Wednesday, September 27, 2006

On This Date in History

A lot of cool and interesting stuff has happened on September 24. For example, in 622, Mohamed began his hegira, thus effectively marking the point from which the Muslim religion begins. (Both the violent and non-violent sects.)

The first Supreme Court convened on September 24, 1789. The Mormon Church decided one wife was (more than) enough in 1890.

The first Model T was finished in 1908. Jim Henson was born in 1936. I Love Lucy went off the air in 1961. The Warren Commission Report was delivered to President Johnson in 1964, naming Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin and starting a cottage industry that thrives to this day. Hurricane Inez beat up on the Caribbean in 1966.

All were noteworthy in their way. Another event, of somewhat less historical significance but very important to me, also took place on September 24: the birth of the Desert Flower Correspondent. I don’t have the year handy, but I do have this recent picture, so I’m guessing early to middle 70’s. Somewhere in there.

Happy belated birthday, BDF.

Globalization Just Got a Little Smaller

Convenience store chain 7–11 has announced it will no longer sell Citgo gasoline, as Citgo’s primary source of oil is Venezuela.

This makes Venezuelans the only third world citizens that don’t work at 7–11.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Just Plain Bob

I’ve been a fan of Bob Newhart since I heard the Abraham Lincoln routine when I was about ten. He’s had two successful television shows since then, made several movies, was a regular guest of Johnny Carson’s, a headliner at Vegas, and the teller of the funniest golf joke I ever heard, as recounted in Rick Reilly’s outstanding book, Who’s Your Caddy?

Newhart appeared at a local Borders Bookstore last Friday, flogging his memoir, I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. About four hundred people overflowed the store to hear him speak before the business of book signing began.

Some suit from the American Film Institute asked questions that were, unfortunately, both too long and obsequious. Newhart replied with stories, invariably funny, delivered in the style anyone familiar with him would instantly recognize. The stories were often forty years old, delivered in a style Newhart perfected that long ago. And they still killed.

Watching Newhart in person for the first time confirmed something I suspected about his longevity. His delivery hasn’t been “perfected;” that’s how the man talks. His body language and demeanor are unassuming, but confident. He’s been doing this too long to be surprised by a warm reception, but humble enough to still be delighted.

Newhart remains popular because there are few people as likable. The affection was palpable in the room. (Not adoration as for a rock star or athlete; affection wears much better.) Newhart sat in a comfortable chair and conversed with us, never mind that only he spoke. It was a relaxing pleasure at the end of a work week.

Bob Newhart is 77 years old and hasn’t lost an inch off the old fastball. True, his act is low-energy. It’s also high endurance. He wears on you like a favorite sweater you’ve had forever and can’t bear to part with. It’s too bad he doesn’t do stand-up anymore. There’s no higher compliment than to say I’d pay money to listen to this man talk.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Friday Night (Dim) Lights

I spent Friday evening watching a high school football game, a benefit of spending the weekend as the Official Limousine Service to The Sole Heir. The plays aren’t real sharp, the stands have maybe a thousand people total, but it’s a relaxing, small-town way to spend an evening while waiting for the Sole Heir to conclude her social obligations.

This week’s game, between Sole Heir High School and Other High School, had some features that make high school games memorable, so long as you don’t take them too seriously, or go too often. I’ve gotten used to the idea that none of these kids can tackle a bag of laundry hanging from a pole; you don’t too often get to see a false start penalty when your team is taking a knee, either.

The kids’ foibles are nothing compared to watching the adults muck things up. Friday’s game contained two record-setting gaffs.

We’ll start with the zebras. SHHS, well into their only sustained drive of the evening, had fourth and less than a yard on the OHS 37. (I know this to be true, since it was right in front of me.) The SHHS coach eschewed a measurement and went for it. The referee signaled first down and the head linesman had the chain gang move the sticks up the field.

But wait! The OHS coach thinks they’re short and demands a measurement. As Nick Saban has learned, there’s a time to ask for everything during a football game; after the sticks have been moved is not the time to ask for a measurement. The officials, having learned nothing about the timeliness of challenges from the previous night’s Steelers-Dolphins game (another glorious victory for the Official Football Team of The Home Office), moved the sticks back to pretty much where they thought they were originally, and measured. Lo and behold, SHHS was short and lost the ball on downs.

I’m not a big fan of the SHHS coach, but he gets props for restraint. I would have had light streaming out of my eyes like the climactic scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark if that call had gone against me.

No big deal; SHHS scored on their next two possessions and took a 21-14 lead. The game played out until SHHS punted the ball out of bounds at the OHS 15 yard line with about two minutes to play.

A penalty, an incomplete pass, a sack, and a short scramble by the quarterback left OHS with fourth down and 16 yards to go, inside their own 10 yard line, 1:30 left on the clock, and no time outs.

What do you call? Sixteen yards is fur piece. Throw deep? A trick play, maybe a hook-and-ladder to try to eat up a large chunk of ground? Possibly a screen pass to take advantage of what figures to be an aggressive pass rush and a spread-out secondary.

The OHS coach’s answer: punt. Honest to God. Of course, the SHHS players avoided the ball like it was smeared with the AIDS virus, then took a knee three times and the game was over. This not only gives the OHS coach The Home Office award for the dumbest coaching decision ever seen, it retired the award. No one’s going to top this, short of pulling the team off the field and forfeiting a game in which you have a lead.

Coaching is teaching. I don’t know if the OHS coach meant to teach his kids how to lose gracefully, but he’s sure teaching them new and exciting ways to lose.

Saturday, September 09, 2006


Has anyone else seen the irony in the recent bizarre death of crocodile hunter Steve Irwin? I mean, one time in his life he’s not fucking with a potentially dangerous animal, it kills him. He messed with crocodiles, sharks, poisonous snakes, lawyers, you name it; not a scratch. Then one day he’s minding his own business and a stingray gives him one right through the pump.

I don’t think it’s an accident. Somewhere some crocs and snakes got together, used a shark as a cut-out. They had to find someome – er, something – Irwin would trust, but could still push the button on him. Stingrays are so rarely fatal to humans, there aren’t even good statistics on how many humans are killed by them. You have a greater chance of being killed by the French military than of having a stingray take you out.

The stinger probably got free squid for a year. All over Australia, crocodiles are crying their own special tears as they tell each other, “Steve Irwin sleeps with the humans tonight.”

Monday, September 04, 2006

Charlie Schlueter

The conclusion of this Tanglewood season coincides with the retirement of Charlie Schlueter after twenty-five years as principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony. Information on Charlie’s career and his influence on other trumpeters can be found in any number of places, notably among his many recordings. An inventory of orchestra rosters shows his students well represented. His work with trumpet builder Dave Monette will leave a legacy far beyond both of them.

I first heard Charlie Schlueter play one otherwise unmemorable night in Atlanta. Coming home from a gig, I turned on the television on my way to the kitchen for a snack, thinking I might catch the end of the Braves’ game.

My first thought when I heard the final movement of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was that I had forgotten to check the channel. I continued with whatever I was doing until the trumpet parts started winding up for the finale. I noted the second trumpet’s entrance, then stood flatfooted when the first trumpet came in.

It was as close to a religious epiphany as I had ever come. (Seeing my daughter born has since eclipsed it, but barely.) I’d had what I considered to be the perfect trumpet sound in my head for years. Until that second, that’s the only place I’d ever heard it. To paraphrase Marlon Brando’s in Apocalypse Now, it was like being struck between the eyes by a diamond bullet.

I ran to the living room and found only an unrecognizable orchestra. Younger readers should make note that it was not unusual to see symphony orchestras on public television in the early 1980s; the New York Philharmonic was actually on live several times a year. I cut my teeth on orchestral trumpet styles in large part by watching Armando Ghitalla on the BSO’s weekly Evening at Symphony broadcasts. Just seeing an orchestra on television didn’t automatically tell me who it was.

I finally recognized Seiji Ozawa, then Symphony Hall in Boston. “That must be the new guy, Schlueter,” I thought as the piece finished and I went back to salvage whatever was burning on the stove.

After that I started looking for Boston Symphony broadcasts on the radio. (Yes, in those days out-of-town orchestras had regular, tape-delayed, radio broadcasts of their concerts.) Those led me to apply to graduate school at New England Conservatory, so I could study with the one man I thought could make me sound like that.

He couldn’t. The man is a great player, possibly even a better teacher, but he’s not God. He did what he could with someone who scraped through the entrance audition and helped craft a better player out of my tools than anyone would have reason to expect. I was too intimidated to learn much for the first month or so, but I walked out of my first lesson feeling that I was about to learn things I never knew existed about the trumpet. I would have laughed at anyone who told me I was selling the experience short.

Charlie worked on my breathing, and my tonguing. Taught me (along with Ben Zander) how to find the music in any phrase. I realized after a year or so that his method of teaching was far more insidious than I suspected. Charlie taught me to give myself permission to miss a note, thus ensuring I wouldn’t miss it. To play broader instead of louder, enhancing the breadth of the tone so the volume would come without effort and not sound forced. To shape the ends of notes as much as the beginnings. To hear all the notes passed over in a slur to ensure the slur itself remained connected to its beginning and end.

Every technique listed reminds me of another, and we’re not halfway through. Somewhere in my second year I realized Charlie was teaching me about a lot more than trumpet playing. Through his personal interest in my life, he was helping me to place, and to keep, trumpet in its proper role, so that I could allow myself to become a better player, rather than trying to will it.

I haven’t played serious trumpet in fifteen years; not at all (worth mentioning) in over four. Still, there’s not a day goes by I don’t do something because of what Charlie Schlueter taught me. It took longer than two years; I’m privileged to say we became friends and have stayed in touch. Charlie and his wife, Martha, had dinner with the Crazy Like Me Correspondent and the person she’s crazy like in Baltimore the night before closing on the current Home Office; he had a gift for popping up during milestones in my life.

I’ve thought a lot about this as his retirement approached, and can safely say that my father is the only man to have greater influence on the person I have become than Charlie Schlueter. (I’ll leave to you to decide whether that is damning with faint praise.) I can’t use his recordings as background music when I write; I wind up listening to them. Even now, over twenty years away from my weekly exposures, I still pause at times and wonder why I did something the way I did it, then remember it came from Charlie; then I’m okay with it.

He’s not perfect; his battles with Ozawa are legendary. (It should be pointed out that the characteristics in Charlie’s playing and personality that Ozawa found fault with were exactly the things Ozawa bypassed the audition process for to hire Charlie in the first place. Why Seiji hasn’t done the honorable thing and throw himself on his baton to die for the Emperor is beyond me.) Imperfect is always better in a role model; I was lucky to be close enough to know that what he told me had been tested, and worked, if I maintained enough confidence in the final outcome.

Congratulations, Charlie. Your retirement is well-earned. I’ll miss the opportunities to come to Symphony Hall and Tanglewood to hear you play. (Not that I’d been to either in over ten years. Everyone has schedules.) I’ll never miss the friendship, good will, and lessons you taught me; I still have them every day. I hope your new free time will allow us to get together more. You’ve taught me enough to know that I still have more to learn.