Saturday, December 22, 2012

Invisible Fame

I got the news as an afterthought. Sam's drum instructor had emailed me about a lesson related matter and at the end of his message added "by the way, I'm playing with a band at Little Bear tonight."

I love going to Little Bear. It's an old biker bar, set in the middle of our historic mountain town in Colorado. You can almost always find live music there. Local musicians often grace the stage. Sometimes they're really talented. Sometimes you just have to appreciate their deep passion for music.

I love any excuse to head to Little Bear. Every visiting relative and friend gets dragged down the street to spend some time there with us. The pizza specials mid week draw us to its old wooden front porch, a cheap way to watch live music and fill up teen boys.

There was no doubt we'd go see Dean play with his band at Little Bear. The hiccup we hadn't counted on was the fact that after 8 pm they don't allow anyone under age 21. Our normal visiting time was before the later crowed rolled in. It hadn't occurred to me that my middle schooler, who spent a lot of time at Little Bear, would not be allowed in.

The kind bouncer at the front door let the holiday spirit rule his decision and let us in 'for just a few songs', once he heard that Dean was Sam's teacher, and we were there to see him play live. We stood to the side and watched the band rock out a few classic rock tunes. Sam got to see this guy who is usually giving him instruction, as he got lost in his own element.

He got to see what the end result of all those Tuesday afternoon lessons could lead to some day.

It was time to leave. We'd seen our 'couple of songs' and we didn't want to outstay our welcome at a place we frequent. We filed out the big old wooden front door and gathered on the huge front porch, covered in Christmas lights. It seemed such a shame to leave, when such an amazing band was on stage.

I asked Michael if he'd mind taking Sam home and come back later to pick up me and Jeff. It was the perfect chance for a spur of the moment date night. My agreeable  boy was fine with the plan and quickly added, "But HAVE to do me a favor!"  

I was surprised by the excitement coming from my normally stoic boy. "The guy from Burn Notice is in there! He walked right by us! Could you please get a picture of him for me?" This request, coming from a kid who is normally irritated at mom's eagerness to take photos.

Michael is not easily impressed. He doesn't excite easily. But this was the guy who starred in a show he religiously watched with his best friend in New York, before we moved out to Colorado last year. It was one of the few shows he invested his time in, and he could hardly believe the guy had just walked by us as we casually stood around in Little Bear, watching Sam's drum teacher play in a band.

Jeff and I made our way back in, paying the cover charge as legitimate guests this time, and found a table near the stage. Behind Jeff's head I could see the guy, sitting at a table with friends. He looked like a regular guy. A guy I'd pass in Safeway and not realize he was the guy.  But this guy meant something to my, to my young adult son, who was days away from leaving to start his grown up life in the military. The guy suddenly mattered to me too.

The venue was intimate. Maybe two dozen people filled the tables and bar around us. I just didn't have the heart to bother this poor guy, who apparently was on break from filming and trying to enjoy a night out with friends. I've met celebrities before, and know that most of them are pretty gracious when it comes to fans approaching them in public. But this just felt wrong. I wanted the guy to have a night out, enjoying a rocking band at Little Bear, without some old woman harassing him for a picture.

So I did the cheater thing. I pretended to take a picture of Jeff, catching the guy in the background. It was dark. There was NO way I was going to use a flash. It's the best I could do. You can see from the picture that one of the guy's buddies was on to my game. But I'd love to tell Buddy that it was just a quick picture. And ultimately I was trying to leave his friend in peace.

After my cheater picture I sat back and enjoyed the show. I watched four guys, who live in my town, pour their hearts and souls onto that stage. During the first break  Dean came out from behind the drum set and sat at our table, telling us funny stories about his years traveling in bands. He told us about his fellow musicians on the stage, and how talented they all were. The kid playing electric guitar was in his early 20s, getting a college degree and playing band gigs in his free time, but had talent that was unbelievable. 

Then suddenly it was time for Dean to crawl back behind those drums and start the next set.

And as they rolled into their first song I started to wonder about fame. Much like the line from the movie Notting Hill, I believe celebrity is really nothing. You know, in that scene where Julia Roberts is cowering in Hugh Grant's book store saying, "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her"? In that same scene she also says something like, "The fame thing. You know it's not real."

 It's something that's discussed and analyzed but doesn't really have bones. It only exists in perception.

What is it that makes the man sitting behind us at Little Bear, hunkered in a dark corner so he's not spotted by crazy fans like me, matter more than the 24 year old kid playing his heart out on the stage in front of me? There is immense talent in both men. One has his face on billboards and television commercials, the other will pack away his guitar after this show and head back to college classes. No one will apologetically ask for his picture.

I work in a public venue. I greet people as they come into our local Rec Center to work out or take fitness classes. Sometimes I play a game where I pretend that each person approaching my desk is a 'celebrity'. I treat them like the world has bestowed this invisible blessing on them and the paparazzi are waiting just outside our doors, hoping to catch them sweaty and rumpled after their latest fitness endeavor. Because it really is just a way of approaching the people you come across in the world.

The magazines and newspapers are somehow in charge of telling us who deserves to be showered with respect and extra favor. Sure, many celebrities are immensely talented. But so are many of the people you pass every day. You just haven't been shown their talent in a Hollywood way.

This week, through a casual conversation, I learned that one of our gymnastic instructors at work is a professional artist. Some day he hopes to make his living creating art, and do gymnastics as a hobby, not the other way around. I thought about that conversation for several days. It made me wonder how many other invisible celebrities I am surrounded by every day. 

Then I happened to share some space with a guy who even my hard to impress son was in awe of. And in the same night I was moved by some music played by some guys who may never grace the cover of Rolling Stone. And it all came together.

Talent and passion are not things we can measure and place definite value. Networks of powerful people are in charge of deciding who we adore and idolize and dream of meeting. When, in reality, there are people all around us who deserve respect and awe. The woman standing in line at the grocery store who paints amazing landscapes. The man pumping gas next to you, who takes breathtaking photos of his grandchildren. The shaggy headed teenager who can write poems that would make you weep.

And, oh yeah, that kid standing front and center on the stage at the local bar, caressing the neck of that guitar like he has legions of fans waiting just outside the front door.

Unexpected Perfect Day

It turned out to be one of those really amazing days that sneaks up on you. 

I got up early, got Sam off to the school bus, saw Jeff off to work, then sat down at the computer to catch up on writing, facebook and email. I got a few things done then suddenly remembered I had signed up for CPR training at work that morning. They were meeting in less than a half an hour.

I quickly dressed then rushed off, down snow covered roads, then icy sidewalks, bursting into the warehouse classroom with just a few minutes to spare. Looking around, I realized I was by far the oldest one there. The room was full of life guards and ice rink employees, all kids who were my son's age. I sat down in the back row, filling one of the last empty chairs. I wondered which of those teens was going to roll their eyes when they were forced to pair up with the lone old lady. Then, suddenly, three more people came through the door. All older than me. My day turned on a dime.

Through the next three hours I once again practiced pressing on the chest of the large stiff mannequin who has fewer lower limbs than I do. And I made new friends. I got to know the director of our Rec Center Play School a bit better and found out one of the senior aerobics instructors is actually my neighbor. She's a lovely woman I hope to know better in the future. I glided over those ice covered sidewalks, back to my car, with a smile on my face.

It was a bright sunny day, the kind that makes Colorado the tourist's dream. 

I drove to Wal-Mart to pick up a few groceries and some last minute gifts for my children, taking the time to appreciate the mountain views that border my every day roads. Every year I find myself putting off buying our family presents until all the long distance boxes are mailed and holiday cards stamped. It felt good, and mothering, to finally bring home treasures for my own babies.

As soon as the pile of bags were unpacked and hidden until wrapping could commence, I jumped back in the car and headed to the Middle School. Sam's sixth grade band was playing a small holiday concert in the lobby of their school. I stood, with Jeff by my side, as we soaked in the fun of holiday music played by energetic 12 year olds. I took only a bit of video, when my percussionist boy started having just a bit too much fun with the maracas in their rendition of Jingle Bells.

Michael, who had been down in Denver, making last preparations for his leave to boot camp next week, surprised us all, as he walked through the school doors. His meetings had wrapped up early. The smile on his little brother's face, as big brother offered to take him out for a milk shake, just the two of them, was enough to make my whole day.

Jeff and I headed off for home, having some nice, uninterrupted adult conversation. He settled in with a library book (a rare treat for him) as I cut up tomatoes and onions and spread the counter with a Mexican feast. 

A short time later, the boys came home, full from milkshakes but hungry for 'real food'. Isaac had shown up, home from skating on our local town lake, and we all gathered in front of the big family TV with our plates piled high with nachos, tacos and enchiladas.

For an hour and a half we laughed at scenes we've seen hundreds of times - we had our traditional viewing of the movie Christmas Vacation. Michael, now an adult himself, saw things he'd never seen before, with new grown up eyes. Sam saw silly things he'd forgotten about from last year. That movie, once again, brought our family new belly laughs and new memories.

And then, because the day had not been perfect enough, a few hours later we headed to our little mountain downtown. Sam's drum instructor was playing with a band at Little Bear Saloon, the biker bar that is our favorite family gathering place. On its tiny stage, the drummer's spot literally built with milk crates, with random bras draped by the dozens in the rafters over the band's heads, my boy got to see his instructor in his element. The same crazy guy he meets with every week, now under spot lights, lost in the rhythms of some classic rock songs.

The bouncer was nice, letting our 12 year old in for just a few songs, when the policy was no one under 21 after 8 pm. We all filed out after two songs but I wasn't ready to leave. Michael agreed to take Sam home, and come pick up the old people later, so that Jeff and I could steal an unexpected date night.

We popped back in the door, paid the cover fee this time, and found a table not far from the stage. For the next four hours we got to be us again, just a couple of crazy college kids who have big dreams they hope to live out together. It was easy to forget the house full of kids and responsibilities that waited for us once the clock passed midnight. The band was great, the Dr. Pepper was a perfect mix. My musician husband listened with different ears than his musically challenged wife, but we both enjoyed the music in our own way. 

It was gravy on the day, that Sam's drum instructor, who I now consider a new local friend, came over to our table at every break, and shared funny, interesting stories with us about his long history with all kinds of music and bands.

It all ended as the place cleared out and we, alone, watched the last song the band cranked out. It's a whole different experience to have a band personally interacting with you, playing a private concert in a public venue, at just after midnight on a Friday night.

We stepped out onto the old wooden porch to wait for Michael's taxi service. We could see down the short block that makes up our tiny historic town, to the bank clock that read 10 degrees. A red fox dashed across the parking lot across the street, disappearing over the snow bank that led him back to the woods. And then our warm minivan drove up.

The night was over. The day that started out in that oh so ordinary way was winding down. A half an hour later I was snuggled under a pile of warm blankets, drifting off to sleep. 

So incredibly thankful that sometimes the best days of your life creep up on you without warning.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Finding Peace in Sadness

The recent shootings in CT will bring back painful memories to many people. Hundreds of people in Aurora Colorado, just down the hill from my home, will have flashbacks as they relive the horror of the night their movie theater was terrorized, and their friends and neighbors lost their lives. Farther south in my state, many families in Columbine will once again relive the horror of their own high school massacre, 13 years ago, and remember the ones they lost that day. Many others will carry the trauma of their experiences with them for the rest of their days.

Like most moms across the country, I couldn't control the tears when I heard about the room full of kindergartners who died yesterday. It's really too much for a brain to comprehend and my heart goes out to that community, who will be in the process of burying their loved ones for weeks to come. When your child dies, it's already a nightmare. When you have to arrange your child's funeral around those of 17 of her classmates, it's too awful for words.

But the moment I really lost it, the picture that struck my heart with physical pain, was the picture that showed up on the front page of my Denver Post today. I briefly saw it on the news reports yesterday but never let my eye rest on it. It's a picture of a line of children, hands on each other's shoulders, being led across the parking lot by a very calm and composed police officer. Their teachers follow behind, getting directions from another officer. A little girl in a blue shirt seems to be weeping, lost in the anguish of the situation.

This picture hit me so deeply because it took me back to a time when a gun in the community rocked my own world and put my children at risk. We had just moved to the Washington D.C. area and were settling in nicely when the sniper started shooting. For three weeks we heard constant reports about who had been shot and where they thought he might be headed next. Several locations were very close to our house.

We locked ourselves inside, ordering groceries to be delivered, paying the delivery man an extra tip for risking his life. Doctor's appointments were cancelled. There was no fort building in the back yard, which faced the woods. Every errand that was necessary found me sitting at stop lights, eyeing the perimeter, watching for any spot a sniper could be hiding.

But the hardest part of the equation was keeping my children safe. At the time, my children were 10, 9, 6 and almost 2. Three of them attended school. Not knowing how long the sniper attacks would last, they couldn't be kept home from school. Instead we had to adapt. I made them wait until the bus showed up on our street, then let them make a dash for its wide doors. Once they got home, we found indoor games to play, and tried not to let them see the TV news, with the latest report of the sniper's last kill.

In a parent-teacher conference that fall my son's teacher told me something that made me weep when I got home. She told us that she was doing all she could to keep our son safe. His class met in a trailer that required an outside walk to get to the main school. Their playground was surrounded by woods, which officials were telling us was the sniper's favorite hiding place. My son's teacher was a first year teacher and her greatest fear was that one of her kids would be hurt while under her care. She took her job very seriously. So, it turns out, every time she was required to take them on the 30 yard walk from their classroom to the main building, she'd made up a game they could play.

It was called 'Dance Club'. Once in their orderly line, their teacher told them that to get across the courtyard they were all required to bob and weave and do their best dance moves. She presented it like a fun, silly game, to get their wiggles out. In reality she was doing her best to keep them from being shot in the head.

One of the other tips we were getting from officials was 'not to be a good target'. Never stand still outdoors, especially near wooded areas. I later learned my husband often 'danced' around while waiting on his subway platform at certain stations. He never stood still, and most of the commuters around him did the same.

On the ride home from school that day I couldn't stop picturing the line of 9 year olds, my son in the middle, dodging and weaving, every time they had to make the short hike to the lunchroom and music class. The scene that most likely resembled the picture on the front of my newspaper today. And I could almost sense the way their pretty young teacher held her breath, until the last one ducked into the school's back door. 

It reminded me of the pressure she was under to keep a whole classroom of children safe. I sat at home, worried about their safety under my care, thankful when they were 'safe' at school, not taking into account what it took to keep them safe at school. My son's teacher, fresh out of college and eager to make her mark in the world, had the lives and futures of 28 young children on her shoulders every single day. If something happened to one of her students, she would be living with it for the rest of her life.

Throw in a sniper who just might be setting up his gun in the woods behind her classroom and I have to wonder if she ever slept more than two hours during that three week period.

I went home from that teacher conference and wept. I wept for my babies, who deserved to live in a world where they could go outside to play and not fear being executed. I  wept for a school full of professionals who took my child's safety very seriously. Teachers, many with children of their own to worry about, who go to school every day and not only worry about each child's academic level, but is ready to defend his life if necessary. And I wept with gratitude for my son's teacher, who not only made up a clever diversion that could have saved his life, but presented it to him as a game, so he never even knew he was in danger.

Way too many lives were lost yesterday. Teachers, school professionals, and way too many little children who were still counting down the days to Santa's visit. 

But the professionals in that school did everything they could to protect every single life they could. I wouldn't be surprised if we find out soon that individual adults lost their lives solely because they were trying to save the lives of those around them.

Whoever turned on the intercom, so that every teacher, in every classroom, could know there was evil inside the school walls and do whatever they had to, to protect their students, saved countless more lives. The death toll, as horrific as it is, could have been higher.

This is why I will not be afraid to send my children back to school on Monday. Because I know I am sending them into a place filled with teachers and staff who would do anything they had to, to keep them safe. We can talk about making new security rules, installing metal detectors, having more safety meetings...but when it comes down to facts, I believe in the adults who surround my sons when they are in school, and know they care about more than what his GPA happens to be.

There will be another school shooting in the future. That's the reality of this world we live in. It might be soon, it might be in five years. But the odds that my child will be in that school are slim. If I really think about the odds of my child being killed in school, the statistics tell me to worry more about their car ride home from school. If I pair the odds of them being shot by a lone gunman with the fact that they are immersed in a protective environment when they enter those school hallways, I can send them to school with peace in my heart.

Our family has personally felt the terror of a bad guy's gun in our community. Every story of another shooting will touch us deeply. But what I can do today, to keep myself from sitting in another pile of tears, is to pray for the grieving families, maybe send a little more money to the Red Cross, and say a second prayer of thanks, for the teachers who saved lives yesterday and the teachers who would save my sons' lives in an instant, if they were called to action.