Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Brass Icons and the Foo Bird

After an extended bout with bronchitis in the fall, I was left with "fluid" (that's the nice word) stuck in my middle ears, and it stuck around, literally, for months. It definitely affected my hearing; I said "Eh?" so often, I began getting threatening letters from the Canadian Anti-Defamation League. It also kept me from doing any trombone playing, as the stuff would vibrate when I played and cause pain. Not to mention, it was a scary sensation. My family doctor had me try this, then that, and then the other thing, but nothing seemed to work.

Finally, she referred me to an ENT specialist about four weeks ago. The problem was the earlier bout with bronchitis, and the ears were innocent bystanders. The bronchitis created a lot of "fluid", and it sort of migrated into the ears via the Eustachian tubes. (Discovered by some dude named Eustace, asks the wandering mind?) Once in there, however, the tubes swelled shut; anyone who has ever had a toilet overflow knows what that's all about. The ENT doc prescribed Prednisone, a steroid used for its anti-inflammatory properties. (Prednisone also robs your sleep and makes you hungry all the time, two conditions I definitely don't need.) It worked, knock on wood, and the ears are clear, for now. But we don't know whether they will fill back up again. I have a sore throat right now, so we're probably about to test the limits of this fix.

After any extended lay-off on the trombone, one always tends to approach the instrument a bit gingerly, as it can be dismaying, even heartbreaking, to play through the lip flabbiness and diaphragm wheeziness until top form has been achieved once again. It's like re-living one's entire career, starting from scratch at the seventh-grade level. You set your embouchure, close your eyes, and blow, and what comes out of the other end is to your former best what Alpo is to a filet mignon at Ruth's Chris's Steak House. Everything sounds like "foo." Pick out your favorite etude, pour your heart and soul into it, and you are rewarded for your efforts with, "Foo foo foo foo foo. FOO! FOO! f-f-f-f-f-foo-f-foo!"

Reminds me of an old joke, which I'll clean up just a little bit: A man was on a safari in the African jungle, and all at once heard a deafening bird call, "Foo! Foo!" And then, a big ugly wad of something foul hit him right on the head. The native guide said, "Uh oh! That was the evil foo bird. You must never wash off what the foo bird has dumped on you, or you will die." "Nonsense," replied our intrepid traveler, "Superstitions do not impress me." So he sat down on a log, took some water and a kerchief, and proceeded to wipe the gunk from his head... and then promptly died. The moral of the story? When the foo s---s, wear it.

Well, the foo bird is definitely taking it out on my trombone playing, and I guess I'm just going to have to wear it until he gives up and starts dive-bombing the economy again.

My pastor, Wally, says that my entire identity is a little too wrapped up in my trombone playing. I don't do it for a living, at least not anymore, so sometimes I wonder why it's so important to me. I'm in my mid-fifties, so there really isn't any hope any longer of getting into a professional orchestra. And to be honest, it's a dying art form. Symphonies all over the country are flirting with bankruptcy. Audiences are dwindling. The symphony orchestra has become, except for movie music (which I do enjoy), a museum. Likewise, the opera. Everyone knows that wind and brass instruments are no longer as popular as they used to be; school band programs are slowly dying. But not many people have commented on why that happens to be.

I could venture a theory: not very many people have the patience anymore to mess around with instruments on which it can take years of study and practice simply to acquire a decent sound. Kids don't want to start on trumpet when they're in seventh grade just so, by the time they're seniors, they can play a serviceable melody. They want to go from zero to recording studio in six months. You can't do that on oboe, or clarinet, or trombone; but if you have any musical ability at all, you can learn to bang out a few chords on the guitar and join a garage band in short order. I'm not saying the guitar is an easy instrument to master, and I'm not denigrating the accomplishments of some of our greatest guitar players -- Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke, Earl Klugh, Les Paul, Glen Campbell, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and the list goes on. Great players, all. Great musicians, even. All I'm saying is if you want to get up and running as quickly as possible in music, you should probably learn to play guitar.

And today kids are so impatient, they don't even want to learn guitar. They just want to play "Guitar Hero."

The truly odd thing about this profession is that, as the opportunities grow fewer and further between, the players seem to be getting greater and greater. It's an old trend, but still a live one. If you want to hear some amazing playing, pick up some of the albums from the Fifties and Sixties -- when the writing was already on the wall for big band music -- featuring some old crooner with a backup band led by Nelson Riddle or Billy May. For example, Nat King Cole singing Vaughn Monroe's old chestnut, "Ballerina", or the under-appreciated Keely Smith belting out "When Your Lover Has Gone." Pay attention to the accompanying musicians, particularly the brass. These guys were great, and played every song as if they were desperate for a gig. I'm thinking they probably were.

And you should hear the kids coming out of the conservatories these days. Each generation picks up where the previous generation left off.

I never had that ability to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time which separates the great musician from the rabble of okay players. Whatever I have on the trombone, as a player, came to me pretty naturally and intuitively. It wasn't enough. I could probably have earned a living doing this back in the Twenties, or Thirties, or Forties, maybe even the Fifties. But as the big bands folded, I probably would have been forced to sell insurance or tend bar -- those were the days before computer nerds. I admit, it's a source of sadness for me that I was not good enough to make it.

I love it. I really do. I can stare at pictures of trombones for hours -- "horn porn", as one of my friends describes it. It scares me how close to idolatry our obsessions can take us, which is foolish: I love my trombones, but they certainly don't love me back -- and take every opportunity to point this out. And regarding the talent to succeed at music: if the Lord didn't put it in there, it isn't in there. Since He's the one in charge, it makes sense to be happy with whereever He puts us, and with whatever opportunities that come our way. And the moral of that story is, never fear the foo bird.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Merry Christmas 2008

Our favorite season is here again, the time of year when carbohydrate becomes flesh. Generally speaking, I don’t churn out these yearly holiday missives as promptly as Debbie would like, as there are times when the Greek muse for Christmas letters just doesn’t show up on schedule. Anyhow, we are having our sun room redone, and it’s hard to focus on linguistic precision just after the electrician’s bill, which gives a new meaning to the phrase, “electric shock treatment.” I would say, other than the “current” surprise, the construction is going very well. The work is being done by a friend of ours, Steve, whom we met at church, and I pay the bills with my computer skills, so it seems he and I both spend a lot of time installing Windows. I think Steve’s windows work better than Bill Gates’, though.

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!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Creative Reasoning

Follow the link on the title of this post to an article by Associated Press' Seth Borenstein, billed humorously as AP's Science Writer.

Science has changed a lot since I was in school. It used to look like, well, evidence and reasoning. Today, it looks like opinion journalism -- dishonest political journalism at that, since it is not labeled as opinion, but as news.

The article itself is yet another mainstream media doomsday trope, this one about the horrors that await us due to "global warming." In a year where record cold temperatures are being set, you would think just a little bit of circumspection would be in order about the cataclysm that awaits. But you would be wrong.

Get a load of this:

Borenstein: "Ironically, 2008 is on pace to be a slightly cooler year in a steadily rising temperature trend line. Experts say it's thanks to a La Nina weather variation. While skeptics are already using it as evidence of some kind of cooling trend, it actually illustrates how fast the world is warming."

So, in the adjustable physics of global warming alarmists, here's how things work:
  • Rising temperatures are evidence of global warming.
  • Cooling temperatures are evidence of global warming.
When would it be fair to ask: what could possibly be construed as evidence against global warming?

Leave it to "right-wing" Fox News to present both sides of this debate, unlike the fair, balanced, objective, impartial, and completely unbiased AP.