Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Phantom Regiment, and Life

Phantom Regiment is a drum and bugle corps squad. Over Thanksgiving weekend, 500+ candidates tried out for approx. 220 slots on the squad for the Summer 2006 Season. Candidates came from many places in the world, including France, Korea, and Japan.

Phantom Regiment is known to have the best horn line in all drum and bugle corps. This is partly what attracted Jake to the team - the other part being that two of his good friends also tried out for the team. All three made it - yea!

Drum and bugle corps don't use trombones. Jake made the team as an Euphonium player - though Euphonium is an instrument he has never played. An Euphonium is vaguely like a Baritone - which Jake learned to play for the tryouts - though Phantom Regiment uses no Baritones. Why learn the wrong instument? Hmmm. I hadn't yet thought to ask. A Baritone does use the same mouthpiece as a Trombone.

On Sunday, November 27, I picked Jake up after his weekend of try-outs at Huntley (IL) High (appropriately located on Harmony Road!). Jake was forlorn. He thought he had been cut in the tryouts for the squad. Here's what actually happened: Jake made the squad, but Phantom Regiment administrators left him off the official roster until he could resolve scheduling conflicts. Jake mistakenly thought he had been cut.

Oh, the sadness. It was like his dog died. Bye bye, best horn line in America.

Since we had only about 16 or 17 hours to drive, I decided to let Jake talk about things as he felt like it. I did not account for cell phones. First, maternal grandmother called. She got the full story. Then mother called. Full story. Jake was dying a thousand deaths. Then paternal grandfather. Full story. 10,000 deaths. Then paternal grandmother got on the phone. Full story. 100,000 deaths. They tortured him as if they were the Egyptian Secret Service, and he had secretly been rendered for interrogation. Brilliant parent that I am, I could only think of one thing to do: we stopped for ice cream in De Kalb, IL.

Didn't help much. Jake was frustrated. He declared he wanted to get back to Texas so he could attend classes on Monday. I confidently asserted that stopping for ice cream would not interfere with getting back to Texas.

We started trucking, and we truck pretty good. We only stop for gas and quick bathroom breaks. During a stop we complete 6 or 8 football pass patterns to stretch our legs. One can always find a location for a "Staubach warm-up" pass. You only need a narrow alleyway through a service station parking lot, and a nice leading lob pass. After, we are basically good for another 300 or so miles.

6:30 PM Springfield, IL gas station: Jake gets a call from his high school Band Director. The high school band will practice for their Christmas concert at 6:45 AM - 12 hours & 15 minutes from now. Jake promises he'll be there. His high school is 750 miles away from this gas station. Uh oh.

Jake drives almost till midnight, all the way to Joplin, MI. I drive through the deepest part of the night, N to S through OK on Hwy 69, passing through one 35 mph town after another. A toll booth guy told us(accurately) this was an hour faster than going through OK City on the Interstate. Still, those 35 mph towns really get to you when a 6:45 AM deadline is looming.

We make it to Jake's high school at 6:50 AM, after travelling the last 750 miles in 12 hours & 20 minutes - including the last part, which entailed fighting through Dallas - Ft. Worth commuter traffic. Woo hoo! Jake had called ahead to inform that he would be late. Band Directors are as demanding as Vince Lombardi.

Here's an irony: the De Kalb ice cream prevented us from making it exactly on time. I oughtn't have been so cock-sure about getting back to Texas.

During the night, we talked about Jake's not making the squad. Jake felt he had deserved to make it. He got very high marks during the tryouts for musical ability, but his marks were apparently not high enough during tryouts for "visual presentation." Oddly, Jake is an outstanding technical marcher (a sentence I never, until this very moment, ever envisioned writing or uttering). The Euphoniums all marched in one big crowd in the school cafeteria, and Jake felt he had been overlooked in the mishmash. He had some regret about messing up the proper Euphonium "Rest Position", but did not feel that was a serious enough error to keep him off the squad. So,

  • Jake had some regret(poor Euphonium Rest Position).
  • He had some sense of having been a victim of bad luck(via poor judging of his marching skill).
  • He had some sense that he had let people down (family and friends).
  • He had some sense of embarrassment that family and friends would believe he was not talented enough to make the squad.
  • He had quite a lot of sadness that he would not have the fun of being on the squad for the 2006 Season.

These are all extremely human feelings, and extremely common experiences. We talked about some of the following:

All you can do is all you can do. When you see ways to improve your best for future situations - take note!

Meanwhile, ain't none of us ever gonna be perfect. And a perfect God designed it that way. It is misguided and fantastical to beat ourselves up for being human.

Being a Victim of Bad Luck
First, some perspective: Many people experience way worse luck than this.

Second: The weekend was a lesson about winning and losing. Luck is often a factor - which is why the journey is just as important as the end result.

Jake gave the performances he gave over the "intense" weekend of try-outs. Do the opinions of fallible human judges either validate or invalidate the quality of Jake's efforts, performances, and experiences? Of course not! Do the whims of good luck or bad luck either validate or invalidate those performances and experiences? Does an arbitrarily created method of score-keeping either validate or invalidate those performances and experiences? Of course not. And of course not.

Jake's performances and experiences were ends unto themselves. Who would assert that Jake's efforts did not bring joy to God? Or that Jake's performances were not windows through which observers might glimpse aspects of God's glory? Who would assert that Jake's efforts did not fit neatly into God's eternal plan? The Lord works in mysterious ways. The journey is an end unto itself.

Letting People Down
Intellectually, Jake knew he had not let people down.
Instinctively, he felt he had actually let people down.

Its important to understand that instinctive feelings do not equate to truths. Your instincts are instincts. No matter how strongly instincts scream out, they are not truths to be relied upon, but rather circumstances to be considered.

Imagine you are walking across the African prairie, and you encounter a lion. Your instincts scream out that the best action is to run. And yet, the best action may be to crouch quietly in the tall grass, with heart thumping fast, and let the lion pass by your position.

Its important to keep instincts in perspective. They are circumstances. They are not truths.

First: Is it our life's major purpose to impress others with our wonderfulness? Though I've done plenty of trying to impress, I choose a larger purpose. Luckily, almost any purpose is larger than the purpose of impressing other people!

Second: In fairness, we are social beings. Social relationships are important. The respect of one's peers has its place. The good news is that we can credit our friends with having intelligence and understanding. If any of Jake's "friends" are so shallow as to have their opinions of him impacted by his Phantom Regiment results, does Jake really desire to continue those "friendships?"

Third: Not making the squad prompts sympathetic attention from girls. I declare this a good thing.

Jake's sadness was about mourning and grieving. Mourning is passive. It happens to all of us. Grieving is active, and brave. Grieving is a proactive process of relearning the world. Something has happened, and the world will never be the same for us. Grieving is our method of learning to live and to thrive in the new circumstances.

Grieving is our frequent and sometimes constant companion. Sometimes we grieve a thimble-full, such as when a company stops making a favorite product, or when our favorite team loses a big game. Its valuable to recognize and acknowledge that we grieve small occurrences(in appropriate proportions!).

Sometimes we grieve an ocean-full. Especially during these times, we often wish life could go back to the way it was before our loss. These are appropriate wishes. They serve as a way of acknowledging and honoring the depth of our feeling for the one we have lost. However, it is unhealthy to become stuck in a state of such wishing. The world has changed. It is healthy to acknowledge the truth of that, and to go about relearning the world as it is now.

There's a tendency, whether a loss is small or large, to try and ignore it, and to move on with other activities. Friends see us in pain, and their hearts go out. They council us to "just don't think about it." This is well-meaning, and exactly wrong. We ought not wallow in an unhealthy fashion - we can use our best judgment about that. But we ought not pile up a mini-mountain of pain which we have never acknowledged, and never worked through. That is a recipe for myriad long-term problems.

The Anchoress wrote beautifully about pain. We should not seek it; but, as much as possible, we should not resist its appropriate appearance. The key is to tamp down our initial reaction to pain. Rather than unconsciously react, consciously respond. Let the pain occur as God designed it. Let it be. Just look at it. Look on in wonder.

Jake was responding to his pain in a healthy fashion. It was inspiring. God is in the small things. Jake's chance to be a member of Phantom Regiment was (apparently) gone. He was in mourning, and was bravely grieving. We talked about such things, and about other, more lighthearted things. He is a wonderful young man, and I am terribly proud of him.

Then, on Monday, Jake discovered he had actually made the squad, if only his scheduling could be worked out. Forget all that healthy, tiresome grieving! Yuck. That bitter medicine. That tasteless ordeal of gruel. Oh joy! Oh ecstasy! Its the best horn line in America!

And, oh parental joy! For Jake's happiness - but, also: How good is that life lesson?! For him and for me? What better demonstration of the randomness of good luck and bad luck? What better demonstration of the illogic of judging yourself, for good or for ill, according to the arbitrary standards and judgments of others - as if those standards and judgments actually mean something about you, or about the quality of your work? What better lesson for Jake and for me to vividly remember?

Its about the journey. Thankfully.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Funeral of Donnie Van Meter

Donnie Van Meter died in a traffic accident at age 41. He is survived by his wife: Kenny Beth, and his daughters: Morgan and Madison - ages 12 and 10. He was laid to rest at 10:00 AM today, in his home of Robinson, TX, which is just south of Waco.

Donnie coached every softball and basketball team on which Morgan and Madison ever played. Last summer, when Morgan's softball team finished as the second best team in Texas, Donnie struck up a friendship with the coaches and parents of the best team in Texas: Graham, TX. He told them Robinson was coming to get their championship medallion in 2006. The day before Donnie's funeral, three of the Graham coaches and parents drove four hours so they could personally express their condolences, and also present Kenny Beth, Morgan, and Madison with their team's 2005 State Championship Medallion.

The night before Donnie's funeral, a long line of mourners had to wait over an hour to view Donnie's body.

This morning, the mourners at Donnie's graveside service included several dozen ten to twelve year-old girls - many of whom wore blue jeans, athletic jerseys, and tennis shoes. Some of the jerseys said "Robinson All-Stars," and these all-stars wore their 2005 State Runner Up Medallions outside their jerseys, dangling from their necks on red, white, and blue striped ribbon.

Most of the girl mourners were stoic throughout most of the ceremony - until the very last song - performed by a single acoustic guitar. The finality of the notes, carried on the November breeze, began to be too much for the girls. A few began to cry, with heads lowered and shoulders heaving. Then, a few more. Soon most of the 40 or so girls were sobbing great salty tears, which visibly dropped from their cheeks, and plopped into the yellowed winter grass below. Of the many ways to ceremonially depart this Earth, being serenaded by the tearful lamentations of young girls is not the worst, by a long shot.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Hangin With Dad

You cannot understand until you get into my Dad's head. My Dad intends lack of criticism to be understood as praise, i.e. his silence means there is nothing to criticise - which is its own form of praise/approval - and he intends it to be understood as such. Here is a typical interaction between us:

Dad: Criticise. Criticise.


Dad: Harshly criticise. Harshly criticise.

Me: Sharp retort.

Dad: How dare you be disrespectful to your father!?



Me: (Isn't that nice! Dad is bestowing praise. His silence means he approves of my actions and/or my personal presentation!)

Here's a variation:

Dad: Criticise. Criticise.

Me: Sharp retort.

Dad: What? What'd I say? You're awfully sensitive today, aren't you?

Here's Dad and I having an extended conversation:

Dad: Who was that kid you used to have on your team?

(I coached 9 different teams and approx. 150 players)

Me: Which one?

Dad: You know, the one whose parents thought he was the greatest thing ever?

Me: Every kid's parents thought their kid was the greatest thing ever.

Dad: You know. Don't be like that.

Me: I really don't know.

Dad: Yes you do. His Mom was really overprotective.

Me: Every kid's Mom was really overprotective.



Dad: I just don't understand you sometimes.

Me(in a helpful tone): Baseball player? Was it A, or B, or C?

Dad: None of those. You know the kid! I can't believe you. He was a pretty good little infielder.

(This is a big break, as Dad only believed about 4 of the 150 kids were good players.)

Me(in a relieved tone): Was it D, or E, of F?

Dad: That's it! F! Well, his Dad used to always stand around and criticize your coaching, so one day I said to him "You know, there's one difference between Greg and us." And he said "What?" And I said "He's the coach, and he gets to make the decisions." So then he walked away, and he never came back down there and talked to us.

Me: Yeah, you've told me that before. You were smart to get rid of that guy. He didn't know what he was talking about.

Dad: Yep. He never came back down there, that's for sure.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Liveblogging West Wing Debate

Apparently, this is live television. It's surely scripted(to an unknown extent), and rehearsed(?!), but its not pre-recorded.

Both candidates profess pre-debate terror.

Senator Vinick - out of conscience, proposes ditching the time limits on responses -like that would ever happen!

Congressman Santos naturally accepts. What else could happen in Hollywood? Still, great premise.

My expectations for this are the same as my expectations were halfway through the FX series "Over There": the producers/directors will tease me by touching on my side of issues, then they will drop the hammer with bs at the end of the show. That pretty much happened with "Over There", which had an American unneccessarily killing an innocent Iraqi boy in the last episode. I must say, though, I really enjoyed the entire "Over There" series. Good show. I made it appt. TV. On balance, it was a net positive for America's effort to help Iraqis succeed in being democratic.

Let's debate!


Santos: problem of illegal immigration is ...

Vinick: changes subject to CAFTA, which Santos "voted for before he voted against."

Santos: rehabs John Kerry for future Presidential run.

Santos is waiting to drop the hammer re immigration... ... waiting... here it comes:
false alert - here it comes again: ".. this is an economic problem. Its about Mexico's economy. There is no real solution for this. "

Great. Typical Dem. No ideas on how to solve the problem.

Balanced Budget:

Vinick: even Santos' tax increases won't be enough to pay for his spending increases.

Santos: I will balance the budget by raising taxes on the rich. Vinick has written loopholes into the tax code for the rich.

(This totally skirts the fact that lower taxes increase tax revenue by jazzing the economy. Grrrr. GRRRRRRR!!!)

Moderator Forrest Sawyer:
Spending Cuts? Specifics?

both evade.


Vinick: Parents want them. Dems blocking them.

Santos: bbffffftttt.

Vinick: Head Start doesn't work! (audience audibly ooohs/booos)

Santos: Head Start works, but we lose the progress once the kids start school.(He doesn't cite any relevant studies or statistics for this assertion.)

Forrest Sawyer threatens Vinick re: civility.

(I call bullshit. Vinick paid for that microphone!)

Vinick: stop pretending everyone can and should go to college, or that everyone can and should go to MIT.( Excellent!)

Santos demgogues Vinick: so you're just going to give up on those Head Start kids. I'm going to stake my Presidency on improving public education.

Health Care

Vinick: make health care tax deductible.

Santos: this unfairly penalizes low income Americans.(a fair point, as far as I can see.) Nationalize health care.

Vinick: impossible to do effectively.

Santos: my ideal plan: let all Americans have the equivalent of Medicare benefits. Private insurance companies spend 25% on administrative costs. Medicare spends 2% on admin costs. (this is horribly misleading. Medicare is huge - this cuts admin. costs on a percentage basis. Also, Medicare is notorious for getting ripped off by Drs and health care vendors. Medicare pays mind boggling vendor ripoff costs, b/c they almost never investigate anyone who may be ripping them off.) Medicare is the most efficient healthcare system in the world. (oh my God! can't breathe... must .. calm... down) Takes gratuitous shot at HMOs. (Santos is saying Socialism will work! roll eyes here.) Santos takes shot at Pharmaceutical Companies.

Vinick defends Pharma Co's: amazing accomplishments - they save lives. (this has the following benefit for Dems: it identifies real life Repubs as defenders of Pharma Co's. Still, I'm glad to see it. If there's a Pharma Co problem, the solution is more Pharma Co competition - not more govt. We may need to check that Congress hasn't passed laws which prevent new Pharma competition from entering the market. The FDA may be guilty of such barriers to entering the Pharma market. It would be good to take a look at that.)

Canadian drug price limits are unfair to Pharma Co's. Aids drugs in Africa. (Boring).

Vinick: Tax cuts will help impoverished countries of Africa. They have the highest tax rates in the world. Keeps their people poor, and without capital for building things, and without ability to attract foreign business investment. Those nations have high tax rates to prove to us they can pay back our massive loans. Therefore, we have encouraged those nations to lock themselves into economic depression. In this situation, our charity will never be enough.(good stuff)

On commercial now - they have written in parts where each candidate gets a bit tongue tied and flustered. This is good, since we haven't seen a good Presidential debater in a long time. The best debater of my lifetime? Cheating a bit: Dick Cheney. He is fantastic at zeroing in on the important points. If you could combine Cheney with Reagan's charisma, you would have supercandidate!(and mass Dem suicide.)


Santos: technical bs answer.

Vinick: I would cut jobs in my first term.. I will reduce the number of jobs in the federal govt. The Presidents job is to get out of the way of private business.

Santos: Government needs to interfere with (implied corrupt) CEOs - such as Airline CEOs running their airlines into bankruptcy.

Santos: Abe Lincoln was a liberal Republican President, then Repubs got pissed off and ran liberals out of their party. (Santos hints, IMO, that Repubs are racist meanies.)

Santos makes long speech about accomplishments of Dems over years - with no response from Vinick!! Vinick folded! Damnit.

Death Penalty

Gun Control

Vinick: pro 2nd amendment

Santos: we need bullet control.(roll eyes here)

Oil and Energy

Santos demagogues Vinick's Oil Industry ties(via campaign contributors?).

Vinick apologizes for his tone!! (I call triple bullshit!!! Bs Bs Bs!!)


Santos: not enough oil to make a difference.

Vinick: we'll never know until we start drilling. Clap if you've ever been to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge?(zero claps. Vinick is very strong here- thank God. How could anyone honestly lose with all the facts on their side?)

Nuclear Power Plants:

Santos: radioactive waste!!

Vinick misspeaks: "nuclear is completely safe"(Repub misspeaking is the only way the Dems could win this argument also. The fix is in.)

Vinick: the market is the thing which can save us. (You preachin' to the choir!)

Santos: Global Warming!! (these days, crying "global warming" is like crying "racism" - it stops all conversational give and take.)

(Vinick may stroke out at some point. He's getting pretty hot.)

Santos: I will never go to war for oil. (huge applause) I invite Sen. Vinick to join me in that pledge.

Vinick: Oil is a commodity. You don't have to shoot people to get oil. You just have to pay for it.(Vinick refuses to take Santos' pledge. More to come later in the campaign about this. My antennae are up.)

Closing Statements

Santos: govt is good. free market = scary, dangerous bogey man. I grew up a poor (Mexican) child. I'm not using my race as an advantage! I'm so virtuous for not having done so!

Vinick: Thanks Santos for dropping the rules. Different ideas about govt. I have more confidence in freedom. I don't want any more govt than we can afford. I don't want govt trying to do things it can't do. (Hooray!) The Presidential Choice = more govt vs. getting control of govt. (Hooray!) The Presidency needs experience and muture judgment.
(You preachin to the choir again! Vinick is talking about Santos' age, but I say the Dems are children with immature judgment. Do not let the children get their hands on the nation's controls!)

Final Analysis: Hollywood writers did as good a job as they could've of presenting conservative ideas they don't believe in. Very commendable. Alan Alda did as good a job as he could've of presenting ideas he doesn't believe in. Very commendable. That said, as presented, Hollywood made sure Santos won the debate by a narrow margin. Further, the Santos campaign will grab onto Vinick's refusal to take the "no war for oil pledge", and they will hammer Vinick with it for weeks. As they hammer Vinick, the West Wing writers will be metaphorically hammering President Bush. Blegh. Maybe the writers will surprise me by having Vinick eventually and effectively answer this scurrilous charge - which will pave the way for a Vinick campaign victory.* We shall see.

Final Grade: A+. Really. Outstanding episode.

* I'm not very excited about a possible Vinick campaign victory. I'm suspicious. It seems logical that writers who do not believe in conservative ideas will always find subtle, maybe even unconscious, ways to make a conservative President look bad. Ditto for Alan Alda. He's a decent guy, but it makes me queasy to think of him making the case for conservative causes.