So, after 21 years, our marriage is officially an adult. Four children, including three within the first two years of marriage, are enough to challenge anyone. But we've made it this far and now get to enjoy some precious time with each other, such as today's Nats game. It's wonderful to go through this life with someone you consider your best friend. I love you, Jill!
Currently showing posts tagged Parenting
I really don’t believe in ghosts. But I do believe in spirits, both of the adult and ghostly variety.
This summer marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death, unbelievable because of what has happened over the past decade and because I remember it like it was yesterday. It’s also remarkable because it has been almost 10 years since my oldest child, Nicholas, was last in Texas.
Nicholas, now 24, and I have bonded greatly over the past couple of years, developing the type of father-son relationship I always hoped and prayed we’d have during his long childhood absences marked by distance and divorce. Thankfully, circumstances lined up for him to join me this week as I trek from New Orleans to Texas to San Francisco, part of a 14-day jaunt that includes shooting two conferences on both ends, with a trip through my home state in between.
With a month between leaving his job and starting grad school, Nick met me in New Orleans and came to Texas. The purpose of this part of the trip, determined long in advance, was to help my aunt — my dad’s sister and the last link to his side of the family — get ready to move from Pottsboro to her hometown of Longview.
I’ve long wanted my kids, who’ve spent most of their lives on the East Coast, to come back to Texas with me to see and hopefully gain some understanding of my roots that run across this entire state. Being the oldest, and the one somewhat suddenly with time on his hands, it was logical for Nicholas to be part of this trip with my mom.
After Nick spent two days in New Orleans, his first trip there, we flew to Houston on Thursday night and left in mom’s van for Pottsboro on Friday. My mom has separated all the photos from her nine grandchildren into boxes. Nicholas’ box, which she gave him, included many photos from when he was a baby/toddler and included my dad. Many he had never seen.
As we made the trek up Interstate 45, Nicholas held the box in his lap, thumbing through the pictures on occasion. When we stopped at a gas station/convenience store in Ennis, one of the many small towns you pass on the long trek, the ghost/spirit made his first appearance.
My dad was a huge fan of both superheroes and James Dean, and when we trekked into this kitschy store with its knickknacks, cheap souvenirs, and single beers iced in the open air, I spotted two metal signs above the cooler. One was the Superman insignia; the other was a photo of James Dean.
We went to my aunt’s house and packed some of her things in the van. Nick and I made a mad dash to the Oklahoma border so he could claim he'd been to the state, then stayed up until 3 a.m. talking about life, childhood, relationships and adulting. (Yes, adulting.) The two of us and Mom left Saturday afternoon for Longview, where we stayed at the homes of my dad’s first cousins. Much reminiscing ensued.
Yesterday, on Father’s Day, we drove around Longview, visiting the cemetery where my grandparents are buried. There, I realized something I had never thought of before: My dad was 52 — my age now — the year that Nicholas was born.
After driving by the childhood homes of my parents, we then went to Kilgore, where I had my first chance to see the campus where my mom and dad first got together. (She was a Rangerette; he was the squad’s manager. Not a bad gig for a then 19-year-old.) We then drove back to Houston.
In many respects, even though Jill and my other three kids weren’t with us, it was the perfect way to spend Father’s Day. Throughout the day, I received texts and calls from Ben, Emma, Kate, and Ginno (“adopted” child). Jill posted a beautiful, sweet message as well.
Today, the last day Nicholas and I are together, real life is intervening. We are sitting in a Starbucks. I’m writing a freelance story (after processing all of this, of course); he is advertising furniture he and his girlfriend are trying to sell. We are, in many ways, adulting.
When I started going through some of the pictures I’ve taken over the course of these past few days, I zoomed in on the one I took in that convenience store in Ennis. I knew the photo had a James Dean quote on it, but I hadn’t really paid it much attention. When I read it, however, tears came to my eyes.
“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, and if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.”
One challenging week: Computer craps out, Internet goes down (not related), and this year's post-50 doctoral round robin continues with with a hernia repair. So I'm behind, sore (not in the behind, fortunately), and frustrated.
On the good news front, the Internet is back up and the hernia is fixed, which means I can start (gingerly for the next day or so) to catch back up. My twins are loving their time together in NYC, Nick saw Oprah yesterday and Kate has a variety of exciting things coming over the next week. Oh, and my wife is a rock star.
All in all, despite the frustrations, it could be much worse.
The six Cook-McFarland cousins have not all been together in more than four years, so it was great to have everyone (including Conner, Nick's significant other) in the same place this past weekend in Boone for Jill's family reunion. These pics show they were quick to pick up where they left off...
To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.
The Hodges-Love family reunion drew about 50 people to Oak Grove Baptist Church in Boone over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. It brought together family members from Jill's maternal grandparents, many of whom we haven't seen in years. Here are a few photos; the rest can be seen in my Facebook album here.
Meanwhile, as part of the event, I took a series of shots of old family photos to display in the room. Below is one; you can see the rest by going to this link in the VIsual Storytelling section of the website.
I've had the kids on the brain this morning, particularly thinking about the pyramid picture I took of the six first cousins in Boone over Memorial Day. I wanted to recreate the pyramids the kids did in their youth and (after much cajoling/negotiation) managed to get them to recreate this one from Memorial Day weekend nine years earlier.
This is Emma's birthday tribute to her mom. There is no disputing who the best writer in the family is...
Back in the beginning of December, I was a few months into my freshmen year of college. While I love Point Park, some things were inevitably hard to cope with. Throughout my time here I have received care packages from my parents, always accompanied by an encouraging message (which I could tell my mom had written). These packages are sent out through the school, with all of the notes prewritten back in August.
It was during this time in which I was struggling with a few things that I decided to get a tattoo with the quote "This too shall pass." I told my mom about this idea, and she loved it. A few days later, I received another care package. When I opened it the first words on it were "This too shall pass."
My dad has always said that my mom and I are very similar, but it wasn't until reading that message that I truly knew how much. I'm beginning to realize that she probably understands me better than I understand myself. Everything she does is to protect and support the people she loves. She is so hardworking and strong, and it inspires me to do the same and always work to be a better person.
As I grow up I'm more and more grateful for my parents, and everything they have provided for my siblings and me. I love you so much mom. I hope you and dad have an amazing time in Venice. Happy Birthday.
So, in addition to this being Valentine's Day, we are marking the official kickoff of "Ben Cook Week" in the family. Last night started with Emma accompanying the boy to the Newsies movie premiere in New York.
Tomorrow it's Law & Order: SVU (check local listings) and then Newsies opens in movie theaters. Jill, Kate and I will see the movie with a bunch of family, extended family and friends at the Regal Springfield Town Center. Nick and Conner will see it in Durham and the Cook/Ghirardi clan are going in Clear Lake.
The movie, which received great reviews from those who saw the New York premiere, also is showing on Saturday and next Wednesday. Hope you get to see it!
I distinctly remember the first time I heard the “F” word. We were driving from Texas City to Longview on the dreaded U.S. 59 in my mom’s white, two-door Oldsmobile Cutlass. I was 9, maybe 10. My dad, his head on the 90-degree turn thanks to dysplasia/spasmodic tordicollis, was in the passenger seat and mom was driving. These were the days when the speed limit had just been lowered and mom, never wanting to break the law, kept the needle neatly positioned between the 5 and the 5.
As frequently happens on long trips on divided four-lane highways, we played a slight game of tag with another car. We passed it, it passed us, and so on. I’m sure the driver in the other car had to be a little freaked out by the fact that, every time we passed, my dad was staring at him — involuntarily — through the passenger side window.
Suddenly and without warning, I heard my dad explode with a resounding “F-U too, buddy!”
I asked my mom what the “f” word meant, and she said it was a word that only adults use, and even then only infrequently. (Little did she know...) Giving my dad the stare down while somehow simultaneously looking at the road and in the rearview mirror, she proceeded to explain that it was a word I shouldn’t ever choose, especially in anger.
“We’ve taught you to have a better vocabulary than that.”
The lesson I took from this experience was that the word itself is not what’s important, but the tone of your voice is what really matters. What I didn’t understand at the time, but do today, was that my dad was hurt and lashed out. The other driver had no idea the kind of pain that he was in, no idea how embarrassed/emasculated he might have felt thanks to an insidious disease that would affect him for the rest of his life.
Over the years, since becoming a writer/editor in my own right, I’ve learned to love and respect the power words have. But more important, I’ve tried to dissect and learned to appreciate the tone my voice has when I choose to use words in a certain way.
Now, if I’m truly angry, I don’t use profanity. I don’t want people to get hung up on a particular word choice and use that as an excuse to not listen to what I have to say. Deep in my heart, I wish that others would choose words as carefully and listen when others with dissenting opinions are talking. My fear is that listening is becoming a lost art.
Kate last night at her 20th birthday party — she has to work on her actual birthday, which is today — and with her siblings at the Escape Room Live in Alexandria. Plus, as a bonus, a flashback photo to 3-day-old Kate and her mom on the living room couch. (It's still one of my all-time favorites.)
11:33 p.m., December 31, 2016
Well, if all goes well in the next half hour or so, I can say we survived. And then some. (Given the rash of creative talent that has passed away this year, "and then some" seemed like a proper qualifier.)
It's truly been a year of great highs, lows and transitions: 20th wedding anniversary, high school graduations, moving kids in and out of new homes, Broadway, a movie, First Lady shout outs, college, new jobs, travel to 18 different states (some multiple times), Paris, Zurich, new business, old business, stressful business, deepening friendships, learning opportunities, missed opportunities, sinus infections, the flu, global uncertainty, and the love of family.
As my kids move into rapidly into adulthood, I've tried to be a better father, in as much as my role is shifting from professional schlepper/caregiver to advisor, helper and confidant. As our home moves to a (mostly) empty nest, Jill and I have gone on a series of adventures that I hope will continue for many many years to come. It's nice when you can do that with someone who is both your best friend and the great love of your life.
I'm increasingly aware of how the traits that our parents passed on to us are being forwarded to subsequent generations, and how a seemingly innocuous incident that occurred decades ago can have long-term effects on your life. (Spoiler alert: This is not a new revelation caused by binge-watching "This is Us," although the show is highly recommended.)
And, I'm increasingly aware of how fragile life really is. How short it is in the grand scheme. How much we need to live it for as long as we can in a truthful, caring, and loving manner as possible.
I was born 17 days after the Baby Boom era ended, which means I was part of the Generation X transition plan. This year, more so than any other, we saw the loss of so many people who were part of the fabric of my life from birth.
A partial list of those we’ve lost in 2016: David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Harper Lee, Abe Vigoda, Gary Shandling, Patty Duke, Doris Roberts, Prince, Anton Yelchin (Chekov in the new “Star Treks”), Gary Marshall, Marni Nixon (voice of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood, and Audrey Hepburn in three classic musicals), Gene Wilder, Curtis Hanson (director of “The Wonder Boys”), Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, Zsa Zsa Gabor, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds.
Hell, even Nancy Reagan didn’t want to stick around for the possibility of a Trump administration.
And tonight, scanning the last-minute headlines to make sure Betty White was still safe, I saw that we lost William Christopher, who played the loving, bumbling Father Mulcahey on M*A*S*H.
Say what you will, but I'm glad to see this turbulent year gone. Like many, I'm concerned about what the future holds, not just here but around the world. I'm also concerned about the lack of empathy our society — not everyone, I swear it's not that blanket of a statement — shows toward traditionally marginalized populations.
So if you're lucky enough to give a significant other that kiss in a couple of minutes, take a second to think about love, what it means, and what you can do to spread it around.
Thanks for reading my latest rant. Here's to a better year in 2017. Let's live it up...
The annual Christmas morning photo: Same staircase, 14 years apart.
Going to see a Christmas Day movie with the four, who suddenly regret that Jill and I got rid of the minivan. (BTW: La La Land was great!)
When the kids were, well, kids, they loved going to the Lincoln Memorial at night. For several years, every trip Nicholas made to Virginia had to include a trip to see the tribute to Honest Abe.
Sometimes everyone made the pilgrimage, but often we were missing one. That was true again this year — Kate couldn't make it due to another obligation — but this time we added a new member, Nick's girlfriend Conner.
One of these days, we'll have everyone with us, and another addition or two would mean we have to take two cars. I look forward to that day...
It's December (aka "birthday month") at our house, so here's a flashback to one of my favorite photos of the four kids holding hands in a brief moment of solidarity. Every time I see this photo, it makes me smile.
Surprised the oldest on his birthday yesterday in Durham. It's the first birthday we've spent together since 2009.
Birthday Month, Parts 2 & 3: Wishing the happiest 19th to Ben and Emma, separated by distance in body but always together in spirit. We love you both so much!
We're having a quiet Thanksgiving at home, quite the contrast to years past. Feeling nostalgic with Ben, Emma, and Kate here together for the first time in months, I started going through old photos of past Thanksgivings.
A few things I noticed during our visual time travel:
• Over the last 20 years, we've had Thanksgiving dinner in at least 7 different cities in four states.
• Only two years (2001 and 2014) are not represented in this album. We were just moving into our home in Lorton in November 2001 and in 2014 we had just the girls here for a low-key Thanksgiving.
• After 2003, we didn't have Thanksgiving at home until 2013. Since then, we've been at home for three of the last four years.
• The last Thanksgiving all six McFarland/Cook first cousins were together was in 2012. They've only all been together a handful of times since. The last time all of the Cook/Ghirardi cousins were together was at my dad's funeral in 2007.
Going back through these photos was fun experience. Some years were easier than others — no surprise given that December is the month of birthdays. At times we were celebrating new opportunities; at others we were mourning those we had lost.
But all it takes is one quick look, and you can see why I give thanks every day for the life we have together.
Reunions that include all four kids are far too rare these days, so it was great to come together briefly in New York this past weekend. Ostensibly, the reason was to formally (and belatedly) celebrate Ben’s high school graduation, which we did with a small gathering of family (biological, extended, extensions of extended) on Saturday evening.
Nick and Conner came from Durham on Thursday night and, given that she had only visited the city a couple of times, we hit the sites hard on Friday. Nick took Conner to her first Broadway show (“Waitress”) and a friend gave them a backstage tour. Once the day was done, we had walked more than 10 miles.
On Saturday, Jill and Kate came in by train from Virginia and Emma flew in from Pittsburgh. At that point, we had all four children together for the first time since Emma’s graduation in July. Thanks to Ginno, Casey, Bernadette, and everyone else who took the time to stop by, say hello, give a hug, and catch up. It was great seeing all of you.
On Sunday, Emma and I stuck around and went to The Newsboys Variety Show at 54 Below to see Ben perform a song (“Unemployed”) with his roommate Josh. Again, I was struck by how kind and (obviously) talented the cast of this show is, and by how warm and friendly they are. They are a family unto themselves.
Before you knew it, the long weekend was over and it will be Christmas before the four are together again. But it was nice — very nice — while it lasted.
I've been sitting in the Denver airport all night because of a cancelled flight, which prompted this sleep-deprived diatribe. Read on if you choose...
Look folks, I'm not perfect. Never have professed that. I have flaws as a husband, father, son and human being.
I think the fact that I can and do acknowledge those flaws makes me imminently qualified to say this: There is no way in hell I'm voting for a Mr. in this election.
I realize this comes as no shock to anyone who knows me well, but understand that I know and recognize that both candidates have flaws. However, if there was any margin for error, it has been erased permanently by the most vitriolic, distasteful, and abusive campaign in U.S. history.
As a husband, father and son, I can't in good conscience vote for someone whose systemic manipulation of women (and other, equally important things from a governance perspective) is a centerpiece of his very existence. And I don't understand how anyone else can do the same.
I have friends on all sides of the spectrum. Some of you have chosen to unfollow or unfriend me because my views don't march in lockstep with yours. Others are quick to note the flaws and peccadilloes of previous politicians for the umpteenth time.
Some will not take the time or energy to read this because one more word about this election is just too much. And that's OK. That's your right.
Come November 9, I hope our nation can get treatment for the collective PTSD that this election has caused (at least for those who believe such a thing exists). But between now and then, I hope everyone will carefully and prayerfully (if you so choose) consider the type of person you want to represent our nation.
Either way, please exercise your right to vote. That's one thing we can all do together, even if we disagree.
Less than a month out, here are a few more random thoughts about baseball, politics and other things…
• Is it flu season? Or is this feeling coming because I'm a Nationals fan during the playoffs? At least I can get a shot for the latter by walking to a nearby cabinet.
• In case you’re wondering what my qualifications are for that last statement, remember that my childhood was spent in the Houston area, where the playoffs and Rolaids marched in solidarity every fall.
• Dear Mr. Stump: Thank you for proving yet again that misogyny and vitriol are alive and well. I've never seen such anger and hatred in my life as I’m seeing in the days leading up to this election.
The GOP on November 9.
• On a somewhat related note, Mr. Obama’s approval rating is higher at this point in his term than any president since Ronald Reagan. Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a turnaround.
• Having been to Pittsburgh twice in the past two weeks, I’m beginning to think Pennsylvania is one of those states where the red light and the orange cone should just hook up and call it a night.
• Speaking of travel, here’s an on-the-road question: Why do hotels that charge $200 a night leave you with single-ply toilet paper?
• Twitter is the new People Magazine. You can read all you need while sitting on the can.
• And the best news yet …. The boy has a job for the next couple of weeks!
It's been a while since I've taken headshots of Kate, and she needed some new ones, so it was a pleasure to take these. Here are four takes on my beautiful daughter, who turns 20 (!) in December.
Flying home yesterday from LA, with a brief stop to drop off my mom in Houston, I realized yet again how wonderful it is to have so many special friends and extended family members as a result of the boy's adventures. I saw people who have been part of our lives for the past eight or nine years and just shook my head in wonder at the community that surrounds him and us.
Watching the filming of "Newsies" could have been better only if Jill was there. It truly was a remarkable evening filled with memories and hope. Now, after a frenetic past few weeks of work and wonder, things briefly slow down to "normal."
Whatever that is.
Random ramble while sitting in a JiffyLube on a Saturday...
Over the past 5 weeks, I've been out of town more than I've been at home. Work and family have taken us to Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, and California, plus drive-thrus of Maryland (east and west), Delaware and New Jersey.
One kid went to college. One filmed a movie. One went on the road for his job and the other started a new one. Jill and I spent great time together and more than a full week apart.
The next couple of months bring the same level of intensity, as the situation flips and Jill embarks on a series of fall trips for work.
Lots of stories and memories will find their way onto my website and Facebook business page in the coming days. Ironically, I now have 1986 likes on that page.
1986 is the year I turned 21, never imagining for a moment I'd live this kind of life. To everyone who has made a contribution to that life, especially my family biological and extended, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I’ve been fortunate to know Zach Manske and his family for the past five years, ever since he and our son, Ben, shared the title role in the national tour of “Billy Elliot: The Musical.” Zach, who lives in Woodbury, Minn., was named “2016 National Senior Male Outstanding Dancer” last month by the New York City Dance Alliance.
A couple of weeks ago, Zach was completing a summer intensive at Julliard when I had the long-awaited opportunity to take his headshots and add to my “Art & Dance” portfolio. Ben, who is auditioning in New York, came along for the shoot, which took place in front of Lincoln Center and at Central Park.
As you might expect when you have not one, but two excellent dancers, the shoot was great fun. But the best part of the day was seeing these two young men, who became friends during a high pressure and intense time as kids, pick up right where they left off, urging each other on and enjoying a chance to perform.
For more photos, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/new-york-zach--ben.
"So my Mom turns 75 today. Not sure how that happened, because she always says she was just so young when she had me."
Pause. Punchline. Followed by, "Of course, calling your mom a liar in public is not polite."
She's not really fibbing. Mom and dad were 23 and 24 when they had me. But this is the type of humor we share, a back and forth that has been a never-ending game of ping pong for years.
I wish I could put into words the influence my mom has had on me. Perhaps the best way is to describe her as "my first, best teacher," who has shared her talent with countless school children, friends, and family for her entire life.
I love you, Mom. Happy birthday. And may the ribbing continue for a long, long time.
A few random thoughts en route to dropping Emma off at Point Park University:
• This past weekend, as a farewell of sorts, our longtime friend Tom Pratt gave the girls, Nicholas and his girlfriend Conner a tour of the West Wing and the White House. Ginno and Elie came from New York, and we had a lovely time.
The best part of this story, however, occurred before the tour. I had mentioned to Ginno and Elie that “business casual” dress was required, but failed to let Nick know. My son has to wear a suit to work every day, so he likes to be as casual — but stylish — as possible on the weekends.
I guess it should not have come as a surprise that he came downstairs in shorts, but he didn’t even bring pants on the trip up from North Carolina. So he and Conner had to make a mad dash to get pants at the last minute just to get through security.
As Jill said, “That’s totally something you would do.” I could only reply with, “Yep, he’s my son.”
• In honor of our last child's college orientation, my forehead is the recipient of an enormous stress zit, proving yet again that you're never too far away from your inner 18-year-old.
• Jill says she can’t go anywhere without me bumping into someone I know. It happened on our honeymoon 20 years ago, when I saw a couple I knew from Texas while hiking at Mount Rainier. And it occurred again on our vacation to Utah.
Lynne Barnes, a good friend whose daughter was on the Billy Elliot tour with Ben, and I bumped into each other at a restaurant in Moab. I had gone to get dinner and went to the restroom when Lynne sent me a text saying she had seen my “twin.” I didn’t think anything of it until I got a tap on the shoulder and there she was. Small world…
• A recent study said intelligent people tend to be messy, stay awake longer and swear more. If this is the case, I’m a genius.
Word of the day for a lot of parents I know: Bittersweet.
Definition (adj.): Both pleasant and painful.
When you're dropping off your last child at college, that pretty much sums it up in a nutshell. In the end, however, I'm confident it will be less bitter than sweet for all concerned.
Emma, we know you'll be great at Point Park. Pittsburgh is lucky to have you, just as we have been lucky to call ourselves your parents and your family. We love you, sweetheart!
Two posts related to people I'm closest to in this life...
I get a little quiet and contemplative every year around this time. My thoughts tend to get scattered — even more than usual — and I forget little things when a memory of him pops into my head, like I did last night when I realized the anniversary was today.
No question, the simple passage of time has helped. So do the memories. I still have questions and wonder what he would think about so many things involving our lives and family.
Today marks nine years. Where has the time gone?
I miss you, Dad.
I've been tagged twice in the "Love Your Spouse Challenge," in which you're supposed to post photos for seven days in a row to keep the Celebration of Love and the Promotion of Marriage going. Unfortunately, I'm not the most consistent when it comes to these types of things, so I thought I'd just do 7 photos in one day instead.
Chances are pretty good that you've seen one or more of these over time. And if you know me at all, chances are pretty good you know how I feel about the woman I've spent the last 20 years of my life with.
I love you Jill. Always have. Always will. #loveyourspouse
This song is best known because of Tim McGraw's version, but it was written by one of my favorite musicians — Lori McKenna (check out her stuff now!) — and will be on her new album that comes out in a couple of weeks.
If you have 4 minutes and 18 seconds, please give this a listen. It's something Jill and I have tried to teach our kids, and given all of the unrest in our country and in the world right now, it's a lesson well worth sharing to any and all.
Good big brother that he is, Nicholas surprised Emma following the matinee of "Alice in Wonderland" on Saturday. Nick had said he could not make it to the show, but he and Conner had been making plans all along to come from Durham to Northern Virginia for Emma's last recital performance.
And with Ben, Kate, and other family members supporting our youngest daughter, the end-of-high school cycle is almost complete.
Emma has danced with her siblings (“Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” — 2004), played an orphan (“Hard Knock Life” — 2009), and ends her time at Metroplitan School of the Arts this weekend with two performances as the March Hare in “Alice in Wonderland.”
At MSA, she is literally the last Cook standing, the only one of our kids to perform in every show since first grade.
Earlier this week, someone asked me if it was difficult to see our last child finish high school. And it’s not, not really. The harder part is watching Emma in her last role, because the studio has been (literally, it seems) her second home.
We love you, sweetheart, and are so proud of you! Break a leg!
A weekend with my oldest son, Nicholas, and his girlfriend Conner in Durham, N.C. led to a walk around downtown and a series of fun photos of a cute couple. To see more, go to my Facebook album here.
Our last child graduated from high school today as Ben finished the online program he's been in for the past two years. Since there was no formal ceremony — just sighs of relief from parents, relatives, friends, casual acquaintances and others — I decided to post his other "graduation" photo. (Kindergarten, 2004)
Congrats, Ben! We are proud of you!
Prior to Thursday's commencement ceremonies, Emma participated in several activities during her last week at Lake Braddock Secondary School. Among them: the school's senior awards ceremony on Tuesday, where she was recognized as one of 145 of the 659 graduates to finish with a GPA above 4.0. Then, on Wednesday with her grandmother in attendance, Emma and longtime friend Julia Speranzo danced to kickoff the school's baccalaureate ceremony. It's been a busy week...
Emma graduated from Lake Braddock Secondary School during a ceremony honoring 659 seniors at the Patriot Center at George Mason University. It was the first time all four of our kids have been together since Kate graduated from Mount Vernon last year, and we were fortunate to be joined by other family members (including my mom) and close friends. Congratulations to our youngest daughter!
The past 10 days included our 20th wedding anniversary, a prom, awards ceremony, baccalaureate service, graduation, graduation parties, Jill's 2+ day trip to Colorado, three roundtrips to National Airport in a 24-hour period, family members coming in from out of town and state, Orlando, the Tony Awards, the NBA Finals (wow, game 7), shooting MSA's graduation, finishing two freelance pieces, and putting up a small exhibit in the Associate Artists gallery.
Oh, and there was this thing called Father's Day, too.
Normally, I would get all sentimental around this time, in part because I truly wish my father was here to see all that our kids have accomplished in their (relatively) short time on this planet. Not a day goes by that I don't think of what he's missing by not being here.
I can't help but think he would marvel at the swirl of activity that envelops our lives, just as Jill's parents would. He would tell us to slow down, if even for a second, because he never seemed to like moving quickly.
At different times during this past week, I took a moment to look at each of my four kids who, because of circumstances, were all together for the first time in a year. In every case, I saw bits and pieces of my dad in each of them. It was a comforting reminder that, even though he's not here in physical form, his legacy lives on.
Love and miss you, Dad.
Twenty-one high school seniors affiliated with Metropolitan School of the Arts will graduate later this month. Most also will perform in a special senior showcase scheduled from 4 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the MSA studio in Alexandria.
Our daughter, Emma, has been a part of the studio since early elementary school, so this will be one of the last opportunities she has to perform in a MSA show. As a parent, I’ve been fortunate to watch many of these kids — now young adults — grow up and flourish as performers and people. As a photographer, I’ve also been fortunate to take many of their headshots and senior pictures as they get ready to go to college.
Late last month, on a drizzly Saturday morning, we went out for a shoot with the seniors that will be featured in a video to start the show. You can see some here. Come back next week to look at what I take at the senior speeches scheduled after the showcase.
Photos from "Rhythm & Sole," the annual dance showcase featuring students from Fairfax Academy for Communications & the Arts. Our daughter, Emma, performed the dance she choreographed as a trio with her friends Georgia Monroe and Kelsey Kaufman. Congratulations to all the dancers, a number of whom had not performed on stage for an audience prior to the event.
For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.
After Sunday's showcase featuring 16 high school seniors, Metropolitan School of the Arts hosted a reception for the soon-to-be graduates, a number of whom have been part of the studio for more than a decade.
Recognized were Ben Cherington, Sarah Christophersen, Emma Cook, Sam Cornbrooks, Nakya Fenderson, Sarah Kelly, Sophia Kleess, Biby Medrano, Georgia Monroe, Gabi Odom, Jeremiah Porter, Veronica Quezada, Lexi Rhem, Amber Supernor, Hank von Kolnitz, and Adia Walker.
To see more photos, go to my Facebook album here.
Emma and Sam Cornbrooks produced the showcase and developed, filmed and edited this video to introduce the event. Congratulations to both of these very talented kids and to all of the performers for their hard work.
20 years. Where has the time gone? It has flown by so fast, and today, our last child finishes her last day of high school and goes to prom.
20 years of memories, travels, adventures, happy times and (a few) heartbreaks. Four young adults we've worked to raise.
20 years. Happy anniversary to the great love of my life. Here's to many more adventures together.
I took pictures of you on your first day of kindergarten (top left), first grade and many other first days since. This morning, I had the chance to take a photo on your last day of high school.
Two schools, 13 years, more late nights than anyone cares to count. Your mom and I could not be prouder of you and all you have done. We can't wait to see what happens in the next chapter of your life.
I'm fortunate to be surrounded and supported by wonderful women in this life. To no one's surprise on this day of recognition, two who come quickly to mind are Jill and my mom, Olivia.
As moms, you both have done and continue to do so much for your children and countless others. We would not be the same without you.
Happy Mother's Day, night, and every other day of the year. We love you!
As we mark "College Signing Day," a hearty congratulations to our youngest daughter, Emma, on her decision to pursue a bachelor of arts in dance at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. She starts classes this fall.
"Tuck Everlasting" made its formal Broadway opening Tuesday at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Jill, Emma and I drove in from Virginia and Nicholas flew from Nashville to see Ben in his first "adult" role.
Here is a photo chronicle of our day and night, which included subway rides, a visit to Sardi's, the Gypsy Robe ceremony for the Tuck cast (covered by Broadway World), the show, the red carpet treatment, and a premiere party at Tavern on the Green. A memorable time was had by all, that's for sure.
Opening night for "Tuck Everlasting" is finally (almost) here, the culmination of almost three months filled with firsts for the boy.
Tomorrow, we have the chance to see Ben perform during the opening of an original Broadway musical. At 18, he also is making his “adult” debut in the ensemble at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York City.
What makes this a unique experience for Ben, besides the "adult" part and living on his own in the city, is this is the first time he has been part of the cast of an original musical in New York. "Ragtime," in 2009, was a revival. "Billy Elliot" had already been running for more than a year on Broadway when he joined the ensemble. On the "Billy" and "Newsies" tours, he went through the tech process, but both of those shows were already established and much of the music/script/choreography had been locked in by the creative team.
A new musical, even one that had been performed out of town, is much different.
Five weeks of rehearsals were followed by almost a month of previews as the creative team continued to tweak and polish “Tuck,” which is based on the acclaimed children’s novel by Natalie Babbitt. Tim Federle, a wonderful writer and family friend who was one of Ben's mentors on "Billy," was brought in to contribute to the book. Music has been added, polished, and cut. Much of the choreography is new.
That’s the reason the preview process is so important, because it gives the show a chance to be performed for audiences to see what works and what doesn’t before it is formally locked in.
Chances are that if you saw “Tuck” in the first week or two of previews that what you’ll see now is different. It’s certainly been different for Ben, who is on stage quite a bit as an ensemble member and had not gone through one of those periods as a performer. (He was an understudy during the “Ragtime” revival.)
What makes this period so grueling for the actors, creatives, and crew is that you are essentially doing two shows a day, six days a week. During the preview period, “Tuck” has been running on a nontraditional schedule, with Sundays instead of Mondays off.
On single performance days, you typically arrive around noon to make adjustments and run through the show, take a break around 5 and then return two hours later to do it again for the preview audience. (Wednesdays and Saturdays are two show days.) Meanwhile, Ben is understudying two roles — Jesse Tuck and Hugo — and is learning their parts on stage.
Also over the past month, the show has hosted legendary theatre photographer Joan Marcus, who captured the in-performance images that are at the top of this piece, and shot performance footage for a “B-roll” that will be used for promotion purposes.
Finally, on Sunday, the cast gathered in a recording studio to record the score’s soundtrack, which will be available digitally on June 10 and in stores on July 1. That was another first for the boy.
And so now it’s almost time. Another opening, another show. Proud family members in the audience. Others rooting for Ben from close and afar.
There’s a certain “déjà vu all over again” feeling … and we couldn’t be more proud.
Break a leg, son.
A couple of additional things to note:
• It has been so wonderful to see the large number of friends and extended family who’ve come to see the show during the preview period. Cast members from “Billy Elliot” and “Newsies,” as well as friends from Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan, already have seen “Tuck.” I hope you’ll consider a trip, too.
• Dave Mack, a New York-based photographer, videographer and musician, is working at the Broadhurst Theatre and has been taking a series of beautiful portraits backstage. Here are a couple.
See the boy and a host of others in this video preview of Tuck Everlasting, which has its Broadway opening night tomorrow at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York. Congrats to Ben and the entire cast and creative team! Can't wait to be there...
As many of you know, my oldest son Nicholas has a younger sister, Bella, who lives in Greensboro and has Down’s Syndrome. Although she has since received a clean bill of health, Bella fought through a tough cancer battle several years ago. It was during that time that the Make-A-Wish Foundation gave his North Carolina family an opportunity to go to Disney World in 2013.
“It was a long, trying, and emotional two years,” Nick wrote in a Facebook post yesterday. “She pushed through it though and is one of the strongest, most resilient little fighters I know. I couldn’t be prouder and more honored to be the big brother of this little inspiration.”
Nick, kind and gentle soul that he is, has since been a supporter of the Make-A-Wish, including fundraisers with his college acapella group, Vital Signs. On June 3, he will hike 28.3 miles of the Foothills Trail in one day for the Make-A-Wish Central & Western North Carolina. He already has hit his $1,700 fundraising goal, but is still accepting donations to meet a personal goal of $2,500.
“No child should have to go through what Bella's gone through. But for those that do, having their wish granted gives them and the family a break from it all, enriching lives with strength, joy and hope, an opportunity to smile,” Nick wrote.
Our family has made a donation to Nick’s effort. I hope you will consider making one, too. To do so, go to his donation page here. Thank you for your support of our sweet and generous son.
A Facebook friend recently posted: “How can I be a parent when I can't even keep my own shit together? Trying to teach this kid responsibility just makes me feel like a hypocritical jerk. And mean. I just feel like I'm so mean.”
We’ve all had those days. After reading the various comments, most of them the “hang in there” variety, I decided to throw in my two cents. Perhaps this comes across as cynical, but I prefer to think of it as a realistic, non-Disney depiction of part of the Circle of Life.
Here’s what I wrote:
“All children are born single-agenda lobbyists, and initially at least their cause is themselves. Holding on to our shit is tough on many days and occasionally the bag it's in has leaks. It happens.
“When things are really difficult, I survive due to a healthy dose of sarcasm, usually self-deprecating in some way, and an endless desire to parody the pop culture they so want to emulate. ‘You say you want an E-vo-lu-tion. Well, you know, we all want to change the plan...’
“Before you know it, they grow up and you've made it through the tunnel. It happens, and ultimately you're both better off for the experience.”
What do you think? Do you agree with my take?
Congratulations to Emma (far left with her sister, Kate, and mom earlier this month). She has been accepted to the Dance Department at Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts in Pittsburgh starting this fall. We are very proud of our youngest daughter, who graduates from Lake Braddock Secondary School in June.
Tim Federle, whose young adult debut “The Great American Whatever” has been called “a Holden Caulfield for a new generation” by Kirkus Reviews, held a storytelling session and book signing Sunday at the McNally Jackson store in SoHo.
The multitasking author, who also is co-writer of the book for the new Broadway musical “Tuck Everlasting,” brought our son, Ben, as his special guest to read the first chapter of the book. Tim and Ben worked together on “Billy Elliot” in 2010-11 and have been reunited again on “Tuck Everlasting.”
Tim, who is one of the nicest people we know in the industry, was a Broadway performer prior to making his writing debut with “Better Nate Than Ever” and its sequel “Five, Six, Seven Nate!” His first novel was named a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” while its follow up won the Lambda Literary Award.
Proud parents with Ben after his performances in his first-ever Broadway show (Ragtime, November 2009) and his first show as an adult (Tuck Everlasting, April 2016).
Tonight, my 18-year-old son is performing for a paying crowd in his first Broadway show as an adult. About 50 miles north of Syracuse, the family of one of my high school classmates is mourning the loss of their 18-year-old son, an aspiring musical theatre performer who was killed last week in a head-on collision that was not his fault.
Life is just not fair.
Like many of you, through Facebook I’ve become reacquainted with many people I grew up with but haven’t seen in years. Chuck Leikham and I went to the same high school; he is best friends with David Watson and his wife, Mary, who I’ve known almost as long as I’ve been alive.
Chuck and his wife, Kristen, have three children and live in Adams, N.Y. He has been in the military for much of his adult life, and now is assigned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Like many families in the military, they have endured long separations from each other.
Their son, Parker, was deciding between colleges in Michigan, where he planned to pursue a career in musical theatre, when the van he was driving was struck head-on about a quarter-mile from his home. Parker had performed in local, youth, and school theatre since he was in second grade and had just finished a starring role in his school’s production of Beauty and the Beast the weekend before the accident.
By all accounts, he was a terrific talent and beloved by the community and his classmates. A lineman on his high school football team, he was on the school’s “Whiz Quiz” team that won an international championship in 2014. He also was known for wearing bow ties.
Two days after Parker’s death, a community candlelight vigil drew more than 800 people to the South Jefferson High School stadium, where his parents and siblings released 18 balloons in honor of his life. A local video company showed up to record the event, and after letting the family know they had a drone to capture the proceedings from overhead, his mother asked the crowd to make a bow tie for her son. The result shows the incredible outpouring of love and support for Parker and his family.
Tonight, as we celebrate Ben’s opening preview of Tuck Everlasting, a show with beautiful music and the theme of eternal life, we’ll also say a prayer for a family that has lost its own shining star.
Note: The family is trying to get Ellen DeGeneres to wear a bowtie in honor of their son and is asking for support from their friends on Facebook. Chuck wrote today that his son “loved her show and has much in common with her. Parker was all about love and tolerance.” To write in, go to http://www.ellentv.com/be-on-the-show/1058/
In many ways, Patty Duke could have been — and perhaps should have been — a child star statistic. The early rise to childhood fame, the alcoholic and mentally ill parents, the controlling and abusive managers led to an adulthood featuring multiple marriages and affairs, suicide attempts, and her own struggles with drugs and drink.
Despite a persistent feeling that “something was not right, or even more intensely, that there was something wrong with me,” Duke refused to get help until she was in her mid 30s, when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
“I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t need their help,” she said in a 2011 interview with the girlfriend of a writer I once supervised. “I was on an intimate basis with God. I told God what to do, and He did.”
Duke managed to survive, and ultimately thrive, in the second act of her life, which ended Tuesday at age 69. She started taking lithium, going to therapy and talking to anyone who would listen about mental health issues; Duke was a keynote speaker at Jill’s American School Counselor Association conference in 2011.
She attacked the stigma around mental health as fiercely as she attacked a script, writing two books and speaking across the country about her experiences.
“I’ve survived,” she wrote on her website. “I’ve beaten my own bad system and on some days, most days, that feels like a miracle.”
As our kids transition into adulthood, Patty Duke’s story resonates with our family. Now living in New York, our son is navigating the tricky move from child actor to adult actor. Back at home after a few months in Florida, our daughter is learning how to be an adult and trying to manage her bipolar disorder. Their siblings are dealing, in some ways, with the unintentional collateral damage caused by family circumstances.
The treacherous path that we call parenthood is littered with block after block of crossroads. Left, right or straight, many decisions feel like an endless game of second guessing. Did we do the right thing? Are we doing what’s best for everyone? Is that possible?
The answers are not clear cut, but we continue to try.
People are starting to talk more openly about "it."
Five years ago, when Ben was in the ensemble of “Billy Elliot” in New York, he met Jonathan Bucari, a French filmmaker who had moved to the U.S. and was starting work on a short film called “Illness.” The mother of one of Ben’s cast mates, Carina Rush, agreed to produce the movie, which looked at a family’s struggle to cope with the erratic behavior of their middle son and the discovery that he has a mental illness.
After winning multiple awards, “Illness” has been expanded to feature length and retitled “No Letting Go.” The 104-minute film, a labor of love for Carina, Jonathan and writer/producer Randi Silverman (who based the screenplay on her own life), has received strong reviews for its handling of the sensitive subject matter and performances.
“No Letting Go,” which was released in theaters this month in New York and Los Angeles, was made available on demand Wednesday for “World Bipolar Day.” An event created in 2014 to bring awareness to the disorder and to eliminate the ongoing stigmas surrounding mental illness, “World Bipolar Day” is held annually on the birthday of painter Vincent Van Gogh, who was believed to have suffered from the illness.
Also on Wednesday, a webcast held at the University of Michigan Depression Center featured a panel of experts and contributors to the upcoming PBS documentary, “Ride the Tiger: A Guide Through the Bipolar Brain.” The webcast and the one-hour documentary, which focuses on cutting edge mental health research amid personal stories of people with mood disorders, are fascinating and worthwhile uses of your time. Both are available to stream now on the PBS website; the documentary premieres on PBS stations on April 13.
Throughout “Ride the Tiger,” which I watched after Jill alerted me to the webcast, those affected by the disorders talk about their journeys, what they’ve learned, and how they face the stigmas associated with mental illness.
The researchers discuss what they are doing to find out where biological breakdowns occur — bipolar is not, despite what some may think, behavioral. It is a medical diagnosis that affects the brain. The researchers show how they are trying to find ways to pre-empt, fix, or rewire the brain so the manic and depressive swings don’t take place.
One of the documentary’s contributors, author Melody Moezzi, recently wrote an excellent Huffington Post column that talks about “Thriving With Bipolar Disorder.” In it, she notes how it remains difficult for people to talk about mental illness.
“For God’s sake, we still call it “mental illness,” as though the brain weren’t a fundamental part of the physical body. Given the prevalence of this colossal oversight, not to mention a grossly underfunded mental health system that relies heavily on condescension, coercion and incarceration, it’s hard not to support any day that might bring more attention to brain disorders.”
The first person to appear in the documentary, somewhat ironically, is Patty Duke. It is her last screen appearance.
After her diagnosis, Duke did everything she could to promote awareness and eliminate stigmas as she brought stability to her own life. Her last marriage remained solid for 30 years. She managed to forge close relationships with her sons Sean and Mackenzie Astin, both of whom also became actors. In the 2011 interview with Elizabeth Zavala, almost 20 years after her diagnosis, her voice trembled as she described her sons’ upbringing.
“They never quite knew who was going to be on the other side of the door. It could be the nice mom or this raving, ranting, raging, out-of-control creature … It took a while for these little boys to trust me again. They do now. They have tremendous respect for my recovery and amazing generosity in their forgiveness of me, as long as I take my medicine.”
On Tuesday, Sean Astin published a note announcing the Patty Duke Health Project, a program that “will fuel a multi-level approach to achieving results for those suffering with mental illness and their families and communities.” You can make a donation to the initiative here.
“Her greatest achievement was confronting her mental illness and making her story public,” Astin wrote. “She crossed the nation speaking and campaigning and lobbying for mental health. My mom took her place as a mental health advocate in the greatest tradition of noble leadership.”
May her efforts not be in vain. We need all the advocates we can get. It’s just too important to rest on stigmas.
Conclusion: Being interviewed by an aspiring teenage photographer — the director’s cut. This section focuses on the “Art & Dance” series.
What led to the “Art & Dance” series?
My twins, Ben and Emma, are dancers (as was their sister, Kate, until she was in high school). So, as the family photographer, I found myself taking pictures of their recitals, just like I did with Nicholas and his theatre/music performances in high school and college. For a long time, I had to take hundreds of pictures just to get a few I liked.
And there are reasons for that.
First, I shot a lot of pictures indoors, and until I got a good camera body (Canon 5D-Mark III) that works well in low light as well as a number of F2.8 lenses (the expensive ones), I was working at a disadvantage, especially indoors.
Second, I usually shot performances, which meant that I sat in the same place and tried to capture things on a stage. That was both fun and boring at the same time, because I had to wait instead of create, and I had to rely on lighting that was completely out of my control.
In 2014, I was looking for a new creative challenge, one that was more conceptual and artistic. I was always told that I had more of a news eye than a conceptual one and, for a long time, I believed that, but I wanted to challenge myself because it was something I hadn’t done before.
That’s when I came up with the idea of taking pictures of dancers in natural light and in unusual settings. This is not a unique thing; you can find countless images all over the web. But it solved two concerns for me: 1) I wouldn’t have to worry about slow shutter speeds and sitting in the same place all the time. 2) I could see if my conceptual eye (the Art) could match the skills of the performer (the Dance).
What challenges did you find in doing this?
Unfortunately, at least at the beginning, I shot the “Art & Dance” pictures the same way as I did the performances. As someone who doesn’t dance, I didn’t understand the “peak” and missed it over and over, as my kids took pains to remind me constantly.
Things changed for me when I realized that I needed to try different angles. I do that in my other photography, but why not dance? Often when I sit I can capture peaks because my eye is at the same level as the dancer’s jump. And the more I practice, the better I get at it, both the photography and the art direction.
As a dancer, you have an advantage because you know that part. But you will still need to practice, practice, practice. Photography is a form of art just like dance is, and you can always find ways to improve.
Several years ago, before my father died, we were tweaking each other about politics, something that happened on a semi-regular basis. Somewhat joking, he asked how I turned out the way I did.
My response: Saturday night television.
Between All in the Family, Maude, M*A*S*H, The Bob Newhart Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Good Times, and Carol Burnett — all of which aired Saturdays on CBS at one point or another in the early to mid 1970s — I was doomed. Call it the curse of King (Norman) Lear.
By the late 1970s, however, many of those shows had either ended their runs or were winding down (M*A*S*H being the exception). Sitcoms were becoming increasingly dumb and — having reached the ripe old age of 13 — I had matured enough to look for something more.
First up was Lou Grant, the MTM spinoff that took one of our most beloved sitcom characters and put him in a dramatic newspaper setting. It was thanks in part to that show that I became interested in writing and, especially, in reporting.
The second show was The White Shadow, which ran on Monday nights from 1978 to 1981 and told the story of a former NBA player trying to coach a group of high school students in urban Los Angeles. Anchored by Ken Howard (himself a 6-foot, 6-inch former basketball player), The White Shadow was the first show that truthfully used sports, and the struggles teens from difficult environments face while trying to escape their surroundings, to such telling effect.
Friday Night Lights is my all-time favorite TV series, but The White Shadow was its forefather. Between Howard and FNL’s Kyle Chandler, you had two tough, moral, flawed, and kind people in the center square. (Interestingly, both were referred to more often as “Coach” than by their character’s real names.) Both characters are people that you can admire, and even aspire to be more like.
I had not thought about The White Shadow in some time, then read this morning that Ken Howard had died. Immediately, I saw his character interacting with Salami, Coolidge, Gomez, Reese, Thorpe, Goldstein, CJ and Vitaglia.
But mostly I thought of the lessons that Coach taught me as a young, impressionable viewer. I then thought of my dad and the lessons he taught me, and then of the dad that I’ve tried to become.
Now here's a chance to vote for something truly worthwhile...
Emma is competing in the 8th annual Black&Blue Student Choreography Showcase at Fairfax Academy. If she receives the most votes, she will get to perform her piece for the school in May. Cast a vote for her piece, “Don’t Look Back,” by clicking here and submitting your name/comments in the comment section.
Your vote for my lovely high school senior is greatly appreciated. Voting closes at midnight on March 31.
Nicholas is featured in a short video promoting "Elon Day," the university's annual fundraising event. It's good to see he's putting his degree to use, and pretty clever, too...
In a continuing quest to show — from afar — the process of rehearsals for "Tuck Everlasting" (and the boy who is in it), here's a short video on the unveiling of the marquee. The show opens in previews on March 31, with opening night set for April 26.
Congrats to Ben on his first day of “Tuck Everlasting” rehearsals. We’re so proud of you, son, and can’t wait to see the show.
Beginnings and endings make my stomach turn, especially since I became a parent. Every performance, every show, every game brings the same set of nerves and emotions, especially at the start and as the finish approaches.
Today brought me to St. Louis, the site of a beginning and — the reason I'm here now — an ending. More than four years ago, Ben started tour life in "Billy Elliot" at the Fox Theatre; today he ended his 17-month run in "Newsies" at the same venue.
The difference is striking, as any parent who watches their child grow up notices. At almost 14, he was already a theater veteran, but had never been farther from home than New York; now, at 18, he has spent multiple nights in more than 40 states and all five provinces of Canada.
Unlike when the "Billy Elliot" run ended in May 2013, Ben isn't facing the teenage "dead zone." Starting later this month, finally considered an adult in the industry, he will start work on a new Broadway musical while finishing his senior year in New York.
It's been a remarkable run, one filled with as many false starts as beginnings and endings. It's also a testament to the rare occurrence when desire and hope merge with opportunity. What I'm proudest of is when others tell me our son is still the boy we hoped to raise when he and Emma were born. That, despite having so many different experiences at a young age, he is still kind and grateful for the opportunity to do what he does.
I don't pretend to understand how or why this works the way it has. As parents, Jill and I have done our best to raise four very different children while maintaining our own careers, friendship, and marriage. I would be lying to say it's been an easy juggle, but can honestly say I would not have been able to survive it without her as a partner in this endeavor.
Over the past two-plus years, while trying to build a business and realizing that the career I worked for 30 years to build means little in life's grand scheme, I've been fortunate to spend quality time with each of my kids and help support Jill in her career as it has taken off. Although I wish (and hope) to build a new career as our children leave the nest this year, I would not trade that time for anything.
It's not the turn I would have expected my life to take four years ago when I first saw Ben in St. Louis. But that's the thing I've noticed repeatedly over time: Where you start is not necessarily where you end up.
No matter how nervous that makes me, I wouldn't have it any other way.
Here's to new beginnings.
A near airplane crash. A cross-country flight. Two college auditions. A son on Broadway. A wife working with the White House. And a drink with a Hall of Fame baseball player.
I can't say the final weekend of my 50th year on the planet was boring.
Coming in mid-January, my birthday always has felt like something of an afterthought, given the post-holiday hangover we all seem to feel post New Year's. Add four kids with birthdays in December and a January that is one of Jill's craziest months at work, and it's easy — and understandable — to see why. Hell, I'm usually not in the mood to celebrate, and it's my birthday.
Last year, for my 50th, Jill pulled off a wonderful surprise that had my mom coming in from Texas along with a gathering of many of our closest friends. This year, as my 51st approached, I decided the fewer surprises that life has to offer, the better.
It started Friday, when Emma and I embarked on another college audition trip. This one, which ultimately involved three auditions over a 24-hour period, was in California.
Leaving the anticipated wintery mix and snow behind in Virginia had lots of appeal, although two cross country flights over a four-day period had me anticipating feeling my age and then some. My body does not deal well with the winter weather whiplash we seem to be having around here, and I was still tired from the previous weekend when Jill and I went on a whirlwind trip to New York.
The New York trip (chronicled here and here via my iPhone) involved seeing Billy Joel and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night Time” (her Christmas present), having tea at the Plaza Hotel (a present to each other), and attending the engagement party for our “adopted” son, Ginno. The party also was a reunion of many of the kids and parents from “Billy Elliot,” sans Ben, who is on the road with “Newsies.”
After all that, I’m sure Jill welcomed our departure as she spent the weekend working with the ASCA staff on planning the School Counselor of the Year celebration, which includes a visit to the White House next week. We don't see her much during January because of SCOY and another major program she supervises, so I felt fortunate that we had the New York trip as a last hurrah.
Little did I know when boarding the plane how close to a last hurrah it really would be.
On the first leg, we were off to Chicago, a little late and flying low because of the bumpy air. We made it just fine, did the cross-country trek across O’Hare, and got ready to board our connection to L.A.
Checking my phone, I saw the first surprise. Late last year, Ben booked “Tuck Everlasting,” a new Broadway musical that opens in April. He’s leaving “Newsies” at the end of the month before starting rehearsals in mid-February, but no formal announcement had been made. Then, without warning, the press release went out.
We boarded the plane behind a large man, obviously an athlete. As he sat on the first row in first class, I recognized him as Frank Thomas, the Fox TV analyst who spent the majority of his Hall of Fame career with the Chicago White Sox.
After sitting on the runway for about 15 minutes, the plane started to take off. Two wheels lifted off the ground, and on Row 31 we felt the familiar surge from behind. But in a split second, the plane jerked back and the pilot ground it to a halt, fortunately taking advantage of O’Hare’s long runway.
The collective reaction was, “What the (insert expletive of choice)?!?” The fire department came out to cool off the smoking wheels as the pilot explained that a cargo door, one right under where we were sitting, had come open.
We were very lucky, even if Emma’s nap had been abruptly halted. We waited for some time until the wheels cooled enough to return to a gate (ironically the same one where our first plane landed in the nether regions of O'Hare), so we could catch another flight. I'm sure at least a couple of people also had to clean out their shorts.
It was that scary.
While Emma started on some homework, I went to the bar and saw Thomas. Figuring the night could not get more surreal, I mentioned that it must have been “interesting” to have been in the front row of the plane. He said “Cheers,” took a sip of his wine, and offered to let me sit.
We talked briefly about — what else? — airplanes and baseball, and he could not have been nicer. An hour later, steeled for the next leg of the flight, we boarded again for California.
The next day was filled with Emma’s auditions, followed by a nice dinner together. On Sunday, my birthday, Emma picked up Starbucks for me. We went to another audition and had lunch with some friends from Northern Virginia who also were in California.
At that point, we drove to Hollywood so we could be closer to the airport for our departure. In our three trips to L.A., I’ve learned to hate the traffic (worse than even Northern Virginia), love the climate (65 degrees in January) and embrace the kitsch.
Emma indulged me as we went to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (separate blog coming on that at some point) and to Amoeba Records, the second best in the U.S. after Austin’s Waterloo. We then had dinner with the Hetheringtons, longtime friends from Ben’s “Billy Elliot” days.
Coming on the heels of Ginno’s party the previous weekend, the West Coast reunion with the Hetheringtons was a nice capper to the California trip. We reminisced, we laughed harder than I’ve laughed in a long time, and looked to the future.
That future includes two more long-distance trips this month, one to North Carolina to see Nicholas and work on a freelance story, and Ben’s last “Newsies” performance in St. Louis. Ironically, that’s where he started tour life in “Billy Elliot,” more than four years ago.
Circle backs. Full circle. And around and around it goes.
It's December (aka "birthday month") at our house, so here's a flashback to one of my favorite photos of the four kids holding hands in a brief moment of solidarity. By year's end, these four will be 18, 19, and 23, respectively. Sigh...
Four kids in a row — Wentworth, N.C., August 2000
Nicholas is my first-born child and my first portrait subject. He turned 23 this week, and it was a few short years ago that I nervously took his headshots on a cold, drizzly morning before he started auditioning for colleges.
That shoot, at the Lorton Workhouse, inadvertently led to this business and this page. Today, he's working at his alma mater (Elon University) and still posing for his dad, this time during a Thanksgiving week trip to Wintergreen, Va.
For more, go to my Facebook album here.
In honor of the oldest...
Happy 18th birthday to Emma and Ben! You have both enriched our lives in so many, many ways. Your mom and I love you more than you can ever begin to know...
Given that we had three kids in a year and somehow survived that. And given that all of them now are age 18 (for the next 16 days at least), I think it's time to give a shout out to Jill, who has unfailingly given all of them her love, support (in times good and bad), and ultimately, their gentle and kind souls...
Want proof that parenting is, at best, an imprecise science that can deflate even the largest ego? Here's a true story...
Long ago, I had a co-worker who told us at every opportunity how perfect her child was, down to the diapers that didn't smell. (Nausea.) One day the phone rang at her desk and she answered. Within 30 seconds, she turned white as a ghost and started to bolt from the room.
Someone asked if everything was OK and she said, "He just stood on the table and said (the f-word) at day care!"
With that, she proceeded to murmur the "s" word under her breath and continue on her pursuit of the perfect child...
Writing this reminded me of one of my favorite essays involving one of my children. Read about Emma and "The Zoo Story" here. And enjoy it. Any parent will.
Five of the six first cousins, minus Ben (who is in Florida), celebrated together again at Wintergreen. It was wonderful to have Kate in from Florida and Nicholas along with the McFarlands coming up from North Carolina to one of our favorite family places.
As with any family occasion, there were many memorable moments. Here's one highlight from our Thanksgiving meal:
Kate: I thought what you drizzled over the turkey was called dressing.
Emma: That's called gravy.
Uncle Michael (looking at us): Still have a lot of work to do, don't ya?
Given the craziness that surrounds the month of December in our family, it should come as no surprise that I’m not the most sentimental person when it comes to Christmas. Between the political rhetoric we are seeing on the election trail, the warm weather and the release of the new “Star Wars” movie, it feels a lot more like summer than winter.
Except for the birthdays, that is.
Still, that hasn’t stopped me from a new edition of “Random Thoughts: Holiday Edition.” This one collects my favorite randoms from Facebook and Twitter and includes a couple of NSFW photos that you might enjoy.
Let’s start with the photos… Each illustrates a thought or two below.
• Donald Trump on the eve of Christmas Eve: "Peace on Earth and goodwill toward ... HA! Who am I fooling?!?"
• I'm starting to think Mother Nature's timeline was thrown off by the fact that the Hallmark Channel starts showing Christmas movies in July. If Hallmark starts showing college football bowl games, I’m cutting the chord completely on cable.
• This “Saturday Night Live” skit reminds me of my father. Sad thing is, Dad couldn't decide whether to stare at his action figures or play with them, making him the eternal tweener when it came to toys. (BTW: The teen in the blue sweater in the commercial is Jeremy Zorek, who was small boy on the “Billy Elliot” tour. Time flies.)
• Which is the fantasy here: Santa or better presidential candidates? I think it's the latter.
• Pre-Christmas Saturday: When running a few errands takes on a whole new meaning.
• Note to the guy mulling a Home Depot gift card purchase for his spouse: Don't do it.
• What's the difference between Stump and Trump? One has been chopped down, while the other needs to be...
• If parenting is survival of the fittest, then I really should go to the gym more...
• Not a Christmas song. Just one I can’t get out of my head — “Still Trying” by Nathaniel Rateliff.
• Want to see some cool pics? Check out my FB page at www.facebook.com/ourrealityshow. (Yes, kids, some of us old people still use Facebook.)
• All fall, something was missing. Turns out it was the master's degree I need to help my kid survive the college app/audition process. (She's doing fine, BTW.)
• These posts brought to you by Procrastination (aka a writer stalling while trying to figure out the lead for a freelance story). Grr.
Thanks to all who've followed my stream of nothingness. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming. #stoptheholidaymadness.
With Kate home from Florida and Ben in briefly on a Newsies break, we celebrated Christmas and birthday month at home in Lorton. Jill made a lovely dinner on Thursday and after opening presents on Christmas Day, we followed our annual holiday tradition and saw a movie. The title pretty much summed up the time together: Joy.
Christmas memories from over the years. Happy holidays to all...
Photos from Emma's senior homecoming weekend, starting with a parade and dance team performance on Friday, then pictures with her boyfriend James and friends before Saturday's dance. Time flies...
Every once in a while, I must spend some time reclaiming the muse.
Since May, our family has gone through a seemingly never-ending set of transitions, racing from task to task, thing to thing, and place to place. We’ve traveled hither and yon for work and for children, and tried desperately to keep up the pace. To be frank, some days it’s gone better than others, at least on my end.
We’ve seen two kids graduate (Nicholas and Kate); helped move three of the four children (Nicholas, Kate and Ben), co-signing on leases for the latter two; helped the fourth (Emma) get ready for college applications and auditions; been forced to buy not one but two cars (one died; one was totaled); dealt with lost (and never found) luggage after one of the trips; and purchased new camera equipment after mine was stolen. When you and your insurance agent can recognize each other’s phone number without caller ID, you know it’s been a rough go.
Fortunately, and thanks to Jill’s careful planning and management of the household budget, none of these events have been catastrophic. Still, the collection has added to life’s scar tissue, and it hasn’t helped that at certain points “time” was the only word that did not have “down” as a prefix.
My creative muse, which is interwoven into everything I do, was feeling more neglected than our cat. And my muse’s meow was starting to turn into a roar.
Thankfully, Emma had her first college audition and a dance intensive in New York this past weekend. I drove her and two friends up to Lower Manhattan and stayed with friends in the city for the two days. It was just what the doctor ordered.
Since Ben left the city four (!) years ago, I’ve rarely had enough time to do the things that make New York so appealing: Visit friends, take pictures, see shows, etc. This time around, I arranged to do a little of it all and cashed in some prime travel karma chits that apparently were accumulated over the past several months.
I had a chance to spend time with Ginno, our “adopted” older child, staying with him and taking his engagement (!) pictures on the High Line on Saturday. After seeing Carol, another friend, I watched a devastatingly beautiful revival of “Spring Awakening” (this season’s must see after “Hamilton,” which I’m beginning to think I’ll never get tickets to watch).
Sunday was the big test, in part because planned activities required me to go from Hudson Heights to Bryant Park to JFK Airport to Coney Island before returning to Virginia. The day would start early, before 8, and would not end until I picked up Emma and her friends at 5:30 for the drive home.
I’m still shaking my head at the how, but it all worked. A headshot session with two children at Bryant Park was smooth, productive and efficient, despite the autumn chill. My friend Bernadette, who accompanies me on many of these types of adventures, and I left and aimed toward the TWA Flight Center, where an open house was being held in the iconic terminal.
We arrived just after 11 and managed to get in, despite the large (and growing) crowd that wanted to see the terminal one last time before it is converted into a luxury hotel (blog entry below). No waiting in long lines meant we had a legitimate shot at our next appointment, which was with another friend (David) in Coney Island.
Somehow we made it there in time to spend three hours snapping away, swapping stories and genuinely enjoying each other’s company. When we left to get Emma and her friends, I felt rejuvenated.
The travel gods were reasonably kind to us on the way back to Virginia, despite an awkward exit from the city (memo to self: Learn how to get out of Lower Manhattan smoothly) that threw us off somewhat. We made it home by 10:30 p.m.
All in all, I have no complaints. The experience helped me regain the creative muse that I’ve struggled to find at times over the past couple of months. Now I’m ready to attack the world again.
Not that I'm suddenly sentimental or anything, but taking pictures of Emma on her last first day of school made me look back through the files to see what they looked she (and Ben) looked like on their first day of first grade. (Kate was a 2nd grader.) Amazing how time flies...
Worth noting: Emma is carrying the backpack that she has had since the first grade. Given as many places as she's taken it, that's really remarkable.
Recently, I was looking through old files for a project I’ve been researching and happened upon a children’s book that Jill and I worked on several years ago. With Kate moving to Tampa, it was a timely find.
The book, I Just Don’t Understand, was based on a phrase that Emma used a great deal when we tried to talk about Kate’s mental health struggles. At the time, Kate was going through puberty and Ben had just left for New York — this was 2009. Neither twin understood why their sister would be loving one minute, borderline abusive the next, and destructive the following.
In developing the book, which Nicholas illustrated, we created the character of “It” to separate Kate the person from her disorder and diagnosis. “It” helped us cope with the mood swings and shifts that bipolar and its rotating companions brought.
The book got some interest from one publisher, but it never made it to shelves. One factor, the publisher said, was the drawings were not sophisticated enough. We didn’t want them to be, and we appreciated Nicholas’ insight into his sister.
The second factor, and likely deal breaker, was that the story did not end on an upbeat note. Two readers who saw the book before we sent it off made that remark, and so did the publisher. We resisted making changes, because that would not be true to our story or the stories of others we’ve read about and met.
While I get that happy endings are what test best, this story isn’t one you wrap up neatly with a bow. An illness such as bipolar is an ongoing, lifelong struggle that is chronic, not cured. You learn how to manage it; you don’t want “It” to manage you.
Kate has spent the last six years learning how to deal with her situation. The process took multiple hospitalizations as well as intensive therapy for all of us. Now that she’s left the nest and is living just outside Tampa, Jill and I decided to share the book with anyone who can use it.
So when you get the chance, download the PDF here — it's only 5 MB — and start a conversation with your family and friends. Increasing understanding about mental health issues is critical for individuals, families and society as a whole.
I stood in the middle of the apartment kitchen and hugged my oldest daughter, consciously choosing not — for once — to say anything. Jill stood by the front door, exhausted after several mostly sleepless nights, holding back tears.
Finally, after a couple of minutes, Kate and I separated with a series of mutual “I love yous.” And then Jill and I left her behind, climbing into the rental car for the 900-mile drive back to Virginia.
Our 18-year-old daughter is out on her own, living in Florida and looking for a job.
And we are waiting to exhale.
Feeling emotionally bulletproof? Become a parent. That's when a speck of gunpowder suddenly takes on the size and scope of an atomic bomb.
— From a Facebook post on August 30
We’ve known this transition was coming for some time. It’s something we started planning for when Kate was 5 years old and entering kindergarten, although reality did not set in until a few short months ago. Kate struggled mightily during her manic teenage bipolar years and there were times we worried whether she would finish high school.
She did this past June, completing her senior year with the best grades she’s had since elementary school. That was thanks in part to a year-long family treatment program and her acceptance that getting out of school was her only way to get out of Virginia. She also received high marks from her after-school employer and the people she worked with as a nanny during the summer.
For the past several years, Kate has talked about heading south to get away from the four seasons that I craved while growing up in Texas. Late fall and winter, when the temperature drops and the days get shorter, has always been an unsettled time.
During her senior year, Kate’s plans shifted as often as the colors of her hair, with plans to move to Florida, to California, to Texas, or even as far away as St. Thomas. She became so focused on getting out and getting away that things at home were unsettled at best, fractious and unstable at worst.
Finally, a few weeks ago, she circled back to her first choice and zeroed in on the Tampa Bay area.
Jill and I are the children of educators. We have worked in and around schools for most of our professional lives. So it feels somewhat strange that at least two of our four kids — Kate and Ben — are taking very non-traditional paths into adulthood, paths that likely won’t involve four-year universities, at least in the near term.
Given their very different life circumstances and interests, it makes sense. But, as any parent learns during this process, making sense of something doesn’t make it easy to accept.
Over the past several years, I’ve written about our challenges in parenting a child with a mental illness and how each transition had more than its share of bumps. Jill and I are quick to speak out about the need for awareness and better mental health care in this country, and we cringe every time we see yet another tragedy tied to someone with mental health issues in the headlines.
We are fortunate that, when things are stable, Kate is a kind, gentle spirit with a sweet soul. We also know that the mental health aspect of bipolar disorder, especially the depressive part, has a narcissistic, ugly and vindictive side. Treatment, when available, can prove helpful, but it has to be consistent and persistent.
Consistent and persistent are not words you typically use with teenagers, except when they want something. And Kate wanted this so badly that we had to let her go.
Off to parts unknown. Off to college. Leaving the nests. Getting jobs. Watching them move on. Common threads many of my friends and cohorts are going through now. To sum up in a word: Sigh...
— From a Facebook post on August 22.
As moving day approached, Jill and I were alternately terrified and thrilled that Kate was leaving. I realize that’s a “normal” parenting reaction, although things are amplified when the spectre of bipolar lingers just below the surface.
Jill and Kate took off for Tampa last week, then I followed with her car on the auto train. They spent 48 hours together, working on the small apartment Kate has. It was the longest period they have spent together, just the two of them, in several years.
I arrived with frayed nerves. The last week had been an exhausting challenge, both from a work standpoint and from a familial one. My camera equipment was stolen from our car two days before Jill and Kate left, taking with it a significant portion of my livelihood and — just as important — a chunk of my soul. Jill agreed that I could replace the equipment even before we knew what the insurance settlement would be, but I still lost two full days of work and even more sleep.
The three of us worked together, assembling furniture and shopping to get Kate set up. Like many parents whose children are leaving the nests, we spent more than we originally budgeted, but we didn’t care.
And then we had to leave our daughter behind.
Yesterday, after the 900-mile drive home, I saw an interview on the Today Show with author Brene Brown, a researcher from the University of Houston (ironically my alma mater) who has written a series of books on vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Her newest book, Rising Strong, was published last week.
In the interview, Brown described worthiness as the belief that “I am enough. It’s something that takes practice. It’s not an attitude, not a onetime thing. It’s a street fight every day.” She said shame can’t survive if you “douse it with a little empathy.”
I found myself drawn to what she had to say about vulnerability, because I think in many ways it captures Kate and many of the teens who are making similar transitions now.
“Vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. Most of us were raised to mitigate risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure. Vulnerability is weakness. You wake up in the morning, armor up. You get tough. You suck it up. You push through, soldier on.
“But that armor is really heavy, and it prevents people from knowing us and seeing us, which is our deepest human yearning, to be known and to be seen and to know love and belonging. So I think we’re afraid of it because it means risk and being hurt.”
Her description of courage also rang true: “Your will to show up and try and let people know that you care about something when you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. That’s courage.”
Kate is courageous. I have to give her that. She also is brave, smart, and vulnerable. I hope and pray that she is able to pick herself up when she falls into life’s potholes. I hope and pray she remains brave enough to keep trying.
That feeling for a parent, any parent, is universal. I just hope and pray we can exhale soon.
Nicholas' first month at Elon University ended with a weekend for parents and family members. Elisabeth came down with me from Chapel Hill for the lunch, and then, later in the afternoon, I had a chance to see Nick's acapella group (Vital Signs) perform.
Life is crazy enough when you have four kids in four schools in three states. Add in two conferences, a Knicks game, Billy Elliot's 1,000th show, Nicholas' prom, Emma and Jill's 10 mile race, and my nephew's airplane ride, and you have the makings of a crazy week — even by our standards.
Thursday: My mom and nephew arrived from Texas to take care of Ben. It's Eric's first trip here, and he seems a little intimidated. Looking good in my dad's UT jacket, however. With Jill and the girls in Virginia, and my mom and nephew Eric taking care of Ben in New York, I went to San Francisco for NSBA's annual conference. After the six-hour flight, I had an hour to go out with my camera before several 16 to 18 hour days.
Friday: My mom and nephew Eric attended the 1,000th show for "Billy Elliot," where Ben played Michael.
Saturday: In North Carolina, Nicholas went to his high school prom with his date, Gracie Strand.
Sunday: While Kate enjoyed a sleepover at her friend Stephanie's, Emma and Jill completed the 10-mile GW Parkway Classic.
Monday: While Jill and Emma recovered from their run, Nicholas went back to school after prom, and I prepared to fly on the redeye back from San Francisco, Ben and Eric enjoyed time together in the afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Tuesday: Before Eric and mom go home, I take him to see American Idiot before it closes on Broadway. Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes sit in the row opposite us. When I point them out, Eric notes that Holmes is gorgeous but asks me who Tom Cruise is. Youth...
Wednesday: While Ben was at the show, i was able to go to the New York Knicks game against the Toronto Raptors. David Drier, another Billy parent, invited me to see the festivities from his company's box. Cool way to watch a game, and the beer wasn't bad either.
As the parent of a child actor, one of my goals is to expose Ben to as many things as he can handle to build his knowledge base and help enrich his performance.
The adult actors he has worked with get this, and Ben has tried to take their advice, even though it can throw his parents — and others — for a loop sometimes.
Example: Knowing that the Folger’s production of Macbeth would be extremely violent and bloody, Jill and I agreed to take our then 10-year-old son to see Tim Burton’s version of Sweeney Todd. The theory was that we could expose him to the fake blood, see how he reacted to it, and then talk/discuss/tweak as necessary.
He made it work, and the other actors were impressed by the “research” we had done as he went into the Teller/Aaron Posner production. Then, one night during the ride home from Macbeth, Ben asked if he could watch the 100 greatest movies of all time, based on the poll from the American Film Institute.
When I asked why, he said the other actors suggested the best way to become better at his craft was to watch good acting. Of course, that meant he would be exposed to more R-rated films, and the biggest one on the list was “The Godfather.”
Imagine, if you will, a high-pitched 10-year-old voice saying, “But Dad, I need to watch it. It’s supposed to be a really good movie.”
We agreed, as long as he read through the screenplay first so that the more violent stuff (can you say horse head) would not come as a huge shock. So during Metropolitan’s production of “The Wizard of Oz,” our son was dressed in an outlandish lime green suit carrying around the illustrated screenplay from “The Godfather.”
Flash forward three years. Now 13, Ben and I regularly see movies together. It’s a nice ritual and one that reminds me of my dad, who always wanted a movie buddy to come with him to see the stuff my mom had no interest in watching. (Given that my mom is not a big movie fan, that meant most things.) Ben and I always talk about the subject matter beforehand, and I try to let him know about the parts that I think are pushing the envelope.
This goes for plays, too, and brings me to the end of this story.
Last night, we saw the star-studded revival of John Guare’s dark comedy House of Blue Leaves featuring Ben Stiller, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Edie Falco. Even though the show has gotten some mixed reviews, the performances are terrific, especially Falco’s.
Although the pacing is slow at times, there is much to admire about Guare’s work, which is set in Queens on the day Pope Paul VI visited New York City in 1965. But no question, it is dark, with talk about nuns, a political bombing, a soldier going to Vietnam, a zookeeper and amateur songwriter losing his grip, and his wife, a schizophrenic who heading for the institution that gives the play its title.
New York theater houses offer student discount tickets to some shows, and it is the only way we could have been able to see this one, which is selling out. So Ben went to the box office with me, showed the ticket manager his 6th grade PPAS ID, and asked for two tickets.
The ticket manager peered over at my son and said, “This show is for mature audiences. You are too young to see this show.”
Ben, without batting an eyelash, said, “But I say f--- on stage every night.”
The ticket manager said, “You must be in Billy Elliot.” He then handed us our tickets and we were on our way.
Ben smiled as we left the theatre. Sometimes it pays to be “mature.”
Ben played the principal role of Michael during Billy Elliot's 1,000th show on Broadway this week. Unfortunately, I was traveling from New York to San Francisco, but my mom and nephew, Eric, were there to see the performance. Photos are by Broadway World and Playbill.
Congratulations to everyone involved with the show, which has been running on Broadway for almost three years.
A big congratulations to Ben on his debut as Michael today in Billy Elliot. Son, you were great, and we hope you get to perform the role again soon. Thanks to everyone who attended and those who sent kind comments — it was fantastic!
Ben is a kid who doesn’t like to eat any food that hasn’t been processed at least twice, which turns every adventure with any natural product that is green in origin into a standup comedy routine. At 13, he’s getting better (or at least acknowledging) that eating fruit is good for you, but vegetables remain another story.
Between shows recently, he was bribed (or shamed, depending on how you look at it) into eating a piece of lettuce, a cucumber, and a tomato. Asked whether he wanted dressing (aka sauce) to go with it, he asked his friend Neil, “What is sauce?”
These pictures show my son performing his own version of dinner theater, And by the way, he ate 2 out of 3, but the chickpea-for-tomato trade went nowhere.
The final week of "Ragtime" included Ben's fourth and fifth performances as Little Boy, with friends from Virginia's Metropolitan Fine Arts Center in attendance. Also, below are photos of the show's last day, including an after party attended by the cast, crew, and producers.
Ben had the opportunity to perform as Billy with cast members from “Billy Elliot” during the 25th Annual Easter Bonnet Competition for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. “Billy Elliot” raised more than $150,000 during the six-week fundraiser, finishing as the second runner-up in the competition among all Broadway shows.
With Neil McCaffrey as Michael and the show’s Ballet Girls, the group performed a hysterically funny mashup of Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” in two shows at the Minskoff Theatre.
The six-week fundraiser by 52 Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring companies raised $3.7 million. Seventeen productions participated in the benefit at the Minskoff (home of “The Lion King”).
To see a six-minute compilation of clips from the show, go to this link.
The performance also gave us an opportunity to spend time together as a family over the Easter weekend, an event that featured a visit from Nicholas as well as a subway trip to Coney Island. Below are photos that illustrate the always "interesting" time we have together.
A number of cast and crew members from "Billy Elliot" are huge Harry Potter fans, so the 12:01 a.m. July 15 premiere at the AMC Theatre on 42nd Street was a big deal. Many purchased tickets a month early for the sold out show — Emma came into the city for it as well — and when the night actually came, the kids (and some of the adults) were pumped.
Leaving straight from the show and getting to the theatre a full hour and a half before the movie started, the kids dressed up, acted out scenes in front of the screen, and led the audience in both the wave and impromptu cheers. When we started walking home at 3 a.m., it was obvious that everyone had had a ball.
Labor Day — the last day of summer vacation for the kids — was spent in D.C., with Ben and Ginno down from New York. Trips to the Smithsonian, complete with the inevitable visit to the Dorothy shoes, the World War II memorial and the Kennedy Center followed. A lot of fun...
Emma's 6th grade promotion ceremony, held on June 21, was a very special occasion. She was one of 35 kindergarteners from Lorton Station's charter class to complete all seven years (K-6) at the school. On the same day she was voted Most Likely to Succeed by her classmates, our little girl also received a Silver Presidential Award for her work ethic and outstanding achievement. Go Emma!
In what has become an annual tradition, the Cooks and McFarlands were together again on Memorial Day. This year, the location was Boone, where we saw Jill's dad, walked around Appalachian (one of Nicholas' possible college choices), visited Jill's Uncle Glenn, and ate a nice dinner with cousins Glenda, John, and Teresa Eggers and James McGhee.
Four kids in three states. This year, I managed to see 3 of the 4 on Halloween, first at a pot-luck lunch in New York for the Billy Elliot kids, followed by Emma in Virginia with some friends over, then Kate after she came home from trick or treating with another friend. Fortunately, I'll get to see Nicholas in costume, too, this week — Friday at "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."
Ben auditioned for and was cast as "Young Jack" on NBC's "30 Rock." He taped the two-line part on Wednesday, Nov. 10, playing the Alec Baldwin character in a flashback sequence. Despite a show the night before and a 7:15 a.m. call time, Ben did the taping and then went to the Billy Elliot matinee. (Ironically, his scene was about messing up in an elementary school play...) The show airs on Dec. 2.
The girls and their dad went up to New York to see Ben on Columbus Day weekend. I took Emma the chef to the Cake Boss bakery in Hoboken, and the girls had a chance to see their brother in Billy Elliot. It was Emma's third time to see the show and Kate's first.
With Nicholas back to North Carolina and Ben in New York, the girls traveled to Texas to see their grandmother, aunt, uncle, and five first cousins for almost a week. I went down to pick them up and we had a family trip to the Rainforest Cafe. The seven children were not deterred by the 90 minute wait for a table, despite the smothering humidity in Galveston.
With Ben living in New York, this year's beach trip had a different look. Instead of the Outer Banks, we went to the edge of Long Island in Southampton, crammed the entire family into a single hotel room, picked up the boy for his day-plus off, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful beaches in the U.S.
Home for the holidays meant everyone was together for the first time in the same place since August, as Ben came home to Virginia from Billy Elliot and Nicholas was here from North Carolina. Christmas Eve was dinner with Jill's Fredericksburg cousins (the McGhees) and the Truesdells from across the street. Christmas morning followed many of the same traditions we've always shared before Ben returned to NY and the craziness of life begins again.
Snowboarding, sledding, and generally having fun with the trio in Central Park, two days after a 24-inch snowfall.
While Jill got ready for Christmas in Virginia, Nicholas, Emma and I went to New York to be with Ben. On the Wednesday before we returned home, the three of us walked around Manhattan, clocking more than 7 miles in a 10-plus hour trip that featured stops in Rockefeller Center, at the Pop Tarts and Charmin stores, the Times Square Toys 'r Us, Starbucks (of course) and Lincoln Center. It was a very nice and (amazingly) peaceful day.
Congrats to Ben, who is joining the national tour of "Billy Elliot" as Michael starting next week! He also will be in training for the title role and will remain in the Tall Boy role on Broadway during the tour rehearsals. We'll post scheduled stops on the tour soon, but we're happiest about Dec. 13-Jan. 15 — the Kennedy Center!
After the events of the past few weeks, Christmas had the potential to be a downer. Not with this crew, and not with Jill presenting Ben and NIcholas with their own "Moo-Moo Missing" T-shirts. To see the story about the saga of Moo-Moo, go here.
Celebrating the holidays with the family, including my mom. Nicholas will join us later this week...
Kate's 15th birthday coincided with the arrival of Nicholas and the McFarlands. Times of hilarity, hugging, and bowling ensued.
Dinner outside on a nice spring evening with the kids (and Ginno) in Virginia.
Big week/weekend/month for the Cook/McFarland families. To wit: One high school graduation (Elisabeth), one church confirmation (Katharine), two 8th graders moving onto high school (Margaret and Emma), one college freshman (Nicholas) ending his first year, and one 50th birthday (Jennifer). So, of course, we had to celebrate...
Emma is one of the Lost Children in Metropolitan Fine Arts Center's production of "Hook: An Original Musical," which runs June 30 and July 1 at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Center for the Arts in Alexandria, Va. These photos were taken during dress rehearsals.
Photos from our family pilgrimage to Wintergreen, one of our favorite vacation spots and the site of good times for the six Cook-McFarland cousins.
The first weekend of Billy Elliot in Boston was a family affair with a dash of celebrity thrown in for good measure. Kate, Emma, and my mom saw Ben as Billy for the first time, along with Brian and Elise Hodges, the Workman family, and Ben's first director, Mark Ramont. Add in an appearance (and a chance to take photos back stage) with Academy Award-nominee Salma Hayek, and you have one memorable weekend.
Emma made her halftime debut with the Lake Braddock Dance Team at the first home football game of the season, a close win for the Bruins over Annandale. Less than 12 hours later, Kate's JV field hockey team from Mount Vernon played the same school in a match of their own. Kate is the starting goalie for the team and has done a terrific job this season.
Emma's first homecoming, with several of her closest friends who came over to get ready, then went to eat at a Japanese steak house before heading to Lake Braddock for the annual dance.
We celebrated Thanksgiving with the McFarlands this year in Chapel Hill, where Jill's father is staying due to illness. Nicholas was able to come up on Wednesday night, so we celebrated with him, then the five first cousins continued the activities into the next day. A lot of fun...
Kate's birthday, which falls two days after Christmas, was extra special this year because it was her 16th. Jill, Emma, and Nicholas went out of their way to make it a great day for our oldest daughter, who got a new makeover haircut and went shopping in Tyson's Corner, followed by dinner at the Japanese steakhouse and concluding with a homemade cake in the shape of an artist's palette.
For the first time in a long time, I had a passenger on my semi-annual vigil to Elon to see one of Nicholas' shows, and Kate and I decided to hang around overnight to spend time with the oldest child and walk around campus. Here are photos from the extremely fun trip; check out the remarkable scenic design project that Nicholas completed on "The Grapes of Wrath" (bottom left). I wish you could have seen it. Really, really impressive work.
The McFarland/Cook/Hodges clan reunited for the funeral of Jill's father, giving cousins a chance to reminisce and say goodbye.