Monday, April 24, 2017

Lessons Learned in Reformed School

Ken's sermon yesterday was based on James chapter 2, the "Faith without works is dead" chapter.  It helped me figure out how my faith had gotten so wrapped around the axle for so many years.

The sermon was reassuring.  James has proven to be a tough book over the centuries.  Martin Luther himself didn't believe it belonged in the Bible -- "an epistle of straw" was his dismissive epithet.  The conundrum is essentially this:  after verse after verse of Paul writing about salvation through faith alone, James comes along and suggests maybe you should doubt your faith if it is unaccompanied by works (obedience to God's law).  Ken's analysis (hope I'm not distorting it) is that we should view works as evidence of faith, not as its prerequisite -- faith leads to works, not the other way around.
That said, it's easy to set up an impossible standard for yourself, based a broader application of James' words than what he specifically intended.  In James' day, rich Christians would show up at church bringing plenty to eat and drink for themselves, but then refuse to share anything with the poor and hungry.  James thought this practice was disgraceful, and said so.  But even faithful Christians have sins they skirmish with on a daily basis -- the better the Christian, so it seems, the more subtle and dangerous the sins that afflict him.  Christ's perfection eludes us, and will keep doing so until He cleans us up for eternity.

The Reformed Presbyterians I hang out with these days have a term they apply to this cleaning-up process:  sanctification.  It's a lifelong process, and it's not always a linear one.  (Paul blames much of it, at least, on the war between the spirit and the flesh -- in so many words, your flesh knows it is doomed to die and would like nothing better than to take your spirit along with it.)
Now, a quick rewind back to my childhood.  I became aware of and convicted of my sins around the age of seven or so, give or take, and was baptized in our independent Baptist church.  I remember the recipe for salvation was simple:  just ask the Lord to come into your heart and save you.  All well and good.

However, I did not understand the concept of sanctification.  Nor do I recall, ever, a single word preached on the subject.  My memory could be faulty on that score, or I may have been too young to grasp it.  But for whatever reason, that important concept managed to slip through the cracks.  Instead, I believed that, as a Christian, I will no longer want to sin.

This led, quite naturally, to decades of self-doubt and inner struggle.  Even as a child, it gnawed at me constantly.  It started with me committing some sin -- I lied, or swore, or stole from my dad's poker winnings.  (Yes, I did that on more than one occasion; Pop was a good poker player.)  Then came remorse for the sin.  Then came the question:  why would you do this if you're a Christian?  Maybe you're not a Christian after all...?  I thought, wow, I must have really messed up that prayer, and maybe I need to pray it again -- this time, with feeling.  But then another thought arrived quickly at its heels:  is my faith so poor that I have to pray for salvation twice?  Won't the Lord be angry at me for doubting Him?

I expected the sanctification process to be instantaneous, and when it wasn't, The result?  As the younger folks would say, total buzzkill.  I went from doubting my salvation to disbelieving it almost completely.  I never doubted the Lord's, but felt like the worst possible Christian, a complete phony.  I still went to church, but it was torturous and not very assuring.  There's a Gershwin song from one of his musicals ("Girl Crazy", I think) that contains the perfect lyrical description of the way I felt about church:  "They're singing songs of love, but not for me."  The scriptures offers us many thing, including messages of hope and peace, but all I ever heard were the condemnations.

I wonder how many others have abandoned the faith altogether just because they couldn't resolve this dissonance?  The only way I could function was to put it out of my mind entirely, and be assured only that, some day, I was probably going to Hell.  I can't be the only person who has ever gone through all that.

Gradually, over the decades since I came face to face with that appalling dilemma, I was brought back.  Who or what brought me back? Well, the short answer is the Lord Himself -- after all, that's an important part of Reformed theology ("irresistable grace").  But in terms of specifics?  I was always intellectually intrigued by Christianity.  I devoured anything written by C.S. Lewis, for example, and loved to read debates between Christians and atheists (we Dises are a verbally contentious lot and love a good argument).  That was a start, at least.  Lewis is a good read for someone who feels moved to embrace Christ but thinks doing would betray his intellectual principles.  However, I had the opposite problem: I was fine with Christian belief intellectually, but had trouble with believing it applied to me.  So something else was needed.

Then, I married a Christian woman.  It really disappointed Debbie when I wanted to skip church on Sunday, so I attended not because I wanted to, but because I felt I should.  This exposed me, of course, to scripture, which is a means of grace.  It will change you, but not if you don't hear it.  I found myself placed, out of  my love for my woman, where I needed to be.

And then, we discovered our present church.  Pastor Wally played a huge role.  He'd look at me, smile, and say, "Cheer up!  You're worse than you think!"  Wally was an excellent teacher, and we took a class he gave for prospective church officers, working through the Westminster Confession -- I used to call it "Reformed School."  Our elders really do try to teach us good theology.  Our church doesn't consist of perfect people proud of our perfection; we're just struggling sinners who have faith in the Lord's promises, and try to help each other with our struggles.


And there is certainly nothing special about me.  That's a good thing.  It means the scriptures aren't singling me out as the only man since the dawn of Creation to whom the Lord's promises don't apply.  They most certainly do.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Merry Christmas 2016!

Merry Christmas 2016!

I don’t even have to check the calendar to know it’s December.  Lots of trombone gigs, for one thing -- we trombone players use a little calendar book to keep track of all our gigs, it’s called “Year at a Glance.”  The Steelers are starting their playoff charge.  And Virginia’s mostly sultry weather is tending now toward an icky, cold drizzle.   The battle lines have begun forming around Lynnhaven Mall, and pretty soon it will be all shock and awe, as the bank cards stab, parry, and thrust toward the weary but disciplined cashiers.  The teenagers are wearing their best winter shorts and T-shirts.  The liquor store is selling box sets of holiday cheer with free festive shot glasses -- visions of pink elephants adorned in Christmas lights dance in our heads.  Church parking lots are making deals on evergreen saplings destined for the living room, and then for the trash heap -- their short lives spent enticing children to smile and cats to knock them over.  Oh, and Rudolf’s nose is scheduled for laser surgery.  It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

Actually, a lot happened beginning just the day after last Christmas.  Debbie and I, along with several cousins and friends, embarked on one of those Viking river cruises in Europe.  This cruise was on the Danube River, starting in Budapest, Hungary and ending in Passau, Germany.  I’d never been to Europe before, and we thought it might be a good idea to visit there while it’s still European.  Our flight was a Delta/KLM flight (KLM is Delta’s Dutch affiliate), and it would have been a wonderful flight, if only our legs were retractable.  Of all nationalities, I have no idea how a Dutch airline can get away with that -- I'm here to tell you, the Dutch are very tall people.  The shortest stewardess was an inch or two taller than me, and I’m 5’10”.  All the stewardesses were pretty and charming, and they got even more charming as they started handing me glasses filled with complimentary Scotch.  Strangely, I soon forgot all about my cramped knees.  We changed planes in Amsterdam, and arrived in Budapest around lunch time the next day due to the time difference.  A tour bus took us to a grand old hotel in the Buda part of Budapest – the sort of hotel where you half-expect to see Peter Lorre’s watery eyes and sinister grin lurking around the corner.  Hungarian food is big on beef and root vegetables, and heavy on the paprika.  Hungarian wine was not bad at all, and may have been the only menu item that wasn’t based on turnips.  Ba-dump!  I’ll be here all week.  Try the turnip popovers.  Budapest’s architecture is a hodge-podge.  Our Hungarian tour guide was a short, solid-looking and serious woman of about fifty who knows her architecture.  She explained that whenever any army wants to invade another country, they always practice on Hungary first.  Let’s see if I remember them all -- in succession, they have been invaded by the Celts, the Romans, the Huns, the Goths, the Magyars, the Mongols, the Turks, the Germans, the Germans again, and the Soviets.  Hungary has been enjoying a rare period of independence since the Iron Curtain rusted away like a Chevy Vega’s motor mounts.  However, each conquering culture left behind a little something to remember them by.  The Soviet Union’s contribution consisted of these immense, square, concrete apartment complexes -- Hell’s dormitories.  They looked like they were designed by the same team that gave us grain elevators and sewage treatment plants, after first running their plans through the DMV for final approval.  The tour guide felt obligated to apologize for them.  “We know they are hideously ugly, but they’re useful as slums.”  I’m paraphrasing.  The national language in Hungary is not Hungarian, but Magyar (she pronounced it “maiee-YARR”).  “We haff many nationalities livink here togedder in Booda Pesssht,” the tour guide said.

I asked, “Are there any Russians still living here?”

She glared at me .  “No!!!”

Next stop was Bratislava, Slovakia.  Slovakia achieved something almost unheard of: peaceful secession.  They broke from their parent country on a handshake, without a shot being fired, probably the only civil war in history that really was civil -- and with the demise of Czechoslovakia, spelling bees the world over lost one of their best tie-breakers.  Slovakia looks like Allentown – hilly, rocky, and quaint.   The biggest difference is that Bratislava has a big white castle, whereas Allentown has a White Castle.  Bratislava claims to be the honey capital of the world, but are in fact the world’s biggest car manufacturing town.  However, all the cars are named Peugeot, Kia, and Volkswagen (VW acquired Skoda in the early 1990s).  The beer was good, cheap too, but they have a nasty habit of leaving all the lights on in their saloons.  It’s like drinking a beer in a school cafeteria.  If you want to make a secret rendezvous, you’d better use the public library.  Then on to Vienna, Austria.  Here is where sarcasm fails me -- Vienna is a stunningly beautiful city, even on a cold, wet day.  Stunning beauty comes with a price, as always:  Debbie and I stopped at a coffee shop and paid the equivalent of $20 for two cups of coffee with cream and a strudel for Debbie.  However, this was Austria, not 7-Eleven, so no Coffee Mate for the Viennese -- they just scooped huge dollops of genuine 100% cow cream straight out of a big tub.  Now that’s what I’m talking about!  We also stopped in Salzburg, where the tour guide explained that not only was Mozart born there, but also Christian Doppler, and just then a European police siren traveled away from us, DARR-DEEE-DAarrr-deeee-darrrrrrrr-deeeeeee, and lowering in pitch.  So this is where Doppler invented that effect.   That huge castle, nestled way, way up in a nearby mountain, looked very realistic, but there was no sky-writing witch to spell out “Surrender Dorothy!”  Did I want to walk up to the castle? asked Debbie.  No thanks.  Last stop was Passau, Germany, where ABC -- another beautiful church -- hosted the world’s fourth largest pipe organ.  Then, twelve more hours of bashed knees and Scotch-tippling on the KLM flying sardine can and we were home.  We highly recommend taking a Viking river cruise, if our trip was representative.  The food was great, the bar was inexpensive (unlike the trip itself), and the service was friendly and professional.  I might have eventually gotten bored being waited on hand and foot by young, smiling and beautiful East European women, but I’d have to give it a few more centuries to know for sure.

Within a couple of days of our return, I went into the hospital for right shoulder surgery.  On our trip, I’d discovered my left shoulder, the one that was not to be operated on, was actually the one that hurt the most.  Too bad -- surgeons don’t like it when you call an audible at the line of scrimmage.  The right shoulder actually feels pretty good now, after almost a year of healing and therapy.  Not anxious to have that process repeated on my left shoulder, I asked the surgeon, what are my alternatives?  He gave me a cortisone shot.  It made me want to kiss the hem of his coat.  I’m used to old cars needing repairs, but now I’m the one who’s going in and out of the shop, and the warranty has run out.

Debbie’s dad, Bill Wallace, passed away last year, and we hosted his memorial service here in Virginia Beach; the Wallace clan gathered here to honor Bill’s life.  Debbie and I met up with her older brother Bill Jr. at the Pensacola Naval Air Station last June, where Bill’s ashes were interred -- a Blue Angel pilot gave us a fly-over.  Then we drove down to Pine Island, FL, to visit our friends Kurt and Patty Rauscher.  Kurt and Patty took us out fishing on their boat, and we saw a manatee.  They’re huge.  But none of the “Visit Florida!” ads I’ve ever seen showed any photos of manatees doing what huge vegetation-munching animals do for about 24/7 -- they’re not called “sea cows” for nothing.  And that’s no manatee.  Hope is not the only the thing that floats.  We saw Kurt’s dad, Merle, who was like a second father to me, growing up – as it turned out, it was to be our last visit with him.  His last words to me, delivered with a grin, were, “Give ‘em hell, Tiger!”  I always have.  We attended a memorial service both for him and his wife Irene in Altoona, PA a couple of months ago.

As I write this, we’re coming into peak music season.  I have four performances of “The Nutcracker” with the Ballet Virginia International (one down, three to go).  I love Tchaikovsky, and Tchaikovsky loves bass trombone.  Then there’s the Handel Messiah, and that about wraps things up.  Debbie has conducted her final school orchestra concert for the season, and is busy preparing our church music schedule.  Sitting here listening to Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, and acknowledging the Lord’s many blessings.  We wish you a merry Christmas and great things to come in the new year ahead.

Merry Christmas 2015!

Merry Christmas 2015!

Another unseasonably-warm December.  Unlike Pearl Harbor 1941, there’s not a nip in the air here.  Temps in the sixties and seventies.  If we ever leave Virginia, here’s hoping it’ll be further south, and may all our Christmases be adobe tan.  I’ve never had to shovel sunlight.

I’ve decided that, if I my employer doesn’t sell me off to a band of Gypsies for a stick of chewing gum before July, 2021, that’s when I’d like to retire.  That day is bound to arrive on schedule, of course -- it’s on the calendar, after all -- but it’s a matter of speculation whether I’ll be here to enjoy it, or to enjoy it while I’m here.  Still, it’s fun to fantasize about it.  What will we do when we retire?  I’ve wondered about maybe… I dunno… a third career?  Writing books or articles?  Find more trombone sections to annoy?  That’s the ‘what’, but how about the ‘where’?  One could do worse than right here in Virginia Beach, but the traffic is wearisome.  Fortunately, there are plenty of bucolic little towns right here in eastern Virginia.  Oklahoma, of all places, is immortalized in song -- "Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain” -- so why not Tidewater Virginia?  “Where the swamp comes seeping through the drain”?  “Where the skeeters tap your jugular vein?”  The tune is catchy, but the lyrics need work.

So this year Debbie and I have taken little weekend drives through our great commonwealth, trying to get a flavor of the place, should we decide to stay somewhat local.  Generally, you can get a lot of bang for your real-estate buck once you leave Virginia Beach.  Smithfield is quaint -- founded in 1648, it’s one of our oldest towns, built around a small creek known as the Pagan River (makes you think there’s got to be a Heathen Mountain or a Lake Infidel somewhere nearby).   My family lived there until I was three; I even remember attending the old Methodist church -- or perhaps more accurately, getting stashed in the nursery. I even remember the time I escaped and went crawling through the congregation looking for my parents.   (“When the big hand hits twelve, we’re making a break for it, boys!”)  Cross the York River and you’re in Gloucester County -- that's where the British soldiers settled who were defeated by George Washington.  They still speak a kind of oddball English dialect known by the locals here as “Guinea” -- as someone of Tangier Island heritage, I can relate.  Then there’s Mathews County, which is where you go once you have completely renounced civilization.  We joke about backwater towns being “out in the Styx”, but Mathews County is so Stygian, all the hound dogs chained to the old Chevys up on blocks in the front yards have three heads.  But all things considered, we’d prefer a town where doing laundry doesn’t require taking it to the river and beating it with a stick.

Retiring elsewhere is still an option.  We visited our friends Kurt and Patty Rauscher this past spring; they gave up the scenic blizzards and alluring tornados of Indiana to brave the warm weather and octogenarian bumper-car traffic of Florida’s Gulf coast -- the locals refer to white-haired drivers as ‘Q-tips’.  I like Florida.  Lizards on your porch.  $2 soft crabs.  Bars with refrigerated ice strips for resting your beer on.  Floridians love their booze -- the barmaid described the local Total Wine shop as “Disneyland for alcoholics”.   Kurt and Patty live on Pine Island, a barrier island adjacent to the Cape Coral, and have a bald eagle’s nest in one of their palm trees.  There’s an old-school charm to the Gulf coast that’s missing from Florida’s Atlantic side.  You half-expect to see Ernest Hemingway pecking on an old manual typewriter, surrounded by cats and empty whiskey bottles.  Debbie and I attended the memorial service for Kurt’s mom, Irene, who was like a second mom to me when I was in high school.  Kurt’s dad, Merle. still looks great at 91 -- he’s a retired Air Force colonel and was a big influence on my choice of the Air Force as the place to serve.

We also visited our friends Sam and Aileen Collins, who live in a little community outside of Tyler, Texas named Hide-a-Way -- and that’s just what it is.  In Hide-a-Way, you can buy an elegant brick rancher, on a golf course, in a gated community, for about $225 grand.  I’d expected East Texas to look flat and dry, with cactuses and dry gulches -- like in the cowboy movies.  But in fact, East Texas looks a lot like Virginia, most of which is slightly hilly and lush with vegetation.  Sam and Aileen were wonderful hosts.  On July 4th, they took us to an Independence Day celebration at an enormous mega-church in Tyler.  I’ve seen big churches before, but this church -- named, I'm not kidding, Green Acres Baptist Church -- took it to a whole new level.  Perched on the third balcony, the air was thin and the pulpit but a distant apparition obscured just a bit by the cirrus clouds drifting below us in the second balcony.  The choir was about five times the size of our church’s entire congregation.  As the patriotic music played, dozens of American cultural icons paraded before us -- Snow White and her dwarfish coterie, Superman and Captain America, circus clowns, baton twirlers…  I joked to Debbie, “Where’s the Uncle Sam guy on stilts?”  She just pointed and said, “There!”  And there he was.  Not quite all American icons were on display -- no fat, bearded guys on Harleys, fedora-wearing gangsters, or Playboy centerfolds -- but this was a church, not a reality series.  Debbie and I learned we love gospel music after hearing a male gospel quartet singing in really tight harmonies.  East Texas seems like the America of fifty years ago, still very faith-oriented and Christ-friendly.  As far as we’re concerned, Green Acres is the place to be.

I enjoyed my strength-training regimen this year -- the best part was finally being able to open ketchup bottles without Debbie’s help.  Unfortunately, last June, I started experiencing shoulder pain.  At first, I thought it was tendonitis and tried fixing it by visiting a physical “terrorist”.  But that bombed.  Finally, one MRI and a head-shaking orthopedic surgeon later, I received sad tidings of great Oy! -- a shoulder operation is scheduled for January 6.  That’s what I get for trying to build my muscles -- you can’t tear a muscle you don’t have.   That’s my theory.

This year has been a more somber than most; we’ve lost a cherished loved one.  Debbie’s father, William Baxter Wallace, spent this past year in a nursing home.  He broke his hip in Jan 2014, and never really recovered -- "failure to thrive” is what the doctors wrote.   He had a number of good days -- flirting with the nurses and actually doing some filing work for them on occasion.  But it soon became apparent he wasn’t getting better and probably wasn’t going to.  The sad day happened on Oct 21.  Bill was a good man, very perceptive, kind-hearted and helpful.  Things I’ll always remember about Bill?  The first time we met, at an Air Force band concert while Debbie and I were on tour in California, I thought he looked like Burl Ives.  Whenever he visited, he did all the carpentry work we needed done, recognizing how hopeless I am with tools.  Bill was a guide at the Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum -- a Navy pilot at the tail end of World War II, Bill knew everything there was to know about naval flight.    He had an engineer’s mind and a gentle heart.  And now he is with the Lord.  We miss him.

Debbie just turned “sweet sixty” and the Grinch gave her a European vacation.  We’re heading off shortly to take a Danube River cruise around Hungary and Austria -- it will be my first trip to Europe (Debbie’s been to Switzerland).  May the Lord bless you this Christmas season!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Merry Christmas 2014!

Merry Christmas 2014 from the Dises!

We’re being advised by every weather prognosticator in eastern Virginia that this is going to be a cooo-ooold winter!  And it may well become one.  But not yet.  Our unseasonable warmth is making certain folks blame it on global warming.  On the other hand, if it was colder than normal, they would be blaming that on global warming, too.  And you thought all roads lead to Rome, didn’t you?  Wrong!  They all lead to a seat at the reviewing stand in the Al Gore Eco-Scold Parade.  Be sure you give a big ol’ salute to Big Al when you march past.  Meanwhile, I’ve been investing in Baffin Island waterfront.  Going with the floe, so to speak.  I’ve almost talked L.L. Bean into carrying linen suits and Panama hats for those scorching Maine winters.  By the time we’re done, the polar bears will be so confused, they’ll be bi-polar.

Speaking of ice, Debbie and I, along with twenty bazillion Dise cousins and friends, took a Holland-America cruise to Alaska this past August.  (Their slogan:  “Visit Alaska – before it’s baked!”)  Our friends Kevin and Ann Schmalz from New York joined us in Seattle, along with cousins Jim and Debbie Dise, Kelly and Jean Dise, Ed and Sally Dise, plus a cast of thousands of family friends.  Before boarding the ship, we took the “Tour of Seattle, Hell” on an uncharacteristically sunny and warm Seattle day.  The tour guide led us for many, interminable hours through the neighborhoods of Seattle, stopping to marvel at every blade of blessed grass that was fortunate enough to call Seattle its home.  Debbie (my Debbie) complained that her blood sugar was low since it was 1:30 PM and we hadn’t had lunch, and the sympathetic tour guide responded by driving us through yet more neighborhoods for yet another hour -- this time, we marveled at the lawn ornaments.  We did finally board the ship in time; thank heaven, but no thanks to Seattle’s most self-absorbed tour guide.

The cruise itself, I’m happy to say, was a wild success.  Our ship wasn’t one of the really gi-normous ones that pull dwarf stars in their wakes -- this one was only the size of a typical Virginia county, so we were able to head all the way up into the fjords and watch the big glaciers do pretty much nothing.  Think of glaciers as the ice machine of the gods.  They’re mostly blue, by the way, but well-peppered with soot.  You don’t see the soot in all those touristy travel brochures, do you?  I think it gets airbrushed away.  And any soot you see with flippers?  Those are seals, only slightly more frisky than the soot.   Then we arrived at Juneau, Alaska -- not at all named for Juno, the Roman goddess of politics, but for some old gold prospector named Mr. Juneau, who kept buying drinks for everyone in town until they agreed to name the town after him.  Political pandering has since gotten more sophisticated.  In the world of adjectives, Juneau is nestled in somewhere between quaint and beautiful -- too many state buildings to be quaint, too many run-down homes to be beautiful.  To know what makes Juneau special, you have to look at its setting: mountains and coastline.  The town starts at sea level and is pretty much built straight up into the nearby mountains -- after climbing the streets to the other end of town, we had to rappel back to the ship.  Best $15 ever spent -- we took a tour bus to the Alaska Brewery, where we received a lecture-tour of the facilities… and free samples.  It’s a nice story -- back in the Seventies, a young married couple visited Juneau, fell in love with the place, and wanted to move there.  But… what to do for a living?  She was a CPA, he was a chemical engineer whose hobby was beer-making.  They went door to door, trying to talk the locals into investing in their start-up brewery; today, the unhappiest people in town are the ones who turned them down.  Did I mention the free samples?   Yowzah!   Whoa, did the island just shift?  On our way back to town, as we passed a small island about two hundred yards offshore, the shuttle driver explained it had the world’s highest concentration of grizzly bears.  Can you imagine having to carry an elephant gun just to take out the trash?  Also, Mel Gibson once owned a home there.  The grizzlies had to carry elephant guns, too.  After Juneau, we also stopped at Sitka and Ketchikan on the way back to Seattle, but, by that time, I’d decided that life in the ship’s bar was more fun than climbing the streets, and the wildlife was slightly more active.  Cousin Jim had a system worked out to where we could max out our bar tabs during happy hour and carry a glass of cheap wine into dinner.  It takes a Dise to figure the important things out.  Cara Wallo, a member of our entourage, was one of the finalists in our ship’s version of “Dancing With the Stars!”  I contributed at karaoke time by doing my very best Jim Morrison impression.    Plus, I got to spend lots of quality time with my wonderful wife.  Don’t you love her madly?  I do.

Unfortunately, after thirty years of programming at a desk, my physique has come to resemble an oyster’s.  There are sports teams named after the big cats, bears, and other species of nature’s strong and swift predators, but I defy you to find an NFL team named after a mollusk.  Not getting any younger, and here at age sixty able to see old age from my backyard, I decided to sign up for strength training.  There’s a gym in Norfolk named “Brute Strength” and I went there to see Stella.  In the waiting area, I looked around and realized, I’m the weakest person in this gym, and that includes the pretty little twenty-something ladies.  There was a young boy sitting in the reception area, maybe seven years old.  I thought I might be able to take him.  Stella greeted me.  She’s a very nice lady, and about as helpful as anyone can possibly be.  She’s also only the ninth woman in history to bench-press 350 pounds.  That there is what we call ‘street creds’.  Stella trained me for about a month, and if I could afford it, I’d still be hiring her for every workout.  But I’m more or less on my own now.  And something happened that I never expected: I kinda like this.  After about a month, I started noticing these little tiny bumps starting to spring up in various places, where there had never been so much as a ripple or a ridge.  They’re not big enough yet to call muscles -- I call them “muscle sprouts.”  But recently I’ve had to take some time off, because, somehow, I hurt my lower back, and have been unable to work through it.  Now, my theory has always been, you have to have a muscle to pull a muscle.  That theory seems to hold -- I never had to worry about back pain until I had something resembling a muscle, and I never realized how debilitating it can be.  I’ll just have to find some way to work through all this, because at the moment, I seem to be hooked on lifting.

Speaking of dead-lifts, about a year and a half ago, Debbie and I invested in a zombie movie, “The Other Side”, written and produced by Pittsburgh’s Niespodzianski Brothers -- John and Chris.  I knew John when he was in the Air Force, and simply could not imagine him doing a bad job of anything he’d set his mind to do.  The biggest risk a movie investor takes is that the movie will never actually get made.  I just knew that wasn’t going to happen -- and it didn’t.  Cousin Jim Dise and I drove to Pittsburgh last spring, with my pastor, Wally Sherbon, to see a sneak preview, and again to see the theatrical premier in November, with my friend and colleague Martin Barritt.  Still don’t know whether there’s a financial happy ending, but so far we’ve gotten some excellent reviews, and the production team has announced we are very close to a distribution deal.  Fingers crossed!  If you happen to see the movie, watch for my name in the “Executive Producer” credits -- what I actually produced was a signature on a check, but it’s the thought that counts.  And meanwhile, if some folks who look dead come shambling toward you, don’t assume they’re just asking directions.  They might want to pick your brain about something.

Debbie’s dad, Bill Wallace, at age 86, broke his hip this past January, and both he and Debbie’s mom, Audrey, lost their ability to live on their own.  Debbie intrepidly drove them both up here this past March, and they took up residence with us here in our house.  Audrey is still with us here, but Bill’s health has met with a few setbacks, and he’s in a local nursing home now.  Breaking your hip when you get older is sort of a harbinger for other things, mostly not good.  We have no idea how things go from here, but we visit Bill a lot and he seems to be rolling with the punches pretty well.  We just celebrated Bill’s 87th birthday with beer and pizza.  Bill flirts outrageously with the nurses.

And that’s the year that was.  Debbie is still teaching 5th grade beginning orchestra, I’m still programming and playing trombone, and we both are grateful for the Lord’s many blessings.  This Christmas season; remember the One who came into this world to make life and death both worth celebrating, -- the New Life that is to come.

Love from,

Lee & Debbie 

Bill & Audrey, too!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Merry Christmas 2013!

Took the afternoon off work to write this… Debbie is in her best, most urgent “Have you written the Christmas letter yet?” mode -- so, with my schedule papered with musical performances later in the week, this is the ‘Do or die’ time, right now. Sitting here with a nice martini buzz (something else I can’t do at work) -- brain cells roasting on an open fire. The hi-fi is playing something by a group called “The Cars. Debbie will be out most of the day, conducting her fifth-grade strings concerts and, as usual, doing something productive. Me? I’m much more easily distracted, but the circumstances will never get better than this. Now! Let the stream of consciousness commence...

We’ve taken a whole bunch of trips this year. As much as I loved living in Omaha -- and I did -- there was usually an enormous time commitment involved whenever traveling to anyplace but Omaha. Not so in Virginia! Take a trip through Virginia if you want to see beautiful coasts/mountains/cities/wineries; take a trip through Nebraska if you want to see corn/sorghum/bison/grain elevators. Last May, Debbie and I traveled to Asheville, NC, to meet up with our good friends, Tom and Mary Salem. Tom is a former boss from my Omaha years -- yet strangely enough, we still like each other. We beat the odds. It is said that Asheville is the “San Francisco of the East” -- not an unfair comparison. Both Asheville and San Francisco are blessed with great natural beauty, and both seem to be very artistic in something of a counter-cultural way -- the difference is that in Asheville, you half-expect to see leftover Sixties hippies trading bong-hits with Daniel Boone. The ladies visited the Biltmore Estate, home of the Vanderbilts, who made their fortune in railroading -- exactly whom, I can’t say. Tom and I decided to go slumming instead and embarked on a brew-pub tour of beautiful downtown Asheville -- which bills itself as the brew-pub capital of the world. That’s pretty big talk, and we wanted to see if Asheville walked the walk. It did. All I really remember, though, is that there was lots of tasty dark bubbly stuff. And pretty waitresses. But after a sufficient amount of dark bubbly stuff -- must have been something chemical -- the pretty waitresses all started looking like Picasso had passed through Asheville on his plastic-surgery tour. My, what pretty eyes you have! Would you mind turning your head around so I can see your other two? On our way home, Debbie started having abdominal pains, and, from our cell phone, we arranged a rendezvous at a local hospital. Turns out, she had a kidney stone. Fortunately, it was small enough to pass on through with no further ado, and a few days later, it did. Like Bob Dylan said, everybody must get stoned -- Debbie, in her way; me, in mine.

As usual, I was signed up this past summer with the Tidewater Winds, a John Philip Sousa-style concert band that works pretty much every evening in July. However, this year, I hit a wall. My workplace switches over to ten-hour days in late June, so for the past several years, that has meant working ten hours, dashing home, scarfing a quick dinner, donning the tux , and heading out again for a two-hour gig. This past July, I decided I just can’t do this anymore. The Winds played a Christmas concert last week -- one of the most fun, ever -- and then I resigned from the group. They’ll do fine without me, and I just hope I’ll do fine without them.



In August, Debbie and I visited our friends Kurt and Patty Rauscher in Batesville, IN, not far from Cincinnati.  En route, we sat patiently on a runway in Norfolk waiting to depart for Cincinnati, via Philadelphia, in what I hope was the jet with the least effective air conditioning this side of Morocco.  When your sweat glands give up and turn into liver spots, you know you’re in for it.  By the time we arrived in Philly, we were cheese steaks.  Had a related thought that's just dying for its own "Far Side" cartoon:  a plane is being boarded by buzzards and hyenas (along with some real people). The buzzards and hyenas are carrying dead animals and a stench is overwhelming the humans, while the stewardess pleasantly announces, "Please check your carrion luggage."  Kurt is my friend of longest standing -- we've been close friends since I was in eighth grade.  That was… uh… twenty years ago??  Heh.  Try, uh, 45 years.  Kurt is a retired Delta Airlines pilot, and is enjoying his retirement very much -- "The hours are great,” Kurt says, “but the pay sucks.”  It was great to see Kurt’s parents, Merle and Irene, again -- when I was in high school, they always made me feel welcome, like one of the family.  Merle and Kurt even tried to teach me how to play golf, an endeavor inspired more of pity than practicality -- I can’t even master walking while chewing gum.  Then, to make matters worse, I lost about seventy pounds during my sophomore year – once I could actually see the golf ball, I didn’t know what to do with it.  We all went to a wonderful restaurant outside of Batesville where they make their own wine, and my reaction was, hey, they sell food too!

We took two trips to Pittsburgh this year -- the town where I went to grad school, where my academic career died an agonizing death before it was born, and where I learned to love the NFL -- hard to say for which I should be most grateful. As aging baby-boomers, we’re always on the lookout for yet another investment that can go sour, and this year we decided to invest in a movie. An old Air Force buddy, John Niespodzianski (not just another pretty name, I assure you), is the CEO of an upstart production company, Orchard Place Productions. They’re making a zombie movie named “The Other Side, so we decided, what the heck, and threw in some capital -- our portfolio has been like “The Walking Dead” for some time now, just thought we should make it official. In August, we enjoyed a long weekend at the William Penn Hotel in the beautiful downtown, and met John and his wife Cindy at a kick-butt beer joint named “The Sharp Edge.” Later on, we introduced Debbie to the inexplicable allure of Pittsburgh cuisine, which is to cuisine as a laboratory culture is to culture. We enjoyed a Primanti Bros. sandwich, which consists tomatoes, slaw, some species of meat (it’s not important which), and a fistful of French fries – all mashed down between two slabs of Italian bread. Then we went back to the hotel, had dessert and coffee, and listened to a fabulous jazz trio on the lovely art deco mezzanine. The next day, we met up again with John and Cindy at an old farmhouse west of Washington, PA (pronounced “Warsh-ington”), where the zombies were being filmed. You might be surprised how much effort goes into making a movie. There were actors and cameramen and directors and assistant directors and make-up specialists and… rain. Lots of rain. Debbie and I walked around like we owned the place -- and, in a very temporal sense, I guess we did, sort of. For a day, maybe. The cast and crew were very warm and welcoming. Cindy was… I don’t know the technical term, but she was the person in charge of finding discontinuities in the film -- like, hey, those brains were seeping out of your left temple yesterday, but today they’re hanging out of the right one, what gives? John is the producer, and I can’t imagine a better one -- he solved problems and brought food and kept smiling, sort of a one-man morale machine. On our way back to Virginia, Debbie and I met up with Jim Siehl, father of my college buddy Dan Siehl, and had dinner at the Jean Bonnet Tavern in Bedford, PA. Not only did George Washington sleep there, he left the recipe for his favorite porter. Mmmmmm. We decided to eschew the drama of I-95 and the D.C. Beltway, and traveled home via Winchester, VA (birthplace of Patsy Cline). It took a bit longer to take that route, but we were rewarded by a gorgeous drive through the Shenandoah Valley.


On our next trip to Pittsburgh, in early November, we got together with our upstate New York friends, Kevin and Ann Schmalz. There was a Pitt game and a Steeler game in town that weekend, so any thoughts of bargain-basement lodging prices were dispelled very quickly -- we wound up at a Hampton Inn about four miles north of downtown. That doesn’t sound like much of a distance, but when you consider that Pittsburgh is one of the hardest cities in the country to navigate, it’s worse than you think. Pittsburgh is a city in three dimensions. When you see a crossroads on a map, you think, okay, I get it -- but then you arrive and you’re on a bridge between two mountains and the “crossroad” is actually a small access road about a thousand feet below you -- welcome to Pittsburgh, where there is simply no substitute for knowing where you’re going. Even Tom-Tom was confused and started sounding like Robot from “Lost in Space” –- “When in danger, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout!” Kevin and I attended a Pittsburgh Symphony concert that was, without a doubt, the best I’ve ever heard. The least-uttered sentence in the English language is, “Wow, look at that trombone player’s Rolls-Royce!” Runner-up on that same list is: “Wow, what a musical bassoon player!” Yet that’s what Kevin and I were both saying as we left Heinz Hall. The Symphony performed Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” -- it was everything you’d expect from a princess with a thousand tales. At some point since I left Pittsburgh, the Symphony had graduated from “good” to “world-class”. Next morning, we all had breakfast at DeLuca’s in the Strip District -- if you watch Tom Cruise’s “Jack Reacher”, a scene was shot right there in that restaurant. According to the waitress, they had to shut down for a week during the filming, for a scene that lasted all of forty seconds. We ordered the “Scientology Scramble” -- a double order of ham, served out of your gourd.

On April 2 this year, Debbie and I celebrated our 30th anniversary. We threw a shindig at our house, many of our wonderful friends and family attending. Debbie is still amazing. She teaches strings (music) at three different elementary schools and runs the music program at our church; she is the glue that keeps our household together. This past week has been a busy one for her, as she has been giving concerts -- conducting fifth-graders and herding them as well. I’m back with the Virginia Beach “Not Ready for Primetime” Symphony, and we’re performing Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet this week while the ballerinas pass the deux. The deux stops here. Our lives are truly blessed. We hope yours are, too. May the Lord of all Creation bless you this Christmas season and bring you all the happiness that comes with knowing Him and accepting His gifts.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

RINO Blasty

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Apology Excepted

Our politicians are always reminding us that an apology has a fairly strict form. They remind us by not following it.
Most modern apologies take the form, "We're sorry if you were offended..."

Firstly, any apology that contains the word "if" is not an apology. If someone is truly sorry, it isn't contingent on anything.

Secondly, any apology that personalizes the offended party is not an apology. "Sorry if you're offended" casts the offended party at least as a part of the problem. Is the problem that I was offensive, or that you were so thin-skinned? That's left unclear, and a good apology leaves nothing unclear.

However, such apologies can *sound* very close to a real apology, which is probably why politicians employ these bogus mea culpas.

Our Education secretary, a Mr. Arne Duncan, takes a more sophisticated route to the non-apology. He has been getting some pushback from critics of his "Common Core" initiative. Rather than answering them substantively, he said, according to the Washington Post, that he was fascinated by the fact that some opposition to the standards was coming from “white suburban moms” who fear that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were.” (No word as to what Common Core has to say about the use of argumentum ad hominem.) This frames their criticism as something unsubtantive without itself offering anything of substance, and in passing relies on a stereotype and a racial slur.

All this is fine and dandy, but unfortunately, some of the thin-skinned, white suburban moms took offense. An emergency like this calls for an excellent non-apology, and Arne's went something like this:
"I used some clumsy phrasing that I regret — particularly because it distracted from an important conversation about how to better prepare all of America’s students for success... I want to encourage a difficult conversation and challenge the underlying assumption that when we talk about the need to improve our nation’s schools, we are talking only about poor minority students in inner cities. This is simply not true. Research demonstrates that as a country, every demographic group has room for improvement."


As non-apologies go, this one is a masterpiece. Firstly, Arne expresses no contrition, but only "regret". "I feel remorse for my statements" is what the aggrieved party wants to hear -- whereas "I regret my statements" is more neutral.
E.g., I may regret my sins, and I may regret leaving my sunglasses at the restaurant.  But I don't have remorse for forgetting my sunglasses.

Then he admits to some "clumsy phrasing" when the real problem is that his phrasing was perfectly clear: a bunch of spoiled white suburban soccer moms who think they're kids are geniuses have the temerity to question the Secretary of Education... sniff.  A pox on them and their insufferable spawn.  I'm paraphrasing.

Then, Arne poses as someone who is sincere and means well, but has just been so misunderstood.  He says he wanted simply to "encourage a difficult conversation"... but then goes on to impute a lack of comprehension to his critics. Of course, difficult conversations don't get any easier when you lead off with a couple of insults. And it begs the question to insist that it's his critics who misunderstand the education process, and not him.

Ah well. We probably shouldn't criticize him at all. He is our public servant, you know. It's not our place to question our servants...
 
Update 11/20/2013:  I don't like Martin Bashir very much, and I certainly don't like his politics, but here he gives the world a lesson in how to deliver an apology (for an unspeakable thing he said about Sarah Palin)...