner,” but rather, “Disneyland for dogs.” “Clients would drive up a long tree-lined driveway and we could create large lawns and playgrounds all around so the dogs could run and play together all day.”

They put their own home on the market (which sold quickly), and with their own five dogs in tow, made their way to Topanga. The realtor told them, “TopangaCanyonis home to about six thousand people and ten thousand dogs,” so they knew they were in the right place.

They found a two-story house on Will Geer Road, surrounded by acres of dry scrub brush and breathtaking 360-degree views of the Canyon. Neece and Timko moved in three weeks later, and poured thousands of hours of sweat equity into the place, which began attracting celebrity clients and soon caught the eye of the media. Soon, Canyon View Training Ranch for Dogs was being featured by Time Magazine, Dog Fancy, National Geographic Explorer, Animal Planet, Access Hollywood, MTV and VH-1. Many clients would drive off saying, “Gee, the dog is staying in a nicer place than we are!”

It wasn’t until after they moved in that they learned that the place was zoned for no more than three dogs and that they would have to apply for a conditional use permit to build their kennel. By the time their application came up for a hearing, County officials were impressed by the number of neighbors and clients who turned out in their support, says Neece. “‘Nobody ever shows up to support a kennel,’ one of them told me,” he added.

Several of their Topanga friends and neighbors – among them, Susan Nissman, Pat and Jack MacNeil, Bill Buerge and Gail McDonald Tune, Roger Altenbach and Dawn Simmons, and Penny Chavez – ventured out toWest Hollywoodon August 16 to join Neece in the launch party celebrating his new book. The book can also be purchased through online booksellers.

Neece’s viral load remains at zero. The couple, who celebrated their twentieth anniversary at the ranch in 2003, continues to actively support the Topanga community while looking ahead toward their eventual retirement.