It’s nearing the end of football season, and Steeler-mania has wrapped its coils around my conscious mind once more. They’re good this year and perhaps could even go to the Super Bowl. In general, Debbie is a good sport about my passion, but the gulf between X and Y chromosome manifests itself occasionally. Understand: Debbie is a complete Sci-Fi freak. You name it, she loves it: Star Trek, all the shows, all the spinoffs, all the movies; Babylon Five, when it was on; Star Wars, at least until Jar-Jar Binks emerged from tadpole to irritating adult form; StarGate, the movie and all ten seasons on DVD; StarGate Atlantis, where the plots take on even more water than the lost continent itself. She knows every show, every co-star, every director’s commentary. So one day, she happened to stroll into the living room while I was watching a Steeler game recorded the day before. She looked at me, flashed her most indulgent grin, and remarked, “You just never get tired of watching that stuff, do you?”
This year, I spent a fair amount of time on the road. This past March, I played bass trombone at the Eastern Tennessee State University Jazz Festival, traveling to Johnson City with Jon, an old Air Force Band buddy. Once upon a time, I knew Jon as a friendly, gimlet-eyed young airman with a sharp sense of humor. Now, Jon is a Chief Master Sergeant -- a phrase right up there with some of the scariest in the English language. (Somewhere between “In space, no one can hear you scream,” and “The precincts have closed and the results are in...”) Also, my buddy Ray Crenshaw and I attended the Eastern Trombone Workshop in Arlington, VA, and we had the privilege of hearing legendary jazz trombone phenomenon Bill Watrous perform live. “Live” is the operative word, as Watrous almost died two years ago from a massive stroke. He said that, during recovery, he could play trombone before he could talk again. “I was so far out of it,” Watrous said, “Clint Eastwood [a huge fan of jazz] visited me in the hospital, and I didn’t even know it.” Ray and I also took in a trip to Pittsburgh in May, where we met up with my old college musician buddies and watched the Pirates take on the Phillies, seated right behind home plate. Pittsburgh is like a peasant girl who, on a glorious spring evening, turns out to be Cinderella. You wouldn’t look twice at her if she were lined up next to Miss San Francisco in the swimsuit competition. But her profile is strong, her warmth is genuine, and soon you forget all about the vapid smiles of the self-styled sophisticated cities. At least, that’s how things looked after about four Iron City beers (the only beer that, before you can work up the nerve to drink it, you have to already be drunk).
In June, we hooked up again with Ray and his wife Sonja and took a cruise right here out of Norfolk to the Atlantic Northeast. The seas were eerily calm for almost the entire week, and to judge by what we saw, pilot whales and dolphins are not on the endangered species list –- they were everywhere. We took in all the sights. E.g., we looked at T-shirts (my favorite: “Irish Yoga”, a kelly-green T-shirt showing caricatures of drunks lying in various poses of inebriation), and then we stopped in at the Bar Harbor Brewing Company and drank some strange and wonderful beer. Anyone else ever have a blueberry beer? Or want one? But does it really make sense to travel all that way just to shop for T-shirts and drink beer? Of course not, so I revised the strategy: from then on, we concentrated mainly on the beer. Okay, the food, too. At a tavern in Saint John, the manager showed us a twenty-five-pound lobster, “Claude”, who was being saved for a customer with a lot of money and a healthy appetite. (If that’s you, just make sure you’re the one holding the fork -- as, with a lobster that size, there might be some question about just who winds up getting dipped in butter.) You know you’re rapidly approaching creaking “Old Fartdom” when you set your cruise schedule around competing in every bar trivia contest on board –- and then sulk when you lose. (Luckily, you’re not officially an O.F. until you earn your merit badge in shuffleboard.) But Debbie is not ready for assisted living just yet: she actually climbed the recreational rock wall on the ship’s deck. We learned that Halifax was the site of the largest explosion in the pre-nuclear world -- in 1917, a munitions ship blew up in the harbor and wiped out the entire town. In Boston, we met up with old college buds, Kevin and Ann Schmalz and their son Derek, and took a walking tour of South Boston, meeting some of the friendliest people on the planet along the way. Royal Caribbean was dependable as usual –- except for the entertainment, which seemed uncharacteristically ill-suited to the clientele demographic. I mean, nothing gets a bunch of sexagenarians into a party mood better than... a Madonna medley? But there were no mishaps, no uniform malfunctions. The old folks politely applauded the forgettable tunes, and the pointy metal toothpicks mounted on “Madonna’s” bodice did not pierce the ship’s hull.
I’ve done much less trombone-playing this year. After the summer band stint in July, I decided to take the year off from the local orchestra, the Virginia Beach “Not Ready For Primetime” Symphony –- even though I did play an extra trombone part in the first concert (for Janacek’s “Sinfonietta”, one of the great pieces in the orchestral repertoire). I caught bronchitis in September, and it took two months to shake it. I coughed more than a year’s worth of military recruits in the doctor’s line. Then, after that, my inner ears filled up with fluid, and it’s been a slow recovery from that. My hearing was almost completely gone; I kept dreaming that Bill Cosby was pouring melted Jello pudding pops into my ears and smirking about it. (Hey hey hey.) I haven’t played bone since early October. (There’s always been some debate among musicians about whether trombone players actually need to hear -– but it’s one thing to hurt one’s own ears, and quite another to lay waste to the entire viola section.) The current treatment seems to be working, gradually; they put me on steroids (Prednisone), and now but I won’t be eligible to compete in any Olympic track meets for a while. Too bad if they need someone to be the shot in the shot put. I’m not very athletic, but I can do shots.
Debbie’s biggest gain this year is actually her biggest loss -- she joined Weight Watchers and has trimmed off over forty-five pounds, and is now within five pounds of her goal. She looks fantastic, or so says one particularly serious critic of the female form who happens to know her pretty well. She is still teaching orchestra at four different elementary schools, and still serving as music director at our church –- and still taking piano lessons for those times when she needs to fill in. Her Christmas present this year is a sleek new wardrobe to fit her new sleek physique. This past April, we celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary! Wow. Sometimes it feels like time pounds on us like a mesomorphic Russian pianist jack-hammering a Prokofiev concerto. But then Debbie breezes by like a light Chopin arpeggio, and all of a sudden the years vanish and it’s your first date again.
We lead blessed lives, and recognizing that fact seems to be related to being able to see the things that we have been too blind most of our lives to notice. Every day, in big and little ways, the Lord works on our attitudes to cure of us that nagging, offended sense of entitlement that we, as humans, are naturally prone toward. Once you realize you’re not entitled to anything, it becomes clear just how much you have been given. By the standards of the world, a child was born who would preach in vain and die in a most shameful manner. But the world’s perspective is not the eternal one, and so thanks be to Him whose birth, life, and death has given us the hope of even imagining an eternal perspective at all, or ourselves as part of it. Take some time this Christmas season to think about the One from whom all blessings flow. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!