Thursday, May 21, 2009

Stepping Up

Boredom, pangs of guilt, jealous of what I perceived were the productive lives of normal Americans, perhaps even the beginnings of altruism that I was learning about in my studies of Tibetan Buddhism--for an amalgam of reasons I volunteered to work in the classroom at the Shriner's Hospital for Children.

The year before, I had volunteered to feed baby birds at the rescue center in Sacramento, a small neighborhood house that had been converted to a nursery filled with the chirpers, strays, wounded and abandoned critters that dropped onto lawns or ended up in suburban backyards by the thousands. It was a stinky, noisy house, with hundreds of bins of hungry chicks that came through the massive flyway of California's Central Valley and were left to die or provide food for snakes, coyotes, and feral cats. In the end, I cut short the commitment, growing weary of stuffing worms into the endless open mouths, watching dead babies go into the trash.

So, in the spring of the new year, I filled out the paperwork for the background check and clearance forms to volunteer at the Shriner's. Since the 1920's, those men in the red fez hats have opened free hospitals across the country for the treatment of orthopedic conditions, burns, cleft lip and palates, and spinal cord injuries in children. In Sacramento, the hospital treated children from around the country and Central American countries, flying them in by helicopter, putting their family members in adjacent dormitories, restoring lives and lending hope to helpless amputees, kids scorched in home fires and automobile accidents, keeping up their schoolwork, teaching them how to play again, educating kids back home that when their disfigured friend came back how horrible it would be to make fun of them.

I had always wondered what kind of fools paraded around in silly red hats, smoked stogies at small town pancake breakfasts, or shot hands of cards while seated around the table at country fairs. They're angels. In Sacramento, they drove vans for hours on end to local and distant airports, picking up unfortunate accident victims and their families and ferrying them to the hospital. They put on clown make-up and dazzled bed-ridden kids with magic tricks, or they brought in specially trained animals to sit bedside and put smiles on faces--faces grimly webbed with burn scars or on those who had no arms to cradle a kitten.

In my first year out of school, I had taken a job on a daily newspaper in a college town just a few miles from Sacramento on the wide delta. I worked a 50-hour week for $85, and went home to pass out. I rode around the town's sprawling bike paths, coached a Pop Warner football team, but had few friends except for the fellow from San Francisco who sold me grass. That was until he passed out one night on his couch, his burning joint setting fire to the paisley tapestry that hung overhead, and ended up in the hospital burn unit, unable to regain consciousness.

He hung on for a few days, and I ran a blood drive in the newspaper, but after learning about the extent of his wounds, would not go out to visit him and he died in the middle of the night with his family at his bedside. I felt badly about it for years... .

The Shriner's Hospital in Sacramento is built in a wide circle, with bright sunlight streaming down the center into a spacious hall with comfortable couches and luscious foliage. A grand piano sits to one side, etudes played digitally by computer. Music without hands.

There are patient rooms up above, looking more like hotel suites, with family rooms nearby, cozy meeting rooms, cafeteria, laboratories, treatment rooms and gymnasiums, motion-study labs, a prosthesis shop where workers tirelessly create legs with brightly painted sneakers or shiny patent leather shoes attached on the ends, seamstresses completing detail work in sequins and flowers as for a debutante ball. A room filled with legs and hands and shoes and dresses.

But even the training sessions and pep talks I received could not prepare me. Here was a seven year-old girl from Mexico, where the building codes were slack and the scalp was blown from her head in a sudden arc of electricity, passing out the bottoms of her feet and taking the toes along into the ground. And later, in the classroom, I attempted to teach subject-verb agreement to a teenager who, now rendered motionless from his neck down by a dive off of a pier in Kauai, answered multiple choice questions in a clear, steady voice with noble acceptance until it cracked when he told me he had leaped off that pier for years, swimming in the blue bay with dolphins and turtles, but on the singular day miscalculated the wind.

And I, with few troubles in life save for the ones that constantly arise of my own making with want, and expectations, and a constant thirst for more, more, more of that, please....

"I don't know what to do," I told the volunteer coordinator one day. "I don't know what to say, how to act, nothing."

"Just look them in the eye," she said. "That's all they want from you."

But in the end I couldn't do it. I went a few times afterward, then stopped going. It was feeding birds all over again. No instant gratification in it at all, just endless open mouths. Perhaps I'm being a little hard on myself, but I doubt it. It takes character to follow through. I imagine normal people do it all the time. Guys in silly hats, smoking cigars for crying out loud. But fewer and fewer young men today are drawn to fraternal organizations and, some day, this may all go away.

"Normal," my friend Don says, "is a setting on a clothes dryer."

But I was thinking the experience would give me something else, something more tangible, maybe something to boast about. Maybe I'm boasting now. Like leaping off a tall pier in front of my friends.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Spun Out

Although I live in the woods, I am still a Brooklyn boy at heart. I've never gone spelunking, parachuting, or rappelling. But in my third year of recovery, I agreed to try whitewater rafting. I had floated in a canoe down the Yukon River in Alaska and bounced along in an inner tube down the North Fork of the American River, had paddled a sea kayak in the freezing waters of the Pacific Northwest, but the notion of dropping down a wild canyon in a raft seemed just a little too daring--until I was invited by the mayor to tag along on a two-day trip down a tributary of the fearsome Snake River in Idaho.

The mayor had a grown son who ran the raft trips down the class four rapids. He knew what he was doing, the mayor said. All I had to do was put on a vest and helmet, sit in the raft, and row when directed, he said. The mayor said his son knew every bump and curve of the Lochsa, could do it in his sleep.

The river begins in the Bitterroot Mountains and descends through forty rapids over the course of 20 miles. It runs unimpeded along dense groves of cedars, spinning through holes as large as a ranch house, with aptly named rapids called House Wave, The Grim Reaper, Bloody Mary, and Termination.

As we drove across Washington State to the Idaho border the mayor and I talked recovery. We talked about God and how the majestic plains of southeast Washington flowed like a golden sea in the sunset. We camped at dusk and woke to the smell of fresh coffee and bacon, and the chugging air compressor that was filling our rafts.

What the mayor did not say, or did not know, was that his son loved to smoke as much marijuana as he could along the wild river. And when we reached our first beach for a drinking water break, our guide whipped out his pipe and begin to choke down clouds of sweet smoke. I passed, but two other people on our raft took a hit or two before we climbed back in the boat.

The mayor had long since gone ahead in another craft, so I was stuck in the front of our raft for the duration, which now played out in a cascading series of gut wrenching drops between walls of water. Our guide's advice: no matter what, stay in the boat.

He took a last blast of pot before we turned into a rushing artery that raced up to a wall of granite where it bubbled and descended into darkness. We followed. The roar seemed to ebb as we smacked bottom and jetted out into another series of short, gurgling drops, each new bend curving green and white over mossy rocks into a curtain of spray.

It was like landing on concrete, and when my eyes cleared from the mist I saw that my companions had been thrown from the raft. Only my guide, grinning and whooping, remained aboard, jerking at the rudder, trying to free us from the whirlpool into which we'd careened rather haplessly at the bottom of a sudden drop.

I held fast to the raft, straddled out, legs tucked into the lines at the back, head high as the world raced by in a nauseating fury. My guide shifted his weight, but each time we completed a revolution, the raft slid back into the center of the whirlpool and twirled again and again.

On the rocks above, kayakers tossed us lifelines, but none came close enough, and my guide pitched against the side, jerking wildly at the yoke. "You're doing great!" he shouted above the roar. "Keep it up."

I had no idea what I was doing that was so great, nor what to keep up. With each spin, I saw my fellow passengers ahead on a sunny rock, dripping dry and laughing. I thought of hopping out to join them, but the force of the spin pinned me at the bottom of the raft. At the end of each orbit, my guide tried to knife us out into the current. He stood and for a moment, I feared he'd leave me there.

With a sudden lurch, the raft skipped out into the stream again and my guide aimed us for the bank where our companions waited. I climbed out, my head spinning and a sour ache in my belly, and found a rock to call my home. I wasn't moving.

But my guide raced up and offered a high five. "You rock," he said. "You can run with me any damn time!"

Years later, I still have no idea what I had done to please him so. But when we took out at the end of the run, I found the mayor and advised him to reacquaint himself with his son. I was taking the next day off, if he didn't mind. I was going to sit by the side of the Lochsa and meditate on the blessings in life, even if that made me a wimp and a city boy.

But, you know, I couldn't wait to try it again.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Gastronomic Judaism

Our family sailed through the 1950s and 1960s on the wave of convenience foods and fads, but my mother insisted on tradition when the holidays rolled around. Saturday through Thursday we dined on meat loaf, skirt steaks, chicken, and occasional TV dinners. Vegetables came from the can--usually peas and carrots--and we had a slice of melon before the meal in the summertime.

Fridays, in some bizarre reflection of old world culture, mom celebrated "dairy day". I thought only Catholics celebrated that. For us, it meant frozen fishsticks from the box, tuna casserole, or the occasional fillet. I hated Fridays. Sundays, however, we went out to eat somewhere to give mom a break, usually Chinese or Italian food.

Some nights, when the Dodgers were in San Francisco and the game was on the tube, we had pizza or hamburgers or TV dinners in the den and watched the battle in black and white. I tasted my first beer then, when dad offered a sip off of his can of Busch. My parents drank so infrequently it was a treat. Later, it made me confused to think that alcoholism was considered predetermined by your genes since I could count on one hand the number of times I witnessed my parents drunk.

Whatever we ate, my favorite portion was the largest piece of anything. I was a preemie, a scrawny kid that the nurse held in one hand, and so my mother made sure I never went wanting. I usually ended up with whatever she hadn't finished slid over from her plate.

Into her 80s, my mother still cooks spreads for the holidays, getting down the fancy plates and silverware, the goblets and glassware, and the crystal salt and pepper shakers. She opens up the dining room table, adding the extra boards that lengthen it for family, putting down the pads and white linen.

The Jewish holidays are spaced throughout the year, matching up with the seasonal holidays celebrated by gnostic tribal traditions before the formalized Judaic-Christian feasts of spring, fall, and winter. And each arrives with its special symbolic foods and wine. On Passover, the table opened out to seat uncles and aunts and cousins, sometimes a distant relative who strayed to the West Coast. By turns we had Sol and Fay, Shirley and Mort and Naomi, Bobbie and Les, and Jerry and Beth, and when it was a large crowd, my brother and sister and I were banished to a folding bridge table reserved for kids.

My father issued the faith wear, yarmulkes for all who would take them, then he'd sit at the head of the table and work his way through the seder book, taking as long as possible to march through the prayers until my mother scowled and went into the kitchen to bring out bowls of chicken matzoh-ball soup, announcing that the prayers were over.

We ate chopped chicken livers on matzoh, gefilte fish with horseradish, soup with matzoh dumplings, beef brisket, potato latkes with sour cream, asparagus, pickles, olives, and more matzoh, followed by coffee and kosher pastries and cookies that, frankly, tasted like cardboard.

On holidays where we could eat leavened flour, Mom and I would usually drive over to the bakery by Dales to pick up a challah or rye bread. We ate chopped liver on rye with mustard or ketchup. I am decidedly a ketchup guy. And I never refer to it by its gentile spelling, catsup. (Oddly enough, the word originates as ke-tsiap, a Chinese word for fish sauce.) On rare occasions, a relative would mail out a sleeve of Nathan's hot dogs from Coney Island and I'd slather it with ketchup, much to the dismay of my mother, who is a mustard gal.

Whenever I go home, even if it's between holidays, my mother always has some frozen brisket for me to take back on the airplane. When I was in college, I'd go home for holiday meals and drive back with a care package of kosher food and freshly folded laundry. One thanksgiving, I stopped along the long, lonely stretch of Interstate 5 to pick up a hitcher, a scraggly fellow who hadn't eaten in a while. When he got out near San Jose, I gave him a box of matzoh, a glass jar of gefilte fish, and a bottle of borscht (red Russian juice with slivers of beets). I wonder if he left it on the side of the road.

In the mid 1980s, when I was teaching at the University of Illinois, I was invited to a Thanksgiving pot luck and decided to try my hand at baking a challah. It's a braided loaf of egg bread with raisins, onions, and seeds, coated with yolk and baked until the outside has a golden, crispy crust. It's easy to make and it confers great honor on you since it looks like a labor of love. And it should be.

After the first success, it became my dish of choice for pot lucks. For one thing, it was always larger than the turkey, and therefore drew great and astonished praise. And, best of all, there was always enough for everyone. For days, I'd make french toast from the leftovers. I borrowed the recipe from an Eastern European cookbook, sometimes using poppy seeds instead of sesame.

Here's how you do it:

  • 2 teaspoons (or packets) of instant yeast
  • 3 1/2 cups of pre-sifted, unbleached all-purpose flour (or substitute one cup of whole wheat)
  • 1/4 cup very warm water
  • 4 large eggs, plus 3 for the batter, one for coating the risen loaf before baking
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup softened honey
  • one onion, chopped, two cups of raisins (optional)
  • sesame or poppy seeds
Mix the yeast, honey, and warm water in a bowl and let it rise for 15 minutes.

In a separate bowl, add oil, beaten eggs, yeast mixture, salt, and that order. Mix thoroughly, adding onions and raisins (optional). Form a large ball of dough (if too dry, add a little water); coat the ball with oil and let it rise under a warm cloth for half an hour.

Punch it down, and let it rise again, with a freshly warmed cloth for another hour and a half in a warm place.

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper and coat it with oil. Divide the dough into one long strip and two shorter strips and let each rise for another 15 minutes.

Lay the long strip in the center, attach the two shorter strips at one end and knead the end into a single piece. Braid the shorter strips around the large center piece and knead the opposite end when done. Paint the top with beaten egg yolk and dot with seeds of your choice.

Put the loaf into a preheated 325°F oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. It's done when a toothpick pressed into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Let it cool on a rack before slicing. You can easily cover it in plastic wrap to schlep it elsewhere. Smile when people worship you. Tear off pieces and butter liberally.

Repeat as necessary.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Catch and Release

We were having a rough time--me with life, you with me--and we took a day out of the struggle to go swimming. I suppose I could undergo years of therapy to understand why I took out Alabama on you, but let's just say I was a mean fool. The relentless heat and humidity, the overbearing pace of grad school, the rapist that came to the screen door that day, the cockroaches marching in the leaves at night, the acrid fog of mosquito spray in the air, the relentless questions about whether we were married and which church we attended, the seemingly endless parade of objectionable morons with guns, including the idiot in the yard next door who shot bee-bees into a writhing squirrel he had locked in a cage... . It was all too much.

So it was off to Lake Nicol and the cool water we had heard so much about north of Tuscaloosa proper, out beyond the yacht club, tucked between the quarries along New Watermelon Road. We had a cooler of soda pop and sandwiches. We were planning a soft day. I left the books at home, the novels for that survey in modern British literature, my half-drafted short story about dog racing. What was it you left behind that morning?

Was it the resentment that you had followed me out to Alabama and its withering heat from our lovely home in the woods overlooking Monterey Bay and 65-degree summer fog? That you left the comfort of a loving family and a decent-paying job to take your place in the Women's Study department with its office in, of all places, Manley Hall? You must have left a lot behind that morning on our drive to Lake Nicol, because you were loving and kind and happy.

You had your new car with its moonroof and bright paint and the sun danced between the kudzu vines and dappled the road in shadows. We stopped at a country store at Sexton Bend for ice and laughed uneasily at the Rebel flags and fishing worms in the cooler, the Styrofoam cups of nightcrawlers stored right beside foil-wrapped sandwiches and microwave burritos.

By the spillway we stopped and watched the columns of heat rising off the water and the rooster tails of speedboats crisscrossing the lake. It was a struggle to get out of the air conditioned car, grab the blankets and food from the trunk, and head down the dirt track to the picnic area. Before we had gone 50 yards, we were soaked in sweat and your hand was wet when I took it in mine. Lord knows we needed a break.

But once we were under the shade of the pines and changed into our swim trunks, we saw that swimming would be impossible. Out on the landing, where the sand sloped into the cool green lake, hundreds of cottonmouths sunned on the rocks and darted through the water. You flushed and looked for a place to sit, but they were everywhere around us, and even as we went back under the pine trees, we saw them under the tables and curled around the fire pit, slithering through the brush, moving through the shadows, all around where we had left our clothes.

That night, back in our hotbox apartment, trapped in the bedroom where we had the single window air conditioner, we lay in bed watching bad television, rushing out for a quick dip in the bathtub we had filled with cold water, and back atop the towels we spread out over the sheets. At 3am it was still 103 degrees out in the dark Tuscaloosa night, with two more months of summer stretching out before us, venomous. It was a very small room and that night the kitty brought a cockroach into bed as a prize between her teeth.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


"Half the world is crazy and the other half is scared."
-- Phil Ochs.

Shortly after the corporations found the Texas imbecile to represent their policies around the globe--to plump up their offshore holdings and cripple the American middle class--Dale was shipped out to Afghanistan. He was a monster of flesh, rising over 6'6", with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. Born and raised in the quiet towns of Oregon's Willamette Valley, Dale longed to do good for himself and his family. He'd flunked out of school, was arrested for alcohol-fueled pranks and misconduct, starred in football, but was a dismal failure in the eyes of his brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts.

I learned about his battlefield exploits in short asides that would leak out in innocuous conversations about weather or sports. He'd been home from the war and began anew the trajectory into rage and frustration, shoved out into the streets after battering holes in his father's living room walls with his fists. Alcohol steadied his nerves for an hour, but as he kept on drinking, he overshot the mark and began practicing hand-to-hand without discriminating between animate objects and just any old thing.

The Corps wanted nothing to do with him, kicking him out for alcoholism and mental illness. They washed their hands of him and turned their attention to fresh recruits. Dale said he had been prescribed depression medication in basic training but once they shipped him overseas the Corps decided either he no longer needed it or that it was too much trouble to find some for him. He said he felt excited when he killed, but sad and lonely afterward, that he could make up any number of stories in his mind about the women and children they killed. He said believed he was doing good, but was haunted. He and his fellows would kick dogs that lay in the streets, stupefied from concussions.

The stories slipped into conversations we had in coffee shops about recovery and how to live without alcohol. They slipped out when we sat in the park on summer mornings before the Sacramento heat took all energy out of you. We read the recovery books, swapping turns, and Dale stopped in the middle of his paragraphs because his mind went elsewhere. I'd sit and wait and smile at him. Told him how well he was doing.

He was living in a recovery home not far from where we held our meetings, sharing a house with a dozen other men who were trying to find a way out from a walled-up life. Dale had his own room now, decorated with posters of heavy metal bands and football players he admired. He had a devilish grin that flashed when you had no other indication he was in the same conversation, let alone the same room with you.

The fellows in the recovery home went everywhere together like so many ducklings in the road. In this war, you survived by safety in numbers and by sticking to the middle of the pack. It was more difficult that way to get picked off by the sniper in your head. Guys loved Dale and when I went over to read literature with him, they joked about his clumsiness drying dishes or how he'd scorched the macaroni dinner, mindlessly letting all the water boil out the bottom of the kettle.

On our happiest day, he came over to my apartment for the Fourth of July. It was brutally hot, so we strung canopies over the plastic patio tables and chairs that circled the swimming pool. He wolfed down ribs and chicken and chugged soda pop, and made cannonballs in the pool, his huge body a sudden flash in the air, then the center of rippling waves, his head pink in the sun.

In Sacramento, the locals were at odds about the war and a familiar chasm opened between us all. Guys in over-sized pickup trucks bearing flags roamed the streets, honking their horns. Across from the apartment complex, a Victorian house where a lesbian couple lived had a chart in their window, tallying the war dead .

At dusk we took the stairs to the roof to watch the fireworks explode over the fairgrounds. The roof had weak patches, which scared me, but Dale hopped up and down on them with sadistic delight. The fireworks flashed in his eyes. And as the party wound down, he was the last to go home.

It had taken me a long time to get over my own sense of shame of using a medical deferment to escape service in the Vietnam War. My draft number was among the lowest, which meant I was among the first to go. But I went to college instead and marched against the war, mostly for feeling at home among like-minded people, for the parties, drugs, and easy sex. Unlike many protesters, I did not resent soldiers who had been less fortunate with deferments or who had volunteered for duty, and I was not among the haters who spat upon them when they came home. I was mostly sad about the whole thing.

And when I reached recovery in Port Townsend, I was surrounded with vets who had returned to addiction and despair. I learned to shake their hands and welcome them home. I sat in coffee shops with guys who couldn't sit with their backs to the door, who had buried the living as well as the dead in trash pits in the jungle. With friends who had lost their hearing after manning cannons, or who now walked with braces on their withered legs and had no ill will after gaining traction in recovery. I made friends with the colonel who had come home in alcoholic rage and attempted to throw his wife through a high-story window. He had, at last, found an uneasy peace within our company. The military, I learned, had done little for them after their release. So when I learned that the Texas imbecile had not attended a single military funeral for Iraqi-war veterans, I had to redouble my recovery work to dilute my own rage.

The week after the Fourth of July, I went to the recovery house for a routine meeting with Dale, but he had gone. He had exploded again, this time ripping the kitchen sink from the wall, and had been dismissed. None of his friends knew where he went after he tossed his posters in the trash, rolled up his sleeping bag, and walked off into the night. He said he would phone them, but he never did.

Weeks passed and the ducklings continued to trail into our meetings. One by one, they graduated or were kicked out from the recovery home and went off into whatever lives they could muster. Eventually the last man who had known Dale was gone into the world.

The ones that live, they're amongst us now.

Monday, May 4, 2009


In the 1890s, march king Phillip Sousa was looking to replace the hélicon--an outdated small-bore instrument in common band usage at the time. Sousa wanted a beefy instrument with the range of the tuba and a massive horn that blasted deep sound over the top of the other musicians. In outdoor use, the original Sousaphone had an upright bell that was good only at catching rain or tossed peanuts. But manufacturers responded to Sousa's request for a bell that pointed forward, toward the audience--a change that revolutionized marching music, enabling the player to carry the weight of the tuba on his shoulder as he (or today, she) plowed along a parade route.

The sousaphone has a bell with a 26-inch diameter, is played by buzzing your lips into a huge metal mouthpiece, and you change notes by pressing a combination of three piston valves. Consequently, the horn eventually fills with moisture from condensation, which the musician can drain by opening a small valve called a "water key" at the bottom of the curve where the horn wraps around the body.

The b-flat sousaphone I carried weighed close to 30 pounds and after you marched five miles in a parade, your left shoulder hung noticeably lower than your right and it had a wicked throb. If you actually played the horn--which I could not do--the circular end of the mouthpiece left a red ring about your lips, as if you had spent hours French-kissing a harpy.

I had been in the San Fernando Valley Youth Band, an independent collection of kids from junior high age to college, who practiced Monday nights on difficult classical orchestral charts that had been arranged for brass band, then we went outside the last half hour and marched in place while blasting out Sousa marches. We held an annual, formal concert playing overtures and symphonies by Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Shostakovitch, Holst, and others; but the balance of the year we performed at Christmas festivals, played for July Fourth celebrations, and marched in parades around California.

The trademark performance in the street was a Texas squaredance where the band separated into two facing lines while the sousaphone players skipped between like mad dervishes, wheeling about as the music rose to its finale. Unfortunately, there weren't enough trained tuba players to handle all the squaredance parts for the marching band, so tall and stocky woodwind players were pressed into "ringer" duty. That meant carrying that lacquered brass monster like a heroin habit for hours in parade formation, pretending to operate the valves, and wheeling around in the squaredance on asphalt roads covered with slick, green horseshit.

I didn't mind the attention it brought me--relished it, rather--but, frankly, the horn created a metallic vacuum around your face when you put your lips to the mouthpiece. I knew not a note, but blew into it anyway. The sousaphone had an odor of its own, a hint of iron and years of spit, and an alchemy of sour chemical tastes I had never since experienced.

We sousaphones marched in the last row of the band, musical pariahs in the fashion of today's exiled cigarette smokers. We were the last to know about a turn in the road, last to hear the drum major's whistle over the din of the percussion, the only musicians who went bare headed in the mid-day sun of so many summer's parades. But five or six times over the length of march, we strutted to the center of the squaredance formation and spun like behemoths from the iron age.

And, blissfully, no one was ever hurt. We fell plenty of times, denting the bells or earning a bruise the shape of the horn on our obliques and backs, or simply plopping on our asses, legs spraddled on the ground, the horn still coiled about us like a cobra, the bell glinting in the sun. In all my time as a ringer, I never saw anyone truly embarrassed, for it was all perfectly wonderful theater in its sheer idiocy.

Sometimes I think of my dance partners. I wonder if Matt Garbutt, now a symphony conductor in tails and tux, ever recounts the squaredance to his peers. I wonder what happened to Russ Quisenberry, too, after he went to Silicon Valley with his family to work in technology.

After the marching season ended and we were seated again on the orchestra risers, I took my place among the clarinets and, one Monday evening during a ferocious symphonic passage, I looked up in time to see Russ, red faced and blowing his heart out, topple backwards, his sousaphone bell leading the way as he plunged off the riser and onto the floor with an ugly clatter and bang.

Undaunted, we roared towards the finale as he struggled to his feet, playing like life depended on volume, chasing the final notes with the unleashed fury of lovers.