Alexander, the Not So Great

If my name had been Alexander, it would have made sense.  The morning at my junior high school hadn’t started out well, what with being sent to Mr. Chapa’s office for running in the hall.  Okay, so it actually started before that, when I missed the bus and my mom got me to school late.  After picking up my books from my locker, I was running to math class, but one of the teachers stopped me and sent me to the Assistant Principal.  “Paul, this is the third time this semester I’ve seen you in here,” he reminded me sternly.  “The next time, you’ll be getting swats.  For now, two afternoons of detention, but I don’t want to see you in here again!”  I assured him he wouldn’t, knowing that he would, and went to math class, only to have Debbie Gordon write on my shirt (in ink!) as she sat behind me.  What a day!  And my name wasn’t even Alexander!

But, like the protagonist of that popular children’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”, it really was to be, well…just that.  After math, I stumbled through a few more classes which I hated.  Nothing bad really happened there, but never fear, that would change.  I headed for the one class I loved – Band.  Our band director, Mr. Olson, remains to this day, one of my favorite teachers.  He just had a knack for making you feel special, complimenting you when you got a difficult passage right, exulting with you when you had practiced for hours to be able to challenge the guy ahead of you in the seating arrangement and bested him.  My guess is that he commiserated with the loser in much the same way, to make him feel better, encouraging him to work harder the next time.  Band was the one place where this young nerd felt at ease and free to express himself.

On this day, that expression of myself was to be a big problem.  As Mr. Olson explained a fingering pattern to the flutes, Randy, who sat next to me in the horn section, and I started poking at each other.  All of the sudden, my horn…really the school’s horn, slipped off of my lap and to the floor with a crash.  The discussion with the flutes ceased instantaneously, all eyes focusing on me, and my face turned beet red.  An angry Mr. Olson (yeah, he could do angry too) snapped out a question which I didn’t understand.  I thought he said, “Did you get it?”, perhaps wondering if I had caught the horn before it was damaged.  I wasn’t sure, but answered timorously, “Yes.”  He grew even angrier, nearly shouting at me as he told me to put the horn away and get one of the beginner’s single horns to play.  I was mortified, but did as I was told, returning to my seat with the inferior instrument, to finish the period.  Afterward, the other guys told me that he had inquired if I dented the horn, which explained his reaction.  I hadn’t, but it made no difference by that time.

I stumbled through the rest of the day, but it wasn’t finished with me yet.  I had only gotten through the terrible, the horrible, and the no good parts so far.  The very bad was yet to come, although in retrospect, it was actually pretty funny.  That day, I couldn’t laugh about it at all.  I was preparing for All Region tryouts, so I had a private lesson scheduled with Mr. Olson after school.  While I waited my turn for a lesson, I went to warm up in the prop room on the stage, which was just behind the band room.  You went out through a door, up a short flight of steps to the stage, and the door to the room was on the right.  I closed the door, sat down, and began to play a scale.  It was a disaster.  The fingerings were all different and the bore of the horn was smaller, so it sounded bad, and I just couldn’t play anything right.  The time approached for me to meet with Mr. Olson, so I got up to leave the room, but found that the door was jammed!  It was completely stuck shut, and…it opened inward.  No amount of jerking the door knob would budge it.  I shouted; I pounded on the door, but there was no one in the gymnasium, and the other door into the band room was a solid slab of wood, so even shouting didn’t carry to anyone there.  Finally, as my panic subsided, I looked around for something, anything to help me; soon finding a long wooden pole lying on the floor.  Like many classroom doors in those days, there were slats in the lower half of the door, and one of them was broken out.  I stuck the pole out the slot, shoving it to the left and down the stairs, banging it again and again on the door to the band room.  Eventually, someone heard the racket and came up, shoving on the door from the outside as I pulled with all my might on the knob.

Free from that prison at last, I headed for my lesson; ten minutes late.  Once again, Mr Olson wasn’t happy.  By this point, he wasn’t even prepared to listen to my explanation, but as we started the lesson, he softened.  As I gamely struggled to play the notes that had come clearly and effortlessly on the good horn, he made a decision.  “If you hadn’t come to this lesson today, Paul, I was going to make you keep this horn all year.  I’m going to give you another chance.  Don’t make me regret it.”  Unlike the promise to the assistant principal earlier in the day, the promise I made to him was one I knew I could keep.  I’ve never asked him, but I don’t think he ever had a reason to be sorry.

Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days happen.  Sometimes, when they come, I want to go home and wait for tomorrow from the safety of my bedroom.  I’m fairly certain that won’t work.  To get to tomorrow, hopefully a better day, you have to go through today.  The events which are put in our way are there for a purpose, sometimes to help us grow, perhaps to be an example to someone else who is watching.  How we deal with them speaks volumes about our character and our resolve to be who we say we are.

It is, however, a very good thing that those days don’t come every day.  And, when they do come, it helps to know that the bell is going to ring at the end of the school day.  Light at the end of the tunnel brings new hope…unless, of course, it turns out to be an oncoming train…

“To the victor belong the spoils.”
(William L. Marcy~New York Senator & Governor~1786-1857)

“‘I daren’t come and drink,’ said Jill. ‘Then you will die of thirst,’ said the Lion.  ‘Oh dear!’ said Jill, coming another step nearer. ‘I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.’‘There is no other stream,’ said the Lion.”
(C.S. Lewis~from The Silver Chair in The Chronicles of Narnia)

I finally found my keys….

We moved the piano in last week.  I would call it a “new” piano, but it was actually built in the nineteenth century, over one hundred and twenty years ago now.  It was a spur-of-the-moment purchase I made about nine years ago.  A small Steinway upright, it was bought for a song (pun intended), but the real investment began immediately.  A full day was spent traveling all the way up to just south of the Iowa state line and then back, with this unbelievably heavy piano-shaped-object  bringing up the rear in a trailer.  A small breakdown while flying through Kansas City, MO slowed us down and then we were home, tired and discouraged.  We could already see that a lot more investment was to come, both in cash and sweat; that much was guaranteed.

It wasn’t a pretty thing, although what little we could see of the burl walnut wood gave promise that it could be.  It didn’t sound nice at all, although its heritage reassured us that it had that potential also.  But when it arrived in our town, you would have had to be a starry-eyed dreamer to imagine that this mass of blackened wood and rusty metal could ever again be a musical instrument, worthy to be called a piano.

Within weeks, new strings and tuning pins were purchased, waiting for the day when it would be ready to be restrung.  The piano was completely disassembled, from the action all the way down to removal of all the case parts.  You really wouldn’t have looked at the heap of wood and known that there was a fine musical instrument lying there, and for several years, it wasn’t anything approaching that.  After the initial commotion of tearing down and stripping off old finish, our interest lagged, other projects called, and the Steinway languished in the old shop for a number of years. 

Then earlier this year, the piano called again.  I wasn’t up to answering the call (I thought it was really a wrong number), and was all for ditching the whole idea.  But my brother-in-law is a dreamer, and an old hand at seeing the potential in all sorts of hopeless, once-beautiful-but-no-more projects.  This visionary was anxious to make that pile of miscellaneous parts into a restored piece of art that could also make beautiful music again.  Little by little, the piano took shape.  Restringing, along with installing new tunings pins, was only the start.  Rebuilding the action, a real challenge because he was working with century-old technology, then led to the next procedure of staining and finishing.  Step by tedious step, the work progressed, until one day a few weeks ago, he called and said.  “I think we’ve got a piano.”

The piano is still a work-in-progress.  It needs a few more tunings before it will really stay in tune.  There might even be a few of the action repairs that will need to be tweaked a bit.  But this is a beautiful piece of century-old craftsmanship, now renewed and revitalized, and ready to play through the next century or two.  I’m not intending to be around to play it that long, but there might be a grandchild or two who takes a shine to piano playing before it’s all said and done.

What a joy!  To know that the sadly neglected and useless instrument is once again in it’s full glory, bringing forth beautiful music and inspiring the elation that comes unbidden from hearing the sweet melodies and beautiful chords, is nothing short of exhilarating.   If I wasn’t sure that I would severely try your patience, I would sermonize a bit about how much that resembles us in our sorry state and the result of the “touch of the master’s hand”, but I’m pretty sure you have already comprehended that parallel.

For tonight, I’ll just say that I’m grateful for craftsmen in this world who never quit dreaming, for a God in heaven who never quits extending His grace to sinners, and for music that allows us to have a little of heaven right here on earth.

“Pianos are such noble instruments – they’re either upright or grand.”