Saturday, September 16, 2017

Homegrown Hamilton: In the Eye of the Hurricane (There is quiet... Just for a moment)

written September 16, 2017

It is a challenge these days not to think about the fact that the sky might actually falling. There was Harvey and Irma, of course, where the sky actually did crash to the ground in countless ways. The intensity of each was arguably our fault, but Mother Nature can still take the bulk of the blame for that. But, I don't know... can one really deny the strange man-made fog that hovers around us now, a product of a new sort of reality and an uncertain future? Feeds, fake news, real news. It sticks to our skin, disrupting our sanity and often our sense of safety. As I sat down to write this the other night, for instance, I got a call that my brother had been two floors down from a fatal shooting that took place at his workplace (in a hospital, no less) that day. No less frightening and heartbreaking than had it happened ten years ago, it was less surprising.

(I promise to turn around the mood of this post. But give me one more paragraph.)

The sky threatens to fall, and these days our foundation feels corroding at best, so neither direction, up nor down, offers much comfort or stability anymore. We are called on, at times like this, to work a little harder to find our own reassurance, to remind ourselves of the joys that make this life so well worth loving.

Occasionally, though, these moments fall straight into our laps. Phones down, eyes up, suddenly there is joy dancing in front of us. Maybe we appreciate these instances more these days, maybe we glean more meaning than intended. But they illuminate something inside of us that has perhaps been dormant for too long.

Last week, three days after Hurricane Harvey and one day before the start of the school year, adult and child emotions no doubt raw for their unique reasons, a certain fenced-in backyard lit up a small space in this town for just under three hours, requiring a few very lucky folks to put everything else aside for just a tiny, but treasured slice of time.

Enter Homegrown Hamilton. One backyard, eleven kids (Noah among them), and a dog.

I can't stop thinking about it.

Directed, cast, and produced by a sixth grader with no prior theatre experience and a sincere adoration of the musical Hamilton, the idea was to perform the entire play, minus "Say No to This" (you know, the one about the mistress and the legs spreading and so on) in his backyard. That was the vision. All 46 songs, minus the one, would be performed. His mother made the gentle but wise suggestion that he and the cast select five or six songs and perform those really well, but it was too late of course. The idea was firmly planted in his head, and once there, the path was paved. There is no trifling with that kind of inspiration. I'm entirely serious about this. The boy had a plan and (spoiler alert), he made it happen.

Haven't all of us at some point been the children preparing for the breakthrough neighborhood performance, the one parents would talk about for years to come? Certain the word would spread far and wide around town, there would be multiple showings of our play. The demand would be huge. We'd fantasize about our rise to local celebrityhood until realizing it was almost dinner and we didn't really know what our play was going to be about yet. So, we'd practice a number or two and then make tickets and a decision to just perform the heck out that one number we practiced. We'd wing the rest. Every time. Strong start, fizzling middle, abrupt ending.

But this Company? Not them. They spent their summer on this. There were backyard practices, two hours long, sometimes more than once a week. Actors ranged from first to sixth grade, with the exception of Penny, the two year old dog who played Theodosia. And these kids - they were all in. They knew every line.


They used costumes, for the most part, that they already had. They repurposed a pirate hat to top off the look of General George Washington (Here comes the General!). I didn't previously know much of anything about Hercules Mulligan, but I will forever picture him as a blond headed, hip hopping, stage-owning machine wearing a long black Slytherin cape. Thomas Jefferson donned a red jacket found in the pile of dress up clothes in the director's basement. Angelica showed up in a beautiful pink skirt made by her mom. (And if you know the story of Angelica, you will agree she deserved her very own handmade costume, having dealt with the short end of the stick for far too long.) And then there was Hamilton, who looked exactly like… Hamilton.

The stage was a sandbox covered in wood chips. A swing set served as the backdrop and props. When Eliza sang down to Hamilton, she stood on top of the slide while he stared up at her. Actors entered the stage by sliding in or climbing down a ladder or jumping off a three foot clubhouse. When Hamilton, Mulligan, Lafayette, and Laurens raised a glass to freedom in Act I (…Let's have another round tonight!), they used a simple cardboard box as their table. When Phillip (spoiler alert) died after his own duel, he lay on the bottom of the slide while Eliza hovered over him in tears.

They sang along with the album itself. It lasted for hours but felt so much shorter. Every one of the 46 songs had been practiced, choreographed in some way. These kids were not shy, but proud to be there, singing to the 30 plus guests who had gathered to watch, who sat on blankets and fold-up chairs and held expressions of awe as the play continued along.

At intermission, there were baked goods. Donations were put in a jar for Hurricane Harvey. They made $100. They signed autographs (while giggling) after the show. There were programs with all 46 songs written out in one third-grader's best penmanship.

I want to capture it as I saw it that day. In my memory, the days prior were cloudy, grey, and whether that was the actual weather or just my mood around the time, I really don't recall. Even that morning, the day of the musical, my daughter hid naked in her closet ten minutes before the play was to start while I gritted my teeth and sighed heavily. Really, at that point, I just wanted to get through the show without destroying it for everyone. We arrived one minute before it started.

I want to convey without being overly dramatic that that morning last week felt magical and healing. The background noise of news and texts and Trump faded away and in its place stood a simple worn-down backyard swing set. The fog lifted and the most refreshing setting I've experienced in ages appeared. Is there a scene in Wizard of Oz where everything is once black and white and suddenly vibrant with color? I think so. That. That is what this felt like. The eye of the hurricane, a chance to recenter.

Kids without electronics, kids singing songs. Kids who now know by heart how the soul of this country came to be. A soft and beautiful reminder of where we Americans come from. Girls playing male parts, children playing politicians (ha). A respectful, smart, and patient eleven year old in charge of it all, working with young actors -- his friends, his brother's friends -- who ran with the roles they were asked to perform. It was simple but so darn pure and under that warm sun, sitting in a fold-up lawn chair surrounded by parents and grandparents and friends, things felt hopeful for the first time in a very long time.

I hear that a few days after the show, an elderly couple in their 90s sent a letter to the kids, thanking them for a summer of rehearsals and an outstanding show to watch from their porch. Nobody knew they were watching. I wonder if it gave them some reassurance as well.

These kids. While Al Ham and G Washington must be shaking their tired old heads at the goings-on of our current administration, perhaps they are simultaneously looking to these kids (and Lin Manuel Miranda, of course) for a trace of hope. These are just young (scrappy and hungry) people performing a backyard play, but they took a risk and followed through, and they showed so much damn soul in so doing.

A friend commented to me after the show, "Do you think they know how powerful the words they sang are? Just what it all means?" The truth is, I kind of think they do. Maybe not entirely, but enough.

My husband and I have tickets to Hamilton in Boston for October 2018. Noah thinks this is entirely unfair, but that's okay; he can think that. His day will come too. I cannot wait to see the Broadway performance; perhaps my expectations are a bit too high when I say I feel like it will change my life. But I'd be remiss if didn't put it out there that in my mind, the original Hamilton cast will always be an eclectic little group of neighbors and friends in our hometown, who one September morning asked us to sit in the sunshine for a few hours while they told us the story of one orphan (with a plan to fan this spark into a flame) who helped change the world for the better.

With many thanks to James, Quinn, Cormac, Noah, Georgia, Coco, Riley, Rebecca, Tate, Teddy, Nathan, and Penny for restoring my faith in humanity. Perhaps the sky will stay put after all.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Dog Days of Summer

It's been something like eight months since I've written a post. For awhile there, I felt frozen by Trump. What could I possibly blog about that was both meaningful and relatable and not in some way about our country falling apart? The truth is, of course, that there are and always have been endless experiences worth writing about regardless of the state of the union. But for awhile there, I felt that whatever I had to say just didn't matter that much, especially if I wasn't making any observations about our country or our world. Stories about everyday life felt selfish and small - and you know, they still sort of do, but I've thawed out a bit. We kind of have to do that if we're going to keep going.

This May, I went to a writing conference put on by Grub Street, an independent creative writing center in Boston. The theme of the conference: "What's a writer for?" helped me power through my blogging block. Over and again, writers stood up to remind us that it doesn't really matter how dramatic or action-packed or politically driven a story is -- sometimes, the tiniest moment with the most imperceptible shifts make for the best ones. No matter what their content, stories connect us, give us insight or perspective, touch us in one way or another. Frankly, we're just damn lucky to be here to tell our stories, and read them and listen to them. Sometimes, often, I think that this is all life is about. Our shared experiences, or our independent experiences, shared. Either way, it's about human connection.

And also, canine connection.

This first post is mainly about our new dog whom none of us have ever met. I don't even really have a story to tell about him, not yet. Really, I just know that his name is about to be changed from   from Easton to Duncan Swing-Biscuit Damaske, that he's eight weeks old and seven big pounds, that his mom was part dachshund, and that he's a he. That's almost all we know, except that he's got the face of a (furry) angel and ears like the long, silk elephant lovies I used to give to my babies. I've seen three pictures of sweet (I hope) Duncan, which were all taken in immediate succession of one another, so I've essentially only seen him for one miniature moment in time. One moment, but enough.

Duncan, of course, is supposed to save me from my heartbreak when my Gracie heads off to full day kindergarten this fall. How entirely absurd of me. No matter how much I treat Duncaccino like my third kid, this pooping and peeing and crying and barking little mutt won't ever grow up into a human who chats about Noah with me and picks dandelion bouquets and checks my head for ticks after we've gone on a walk, as my girl has been doing these last couple of years. But, part of my thinking is, maybe a long morning walk and snuggle with a fluffy little monster will be just enough to get me going each day. And damn - the kids are ready for a dog. That's the other part, the more important part. They're pumped.

The truth is, I don't really know the first thing about dogs. I'm not really a dog person. I mean, if the question is cat person vs dog person, the answer is a resounding "dog! dog person!" But if the question is dog person vs not dog person, I'd have to go with the latter. Right now, anyway. And yet, I have to assume, barring some disastrous experience with Duncs, that by this time next month, I'll have swung (like a swing-biscuit) to the other side, the dog people side.

At this very moment in time, I find myself at a most peculiar precipice. The transition is to begin tomorrow at 4:00 pm. But right now, as I write this, I best relate to non dog people who think dogs are pretty cute and that is the extent of their thoughts about dogs. But tomorrow at this time, I will have dipped my (puppy licked) toe into a subculture that exists all around me, a giant part of the world that I have paid little to no attention to at all until about a week ago, when we decided Duncan was our boy and that this was happening.

I realize now that dog discourse has been happening all around me, all the time, everywhere, for all of my life and I have essentially tuned it out because it just didn't matter to me. Until now. If you are a non dog person who has dog person friends, it turns out that these people know a lot of shit about dogs. There's this whole giant pocket of information they have tucked away that they never bring up with you because you just don't get it and they know you don't care or are perhaps useless on the subject. So, I've been trying to catch up, cramming for the past six days. Crate training and housebreaking tips have been dumped like ice-bucket challenge water into my previous knowledge of dogs, which was, in its entirely, that dogs are fun to pet.

Dog people know that a dog's crate should only be big enough for a dog to turn around in and no bigger. This fact horrified me when I heard it because I'd hyperventilate if being put in quarters that small for hours on end. But dog people know that dogs grow to love it, thinking of it as their safe place. Also, dogs only get fed twice a day, sometimes only once. I found this preposterous, but to a dog person, it's just common knowledge. Also, as soon as dogs eat, they need to go out. Like within ten minutes. It goes through them that quickly. Dogs need tick collars. Dogs need to be registered in their hometown. Dogs yawn when they're afraid.

My first trip to Petco was entirely reminiscent of my first trip to Babies R Us, except this time in place of my dumbstruck husband ("Why are there so many kinds of diapers?") were my two kids giving each other fast carriage rides up and down the Petco aisles, reminding me that the dog needs toys, toys, toys!

I wanted to embrace the saleswoman (I might have if it weren't so hot), who handed me a puppy owners' checklist, took great pity on me, and then walked us through every single dog aisle and gave me the lowdown on all things canine. When I asked her, "So, what's, like, the standard dog food people  usually get?" she shook her head, looked at me kindly, and said, "Half of the store is dog food. See? That half of the store. Dog food. You want organic? Vegetarian? Red meat? Chicken? My dog likes salmon." Oh my God. I just want dog food. Is that not a thing? Just some effing dog food, medium to good quality so I don't have to spend a fortune on the fancy shit?

The saleslady was great, but she did convince me to buy a dental kit for my dog so I could brush his teeth once a week. Turns out, that's not really a thing. Dog people who are still reading this are undoubtedly rolling their eyes (right, guys? or… is it a thing?).

I have no shame in my naiveté, which has often worked to my advantage, so I hope my willingness to completely unmask the depths of my ignorance will serve me well in this case too. In the past few days, I have asked dog experts (aka, people who know dogs better than me) a number of questions that have been swirling in my head. Here is a smattering:

  • Is there a dog equivalent to 911? (Answer: Um… No.)
  • So… if a dog has diarrhea, I assume it doesn't tend to wait to go outside for that? (Answer: It's a dog. No.)
  • How often does a puppy need to go out again? And how early? (Answer: Uh, like a lot. And early early.)
  • Is having a puppy really like having an infant? (Answer: Yes, yes it is. Be prepared.)
  • How would I ever have know to register my dog in town if you hadn't told me? (Answer: Your vet knows this stuff. My answer: Ah… so I guess we should get a vet).
  • And a question for John (who had dogs growing up, but is maybe (definitely) *not* as pumped as the rest of us about now owning one: Hey John, Noah wants to walk the puppy in the morning on his own. Makes sense cause he likes to get up so early. Good plan? (John's answer: Do you want to deal with Noah's sorrow when the puppy gets loose in the woods? (My answer: So… kind of a good plan?)

    But the thing is, of course, that we're ready for this little guy. We love him already. I've been dreaming about him all week (though admittedly, some of the dreams involve me showing up too late for our puppy pick up time and being left with a large wolfy dog who the dog people are trying to convince is our new dog). There's two hand-drawn doggie-day countdowns on our fridge. I've got "Ten Perfect Puppies" and all of our other puppy picture books on display in the playroom right on top of his brand new crate, and my nighttime reading has become "The Art of Raising a Puppy." Oh, the control I have right now! A parody of our future. 

    My job this week is to simultaneously welcome Duncan to our little family and establish myself as the alpha male in the house so that the dog doesn't entirely take over my life from the moment it steps in the door. I've never been known for my alpha male skills in the canine or human circles, so really, this should go well. If I had any ability to regulate my own emotions tomorrow, I would keep my panic to a minimum, collect myself, and just do this thing. Like a doting alpha dog mom. 

    Dunkin's mom was rescued from a high kill shelter in Mississippi when she was abundantly pregnant. The rescue organization we've worked with (incredible), called Sweet Paws Rescue, has a team down there who saves these little guys and sends them up here in a truck so that they can find new homes and families with the help of the entirely dedicated and all volunteer team up here. This is not a political post, not even in the least, but it's worth pointing out the beauty of two very different parts of our country working together to make life better - or make life even a possibility - for members of our country who have no voice at all. If these pups could speak to us, such stories they would tell, all of these rescued four legged friends, stories from the south to the north, from their shelters to their crates. 

    Tomorrow, a new story will begin for us and for Dunkin, and it will take some twists and turns and trips outside in the middle of the night, and while I promise not to turn this blog into a dog blog, expect to see our new little family member/s face from time to time, because we're flipping the page to the next chapter… now.