Monday, March 30, 2015

Championships...Somewhere.


West-Side-Story-Somewhere-257x300.jpg (257×300)


This past Sunday morning I stepped off the plane in Tampa from a long, but glorious weekend in Raleigh, judging the Atlantic Indoor Association's circuit championships. As is every championships weekend in every circuit and every year, there is a collective feeling of exhaustion that comes from a year's worth of passion and emotion, balled up into one weekend together. When I walked out of the jetway into the bright lights of Gate C, on an early Sunday morning, my Ipod which was on shuffle played Barbara Streisand's, "Somewhere." I heard the dissonant sound of the opening chords and thought, "Wow. Here I am back in the real world and all I really want to do is go back to somewhere." 

There's a place for us. Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us somewhere.

When I go through my life, I look for and believe in signs. I don't believe the universe makes mistakes. So when "Somewhere" started playing as soon as I stepped into the light, I felt like it was trying to speak to me. You can call me the crazy lady channeling Shirley Mclaine or you can just go with me on this little journey of mine. 

There's something about Championships weekend that allows you to keep going, even though you want to collapse. It's the adrenaline, the stress, the sadness, the happiness, and the passion all wrapped into one 48 hour period. It's rare in life to experience that much emotion in one short time frame. The dopamine levels of the brain must be off the charts during a championships weekend, because only with that much dopamine could the brain allow so much focus, stamina, and vigor. It's no wonder that so many people report struggling at work after a weekend of such immense pleasure. It's almost like being in love. You don't sleep or eat. You can stay up all night and the body's response allows you to keep pushing through, even though you mind says, "It's time to stop." After a long day at the show, doing whatever it is your job is to make the day special, there is always this feeling of not wanting to let it go. You linger after retreat just a little bit longer and hang out in the hotel lobby not wanting to say goodbye. 

When I watched the kids walking on the floor for retreat, I just wanted to hold on to that moment. An entire season of intense passion was about to come to an end. As a judge, it's important for me to see that moment. I need that reminder of why we do it. I need to see the kids with their balloons and flowers. I need to see every kid I judged that day just one more time, all together standing for a common goal. 

While watching them, I wanted to tell them something. I wanted to say, "Remember this. Don't let it go." Because as the song says,...there's a place for us. When life gets scary, you can come back here. It's our place. We are waiting. Every judge cares. Every contest staff member. Every alumnus. 

There's a time for us. Someday there'll be a time for us.  Time together with time to spare. Time to learn, time to care. Someday, somewhere.

When I go away for a color guard weekend, I leave all my real world stress behind. There are no politics to debate and the cruelty of life is halted if only for a moment. We are one. There's not another place in my life that I can find where so many people come together for one common goal and it's never more apparent than retreat at championships. Win or lose, I never see the kids leave the floor angry. There is only joy. 

We'll find a new way of living. We'll find there's a way of forgiving.

A new way of living. I believe that when I was born, the universe gave me this gift of pageantry and it would be wrong to not do something with it. Whether it's the one kid who only got one year or us middle aged idiots that come back year after year, it's our way of living. There's a peace to it that comes from the honesty you share when you create with another human being. Your heart goes into these shows and only in that level of honesty can you truly find peace. I never take for granted the emotion the kids share with us from the cadet guard through the world guard. It's real and I often wish all of life could be that honest. I wish in my real life I could be as real as I am in the gym.

Somewhere. There's a place for us. A time and a place for us. 

At championships I always want to tell the kids that this is your time. Enjoy it and cherish it. Don't waste it! I often wonder if any of them realize that this place of passion and honesty, is rare. In life people hate and they are mean. People do things that are not in the best interest of mankind. People lie and they are hurtful. Life is cruel, but in this world we call winter guard, there's a fervor of love that is surpassed by almost nothing you will find in the rest of the world. 

Hold my hand and we're half way there. Hold my hand and I'll take you there. 

Some of the best people I know are in this activity. We have held each other's hands in our darkest hours of life. We've cried together and laughed until our sides hurt. I feel that when I'm with them I'm a better person. We look out for each other and the bond only gets stronger throughout life. There are people I see only once a year and it's like time has stood still waiting for our moment to come back around. Time is endless in this activity and I just inherently believe at the end of each season, that I'll see everyone again. Real life seems to stop in this amalgam of seasons and we are able to focus on what's important...each other.

Somehow. Someday. Somewhere.

In the movie West Side Story the song "Somewhere" is sung to relay this message that there is a time and place where we will all find peace with our fellow man. The bickering will stop and life will become tranquil. We will be as one. It's Championships retreat when I am reminded of that feeling. There is so much boundless joy that it often makes me cry. 

As the kids were walking on the floor for retreat, I was immediately taken aback by this image I had. In my minds eye, I saw a snow globe. I saw a world we have created for ourselves that allows for creativity, healthy dialog, friendship, passion, devotion, and emotion. In that snow globe are kids growing up to appreciate one another. The adults pass the knowledge on and value the lives of the kids entrusted in their care. This snow globe explores music and art. Color is endless. People work as one. Everyone is beautiful.

So, as I place my snow globe of 2015 on the mantel and shake it one last time, I see memories of the past falling down as the snow and as the kids look up to catch just one flake, they take their place in the history books of this world we call winter guard. 

Monday, March 9, 2015

In a New York Minute

In a New York minute
Everything can change
In a New York minute
Things can get pretty strange
In a New York minute
Everything can change
In a New York minute


Bothsidesnow.jpg (608×601)Throughout my life in the winter guard activity, I have always wanted to design a show around the Don Henley song, "New York Minute." I've proposed it to just about every designer I've ever worked with and none of them will bite. They just look at me like I'm high or something and give me reason like tempo this or rhythm that. They humor me and say, "Well I'll think about it." Yeah...ok...whatever. In my mind, the show looks at the turning of life on a dime. When I hear the song I see the image of a woman hunched over a glass of bourbon in a dingy bar covered in thick smoke from a lit cigarette, and with bags under her eyes; similar to the infamous Joni Mitchell album cover. How do you capture that concept of on a gym floor and in five minutes? How do you convey that feeling of complete shock and the disabling of time that occurs in the instant that fate takes a hand, placing you on a path never considered or thought of? Maybe the no's have less to do with tempo and meter and more to do with the challenges of my questions. 


This past weekend, the USF Winter Guard was involved in an incident resulting in a bus fire, while participating in the WGI Atlanta Regional. I am not involved with this program, nor do I know the details, but whenever I hear about an event that involves a pageantry unit while travelling, the hair on the back of my neck stands up and a knot the size of a grapefruit forms in the pit of my stomach. On the outside and from what we were told, everyone managed to escape unharmed, barring the exception of the loss of property. I was judging in Orlando on Saturday when announcement after announcement was made describing the incident and asking for financial support from the audience. It's interesting, because I've heard that announcement before. In fact, I've heard it more than once and could almost recite it by myself and without thought. If you follow this blog you know that every so often the incident of McGavock High School, enters into my thoughts. I've written about it multiple times and the article I wrote  two years ago on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, received over 10,000 hits. On a cold Sunday afternoon after a WGI regional, fate changed the lives of kids, instructors, parents, a school, and a community forever. In a New York minute everything had changed. Everything! 

If you stay in the activity long enough, it's inevitable that one day you will be trolling social media when you read the announcement. "Guard involved in accident." It also could be a band or a drum corps. Sometimes it's a dance team or baseball team. Regardless of the activity, the end result puts it all in perspective and that perspective allows us to see that the activity comes second to the lives in our charge. It's coming up on March 13th and it doesn't matter how much time has passed. I am forever tethered to that date, like an astronaut tied to the shuttle while floating in space waiting to be pulled back in. Unfortunately, our story isn't unique. When youth teams travel, the ultimate result is that the odds are not always in their favor. Marching bands coming home from a late night contest. Drum Corps travelling thousands of miles in one summer. Winter guards taking vans to the local show just an hour away. Judges who work all day, drive home with tired eyes and mental exhaustion. There are times when we have released kids to go home after a long rehearsal day or show and they don't make it there. Many years ago, a local band lost several of its members when a carload of kids left a football game and as many kids do, didn't go directly home and some in that car never saw home again. 

Too many times we drive when tired under the mission of "we have to get there by noon." If there was a medal for the most stupid guard person in the activity for driving when tired, I rank somewhere in a finalist position. Mental exhaustion, physical exhaustion, stress, alcohol, and anxiety all play a factor in our weekends and that combination can be deadly. Just two weeks ago I judged a fairly lengthy show and was offered a hotel room by the circuit, but really just wanted to get home. It was only 2 hours away. The show ends at 10. Piece of cake. Ummmm....Yeah no. Somewhere about an hour into the drive, my car drifted into the medium and with absolute brilliance I did what most of us do. I kept driving. 

The reality is that many, if not most tragedies can't be helped. Shit happens. We exist in an activity where travel is inevitable and necessary. The programs are underfunded forcing them to cut corners where they can. They hire not so reputable bus companies, if they hire one at all. Some rent vans and have volunteers drive. Sometimes the kids drive themselves to the show. It's reality. 

I get highly frustrated with the pageantry arts and can't for the life of me understand why we as an activity don't discuss safety nearly as much as we discuss the in's and out's of designing a good show. In most sports, coaches and volunteers must take a minimum amount of hours on the topic of risk. These topics range anywhere from how to maintain good boundaries with minors, to the protection against concussions, and how to maintain a safe environment while travelling. If we do this, will it change our behaviors? Will it help the fact that we still don't have enough money to hire a reputable bus company? What about our stupidity of travel while exhausted? Will it save the life of the kids who get into a car after practice and make stupid choices to text and drive? The answer to that question is easy. We don't know. We will never know if it helps until we open up the dialog. I work in social services and have my entire life. There isn't a conversation that is had, that at some point doesn't flow back to risk. We assess risk at every turn. We learn how to calculate risk to determine if what we are proposing is worth exposing ourselves to the liability. This weekend while judging, I pulled into the show site and there were 6 kids directing traffic into the school, without the presence of an adult. Minor risk? Sure. Chances are no one will get hurt. Smart? I beg to differ. 

It was March 13th and in a New York minute everything changed. Time would teach me that death is relentless and doesn't care how old you are or how much money you have. It was March 13th that taught me that fate will stop you when it chooses and force you to look at yourself in the mirror and ask why. The song says that the wolf is always at the door, so you better hang on tooth and nail to the people that you love. There has never been a truer statement. There were no more performances. No more rehearsals. Nothing the staff could have done would have changed the events of that day. There is no blame to place and no one to sue. There are lessons, though. Lessons that say all passengers should be in a seat belt. There is the lesson that 15 passenger vans are awkwardly weighted. A band program that lost members of it's ensemble might tell you that having better communication with parents might save lives. A discussion by the band director that says, "We care about you. Wear your seat belts and don't text each other," might just keep the kids alive. If you are a parent, you are trusting  the band staff with not just your children, but your very soul. When it is all said and done, there is nothing that can compare to the grief of a parent who has lost a child. It is incumbent upon us to have these discussions. 

"In these days when darkness falls early and people rush home to the ones they love, you better take a fool's advice and take care of your own, because one day they're here; the next day they're gone." 

I know some things just can't be changed, but if we were truly looking out for each other, we would talk more about the lives in our care during these weekends of competition and rehearsal. Before someone gets into a car to drive after a long weekend of teaching and judging, we would ask if they are o.k.to drive. If we lived up to our words when we use the word "family" when describing our guard friends, by working harder to ensure the safety of all was not an afterthought, but the first thought we have when planning a season, weekend, or show. We would have more dialog with young instructors on safety. We would ensure safety is the number one goal, ahead of winning and medals. A good risk manager will tell you that sometimes there is nothing you can do to stop a tragedy, but they will also tell you that leaving risk completely up to fate is simply irresponsible. Enter lawsuits. 

March 13th no longer defines me like it did for so many years. I rarely even think about it anymore. It did change me though, as does every event in life that stops you on a dime. My hope is that we learn from each other and don't fear the conversations, as we have so many times in the past and more than anything, I hope we never hear about performers caught in the throws of fate. 







Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Indelible Force of Fear


Fear. FEAR! Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear. 

It comes in all shapes and sizes. It comes in different colors, fonts, and styles. It is around us and here to stay. The quote on the left was sent to me by a friend, Nikki Booth. She asked me to write about it, because that's what we do in the pageantry arts and as I really think it through, it probably ranks at the top of the skills we learn and pass on to the performers we teach. 

The quote is very timely for me and I find it ironic that Nikki tagged me in it on Facebook. Last week I got the opportunity of a lifetime when I spoke at the National Bullying Conference in Orlando. Speaking at national conferences isn't new, for me as I have spoken at several before, and I have spoken at the National Bullying Conference once before. Speaking at conferences requires guts, because you risk your reputation while speaking in front of a national crowd. You don't know who is in the audience and you have no idea what their background is. This conference however was even more frightening, because I spoke on a topic that is often unique, controversial, and requested a call to action at the end. Advocacy at this level requires guts of immeasurable quantity and the ability to accept the naysayers, negative Nancy's, and pessimists who live a life of "it can't be done." In the end, the speech went well and my co-presenter Heather Rothman (another pageantry princess)  and I celebrated with a strong cocktail in the local pub. 

None of this however, would have been possible without the help of the pageantry arts. I've written about this before. The power behind the ability to perform in front of a crowd and to be judged takes nothing short of a miracle sometimes. We teach young people everyday in rehearsal that overcoming fear is probably the most important life skill a person can have. I've been teaching for over 25 years in this activity and the challenge of overcoming fear doesn't stop when the sabre is tucked quietly away in the closet with old dance shoes and medals. I believe the fear that comes from creating a product and presenting it to be judged, criticized, ridiculed, mocked, and placed value upon, is harder than performing ever could be. Even as I write this little blog post, I can't help but wonder how it will be received. In the pageantry arts we don't just compete. We create performance art and ask young people to step onto a stage to have others form an opinion of that art. With all of my years in the activity, it's been just in the past decade or so, that we have begun to call ourselves artists and with that title, comes creative fear. 

Years ago, when people would congratulate me on a job well done with a guard or ask what I did for a guard, I usually responded with some self-deprecating remark like, "Oh it' was nothing. It took a team. Yeah thanks." or my personal favorite, "I'm just the tech." It's not always easy, even when the art is good, to appreciate your own work and sense of value in the world of performance art. It's easier to judge yourself harder than the audience and put yourself down, because fear tells us that if we step up and say, "Hell yeah we were good!" or "I might not have designed that, but by God we couldn't have done it without the creative flow of a great technician," then we don't have to take full responsibility for the good and the bad. I have found that being humble is my defense against the fear of seeing myself as talented and good. Sometimes I put myself down, because fear tells me that success might not come again, so don't get use to it. As a woman in America, I've been subjected to the hidden messages that being bold and assertive was unbecoming of a lady. So, when you couple absurd gender based societal messages with fear; you get a person who hides behind a curtain of insecurity. 

In critique, I see instructors coming to the table unable to have an open dialog, because of fear that we as judges might actually say the words, "I really liked it." 

Instructors often start a conversation with, "Yeah it wasn't our best run." 

                                                             or 

"We were missing Sally Mae who had mono all week and well you know kids and their parents, so Betty Sue who is Sally Mae's exchange partner freaked out and missed count 5 after the exchange and forgot to toss, because well...I think she has mono, too."

"Time!"

Yeah, you just blew your three minutes by excuses, when all I wanted to say was, "I noticed that you had a hole during the exchange, but I really like where the show is going." 

It's fear. Fear allows us to make excuses and it keeps us from hearing the good and suggestions for growth. I see this not just out of young artists in the activity, but out of the most prominent designers and techs. I personally do it all the time. I do it at work. I do it as a mother. I do it as a writer. I do it as a judge and I most certainly do it as an instructor. 

Living the life of a creative person is a rough life and it doesn't matter what field those creative juices flow in. Opening your mouth, your heart, or soul to express a new idea just once, is more than most people do in an entire lifetime. In the pageantry arts, we do it every year day in and day out. I've been working in the field of social services since I was 23 and I can't tell you how many times I've begged colleagues to think differently. I'll ask the question, "So, if the statistics on bullying haven't changed, so then clearly the status quo isn't working. Give me a new solution. Give me something different." And in light of the lack of a creative response, I open my mouth, with the fear of ridicule and say, "I have a new idea. It's different and may not work."  I've learned over time that those that fear change or new concepts, will be the first to pick apart and blow holes through the idea. The truly creative people, the people that look fear in the face and say, "Screw You," will attempt to find the good in the new, before finding the bad. 

Fear. It isn't for the faint of heart and those who fear for the sake of fear, lead a life of comfort. They don't take chances and roll over into apathy. 

I thank God for the failures of the staff that taught me and the failures of my own creative process. They made me stronger and even more creative. They taught me how to stand up for myself and in front of a crowd to defend my ideas...the good ones and the bad ones. 

Last Thursday, when I spoke of new ideas in front of a national crowd, I had McGavock High School, the Star of Indiana and the Pride of Cincinnati to thank. Through them and every judge that told me I could do more, I stood with good posture, made eye contact, and opened my mouth to a different future. 

We are a wondrous activity.