Okay, time for a break in the Republican debates. Time will tell whether the GOP is a worried mother admonishing us to put on our Mittens, or a witch turning the party into a Newt. We don't need to worry about that now. The politicians we have with us always, and if they had a favorite Christmas carol, it would surely be I Ponder as I Pander. The burning question is, have you ever noticed how much life is like a roll of paper towels? When your towel roll is young, the world is young, and you can use up sheets like you have all the paper in the world to look forward to. But as time advances, each sheet that gets used and tossed makes a more significant dent in the size of the roll. To us, Christmas seems like the culmination of each year, when we pause our routines long enough to appreciate the year that has past and to gear up in a hopeful way for the year to come and the challenges it will bring. We find ourselves taking more and more care about how we tear off the next sheet.
It has become a yearly event for my buddy Ray Crenshaw and me to spend a few days in Arlington, VA, every March for the Eastern Trombone Workshop. Maybe my favorite thing in the whole world is to walk into a room full of trombone vendors, like a kid in hydrogenated-fatty and processed-sugary candy shop, wishing I had Bill Gates' credit card. My mom bought me my first professional-quality trombone back in '72 -- $390 for a Conn 88H tenor trombone. The ravages of time and inflation have raised that price to about $2000, but in the interim period we have seen the rise of the custom instrument makers, with prices pushing $8000. The biggest mistake you can make, if you're not Bill Gates, is to play one of these expensive trombones -- if you have a Chevette budget, best not to test-drive the Lexus. At the other, more Chevettish end of the market, a Chinese manufacturer made a first appearance. I played their bass trombone, on sale for $1000 -- not bad. But then I wanted to play it again an hour later. Just kidding. Their booth was manned only by the owner, who spoke no English, and his beautiful daughter, who spoke English but not Trombonese. They were largely ignored, and I felt a little sorry for them. I wonder how long before they own the entire industry? Someday, perhaps. But in the meantime, they could learn something about marketing from the German makers; they just hire an intense New York salesman who negotiates like Billy May shoving the world's very last Veg-O-Matic down your throat. And that's not all. The most memorable workshop was given by two LA studio trombonists, telling us how much fun it was to work with John Williams (lots) and how much demand there is for contrabass trombones (think of a bass trombone on a steroids-and-spaghetti diet). According to these two, trombone players are the only studio musicians who enjoy having lunch with others from their own section. Over one lunch, a violinist asked if she could join them, and she did. But after five minutes of conversation, she exclaimed, "Wow, you guys are hard on each other!" One of them smiled and replied, "Ma'am, we're trombone players; the knife always goes in the front."
This past April, Debbie and I took a mini-vacation in Philadelphia -- Debbie loves history and has always wanted to see the places and artifacts -- the bronzed baby-shoes, so to speak -- of our country's infancy. We met our friends Kevin and Ann Schmalz there and we all stayed in a downtown hotel, walked everywhere, and tried to take in all the sights. We visited Independence Hall, where the First Congress took place, miraculously without any ethics violations, and the Liberty Bell, which is everything it's cracked up to be. And Betsy Ross' house is still there, for those whose interests are flagging. We also took the time to visit something called the Mutter Museum, which displays medical tools -- and curiosities -- of the past, many of which were quite disturbing in an Addams Family kind of way. It certainly makes you appreciate antibiotics and cosmetic surgery. Philadelphia's food was great, though. We found the best cheese steak on the planet at the Famous 4th Street Deli, and the best ice cream too, at Bassetts' in the Reading Terminal Market (dark chocolate ice cream!). Walking past the Curtis Institute of Music, we applauded one of the trombone students while he was playing an etude -- he sounded great, and waved to us through his window. We also heard the sad news that the Philadelphia Orchestra had filed for bankruptcy. Not enough rich blue-haired ladies or enough young fans. Times are changing. We spent our last afternoon in a South Philly bar, and entertained the bartender to no end when we described our home town, Virginia Beach, as "the Redneck Riviera." He even tried to defend our own honor, but finally gave up when we told him about the time we ate at a nice waterfront restaurant about twenty feet away from a tractor pull.
We took another mini-vacation in August, traveling to South Carolina to see our friends Ray and Sonja Crenshaw and, with them, to visit Charleston. On our way into Charleston, we were hit by one of the worst thunderstorms we've ever experienced, not knowing whether we'd be drowned or electrocuted. In Charleston, we ate at a little cafe called the Hominy Grill, where I sampled a regional dish called "Shrimp and Grits", which could also as justifiably have been called "Bacon and Cheese." Though a breakfast dish, it went well with the "Hops and Barley". Our hotel room displayed the signature architecture of the Old South -- tall ceilings with ceiling fans, louvered doors, chandeliers, detailed woodwork, and mosquitoes ( "Bzzzz, y'all!"). The houses tend to have a doorway at the street, with a long walkway leading through a small courtyard to the actual house. A friend of Ray's owns such a house in use as a bed & breakfast, and gave us the cook's tour . The house was hundreds of years old; the guest rooms in the back were once slave quarters. Heard lots of historical commentary, a fair amount devoted to "damn Yankees." Though the horse-drawn carriages do look terrific in the brochures, truth in advertising should demand that the pictures somehow communicate the aroma. But it does add color to the cobblestones. Charleston is a colorful city -- indeed, a beautiful city, and we plan on going back again soon, probably after the next grits harvest.
We thank the Lord for our good health, but we had a couple of scares this year. Debbie called me at work one day and told me she was having symptoms similar to a heart attack -- shortness of breath, numbness in her shoulders and upper arms, wooziness. I work only five minutes away from home, so I rushed home and her symptoms had gotten much worse. We live about a ten-minute drive from the hospital, so we got into the car and I was going to drive us there as quickly as possible, legally or not. But as we passed by the local fire/rescue station, Debbie tried communicating to me that she might faint before we make it to the hospital. But what she got out was, "I don't think I'm going to make it." Aaack!!!! So, panicking, I pulled into the fire/rescue station and let the professionals take over. One of the rescue workers looked at me and asked, "She's the one having a heart attack!?" The good news is that Debbie's heart is healthy as can be -- she had suffered something called "vasovagal syncope", which can mimic a heart attack's symptoms. So thankfully, with apologies to Billy Joel, we didn't trade in our Checker for a cardiac-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. But you ought to know by now. Then just a couple of days later, she was getting chummy with a very friendly local kitty, but then the cat turned and bit her. And then disappeared. There aren't many cases of rabies these days, but we didn't know that cat and haven't seen him since. So, Debbie took a series of rabies shots, which thankfully are not as painful as they used to be. For a couple of weeks, I was calling her "Shotsie". She felt pretty sheepish, but I say much better rattled than rabid, and better to have syncope than get sympathy.
Our big cat, Buster, was not so fortunate this year. He was never healthy, and apparently had suffered some sort of a stroke last May. Buster was a very needy cat, requiring constant reassurance. He didn't so much sit in your lap as commandeer it -- which could be a problem, as he weighed 22 pounds and could put your toes to sleep. He adored both Debbie and our other cat Gabby, but he was the fat nerd and Gabby was the prom queen -- each new scheme to get her attention was met with feminine disdain and feline indifference. Prone to melancholy, Buster always brightened up instantly whenever anyone (Debbie, me, you, the mailman, the Jehovah's Witness folks) paid attention to him. After Buster was gone, Gabby wandered around the house caterwauling for days (the perfect word for it, really), wondering where her tormentor was -- sometimes I think cats are almost as complicated as we are. Gabby noticed, as we did, that a little bit of brightness had been lost.
So then, here we are, back to the Christmas season again, getting ready to tear off another sheet. It's only fitting that we ponder on the brightness He has brought into our lives, giving us hope that we will not drown in sin. That's God's Christmas gift to us. The world may at times overwhelm us with wickedness and sorrow, but we will win, and all because unto us a Child is born, a Son is given. Have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year.