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So The Dowager Countess Walks Into Tim Horton’s…

It feels like the beginning of a very long joke.

Some couples have movie dates. Some couples curl up on the couch to catch their favorite sitcom. My fiancé is no simple creature, and I am no simple girl. We hit the whole town, see the sites, and spend two and a half hours trying to watch an hour-long episode of Downton Abbey.

It begins very simply – a thought.

Let’s watch Downton Abbey over Skype Monday night, he says.
Fantastic! Right after work, TV date it is, I say.

It becomes a little more complicated – Monday is a horrible, disagreeable day.

Are we still watching Downton Abbey? He asks timidly.
*sniffle* Of course. Why wouldn’t we? I reply.

A terrible afternoon later – in my emotional distress, I strike brilliance.

*blubber-sob-sniff* Y-y-you know what we should do? I ask.
Aww, what’s your idea? He inquires tenderly.
*trumpeting nose blowing* W-we should meet in Warsaw and w-watch together at T-Tim Horton’s!

Brilliant. A date it shall be. I’ll bring my headphones.

Fast forward through my ten minutes in Symphonic Winds, a dinner eaten standing up and a very long night calling answering machines and disapproving parents of alumni – I’m on the road to Warsaw.

Early on in the longer-distance portion of our relationship after his graduation, Matt and I became mildly attached to the town of Warsaw, New York. It’s halfway between Houghton and Corfu, home to a McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s, Tops and Wal-Mart, mom-and-pop shops and a few scattered gas stations. It’s the kind of town where the Wal-Mart closes at ten and you can buy everything there except the items you’re really looking for. You itch and squirm watching emaciated cats slink around the dumpsters behind a popular family diner, but you make up for your disgust by watching puppies play through the pet store window around the corner. It’s not a lot to look at, but it has a settled, quiet feeling of familiarity. It’s this place we know.

After a half-hour of driving hunched like Quasimodo, squinting into the dark, singing along to my iPod, and almost making raccoon confetti, I pull into the coffee shop and wait for Matt. He arrives only a few minutes after, dark chocolate and flowers in hand (daisies, my favorite), and proceeds to tell me that our friend Timmy Horton does NOT have Wi-Fi, but his greasy older brother McDonald’s definitely will. Bemoaning my temporary lack of coffee, I accept his gifts with bubbliness and joy, and we hop in Nanny McPhee (his car, another story for another time) and drive a minute down the street.

Entering McDonalds, we immediately discover that fast food joints don’t usually cater to the soulful coffee shop writer or the productive businessman on his lunch break – the only power outlet is right in front of the main counter. Besides this fact, they are closing their dining room in ten minutes. I spent five of those ten minutes with my laptop perched on a half-wall attempting to connect to the free internet. The second five minutes was spent ordering chicken popcorn dippers and starting the download of our episode from iTunes.

Unfortunately, the world is not a wish-granting factory* and the episode will not magically download in five minutes.

Fortunately, the kind employees informed me they would still have the Wi-Fi active and I could pick it up from the parking lot.

Unfortunately, my laptop battery has the energy of a sugar-rushed toddler – it musters massive excitement and productivity for two minutes and then crashes out-cold for hours.

Fortunately, I have an AC adapter in my car so I can run my computer out of the cigarette lighter.

Unfortunately, my car is still at Tim Horton’s with the cops stationed across the street and the creepy guy sitting smoking in his parked Volvo.

Fortunately, as we walk out the door to the parking lot, I spot an outlet conveniently placed on the front of the building, nestled in the landscaping.

Plug ‘er in.

Why drive a whole two minutes in warmth and comfort when you have outdoor power access? Like some sort of dignified crack addict, I snuggle comfortably in the mulch against the plate-glass front window of Mickey D’s and munch on my food while the episode starts its lengthy download – 45 minutes. We came all this way for Downton Abbey. If it means a little mulch on my jeans and cold chicken plus the judgment of total strangers pulling in for a late-night snack, so be it. We need our fix of noble Lord Grantham, the snarky Dowager Countess, dashing (and lame) Matthew Crawley and our utter despising of Thomas the Unbearable… and the whole host of other cast members. But those are the ones we talk back to the most. Or yell at. Or refuse to acknowledge at all.

Ten minutes later: one eighth of the episode is downloaded, the internet is on the fritz, my hands are frozen stiff and all that is left of my chicken is oily cardboard and some honey mustard. The time is  11:30 p.m. Matt has the level-headed idea to pack up and drive over to Tops to check on their internet situation, if there even is one. After leaving me in the car and running inside, he returns from the scout to report the good news that Tim Horton’s employees are big fat liars and they-do-so have internet. They just deny it to keep away the riffraff. We’re not riffraff, we’re just BBC fiends. The second good news is that if TH boots us out, a restaurant in town keeps their wireless on all night and we can get it from two blocks away. Back in the car we go.

We know better than to just skip in the door flaunting our internet usage all over the store. We craftily enter, order drinks and a red velvet brownie and take a seat in a corner. Good, paying customers are worthy to stay and peruse the web while drinking out of the fine beige china. Again, the laptop makes an appearance. And again, disappointment… there really is no internet. Tops workers are horribly misinformed. Downton Abbey is rapidly becoming Downturn Abbey, and Hannah is getting tired.

Rather than just surrender, the determination of young fools in love (with both each other and their Masterpiece soap opera) drives us to the next realistic solution – parking Errol Flynn (my car, the swashbuckling Honda Accord) in the dark restaurant parking lot in town, sketchily sitting in the backseat while the car idles without its lights. For the first time in history, a couple is only using a car’s backseat for innocently watching British television together on a much-needed date after a very long and miserable day.

In actuality, hooking up the computer to my stereo provided us with the best viewing experience to date. Our internet held and we streamed the episode from PBS with only one brief wireless glitch. The sound was good, the episode was intense, the coffee was comforting and delicious and the company was the absolute best. Parting ways an hour or so later, we both agreed it was another successful midnight adventure for the Bear and the Trundlebug.

The punch line? Two best friends just came to see what Warsaw.

Because this episode of Downton Abbey was set in World War 1?


I think we’re done here.




*Thanks for this brilliant phrase go to John Green from The Fault in Our Stars

** Be grateful. Your alternative was a joke about the invasion of Poland.

A Musical Matter of Trust… and Kansas

I have the unbelievable pleasure of getting to play with the classic rock band KANSAS this weekend.

Talk about a direct opening.

As an orchestra, we’ve been working our fingers to the bone (in my case, quite literally – callouses the size of Tic-Tacs) to prepare for this concert. Some of the music is quite complex and chock-full of runs and strange rhythms and, for us basses, long pauses.  There’s a good chance we won’t even have a full house, but the band will be here, we’ll be ready to play, and the people attending are in for what I believe will be a great show.

I’m stoked. I’ve interviewed Styx face-to-face with the Contemporary Youth Orchestra, I’ve met the drummer for Lynyrd Skynyrd, I’ve been a tour bus away from Alice Cooper. Now, I have the opportunity to rock out on my bass and be a part of a classic rock experience. Pure thrill. I’m even missing my family clambake, an event I have attended loyally since my conception. It’s true, rock CAN come between family. But it’s an experience I may only get once, and I’m loving it.

Yesterday during a long rehearsal, I was waiting for my cue in “Point of Know Return” and our conductor (who hopefully will read this at some point) made a comment about the guest conductor who works with the band. He’ll be the one conducting us on the night of the show. We’ve never played with him before and tomorrow will be our first interactions. My mind wandered to the times in high school when we had the chance to play with a guest conductor, and I felt a pang of discomfort. For anyone who has ever been a part of an ensemble or small group or organization, you know the slight unease when facing a new leader. Even if the position is temporary, there’s a new face and a new way of thinking and a new movement in the room. You’re expected to act and play the same way with someone you have perhaps never met. You may never see them again.

For me, this experience ends up feeling very unsettling. It’s not a lack of confidence in my own abilities, or in the abilities of the guest or my fellow musicians. I know the incoming conductor has years of experience with a plethora of groups and venues, and I know that we know the music relatively well. The issue lies in that I don’t know this man – I have never been under his direction, I don’t know his technique or body language or cues or style. I have the same problem with graduate students. Someone new steps onto the podium, and I can play the right notes with enthusiasm, but they lack… heart and trust.

With a conductor I know, one who I’ve played under for almost four years and who welcomed me to Houghton, I trust his judgement in the music. I know that if I look up and wait for direction, I’ll receive it. I know the gestures and facial expressions to guide me through the tone of the piece. I can anticipate what he’ll ask for based on our performance or lack of confidence… or over confidence, as we basses sometimes experience with solid bass lines :). Eye contact doesn’t just mean I’m watching – it’s a momentary bond to show my anticipation in the music, my attention, my need for affirmation, and my devotion to the work and to the one in charge. Staring at my music, I show I’m insecure. I’m stuck, pinned to a pale page. But when I look up, I show confidence, I show interaction and I show respect that I’m a part of the music being made and I need to be led. When he messes up, we all graciously accept the mistake, knowing he works with our many mistakes every rehearsal. Musicians and their conductor have a relationship that, in the context of the rehearsal hall, enhances and changes. It becomes a one-on-one conversation with a whole crowd of people, and we make something extraordinary.

Imagine a web: strands connect to anchor points and reach to bridge gaps and balance the weight of the host. But each strand must connect to the center of the web, or it can’t be held up. Each reverberation that travels through a single strand of silk can be felt throughout the net. If the spider simply pulled a selection of threads and attached them to points but then never formed a center, there would be no web. There would only be a network of disconnected threads, each blowing in the breeze and catching nothing. In instrumental terms, you would have many musicians making a sound with no connection. We may make similar sounds or even be relatively in tune with one another, but a conductor provides the center, to feel the vibrations and test out the strength and help fix the weak portions. The movements are felt by everyone, but the conductor is the one who  directs and instructs. We trust him, and the one we don’t trust we can’t possibly play our best for.

All of these connects to a sort-of devotional and personal growth practice I’ve gotten into recently. During my internship this summer, my boss and I would start the day by looking at character qualities from the Virtues Project to focus our day. It helped to have a focus, both for our work and ourselves. By looking at those qualities every day, we also had places where we could continue to assess our characters and grow. After I finished my time in the office, I purchased my own set of Virtues Project Reflection cards. I have already started going through them, focusing on two qualities per week for a year. I try to practice and nurture those qualities one at a time. I hope to write more on that soon.

Thus far this year, I have found many that fit in perfectly with this theme of trust – Honesty, Loyalty, Gratitude, Self-Discipline, Zeal, Unity, Contentment, Wisdom. All of these qualities have a place in the musical world, especially one that requires cooperation of many parts and, of course, a leader. The goal for these uncertain places lacking trust is to learn to trust in order to inject ourselves fully into the situation at hand. Strive to be a part by making your trust a part of the process. For the sake of others and yourself, learn to trust in quick and uneasy times. Don’t trust blindly, but trust when you know that you must. When the  stranger reaches out his hand from a safe place as you quiver and tremble on the unstable precipice, be willing to take that leap when he says “You’re going to have to trust me.”

Doesn’t our Heavenly Father do the same all the time? He lets us make our own path and wander up to the edge of the cliff and step one foot off, then catches us and looks us in the eye and asks us, “Are you ready to trust me now?”

Even in the making of music, from the classical to classic rock,  we need to be willing to let a new person step in, hold out a hand and say “trust me.”

We can then, however, look forward to the time when normalcy in restored and we have comfort in familiarity and practiced trust once again. Well done, good and faithful bassist.

Tomorrow, I will try to play my best – to glorify God, to please my conductor,  and to support my fellow musicians in a time that is sure to rock.
We’re going to fight fire with fire and hold on at the point of know return, right before we head to the other side of the wall.

Carry on, my wayward son.

Trust me,
it’s going to be a fantastic time.