Notes from a Pandemic

Looking ahead.

The clever reader will notice that my last blog post was from February 2019, nearly two years ago, so my absence from this site cannot be attributed to the covid-19 pandemic that ignited the now cliché “dumpster fire” that was Anno Domini 2020. No, it’s had much more to do with the fact that, simply put, I had nothing to say. Or, rather, nothing to say that I felt like sharing. It wasn’t just my blog either. I haven’t revised the novel I worked on so painstakingly. I’ve barely even written in my physical, personal journal, which has been a matter of habit for decades. I suppose I’ve been on retreat for the last two years or so, very much engaged with the people who are physically in my life and intimately connected to me, but approaching society at large — and social media — with a permanently raised eyebrow.

2020 didn’t help much.

And let’s face it, 2021 isn’t off to a very auspicious start, but after sitting out awhile, I feel like putting my toe in the water to check the temperature, and maybe I’ll dive back in.

My goal, if I can see this through, is to write about books and wine and theatre and art just as before, with a special emphasis on my own creative projects and what they mean to me, why it is I feel compelled to write and produce and make them.

The difference with this go around is that there will be a lot of focus on knitting. I can’t tell you how many miles of yarn I’ve shaped into garments while in lockdown, but I can tell you that, whereas my desire to write diminished in the past year, it was replaced by a desire to make things by hand and to revisit an art form I learned how to do fifteen years ago, but have only now begun to inch towards mastery.

The desire to make things led to a desire to show them off to people who would appreciate them. In order to do this, I created an instagram account (@knitphen) almost exclusively dedicated to following people involved in the fiber arts. Interactions with other knitters, crocheters, dyers and makers of all sorts really pushed my skills forward and made my stance towards social media soften a bit. So here I am, back at it on the blog, with a focus on sharing and growth, inspiring and being inspired by others.

Let’s get (re)started.

Night Songs & Love Waltzes

47384327_2047790578644245_8302776883930464256_oValentine’s Day may have just passed, but that’s no reason to let that lovin’ feeling wilt away like the dessicated bouquet of flowers you’ve got dropping petals all over your table. Keep the love alive by coming to hear MasterVoices’ Night Songs & Love Waltzes, a night of Liebeslieder (German love songs) by the masters of Romantic music! (Here’s the official MasterVoices promotional text):

This evening of songs and piano works will feature the music of such influential Romantic era composers as Felix Mendelssohn, Clara and Robert Schumann, Franz Schubert, and Johannes Brahms, as well as today’s Ricky Ian Gordon and Stephen Sondheim, and the poetry that inspired them. With soloists including soprano Nicole Cabell, mezzo Kate Aldrich, tenor Nicholas Phan, baritone Nmon Ford, and duo pianists Anderson & Roe, Night Songs and Love Waltzes will display multiple musical configurations, including vocal solos, duets, trios, and quartets; men’s chorus, women’s chorus, and the full MasterVoices chorus; as well as arrangements featuring cellos, horns and duo pianists. 

In the days ahead I’ll post video links to the various artists we’ll be working with, but don’t wait for that in order to buy your tickets. Get them here, and we’ll see you on March 1st!


Scholarship for Student Travel


Students in front of St. Paul’s, 2015  (the second time I was in the UK with students on a trip that traveled from London to Paris to Florence (& Assisi) to Rome


Greetings, Readers!

During Spring Break 2018 I’ll be leading a group of students to Ireland and the UK. I’m really excited about this particular trip because I’m planning to align my English curriculum to it, unlike the first trip I planned in 2010.  That trip abroad was to London and should have linked effortlessly to what I teach, but, being my first student trip, I was too much of a newbie organizer to connect it with my teaching — I just wanted to make sure it went off without a hitch.

Only six students attended that particular trip, and this trip already has sixteen — I’ve gotten better at recruiting.  But I want to take even more than that, especially since so many of my English students will be studying curriculum designed especially for the trip, it would be a waste if I couldn’t bring as many of them along as possible.

So I’ve established a scholarship that will allow us to bring two to four more students along for the ride.

Please consider making a donation to the cause and helping students experience the world.  You can do so by visiting our GoFundMe page.  And click here if you’re interested in seeing our itinerary (just don’t enroll, please, without permission!).

And while you’re at it, check out this video from our trip to Greece in 2016 so you can get a sense of what an enriching experience student travel can be.




Novel Progress

kayak hh

Here’s a pic of me not doing my writing (BAD, Stephen!), but kayaking alongside dolphins (not pictured) in Hilton Head, SC, July 2017.

I recently visited a friend I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years and one of the things she asked me was how my novel was coming along, and I realized this is exactly the reason why I need to post about this process on social media.  If everyone knows I’m writing it, even friends I rarely get a chance to see, then it helps keep me focused.

So here’s an update.

In March I presented my draft to my writing group, the excellent and talented members of Jersey City Writers, and got some really useful feedback.  I was slow in implementing it due to the demands at school, but once summer started it became my main focus.  So help me God, I will have a revised draft finished by the end of summer, one that is ready to present to agents and publishers, or ready to publish on my own.  We’ll see…

Part of the problem with my original draft was that I wrote it for NaNoWriMo without planning much of it out.  Now, I love NaNoWriMo for all the enthusiasm it generates for writing, as well as the bonhomie it stirs up among those crazy enough to attempt writing a novel in a month.  However, I am not a pantser in any other aspect of my life, so I shouldn’t have supposed I could be one as I novelist.  I should have begun the process of writing this book with a formidably well-parsed outline.

But I didn’t.

So now I’ve taken the feedback from my writing group along with what I know of my characters and their general story, and I’ve spent quite a bit of time organizing the flow of their tale to address some of the readers’ issues, adding some rather dramatic plot points that seem so obvious now that I’m ashamed I left them out initially.

I did quite a bit of searching online for useful ideas as part of my outlining reformation, and  I want to give a shout out to Katytastic, a YouTuber (kat_tastic on Twitter) whose video I found particularly helpful.  I use Scrivener for most of my longer works of writing, and this video demonstrated a really smart way to outline using Scrivener’s features that I hadn’t used before.  After watching her video and putting her strategies to work, my story seemed so much more solid.

Now that I’ve got it fleshed out a bit better, I’m back to writing it.  And trust me, if you’re reading this blog right now, then I will let you and all the rest of the world know when it is finished, because as much as I love my dear little fictional Ohio town of Villandry, I’ve already got three more novels I’m itching to write and as many protagonists getting pissed off at me for taking so long.

And a memoir.

And maybe a play.  We’ll see.

For now, though, please check out Katytastic’s “Outlining with Scrivener.”  (BTW, I really can’t figure out why the link starts the video in the middle.  I don’t seem to be able to correct it…but you can manage to drag it back to the beginning, right?)



‘Babes’ in Review


Look two heads to the right of Kelli O’Hara, hovering over the female cellist in the second row of the chorus: c’est moi! 

Our two performances of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland took place this past week at Carnegie Hall and the Tilles Center; the reviews are in, and — by and large — they’re all great!  I want to contribute my thoughts to the conversation with the chorister’s-eye-view of the experience, but it’s late on a school night, so for the moment let it suffice that I merely round up the official opinions.

Broadway World


Berkshire Fine Arts

Classical Source

La Scena

Huffington Post

Voce di Meche



Babes in Toyland

Toyland” is possibly the first song I ever learned.  I’m not sure.  I only know that it entered my repertoire at some time before I have memory of it doing so.  I don’t remember if it was a snow globe or a music box or what it was that put it there, but that tune has been in my head for a very long time.

Which isn’t to say I ever imagined getting to sing on stage at Carnegie Hall in the company of Broadway and theater legends like Bill Irwin and Kelli O’Hara, but that’s exactly what will happen later this month when my choir, MasterVoices, presents Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland as part of our 75th anniversary season.  Babes is a show that has remained popular since its creation in 1903, yet hasn’t had a showing in NYC in over 80 years.

Might be 80 more before you get another chance to see and hear this fun show with its iconic score, so don’t miss it!

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 1.48.00 PM

Jane Weber (1927-2016)

Today, 2 April 2017, is the one-year anniversary of my grandmother, Laura Jane Boyle Weber’s death.  She died surrounded by family shortly after her favorite show, Lawrence Welk, ended.  As my Grandpa liked to say, “Why…Lawrence Welk went off at 7:00, and Jane went off at 7:01.”  (I realize that reads a bit callous, but it was really loving and endearing when he would say it.)

She was tapping her fingers to music she loved as she died.  May we all be so lucky.

Here is the eulogy I read at her funeral service.  Hard to believe she’s been gone a year already.


My grandma with her cousin, circa 1938

Good morning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the time I got to spend with Grandma and the important ways in which she helped to shape my life.  I’d like to share some of my memories, offer a bit of reflection on them and, I hope, honor her by expressing what she means to me.


Grandma and I, 2014-ish

At family gatherings, like Grandma and Grandpa’s anniversary party, people often compliment me for coming all the way from New York City to be with everyone on these occasions.  But I’m not a New Yorker by birth.  When I was a boy I lived right down the street at 1922 Madison Avenue right here in Mt. Healthy until the age of five, in a house which Grandma’s mother owned before my dad bought it.  While my mom and dad were at work, Grandma would watch me and Greg.  I enjoyed it when she would come over – we’d watch the Price is Right and we’d both be excited when that alpine game with the yodeler came on (we, of course, would yodel ridiculously along with the TV).  As we ate our lunch we’d watch her soaps – All My Children is the one I remember most – and I remember asking her questions about the characters and the sordid details of their lives.  To her credit, I don’t think she fully explained the ins and outs of the adult world to me, but she let me ask the questions and we’d talk about the characters – she liked to gossip.  Truth be told, so do I.  But that sounds negative, doesn’t it?  Let me rephrase that: we both love stories, and discussing the lives of others is a kind of storytelling.  Through this storytelling she developed my love for the drama of daily life which would find its way into my love of writing and theater, subjects which I currently teach.

Despite the fun we had, there came a point in the afternoon when I sensed that it was almost time for my mom to get home from work, and, like most kids, once I suspected she was close I would get agitated and want her to be there right away.

“Where is she?” I’d ask, impatiently.

Grandma would reply, “Let me look…” and then she’d go to the window, look down the street, and tell me, “She’s about fifteen blocks away.”

“How do you know that?” I’d ask.

“I have magic glasses.”  That answer was reasonable enough to me, and I accepted it.


Looking effortlessly relaxed in the early-mid-1940s.

I remember one particular time when I was maybe three or four years old going to get a zweibach from Schultz’s Bakery on Pleasant Avenue – which I have always referred to as Grandma’s Bakery – then driving to Harbin Park – a place I loved because, at the time, it was where we held the Weber family reunion where I’d get to see, Aunt Alma and Uncle Al, Uncle Barney & Boomer (that’s what I called Aunt Bert for some odd reason), Aunt Gert, Eugene and Betty, all my dad’s cousins and all their kids.  Anyway, on the hill at Harbin Park, Grandma and I parked while I had my snack and looked out at the clouds in the distance.  They were choppy and extended for miles.  Grandma said they looked just like waves on the ocean.  I had never seen the ocean, but I had seen the grand prizes on the Price is Right that featured fabulous vacations to Hawaii and Acapulco.  I didn’t quite see the parallel, but she said the clouds were like the whitecaps on the waves, and that if I used my imagination I’d be able to see them.  And then, all of a sudden, I did see it.  It made perfect sense.  I looked at the sky and saw the ocean; it was my first poetic thought.  I don’t know that grandma was a big fan of poetry, but by making metaphors with the sky and seeing the world through her magic glasses, she helped shape my imagination and my inner world in ways that would give – and continue to give — a lot of color to my life.


Whatever happened to baby Jane?  (You knew that was coming…)  Early 1930s.

Many years later, when I was in 7th grade, Grandma and Grandpa were living in Florida.  I flew down to see them on my very first flight all by myself, which probably planted the seeds of my love of travel and my strong sense of independence.  Anyway, they took me to Daytona Beach; I’d visited the Gulf of Mexico before, but this was my first time seeing the Atlantic.  Whereas the Gulf was usually brown and looked like a big lake to me, the Atlantic looked like the ocean of the Price is Right – cerulean blue and crested with white.  “Don’t you remember?” she said, “I told you they looked like clouds.”  All those years later, she remembered that conversation.

For those of us in her immediate family, there’s a very special place about an hour east from here called Lake Lorelei.  For a period of time in the 80s we would spend every weekend there together, boating, swimming, cooking out – just being together as a family.  Some of my favorite memories from my childhood were the Saturday nights at the clubhouse at Lake Lorelei where there would be a band playing jazz standards and big band swing tunes that we all associate with grandma and grandpa.  In fact, the moment I hear the opening notes of “All of me…. Why not take all of me?” I immediately think of the two of them.  I loved watching everyone dance; I loved sitting with my family, drinking my ginger ale and eating pretzels while singing along with the band.  These experiences made me want to study music and perform, which I’ve done for my entire life.  I’ve even made it to Carnegie Hall – a few times – but I can tell you that singing there, as special as that is, is not as dear to me as singing along with grandma and grandpa and the band at Lake Lorelei.


Grandma and Grandpa — Jane and Norb — late 1940s-ish

Before Lake Lorelei was a part of our lives, I would stay with her and Grandpa – and a teenage Kimmy, and their dog, Buffy – at their house on Evalie.  If the weather was nice we would walk across the street to visit Bob Kay and swim in his pool. We’d do word searches together and other puzzles — she loved a game, and she saw that I did too (still do!).  I remember her telling me when I was very small that one day I would be big enough to go to bingo with her.  After years of waiting – which only made it seem that much more glamorous – that day finally came.  I remember entering the bingo hall and being amazed as I watched Grandma in her natural habitat.  She greeted all the other ladies – her friends and adversaries – with pleasant hellos (then told me who to watch out for because they win too often).  She bought 30 bingo cards for herself and one for me.  “How come I only get one?” I’d ask. “Let’s see if you can keep up with one before we add to it.”  I quickly graduated to three cards, but never made it past six. She had a bag filled with metallic chips and magnetic wands to remove them quickly; dabbers of ink for the single card rounds.  And good luck charms: trinkets and trolls that she would set up like guardians of her cards.  “Do they work?”  “They do.  They’re magic.”  Again, this seemed reasonable to me because she did win the money.  Sometimes quite a bit.

She was a winner.  And a wit.  The life of the party.  She had a wonderful laugh and smile, and I know we would all love it if she could walk through the door right now and tell us that she was fine.


Grandma left me her magic glasses, and in case anyone here is worried about her, I want you to know that I can see her.  Shortly after the moment of her death, she thought, “I went peacefully…surrounded by loved ones…I even made it through tonight’s episode of Lawrence Welk…and I’m ready.”  So her spirit, with all her might, yelled out, “BINGO!” to that great Bingo Caller in the Sky, St. Peter.  He called her name and she approached, thinking to herself as she rose through the clouds that they still look like the ocean. She’s


Jane and Nancy

young again, and beautiful.  Her hair is long, her lipstick is very red.  “Laura Jane Boyle Weber,” he commanded, and she said to him, “Who wants to know?” She was a bit surprised because her voice was healed and wasn’t shaking.  St. Peter wasn’t in a joking mood, so he just looked at her sternly, and she decided to behave.  He looked over her bingo card and said, “Laura Jane,” (she looked a bit nervous) “it appears that your time on earth was fun.  You made people smile.  You made people laugh.  On the whole, the world was a merrier, wittier, richer place because you were in it.  You are welcome into heaven.”  When the gates opened and she walked inside, her mother, Iva Pohlar Backus, gave her an entire chocolate cake.  “Is this whole thing for me?” she asked.  “Of course,” Grandma Backus said, “and don’t worry – there’s no diabetes in heaven.”  Laura Jane replied to her mother, “Doesn’t matter, I was going to eat it anyway.”  Her Grandpa Pohlar, a bar owner here on Earth, poured her a beer knowing that she hadn’t had a drink in many years.  She smiled, and as she took her first, glorious bite and her first delicious sip, Lawrence Welk struck up the angelic band – “A one, a two, a three!” – and she sang along with them and all her relations in heaven: “You took the best, so why not take the rest?  Why not take all of me?


Jane through time.