Feeling “Blue”

We were on Day 3 of the Rochat Family Holiday Light Tour (“All of Longmont! All the lights! No GPS!”) when a certain song hit the airwaves again.

Now, there are approximately 30,000 ways to musically celebrate in December, all of which will sooner or later come out of a car speaker – probably multiple times. It might be the simplicity of a “Silent Night.” Or the driving pulse of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Or the screams of “NO!” from a thousand drivers as George Michael’s “Last Christmas” warns them that they’ve lost the annual Whamageddon contest.

This was none of the above.

Instead, we were treated to the sort of silliness and sentiment that you can only get in the presence of the King.

“Ah-ah’ll ha-ave a bluuuuuue Christmas without yoooou….”

Yes, the Elvis hit. The one with alll the woo-ee-oos in the background, where the Presley-style croons and stutters go so far over the top that they probably hit Santa’s sleigh on the way back down.

I can’t exactly call it a guilty pleasure. But it never fails to draw a chuckle from me, if not an outright laugh, at the unlikeliest Christmas classic in the canon. (With the possible exception of Alvin and the Chipmunks, but that’s another column for another time.)

You see, Elvis didn’t want to do this song.

I mean, REALLY didn’t want to do this song.

The song had already been a country hit for Ernest Tubb, and Presley wanted to leave it with him. When told he had no choice, Elvis tried to deliberately botch the assignment.

“Let’s just get this over with,” he said to his band and background singers, telling them to get silly, even downright bad, so that no one would be tempted to put it on a single. One-and-done, forget about it.

“When we got through,” background singer Millie Krikham said in an interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame, “we all laughed and said ‘Well, that’s one record that the record company will never release.’”

Oops.

You know the rest. Millions of sales. Tons of airplay. “Blue Christmas” became as much a part of the Elvis legend as “Love Me Tender” or “Jailhouse Rock” – despite, and maybe even because of, the decision to let go and get goofy. Reluctance somehow unlocked delight, even joy.

Whether you love or hate the song, I think that’s something we can all sympathize with.

“Let’s just get this over with.” Those are words of the season for an awful lot of us, aren’t they? Too often, a time that should be about love and humanity becomes a bulldozer, inexorable and overwhelming.

We all still have lives beyond the holidays, after all. And when those lives have been carrying too much, it doesn’t necessarily feel like much of a season. So we go through the motions, not expecting a lot.

But that’s the weird thing about joy. It doesn’t wait for the obvious moments. In fact, its greatest strength is when it lies in ambush, touching the ordinary and making it unforgettable.

That’s the real gift of the season. One as old as the hills. And if we reach out just a little – even if it’s just enough to get through – we give ourselves the chance to open it once again.

I hope it finds you this year. Wherever you need it, however you need it.

After all, the best things often come from out of the blue.  

In Thy Darth Streets Shineth …

Not long ago, Missy and I sat down to watch a classic holiday movie. Plenty of snow, a family reunion, and of course, a figure with a booming voice who’s recognized worldwide.

Man, “The Empire Strikes Back” never gets old.

Now that everyone’s stopped throwing snowballs at me, perhaps I should explain.

A long time ago, in a living room not so far away, I got Missy hooked on Star Wars. It wasn’t intentional. One quiet Saturday afternoon, I just suddenly found that I had company on the couch, watching blasters and bounty hunters with me. And since Missy goes all in on what she loves (partly from her developmental disability, partly from a naturally enthusiastic personality), it wasn’t long before she started pointing out Darth Vaders and Chewbaccas everywhere we went.

“Look-look-look!”

The best part? It was “Empire” that drew her in.

Now Missy’s not a dark and brooding personality. I mean, she cranks up the stereo to house-rocking levels with dance music and Christmas carols. She would go out every night to see holiday decorations if she could (and some years, we’ve come close). She likes bright colors, bright dresses, bright purses of near-infinite capacity.

And yet the movie that set the hook in her is easily the darkest of George Lucas’s original trilogy. It’s not a happy-ever-after fairy tale like the original “Star Wars” or a redemption story like “Return of the Jedi.” It’s a pure curb-stomp trampling of the good guys from beginning to end: the rebels lose their new base, Leia and Chewie lose Han, Luke loses his hand and his certainty. Even C-3P0, the comic relief, gets blasted to bits before everything’s done.

But the more I think about it, the more it fits. “Empire” is the perfect movie not just for our family Christmas Princess, but for the season in general.

Because first and foremost, it’s a story of hope.

The Empire wins victory after victory. But by the end of the story, the Rebellion’s still there. Nearly all of the major heroes have gotten away, including the one Vader wanted most. The light has dimmed – but as long as it’s still shining, the darkness hasn’t won.

Now come back to this season. The time of year where the nights grow darker – and the lights shine brighter. Maybe for Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Yule, or just someone’s own personal persistence. At the darkest times, we shine.

And boy, have we had a lot of darkness to push against lately.

You don’t need me to list all of it. For one thing, I’d need a longer column than this. For another, each of us knows the pains and the strains far too well by now. Violence and death in places that should be safe. Hate and anger driving fractures at a moment when we need everyone’s strength. A world that too often has us under siege, collectively, individually, and even microscopically.

But the light hasn’t gone out yet.

And when any of us add our glow – however flickering it may feel – that light of hope gets just a little stronger.

If that isn’t something to celebrate, I don’t know what is.

So light the lights, on the houses and in the hearts. Reach. Listen. Strengthen. Hope. Especially hope. That’s where it begins and how it endures: believing that the light will come and shining your own until it does.

That’s the beauty of the season and everything behind it. So give it a good look.

And if you want to give it a good Lucas too, Missy won’t complain.

Moon Over Thanksgiving

By the time this appears in print, Artemis will be flying by the moon.

I’m not sure I ever expected to write those words.

NASA has literally been away from the moon longer than I’ve been alive. Not that we’ve utterly forsaken space, of course. Satellites guide our communications and report our weather. Telescopes like the Webb increase our knowledge and our wonder. We’ve seen Earth orbit used for research, for music, even for tourism.

But we haven’t been back to our nearest neighbor since the early ‘70s. Truth is, until recently, we haven’t even had the tools to try.

Now, crewed by dummies (fill in your favorite celebrity joke here), the Artemis I Orion capsule is about to pull within 81 miles of the moon. In astronomical terms, that’s practically buzzing the tower.  It’s exciting stuff.

So naturally, it’s being overshadowed by more terrestrial headlines.

Mind you, I get it. I know we’re capable of paying attention to multiple things at once. And when Twitter is on fire, politics are in upheaval, rivers are drying up and the Broncos can’t seem to find the end zone with a map, I know that our mental space is a little crowded.

As a result, quiet wonder has a way of being pushed out of the spotlight by louder events. Which sounds familiar. Especially now.

After all, it’s pretty much how we treat Thanksgiving.

Aside from a pretty good parade and a pretty bad football game, we don’t give Thanksgiving a lot of splash. Honestly, that’s probably the way it should be. It’s a more introverted holiday, one about appreciating what we have and who we can share it with. For some, it’s even a time to remember those with less, reaching to them as part of the human family.

It’s a core that’s quiet. Reflective. Even humbling.

And therefore, it has absolutely no chance against occasions with brighter lights, louder music and more sheer STUFF.

Don’t get me wrong, I love that magical December time and tend to push out holiday columns by the bushel. But it’s a bulldozer, running over everything like reindeer flattening an Elmo & Patsy grandma. Christmas shouts. Thanksgiving whispers.

That doesn’t make it any less valuable. But it does mean we have to look a little harder to see beyond the stuffing. (Mmm, stuffing.) Especially in challenging times, when a holiday about gratitude may feel less than fitting.

Hold onto it. However you can.

With a quiet holiday, you get to be the one that finds the meaning. Your gratitude doesn’t have to be anyone else’s. It can be for much or for little, for what you’ve received or what you’ve escaped. It might even be for just making it one more hour of one more day. However you do it, you’re not doing it wrong. (And if someone says you are, one of the things you can be grateful for is that you’re not them.)

It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood production. In fact, given how Hollywood often treats Thanksgiving – turkey with a side dish of strife and conflict – it probably shouldn’t be. Just take the moment, however you need to, and find whatever light you can.

It may not sound like much. Just one small step.

But if you’re in the right space, one small step can be a heck of a leap.

And that’s no moonshine.

A Good Failing About This

Some people spend their life working in a cube. George Scholey just made a name for himself by solving them.

Nearly 7,000 of them, to be exact.

That “nearly” is important, by the way. Scholey recently became the world’s new master of the Rubik’s cube by solving 6,931 of the three-dimensional puzzles in 24 hours. That’s enough for a new Guinness world record … but apparently not enough for his own satisfaction.

“Toward the end of the night I saw I was getting closer to 7,000, and I’m a bit annoyed I didn’t get that result,” he told UPI. “But that’s fine.”

If that makes your head ache and your tendonitis flare just thinking about it, you’ve probably got a lot of company. Most of us would be feeling more than “fine” at an achievement like that. Heck, I’d be ecstatic to solve it once. (Word games, I’m good. Tactile games, eep!)

But of course, that’s just it. When you’re familiar with something, you’re never quite satisfied. That’s what pushes some to keep becoming the best … and others to quit before they’ve barely started.

After all, the thing we’re most familiar with – or think we are – is ourselves. Or, more to the point, our limits.

I play a decent piano. My family and friends enjoy hearing it. But when I watch a professional at work, I feel like a kid plinking out “Twinkle, Twinkle.”  There’s a gulf between my work and theirs and I’m falling down it like Wile E. Coyote.

Many people have a similar story. It might be the hobbyist painter watching the ease of an expert artist. Or the first-time National Novel Writing Month participant comparing their pages to their favorite author. Or the homeowner who struggles to loosen a bolt watching their handyman neighbor complete a major plumbing renovation.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with setting high standards or drawing inspiration from someone better. We can all learn from someone else and use those lessons to improve. But when those glances become a source of intimidation rather than inspiration … well, to quote the old first-grade teacher, that’s when it’s time to keep your eyes on your own work.

You see, we’re going to fail. And we need to get used to it.

That’s not a condemnation, just a fact. Learning requires failure. Most of us don’t get to be Mozart; we have to be bad at something before we get to be good at it. Everybody’s got a different axiom about how long it takes  – so many hours, or so many days, or so many attempts – but that basic truth remains the same. Even saying “practice makes perfect” doesn’t really get at it, because the real goal at each step is to be less imperfect than you were before.

And that’s not an easy tightrope to walk. Willing to be imperfect, but not so comfortable as to stop working. Wanting to be better without being crushed by expectations. That’s a puzzle that makes a Rubik’s cube look easy … or even 6,931 of them.

But it can be solved. And the solution will be yours. Not the expert’s. Not your neighbor’s.

That’s encouraging. Frustrating at times, maybe, but encouraging nonetheless.

So keep it up. Because not only are you still learning a skill, you’re still learning yourself. And there’s more to find than you might think.

That’s a pretty “fine” place to be.

Book ‘Em

The Halloween season holds a lot of unsettling experiences. Like the chilling costumes. Or the blood-curdling movies. Or the thought that Election Day is just a week away. (“NOOOO!!!”)

But I think Paddy Riordan’s story may be my favorite hair-raising exploit this year, or at least one that I can sympathize with. You see, Paddy walked into his Coventry library with a book that was … shall we say, slightly overdue?

As in 84 years.

That’s right. According to UPI, the copy of “Red Deer” by Richard Jefferies had been checked out since 1938. For perspective, Neville Chamberlain was still assuring Britain of “peace in our time,” Betty White was still a fresh-faced teenager and the Denver Broncos were still 22 years away from disappointing football fans across the Centennial State.

You hear tales like this every so often, usually resolved with a laugh and a minor fine/donation (in this case, a little over $21 based on 1930s daily fines). But they never fail to make me wince as I recognize a kindred soul.

You see, I’m a bit of a bibliophile – which is a little like saying that Usain Bolt liked to run a little. I read constantly. Voraciously. And since I married a big reader, our combined collections aren’t so much a mountain of books as they are a literary Front Range, running the gamut from ancient history to star-spanning science fiction.

Naturally, I often spent a lot of time at the library – or should I say the “other library”? – joining the happy crowd of browsers and borrowers. But a book-loving spirit is a dangerous thing to have in combination with an absent-minded head. Especially when there are so many books already serving as natural camouflage for the newcomers.

And so, I tended to spend about as much time “settling up” as I did checking out. I can’t claim that my overdue fees personally paid for the new carpet at the Longmont Library, but it wouldn’t surprise me much.

I bring this up for two reasons. First, if I make headlines 40 years from now by unearthing a forgotten Bill Bryson volume and taking it to the circulation desk, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And second, as much as these stories strike a little close to home, they’re also heartwarming in a way. After all, we learn about them in almost exactly the same way, time after time: the person or their descendant uncovers the lost volume and brings it in.

No one would know if they didn’t. It’s possible no one would care. Most libraries don’t have the budget to keep a cold case file with square-jawed investigators seeking the truth. (Although wouldn’t that make a great TV series?) After a book spends decades off the shelf, most would assume that it’s not coming back.

Which means that every time it does, it’s an act of conscience. Someone who remembers what’s owed and wants to do their part to make it right.

When you think about it, this is a great time of year to remember that.

I don’t mean Halloween this time (though if you decide you “owe” really good candy to the kids on your block, bless you). But as I said earlier, Election Day is about a week away. Veterans Day is just a few days after that. Taken together, it’s a time to remember what we owe as citizens in building a country for all of us, as well as what’s been paid by those who came before.

Again, it’s a debt owed in conscience. If someone skips their piece of it, few would know. But when more of us who remember and repay, it’s better for all of us.

That kind of commitment speaks volumes.

Music and Memory

As the online music rocked, Missy partied like it was 2020.

By itself, the scene could have come from a hundred different nights. Missy, our disabled relative who’s physically in her 40s but much younger in heart and soul, has never met a dancing moment she didn’t like. Crank up her bedroom stereo or a YouTube video and she’ll move and sway as only she can, her smile beaming like a lighthouse.

But this night? Call it “Recent Retro.”  For the first time in several months, her favorite group – the Face Vocal Band – was livestreaming a basement concert. No crowds, no driving, just the joy of good a cappella rock on the doorstep.

“Yeah!!”

If you’re feeling a flashback, I get it. Two years ago, this was the music of lockdown. With masks everywhere and a vaccine nowhere in sight, live concerts became one of the biggest potential super-spreaders out there. So instead, musician after musician recorded quarantine videos and livestreamed concerts from their homes, keeping the music alive in the only way they could.

And in an off-balance world, they became a source of light. That not-so-simple act said “We care. We’re in this, too. And we want to make it better however we can.”

Since then, of course, many restrictions have eased or been put to rest entirely. People mix and mingle and even attend live concerts again. On the surface, things look – well, similar, if not the same.

 But when we look closer, we know it’s not really over. Not yet.

Not while so many are still so vulnerable.

I’ve written here before about my wife Heather, a wonderful woman with WAY too many autoimmune conditions for one human being. Even with the COVID curve so much lower than it was, it’s still totaling about 400 to 500 deaths a day in the U.S. That’s way too much virus for her to safely go out unless she has to.

She’s not alone. There are many others – more than most realize – for whom the pandemic is still a reality and a threat. For whom “normal,” or even this current fun-house mirror of it, is still a long way away.

And so I want to thank Face and others like them. Because once again, a not-so-simple concert said something special.

And this time, the message is “We remember.”

Easy to say. Powerful to feel.

And even without an uploaded video and a really kickin’ backbeat, it’s a message all of us can and should echo.

We remember that not everybody can come out and play yet. That post-pandemic is still mid-pandemic for a lot of us.

We remember that caution and courtesy are not just artifacts of 2020, but remain vital for everyone. That it’s not just about ourselves, but about those around us.

And yes, we remember that even in the midst of stressful times, we can still bring light to someone else’s world by seeing them and reaching out to where they are.

When we remember, we lift all of us up. And together, we become stronger. Maybe even strong enough to carry all of us to a better place.

That’s a pandemic attitude worth keeping.

And when it finally helps us break through to the other side – that will truly be a moment to dance.

I’ll bring Missy.

Nugget of Hope

I rubbed my eyes to clear them. This couldn’t be right.

No illusion. The sports analysis still said the same thing: the Denver Nuggets were the favorite to win the West. With about one chance in eight of winning it all – better than anyone but the Boston Celtics.

This had to be a joke. Or at least a Jokić.

No slam meant on the Nuggets, by the way, who along with the Avs, have contrived to make half of the Colorado sports year exciting again. But I’ve lived most of my life in Colorado. And in many of those years, the Denver Nuggets were the Little Engine That Almost Could.

Alex English. Dikembe Mutombo. Carmelo Anthony. Time and again, the golden boys of basketball turned up some of the game’s brightest stars from yesterday’s Dan Issel to today’s Nikola Jokić. They made run after run at the playoffs, sometimes with moments for the ages. (I still remember Mutombo’s expression of joy as he lay flat on the court after upsetting the top-seeded SuperSonics.)

But they never brought home a championship. Barely even came close. The Avs brought home Stanley Cups. The Broncos discovered a way to win Super Bowls (and I wish they’d jog their memory). Even the Rockies managed to at least make the World Series once.

The Nuggets? The numbers tell the tale. Since joining the NBA in 1977, they’ve made the Western Conference finals four times – and been shot down every time. Three of them by the Lakers.

NBA Finals appearances: zero.

But as Nuggets fans know, even numbers only go so far to describe heartbreak. So many times, it’s seemed like this had to be the year, whether from on-the-court awesomeness or blind Cinderella magic. But the moments that are mere bumps in the road during an 82-game regular season can bump you out fast in a short playoff series. And bumped we were – again and again and again.

It hurts. Maybe because it’s so familiar. And I don’t just mean on the basketball court.

A lot of us have been there. Maybe all of us. Year after year of doing the right thing, maybe even doing it well … but somewhere, at least once, falling short when it counted. Not because of laziness or ignorance or anything else wrong, but because the moment just wasn’t there.

A moment that you know deserved to be better.

We get up again, of course. That’s literally how we’re made. Biologists describe humanity as a persistence predator. That means our early successes weren’t from having mighty strength, sharp teeth or blazing speed, but from a sheer refusal to quit, walking on and on long after our faster prey had worn itself out.

Funny thing. Hope works the same way.

Excitement can die off fast. Optimism melts like fog when the heat of the moment hits. But hope walks. Step by step, mile by mile. Maybe not catching its target right away, but never leaving it. Always keeping it in sight, however exhausting it might be.

Sheer stubbornness. At its worst, it’s the most exasperating quality humanity has. But at its best, it’s the one that carries us through when everything seems lost.

Even when it hurts.

So best wishes to the Nuggets. Sure, in a world full of crazy, one NBA season might not seem like much. But if they can break through the wall at last … well, a little more joy and sunshine never hurt anyone.

And if they don’t … then it’s time to do what we always do. Dust off, stand up and move forward again.

And again.

And again.  

And that’s no joke at all.

Ever a -dle Moment

I feel a little sorry for anyone trying to eavesdrop on the conversations of Chez Rochat these days.

“So did you get today’s flag yet?”

“Yeah, but I was totally in the wrong place for the country. You’ll see. And I have no idea on the music.”

‘Really? Play it a couple more times, you’ll know the guitar.”

“Ok …”

If it sounds puzzling … you’re absolutely right.

A few months back, I wrote about getting caught up in the Wordle craze, the ubiquitous puzzle game where you have to guess a five-letter word in six tries. I’m still there (and currently with a streak of over 260 wins). But these days, it’s got a lot of company.

Like Warbl, where you guess a song after hearing 30 seconds of it played backward.

Or Flagdle, where you have to recognize … well, national flags.

Or Quordle, the Wordle spin-off where you figure out four words in nine tries.

Not to mention Worldle (recognizing the shape of a country), Emovi (guess a film from a few emojis describing it), Yeardle (find the right year that an event happened in), and much, much more.

Heather discovered most of the games. I found a couple. A reader of this column even recommended one to us. It’s a little like finding dandelions in spring; every time you spot a new one, five more are nearby.

So what’s the point?

I’m not under the illusion that it makes me any smarter. Even the best brain games mostly teach you how to play brain games, a limited field unless you’re applying to become the New York Times crossword editor. (Know of any openings?) But that’s not to say that it’s useless, either.

Heather does them in part to sharpen her memory against the “brain fog” that multiple sclerosis can cause.  The moment where a reversed 30-second “Smoke on the Water” falls into place can be very reassuring.

For me, many of them play to my strengths: word play and weird bits of trivia.

And for both of us, the games hold the same appeal as a great mystery novel: pattern recognition from limited clues. As I pointed out last time, that’s a survival skill these days.

But there’s another quality that may be as valuable: tenaciousness. In particular, the awareness that an answer can be found, even if it’s not obvious or easy, and the will to keep trying for it.

I’m not naïve. I know that most of the issues we face in this world require a lot more thought than simply recognizing the shape of Belgium. But either way, persistence matters. No problem, simple or difficult, gets solved if people give up trying.

There’s a lot of temptation to do just that. As 2021 ended, an Axios poll found that more Americans were fearful than hopeful about the year to come. Ten months later, I suspect the proportions haven’t changed much.  Now, fear for the future isn’t necessarily unhelpful … but it depends on what you do with it. Does it drive you to despair and surrender? Or does it push you to struggle and try, to preserve something or even improve it?

If you’re struggling, if you’re tying, then there’s still hope in the midst of the dread. Hope sees a possible answer and then sweats to make it happen. It may take a lot of failed attempts. But hope keeps pushing for one more, to stay in the game a little longer.

So play on.  Hold your flag high.

And speaking of flags, have you seen today’s …?

Throwing DARTs

Call the shot: asteroid, corner pocket.

That’s what kept running through my mind after we all heard the latest news from NASA. In an effort to sharpen Earth’s defenses against runaway rocks, the space agency recently slammed a spaceship into a test asteroid. The goal: to see if the rock could be bumped off course, a planetary billiards shot worthy of Minnesota Fats.

“This one’s for the dinosaurs,” one Tweet declared, one of many social media posts declaring “Revenge!” for T-Rex and its cousins.

No, it’s not exactly Hollywood. As NPR reminded everyone, our movie-makers like to solve the problem of planet-killer asteroids with nuclear weapons. (Right, Mr. Willis?) As usual, reality is a little more subtle. Just like fighting fire with fire, you fight motion with motion.

Nudges. Not nukes.

Not a bad course of action for life in general, when you think about it. We’ve all seen situations where the quiet conversation undoes the need for the shouting match, the soft answer that turns away wrath. On a larger scale, politics happens because we believe that words are better than wars … and breaks down when we forget that fact.

But there’s a second part to this, too. NASA hasn’t forgotten it. We shouldn’t either.

Without awareness, the best nudge in the world is doomed to fail.

We’re great at watching the depths of interstellar space. But our own backyard has some blind spots. Every so often, we’ll see a story about a near-miss asteroid that surprised us from out of the sun, like the Red Baron ambushing Snoopy. One rock the size of a football field missed us in 2019 by about 43,000 miles – about one-fifth the distance to the moon – and wasn’t seen until after the fact. A smaller one the next year passed us by 1,800 miles; we noticed six hours later.

Moments like that are why NASA plans to launch a new Space Surveyor telescope in a few years to help keep an eye on lower earth orbit. They’re also a good reminder for the two simple words that we’re so bad at: pay attention.

On the sidewalk, it can mean a trip or a collision because someone’s eyes were on their phone instead of their surroundings.

On the highway, a moment’s lapse of attention can have horrifying consequences.

On a larger scale, early detection of a crisis – from hurricanes to viruses – can save lives. Ignoring the warnings or failing to see them can be disastrous.

We can all chime in with our personal examples, of course. Maybe it’s something spotted during a bit of home maintenance that saved a repair later. Or a symptom noticed and checked out before it became something worse. Or even just learning about a friend’s troubles in time to lend a hand and a heart.

You can’t help what you don’t know.

Granted, our attention can’t be everywhere. A lot of alarms go off around the world in the course of a day (just ask TV news). Trying to keep every last one in mind is a recipe for anxiety and despair. There needs to be judgment as well as awareness.

But we can’t walk blind. Not to our surroundings. Not to our neighbors. Certainly not to our world.

It’s a balancing act. But a vital one. And working together, with open eyes and a light touch, we can help each other make it.

No, it’s not easy. But it’s worth the shot.

And if we aim it right, we just might hit the pocket.

Unmasked

“Think of me, think of me fondly, when we’ve said goodbye.”

– “Think of Me” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

After 35 years, the chandelier will fall for the last time on Broadway. And that’s a strange thing for an ‘80s kid to know.

There aren’t a lot of constants in American life, but “The Phantom of the Opera” has been one of them. As a teenage choir student, I obsessed over every note of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s mega-musical, and I had a LOT of company. It seemed to touch every aspect of our life.

Learning to drive? A cassette would magically appear in the passenger seat.

Practicing piano? The Phantom’s dramatically descending chords had to be included.

Singing along? You were … OK, probably out of luck unless you were a tenor or soprano, but it was still fun to try.

It came as no surprise to any of us when “Phantom” broke the record for longest-running Broadway musical and kept on going. By then, it had become more than a show: it was an institution, as much of a monument as the Empire State Building or Times Square.

But every show reaches its curtain. In February, the AP reported, Broadway’s “Phantom” will take its final bow. Far off in Britain, the original West End run will continue … for now. I type those last two words with hesitation, remembering that mega-musicals with mega-budgets aren’t a great fit for a pandemic world that doesn’t readily produce mega-audiences.

But as the light goes out on the Broadway run, I can’t help wondering – what held us all?

“Let the dream begin, let your darker side give in …”

– “Music of the Night” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

It’s fitting that the symbol of “Phantom” is a discarded mask. Because for all its spectacle and song, it’s a story of discovery.  

Some of the masks are internal:  characters having to discover who they really are and what they want, the basic impetus of any good story.

Some are dangerous, with the Phantom’s obsession disguising itself as love. That’s a mask we still have to watch out for in this day and age – the supposed lover, zealot or patriot who is willing to break what they “love” in order to keep it made in their own image.  

And some of that discovery means reaching backwards, facing the past clearly and deciding what it will be to us. Christine ultimately makes it a source of strength. The Phantom draws pain from it and makes it a weapon.

We still face all those choices and more besides.

“You’ll sing again, and to unending ovation!”

– “Prima Donna” from “The Phantom of the Opera”

In this day and age, of course, no show is every truly gone. We get soundtracks and videos and revivals and even movies (of variable quality). Those who want a taste of the experience can still find it, and without having to mortgage the house for tickets.

But in another way, it really is the end of an era. There’s a magic to live theater that nothing else really touches … the sense of the story coming to life for the first time between audience and performer, never quite the same. Broadway’s “Phantom” kept reinventing that story through the generations and the spotlight is a little cooler for its absence.

But the heart of the story still lives. The essential lessons will outlast any broken chandelier.

All we have to do is remove the mask and find them for ourselves.