What’s So Great About ABBA?

In snowy, cold mid-winter conditions last night, a theater in Denver was packed with grown-ups singing along with the actors in Mamma Mia. Laughing a lot. Quite a number were dancing at the end.

I was likely the only person in the audience – or in theaters everywhere – who cried during “Dancing Queen.” 

You see, what’s great about ABBA, even if you don’t like their music, is that everyone of our generation knows the words. Most of us females acted out the lyrics at one point in our lives either alone in our pink rooms, in the living room with friends, or at a school dance when we finally realized we could dance in packs not caring if a boy asked us.

For me, ABBA is every afternoon from about fifth grade on. Homework with Doritoes and coke, only a few planned activities, dinner at home every night, sleepovers every Friday. And my sisters, best friend and I danced and sang and laughed at our own goofiness. We held dance contests. We acted out the songs again and again.

ABBA. The Monkees. The Beatles. Billy Joel.

“Dancing Queen” was a favorite.

So in the middle of the theater last night, when everyone else was singing, I cried, missing those afternoons. “Young and sweet, only seventeen.” Knowing that when the four of us are together now, which is not enough, we still laugh a lot. We still know all the words. We can start exactly where we left off as if it were yesterday.

But we no longer dance.

That’s what came to me last night in the theater during a really fun rendition of a favorite old song, when part of the point of the play is that our inner dancing queen will always be there no matter what we go through, no matter how much we grow up. 

That’s what’s so great about ABBA. 

Then I remembered that just a few days ago, my six year old and I were playing air guitar in the kitchen, and for a moment, we rocked the house. Just needed a tambourine, two sisters and best friend to get us dancing the afternoon away.


Bruce Variety: A 60-Year Story

There is rumor that has made its way from Bethesda, Maryland to Denver – and probably beyond – in less than a week. The news affects people from three or four generations. It has traveled by Facebook and email and texts. It has been on the local news. And it is triggering emotions from panic to nostalgia.

Bruce Variety is closing.

According to a DC local news report, the sign went up the day after Christmas. Everything half off. The rent is just too high.

Remember when Bethesda was just a small town? There was Baskin-Robbins next to the A&P, the Chinese food place, the Bethesda Crab House, and Montgomery Donuts. Not much more within walking distance… except for that small strip of stores on Arlington Road that housed “Bruce’s”.

Bruce Variety opened in 1953. The aisles are too narrow. The shelves are too cluttered. It always seems dusty. Yet if you grew up in Bethesda, you very likely went to Bruce’s again and again. If you live there today, you find yourself bringing your kids. You can probably put together your autobiography by thinking of different trips and various purchases over the years.

There was the annual trip in early September for school supplies. We’d inevitably run into our entire class in the over-crowded school supply row. Pure chaos. Comparing stories of our summer vacations, wondering about our new teachers, and trying to find the coolest pocket folder before someone else claimed it. All while our mothers tried to catch up on gossip while calling after little ones who’d wandered down more entertaining aisles.

1976 and the bi-centennial celebration at school. We picked out calico cloth at Bruce’s – mine was purple with little flowers – and had colonial dresses and bonnets made for the parade and worn again and again in our basement playroom. I felt like I was straight out of Laura Ingalls’ house on the South Dakota prairie.

Halloween costumes? Each October, Bruce’s was our first stop. It sold face-paint and reams of cloth and plastic masks and any kind of odd material you might use to create your own unique look for the school parade and trick-or-treating. The “undecideds” roamed up and down the aisles waiting for inspiration, while little brothers and sisters dragged their loot and tried to sneak cheap toys or puzzles into Mom’s basket.

When ribbon barrettes first came on the style scene in the eighties, the ribbon aisle at Bruce Variety became the place for girls to go for supplies. Thin silky ribbons in every color and shade promised gorgeous gifts for friends and showpieces of our barrette-making talents.

Mrs. Dater’s sixth grade scrapbooks before Scrapbooking was a multimillion-dollar business. The hardest I ever worked in school. The most I ever wanted an A++. You could get that if your scrapbook page was elaborate enough. But you didn’t survive Mrs. Dater’s class without hundreds of trips to Bruce Variety. Gorgeous scrapbooks about Africa and South America required paint, pastels, strips of cloth, ribbons, beans, beads, buttons, glitter, fake grass, anything you could glue to a piece of construction paper.

And the many colors of string at Bruce’s captured the imagination of the Edgemoor swim team. On rainy days, the girls all sat chatting on the poolside porch making bracelets for each other in shades of blue to get excited for the next big meet against Kenwood or Congressional or Army-Navy. Chest paint for the boys, which they of course bought at Bruce Variety. Friendship bracelets for the girls.

The first week in February every year, we filled our basket at Bruce’s with pink and purple and red glitter, along with heart-shaped lace doilies for the two dozen Valentine’s cards my sisters and I each made with care. Or for those less interested in making them from scratch, Bruce’s carried plenty of Disney or other pre-made Valentine’s cards.

Tube socks for gym class. White tights for church. Cheap white T-shirts for tie-dye day. Travel toiletries for camping trips. Flip-flops for opening day at the pool.

I keep wondering how far the news will travel. To what cities or countries. And how fast.

Bruce Variety is closing.

Prom Night: Then and Now

Parents at my sons’ school hosted 80s Prom Night this weekend as a fundraiser on behalf of the Parents’ Association. The buzz beforehand made it sound like fun. So my friends and I discovered a local thrift shop called Flossy McGrew’s, which has racks of clothes hanging together by decade. Trying on 80s prom dresses had us all giggling like schoolgirls, trying to zip things we had no business zipping, and worrying that we would miss carpool.

With the dress picked out, I got my husband a matching cummerbund. Then we invited some parents over for drinks before the big dance.

It was a blast. Best night I’ve had in a while. And I keep thinking of the differences between my high school prom in June of 1985 and this one.

In 1985, I wore a much nicer dress. It was black. Classic, but admittedly with a bow in matching material. This time I picked the dress for the bow, the red rosebuds around the neckline, and its overall tackiness. No need to look good as long as it fit. And no worries if someone else wore the same dress.

In 1985, I drank less.

In 1985, I ate more. We went to a Japanese steakhouse, where they cooked at the table, and I thought I’d gone to heaven.

In 1985, I wore a corsage that annoyed me and flat shoes.

In 1985, no one complained about crow’s feet in the prom photos.

In 1985, I don’t think I danced as much, or had as much fun doing it.

In 1985, there was tons of relationship drama. And friend drama. And who knows what kind of drama I didn’t know about.

In 1985, the after-party was better than the prom, and I stayed up past midnight.

In 1985, my knees weren’t so old, and didn’t hurt the next day…

… after all that dancing in heels and a dress that itched.

The 1970s: When Spelling was Fun

Yesterday, I watched a teacher offer her piano student a piece of candy as a reward for practicing the piano so much the previous week. He had a choice between Starburst and Smarties. The Smarties reminded me of third grade Spelling Bees when I was a kid.

The team who won the Spelling Bee each week would get Smarties for their victory. The team that lost received Dum-Dum lollipops.

[Pause. Wait for reaction from today’s parents.]

We loved it. It heightened the competition, although one, who shall remain nameless, often dreamed of throwing the Bee to get a Dum-Dum, which she preferred.

It didn’t matter. Each week, the teams changed, the spelling list stumped different kids, and we eventually all had our chance to be a Dum-Dum or Smartie.

I told that story to the piano teacher, who laughed, “If you did that today, you’d never hear the end of it!”

Interesting response.

So I told another teacher at another school in a different city.

Same response. “That’s awesome! But I can’t even think about the parent phone calls I’d get! You gave my kid a Dum-Dum?!”

A third said, “I wish I could get away with that today!”

As parents, have we lost our sense of humor? Are our kids that much more sensitive today than we were? Are we too afraid to teach them what competition is all about because they might lose? Or as a third grader in the 70s, did I miss one of my classmates having nightmares and confidence issues because of the Dum-Dums for the losing team?

Today the scenario might go like this: One Friday afternoon after losing the Spelling Bee, my child might get handed a Dum-Dum instead of Smarties. He might come home crying because he interpreted that to mean the teacher thought he was dumb. I might call the principal.

That’s not what happened when I was in third grade. We studied our spelling lists harder so we didn’t let down our team. We had fun. The weaker spellers were always with stronger spellers, and even the weakest speller had a chance to shine, to feel proud because they got a hard one for the team. We adored our teacher. We loved being at school. We rooted for – or against, in that case of the Dum-Dum addict – our team for the week. And we all got candy!

What third grader isn’t happy when they get candy at school?

I know my kids would stop complaining about studying for their Friday spelling tests.

“Do I have to?”

“It’s soooo boring!”

And I guarantee you, my son would want to throw the Bee for a Dum-Dum.

Back on Campus

I spent the weekend on a college campus for the first time in more than 15 years. It was not my own alma mater, so I would be able to explore, I thought, without suffering from nostalgia. Now, back at home, I realize how optimistic I was to think that possible. I mean, really, how could I not think back to Lloyd parties on Thursdays and Drinker parties on Saturdays and not get nostalgic? Spending an entire Saturday sunbathing on Founder’s Green? Debating politics with a roomful of people who agreed with each other, but loved the challenge of expressing their views anyway? Wondering whether Anna Karenina’s fate could have been avoided in another country at another time? Complaining about the Art History professor who failed to expound convincingly on the connection between the piece of art and the moment in history when it was created.

Ugh. I want to go back!

Here is a glimpse of what I saw and heard:

• A young woman on the phone had parked on the side of a quiet road. Her windows were open. She was on the phone passionately trying to convince a male friend that he is, in fact, madly in love with his girlfriend, and that he must tell her that.

I imagined a more complicated story, as I recall, most college stories tend to be. Would this young woman break into tears after hanging up the phone because she is, she thinks, in love with the male friend on the phone? Although she is trying to be a good friend, deep down, she hopes the talked about love interest turns him down? Either that, or the male friend cheated on the love interest, and this friend of the love interest is coaching him on winning her back? There was certainly drama, something you learn to avoid as you grow older. Drama is bad. Then why do we look back fondly on the most drama-filled period of our lives?!

• People spending their sunny Saturday merely lying in the sun. It is the one thing I miss most in the world since having kids. A day lying in the sun with not one responsibility or deadline or voice calling for a snack or a resolution to a quarrel about whose turn it is on the Wii.

• Signs everywhere broadcasting “Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” which was battling for center stage with “Caribbean Culture Awareness Week.” Back in the late 1980s, when I was in college, I thought such awakenings to the issues were new and specific to my small college of about 1,200. It felt so personal. And now, the signs look almost as if they were written in the same hand. Who knew?

• Students sitting at a crowded table sharing a pitcher of beer, passionately debating whether Obama or Romney will win in November 2012. Everyone at this particular table seems to agree, but they haven’t absorbed that, and so the debate becomes increasingly heated. They sound so smart when they hear themselves speak that they order another pitcher.

• Diversity. A group of classmates having dinner. They are graduate students. One is a doctor. One works in fashion. One works on Wall Street. One works in technology. One runs his own foundation. They come from Africa, India, Great Britain, Sri Lanka, the U.S., and others I cannot guess. They are married with kids, divorced with kids, married with dogs, engaged and still single. They are mostly 35-45. There’s the quiet one, the funny one, the smart one, the totally stressed out one, the ridiculously mellow. Their reasons for being here range from boredom, trying to catapult to the next level in their career, wanting to own their own business, wanting to be better, more effective leaders. And they keep laughing…. together.

I want to go back to school!