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Black Lamb

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Now in its 14th year of publication, this magazine was created to offer the discerning reader a stimulating selection of excellent original writing. Black Lamb Review is a literate rather than a literary publication. Regular columns by writers in a variety of geographic locations and vocations are supplemented by features, reviews, articles on books and authors, and a selection of “departments,” including an acerbic advice column and a lamb recipe.

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Carpe diem

May 1st, 2007

BY DAVID MACLAINE

frenchhorn-copy.jpgIt had been a bad late February. Flu had swept through the household, and just when my bout shifted from acute to lingering misery, my main computer suddenly failed. The news from the repair shop was grim: lose weeks of writing, all my financial records, and assorted other goodies, or pay exorbitant amounts to retrieve data. It was a problem that needed urgent attention, but instead of addressing it, I was obliged to spend the first day of the week downtown at the county courthouse. Who knew it would turn out to be my best day in months?

The Monday didn’t begin badly, although rising at the crack of dawn was not my idea of a good time. I hurried around rounding up books and games to keep us occupied during what promised to be a long day in the courtroom, and ended up needing a sprint down the sidewalk to catch the right bus downtown.

We’d been through this once before. The fourteen-year-old needed to bear witness against a sexually-aggressive forty-something drunk whose unwelcome advances had ended up costing her a baby-sitting job. The last time we were there the defense lawyer had managed to get another postponement by claiming two judges in succession were prejudiced against him, so we knew the drill. We played a game of chess and then worked a crossword puzzle while waiting for the other cases on the docket to settle or postpone, and for the defense to show up. When they did, things moved pretty quickly, with our girl getting first-hand experience in standing up under the sort of aggressive, leading cross-examination, during which her lawyer successfully objected a dozen times. It was the sort of stuff she sees on TV all the time — the Deputy DA arguing her case even had the sort of good looks and articulate presence you get more often on the tube than in real life — although the case concluded more sedately than the average episode of Law and Order or Boston Legal, with a plea deal that at least recovered some of the income she lost.

So, at just past eleven a.m. the question arose as to how to proceed with the day. In theory she might have gone on to school to salvage the half-day taken off for the trial, but I knew that wasn’t really in the cards. It was one of those unexpected spring-like days that pop up sometimes before the official start of the season, clear and mild. It was a pleasant stroll to my credit union and then to the post office to complete a couple of chores that put me ahead on the day, and by then we were close to Portland State University and a lunch spot I remembered from my days as a graduate assistant. We sat at a sidewalk table and ate quiche and panini and Greek salad to the gentle sound of running water; a broken pipe had created a rippling stream in the middle of the road.

What next? Well, we were close to the hall where we’d once heard a good program of chamber music. It was a little after noon, and I knew that sometimes there were free musical events there at that hour. Sure enough, there was a master class on offer, for French horn players, taught by the principal horn of the Houston Symphony. We listened from outside as a horn ensemble made their uncertain way through an arrangement of music from Titanic, then slipped in when they finished.

The teen who had spent the morning in the witness stand loves music, but her own current instrument is the bassoon, so you might think she’d have limited interest in watching a man explain the fundamentals of French horn. You’d be wrong; she was engrossed from the very start. The guest instructor, William Vermeulen, looked a little like a slightly chunkier Tim Allen, and he was personable and funny enough to pass for a star of TV comedy. Clearly a great teacher, although a tad too enamored of automotive analogies. Then you remember that his steady job is in a sprawling freeway city. After we had listened to his suggestions to the Titanic ensemble, and heard their much-improved second take on the piece, our teen auditor insisted on moving up to the front row, not wanting to miss a single nuance.

Next up was chamber music, a bit of the Brahms Horn Trio. I suddenly flashed back some thirty years to a performance of that piece in Chicago, in the basement of a college friend’s home, with the piano part taken by a schoolmate of ours who had been a teen prodigy. Now we watched the nervous players give way to the commanding coach, who pulled out a fuel-tank analogy on the importance of breathing, explained who was playing lead at which time, and showed the horn player how to mute his horn during a key passage, which in the second try was suddenly subtle and beautiful. The session concluded with another student performer working on the opening of the Horn Concerto No. 2 by Richard Strauss, where we watched more magic. A long discussion of hand position and the “stepping-stone” mind-set for tackling big jumps resulted in the end in a far superior take on the brilliant opening. At least one transfixed teen was visibly disappointed when the session came to an end after an hour and a half. (She was disappointed again when we made it home, when we confirmed that I lacked recordings of both the Brahms and the Strauss, the second being one of those much-regretted losses in a divorce division of musical assets.)

There were still a couple of hours of afternoon remaining before we needed to head homeward, so we stopped for smoothies and headed down to the waterfront, passing the opera house and the fountain across from it — dry in the winter — along the way. For a while we shadowed some Canada geese who hang out on a big lawn between the Waterfront Park and RiverPlace apartment complex, then went down to the walkway beside the Willamette River. I had to dig in my heels and resist entreaties that we walk across the Hawthorne Bridge and on to the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Instead we strolled toward the next bridge north, then found a park bench and settled down to finish up a game of Scrabble on our travel set that we had started back during lunch. We still had a couple of sandwiches in the pack, and between plays we ate and watched the passing dog-walkers and cyclists, joggers and babies pushed in strollers, not to mention assorted colorful layabouts. As a close game suddenly became a runaway with my second emptying of my tray on a single play — and the word “rectory” sitting in my rack — we decided to call it a day. We looked up and across the river and saw that Mount Hood had largely emerged from cloud and was gleaming with fresh snow.

We hit the return bus perfectly, although we had to stand for a bit, but seats opened up shortly after we had crossed the river. I was obliged to play Odysseus-at-the-mast when our route passed the temptation of Movie Madness and my companion begged for a stop-off. I knew there’d be worries at home if we tarried longer. Just a few days earlier there had been another snow scare. Now, during our walk home from the bus stop, we passed an apartment complex where children in bathing suits were dousing one another with a hose. Of course we knew that the balmy spell would only last another day or so before the rains resumed. Tomorrow the urgent chores would be waiting, but at the moment it didn’t matter. The sun still shone, though lower now, and it was time to go home and tell our stories, to savor the day in the retelling, and to be reminded that in a season of stress and strain, occasions still arise when we can snatch a few hours of unalloyed joy. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: Maclaine | Link to this Entry

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