Music for a Phantom Holiday

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on February 24, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

The onslaught of President’s Sale commercials has finally subsided. Before the craziness of car clearances and appliance sell-offs, however, President’s Day marked Timothy Dwight Elementary School’s annual spring concert. What better way to punish our parents for a hard-won day off from work than to subject them to one-and-a-half hours of pre-pubescent interpretations of our country’s most patriotic songs?

In middle school, my music class was the only place where my fellow students and I were faced with the harsh reality of our limitations. Mostly, the teachers would fall over themselves to prop us up and keep our faces out of the mud. My shoddy compositions were “an improvement.” My low math scores showed “creativity and promising thought.” Even in history, my butchering of events could be termed “revisionist optimism.” (Then again, my teachers kept referring to a President’s Day that even now does not exist as a federal holiday. It’s simply Washington’s birthday with Lincoln tagging along.)

But in music, as in life, talent wins out in the end. I might have gotten pats on the back for remembering not to pick my nose in class, but by the time I got to music I knew the jig was up. To be in a room where children are playing instruments is to see God’s bias toward music. Those without talent stick out like a sore thumb—thumbs that would sound better if sucked rather than used to play the cello. I still remember how excited I was on my first day of sixth grade music class. Finally, I would get to play an instrument other than the tambourine or maracas. It doesn’t take long for the glory of a well-practiced recorder concerto to lose its luster. On that glorious day, our music teacher picked up each of the shiny, polished instruments before him and demonstrated how each sounded. I was hooked after hearing the trumpet. Even in music, I fell into line on the phallic spectrum: not quite the trombone, but certainly not the clarinet. No, the trumpet seemed “just right.” I don’t recall the exact reasoning behind this decision: the closest I’d come to a trumpet was listening to “All You Need Is Love.” Mostly, I chose it because it only had three buttons. Unlike the others, with their forest of valves and holes and strings and bows and slides to fuss about, the trumpet seemed like a scooter in a sea of Harley Davidsons. It might not get me any dates, but it wouldn’t take much to get on the road.

My music teacher told us that we should name our instruments in order to better “connect” with them. My parents refused to buy me a trumpet, instead opting to rent one from the school. My dad would sooner buy me shotgun than a trumpet because it would make less racket, and even if everything went wrong he wouldn’t suffer long.

I kept at him, however, convinced that I couldn’t name an instrument without owning it. Who goes to a pet store and starts naming the fish in the tanks if they’re not taking them home? Finally, my mom cracked on my birthday and bought me a used trumpet with a dull shine and the distant memory of chrome about the buttons. The case was beautiful, however—I would carry around the carcass of an outhouse rat if it came in a purple, velvet-lined molded carrying case!

I raced up to my room and closed the horrid box that contained John Doe, the name of my RENTED trumpet, and shoved it under the bed. I opened my new case and pulled out… Maria, sweet Maria, and gave her a quick polish. I pulled out my sheet music and began “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Twinkle I did, managing to pucker my lips in my best Dizzy Gillespie.

Alas, there was an ugly side to Maria. A dark place she hid to anyone who saw her, and known only to those who knew her… intimately. Maria had a spittle. A spittle is a small place where all the spit collects while you blow into the trumpet, a mucous house. Maria housed a perpetual loogie that rolled around inside her, just waiting for fumbling elementary school hands to accidentally open it in mid-tune. In fact, she needed to be emptied like a choral colostomy bag after every song! I never saw Louis Armstrong swearing because he’s just poured an ounce of his own saliva onto his pants right after “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”

In the band, I was first-chair off key. Like bad guests, my notes tended to linger a bit too long. What really did me in was my lips, however. Due to a double-cleft palate, I could not properly pucker my lips. I couldn’t kiss, whistle, or suck anything through a straw. Turns out the trumpet is for lip-guys, and that just wasn’t me. The result was that my trumpet playing was painful to the ears; it was like watching Cupid try to blow the lead off his arrows.

Much like President’s Day Sale commercials, there was a palpable sense of relief when I finally stopped playing. I traded the trumpet for a new first baseman’s glove and made my music teacher a much happier man.

The Winter Sword of Damocles

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on February 2, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

The news that the first day of April vacation has already been lost due to the recent snow cancellations reminded me of a story my brother once told me after several consecutive snow days when we were kids. As I celebrated the latest cancellation, he told me we have to be careful what we wish for because sometimes it comes back to haunt us. “You think you want it now,” he said, “until you realize you have the Sword of Damocles over your head.” I’m pretty sure that’s when I threw the pillow at him that scratched his cornea, but I could be wrong. Regardless, I listened without enthusiasm while he exacted his revenge by ruining snow days for me forever.

Damocles was a courtier in the court of King Dionysius II of ancient Italy and one of history’s original suck-ups. He flattered the king constantly, raving about his good fortune, his power, and his greatness. Eventually, the king grew tired of this and asked Damocles if he’d like to switch places to sample that good fortune for himself. Damocles quickly agreed and was soon seated on the throne, surrounded by every luxury that the king enjoyed. However, King Dionysius had arranged for a large sword to be hung directly over the throne, held aloft by nothing but a single hair of a horse’s tail. Daunted by the prospect of the blade looming so precariously over his head, Damocles begged the king to release him from this “good fortune.” 

As a kid, I never made the connection that my brother had hoped. I looked forward to a snow day like some look forward to Christmas morning or a parole date. There was no greater joy than hearing my mom trek down the hallway to sigh, “There’s no school today because of the snow.” I’d switch on the radio to WICC and listen to the parade of school districts cancelling classes, imagining what wondrous things I could do for the rest of the day. If it were only a delayed opening, I would listen to the roll call coming from my radio speakers and pray that nearby districts had changed from a delay to a closing. I learned more about Connecticut geography by calculating the distance between the surrounding towns and my house than I ever learned in school. “If Bridgeport is closing, and Trumbull is closing, and Westport is closing, then surely it’s only a matter of time…”

It was even worse if a storm was predicted the night before. I would scour the local stations for weather reports, hoping each snowfall would not start too late (after five in the morning) nor end too soon (after one or two in the afternoon) to merit a snow day. My dad always scoffed at how I crouched before the small TV set, waiting for the weatherman to appear. “They make more money in advertising money when they threaten hurricanes or blizzards,” he’d say. “There’s no money to be made in a brief shower or snow flurry, so don’t get your hopes up.”

But I did. I always did. So when I scrambled to the window in the morning and saw the cruel black of the roads laughing back at me, it was as if someone had kicked my puppy. I’d turn on the radio only to hear that John LaBarca was playing music rather than rifling through the laundry list of closings. Faced with the mountains of homework I’d decided against the night before, I’d keep hope alive in front of my radio until my mom screamed that if I didn’t get ready soon I’d miss the bus.

Still, it was all worth it on those glorious days that we got our surprise days off. The first thing I’d do was turn off the alarm and crawl back under the covers, listening gleefully as suckers from other districts only got delayed openings. That’s when, as my brother would put it, my dad would come in and remind me about the sword above my head.

“I have to get to work,” he’d yell to my closed bedroom door. “Get up and shovel the driveway.”

And that’s what I’ve seen all around Stratford in the last few weeks. With invisible swords hanging above their heads, school-age children bundle up and attack the mountains of snow armed only with snow shovels and a lingering resentment that they didn’t get a chance to sleep in. When the driveways and sidewalks are clear, tiny paths must be carved out of the snow for the dogs or mailman to cross. For the older kids, even the roof has to be cleared off, layer by layer, before the sheer weight of the thaw threatens collapse. For the truly unfortunate like me, imaginative moms use this time to assign household chores or take us on impromptu trips to the barber or dentist.

In short, the kids of Stratford are quickly finding out what it took me so long to learn from my brother: be careful what you wish for! We still have more than a month of winter left and we’ve already lost our first day of April vacation. You don’t have to look up to realize the tiny thread of horse’s hair holding the sword is fraying.