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.

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