Come Together

We weren’t late, but we weren’t early enough to Thing2’s band concert to have a good seat selection. The elementary school band is small, and I was surprised by the crowd.

The concert program revealed that the middle and high school bands would also be performing. It’s a small school system, so I was still surprised by the increasingly packed house. We’ve been to a lot of recitals and school concerts over the years, so I thought I knew what to expect.

I knew nothing.

The high school band played first. The elementary and middle schools bands sat in the first row of seats waiting their turn. Mr. Neeson, the band instructor, introduced the piece, a march that the high schoolers will also be performing at the Memorial Day parade in five days. He then called for and got a B-flat from the band before them their cue.

The first notes marched perfectly in unison, echoing through the tiny auditorium and daring the audience not to clap. The band, culled from all grades of the high school, handled changes in rhythm and key, and the Big Guy and I had to remind ourselves that we were listening to kids who weren’t old enough to vote carry on a fairly complex musical conversation.

They segued to a jazzier number, a ‘jam’, we were told, that was composed for the concert. The Big Guy and I gave each other the super-impressed look. Our jaws dropped as the students got up from their places and switched instruments.

“I don’t make each kid solo for a performance.” Mr Neeson turned around to talk to the parents for a moment. “I do require they all know how to improvise, to listen to and play with each other.” Then the music started again.

There are fewer than 400 kids in our entire school system and, from the outside, it may seem fairly homogenous. The reality is that our school sees multi-generation Vermonters and transplanted flat-landers, Trump fans, Bernie-or-busters, and everyone in between. There are kids who get new iPhones every year and kids who may get their only meal of the day at school.

There was no way to tell if the pianist was a liberal or the drummer is a libertarian. The only thing the audience knew for certain was that these kids had learned how to change their perspectives, see new points of view and express their individuality, creating rich, beautiful music instead of just noise.

More than once during the concert, the Big Guy and I told each other that Thing2 needs to be in band again. Thing2’s creative spark burns hot enough that he may very well propel himself into a creative life when he’s grown up — with or without a school program. The performances, however, melded into a beautiful example of how arts in the schools are about so much more than vocation or even avocation. We knew Thing2 loved band practice, but it was only when we saw him and his friends working together to make something wonderful, that we realized the music program was teaching him as much about life as it is theory and even creativity.

The high school band finished, and Thing2’s band took the stage. Mr. Neeson turned to the parents again.

“So how many of you are Beatles fans?” he asked. Every hand in the audience went up. He asked if we knew the chorus to the first song on the album Abbey Road and then enlisted us as backup singers.

The band had no singer, but as the first drum roll completed, I saw a few parents mouthing, “Here come old flat-top”. My eyes were damp as the next two lines reverberated, and by the time the band was playing “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free,” every parent in the room was ready to sing out,

“Come together, Right NOW!” And really mean it.

How a Bad Cat and Stinky Feet got Me Back to my Beat

Drummer boy

I was still embroiled with work the other night when grandfather clock counted a single chime, reminding me that it was 5:30 and time to quit. The soft din of homework-related questions had waxed into a blurred chorus of “Moms”, so when the words “stinky feet” permeated my brain, I didn’t know if seven-year-old Thing2’s smelly socks had prompted the thought or if someone was actually singing the words.

I looked up from my computer and glanced toward the den. There was Thing2, wearing the smelly socks and singing as he hunched over his sketchbook and writing.  

“He wanted to write a song,” explained the Big Guy. Seeing Dad’s guitar emerge from storage, Thing2 had been inspired.  No one had ever told that only he could not write a song, so he decided to try it.

At dinner, the Big Guy extolled our offspring’s achievement. “He wrote a song,” he said over and over again. I was proud, but, still frazzled from the day, I didn’t offer the encouragement I normally do.

Thing2 is creativity personified.  He sings and dances.  He has littered his desk books he has written, illustrated and assembled.  He lives for art, and this song was just his latest expression.  

I grew up hearing the phrase, “Do what you love.”   I repeat it every time I see him fly through the air or ‘publish’ a new book. That night, however, I wondered how I tell my youngest child, to chase artistic dreams when, lately, I have increasingly surrendered mine, partly to depression but mostly to work?

“Dad, I want to write another song,” he said the next night after homework.  This single was called Bad Cat. The Big Guy played back up on guitar while Thing2 drummed on a book and sang lead.

“Bad Cat, Bad Cat, sitting on the counter,” it started. There were three more verses on the sins of our chubby black cat.

I started the video camera on the iPhone, and Thing 2, sensing a hit, launched into another chorus.  My feet began to tap.  My youngest was inspiring me in spite of myself.  Most of my best posts start with antics authored by Thing1 or Thing2, and, last night every beat of his drumsticks generated a new idea.

Thing2 was reminding me of what he knows instinctively.  Art isn’t a dream, and it’s not a living.  It’s life.  When the song was over, I gave his newest opus the reception it deserved.  

“You keep doing what you love,” I said with a tight hug free of doubt.  

Last night I set the alarm for 4 AM again, and this morning, for the first time in ages, I didn’t hit the snooze button.  I had homework – to practice what I preach.  Completing the assignment quickly reminded me how much art, for me also, is life.  

Thing2 may be a bit unorthodox, but he’s turned out to be quite the teacher.

Take Away


Six-year-old Thing2 doesn’t like art – he lives it. There is no dragging him to an art museum, there’s only the whining when we leave. Whether it’s sauntering around a museum with his sketch pad or putting his own spin on a particularly acrobatic leap he saw in a dance routine, Thing2 throws himself into color and sensation and into life in a lot of ways. Always, his joy becomes ours, but, as we learned once again the other night at a Hubbard Hall performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, it’s not always predictable just how that happiness will spread.

Currently in a Billy-Elliot-I-Will-Dance phase, we were certain this opera – a comedy punctuated by more physical comedy – would be the inspiration for his next set of dance moves.    Every new movie or show is an opportunity to learn and create a new step. So, as we settled in, I began watching Thing2’s to see if he was absorbing the action.

He sat two seats away from me, but the stage cast enough light for me to see his rapt gaze as the ensemble of singers filled the stage.  At first he was a statue – absorbing the color and the new experience of having a play sung for him.  Then, after trying to ask if we recognized one of the singers as his former camp teacher, he began to move – but not in the way I’d expected.

I was already prepared to reign in any bursts of flair, but Thing2 had been absorbing something else besides the dancing.  In front of the stage was a lone pianist accompanying the singers throughout the show.  Her hands danced, never resting until the curtain call.  Now Thing2’s hands began to dance, following every inflection of the piano player’s wrists, ever flutter of her fingers.  Thing2 can play “Doe A Deer” on our piano at home, but, mimicking the musician in front of him, he became a virtuoso.  He became one with the music and the musician.  

The Big Guy and I smiled at each other as we watched him.  Thing2 had found his own unique perspective to take something away from the show, and there was another show still to come on Sunday.  The Big Guy and I were eager to see it.  Watching “The Barber of Seville” ten feet in front of us would be an experience in itself.  But we were also wondering what new inspirations Thing2 will bring home for us to enjoy.

To Sir, with Thanks

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To Sir Paul,

This is a Thank You note from a long-time fan and a grateful parent.  About three weeks ago, our entire family traveled from Vermont to Boston to see you perform at Fenway Park.  We were a little nervous – it was our first visit to Boston in over a year, and we had high hopes.  Thanks to you, they were met in ways we hadn’t begun to imagine.

We got to our seats in Fenway just about quarter to seven and not before shelling out a sinful amount of money for T-shirts.  I rationalized this was the only time we may get to see you perform.  And, even though a friend who had been to your sound check earlier in the afternoon had warned us that you were late, we decided it was more fun to wait inside a ballpark that had so many memories for the Big Guy and I than to stand around Yawkey Way.

About forty minutes after we sat down, an introductory slideshow began scrolling up the two massive screens on either side of the stage.  I’ve been listening to your songs since I was in the womb, and my husband has been a fan since seeing you perform on Ed Sullivan, and loved seeing the photos of you and the Beatles and your more recent years.  We’ve done our best to move the tradition forward to our kids, and even they loved seeing the photos of you growing up and growing your own family.

Our six-year-old, lovingly known as Thing2 around our house, waited as patiently as I have ever seen him wait for anything.  When the first song began, about an hour and a half after the scheduled time, he was just starting to want to go back to the hotel, but when the first notes began to echo through the ball park, you brought him back.  You also brought me and the Big Guy to our feet.  The three of us were singing and dancing and clapping as you belted out, “‘Eight Days a We-e-ek.. ‘Eight Days a We-e–eek””.

My older son, twelve-year-old Thing1 who is about to be thirteen and, while not your oldest fan could possibly be your most devoted one, was sitting in his sit trying to cover his face with his hands so that he wouldn’t be recognizable if pictures of his parents dancing like idiots made it onto a concert tour DVD.  But we kept dancing, and despite himself, Thing1 began to silently mouth the words to the song.

Everytime I peeked at him, he rewarded our dancing a look of mortification.  But somewhere between ‘Eight Days a Week’ and ‘We Can Work it Out’ and your soul-lifting introduction to and rendition of Blackbird (I can scarcely remember a more uplifting moment than sitting in the dark with 30,000 people singing along with your guitar), Thing1 had an epiphany that could only have happened here.

As the Big Guy, Thing2 and I were dancing and clapping, Thing1 and I glanced across the aisle and noticed another set of parents with a pair of young sons around 10 and 12.  The mother of the family was also dancing, but the dad – about the same age as the Big Guy – was lost in the music and the moment.  Clapping his hands, waving his arms, and stomping his feet as he sang along, word for word.  He looked younger than his two horrified boys sitting beside him.

For me it was confirmation that we had all found the fountain of youth for a night.  For Thing1, it was something different.  Watching the other two boys trying to obscure their own faces as they tugged at their dad’s sleeve, begging him to dance less effusively, it dawned on my twelve-year-old that all kids have the same problem.  They have parents.  And they can’t get rid of us until they get out of the house.

Any other night that knowledge might have been depressing.  He might have thought about his future independence, but that night, Sir Paul, that knowledge became freedom.  And for the first time ever, I saw my son begin to sing along – out loud – in public.  For the first time in a long time, I saw him shed the inhibitions he had begun to take on with his adolescence, and, as he did, he began to find his way back to himself.

So, not only for the unrestrained joy I got to see on the face of my six-year-old, but the serenity Thing1 got from accepting the parents he can’t change, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.



Ma Barlow


Fab, Four and Going to Fenway


We don’t take many vacations anymore.  Most of our holiday time is spent at relatives’ homes, so when we find time and opportunity for a trip that involves seeing something new, it’s an event.  So it was Serendipity Sunday this afternoon when the Big Guy stumbled on the ultimate humdinger (or hum-hummer in this case) of a family summer vacation.

I can’t remember a day when at least a bar of a Beatles tune hasn’t sprung from the Big Guy’s lips or emanated from his Martin guitar.  An excellent musician, the Big Guy has most of the Beatles songbook programmed into his fingers, and our kids have grown up listening to their Dad serenade them at all times of the day with Blackbird or Ticket to Ride.  It’s no accident, obviously, that twelve-year-old Thing1 and six-year-old Thing2 are avid fans, and, aware of the possible alternative musical fixations, neither the Big Guy nor I have discouraged their affection for a band that disbanded over 40 years ago.

Living in Vermont, the only other entity that could claim that kind of loyalty from our boys is the Boston Red Sox.  There are a few Yankee fans around here, but having parents who met, married and lived in Boston, Thing1 and Thing2 were Red Sox fans before they knew what baseball was.  The irony of their afflictions (being a Red Sox fan is an affliction, condemning one to a lifetime of heartbreak) is that, until two years ago, neither of them had been to Fenway.  Ticket prices are not what they were when the Big Guy and I were living six blocks from the Green Monster, so even Thing1 has only seen it as part of a school tour.

Enter Sunday afternoon.  The Big Guy was sitting on the couch, quietly browsing the web for car parts for an ongoing project when a soft ‘Huh’ escaped his lips.  I waited a few minutes before asking ‘What?’

“The Stones are coming to Boston this summer,” he said.

“Really?” I was cautious.  We’d seen the Rolling Stones years ago at the Boston Garden, and we both want to see them again before they throw in the towel.  The kids love the Stones too, so I asked, “How much are the tickets?”  I held my breath.  They hadn’t been cheap 15 years earlier.  The Big Guy scanned through the ticketing site.

“They’re not on sale yet,” he said.

“I heard cheap seats were selling for $600 someplace in Cali-” I started, but the Big Guy cut me off.

“And Paul McCartney’s playing at Fenway!” He exclaimed.  “And the tickets are cheaper.”

It wasn’t much of a toss-up.  In the end, we quickly decided our Fabulous Four would have its first Fenway experience with one of the original Fab Four.  It’ll be old and it’ll be something completely different.

Cursing the Disco

A few sleepless mornings ago, my gloom was closing in on me so tightly that if I had started lighting candles to keep from cursing my darkness, I could have burned down our house – no small achievement when you consider it’s mostly concrete.

We’d come home late from a sad trip the night before.  I knew the upcoming work day would likely go long, to be capped off with an evening session of  ‘Are You Smarter than a Seventh Grader’ with Thing1 (complete with commentary by Thing2).  I was exhausted before I even got the kids up for school.

But the insomnia that was the door prize that came with my depression turned out to be a blessing (or a curse if you ask Thing1).  As I tossed and turned counting the minutes of sleep I wasn’t getting I suddenly remembered that there was a pile of new, unplayed songs on my iPod.  As I  had mapped out our trip a few nights before, I’d clicked back-and-forth between iTunes and the map site, absentmindedly clicking the ‘Download’ button here and there.

The thing I love and hate about iTunes is that it’s so dang easy to engage in a little retail therapy without wondering where to hide the bags or if I want a song badly enough to be willing to dust it later.  That’s how I ended up with 30 new songs in the time it took to print my maps and reserve a hotel (I think that’ll hold up in court).

So with an hour to myself before I needed to get the kids up, I hopped out of bed and pulled my purchases into a new playlist, hoping the songs would be safer than using fire to fight off my funk.

I find that when I’m in a bad mood, I tend to get a little nostalgic about my music choices, and my indulgence in retail therapy a few nights before was not a sign of a good mood.  And, when I saw that bunch of Earth, Wind & Fire tunes for $2.99, I clicked on it.  I love those songs because they evoke memories of my dad’s mix tapes painstakingly recorded on reel-to-reel, as well as images of the god-awful clothes of that era that are still preserved in photographs for eternity and future blackmail.  But, as anyone who’s heard the songs knows, they’re also killer dance tunes as Thing1, my twelve-year-old (much to his horror) was about to discover shortly.

I got my playlist loaded and synced just in time to push the kids out the door.  Most mornings Thing1 is the arbiter of musical taste in the car.  He’s currently in a two-year Beatles and Stones phase, and when Boogie Wonderland came on, his hand automatically moved to the forward button.  But I was ready for this and intercepted him.

“Leave it,”I ordered with the mock seriousness it takes to command his obedience.

“Okay, Mom,” he laughed, pretending to be in awe of my display of authority.  My mood brightened as we jokingly argued about my musical choices.  I turned up the volume, and, in the rearview mirror, I could see six-year-old Thing2 in his carseat bopping his head happily to the beat.  It was infectious, and I started dancing a little too.  I knew I might have lit one too many candles at that point.

Real fear crept into Thing1’s eyes, and I knew what was going through his mind.  Would the song end before we hit the school parking lot?  Would Mom hit the rewind button?  Would Mom still be drive-seat-dancing when we arrived?

We got closer to town and the song switched, but to Thing1’s chagrin, there were no Beatles tunes in the on-deck circle.  Thing2 and I continued to dance, though I restrained myself a bit as we got closer to town and the traffic got thicker.

“Mom.”  Thing1 murmured as we turned onto the school street.  “Mom.” He grew insistent as we got closer.  A stalled line of cars came into view ahead of us as we approached the school, and my own dancing ceased.  Thing1’s confirmed belief is that his authority over my behavior is in direct proportion to his proximity to middle school, but in reality, I just remember how much middle school sucked, and the threat of my dancing or singing in public is an empty one.  Today, though, it would have been fun to keep that fire burning a little longer.

I drove him up to the door and wished him a good day.  I told him I loved him, and as he climbed out of the car, shaking his head, he muttered what so many young people climbing out of Pintos and Pontiacs shaking under the weights of dancing middle-aged moms with too many choices on the eight track or cassette must have muttered before him: “I hate Disco.”