Tag Archives: music

Summer Camps, Musicals, and German-ish Words

Being raised as a Baptist, I know three things well:

1 – Potlucks will always have too many potato salads
2 – Catholics are amused by grape juice communion
3 – Summer camps

My dad’s employer had a camp reserved for them, and we went every year when I was a kid.

Now, when I say camp, I’d like you to imagine please the 1970s/early 1980s suburban camps, with hot meals in the dining hall, large patio with shuffleboard and ping pong. Our tents were wood frame “hogans,” basically a cabin with a canvas roof. Think Brady Bunch with fewer footballs to the nose.

You probably can’t tell, but these are ancient family snapshots.

camp 9

camp 10

There was also a creek to swim in of course. Now, this is the Tuolumne River. If you aren’t familiar, this river is from snowmelt. It is clear, beautiful, and exactly as warm as you would imagine liquid snow to be. But it’s what we were used to and we loved it.

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One time my sister and I were heading back to the “tent” for a reason lost in time. When we got there we flipped the door flap and there, hanging all upside down, was a teeny tiny bat having a nice snooze. In hindsight, he was perfectly adorable. But 9 or 10 year old me was not enchanted.

I screamed so loudly that the poor little fella sort of shook. The next morning at breakfast, as we all stood in the line for food (no bacon, will the suffering never end!) a few people in line were comparing notes about the piercing scream that came out of the woods the day before. Laughter and jokes commenced as I crouched down further into a metaphorical hole. Bev, as I recall, was zero help.

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Lookit her…brushin’ back her hair all innocent-like.  

Anyway, traumatized bats aside, it was fun to run around without supervision, to have a “summer boyfriend,” a local boy who once rescued me as my inner tube got caught in “rapids” that put me in very grave danger of bumping slightly into a rock and being annoyed. But I recall everyone on the river bank screaming and my hero running into the very dangerous rapids, grabbing my hand and pulling me slowly out of harm’s way. He was a dreamboat, I tell you.

And then we left and I never saw him again. Such is the life of a song from Grease.

These were good times.

When I was a little older, I went to a Music and Drama camp.

MAD camp was fun; I was around like-minded people, and I got to show off my voice. Next to writing, singing was my greatest joy. The councilors would choose a piece for us, we would practice and do a performance at the end when the parents got there, which was exactly as corny and wholesome as it sounds.

One year they chose “Godspell.” I loved this musical, and I was chosen to sing a solo of “Learn Your Lessons Well.”

Camp
Picture only, since I’m unemployed and don’t have money to pay a copyright lawsuit.

I know this song perfectly, I had sung it before. I figured I could work on other things and just ran the song through my head once or twice. Easy!

Here’s the thing though, this is a rapid, wordy song, there is little time to think. When I got up to sing it at the show I realized that thinking something is not the same as singing something.

I don’t have a clear memory of it except to say that my heart started to pound, my eyes bugged out an inch from my head, and the sweat poured off my body and made a pool on the floor as deep as our freezing cold river. Those last two may be exaggerations but only just.

I got through it. The director told me I repeated a couple of lines, but overall it went fine. My parents and friends said they had no idea that it had happened.

Many years later while I was studying opera (not as impressive as it sounds as I still don’t know how to read music,) I told my instructor about that, and he told me a secret.

When he was applying for his scholarship, he had chosen a song in German that he knew well.

He got up on stage, staring at the faces of the people who would decide if he could afford the Academy or not, and started to sing. Halfway through, his brain simply froze. He listened to the piano between verses hoping to jar his memory but…nothing. So he started to sing again on his cue and simply sang words that sounded vaguely German-ish but meant absolutely nothing. On the next verse he got his brain back from whatever frozen tundra of fear it had been hiding and finished the song perfectly.

He got the scholarship.

He had the opportunity to ask one of the professors how, exactly, had that happened? The seasoned performer told him, “Of course we knew what had happened. Of course we knew you were singing nonsense. But you did not stop. You filled that gap with words that fit the meter and sounded German, the average listener would never have known. Being perfect is advisable in performance, but being able to get past a mistake is truly impressive.”

“Being perfect is advisable in performance, but being able to get past a mistake is truly impressive.”

See? And I’ll bet you wondered how I was going to tie this into my intentions for this blog.

Both of us, in varying levels of importance, froze and could have failed. I did not practice, and he became overwhelmed with stress.

But we kept going and we got through and we did well; we did our best.

Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. If you fall, that’s ok, get back up and keep going.

Don’t worry what anyone else thinks, because there’s a good chance they didn’t even see you skip a beat.

Film and Wonder and Comfort for a Misfit Girl

What are your favorite films from childhood? Some of them stay with us, mark us somehow. The boat scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory scared the hell out me, but left a picture of surrealism I didn’t have before.

I have many of these, but for me, there is one that stands alone, the chocolate to my vanilla, Star Trek to my Star Wars, Beatles to every other band ever.

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The Original Series, of course.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Like so many things in my orbit, it has a deeper backstory than just “I like it.”  Considering that I have bonded with a tiny spring I found on the carpet, this is not really a huge surprise.

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I’m not kidding.  I wouldn’t lie about such a thing.

When I was a kid, I was a very tall, very odd, spectacle-wearing, sci-fi loving, bookish, and awkward nerd.  My love of the fantastic, the bizarre, my gallows humor, poetry, and music have been with me so long that I don’t know what came first, the odd wiring in my head or the odd wiring in my head as a response to bullshit.

Music especially was in my veins.  Both my dad and my sister were/are musical, and it was a constant in my life. Sports, military, guns decidedly were not.  But all I saw in movies and TV were that strong, powerful, square-jawed men would destroy all the alien threats.  This is one reason I love The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu is issuing a warning, and the world comes together to listen after a nonviolent demonstration of power, and a sweet ass robot.

But I digress.

The ideas that I was saturated with were that music and art and literature and especially poetry were for people who don’t fight, but the world is safe from tyrants and giant ants because of manly men.  Men with guns.  Men who fart and don’t apologize.

So in 1977, I was nine years old, and my friend’s parents took us to the movies to see this new film, Close Encounters.  Immediately I was hooked.  My eyes were wide, my mouth slack-jawed, my head jutted forward for most of the film, according to my friend’s mother.

The domestic scenes with Roy and his suburban-hell-scape-dwelling family pulled me out a little.  I “knew” all of those people and it was uncomfortable. It’s also best to not think about the fact that Roy straight up abandoned his family, the equivalent of “I’m going to buy cigarettes…” without the ending “…in a spaceship.”

And Roy’s obsession, the creeping, crippling insanity, using art to make sense of it all, and his ultimate vindication was like a soft creature hugging me from behind, whispering “it’s ok, you’re just as you need to be” into my ear.

Imprinting can be as simple as an overheard response as well.  My friend’s parents were hippies, and when Roy and Jillian were driving towards Devil’s Tower and they saw all the animals on the side of the road, my friend asked “Did the military do that?” her mother’s answer was a scoff and an “Of course they did.  Bastards.” A fertile seed was planted in my anti-authority soil.

Much of the film was smart people doing smart things.  The mapmaker recognized what the signal was, the air traffic controllers coolly handling an unknown potential threat, the French man leading the team having doubts about what the military was doing, these were the heroes.

Oh, by the way, 42-YEAR-OLD SPOILERS!

All of this built to the scene that defines the movie for me, the final scene when the aliens arrive. This is the part that grabbed my heart and my mind and every single thing I was and am.

From the second the nerdy looking keyboardist climbed up on the platform, put on the headphones, and started to play the five tones, I was gone. Those five tones, that salutation to this alien presence, the responses from the mothership, that is enough to inspire wonder and awe from anyone with a pulse.

But it was far more for me.  All the soldiers, all the guns, and the only thing that mattered at all was the nerdy keyboardist and the five tones.

Music was the tool.  It brought them here.  And with it, we spoke to them.  Up a major third, down an octave, my language.  My kind made this.  My kind is important.

My kind speaks to aliens.

When the ship opened and returned all the people, some of whom generations of their families had lived and died wondering where they went (I don’t think too much about that either,) and they chose Roy to go with them, I don’t believe I was ever so jealous.  I wanted to go away with aliens who spoke music.  I sang the five tones to myself, sat on my bed doing the gestures, waiting to be taken away.  In a sense I was I suppose, for a little while.

That film, that science fiction film with some troublesome plot points, was etched into me and has never left.

My husband and I finally made it to Devil’s Tower a few years ago.

As we drove towards it, it grew larger and larger, just like in the film.

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Not pictured, drugged livestock.

My heart raced, my mind absorbed every inch of it, every scrape down the sides.  The mountain is sacred to several tribes, so we tread lightly.

https://www.nps.gov/deto/learn/historyculture/sacredsite.htm

We arrived, got out of the car, and there it was right before me.  Near the end of the film, Claude Lacombe asks Roy “What do you want?” his reply is “I just want to know that it’s really happening.”  I felt like that, just for a moment, I felt exactly like that.

I was nine again.

Recently we got to see it with the music performed by the San Francisco Symphony.

Before it started, there was a short bit with Jeffery Anderson, Principal Tubist, outside Davies Symphony Hall, playing the tones on his tuba, the hall responding as the mother ship.

 

 

Those five tones always shake me to my core and fill my heart. I lose a breath, close my eyes, cry.

This film came to me at exactly the right time. It became a comfort and a joy.  I’m 51 years old now, and my heart still beams when I watch it.

I’d love you to leave a comment about what fills you like this, whatever it is.  But if you don’t have something, I encourage you to find it.

It’s not too late to feel childlike wonder.  Not ever.