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.

The Great Escape

It sounded like the checklist for a bank robbery. Masks on. Remember how we practiced this. Get in, get out, go home.

“Are you ready?” I asked Missy.

“Y-yeah!” The cloth hid her grin but her eyes were bright.

And with that, we crossed the street to the comic book store. Our first (extremely brief) foray downtown since the Great Stay-at-Home was underway.

For Missy, it may as well have been a lottery win.

Regular readers may remember that when the world went into lockdown, our developmentally disabled ward went into frustration. Missy doesn’t talk a lot but she loves being around people, the extrovert’s extrovert who’s happiest in the middle of a dance floor, or a crowded restaurant, or a knock-em-down day at the bowling alley. She’s never forgotten a face, so any trip around town tends to produce a “Hey you!” and a wave as she works her way over, while I quickly try to remember if this is an old friend of hers or someone who’s about to become a new one.

So as you can imagine, COVID-19 has been her personal Lex Luthor. Only without the cool gadgets and shiny green rocks.

No restaurants. No crowds. Nothing beyond the walls of home, really, since with her disabilities she’s considered part of the “vulnerable “ population. And with her favorite businesses and weekly activities closed, there wasn’t anywhere to go.

I can hear some of you nodding your heads. Yep, familiar situation. A lot of folks were in the same boat – they just couldn’t share crew space.

That’s not easy. Especially for the most social folks among us who need a visit, a hug, a change of scenery the way that some of us need oxygen or water.

And it’s one reason why we’re finding re-opening the world to be a lot harder than shutting it down.

If you are or have been a parent – Happy Father’s Day, by the way! –  you know what I’m talking it about. Saying “NO” is frustrating, but clear. Saying “Yes, we can, if …” is a lot harder. That usually means conditions and rules and promises. And promises are easy to make but hard to keep in the heat of the moment. Of course I’ll walk the dog if we get one! Sure I’ll clean my room before going out!

We mean well. But we get excited. We want to hurry things along.

And in a situation like this, where careful steps are needed, that over-eagerness can trip things up fast.

The good news is that we’re still in a place where careful steps can work. Where they have been working. Where thinking about what we do before we do it can make a big difference.

With Missy, that meant practicing regularly with her mask, making sure she could keep it on, and using her wheelchair when we finally went out for real to reduce the chance of wandering.

With us as a society, it means continuing to look out for each other. To not just focus on the stuff we want to do, but to learn and practice the things we need to do, in order to make sure that we all get through this.

It’s easy to get impatient. But if we keep it doing right, even the small victories become a big deal. And the big victories come that much closer.

Thank you to everyone who’s been doing it right. Who’s given us this crack in the door. Together, we’re making life just a little more normal.

For Missy, that’s an excitement that nothing can mask.

The Quiet Time

By now, we should be experts in quiet.

Think about it. We’ve had weeks, even months of practice. Self-quarantine. Social distancing. Stay-at-home orders with every possible distraction removed (except Netflix). Surely by now, we’ve mastered the art of silent contemplation, gained a new appreciation for the inner life, and dedicated ourselves to a period of reflection and self-discovery …

You’re not buying it, are you?

Well, it was worth a shot.

In all honesty, the growing levels of COVID-19 restlessness haven’t really shocked me that much, and not just because of economic pressure and a rising tide of Amazon boxes that threatens to inundate all of suburbia. The fact of the matter is, we’re a loud country. An extrovert among nations. Folks who want to do instead of be, and preferably do it with friends at 100 decibels or more, especially when it comes time for the July 4 Symphony in the Key of High Explosives. (If you’re not part of the annual conflagration, by the way, our dog would like to thank you from the bottom of his eardrums.)

I know, there are plenty of exceptions (myself included). But by and large, we’re not a country that does real well with “sit still and wait.”

So there’s a real irony to the fact that our first restless steps beyond the house and the grocery store are coming just in time for Memorial Day.

A couple of years ago, I noted that Memorial Day is something of an oddity among the holidays, since it doesn’t ask you to do all that much. There’s no calls to put out acres of holiday lights, or dress in bizarre costumes, or call your mom before her day slips away again. (You did remember this year, right?) Instead, we’re asked to pause and remember and reflect, to hold close the memory of those who gave everything they had to protect the nation.

And to be honest, we don’t do it all that well. We mean well, most of us, but backyard grills are seductive. And swimming pools. And the chance to grab the first three-day weekend in the last three months or so.

But now … now we have the quiet holiday in the midst of the quiet time. A moment where we’re still supposed to be taking it slow and distant, the perfect atmosphere in which to focus on the things that matter.

What if we actually did?

What if we took the time to remember those who stepped forward to protect those more vulnerable, whatever the sacrifice?

What if we learned from them? And emulated them? Not by hurrying to a foreign battlefield, but by coming to the aid of our friends and neighbors, even when it’s difficult or uncomfortable?

What if we took a moment to recall the cost of conflict, and then looked for ways to ease it?

What if we opened ourselves to the lessons of the past, so that we could build a better future?

What if we just stopped to think? To look beyond our skin? To see a need and stand up to fill it, as someone once did for us?

That would be a Memorial Day worth remembering. And not just for the epic barbecue rubs.

Take the opportunity. In a world of uncertainty, be someone’s reassurance, even if it’s through the simplest of acts. In a time where distancing is survival, take the actions that bind all of us closer together, even when we have to stay physically apart.

So many gave so much to bring us where we are. But it’s up to us to carry it forward, with our heart, our willingness, and our sacrifices, big and small.

Don’t do it for applause or acclaim. Do it because we’re counting on each other. Because none of us can do this alone.

You may even find a quiet satisfaction.

And at a time like this, that’s the most fitting reward of all.

Facing Out in Joy

With every night and each new adventure, Missy giggled and smiled. Getting stuck in a rabbit hole. Marching to the North Pole by lunch time. And of course, laying a devious trap for the horrible Heffalumps.

There was no doubt about it. “Winnie the Pooh” was a hit.

When I added the stories to our bedtime reading, it had been a long time since I’d journeyed through the Hundred-Acre Wood. But it soon felt like yesterday. As we encountered the irascible Rabbit and pompous Owl, Piglet the Very Small Animal, and of course, Pooh Bear himself (of Very Little Brain), it was a reunion with old friends and long-missed neighbors with delightful stories to share.

It also seemed familiar. And it took me a moment to realize why.

Regular readers will remember that in my spare time, I’m an amateur actor. And this Friday, my latest show opens at the Rialto Theatre in Loveland – “You Can’t Take It With You,” an unforgettable comedy from the 1930s. If you haven’t seen it before,  or the movie with Jimmy Stewart, it spends its time with the pleasantly off-balance Sycamore family, a clan that can charitably be called unique. Dad tests fireworks in the cellar, Grandpa raises snakes in the living room, and Mom alternates between unfinished plays and incomplete art works, while welcoming anyone into the home – sometimes for a years-long stay.

The comedy, of course, comes from the collision between the Sycamores’ carefree lifestyle and the expectations of a more rigorous world. And that is where I began hearing the humming of That Sort of Bear … and a whisper or two of a joy that our own world sometimes forgets.

Namely, the simple act of being happy without apology.

Pooh is who he is. He seems foolish and silly at times. Heck, he is foolish and silly at times. (“Silly old Bear!”) But he hurts no one, he enjoys his songs and his honey and his friends, and in his relaxed happiness, he often sees things that others miss.

The Sycamores are who they are. The outside world thinks they’re mad, and it’s not always wrong. But they hurt no one, they enjoy their thousand and one odd pastimes and friends, and in their relaxed happiness, they remember some simple things that a more hurried humanity has forgotten.

And then there’s us.

We spend a lot of time  trimming ourselves to fit the world’s expectations. Some of that’s a necessary consequence of living with other human beings – neither the Sycamores nor Pooh Bear disdain common courtesy, after all. But all too often, it’s a little more toxic.

All too often, it turns into hiding.

Maybe it’s the child who got bullied in school. A lot. Even if the victim makes it out the other side, the lesson has been learned: Don’t be too different, or you will regret it.

Maybe it’s the person with a chronic illness who’s run into “compassion fatigue,” the friends and family who don’t know how to handle a condition that isn’t fatal but won’t go away. Over time, the lesson is learned: Better to exhaust yourself acting “normal” on the surface than to encounter a world that constantly says “This again?”

Often, it’s something less dramatic, but no less discouraging. We choose one of a thousand masks to make the world more comfortable with us, even if it means we aren’t that comfortable with ourselves.

Or – we can let go.

We can acknowledge who we are. Face the world without hunched shoulders and a wary look. And even love the silly things that hurt no one, and make us happy.

No, it’s not easy. It’s risky, in a lot of ways. The world can be harsh to the different and the honest.

But it’s also the only way to truly live, not just exist. And in that living, to see the world and yourself with fresh eyes.

That’s something even a Bear of Very Little Brain can appreciate.

***

(Psst! If you want to catch the show, “You Can’t Take It With You” runs the weekends of April 12-14 and 19-20 at the Rialto. See you there!)

Miss-somnia

“Sweetie, honey, it’s past midnight, you need to – “

“NO!”

The word had been spoken. And even though she had been yawning, blinking, and showing every other sign of being ready to make an urgent appointment with the Sandman, Missy was as clear as an Old Testament prophet. She was NOT going to sleep.

This was, needless to say, a tad unusual. Normally, one side effect of Missy’s developmental disability is that routines go over very, very well. And few things are more routine than the Dance of the Missy Bedtime, wherein is laid out the last steps through the bathroom and bedroom, culminating in a bedside storytime, a final hug, and lights-out.

But that night, the dance band couldn’t even strike the opening chords. We’d had a good time together, even a fun time, despite having to explain that even though the neighbors’ decorations were cool, it wasn’t trick-or-treat time yet.

But all of a sudden, advancing to her bedroom was like suggesting we take a walk down the plank of Capt. James Hook. Missy is tiny, but 97 pounds of “No!” has a power all its own. As Master Shakespeare put it once upon a time, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!”

And so Heather and I talked, and cajoled, and tried to understand. And as her hands indicated an object on the forehead shooting things out (complete with impressive sound effects), the problem seemed to become clear.

“Missy,” Heather explained gently, “it’s just a weird costume. It’s still the real Scotty. Does Mad-Eye Moody sing old sitcom tunes and leave pop cans on the counter?”

Oh, dear.

I might have done my job just a little too well.

Those who read the column last week may remember that I was creating a costume of Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody, a hard-bitten ally of the good guys who was most notable by his prominent magical eye. Armed with a milk cap, half a ping-pong ball, and an amazing lack of permanent scars, I had constructed a bright blue duplicate, always angled to one side of where I was actually looking.

Missy had been fascinated by the outfit, and especially the eye, examining it and calling Heather’s attention to it when I was away. She’d even made sure that I put it on for one of her own Halloween parties. (Yes, plural. Missy’s social life is far more impressive than my own.)

But apparently, seeing me in it also weirded her out a little. Maybe more than a little. Again, I was reminded that before she fell in love with dressing up as Harry Potter or Frodo Baggins, Halloween used to be an uncomfortable time of year for Missy – precisely because of all the costumes and masks on everyone around her.

When the familiar becomes strange, what can you trust? Is anyone really what they seem to be?

I think many of us could all too easily agree with that one.

Some of us have had trust betrayed. Some have discovered dark sides to beloved figures that make it impossible to see them the same way again. Many of us – maybe all of us? – have been in a situation that we thought we understood, only to have the ground slip away under our feet like a Longs Peak avalanche.

When a false step becomes that painful, it’s hard to walk forward again. To trust. To not wonder what traps are lying beneath. The experience can be valuable to learn from, but can be taken too far – as Mark Twain put it, the cat that sleeps on a hot stove-lid quickly learns not to do it anymore, but she also learns not to sleep on cold ones.

Healing takes time, and love, and friends. Maybe especially that last. In a nightmare, you’re always alone. In the waking world, there can be someone to help.

So Heather and I took the time. The final approach to the bed was made slowly, just an invitation to sit with me and look at some things on my tablet for a while. Finally, surrounded by familiar love and utter exhaustion, Missy was ready to lie back and relax.

Mad-Eye has been put away. He might come out one more time on Halloween, but only well away from the house.

Masks are fun. But some things need to be handled face-on.

Making Faces

At the risk of letting my inner geek out, I think I’ve figured out the real reason Spider-Man wears a mask.

Oh, don’t worry. This isn’t one of those oddball columns that discusses Superman’s immigration status or Batman’s patent protection. You don’t have to know the mighty Marvel footnotes in order to hang around here or care about how Hollywood treats caped crusaders. (Though if that sort of thing does light your fire, I’ll track you down for coffee later, OK?)

No, this has its roots in more familiar territory: in hospitals, in family, in simple conversation. And, as with so many things in this space, it starts with Heather and Missy.

My wife Heather got to spend the night at Good Samaritan hospital recently. Regular readers may remember that we’ve been chasing some medical mysteries worthy of Dr. Watson and not getting much in the way of answers. To move things along, Heather’s doctor suggested it was time for a sleepover, so that all the tests Heather needed could be run at once instead of strung out over weeks.

Logical. Helpful, even. Certainly appreciated.

But it did mean explaining a few things to Missy.

Despite her mental disability, Missy can be pretty sharp. Sharp enough to guess that when one of her guardians goes into the hospital and doesn’t come back right away, something may be wrong. Vanishing without explanation was never an option – not only do we respect her too much for that, but she’s stubborn enough to sit in the bay window for hours waiting for someone to come home if they’re not back on schedule.

So I took her up to the hospital in the afternoon and let her see that Heather was in good spirits. Missy lost her own mom to cancer, so we assured her that this wasn’t like that, that the doctor was just having a look around to see what was going on so Heather could feel better.

Even so, on the drive back, I could see Missy wasn’t entirely buying it. Not judging by the sniffs and red eyes and careful glances out the car window.

“It really is going to be OK, Miss,” I told her. And I believed it. But at the same time, as I tried to keep Missy’s worries at bay, I felt a sudden kinship with the ol’ webslinger.

Spider-Man, like I mentioned, wears a mask. The comics always have plenty of good reasons, starting with the need to protect his family from supervillain retribution. The fact that his real-world boss is a Spidey-hating jerk offers some extra incentive.

But masks hide more than just an identity. They hide feelings, too, especially fear and anxiety. Comic geeks know that one reason for the wallcrawler’s constant string of wisecracks in a fight is that he’s covering for nervousness, so that he can keep being a hero, to the world and himself. A mask makes that all the easier.

And it’s one that I think many of us have put on a time or too ourselves.

A good parent doesn’t lie to their child, or a guardian to their ward. I firmly believe that. But there are times when you stay brave to keep them from worrying, when your own fear and uncertainty have to stay out of sight so that you can help them through a tough situation. There are times when sharing everything you know and feel would just make the situation harder, especially when the real quest isn’t for information – it’s for reassurance.

I’ve been on the other side of this long ago, when Mom had to deal with breast cancer while my sisters and I were in grade school. We knew that Mom saw a lot of doctors and even went to the hospital sometimes. But Mom and Dad never weighed us down with stress we didn’t need. We knew we were loved, we knew we were safe, and we never knew about the anxiety they felt in the small hours of the night until much later.

There’s a funny thing about reassurance, though. If you provide it enough times, you can start to feel it yourself. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” Mom is fond of saying. I can’t argue: not only is Missy doing better, so am I. In talking to her, I was somehow talking to me, too, and making both of us stronger.

Sometimes, over time, the mask can create the hero.

And that’s a marvel more real than any radioactive spider.

Behind the Mask

Missy loves Christmas, year-round.

She’ll dunk Easter eggs with great energy.

But Halloween – that’s another story.

Heather and I have never really been sure why. But even before we became guardians for our favorite disabled adult, we knew that fact: Missy and the Night of A Thousand Costumed Beggars just don’t mix.

Maybe it’s the incessant ding-dong-ding of the doorbell. Though she certainly enjoys visitors at any other time of year.

Maybe it’s the creepy imagery, the cobwebs and skulls, the looming spiders and leering pumpkins. Yet scary scenes have been some of Missy’s favorite parts in our nighttime reading together.

Heather, long more versed in the art of Missy-ology than I, has her own conclusions.

“It’s the costumes,” she theorized.

Huh?

“You know – people dressing up as something else, being something they’re not. I think that weirds her out sometimes.”

Huh.

Two thoughts crossed my head. One was just how many things I had been over a childhood’s worth of Halloweens. Robin Hood and Hercules, a scarecrow, a ghost … the transformation was always my favorite part, even if I did have to throw a coat over it in deference to a Colorado October.

The second thought was a sudden burst of understanding.

“So that’s why they put Election Day right afterward!”

Think about it.

People going door to door, asking for a small donation?

Folks trying to look like anything but themselves, assuming an appearance that will impress, amuse or terrify?

An atmosphere changed to add uncertainty and nervousness, where neither would be justified in real life?

That’s such a perfect summary of the campaign season, I’m amazed we don’t vote on Halloween.

And it’s why I think a lot of us can sympathize with Missy’s uncertainty.

Ideally, an election should help us learn who the candidates are and what they stand for. But between the handling of their managers and the negative ads of opponents, that seems to be the most difficult thing of all. Back in 1992, when Admiral James Stockdale opened a debate by saying “Who am I? Why am I here?” he summed up voters’ questions in a nutshell.

Who are these guys? Really?

Which is the mask and which is the man?

It’s not a comfortable feeling.

Perhaps the one advantage to a (tediously) long pre-election season is that there’s more chances for the mask to slip: an unguarded word in front of cameras, an overly-honest moment spurred by fatigue. But we shouldn’t need that.

I know, “shouldn’t” is a dreamer’s word. But I can’t help wondering. If our would-be leaders spent as much time showing us who they really are as they now do trying to be what we want them to be (and keeping their opponents from doing the same), what would be the result?

Shock? Disgust? Appreciation?

Who knows?

In the end, Missy had a softer feeling toward Halloween this year. Heather and I smiled across the room as she danced at a friend’s costume party, a crowned princess among the various monsters and heroes.

Tonight the masks were harmless fun.

May they come to be so for all of us.