We Really (really) Had It All

To borrow from Lin-Manual Miranda, it was a bit of a weekend*.

Ten long months ago (looooong months ago), I’d been among the throngs of people hovered over their laptops and Ticketmaster apps to press the “Search for Tickets” button at exactly 10:00 on a Thursday morning in December with the hopes of getting to see Adele in concert. Amazingly, I got through and was able to secure tickets for the four of us to attend her final show in Toronto.

Thus began the waiting. And the secrecy. Nick and I knew ten months would be an eternity for the girls, so we deliberately kept knowledge of the concert from them until an unexpected Adele radio moment last month where we caved and told Ella and Annie that what they thought was merely a weekend getaway to Toronto was more than just seeing the sights.

(Cue ebullient mayhem.)

Ana so, at long, long last, after wondering if after all these (months) we’d be like to meet…
img_7319Giddy outside the Air Canada Centre.

This was the Ella and Annie’s first concert (okay, first real concert; they did see the Laurie Berkener Band when they were about 1.5 and 3.5) and, after having watched 738 YouTube videos of other Adele performances, we knew it would be one helluva show, an experience that would be hard to top.

We never dreamed it would become a once-in-a-lifetime event.

We arrived at the Air Canada Centre with plenty of time to settle in. Knowing the kiddos would be uber-tired by the end of the night (and that we wouldn’t want to leave mid-show to shop), I took the girls to check out the souvenirs before the show. When we made it to the front of the line, Ella and I quickly chose t-shirts. Annie hemmed and hawed, saying that she wanted the black notebook tucked in the glass case and “a pencil.” Because pencils were only available by the $25 package and the notebook cost $40, I told her she would have to choose one or the other (even with the exchange rate, $65 for pencils and some paper wasn’t happening).

She chose the notebook.

As the woman who was helping us brought the book out of the case, the employee standing next to her leaned over and beckoned me close so I could hear him. In a whisper, he told me, “You’ve selected a unique and special item. Open the first page.”

My stomach immediately jolted. Why would he have us check the page if nothing was there? Holy shit. WHAT WAS THERE??? There was no way – NO WAY – that Adele had anything to do with that page… Omg…

My hands actually began to shake as I handed the notebook to Annie. “Open it!” I barked, startling her (apparently, my “filled with excitement and anticipation” voice sounds a lot like my, “you’re in deep doodoo” voice). She did… revealing what looked to be a signature.

Adele’s signature.

“Oh my God, Annie. Oh my God. OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD.” (We typically ask the girls to say “Oh my gosh” and try to do the same ourselves, but in this case, all bets were off.)

As she stared reverently at her autographed notebook, I handed over my credit card, half expecting the employees to tell us that our “unique and special item” cost $400, not $40… but no. They rang the transaction up as if nothing had happened. Growing skeptical, I asked the woman who was bagging up our shirts, “Is this for real??”

Again, the man beside her answered. “It is. She signed five of them after the VIP event this afternoon and we’re selling them randomly around the arena. See? They even have today’s date. Your daughter made a lucky choice.”

img_7321Posing before the show with the world’s luckiest notebook.

I’m not sure that the girls fully appreciated the incredibleness of this (although my near-hyperventilating probably clued them in), but it certainly caused us all to be in a state of wonder as the concert began.

And the concert itself? Adele, live and in person and singing and talking and laughing that marvelous cackle?
Breathtaking. Hilarious. Astounding. Powerful. Triumphant. Joyful.

Amazing. Just… amazing.

We had floor seats and assumed the rest of the floor-goers would remain seated for most of the concert. HAHAHA. For a few songs, Adele actually instructed us to park our tushes and sit, but for the rest? FULL ON STANDING for the entire show… which meant that Ella and Annie could see nothing but the shoulders of the people in front of us for the entire show.

We attempted to stand the girls on their folding chairs, making sure they weren’t taller than the folks behind us… but, since we were on the end of the row and, thus, easily accessible, the security guards put the kibosh on that quickly (By contrast, the family in the middle of the row ahead of us stood their children on chairs the whole time.) “Our” security guard (Richard) couldn’t have been nicer, explaining he felt terrible our kids couldn’t see; it was just a safety issue. It was frustrating to have the rules enforced only for those within reach, but we understood and readily complied.

Making the best of things, we watched Adele on the overhead screens and held the girls whenever possible. Midway through the show, as Adele made her way to the small, closer, middle-of-the-floor-seats stage from which she’d emerged at the beginning, Richard tapped my shoulder. “Would your girls like to come with me to a spot where they can see a little better?”

Um. YES?!?

Annie and Ella would later tell us they were brought to a clearing closer to the small stage, offering an unobstructed view. At the time, we had no idea where they were, only that Richard was in charge. Every so often, he’d catch our eye and give us the thumbs-up that all was well; we trusted that it was. Several songs later, the girls returned to us, all smiles.

Ninety-or-so minutes after she began, Adele disappeared from the small stage. Richard confirmed that she wasn’t quite finished, silently holding up two fingers and mouthing, “Two more!”

We were enjoying the penultimate number (“When We Were Young”) when yet another security guard tapped me on the shoulder. “Would your children like to see the last song from the front of the stage?”

The girls were actually hesitant – the stage was pretty far away – but when you’re offered the chance to see Adele from the freakin’ best spot in the arena, you do not turn it down. That said, I had no idea how we’d find them in the mad crush when the concert ended so I, too, became hesitant. Sensing my uncertainty, the guard leaned in again. “Mom, you’d be coming, too!”

Oh. In that case? LET’S GO!!

I took a moment to confirm with the guard that Nick was also welcome (yes), and then, t-shirts and notebook and bags in hand, we began following her down the outer aisle of the floor, past row after row… after row… after row. I kept saying aloud to the girls, “I can hardly breathe. Oh my God, oh my God. I can’t believe it! I can hardly breathe.” They probably thought I was insane.

When, finally, we reached a temporary barrier approximately ten rows from the front, we stopped… but were beckoned on by the security guard, who adroitly pushed the gate aside and continued to make her way ahead. When we reached the seeming end of the aisle several feet from the barriers in front of the stage and, again, it seemed we could go no further, the guard asked other people to move out of the way and told us to keep going.

And when we reached the metal barriers immediately in front of the stage and, again, it seemed we could go no further, the guards physically moved the people who were already standing there, instructing, “Let these little girls in!”

What alternate reality is this???

Thus it was that we found as close as humanly possible to Adele (without being on the stage) as she sang “Rolling in the Deep” for her final encore. Nick kept back a few yards, not wanting to crowd the space, while I remained near enough to the girls so when all hell broke loose at the show’s conclusion, I could easily locate them… which meant when Adele walked by and waved, she looked all three of us directly in the eye and smiled.

We made eye contact with Adele and she SMILED AT US.

So basically, we were privately serenaded by Adele.


img_7353Ella with her iPod to record this mind-boggling turn of events.

img_7355Annie waving madly to Adele – WHO FREAKIN’ WAVED BACK.

img_7357AND THEN ADELE WAVED AT ME. And I died and went to heaven right then and there.

No, for real – see?!

img_7363House lights on: final goodbye before the confetti cannons exploded.

On our way out, we made sure to pass Richard and thank him for – well, for making it the best concert imaginable. I have no idea what prompted him to do everything in his power to give us such an unbelievable night, but I am ridiculously grateful and awed that he did.

Although the girls managed to fall asleep almost as soon as their heads hit their pillows, I was up for at least three more hours, running on adrenaline and shock and kettle corn. Had that really happened? The notebook? Finally hearing Adele in person? Being escorted to the front? It seemed impossible… and yet, there it was. Videos and photos on my phone, confetti in my purse, smile plastered to my face.

The girls’ concert bar has now been set so high, they’ll likely never even glimpse it again. But that’s okay. For one night, we really had it all.

* this was actually two weekends ago, but life got in the way and so… here we are

Grease: Live Is The Word

We all have Those Movies: the ones we obsessively watch whenever we catch them on TV, no matter how many times we’ve seen them or who needs dinner. Grease is one of Those Movies for me.

I don’t remember when I first saw Grease; by high school, I’d memorized it. There was – and remains – little about it that I didn’t positively adore, from Sandy’s accent to Danny’s cool, sideways smile; Rizzo’s knock-you-dead-with-one-look glances; the outfits, the dancing…

Oh. And the music. THE MUSIC! I put “Summer Nights” and “We Go Together” on mix tapes. When I was feeling particularly dramatic, I’d theatrically walk around our yard and belt out “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” (no joke). Last spring, when I announced to friends via Facebook that I would love to have a lip sync battle party, I even recorded myself lip syncing to “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” (Nope, no video here; you’ll just have to imagine the awesomeness.)
Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 11.55.33 PM

Grease isn’t just the word, yo. Grease is my jam.

So I was both excited and apprehensive for Fox’s Grease: Live, which aired last night. I thought it would be neat to see it in a new format, but I was also nervous they’d screw it up – and, not only would it pale in comparison to the original, it would just be a mess.

Still, Grease is Grease, so there was no choice but to watch.

I’ll just cut to the chase: It. Was. Fantastic.
More than that – it was sort of mind-blowing.

I might even have liked it more than the movie.

I won’t officially “review” it (you’re welcome) – if you head to Google, there are dozens of those. I will say I was insanely jealous of the studio audience; I loved the tongue-in-cheek/inside-joke references; seeing Didi Conn and Barry Pearl don their original Pink Lady and T-Bird jackets was pure nostalgic glee; Boyz II Men made me ridiculously happy; the cast’s diversity was just stupendous; and I thought “Hopelessly Devoted To You” and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” were knocked out of the park.

It wasn’t perfection, of course. Some so-so acting, singing that didn’t compare to the original, sound/technical glitches. I saw them, sure.

Overall, though, those were such small “issues” that I hardly noticed.
What I DID notice was how utterly spectacular the production was. The sets were so clever, the girls and I marveled over them during commercial breaks. The costume changes were imaginative and lightning fast; we were floored. The choreography and cinematography were SO DAMNED GOOD, especially for the finale.

This Yahoo review sums that part up perfectly:

This ten-minute sequence included complex, expertly executed choreography, set changes, costume changes, crowd work, the presence of American military (?), DRONE FOOTAGE, curtain calls, and was possibly one of the more rousing TV celebrations ever filmed. And they did it LIVE. Again, the scope and ambition on display were only outdone by the sincere emotions onscreen, and the incredible effect it had on me as a viewer.

The LIVE aspect of this cannot be overstated. We were continually astonished by the breadth and depth of the production, saying aloud, “How did they DO that??” It was SO big, SO creative, SO daring. Knowing that it was live – that anything could happen – added the perfect element of nervous excitement (you’ve gotta admit – seeing that golf cart nearly bite it at the end was pretty wild).

And that, I think, is the first reason why this production resonated with me: it was beyond anything I’d ever imagined on television. We were watching something extraordinary; history being made. Whereas so much of what makes modern media great is, well, its modernness – 3D and CGI and other technical stuff – Grease: Live was made spectacular simply through imagination, hard work, ridiculous planning and precision and practice, and a go-for-broke attitude, all part of director Tommy Kail’s tremendous vision. When I showed Nick my favorite scenes, I wasn’t raving about the special effects or the actors’ Emmy-worthy performances; instead, I showed him the finale and “Freddy My Love” so he could see how impressive the sets and staging were. (He was duly impressed.)

Which brings me to my second reason for so thoroughly loving this show: it was a spectacle. As I’ve said before, I’m big on ceremony. I love pomp and circumstance and pageantry and huge, sappy gestures. Whether it’s the Olympics, the Tonys, the Super Bowl, Presidential inaugurations, soldier homecomings, “We Are The World”, or a flashmob wedding proposal — the more people who come together to joyfully celebrate something, the more I am ALL IN.
Would you look how excited these guys were when they finished? How can you not love that??

Grease: Live also contained one of my favorite forms of entertainment: a peek behind the scenes. When I was a little girl and lucky enough to go to Broadway shows, my mom made sure we sat in the front row of the balcony so she could point out the marks on stage and we could see the orchestra, the actors behind the curtains, etc. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Likewise, I got such a thrill glimpsing the cameras on Grease:Live, watching Vanessa Hudgens take a group selfie, and seeing how Keke Palmer’s ultra-fast costume change happened. For me, those details don’t take away from the effectiveness or power of the production; they add to it. In this case, they helped fuel my belief that we were witnessing one helluva television feat.

The final reason why Grease: Live really hit home for me was completely unexpected: watching it with my girls was just the best. I hadn’t planned for us to watch it together; at 9 and 11, they’re too young for the material of the original, and I assumed the same would be true here. But then I read that Fox changed some of the racier lyrics (ditching “sh*t” and “p*ssy” is probably wise when it comes to prime time) and they were aiming for a “family friendly” show, so I decided to give it a go.

(Fox and I must disagree on what constitutes “family friendly” because the broken condom and Rizzo’s pregnancy scare were still in last night’s production [this isn’t a problem or a complaint – they’re integral to the plot line; I just wouldn’t normally choose to show Ella and Annie a story where multiple sexual partners play a critical role], so my girls saw a slightly censored version…)

At first, they weren’t enthusiastic. “Why do we have to watch this stupid musical?” I told them to give it a few minutes; then they could go elsewhere.

They never moved.

By the time I sent them to bed with an hour remaining in the broadcast, they were absolutely hooked, with Ella yelling, “THANK GOD!” when I told her I was recording it and they could see the rest tomorrow.

It wasn’t just that they liked it; these are kids who think watching America’s Funniest Home Videos on YouTube is quality entertainment, so I take their “approval” with a grain of salt. No, they felt it; they got it. Ella understood the show’s humor immediately and was “in” on all the jokes, which was such a hoot. (Her raised eyebrows when Principal McGee announced she was “looking for a place to build a bomb shelter with enough room for almost everyone” were priceless. “ALMOST everyone??”)

Annie was so into Sandy and Danny, so rooting for them. “But Mom! He didn’t want to dance with Cha Cha! HE STILL LIKES SANDY. Omg, WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THEM??” It was hilarious and sweet and fantastic.

Also unexpectedly, I found myself thinking about the musical’s message. Turns out, it’s kinda awful (I mean, the underlying “moral is: Change your appearance and give up your values to get a man, right?!). And yet, as I found myself analyzing the plot and the characters in ways I hadn’t before, I discovered why I liked the story so much all those years ago.

Kids! They make you do the darndest things.

Plus, there was still the music. Even if the vocals were lackluster at times  – and tremendous at others – the songs remain the same. They’re infectious and timeless. Sharing all of it with Annie and Ella was, in a word, wonderful.

Since I don’t remember the first time I saw the movie Grease, I don’t know if I experienced similar euphoria upon watching it. Maybe I did. Or maybe it just grew on me; hard to say. I don’t know how Grease: Live will hold up over time. Perhaps I’ll be just as awed by it in ten years. Or perhaps this feeling will fade and I’ll discover the production doesn’t carry its weight; its success was in the spectacle.

Either way, I doubt I’ll forget how it felt last night to be a part of it, to sing along, to watch my girls joining in the celebration.

Grease was definitely the way we were feeling.

Just subbing again this year? Nope.

“Are you looking for a full-time job, or are you just subbing again?”

It’s a reasonable question, and one that I get asked quite frequently. Friends and family – even acquaintances or parents of the girls’ friends – know that I used to be a teacher and that I began subbing a year ago. They also know that I had looked for months for a music teaching position but that none had been available, so I applied as a substitute. I was thrilled to be back in the classroom, but remained somewhat disheartened that I was “only” subbing instead of teaching my own group of students. Hence, last year, the answer to the question was some version of, “Yep, still looking – but for now, just subbing.”

This year, my answer has changed only ever-so-slightly, but the meaning behind it has shifted dramatically. “Yep, still looking – but actually, I’m very happily subbing!”

The exclamation point is important, ’cause I’m gonna tell you a secret that not many people recognize: subbing is awesome.

With all due respect to the hilarious Dave Barry, I swear I am not making this up.

First, some caveats. If my family was relying on my income to make ends meet, substitute teaching would not be the best way to put a roof over our heads because it is inherently unreliable. You are not guaranteed work, instead waiting for other people to become ill or be absent, so – short of poisoning the water of local teachers’ homes – your salary (and I use that term loosely) is really inconsistent.

Second, if my family’s schedule did not allow for any variability – if it had to be set in stone and not budge – subbing would be a really poor fit. Barring a long-term gig like I had last spring, subbing means that no two weeks are alike, so your “schedule” (such as it were) is bound to be constantly changing, oftentimes not materializing until that morning.

Thankfully, my family does not need to rely on my income to pay the bills, and I am fortunate enough to have supportive and flexible folks in my life who can help put all of the pieces into place, even at six a.m.

But wait, there’s more!

All ready to go this morning…

Substitute teaching isn’t just about avoiding the negatives; it has its own set of really stupendous positives, many of which I didn’t even realize before I began subbing last fall. Sure, on the one hand, each day and school are different. Your hours aren’t the same, you might be five minutes from home or twenty, you have to learn the ins and outs of each school where you teach. But on the other hand? The hours aren’t the same! No up at 6:00, out of the house by 7:00, home by 4:30 if you’re lucky drudgery. No mind-numblingly similar commute every single day. Because each school operates differently than the last and each school’s culture is uniquely its own, you have the privilege of getting to know all of them. Plus, each time you sub, you’re doing something new, so it’s virtually impossible to get bored. How cool is that??

Subbing is like being a grandparent: all of the fun but almost none of the stress. You know that ridiculous amount of extra teaching stuff that makes it so exhausting? Doesn’t happen when you’re a sub! I arrive when I’m told to and depart when I’m done teaching. Lesson plans and grading? Nope. I just follow the plans in front of me and leave the rest when I go. There are no faculty meetings to attend, no field trips to proctor, no parent-teacher conferences to prepare for. But working with kids, watching them get those ah-ha moments, introducing a new concept, trying to reach the one student who seems unreachable? Absolutely!
And then I go home.

When you’re a “regular” teacher, you work with the same kids day in and day out. Even as a music teacher, although I had well over a hundred – sometimes well over three hundred – students on my roster, I still saw the same faces each week. This is great, of course, for building relationships and establishing continuity, and you do really get to know a particular age group quite intimately, but it does mean that you’re only working with one cross-section of kiddos. Subbing, I get to work with everyone – kindergarteners to seniors, individual saxophone lessons to entire orchestras, a sixth grade homeroom to third grade reading, students classified as gifted and those with special needs. Absolutely everyone is included, every age and class size and ability and race and socioeconomic status, and that is exciting as heck.

It’s also challenging, but in the best way, that Oh wow, I hadn’t thought about it like that before way where your brain almost hurts afterward – but it’s a good kind of pain. Teaching twenty-five first graders how to add doubles calls on way different skills and resources than teaching fifty tenth graders how to play that symphonic section adagio or teaching six ELA middle schoolers how to decode a sentence — and you guys, there is something so freakin’ exhilarating about having to use different parts of my brain, having to think outside the box, and having to do it on a dime. Growing up, I was one of those dorks people who adored learning, especially if it was a fast-paced lesson, and that’s what subbing is like every single day.

Learning? you say; I thought you were teaching. Well, yes, of course, but as everyone knows (they do, right?), one of the best ways to be a good teacher is to be a good learner, and I am learning so damned much in these classrooms – in a different way than I did as a “regular” teacher. Then, I learned the ins and outs of middle school music and it was wonderful – truly – but now I’m learning about teaching, period. I had never conducted a high school band before I subbed, but let me tell you, when you have a hundred impatient teenagers staring at you as they await instruction that will help them prepare for next month’s concert, you figure it out fast. I’ve been shown games to help beginning readers, seen classroom management techniques that had never crossed my mind, and heard songs from across the globe that I’d never known existed. Yes, I’m teaching… but I’m also getting the best education of my life.

And that whole unpredictable, no-set-schedule thing? Amazeballs. Subbing is ridiculously flexible. Because I am fortunate enough to not have to work every day in order to support my family, I get to pick and choose. One week, maybe I’m available Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday; the week after that, perhaps Monday and Thursday only. If I only want to work a half-day, that can be arranged. If I need to leave a little early for an appointment, no worries; they’re grateful to have me anyway. Until I actually accept a job, I’m never locked in – if my schedule has changed but I still receive a call, I simply say, “Sorry – I’m no longer available that day!” and no one thinks a thing of it. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Today’s job began late enough that I could still take my morning walk with the dogs… and the girls. ‘Tis the mark of a good situation, my friends.

Best of all, I’m teaching. I’m back in the classroom, back with kids, back to what I feel called to do. From the moment I walk in those doors to the moment I turn in my ID badge, I come alive and give it everything I have. Sometimes, all I’m asked to do is clerical work – making copies, cutting out decorations, sorting papers – which is not exactly teaching, nor why I applied for this job, but you know what? I totally don’t mind. For one thing, I’m no dummy; if I can get paid to hang bulletin boards, sign me up! But beyond that, I know that I’m helping teachers do their jobs better. For each stack of homework that I file into take-home folders, a teacher is gaining extra time with her students, for his grading, for their professional development. Sign me up for that, too!

When I am in the classroom working with those kiddos, there’s nothing better (professionally, I mean; I do love hanging out with my own kiddos and seeing a movie with my husband and a mean Sauvingon Blanc and a Salted Caramel Mocha… sorry, where was I?). It used to be that I was irked at my subbing status, embarrassed even. It was only what I was doing temporarily, what I felt forced to do because what I wanted – my own classroom – wasn’t available. Each of those early times that I subbed, I felt compelled to explain myself to other teachers, to let them know I’d spent years in the classroom and why I decided to sub, to prove that I wasn’t just some wannabe who couldn’t get herself a “real” job. I wasn’t ashamed, but I was definitely defensive.

Now, a year in, I’m completely content with my decision and my position as a substitute teacher. I don’t need to prove myself – I just need to continue doing the best that I can and let my teaching speak for itself. At the end of the day, I leave the classroom feeling solid about myself and the job I’ve done.

We – all of us, society as a whole – need good substitute teachers. We need our children to receive excellent educations and to be taught by excellent teachers, but those teachers simply cannot be in their classrooms every minute of every day. When they’re gone, it does little good to hire people who cannot be counted on to take their places effectively. Subs play a critical role in education; good subs are even more important. Not to toot my own horn (HONK), but… I’m a good sub.

I’m no longer on the defensive; in fact, I’m proud of what I do. Don’t get me wrong – if a “regular” music position opened up, I’d still go for it. But right now, I’m thrilled with being a sub. It keeps me on my toes, it makes me think, it teaches me more than I thought possible. I’m out there, back in the classroom with kids, making a difference while still being able to make the difference that I want to in my own daughters’ lives. And let’s face it – the hours can’t be beat.

So, no. I’m not just subbing again. I’m subbing again because it is exactly where I want to be.
And I love it.

Sun coming up over the hills. Which I still get to see, because I get to pick and choose my own schedule, because subbing is the bomb.




A Camazing

So, you know how, when you were a kid, there were those things you were so excited for, you could hardly stand the anticipation? Your birthday (oh please please please let me get that Cabbage Patch doll and also could my best friend sit by me at the party because otherwise the universe will be out of alignment)… Christmas (IT’S CHRISTMAS EVE SANTA IS COMING OMG OMG OMG!!!!)… Summer vacation (there is NO. MORE. SCHOOL and I will eat push-pops and wear Jams and be filthy dirty all day long)… Grandma’s house (ARE WE THERE YET? ARE WE THERE YET?? ARE WE THERE YET???)… the latest episode of Family Ties (now that Mallory is dating Nick, this is gonna be awesome!)… when your parents finally allowed you to watch Dirty Dancing even though it was PG-13 (anyone who interrupts me watching Baby be put in a corner can suck it)…

The excitement was practically tangible; you thought you might crawl out of your skin, with each moment of the day ticking by at a glacial pace (especially if you were in algebra – or maybe that’s just me). And then you worried that The Big Thing, whatever you’d been waiting on and hoping for and dreaming about in your mind, wouldn’t live up to your expectations. After all, you’d been imagining it for so long, how could it possibly?

My freshman year at college, I joined an a cappella group, the Conn Chords. I had little singing experience and certainly no great solo voice, but I could blend nicely and pick out harmonies like nobody’s business. I also had a decent ear for arranging, and wound up creating a whole bunch of arrangements for our group, eventually becoming the leader (or “pitch,” in a cappella geek terms).

Nick was in an a capella group, too, which is how we first wound up meeting (well, save for the second day of school where I might have droned obnoxiously on and on about my AP classes to our mutual college advisor… but that’s another story…). Without any sororities or fraternities, these fellow singers became our college families; our undergraduate experiences were not only deeply enriched, but took on entirely new purpose and meaning by belonging to our respective groups.

As music majors, we were already music geeks (you know, the ones who make jokes about violists and the length of Wagnerian operas and use “deceptive cadence” as sexual innuendo…. Okay, maybe you don’t know, but trust me, we did), but singing a cappella – and learning how to listen to a cappella songs – took our nerdiness to a whole new level. Blend and tone and breathing in sync and vowel matching and resolving dissonance and omg, that bass can actually hit a low C became a second language, and also second nature. I already found joy in a cappella music, but after college, I sought it out actively, hoping to come upon that perfect sound, that moment when the voices come together and everything opens up and your body relaxes and leaps simultaneously because it is just so damn fantastic.

Glee obviously helped bring a cappella into the mainstream, with movies like Pitch Perfect fueling the fire. But Nick’s and my very favorite celebration of a cappella awesomeness is the NBC reality show The Sing Off, which features voices and only voices. That the judges are actually competent and musically intelligent is a huge boon (plus, Nick Lachey’s awfully easy on the eyes), but the best part is the music – hearing how the groups have arranged their songs, listening for new and interesting approaches, reveling in those gorgeous and powerful sounds that only a cappella singing can offer.

The first two seasons were fine – good, actually – but the third season was like nothing we’d ever witnessed before, all because of five unbelievable performers: Pentatonix. I can’t begin to do them justice, to describe how their music fills the room despite only having five singers; how they sound absolutely and completely like a “real” band even though they’re only using their voices; how they push the bounds of arranging and create music that I’ve never even imagined, much less heard; how they fill the space within the chords so that the sound is deep and rich and lush, like a full-on choir; how their voices blend so utterly perfectly; how their control and pitch are out of this world; how ridiculously good each performer is; how every time I hear another of their songs, my jaw drops open in shock and amazement and unadulterated joy – and no, I’m not even kidding, I watch them and my jaw drops. open.

They are ridiculous. They are sublime. They are making music that has never been made before, that none of us has ever heard before. They are fun. They are so freakin’ young. They possess more talent than the vast, vast majority of successful musicians and bands out there. They make me think and laugh, actually laugh out loud at the audacity of what they are attempting.  They make me smile.

Everything about Pentatonix makes me happy.

And so, after having adored them on The Sing Off, after watching each YouTube video clip 297 million times, after having purchased each of their songs, after having dissected their music with Nick a hundred times over, after reading their website every day and following them on every form of social media I can… when I learned that they would be performing in Buffalo, only a little more than an hour from us, I knew that we would need to attend.

There was no choice, really. Surely you understand.

I bought the tickets months ago from an online seller (after the show sold out almost immediately) and forced myself not to count the days until the big night. I knew that if I gave it too much thought, it would be Family Ties and Christmas and Cabbage Patch dolls all over again, and I’d hardly sleep a wink for weeks.

When yesterday finally arrived, that familiar wash of apprehension settled in. Could they possibly begin to live up to the hype? Could they truly be the most talented a cappella group in the history of ever? Could they really sound as good in person as they do online (yes, I know it’s a Christmas song, but it’s the best thing ever, so deal with it)?

The answer is no. They do not.
They sound even better.

Excuse the poor quality of the photos; I didn’t realize I could take my big camera with me and used my iPhone instead. I was also maybe yelling a lot.

Since I’d bought the tickets second hand, I wasn’t 100% certain where the seats were… but I thought they might be in the first row.
They were.
Yep, that’s them, only 20 feet from us.

Or maybe only seven feet from us.
Holla! Literally.

One of the speakers was positioned directly in front of us, and in addition to, you know, magnifying and projecting the sound in general, it also did a bang-up job of putting out the bass and percussion sounds – so bang-up, actually, that there were moments when my chest hurt because I could feel the vibrations so strongly.

Vibrations, mind you, that were caused by human voices.
Just because it’s a cappella doesn’t mean they can’t get down.
In an a cappellian way, of course. Yes, that’s a word. Because I said so.

Okay, so there was some cheating, because this guy, Kevin, beatboxes and plays the cello. Simultaneously.
I can forgive them this discretion.

But, aside from that performance and one delicious performance with the cello as a supporting player, the show was, indeed, a cappella. And it was freakin’ awesome.

Still rockin’ out during their final song, after the confetti and streamers had dropped (which, to quote this review, is basically “the a capella version of pyrotechnics”).

The crowd LOVED them, in that nerdy music geek way, shrieking like the Beatles had landed at the conclusion of each song. I may have yelled a bit myself.
Just joking with the crowd… We totally ate it up.

I think I’m old enough to be their mother, but I spent the evening pinching myself like a teenaged fangirl that we were hearing them, for real, and that they really were as amazing as the hype.

I did go rogue and break the official rules by videoing some of my favorite songs… but I won’t break the rules even further by posting the videos here. You can go to their YouTube site and check them out; what you’re hearing is no trick. There’s nothing added in. They really do sound like that.

I know, right?

It’s not often that our imaginations keep pace with reality, but in the case of Pentatonix, they more than met my expectations. The a cappella geek in me is awestruck. The music lover in me is satisfied. And the rest of me? I’m just damn freakin’ happy.

It’s been a (very) sweet trip

I came by my love of recorded media – movies, television, music – honestly. My great-grandfather, whose stage name was Colonel Stoopnagle, was something of a radio star back in the 1930s. He considered himself a wordsmith, and often did bits (and wrote books) showcasing the cleverness of the English language.

He also did print ads, like this (copy of) one that hangs in our bathroom. I’d like to think he would have gotten a kick out of looking over us on the loo. I imagine he also got a kick out of the apostrophe erroneously place in the word PROs; oh, the irony.

Stoopnagle’s son – my grandfather – spent his working career with a local Rochester television affiliate. A tinkerer who couldn’t stand to sit idle, he built a television set for the family (including my mom) in the days before you could easily go out and buy one. As I understand it, there wasn’t much to watch on said television, but hey – they were ready when things changed.

My mother, a theater major in college, loved all recorded media, and she shared that love with my brother and me. Her record collection was (is?) extensive, and although I know we had a car that played eight-tracks, the memory is distant, because we always ventured into new media technology as soon as it became available. When I was in the third grade, my mom picked up a friend and me from school (I was having the friend over – back then, there was no such thing as a “play date;” friends just “came over”), and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was playing from the stereo. Impressed (rock on, Mom!), I told her that I loved that song… and POP! she ejected the brand new “Thriller” cassette from the player on the dashboard. How funky and strong is my fight now?!

Similarly, while I imagine that we must have had Beta tapes, I don’t have specific memories of them because as soon as VHS became available, we were in. Not just for playing, either – for recording, too… except that independent hand-held VHS video cameras hadn’t come into play yet (although, the moment they did, you can bet we had them) – you had to tether the video camera to the VCR in order to record. For movies taken, say, in the living room where the television was, this wasn’t so bad. The recordings were live-streamed to the TV, which meant that our home movies feature the profiles of all of the video participants (i.e. me, my brother, our unwitting friends who’d come over for a birthday celebration) because we were enthralled with seeing ourselves on the TV screen – looking toward the camera was so not fun – but they were relatively easy to do, technically speaking. For anything more than, like, twenty feet from the TV, however, my dad would strap the VCR to his shoulder – yes, really, the entire VCR machine – and follow us around, video camera in-hand, tethered to the recorder.

Those were the days.

Having just one VCR was lovely – and I think, for a little while, that’s what we did – but it was limiting; all you could do was record from a single source and put it right on the tape. It didn’t take long, then, for us to acquire two VCRs, and for my mom to put them to good use. Sure, you could record things from two different televisions at the same time (which my mom continued to do right up until DVDs became the rage; more than once, I remember calling her from college – frantic – and asking her to please tape a crucial episode of Friends for me). But, more importantly, you could record from one VHS tape to another.

This was handy for creating home movies. No longer did we have to save entire school plays when all that my parents really wanted were the thirty seconds that my brother and I were visible from behind the towering third-graders; instead, the play was recorded onto one VHS tape and then – through the magic of more tethering – the crucial thirty seconds were recorded onto a second VHS tape. In this way, we were able to winnow down entire years’ worth of footage into bite-sized clips.

What I really remember, though, are the collections of show tunes that my mom culled together. I grew up in the era of mix tapes, but I think my mother may have invented the mix VHS. She would record a favorite movie musical off of the TV – The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, or Singin’ in the Rain – and then transfer just a snippet, maybe “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Make ‘Em Laugh”, onto another VHS tape, so that it contained clip after clip after clip of her most beloved songs and dances.

It wasn’t just movies, either. Any time there was music on the TV that was worthy of watching again, from songs performed at the Tony Awards to orchestral selections from Fourth of July celebrations (complete with fireworks) to bits and pieces from talk shows or even commercials, it went on the mix VHS collections. And this is how I so vividly remember Shirley Temple being a part of our lives.

I was introduced to Shirley so long ago that I don’t remember life without her; she came into our living room, beaming her dimpled smile at us and boing-ing her perfect curls, and dancing – oh, the dancing! – up a storm. She was adorable and sweet, sure, but it was really the dancing that had me hooked. How was it possible for someone that tiny to tap dance like that? I was in awe.

We watched her movies (which my mom had recorded from the TV onto VHS tapes) – The Little Colonel, Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Littlest Rebel, Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, The Blue Bird – and I loved them… but I was more interested in seeing the musical numbers – which was convenient, because my mom had them cued up on her VHS mixes.

Shirley Temple was just so stinkin’ fabulous, wasn’t she? Admonishing the kids in “Animal Crackers in my Soup” or bopping along the train in “On the Good Ship Lollipop”. She was charming and cute, an exuberantly dynamite little powerhouse who held her own against her adult co-stars. They held their own against her, too, simultaneously talking to her like a child (because, um, she was one) and treating her as their equal, undoubtedly fully aware that this ringleted moppet was the real reason so many people would flock to the theater.

I could have watched for hours (and probably did) as Shirley swished alongside Buddy Ebson in “At the Codfish Ball”, nimbly hopping on and off wooden crates while, you know, tap dancing – but not cutesy kid tap dancing, where you go Awwww, she’s pretty good for her age! but real tap dancing, where you go, DAMN! She holds her own against other hoofers! My very favorite, though, was whenever she would dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a man for whom a special place is reserved in the tap dancing pantheon. Here was this little – and I mean little, like seven year-old – girl, dancing brilliantly alongside a seasoned veteran… who happened to be Black. Yes, he played stereotypical roles for a Black man in the 1930s (in this case, most often a butler for white folks), but Shirley and Bojangles broke that color barrier (as the first white female and black male to dance onscreen together, fo’ real) and it was awesome.

Just try to watch the two of them dance up the stairs and not smile. No, really. Try it.

shirley and bojangles
I found this at this site and, even though it’s not from a movie set, I love it. Actually, I think I love it more because it’s not from a movie set – they’re just buds.

As soon as my girls were old enough (by which I mean as soon as they could sit still and watch a television screen for ten minutes at a clip… which, for Annie, was around 4 months old; that’s what having an older sister will do for you), I began introducing them to Shirley Temple’s songs and dances – only this time, we used the modern-day version of my mom’s old VHS mixes: YouTube. I’d plug in the song that was in my head and up would pop a clip, instantly available, for the girls and me to enjoy and laugh and gasp about, just as I did sitting beside my mom on the living room couch while the VCR whirred away.

True to my mother and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, we have embraced technology, especially when it comes to recorded media. While I am far from a fan of all modern technology, and while Nick and I impose pretty strict screen time limits, I will forever be grateful to the likes of YouTube for enabling me to share those bits of my childhood, of my own story, with Ella and Annie. Heck, I can even show them clips of Colonel Stoopnagle on Youtube – which is pretty damn incredible, if you ask me.

Which you didn’t. But I’m telling you anyway.

I was really bummed to learn of Shirley Temple’s passing today… but her legacy will live on. For one thing, my children (and my cousins – howdy, Andrew and Brian!) are unlikely to stop ordering ginger ale and grenadine any time soon, so Shirley is here to stay. For another, Annie’s perpetual washing-of-her-face using only her forefingers a la the song “Early Bird” from Captain January makes me wring my hands each time I see it.

(Seriously, this part of the song has bugged me since I was a kid. STILL DIRTY!)

And, of course, we have Shirley’s body of work to entertain, enthrall, and enlighten us from now until, well, forever. I plan to purchase some of her movies on DVD to show the girls (in addition to the couple that I already own, courtesy of my mom, naturally), but in the meantime, YouTube clips will happily tide us over. She is a part of our lives, ingrained, woven in, and I can’t imagine it any other way.

As the girls came home from school, I was in the middle of writing this and had the various YouTube clips playing so that I could link to them properly. Without even being in the room, Ella heard three bars of “At the Codfish Ball” and said, “Is that Shirley Temple?” Yes, honey. It is. She made our lives richer and more colorful, and I’m sad that she’s gone – but I can’t wait to watch her with you tonight.

Nor can I wait to see how you share her with your own children; it’s in your genes – I know you will. And they will laugh and roll their eyes at the thought of us using something as antiquated as YouTube to watch her – but I’m good with that, because I know that I’ll have embraced that kind of media, too. Right after my mom does.

Stepping back

A couple of weeks ago, I was headed to the bathroom when I happened to notice that Nick was watching the end of Amadeus in the living room. (The fact that I was heading to the bathroom is largely immaterial, but I do like to be precise.) I hadn’t seen the movie in years, and found myself absolutely fixated, unable to move until the closing credits.

I’ve loved Amadeus since I first saw it in the theater when I was eight (let’s just pause here for a moment, shall we, and ponder that my parents took me and my brother — who was SIX — to a movie about Mozart, where nude women run amok and the focus is about, you know, Classical music… Yes, yes they did… Which, I think, gives me latitude to show Ella and Annie just about any movie I choose and receive absolutely no sideways glances whatsoever, no?). The ending – where Salieri is frantically scribbling out the Confutatis maledictis from the Requiem as Mozart dictates the parts to him from his deathbed – is one of my favorite, most chill-inducing passages of any movie, ever.

I have always loved that scene, but, having not seen it in years – since well before I became a music teacher – I’d never gotten it in a technical music sense. Now, as Tom Hulce hummed and pounded out and sang each line, each section, and F. Murray Abraham put notes to paper… and then as the music came together, piece by piece, until we finally we heard Mozart’s unbelievably beautiful vision for the first time, I was completely enthralled. It wasn’t just gorgeous; it made sense. It clicked.

It’s not that Mozart died and left the Requiem uncompleted that makes it so awe-inspiring (although that certainly adds to the mystique); it’s the work itself, Mozart’s genius being so definitively and wondrously realized. I have yet to hear the entire Requiem live, but it’s absolutely on my bucket list. (Lest you think my bucket list is all classy like that, you should know that it also includes learning how to properly wolf-whistle and smashing truckloads of tomatoes into perfect strangers at the Tomatina in Buñol, Spain.)

Fast forward to last Friday, when I was subbing for a high school music teacher – not my typical gig. Although I’m qualified and certified to teach music K-12, my professional experience (subbing aside) has only been K-8, so I always regard high school music subbing with a bit of curiosity. Friday proved to be a fantastic experience, and one that I was not expecting.

Yes, it was great that one of the classes was AP Music Theory (which might sound either terrifying or horrendously dry, depending on your perspective); I was psyched, because although I hadn’t dabbled much in theory since college, I did genuinely enjoy – and excel at – it way back when. I wasn’t disappointed. Despite it being students-bring-in-a-song-to-share-with-the-class day — a classic, dummy-proof move for when you have a sub, especially if your sub might not be a music teacher — this was no throwaway class. The kids brought in everything from Zeppelin to instrumental celtic songs, and used phrases like “I thought it was interesting how the measure of 3/4 immediately bumps up against the 4/4 measures, giving them a heightened tension” and “I enjoyed how that measure doesn’t end on the tonic, but rather how the dominant sets the stage and leaves you hanging” to describe what they heard (no, I am not making this up). It was pretty rad.

And, yes, there was the 10th grade choir, who were almost entirely student-led and sang a raucous version of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. But it was the Polyphonic Choir – arguably the school’s most prestigious group – that really took my breath away.

For one thing, it was like stepping into an episode of Glee, or what Glee might be like if the students actually read music and were concerned with phrasing and diction and warm-ups. Each of these kids wanted – really wanted – to be there, from the obviously gay young men in their smart pants and patterned sweaters to the grungy girls with their heavy eye-liner and spiky earrings, and the moment they came into the rehearsal room, they were focused, poised, excited, ready. You don’t really get that in your average Calculus class.

For another, these kids could sing. They were good. And not just with their voices; they could read music like it was nobody’s business, play piano with prodigious skill, and fine-tune their singing when something wasn’t quite right. They fully directed themselves (I was really only there so they could claim that an adult was in the room), doing warm-ups alone for a full twenty minutes, and sounded stupendous.

But also? They had a concert the following Monday (like, two days ago), and one of the pieces they were performing was Mozart’s Requiem.


I couldn’t believe I was hearing it – live – and that these seventeen year-olds were not only singing it, but conducting themselves, and singing it well. Their voices rang and echoed, filling the space with wonder and satisfaction (I realize the phrasing is weird there, but really, there was wonder and satisfaction just floating around the room. For real). It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced as a  teacher; I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be there to witness it.

As soon as the period was over, I texted the following to Nick:

The choir I was subbing for is performing Mozart’s Requiem; they led themselves in rehearsal. Felt like Salieri. SO COOL.

Before Nick and I went to sleep that night, I just had to talk about it more; I couldn’t quite let it go. I relived the rehearsal, dissecting each warm-up and playing for him the audio recordings I’d surreptitiously made of the choir with my iPhone. We both agreed that this was a damn good choir.

And I couldn’t help but wonder: does their teacher feel this way every day? Does he go home every night, rushing to share the delicious details of every rehearsal with his wife (who happens to be a friend of mine; first time I’d ever subbed for someone I “knew”)? Does he sit back and let the music wash over him, soaking up the choir’s soul-stirring abilities, reveling in his AP students’ knowledge and interest and abilities?

Does he come home every single day thinking, Holy crap, I get to do THIS for my JOB?? I must be the luckiest person on the face of the planet!

Well, let’s be honest: no. He probably doesn’t. Not if he’s human, anyway. In part, because not every day is like the day I witnessed. These kids had been rehearsing for months for a concert that was one day away; no wonder they were so good. Surely rehearsals back in September bore little resemblance to what I witnessed on Friday.

Also, let’s not forget that these kids didn’t learn how to conduct a choir rehearsal or identify when the melody ends on the tonic or dominant all by themselves. They learned it from someone – I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess maybe they learned it from the teacher for whom I was subbing – and that someone likely had to work damn hard to get these kids to come so far. While I’m sure it’s been gratifying to have such motivated and talented kiddos in your classes, I’m also sure that there are days when – as with all professions (or, let’s say, being a parent) – you want to pull your hair out.

But I hope, for this teacher’s sake, that he has some of the moments I experienced. I hope that, between the pressures of putting on a concert and helping kids understand voice-leading and working to make sure the tenors aren’t sharp and having the warehouse fall behind on the sheet music shipment and figuring out how Common Core affects the curriculum and budget cuts and colleagues who raise eyebrows and question whether or not you’re a “real teacher” because you “just” teach music, there are genuine moments of joy and gratitude and awe, moments of, I truly must be the luckiest person on the planet, if only for this one song.

Truth be told, I could stand a few more of those moments myself these days. Like everyone else, I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off. This fall/early winter have been so freakin’ busy, and now with Christmas and two birthdays on the horizon (I will have a seven year-old in two minutes, omg!), it’s just become absolutely insane. There are days when my “free time” begins after midnight, when I awaken in the morning to have my FitBit tell me I’ve already walked 800 steps that day. Only once in the past ten days have I gone to bed before 1:30 a.m.

It’s unsustainable. I realize this. I’ll wind up making myself sick, and then my holiday spirit will really go to hell in a hand basket.

I need to stop and breathe. I keep thinking, if I just get this done, just accomplish this one more thing, then I can relax… But I keep a to-do book, not a to-do list, and it’s absolutely never-ending, so I have yet to reach the relaxation point.

And yet, surely there are bits of the Requiem going on around me. Maybe it’s in my girls’ faces as they find Hermey our elf in his new location each morning. (Shit. Note to self: Hermey must be moved to Annie’s room tonight. Birthday girls always get a visit from Hermey.) Maybe it’s in the fresh falling snow we’re getting each day. Maybe it’s in the irresistible toffee my aunt sends us each year (we received it two days ago and it’s nearly gone; send more!).

I’m not entirely sure where it is, but I’m going to make it my mission to find it. Every year, I lament that this season has gone by too fast. I can’t make it slow down, but I can at least try to find some joy and gratitude and awe, if only for one song.

Come to think of it, maybe the Requiem is hidden in the chocolate chip cookies I made for the cookie exchange and the Girl Scouts caroling. They did taste pretty damn good.

The Great Divide*

I smell absolutely terrible – a combination of secondhand cigarette and pot smoke, un-showered neighbors, sweat, and any number of illicit drugs. It’s on my skin, in my hair, and seeped deep within my clothing; despite it being midnight, there’s no way I can go to bed without showering tonight.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Nick and I just returned home from a Phish show.

This may surprise you, what with my Disney lovin’ and the Harry Potter reading and the Looney Tunes birthday and my Starbucks addiction, given that the stereotypical Phan (yeah, I went there) wears clothing that may not have been washed in days (nor may they have bathed themselves), smokes enough illegal substances to fail every drug test for the next three years, and writhes about during the show as if speaking in tongues, but it’s true. Further, this was not my first time seeing Phish, nor was I coerced into attending. In fact, it wasn’t my fourth or even my tenth time seeing them, but somewhere between my dozenth and twentieth concert (I lost track along the way). To keep it real, I hadn’t seen them play since we last Denver twelve years ago, so that’s been a pretty long hiatus, but make no mistake about it: I love me some Phish.

I hadn’t even heard of Phish when I entered college in the fall of 1993, but my roommate’s brother was into them – and she, by extension – so she had brought a few of their CDs to our dorm. Additionally, among Nick’s a cappella group’s repertoire was Phish’s “Bouncing Around the Room”, so I, somewhat quietly, but firmly, became acquainted with the band.

As freshman year went on, my acquaintance progressed past the Oh yeah, they’re cool stage and into the OH MY GOD THIS IS THE GREATEST BAND EVER IN EXISTENCE stage. Their songs – with their kooky, often nonsensical lyrics and their long, occasional rambling jam sessions – just grabbed me in a way that no other band’s music had. And, like so many ever-impressionable teenagers, I decided that liking the band meant more than just listening: it meant living Phish. Breathing Phish. Becoming one with Phish.

phish tix1
One of the – if not the very – first times Phish played MSG.
The heavens opened and angels sang. Amen.

Undoubtedly to my parents’ utter confusion, once I came home that summer, I sought out shops that sold Phish-like paraphernalia (also called “Head Shops” – in those days, anyway – because of the large Grateful Dead-themed and associated material). I’d enter through the beaded curtain that substituted for a door and be hit with the near-visible wall of fragrant patchouli burning from at least half a dozen incense holders. I ran my fingers, awed, through the flowing tie-dyed skirts and gazed with rapture at the posters of peace signs and dancing bears. I was only too happy to slap down my babysitting money for several different kinds of incense burners (one of which was a tie-dyed turtle made of Fimo), even though I knew that burning the incense at home would give my parents a headache, so it would have to wait until I was back in my dorm room the following fall. (‘Cause there is nothing more fabulous than a ten-by-ten foot room overflowing with the scent of White Sage and Fire Earth.)

phish stuff
The tie-died incense turtle has long since disappeared, but I did find these in the basement. Why I never actually adhered them to anything is a mystery. Ah, youth.

I became the proud owner of scores of tie-died t-shirts, absurdly thick and hairy sweaters made from, like, wool from humanely-fed alpacas (which itched like hell but sure looked nice and earthy), and one pair of Tevas that were practically glued to my feet. (In fairness, the Tevas had come a few years earlier when I went to camp, because they made great canoe-tripping shoes, but they came into even heavier rotation after my Phish infatuation began).

us phish tevas
Nick joined me on my Teva-wearing devotion. What else do you wear with your button-down polo for the plane trip back home after visiting your girlfriend, from whom you’d been unbearably apart for at least three weeks?

The summer of ’94 also marked my introduction to toe rings (purchased at the aforementioned Head shop), a fad which I was told by numerous older folks I would soon grow tired of… but my toe ring remains on my foot to this day. That may be because, at this point, it would require the Jaws of Life to remove it, but whatever.

phish toe ring
Fall, 1994 foot selfie. LOOK AT ME, SO AHEAD OF THE GAME.
Taken to show off my friends’ and my recently acquired toe rings, but which also nicely shows my dramatic Teva tan. ANYTHING FOR THE MUSIC, people.

Right around that summer, Phish really began to make it big. They’d gained a growing (but highly devoted) following prior to then, but their mass popularity really took off around 1993. As such, there were no shortage of Phish shows for me to attend, and two of my best friends and I made the pilgrimage to our first one that July. I don’t remember much about it, except that I wore a tie dyed shirt and Tevas (duh), the show itself took place in some farm-like setting (we had to walk for what seemed like miles to get there) with an expansive lawn (I believe the venue is now defunct), that we thought we’d died and gone to heaven actually hearing Phish – live! – for the first time, and that we were greatly annoyed with the many sobriety checkpoints on the way home.

They were understandable, of course – more drugs were traded at that show than at a pharmaceutical convention – but that part just never appealed to me. Although I was Phish fan, I wasn’t ever into “the lifestyle.” No smoking. No getting high. I bathed regularly. I happily saw as many shows as I could, but I never “followed” the band, living out of my car or in a tent or maybe renting a cheap motel room, as many Phish groupies did.

phish tix

My adoration of the band was definitely Phish Light, in a Phanilow kind of way, but that was okay with me. I wasn’t into them because it was fun to get stoned, or because dreadlocks were a nice way of communing with the earth, but because of their music. I think many Phish fans are into the music – with the whole pseudo Deadhead scene appealing to them as well – because it speaks to them. It transcends. It is AWESOME, man. But Phish pulled out all of my geek music stops. I loved the contrapuntal solo lines that were traded amongst Trey (guitar) and Page (keyboards). Fishman’s (drums) intricate rhythms were fascinating, and Mike could turn the bass into a lead instrument, rather than a chord-keeper.

Each of them was deeply musically gifted – genuinely terrific at their instruments – and that virtuosity showed in their playing (even if their singing has always left something – okay, a lot – to be desired). “Jams” – which are what many fans find so “moving” – moved me, not because of the interesting wall of sound, but because the band members actually went somewhere. They’d find a musical idea and run with it, teasing with hints of melodies from familiar pop and classical songs, weaving through unrelated key changes before eventually arriving at the climax. I can absolutely understand why some people don’t like Phish – why their musical style just isn’t for them – but I will argue endlessly with anyone who attempts to assert that the members of Phish don’t have musical talent. And I will win.

Who really got me was Page on the keyboards. He brought a wealth of classical, jazz, blues, and bluegrass knowledge – and skill – to the table, and holy crap, as a pianist it is just awe-inspiring listening to him pull everything out of his bag of tricks. He’s damn good at what he does – easily rivaling pop pianists like Billy Joel or Elton John or Lady Gaga (yes, she’s a kick-ass piano player; check it out sometime) – and listening to him play was simply fantastic. I couldn’t wait for more.

One of Page’s solos from tonight’s show. He’s basically just being a goober and showing off, but he’s still stupendous.

My Phish-loving didn’t stop at the concerts, though. Even though I didn’t follow “the lifestyle,” the band and the music permeated my existence. I bought and traded entire shows – illegally obtained (in those days) – from music “dealers.” Looking back, I have absolutely no recollection of how I did so, given Al Gore hadn’t released the internet yet, but padded manilla envelopes containing cassettes (yes, cassettes) would routinely arrive in my college mailbox.

phish tapes
I got rid of many of them a long time ago, but these remain.
Can’t play them, because we don’t have a cassette player. But hey. Semantics.

I remember introducing the little girls I was nannying that summer – ages 5 and 10 – to some of the band’s more pop-friendly songs, a move that was slightly controversial because their father edited a classical CD magazine (I’d actually been hired in part because of my own – classical – music background, and a portion of my job involved helping out with the magazine’s distribution). Having gone with the family to several concerts at the Met and Lincoln Center, I knew that the little ones were not too familiar with other styles of music beyond classical and jazz… and I sought to remedy that by playing Phish in the car whenever we went places. Apparently, it made an impression on them, because I recently found these letters, sent to me by the girls:

phish letter from M2

phish letter from M
For the uninitiated, the circled words are actually lyrics to the Phish song “Contact.”

That summer show was the first of oodles, many of which occurred before we’d left college. We continued to attend shows after we moved to Colorado, but something had changed. The band just didn’t seem to be coming together anymore. Their “jams” were longer and more meandering, seemingly without an end or a point. The shows just weren’t as good as they’d been, and so once we moved back to New York in 2001, we took a break from Phish. We weren’t the only ones to notice this change; the band actually took a break from each other from 2004-2009, so we weren’t missing much anyway.

Even once they were back together, Nick and I didn’t have much of a desire to see them. For one thing, we’d already been there, done that, more than a dozen times. For another, quite frankly, we were worried that they wouldn’t sound very good, and shelling out big bucks to hear one of your favorite bands bite it just isn’t any fun. We also had, you know, kids, which made skipping off to a concert a bit more difficult.

But even more than that, we just didn’t know if we could do it. Although I still wear the toe ring, the itchy wool sweaters and tie-died shirts were donated to Goodwill long ago (so sorry, bargain shoppers). The Tevas eventually fell apart, and while I’ve got a bit of an obsession with scented candles, incense would just make me cough. And laugh. At myself. And how oh so very into Phish I had been all those many years ago.

When Nick learned that Phish would be coming to Rochester – for, we learned, the first time in fourteen years – we pondered whether or not we’d like to go. He’d heard that their playing was reminiscent of their earlier days, more musical, less wandering, more solid. That sounded promising, but still, we hesitated… Even if the performances were amazing, did we really want to brave the throngs of would-be hippies and Birkenstocks? Were we just too old, too stodgy, too boring to enjoy ourselves?
In the end, we decided, what the hell. Let’s pull off the Soccer Mom shirt and give it a whirl.

soccer mom
I mean that literally; my mother had sent me this and I’d worn it to Annie’s soccer game, removing it just prior to hopping in the car for the show.

As we approached the arena, it was clear that my Soccer Mom hesitations had been dead on. There were enough tie-dyed shirts to have stretched from here to the moon, and enough marijuana (in every conceivable form) to have kept the cops busy for weeks, had they decided to attempt to bust even a quarter of the people using it. (Then again, the cops were probably too busy busting up the people who left the used nitrous oxide tanks underneath the bridge by the arena. In the words of my children, I do believe those people made a very sad choice.)

Because of the large number of underage attendees – as well as those who just needed to start the show off already hammered – people were consuming copious quantities of alcohol before entering the arena, almost all of it in red Solo cups. (Did someone from the Solo company hand these out? Is this just how its done now? What happened to flasks and bottles of Boones?) Which, fine. If you want to have a drink – or five – before the show, have at it. In your red cup. But it was difficult to even enter the arena because of the number of discarded Solo cups and beer cans and iced tea bottles littering the sidewalk immediately outside of the doors. Right next to the (empty) garbage cans. Come on, people! I don’t care what beverages you’ve consumed, but surely your parents taught you how to properly throw away your garbage! Were you raised in a barn? Do you not see the irony of people who pride themselves on “saving the earth” and “communing with nature” dumping their trash all over the ground?

As we passed through “security” (said with heavy air quotes because pretty much anything except crossbows and AK-47s were allowed into this show), I actually debated apologizing to the woman examining my bag. I’m so sorry about all of the trash. And the smell. And the number of people who will pass out before the show is over. They were taught better, I’m sure! I’m a Soccer Mom! I know these things!

The lines for the beer easily trumped those at every other concert I’ve been to, clearly indicating that the majority of concert-goers were planning to drink their dinner alongside their ganja. As we made our way through the crowd, I actually got to giggling – out loud – when I remembered that our dinner had been gluten-free Autumn Chicken Pot Pie, eaten with Annie and Ella in the kitchen while we waited for the babysitter to come. Oh, Tevas. Were you really a lifetime ago?!

phish tix2
One of the last shows we saw. I definitely wore my Tevas.

The show had open seating, and the masses had crowded down to the floor of the arena to be as close to the band as possible, as well as enjoy the camaraderie of the undulating revelers. It was hot, it was packed wall-to-wall with people who hadn’t showered in a while, and the whole place was strewn with trash and garbage. Basically, it looked like the Super Dome after Katrina, except without the catastrophe that preceded it. Nick and I wanted to sit in a more secluded spot, as removed from the frenzied throngs as possible. In fact, the whole barefoot, stumbling, touchy-feely crowd was beginning to make me feel so out of place, I decided that I’d better take a couple of Xanax post haste so I could stop being such a judge-y Mc-judgerson and get on with enjoying the show. The irony of popping prescription drugs to better handle people high on illegal substances is not lost on me.

Given my love of Page, we opted to sit in the section right behind the keyboards, so I could see him play. To get there, however, meant crossing the entirety of the venue, and doing so was molasses slow. Everyone was moving as though weighted down or underwater, inching ever-so-forward, while simultaneously managing to touch every single person they passed – not out of some kind of sinister desire, but because they were together, man, and doesn’t everyone just need a hug? Considering that I practically slapped the hands of women who attempted to touch my pregnant belly, being stroked by stinky, teetering strangers was exactly how I’d hoped to spend part of my evening.

Perhaps it seems rude of me to keep mentioning the collective stank, but it really was hard to ignore. In addition to the ever-present fog of pot and cigarette smoke, many of the attendees seemed to have… not bathed… for quite awhile. And I’m not just saying this because of their unkempt hair, but rather because of the actual dirt on their clothing and faces. Plus, you know, they… smelled. As we crept across the arena to our seats, we spent most of the trek behind a tall, broad-chested gentleman with long, wavy hair, wearing a woven poncho emblazoned with the Grateful Dead dancing bears that smelled like it had been washed not with Tide but an actual vat of patchouli. Because of the extreme closeness of the concert-goers, more than once I found my nose literally pressed into his back, just below his cascading hair, and I began to have flashbacks of my tie-dyed Fimo turtle. Nick commented that at least this gentleman’s size shielded us from the more outgoing attendees. I felt like we were following Hagrid to his hut.

By the time we arrived in the seats behind the keyboards, the smell was threatening to overwhelm me – not from marijuana, but from cigarettes. I don’t remember when exactly it happened, but sometime after restaurants and bars banned smoking, I became all but completely intolerant to it, physically. The only time I’m really surrounded by cigarette smoke is on the rare occasions I’m in a casino, and every time – within minutes – my throat begins to ache and my voice comes out sounding not like me but a very hoarse frog. After croaking a few sentences to Nick, I realized I needed some (slightly cleaner) air, so I headed out to the concourse to grab something to eat and drink. The only alcoholic option was beer, and I might have joined the mobs and considered getting one had it not, you know, contained gluten. Since I was already fairly full – on Autumn Chicken Pot Pie, thank you very much – I decided to really live it up, and returned to our seats with Twizzlers, a bag of peanuts, a Diet Coke, and a water.


By the time I sat back down, the Xanax had kicked in, and I began to look at the electrified crowd through slightly different, less judgmental eyes. The early twenty-somethings, I could relate to. I remembered. I knew what it was like to live, sleep, and breathe this band, to buy clothes and bumper stickers that made you feel like you fit in, to attend a concert and feel yourself come alive. To be honest, I couldn’t quite relate to the forty-somethings who were still wearing their tie-dyes and Birkenstocks (Nick was particularly perplexed by these folks), but just because our lives have taken us from beer and incense to pot pie and babysitters doesn’t mean that anyone else is doing it wrong. Just different. And maybe a little smelly.

Right before the band came onstage, it dawned on me: we’d seen our first Phish shows before many of these kiddos were even born. (Insert actual incredulous gasp.) And, for some of them, this was their first show. Maybe they’d just gotten to know the band – maybe they’d just become aware of the Phish universe, to have found THE GREATEST BAND OF ALL TIME – and they were practically vibrating with excitement at seeing their heroes in the flesh. That feeling? I’ll never forget it.

And then the band arrived.

10.22 phish live

So, okay, Page had balded significantly. Mike looked a little like Egon from Ghostbusters. Fishman had lost his crazy mop of hair but was still sporting a dress. Trey looked similar to himself from a dozen years ago, although his bangs blowing in the wind from the fan onstage gave him a goofy, beachy appearance. Older, yes. Kinda like Nick and me.

But all in all? The same riveting, talented, fan-freakin’-tastic band I’d fallen in love with back in 1994. It was awesome, man.

Trey reaching the apex on “Maze”. My favorite part? The guy behind me who yells with awed satisfaction when the song finally settles down again.

There were still a few things I found… confusing. Many of the lighting cues included the use of black light, and although I didn’t get the black light memo, many of the floor-crowd did, and were dressed in clothing that lit up when the black lights went on. A ridiculous number of glow sticks had been brought into the arena (or perhaps they’d been purchased there?) and, at seemingly random times, would be tossed wildly amongst the fans, or even toward the stage. The Soccer Mom in me was quite perturbed – but you could hurt the equipment! Who’s going to clean up all of these glow sticks when they’re all over the stage?! – but the band didn’t seem to care, so I let my annoyance go. In fact, as some glow stick-filled balloons bounced our way, I commented to Nick that we should bring them home because the girls would love them. He muttered something about “not knowing what’s touched those” and suggested that we create some glowing balloons for Halloween instead.

Okay, Soccer Dad. Sounds good.

Reminding us once more just how strongly we were fish out of water, we had to leave early to make it home in time to relieve the babysitter. On the way out, we noticed that the Rochester police were out in force, clearly bracing for the onslaught of over-indulged concert-goers who would be soon to exit. Ambulances lined the side streets, outnumbered only by taxis. Come to think of it, Nick and I didn’t even know that so many taxis existed in the entire city of Rochester. Whether they’d be hired by choice or at the strong “suggestion” of the police, we weren’t sure, but they must have known they’d have a guaranteed fare after this show.

In the end, I was damn glad we went. Yes, I felt older and stodgier than I had in ages, but I was also reminded of how much I like our lives now. I wouldn’t go back to my Tevas and Berkenstocks for anything; plus, I have the toe ring, in case I need a reminder. And Phish was everything I’d hoped they’d be; I remembered exactly why I’d fallen for them in the first place. It was truly a privilege to hear them again.

On the way out, I couldn’t resist buying a t-shirt, and was quite pleased to discover they had a cute purple one in a women’s cut.


After I got it home, it dawned on me that the girls will definitely recognize it, because I bought a shirt very much like it back in 1994.

us phish 1994

That shirt has held up remarkably well, and is still being worn. Weekly, in fact. Because it’s Annie’s school art smock.

My nineteen year-old, tie-dye-wearing self would be so proud.

*Yes, the title is taken from the lyrics from the Phish song “Wedge”.
And also, this was written last night, but wasn’t published today, in the name of honesty, amen.