Logging Out

Once upon a time, the symbol of midwinter was the Yule log. Now it’s the forelog.

If you’ve never heard the term, please allow my Word Geek Brain™ to make the introductions. You know how after you come back from a vacation or holiday, the “backlog” is all the stuff you have to catch up with? Well, the “forelog” comes on the other end. It’s the piles and piles of things you have to take care of before you can relax.

And my oh my, does the forelog burn bright at the holidays.

We hustle here, there and everywhere like Santa without a sleigh. Gotta buy the gifts. Gotta WRAP the gifts. Only wait, did we remember Scotch tape? Never mind that, gotta plan for company. Gotta clean for company. Check the work schedule. Check the flight schedule. “What do you mean, they’re coming in on Christmas Eve?”

Pant. Gasp. Pant.

You know, I’m starting to understand the Grinch more and more every year.

If it were just sheer social obligation, it would be one thing. But for most of us, most of the time, it’s coming from the best of places. We want to be welcoming to friends and family and neighbors. We want to help co-workers out before the holidays hit. And of course, we want to give the season that we received, so many times from so many people through so many years.

And in a way, that makes it harder. When we get tired – and we will get tired – it’s easy to turn it inward as an accusation. “I should be doing more. They deserve better. I’m not a good person.”

Stop. Stop. And stop.

In a season of love and kindness, it’s time to show some to ourselves as well.

It sounds selfish. It really isn’t. In a way, it’s a reflection of the adage that so many of us learned long ago, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” As my old math teacher might put it, that statement’s reflexive – it suggests that we also need to show the same kindness to ourselves that we would show to a neighbor.

No, it’s not easy. It never has been.

But we need it, as surely as any gift we’ve ever found under a tree.

We need to remember that we deserve good things, too. Not the “stuff” that gets piled up in boxes and bags, but the essential gifts. Kindness. Grace. Love. Forgiveness.

All of us are carrying a lot, whether at the holidays or any other time. None of us know the full extent of each other’s burdens. Sometimes we don’t even know the full extent of our own – we’re just trudging on as best we can, tottering under the load.

It’s OK to pause in the midst of the chaos. No … it’s essential. Take a moment to look at yourself as you would your best friend. Show the kindness you would show to them. Say the words you would say.

One of our family’s favorite bands, the a cappella group Face, had just the right words for it in a song called “Pick Your Head Up.” The chorus declares “The things that you say to yourself are words you’d speak to no one else.”

I try to remember that. To keep my words from being a weapon pointed inward.

If you’re in a place where you need to remember, too, I hope this helps. Know that you deserve the light. We all do.

The forelog will pass. But the strength you find and the flame you kindle can be a gift that lasts.

Better yet – it becomes a gift you can share.

Lift it up. And let it glow.

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.

Singing Out, Singing In

There’s nothing like a jaunt in a time machine to kick off the weekend right.

No, Doc Brown didn’t park the DeLorean in my driveway. The TARDIS from Doctor Who hasn’t made a pit stop on the Front Range. And while I’d have to clean out the basement to be sure, I’m reasonably confident that there’s no Victorian wonder-machine of gears and wheels waiting in the furnace room courtesy of H.G. Wells.

No worries. I’ve got something better yet.

It’s called Virtuosity.

***

Helplessly hoping, her harlequin hovers

Nearby, awaiting a word …  

Virtuosity, as the name might suggest, is a virtual choir, an online singing group organized by Stephen Ross of the Face Vocal Band. Like many others of its kind, it’s a pandemic creation, born from people who shared two common qualities:

  1. They really wanted to sing together for fun.
  2. They really didn’t want to share a virus-laden airflow.

The result is a musical Rube Goldberg machine, with a lot of moving parts adding up to a surprising result. You basically learn the song (with some online coaching), practice, record yourself at home 37 bazillion times until you’re no longer disgusted with your own performance, send the video to the director and then wait while he merges everybody’s video into one coherent and even compelling performance.

It should never work. But it does … brilliantly.

The main trick – well, besides learning to be kind to yourself as you work out the kinks – is that there can be quite a delay between preparation and performance. But even that’s more of a feature than a bug. It means that when you cue up the latest song – in this case, a cover of “Helplessly Hoping” by Crosby, Stills and Nash – you’re not just hearing music. You’re hearing memories.

That’s where the time machine comes in.

On Friday, it took me back to the March blizzard that overlapped our recording dates. For many of us, that added up to a lot of extra takes, thanks to the sudden roar of snow blowers in the background or the THUMP of drifts sliding off the roof and onto the soundtrack.

Months from now, it’ll probably take me back even farther –  not just to piled-up snowstorms, but to the pandemic itself and the weirdness of trying to live apart from the world while being a part of it at the same time.

It’s a memory brought back to life. And that’s powerful.

I know, I know. Most of us feel like we don’t especially want to remember these times. We’ve shredded the 2020 calendar, buried the mask in the just-in-case back pocket, and set about trying to look forward instead of back. I sympathize, I really do.

Some memories are painful. Or uncomfortable. Or even toxic. Every day, we see headlines generated by memories that are years or even centuries old, pain left unredressed, wounds that never found a chance of healing.

But memory can build, too. It can teach, strengthen, reassure. It’s the sudden laugh that lightens the darkness, the glimpse of hope in the midst of insanity. It’s the reminder that “Yes, we’ve made it through before and we can again.”

When those memories are wrapped in an experience – a song, a story, a journey of the mind or the body – they endure. And when it’s a shared experience … well, that’s the sort of memory that builds communities up instead of tears them down.

I hope we all find some memories worth keeping from this. Maybe even worth learning from.

You could even call it note-worthy.

Harmony of Hope

As music poured from the speakers, Missy danced. And squirmed. And smiled.

How could she not? Her favorites, the Face Vocal Band, were back on the microphone.

Well, in a way.

Like everyone else, Boulder County’s own a cappella rock band had been pushed off the concert stage and into shelter by COVID-19. And like so many performers, they were finding a work-around  – a periodic livestream that mixed behind-the-scenes commentary and familiar videos, each time culminating in the debut of a brand new piece.

By itself, that would be more than enough to keep the flame burning in the hearts of the Face-ful followers. But on Friday night, Face cheated.

It’s really not fair to bring in magic, too.

“From now on … these eyes will not be blinded by the lights …”

The tune would be familiar to many: the showstopping “From Now On” from the movie musical “The Greatest Showman.” Face was supposed to be bringing that song to Carnegie Hall, backed by a mighty community chorus. Instead, they were bringing it to the world, voices stitched together from a myriad of homes as band, chorus, and fans united in the only way they could.

At any time, it would have been a beautiful song. But at this time – blended with images of joy, hope and togetherness from the families of their fans everywhere – it did more than sing. It resonated. And as the hook repeated over and over, I realized for a moment that sometimes life really does have a soundtrack:

“And we will come back home, and we will come back home, home again …”

Isn’t that what we’re all waiting for?

OK, put like that, it might sound a little strange. After all, we’re all spending a lot more time at home lately than any of us had planned on. Some are climbing the walls while others are bunking down in introverted peace, but surely all of us are looking to the day when home can be a base instead of a world. Aren’t we?

Well, yes and no.

Sure, most of us want the front door to open again for something that isn’t a weekly grocery trip. But home is more than a living space. It’s a mental space. It’s a life that we know and recognize, a state of mind where we know how things fit and where we belong.

That home has been distant for quite a while now. We want it back. And we sometimes fear how little of it may remain, how much may have changed beyond recognition.

I can’t claim a gift of prophecy. I don’t know what the far end of this looks like any more than you do. But I suspect we’ll keep more than we think.

And that’s because we’ve already kept more than we know.

When everything familiar is taken away, it puts the essentials in a spotlight. There’s time to see what’s really important and what was just noise.

Maybe that’s why, even in the midst of so much isolation, we’re still finding ways to be together.

I’m not blindly optimistic. I know there’s anger and debate and contention – I do have a social media account, after all. But I’m constantly struck by how many people are doing so much to add a little beauty, humor and hope to the world. Not because they’re ignoring the situation – is it ignoring the darkness to light a candle?- but because it’s what we do. As friends. As neighbors. As people.

We help. We listen. We howl in the night. And yes, sometimes we sing.

And through all of it, we heal.

Yes. We will come back home again. Not unchanged. But not alone. And when we do – that will truly be a time to dance.

Missy is ready.

You can see it in her Face.

Living on the Edge

There are quiet people in this world. Shy, retiring, afraid to let you know what they feel.

And then there’s Missy.

As in the Missy that charges the edge of the stage at a Face Vocal Band concert, witnessing the whole show a shoelace away from the singers.

Or the Missy whose face lights up at the sight of a dog (“Doggie!”), a small child (“Baby!”), or a friendly-looking face in the downtown (“Hi, you!”). Who shouts back at passing motorcycles for being too loud, and then cranks the car stereo to 35 when she thinks no one’s looking.

She’s my age by the calendar.  But she’s miles younger when it comes to enthusiasm and sincerity. For Missy, life is something to be embraced – maybe literally in the case of Face, from whom she collects hugs and hellos after every show.

It’s fun to watch. And a little intimidating to match.

You see, I am one of the quiet people by nature.

OK, you can stop laughing.

Yes, I’m also an actor, a former reporter, a PR guy, and a columnist who shares pieces of his life on a regular basis. This is not necessarily a contradiction. While all of those are social, they’re also situations where the conversation usually has rules. An actor has a script. A reporter has questions, a PR guy a specific field to expound on. A columnist has space to think and a copious supply of caffeine.

Granted, all of these allow for some level of improvisation, or demand it, even, at times. But that foundation is always there, a safe outlet.

When you’re a quiet kid, you learn those outlets early.

In grade school, I sometimes hid behind library bookcases to avoid talking to people. In junior high, I was regularly dodging bullies. High school was a lot better, but there was always the awareness of being a little out of the mainstream – the jokes we’d tell each other about being “theatre geeks,” “choir nerds” or heaven help us, one of those weirdos who liked roleplaying.

It’s a different world now than it was, then. The geeks conquered the cultural universe. Now, things like The Lord of the Rings or Marvel superheroes aren’t nerdy obsessions, they’re coffeepot conversations. The niche has become the mainstream.

But habits don’t change quickly. Inner natures even less so. I think a lot of us – whatever our backgrounds, whatever our interests – still weigh situations carefully. To see if it’s acceptable, or even safe, to show what we feel. To keep that careful distance from the edge, lest we fall.

And to marvel, just a little bit, at those willing to dance there without fear.

That is Missy.

And it’s why we make such a curious team.

The sitcoms would love it – the near-silent extrovert paired with the social introvert. (Even more so when you add my wife Heather, an introvert by nature who loves steering both of us to new experiences and situations.) And, as with any good sitcom, everyone learns a lot from each other by the end of the episode.

A little more listening and restraint on one side. A little more fearlessness and willingness to let go, on the other. A world to explore for both.

If we fall, we fall together. But I’m a lot less worried about falling than I used to be.

It’s a great way to face the world. Or even to be whirled toward Face.

It’s certainly music to our ears.

All About That Face

Missy twisted and turned, her hands in the air, her face brilliant with delight. Her knees bent to the rhythm, then straightened, then bent again.

“Yeah!!” she called out, laughing and bouncing as the energized voices of the Face Vocal Band – Colorado’s own a cappella rock band – powered their way to a close. Stopping was unthinkable, sitting down impossible.

“All right, Miss!”

Regular readers of this column know that our disabled ward Missy – eight months younger than me physically, but younger still in mind and spirit – will dance at any excuse or none. She’s the original crank-it-to-11 fan, capable of blowing the speakers off a car stereo with just one cut from a John Denver CD. She’s rocked it to the Bee Gees, to Michael Jackson, to a department store recording of the Hallelujah Chorus.

But since we first moved in with her four years ago, a cappella seems to have zoomed to the top of her list. Face holds down the top spot, whether it’s live in concert at the fairgrounds or over and over again on a DVD never made for ritual abuse. But there’s room for more, discovered on old recordings and through the magic of YouTube. The Nylons. Pentatonix. Straight No Chaser. If it’s got all voices, no instruments and a beat that can’t be stopped, Missy is all in.

I can’t say I blame her. After all, this is fuel for my own personal Wayback Machine.

Back in high school – never mind when – I sang in the Longmont High School men’s chorus. The crew met at the what-time-is-this-class hour of 7 o’clock in the morning, an hour at which basses rumble and tenors gasp. (If you’ve never heard a teenage tenor trying to get his voice started at 7 a.m., I encourage you to watch … but don’t try to swallow any carbonated liquids while you do, please.)

We sang whatever the fertile mind of Mr. Harrison could come up with, from show tunes to cowboy songs. But the best ones, for my money anyway, were the a cappella bits. Mind you, I sang bass, so that usually meant my vocal line was something like “Doo doo, da doo doo, da doo doo, whoa, whoa, whoooa” or some similarly deathless lyric. But it didn’t matter.

This was magic. This was music. This was creating something fun and spectacular with nothing more than what you had inside.

There’s no rush to match it.

You don’t have to be a singer to get it. Any talent, loosed into the world without restraint, will hit a similar vein. One man’s sculpture is another woman’s martial arts is another person’s passion for old cars. No brakes but your own enthusiasm, no limits but your own perseverance.

It’s exciting. Addictive, even.

And maybe that’s some of what speaks to Missy.

Her world is often a silent one, even a little mysterious to someone who doesn’t know her well. But rev up her enthusiasms – for dancing, for bowling, for art or a good story – and she’s a woman transformed. How much more so when her transformation is ignited by someone else’s?

It’s more than imitation. To this day, Missy’s musical tastes don’t perfectly match with mine or Heather’s. It’s something that reaches the core, some alchemy of voices unchained meeting a spirit unrestrained.

How can you beat that? Why would you even try?

So tune the tenors. Strike up the bass. Get that vocal percussion going. Missy’s revved and ready to rock.

Trust me. You’ll never have a more Face-ful fan.