Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Merry Christmas 2013!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 14, 2013

RINO Blasty