Monday, December 28, 2020

Merry Christmas 2020!

It isn't often that we don't have our Christmas letter finished and sent out by... well, you know, Christmas.  No excuse.  Just lazy.  They say, if you want something done, ask a busy man to do it.   I haven't been very busy.  Most Decembers, I'm up to my eyebrows in assorted trombone-playing ventures, including performing Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker ballet.  On trombone, of course.  Without a marketing survey to consult, I'll hazard a guess that me performing a pas de deux in a tutu would have only very limited appeal.  Well, who knows, it worked for Red Skelton.  But I doubt they could find a dance partner able to lift me.  But this year, our Governor has given us glad tidings of great Oy!  Musicians are not "essential workers."  Musicians won't take my advice.  Instead of calling it a concert, call it a "protest" against institutionally-racist silence in the concert halls.  That ought to be worth a politically-correct free pass.

When the WuFlu hit us last March, I started working from home.  I love the convenience.  The commute to work consists of stumbling from the bed to my easy chair.  Done!  No, I don't miss going to the office at all.  I like it here just fine.  No dress code, except when Debbie gets tired of seeing me in my PJs at two in the afternoon.  The coffee machine is about ten feet away.  So is the fridge.  So is the stereo.  When we all need to talk, we can teleconference, otherwise email works just fine.  The programs themselves don't care where I write them -- they're very cooperative in that limited scope.  If and when things ever do get back to normal, it'll be hard to readjust to waking at 5:30 AM and driving forty minutes through heavy traffic.  I do sometimes miss the piquant environment of our little techie building, which is an old Fifties elementary school minus the aesthetic appeal.  It does have a nice waterfront view; unfortunately, it's the kind of waterfront created by poor drainage.  Mosquito Beach, Virginia.  For the kids, we have a Canadian goose petting zoo; only problem is they're hard to catch, and sometimes they chase you.  And they do leave little tokens of appreciation scattered along the sidewalks.  My brother used to own a '71 Ford Maverick painted the same color.  Watch your step.  It isn't easy being green.

But the big news this year is I've retired, so to speak, from trombone playing.  We're selling off the herd.  I'm keeping my best tenor 'bone just in case I change my mind, but it isn't likely.  It has been an amicable parting.  I wasn't giving them the love they needed for so many years, and it grieved me to see them pouting in the closet.  But when they started talking to divorce lawyers, I knew it was over.  I had been playing trombone since Fall of my seventh grade year, which was... lessee... September of '66.  That's fifty-four years.  A good run, I think.  With all that experience, I should play much better than I do.  But sometimes you get fifty-four years of experience, while other times you get one year of experience fifty-four times.  I might be somewhere in the middle.  But, to be honest, I haven't been sounding very good for the past couple of years, and finally realized I should quit while I'm still behind.  I've been writing our orchestra's program notes for a couple of years -- I don't know whether that will continue, but I'm hopeful.  It's a lot of work, but I find it quite enjoyable.  Still have lots of musician friends, so I'll feel like I'm part of the gang even if my tommy gun is no longer firing.

One of my old music colleagues owns a music store and he agreed to sell my trombones on consignment.  So we loaded up the herd into the splendiferously comfortable and luxurious '05 Honda Element, and felt every glorious bump in the road between here and Omaha.  Along the way, we stopped and visited our pal Sam, who owns a beautiful old house in the little burg of Bloomington, Indiana.  We had a wonderful visit with him and some of his church friends.  The next day, Google Maps took us to the Illinois home of an old Air Force trombone colleague.  Illinois is a corn field with Chicago at the top.  He and his wife live near Joliet, which, if you will consult the music historians, is where Jake and Elwood performed "Jailhouse Rock" at the local prison.  Great beer, great pizza, even greater conversation.  After a couple hours, we scooted off to Omaha.  It's always fun to see my old colleagues in Omaha -- musicians and programmers.  We had dinner with our friends, Tom and Mary, and Tom arranged a get-together with a lot of my former colleagues from my defense contracting days.  It was quite touching, to be honest.  More than twenty years have passed, and they still remembered us well enough to enjoy an evening of beer and food with us.  I have the best friends one could ever hope for.  On the drive back to Virginia, we remembered that Sam had warned us about all the speed traps in rural Indiana and Illinois; he said they'll even ticket for five mph over the speed limit.  Rural areas are starved for cash.  I made it a point to travel the speed limit and no faster.  Sam turned out to be a prophet, which for the cops turned out to be a loss.  Coming through southern Indiana, the speed limit on I-64 was 70 mph, so that's where I set the cruise control.  Then, suddenly, a truck went screaming past doing well over ninety.  He was followed within a couple of minutes by a low-flying German luxury sedan.  Then, as we rolled around a curve, we saw that an Indiana state trooper had the truck already pulled over, while another Smokey Bear was attacking the sedan.  Debbie and I chuckled all the way to Louisville.  A good time was had by some!

If anything, Debbie's musical involvement has intensified.  She has turned her flute into a ministry -- both at church where she plays every Sunday, and as a regular performer at nursing homes.  Before the WuFlu hit, she was giving concerts on nursing home premises.  But now, mostly, she performs for the old folks via Zoom.  Her concerts usually have a theme -- big band jazz, for example.  She does a nice job of researching her selections and provides a cheerful commentary in between numbers.  She also occasionally puts on concerts in the little park across the street here in our condo farm, and people bring their lawn chairs.  The recreational coordinator absolutely cannot get Debbie's name right.  She is "Dee Dise" as far as the coordinator is concerned, and no amount of being corrected phases her.  I don't like it -- sounds too much like what you do when you want to get rid of all your Dises.

Sadly, Debbie's mom, Audrey Wallace, went into a nursing home a couple of months ago.  She had recurring leg infections, fell twice, and can no longer walk.  She just turned ninety this year.  Please pray for her.

I'm looking seriously at retiring this coming year.  I hope to spend more time writing and maybe even getting published, but we haven't made any final decisions just yet.  I'm pessimistic about the political situation, but I have to remind myself that a Christian has no business being a pessimist.  We have the most wonderful Father in Heaven, to whom we pray every day, "Deliver us from evil."  He is Master of the world; we just live here temporarily.  It's nice, but a nicer place awaits us.  This Christmas season, as the song says, remember that the Child that Mary delivered will someday deliver us.  In the coming year, may blessed peace find you, and may others see it work in you.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Merry Christmas, 2019!

Merry Christmas, 2019!

Time to party like it's 2019!  We're less than ten days away from 2020, but the Year of Hindsight hasn't arrived just yet.  There are still a few beers to drink and, as luck would have it, just a few brain cells that need killing.  Problem is, it's easy to kill brain cells but hard to kill only the right ones.  We should be able to place all of our painful memories in a Hefty bag and toss them off a bridge, and then donate all of those worthless '60s Sitcom themes clanging around in our heads to the Salvation Army.  But no.  Beer is a general anesthetic, not a specific remedy.  The best brain surgeon in the world can't extract the memories of those mistakes you made at work, or those notes you cacked in a symphony performance, or Corporal Agarn smacking the soldiers with his hat again on "F Troop."  The purpose of painful memories may be as simple as learning to forgive others by learning to forgive ourselves; the purpose of whimsical memories might be as obvious as learning that not quite all of life is serious business.  Our Lord, when in human form, spent a lot of time simply eating and drinking with his disciples, having a good time -- so much so, He was even accused of being a glutton and a drunk.  What better time to remember His example than on His birthday, when we gather to eat too much and drink too much with the people we love?  The Lord had serious work to do, and so do we, but now is the time to rejoice in His presence and our blessings.

Debbie and I have had 2019 all to ourselves!  So, what did we do with it?

Well, last January, we traveled to visit our friends Kurt and Patty Rauscher at their beautiful home in Bokelia, Florida.  On our way down, we stopped at Greenwood, South Carolina to visit Ray and Sonja Crenshaw, friends from our Air Force band days.  We stayed at a charming hotel in downtown Greenwood that exuded Southern charm like Scarlett O'Hara on the front porch of a plantation house, twiddling her parasol at the Tarleton brothers.  On this trip, we eschewed the freeway system, mostly because, in Georgia, all freeways lead to Atlanta, a great place to avoid if you're trying to arrive anywhere else at a decent hour.  We crossed the Savannah River into Georgia (I think it was the Savannah) on a road built atop a dam.  The setting was gloriously beautiful.   Rural Georgia was charming, in a rural, red-clay sort of way.  Bokelia is located on one of two islands in Florida named "Pine Island" -- they did that just to confuse us, and Google Maps.   This particular Pine Island is a barrier island between Cape Coral and the Gulf of Mexico.  It should be named Mangrove Island, but nobody asked my opinion.  If you're never seen mangrove trees, they festoon the coastal areas in the tropics and subtropics like tattoos at a Goth convention.  Their superpower is the ability to tolerate both fresh and salt water, and also to grow in the sand.  They look like they'd be fun to swim around, but the 'gators think the same thing, so, no, don't do that.  I've known Kurt since I was in 8th grade.  We both played in our high school band and both attended Penn State.  Retired now, Kurt was an Air Force pilot instructor, a civil engineer, an A-10 pilot for the Air National Guard, and a pilot of Delta Airlines.  Quite a resume!   There seemed to be a bit of a frosty cold snap going on, weather-wise, and I remember the wasps nesting outside the house, their metabolisms slowed to a crawl, just barely able to creak their necks and glare at us in impotent rage.  Kurt took me out in his boat and we proved again that fishing isn't as much fun as catching.  We all had the obligatory lunch at our favorite Cape Coral watering hole, named "Ford's Garage" -- Henry Ford had owned a summer home in this part of Florida.

This year, Debbie accompanied me to the American Trombone Workshop at Fort Myer, in Arlington, VA.  This was a first.  What's a flute player to do among a... what do you call a group of trombonists, anyway?  We were talking about this just the other night backstage during intermission at a "Nutcracker" performance.  I was walking toward the water fountain and there was our entire French horn section.  I asked them, "A group of geese is called a 'flock' and a group of crows is called a 'murder', so what do we call a French horn section?"

One of them smiled and said, "How about a 'coven'?"  I like it.

Probably a lot of terms could apply here.  I think "a dignity of trombonists" has a nice ring, but dignity can sound a lot like dullness, and I don't like to dignify that evil slander.  We should have a contest.  To my surprise, Debbie seemed to enjoy herself.  Like me, she gets the most out of hearing the student groups perform.  But I do love to hear the pros as well, and the US Army band musicians always acquit themselves quite well.  And I love going to the exhibit hall and trying out all the new instruments and mouthpieces, surrounded by the cacophony of other trombonists doing likewise.  That's it!  A cacophony of trombonists!  I think we can all agree on that one.  While I was bonding with my fellow cacophonists, Debbie was picking through the trombone music for something I can perform in church.

Debbie had surgery late in August on her left foot.  When we lived in the Fontanelle Hills neighborhood in Bellevue, NE, back around '92, she took a walk one evening through the neighborhood.  It's a hilly little neighborhood -- not quite all of Nebraska is tabletop-flat.  It was almost dusk, and Debbie didn't see that one of the sidewalk sections had raised up about two inches, and so she banged the big toe of her left foot into the concrete.  Oww.  That was an event that's very much like a gift that keeps on giving, but minus the "gift" part.  This year's operation was the third one on that foot since then.  Arthritis had settled into where the big toe joins the foot bone, and there was no more cartilage remaining.  So the surgeon fused her big toe to the rest of her foot.  I thought, egad! and had visions of the surgeon welding the bones together.  No, not quite, though the reality was bad enough.  What they do is implant a titanium plate and hold it together with a bunch of screws.  If that sounds painful, that's because it is.  But Debbie got past the pain part of it fairly quickly.  Before you know it, she was zooming around on her knee-scooter, and then able to walk on her left foot with one of those infamous boots.  Now, she only has to wear a compression sock to keep the swelling down.  They say she'll have problems with the swelling for about a year.  Meanwhile, she's doing fine, and there is no more arthritis pain -- a permanent plus among this temporary parade of minuses.

Trombone-playing doesn't get easier with age.  I read recently that the only instrument that takes more energy to play than the trombone is drums.  I don't know whether that's really true, but playing trombone does involve holding a six-pound mass of metal to your lips and blowing for extended periods, and I've got the bursitis in my left shoulder to prove it.  Also, to play trombone well, you have to at least simulate a good body posture, and that's a problem when your normal state is invertebrate, like mine.  I got sucked back into the Tidewater Winds and suffered another Lost July.  I had dropped out of the group about five years ago because of the grueling schedule plus having to work my day gig at the same time.  But the director, John Brewington, is a great guy and I hate to say "No" to him.  The playing is fun, but I'm not getting any younger.  This summer, I shared the trombone section with some terrific talent.  If your misplaced pride can stand it, it's great to perform with better players.  The principal trombonist kept looking, in vain, for my volume control.

Meanwhile, Debbie has turned playing flute at the local nursing homes into a ministry.  Living in a nursing home looks like a bleak existence from the outside, and Debbie feels it's her duty to try to brighten their lives a bit.  She is still the music director at our church, and she runs things very efficiently, like a German bureaucrat who can play flute.  Debbie's mom, Audrey, has taken to condo life like a pro, same as us.  Debbie and I love our condo.  I could see buying a second home somewhere else.  uBt unless the Virginia Democrats turn Virginia Beach into a gulag, which may not be outside the realm of possibility, we love it here and are here to stay.

Merry Christmas, from Debbie, Audrey, and me.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Merry Christmas, 2018!

Merry Christmas, 2018!

When we lived in Omaha, we dreaded the coming of winter.  My theory is that people raised in cold climates adjust better to warm climates than vice versa.  Growing up across the river in Hampton and Newport News, we did have some very chilly times over there.  Why, I remember one cold spell, when I was in elementary school, where there was snow on the ground for an entire week, with temperatures as low as seven degrees Fahrenheit.  Wow!  I thought that was cold!  But nothing had prepared me for northern winters.

My very first week in Pittsburgh, in an afternoon in January of '77, I discovered what cold really was.  I was waiting on a street corner for a bus to take me back into town after a trombone lesson in the suburbs with a symphony trombonist.  It was a bright sunny day -- a bit breezy, gusts up to about 35 mph, with temperatures down around 25.  That is, 25 below.  I was wearing a suede leather coat that was good down to about 25.  That is, 25 above.   I missed the bus back to town, and the next one was due by in an hour.  It was a very educational hour.  Though a born complainer, I swore I'd never, ever, complain about how hot it got, never, ever, again.

(But... well, I did.  Once.  It was about four or five years later, in Phoenix, AZ, in August, and our Air Force band bus' air conditioning broke down.  No excuse, but just sayin'...)

All that to say this:  we've been in Virginia Beach now for almost twenty years.  But we still shiver at the thought of Omaha winters, where the temps can settle in at well below zero for weeks on end.  Coming here, we'd laugh when everybody complained about temps in the thirties.  Hah!  As my dad would say, I can take that on my eyeball!  Thirty-five degrees is short-sleeves weather in the Midwest!  I kept thinking the locals here were sissies, right up until, after a couple of winters here, I became one.  A sissy, that is.  

Last New Year's Eve, I was delighted to suffer Nebraska winter yet again.  I performed in a New Year's Eve concert with the Plymouth Brass in Lincoln, an hour's drive from my old stomping grounds in Omaha.  I got to visit my friends, Tom and Mary Salem.  Tom is that rare oddity, or odd rarity:  an ex-boss who's still a friend.  :)  That's a rare commodity, right there!  Also got to visit with many other friends, including a couple of my old Warwick High School band buddies, David Newton and his wife, Donna Limburgh Newton.  Anyhow, Nebraska spent the entire week reminding me of the biggest reason we left.  It was coooooolllllddddd.  How cold was it?  It was so cold, politicians had their hands in their own pockets.  It was so cold, Kim Kardashian was wearing clothes.  (Bah-dum-bump!  I'll be here all week.  Try the veal.)  Welcome back to Omaha, Lee!  Here's what you've been missing.  I rented a little Kia Soul for the few days I spent there, and though it's a nice little car, it's shaped like a storage bin.   Having a boxy car means stopping a lot for gasoline, and outside pumping gas was not where anyone wanted to be.  On the night of the concert, Tom and Mary rode down with me to the concert in the boxy little gas guzzler.  Great concert!  Lots of fun!  I had to catch the night owl shuttle just a few hours later, so it didn't make sense to go to sleep.  When I dropped off the rental car (that's one Soul I didn't mind losing) at the Omaha airport, it was 25 below -- Omaha's way of saying, "So long!  Come back, y'hear!"   Laid over in Chicago at 7 AM, heck with Starbuck's -- I found a Chili's and drank beer until I boarded the plane for Norfolk.  Now, I've been known to drink a beer or two, but -- honest -- never before 8 AM.  Until that trip.  With no sleep, I absolved myself because it seemed like 34 o'clock, plus it always helps to think of beer as liquid cereal.  Breakfast is the most important meal, after all.  Sorry, kids, you won't find this on aisle nine next to the Froot Loops.

Debbie had retired from teaching in August of 2017, but one of her old principals moped that she couldn't find a replacement, and, like Al Pacino in "The Godfather", "Just as I was breaking free, they pulled me back in!"  It worked out nicely.  The money paid for Debbie's new flute, and probably a few of my evening martinis.  But we knew last year would be her last year teaching.  So we changed a few other things.  We'd been eyeballing a nearby over-55 neighborhood for a while, named West Neck, and when opportunity knocked, we took it.  Or got taken by it.  Our realtor was very efficient and sold our house in just three days, for $5 grand over our asking price.  And now we have a new address and everything.  We did lose some square footage, and I really do miss our old sun room, where we'd watch the trees and the rabbits, the raccoons and the possums, the robin-eating hawks and the occasional snake, all while drinking mind-altering martinis.  But our new digs are nice and warm and cozy, and only about three miles from where our house was.  We're even closer now to the great eastern Virginia swamp.  The horseflies are so big, they have to use runway lights.  During spring and summer, the ponds are crowded with cormorants and turtles; there are snapping turtles in the area, but we haven't seen one yet (one of our neighbors has).  Our new community comprises several distinct neighborhoods.  We live in one of the two condo neighborhoods, "Codgerville" and "Geezerton."  At 6 AM every morning, we all walk out to the street, clasp hands, and chant, "Get off our lawn!"  There's a famous retirement community in Florida named The Villages, very much like this place but on a much larger scale.  However, in The Villages, they often sell their cars and buy golf carts.  Here in Codgerville, we have to keep our cars, though maybe some of us shouldn't.  A couple of months ago, one of our neighbors turned the corner and drove into West Neck's decorative brick gate.  That's vandalism, senior citizen-style.  Graffiti is for punks and whippersnappers.

We've moved a lot, but we're still not used to it.  This time, Debbie had the help of the New Life Church Women's Folly Support Group, who together with Debbie did all the packing.  The moving company sent over four very strong young men -- our realtor, Karen, had some sway with the moving company and told them, "Send us your A team."  Work can be enjoyable when others are doing yours.  Boxes piled on boxes piled on boxes.  But that's Debbie's strong suit.  Very organized and efficient, that woman.  My job is to make the martinis and tell her what a great job she's doing.  I'm sort of the morale improvement officer.  We hired the Geek Squad at Best Buy to install the TV and sound system on the wall -- best money ever spent.  We have a dozen or so electronic devices, all connected to this one little easy-to-use remote control.  YouTube gives us symphony concerts right here in our living room.  They even have some old Homer & Jethro tunes from my humor-deprived childhood -- still love those corny jokes.  They were kinda the Weird Al Yankovics of country music back in the day.  Beautiful, inspired lyrics such as:  "Her teeth are like the stars above, because they come out every night."  

Speaking of YouTube, there's an a'capella country group named "Home Free" that has a terrific YouTube presence.  Home Free is five guys who just sing, no instrumentalists, but are able to make you think you're listening to a band play.  They are very good!  The week after Thanksgiving, I took Debbie to hear them perform in Richmond, about two hours up the road.  Then we ate the best ribs on the planet at "Buz & Neds BBQ", and on the way home, visited a historical site here in southeastern Virginia named Bacon's Castle.  It's an interesting story.  Rewind back to the 1670s.  Virginia was a British colony.  There was a man, named Nathaniel Bacon, who was unhappy with the colonial government, which was corrupt, and -- probably more to the point -- didn't drive away the Native American tribes.  Bacon got a few hundred men together and they took matters into their own hands, starting a war against the Indians, and that meant trouble as well for Governor Berkeley.  A rebellion ensued.  Bacon's Castle actually belonged to a rich farmer named Arthur Allen; Bacon's men had commandeered Allen's house and hunkered down, and drank all of Allen's wine while they were at it.  But things didn't end well for Mr. Bacon; he died of dysentery before their dispute with the Governor was settled.  Lord Berkeley promised a reprieve for the remaining men if they'd lay down their arms and take a loyalty oath.  But anyone who understands government won't be surprised to learn the Governor hanged 29 of the men anyway.  Bacon's Castle is billed as the oldest English-built house in America -- built in 1665, remodeled in the 1840s.  It's interesting how the architecture had changed during the intervening years.  A house built in 1600's Virginia would look a lot like a house built in 1600's England, with low ceilings and small windows -- anything to keep the heat in.  However, by the 1840s, Virginians had figured out that Virginians suffer hotter and more humid summers than Englishmen, so the add-on parts of the house sported tall ceilings (about eleven feet) and big windows.  

Resuming our drive home, we passed by Smithfield, famous for its hams and pork products.  An unusual juxtaposition, that -- driving from where Bacon died right past where bacon is cured.

This Christmas season, Debbie and I wish you the greatest happiness as you come together with family and friends to celebrate the birth of our Deliverer, the One who gave the greatest gift of all.  For, greater love has no man than to lay down His life for His friends.  Unto us, a child was born; unto us, a Son is given.  Keep the Christ in Merry Christmas!


Lee and Debbie

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Conflict of Moral Visions

Insighful article, here:

The writer, Phil Christensen, says,
Trump Haters, you have a binary problem. Or perhaps, I should say that your problem is a binary way of seeing the current political landscape in general, or President Trump in particular. It’s love or hate. There’s no room for nuance, there’s nothing in between. Not for you.
And then he really gets scathing:
The Left Discovers Morals.
Insisting on restraint and respect will get no argument from me. Of course if you gave this one a pass, don’t expect me to buy into your new-found morality....
Read the whole thing.

Just one quibble: the Left is very moralistic and always has been. The difference is that they roll their own moral code, rejecting all that came before them as primitive gibbering. Why heed a book containing wisdom that's ages old? and way outdated? That's so silly! Instead, take these silly notions we invented, like, yesterday.

It's a fundamental distinction. While the Good Book says that God is unchanging and that the Word of the Lord shall abide forever, the Left's book needs rewrites on an hourly basis.

To contrast further: Christian theology claims that the Lord has all power and authority over all of Creation. Having established His moral authority, He instructs us on how to adopt His own moral perspective and put it into practice. In the Christian paradigm, morals are about relationships, and specifically about building the same quality of relationships that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have with each other. Maintain a loving relationship with the Lord ("Love the Lord thy God with all your heart, soul, and mind") and also with our fellow man ("Love thy neighbor as thyself"). This is the Lord's will, and doing the Lord's will is our commandment.  If morals were Einsteinian physics, the Lord's will is our constant, and everything else -- our thoughts, behavior, position, circumstances -- are the variables that must bend to accommodate the Word of the Lord. Situations may change, but the basic principles are bedrock: always do that which shows the most love for the Lord and your neighbor. It's an impossible task, and at times it seems thankless, but it's our task nonetheless. Paul says patience is the first attribute of love, but when I'm in my car, I can't even stop myself from being impatient with other drivers. But the Lord forgives, He admonishes, He corrects, He prepares a table for us. He loves us in spite of our rebellion, for reasons known only to Him.

Compare this to the cramped moral world of the Left. What new morals did they invent for us yesterday?

Well, the Left talks a lot about helping the poor, but at the end of the day, they advocate an economic system that seems better designed to create more poor people. The important thing is, before you build anything, you need to ask the Left's permission.

The Left talks about having compassion for Jack when he thinks he's Jill, or vice versa, but we must never bring up the horrible fact that transgender suicide rates are off-the-charts high, nor do they consider we may be dealing with a mental illness. Like the Left's morals, gender is arbitrary, and reality must bend to accommodate this insight. There are 57 genders, like Heinz's sauces, and there will be more tomorrow. The more complicated, the better. The point is, now you have to ask the Left's advice about how to address someone, or suffer their judgment. And if it were simple, why, you could figure things out on your own, and we can't have that.

The Left talks a lot about fairness, but then they reveal their strategic brilliance by never specifying what fairness means -- the better to christen any resultant change as an improvement. Years ago, to be fair meant to accord the same rights and apply the same standards to everyone. Today, it means giving preferred groups a leg up, in order to, you know, make up for past injustices. But somehow, the quest for cosmic fairness always winds up looking just like political favoritism. I can't think of a single terrible thing the white man ever did to Native Americans that justifies giving preferential treatment to a rich white woman like Elizabeth Warren. But that's only because I'm not a leftist, and therefore I lack a leftist's moral authority. The point is, now we have to ask the Left whether there's some microscopic injustice Elizabeth Warren suffered because Andrew Jackson slaughtered Cherokees two hundred years ago. Only the Left can decide these things; you can't.

The Left ardently defends the freedom of the press as long as they think it means them, but brazenly challenges our laughable conceit that freedom of speech applies to the rest of us too. Dissent is the highest civic duty until the Left is in charge, but then once they are, well, hey, you know, hate speech isn't free speech -- and your speech always becomes hate speech when you disagree with the Left. I'm not allowed to offend others with my speech, but they can scold me for holding such outdated, outmoded, and offensive beliefs. Well, that offends me. Do my feelings count? No, of course not. If I want to know what I'm allowed to say, why, I had better ask my betters -- namely, those on the Left.

Even the Constitution itself must bow to the Left's whims and whimsies. Show of hands: who believes Democrats would be whining today about the Electoral College if Hillary had won that but lost the popular vote? Me neither.

The sole certainty in an uncertain world is the Left's moral righteousness. The sole constant of Leftist morality, their tenet of faith, the one thing they'll stick up for 100% of the time, the hill they're willing for the rest of us to die on, is just this: they are our moral superiors, so let them run everything. They'll make a better world for us. They promise.

That's not even a principle. It's too arbitrary to be called a principle. We'll call it a notion: the Left gets to have all the power it wants, and they want all of it, every drop of it. William Buckley used to call liberals "shower adjusters" because they want to reach into your shower and adjust your water for you. He meant that as an ad absurdum, but these days it seems more scary than absurd.

Invoking the physics analogy again, if our only constant is that the Left must own all the power, then everything else -- truth, beauty, reason, evidence, love, honor, even reality itself -- must become variables. We let Bill Clinton's peccadillos slide because it was just about sex and, besides, he's a Democrat; however, the Stormy thing ought to end Trump's presidency! Obama said you can keep your doctor, but Trump tells lies! Hillary okayed selling 20% of our uranium reserves to the Russians and the Russians sent a check to the Clinton Foundation, but Trump! Russia! Collusion! Obama literally herded and corralled newsmen, but Trump is mean to journalists! Obama scolded the Supreme Court in person at his State of the Union address, but Trump attacks our established institutions! The only way to square these circles is to announce solemnly, but seriously, that squares are circular and you deplorables and irredeemables are just not wise enough to see that.

When I was in school, the medieval Christian notion of "the divine right of kings", based on some of Paul's comments about how the Lord puts our rulers in place, was widely ridiculed. Also the notion of God-given rights. How quaint. The Flying Spaghetti Monster loves us! But, funny, when we removed Christ, somehow we didn't forge ahead to the Greater Day, free of want, that was promised to us by leftist eschatology. Instead, we reverted back to the more primitive, pre-Christian divine god-king paradigm. Evan Thomas said the news corps was reluctant to criticize Obama because "he's like a god." They were also reluctant to criticize Hillary because First Woman President! I'm With Her! Right side of history, and all.

In short, moral authoritativeness shifted from Jesus Christ to a bunch of witch doctors, now called "experts." Reality is too complicated for us to grasp, and yet they will continue making things more complicated, by wreaking arbitrary havoc on reality wherever and whenever they deem it necessary to hold onto power.

Our Lord deserves our love and honor because He has earned it. If Leftists have earned the same, they have successfully concealed that fact; yet, the Left still wants it. Every bit of it. And they'll chase you like the hounds of Hell until they get it.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Merry Christmas 2017!

Debbie and I have achieved an age where, considering the things we've done this year, we should be a lot more tired than we are.  Plus, I harbor a suspicion that the adjective "tired" is going to become, more and more, a fixture in our lives.  It's like baseball great Mickey Mantle said when he achieved his sixties:  "If I'd known I was going to live this long, I'd have taken better care of myself."  Ah, the vicissitudes of life!  When I was in my twenties, I remember, vividly, thinking, why, I'm only a youngster, nobody takes me seriously.  And now that I'm in my sixties, I'm thinking, vividly, why, I'm just some old dude, nobody takes me seriously.  There may have been some point in time x between 23 and 63 when I was actually taken seriously -- what?  Once?  On a Saturday afternoon?  Well, if that ever happened, and I'm not saying it did, it's gone now.  I'm back where I started.  Fine with me.  Russian literature has a tradition wherein some of the wisest things spoken are spoken by the village idiot.  So I'm very well qualified to say something worthwhile in Russian, if only I knew any Russian.

Debbie had been teaching orchestral strings at the fifth grade level here in Virginia since 1999.  But, with her damaged hearing (we think, due to chemotherapy back in 2001), this year she decided she had to retire.  We attended a beautiful retirement dinner hosted by Virginia Beach Schools at the convention center.  The food was great!  And hey, there were bars!  (There was wine at the dinner, but given a choice, I always pick the Scots over the French.)  Fast-forward now to late September 2017.  Debbie went to one of her schools to pick up her very last VBSCHOOLS pay stub.  The principal greeted her and said, "I don't have a replacement for you!  Puh- puh-puh-pleeeeze!!!!  Will you come back and teach this year?!!!"  Any one who knows Debbie knows that she could never turn down an offer like that.  So she still has her hand in, teaching two classes a week at one elementary school.  It's the one school where she taught that made accommodations for her, due to her hearing issues -- they added sound baffles in the room to deaden the echoes.  It seems to be working for her, so far.  Fingers crossed!

We took a vacation in the first week of July.  We visited old college chums of mine from my Pittsburgh days, Kevin and Ann Schmalz, in upstate New York.  Another old college chum, Dan Stofan -- one of the best bass trombonists I've ever known -- was there as well, with his wife Kathy Sherritts.  Dan retired after more than twenty years playing with the Seville Orchestra, in Spain.  When the calendar says July, upstate New York is one of the most beautiful places in the world.  Just make sure you're somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line when the music stops and it's December.  We drove down to West Point, New York for July 4th, Independence Day, to visit the United States Military Academy, which has been on Debbie's "bucket list", like, forever.  West Point reminded me of Pittsburgh in that things aren't built just out and around, but also up and down -- lots of hills, lots of stairs, lots of nitroglycerin tablets, clutching my heart, defibrillation...  Then, once I was revived (just kidding), the architecture was gorgeous, particular in the old chapels.  The graveyards contained the earthly remains of many famous people.  Marty Maher -- he was an enlisted man at the Academy, worked there for most of his life, Tyrone Power starred in a movie about him, "The Long Grey Line."  General William Westmoreland, commander-in-chief of our forces in Vietnam.  General George Armstrong Custer, killed at Little Big Horn by a boy named Sioux.  General Norman Schwarzkopf -- "Stormin' Norman", who led the coalition forces to victory over Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.  Humbling, to see a landscape filled with the people who gave so much on our behalf.

After West Point, we took a scenic drive up to Massachusetts.  I had an appointment the day after Independence Day with Osmun Brass, to have them work on a couple of old trombones I'd bought.  Both are vintage Conns from the late 1960s.  When I got finally those trombones back later on in the fall, I was more than happy with the work they'd done.  I've been telling Debbie for years that she deserves a top-of-the-line flute, but she'd always insisted that her ancient Haynes (from 1969) was perfectly fine for her.  Funny, though, how many flute factories there are huddled around Boston.  Apparently, the two world flute-making superpowers are Japan and Massachusetts.  We stopped in at Brannen Bros., and the next thing we knew, we were taking home one of their flutes on a trial basis.  But Debbie finally settled on a Massachusetts-made Powell flute, after a long drive to a dealer in Charlotte NC, shortly after our Massachusetts trip.  (I liked the sound of the Japanese Miyazawa better, but Debbie said it was harder to play in tune.)

Then, we shot up the coast into New Hampshire and spent two wonderful days at a beautiful bed & breakfast in the town of Rye, just south of Portsmouth.  I was delighted to discover New Hampshire liquor stores. They've figured out how to steal tax revenue from a neighboring state: they've set their prices low and placed their outlets strategically around the Massachusetts border.  On a map,  it looks like they're staging an invasion, with armies of cheap gin.  State motto:  "New Hampshire -- where Taxachusetts buys its booze."  Beefeater Gin is only $24 a handle (it's $45 here in Virginia), and Debbie and I enjoyed some fine martinis. 

I had the tiniest little bit of a health scare this past summer.  I was in for my regular checkup at the dermatology clinic in June -- checkups are a must for both Debbie and me.  Skin-wise, we're the fairest of the fair, and when I'm wearing shorts, you can't tell where the white socks end and my skin begins.  I checked out just fine, and then I pointed to a mole just about half an inch below my left eye.  "My wife doesn't like this mole and wants you take it off."  The doctor told me, "Well, it's just a tag, so removing it will probably not be covered by your insurance."  That's fine, I said, just take it off.  They did remove it and, God bless 'em, they had it analyzed.  A couple weeks later, I was called by a chirpy voice that announced, like I'd won the lottery, "Good afternoon! You have squamous cell carcinoma!  We'll be sending you to a real doctor very shortly."  Sorry, that's not fair.  But they did send me to a real surgeon.  Dr. Jolie ("jolly") removed the cancer and, as a bonus, gave me a deal on a brow lift that my drooping eyelids couldn't refuse.  The wart that was on my knee is now at the end of my nose.  At the office, they're calling me "Zsa Zsa".

We did take another little trip this year, this one to upstate New Jersey, about five miles south of the upstate New York border.  The son of my good buddy Kurt Rauscher, Michael, married a lovely young lady named Kim, and the wedding was in Park Ridge, NJ.  That's about a seven-hour drive from Virginia Beach, but the good news is that about four hours of it is through the swamp and marshlands of the DelMarVa Peninsula, on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay.  The Virginia part of DelMarVa is as flat as Nebraska is supposed to be.  Breakfast at the Exmore Diner, which will blast you right back to 1938.  They serve scrapple, a Pennsylvania treat that has trickled, so to speak, all the way down the copper pipes to an hour's drive north of our home.  If you have to ask what's in scrapple, you really don't want to know.  I love it.  Just fry it up, cover it in butter and/or syrup, and pretend it's food.

It's been eighteen years since I played bass trombone in the Plymouth Brass, a group based in Lincoln, NE.  A couple of weeks ago, my old friend Tom Kelly called me and asked if I'd like to perform with them for their 40th anniversary celebration, on New Year's Eve.  Twist my arm!  Virginia has been great for Debbie and me, but I do miss my friends from Nebraska -- both the musical friends and the programming friends.  Having a chance to relive some of those memories is a great gift.  It's going to be so much fun, as the theory goes, that I won't even notice it's fifteen below.  Hah!

Best of all, this coming April, it will be 35 years since Debbie and I both decided we needed to become a team.  This will be our 34th Christmas together as husband and wife.  Unto us, a child is born; unto us, a son is given.  And his name shall be called wonderful Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.  It's good to take time and reflect not just on the gifts we're exchanging with each others, but also on the great gift that the Lord gave to us.  Debbie and I both send our best to you this wonderful Christmas, and best wishes for a great New Year. 

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.