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Matters of Life and Steph: “‘Awe’ Yeah!”- Musings from a Children’s Writer

There are few things better in a child’s life than the “no way, are you serious?” kind of surprise. One of my favorite memories from childhood is the day I skipped school to see a Broadway show with my family. Thankfully, the statute of limitations on truancy has long passed, so I can share this story without fear of retribution from the Wappingers Central School District.

I was nine years old and I recall that it was a Wednesday because that was the day my father’s dental office was closed. Right after we woke up, my mother—with an excited smile on her face—gathered us in the hallway and told us that we wouldn’t be going to school that day:

“For Daddy’s birthday gift, we’re taking the train to New York City and we’re going to see a Broadway show.”

Going to New York City? On a school day? This was incredibly out of character for my normally rule-following parents. Although I wondered why we weren’t celebrating my dad’s birthday by going to a show over the weekend, I didn’t want to ask too many questions. I wasn’t going to spoil this hooky holiday.   

Birthday celebration or not, I knew this trip to New York City would be a special one. But I didn’t realize how special it would be. Looking back, I think the biggest reason why seeing a Broadway show ended up being so memorable was because it was the first time I remember feeling a sense of awe.

Which brings me to this blog post’s life lesson: seek out moments and experiences for finding awe. Appreciating that the world is bigger than yourself (and your worries) is one of the best ways to feel gratitude and find inner peace—even if it’s only temporary.

Do the “hooky”-pokey

I didn’t really know what seeing a Broadway show entailed. Was there audience participation like the puppet shows I was familiar with? Would there be snacks? What do you wear to the theater? (In the 1980s, people still dressed up for events like Broadway shows.)

“Since it’s a matinee, you should wear a pair of pants—not jeans—and a nice sweater,” my mother advised.

While I would normally be disappointed at having to wear something “fancy,” that day I didn’t mind. In all the excitement, I hardly felt the itch of my wool sweater. I suppose that when you’re on a hooky holiday, everything is all about bending the rules. 

On the hour-and-a-half train ride down to the city, my parents informed us that once we arrived, our first stop would be Times Square. We were going to something called the “tee kay tee ess booth.” That place sure sounded exotic, I remember thinking. 

Soon enough (but really once I saw the sign), I realized what my parents meant. Tickets! It was a place to get tickets. Back then, the TKTS booth was the way to buy discount Broadway tickets. The discount ticket-buying experience basically boiled down to this: you wait on an incredibly long line to buy unsold tickets for that day’s Broadway performances. While it’s a gamble regarding what shows are available to see, for the less discerning theater goers, it’s also a great way to score a bargain. 

I didn’t know any Broadway shows—save for the ones I’d seen courtesy of the Roy C. Ketcham Senior High School Drama Club. Truth be told, I didn’t really care. No matter what happened, this day would be unlike any other.

After about an hour of waiting in line, my mom and dad briefly conferred over which tickets to buy. This was the pre-Internet era so they either relied on someone’s recommendation or took a chance on what sounded good.

They chose a play called Show Boat, which—if you’re not well-versed in the “thee-yay-tor”—was a famous musical revival on a limited run in 1983. I don’t think my parents were familiar with the show given the mature subject matter of the plot.

In case you’re interested, here’s a very brief summary of Show Boat: the play spans the lives, loves, and heartbreaks of three generations of performers and their friends in Mississippi, Chicago, and on Broadway around the turn of the 20th century. Not exactly light fare for a nine-year-old. But then again, the 80s were a more permissive era.

Absolutely deli-cious

Truth be told, Show Boat’s storyline or, frankly, anything about it, was secondary to everything else that was happening that day. With our tickets in hand, I remember my dad announcing, “Let’s go to the Carnegie Deli before the show starts.”

My Brooklyn-born father was our family’s deli connoisseur. Even if the show was horrendous, at least we knew lunch would be amazing. Anything would be better than school lunches on this hooky holiday.

After a quick scan of the extensive Carnegie Deli menu, I ordered a hot dog. For many years running, hot dogs had been one of my favorite foods. (Obviously, this was before I cared about nutrition.) My motto: if you could put ketchup on it, it had to be good. With the exception of my healthy-minded mother, we all loved the calorically-rich fare that a deli offered. And with its absurdly large portions, lunch at the Carnegie Deli didn’t disappoint.

Laden with sodium, we made our way to the Uris (later renamed the Gershwin) Theatre on West 51st Street for the two o’clock performance.

As we walked down Broadway, I couldn’t help but gape at the huge skyscrapers, massive billboards, and sheer volume of people crammed onto the sidewalk. I’d been to New York City before, but never the Theater District. The streets were full of hustle and bustle, commotion and chaos. I both loved it and hated it.

By the time we arrived at the theater, I was buzzing like I’d had a large coffee. (I’d actually had a large root beer at lunch). Sitting in a dark theater for two hours would be the perfect antidote for the day’s overabundance of excitement. Thank goodness for an intermission, too, as I would surely need the bathroom.

The outside of the Uris Theater was a sight to be seen. I wanted to stop and count the number of lightbulbs on the marquis, but my parents hustled us inside. Even though we were on hooky holiday from school, we wouldn’t be missing a second of this show.

With the bright gleaming lights, thousands of seats, and cavernous ceiling, I was astounded. How could a place like this exist? Especially given all the noise, dirt, and grime that was right outside the theater doors.This theater felt majestic and luxurious. Like I had been transplanted to an earlier, grander time in history. Normally, I’m not someone who’s easily wowed by my surroundings, but the Uris felt both impressive and imposing.

As we walked down the aisle, I remember how I ran my hand along the plush, velvet seats (except for those that were occupied). I wanted to soak every moment in.

While we waited for the show to start, I studied the Playbill like we would be quizzed on it. Except we wouldn’t be because we weren’t in school. Did I mention that? Three cheers for our hooky holiday. 

I recall hearing the orchestra warm up. A palpable excitement filled the air. The feeling was completely unreal. And the show hadn’t even started yet.

When the curtain rose, the murmurs and coughs subsided. It felt other-worldly. Here we all were, sitting in a humongous theater, with larger-than-life sets, and a cast of characters that could still be heard clearly over the roar of the orchestra. People from all different backgrounds and walks of life came together in this theater, probably for similar reasons: to be entertained, inspired, and part of something bigger than us.

Totally “awe”some

Perhaps due to our deeply discounted tickets, I remember not being able to see very well. Instead, I sat back in my velvety seat and listened. I tried to just take everything in.

Seeing Show Boat had a deep impression on me. It made me appreciate how the written word could artfully be turned into the spoken (and sung) word. It made me realize that the high school drama club performances we’d seen—while lovely—weren’t even close to the scale of this professional theatrical production.

Sadly, I’ll admit that I did not become an avid theater lover after this experience. My sister, whom I’ve always felt was overly dramatic, did. (Sorry, not sorry, @eyelike2eat!) 

What my hooky holiday seeing Show Boat did spark was an intangible feeling I have been chasing ever since that day: seeking awe.  

Awe can occur during encounters with the wonders of life and can lead to a vanishing of the self. (No, I didn’t just make that up, the National Center for Biotechnology Information did.) Awe makes you realize how insignificant certain things are, and how the world is bigger than yourself. Awe comes in many forms, such as through live music or shows, nature, and visual design. It also can come from observing people’s courage, kindness, or strength in overcoming adversity. 

Much has been written about the power of feeling awe. I’d humbly suggest that to truly feel awe, you should find the ways that resonate most with you. Whether it’s through nature, music, art, sports, or witnessing the goodness of others, seek out awe in your daily life.

Awe can be found just about everywhere if you’re looking for it. Except perhaps in that huge pile of neglected laundry or the mess someone left in the sink. That’s just plain awe-ful.

Do you recall a moment or experience as a child when you remember feeling awe? Please share your stories with me in the comments section.

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