Saturday, September 8, 2012

Twenty Five Years

Twenty five. I'm such a fan of the band Chicago that, when I hear that number, I automatically say "or six to four." But that's not on my mind this weekend. You see, I'm in Austin, Texas, participating in Longhorn Alumni Band. And, for me, it's been an even twenty-five years since I first stepped foot on the campus of The University of Texas at Austin as a freshman.

Of all the time on the 40 Acres, my time in band shines brightest. It was in this group that I made solid friends, worked together for a common goal, got to play my sax all the time, and, yes, attend football games for free. Well, I had to work the game, but I never had to buy a ticket. 

It's been a dozen years since I last attended an alumni band weekend. The city has changed quite a bit in that span. For those of you who don't know what alumni band is, it's exactly like you think it sounds. We graduates from Longhorn Band return one home game a year to play our horns (or wave the flags), march up and down the field, and generally relive our college years in the span of a single day. It's fantastic and today, as I walked up to the band hall today, seeing those giant doors open, the sounds of conversation, laughter, and horns mingling together, the emotions swirling inside of me, I chided myself for not attending more. 

What got me here this weekend was a combination of two things. One, the obvious: it's been twenty-five years since I started in band. The quarter century mark is a good time to take stock. Most people mark their 25th birthday as a milestone. It is important, but I contend that 25 years after you graduate from high school is a bigger milestone. At age 25, you will have only been our of your parents' house for, at most, seven years. Throw in college and, chances are, you've only been on your own by age 25 roughly three years. 

Marking the anniversary of the 25th year since you left home is a more reasonable milestone. In this quarter century, I've had the opportunity to earn a bachelor's degree and then a master's degree. I've married a beautiful, intelligent woman, and we have a son. I've established a career for myself, and had a good time. Sure there were some ups and downs, but that's life. I regret none of the life experiences I've had, and I certainly don't regret the time I had with Longhorn Band. So it was that sentiment that pulled me here this weekend.

The other thing was the death of one of my fellow band members this past summer. Like me, this was his 25th summer since he graduated high school. Chris was one of the sax players with whom I joined band in the fall of 1987, and we experienced band life together. As can happen when folks move apart, it had been years since I spoke with Chris, but news of his passing struck me. As much as I claim that I've never grown up, that I'm an adult kid, the simple fact is that I *am* aging. I don't dwell on that fact because each day is a blessing of life, but those blessings add up. I live life with exuberance, relish, and a firm reality that each day that I wake up is a gift from God. Chris's death reminded me that I'm getting older and that I ought to do the things I want to do when I can because a day might arrive that I'm unable to do that which I want.

And, so, I'm marching tomorrow. It will commemorate my 25th anniversary of my first march to Memorial Stadium. I adore seeing all my fellow bandmates and sharing stories. I enjoy seeing the children of my friends as they stare at their parent(s) acting all goofy because, for one weekend a year, we can go back in time. And tomorrow, when we march on that field, with the stands full of Longhorn fans, I am going to cherish that particular joy I always got when I performed with the Longhorn Band. I will also say a prayer for Chris, as well, remembering how he looked as we marched together twenty five years ago. We miss you, and we'll never forget you. 

Hook 'em Horns!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review Club: Redshirts by John Scalzi

(This is the September 2012 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list of other reviews, click the link at the end of this review.)

You need only know two things to sum up my thoughts on Redshirts by John Scalzi: while listening to the book, I laughed out loud and I cried. I don't often cry when reading books. The last time was the seventh Harry Potter book, but I expected to when I cracked that book. When I cued up the audiobook of Redshirts, I didn't even see it coming, which is, to be honest, better. So, if you want to stop reading this review right now, go ahead. If you want more details, read on.

Redshirts is John Scalzi's parody/love letter to Star Trek. After a funny yet unexpected prologue, the novel introduces Ensign Andrew Dahl, newly assigned to the starship Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. (Think Enterprise) Dahl and his new group of friends start to get accustomed to their new duties and lives aboard the Intrepid but the seasoned crew members all act weird. It soon becomes apparent that the members of the Away Missions (off the ship for you non-Trekkies) always seem to face some heretofore alien presence. Said alien almost always inflicts bodily injury or death to a member of the away team, yet the senior command staff never suffer any harm. It's as if the lower staff members are jinxed to die if they go on the missions.

To put this in context of Star Trek, let me explain. In just about every single episode, Captain Kirk, First Officer Spock, Doctor McCoy, and some member of the the crew, nameless until the first commercial break, wearing a red shirt, perishes. For the rest of the episode, the lead characters emote over the death, emerge victorious by the end, and live to trek on another day. If you ever wondered what it was like to be a member of the Enterprise crew who didn't have a job on the bridge, this is your book.

Where Scalzi provides the bulk of his humor, early on, is in the myriad ways the crew employ to avoid going on an away mission. Naturally, Dahl gets himself assigned to one and, while he is injured quite badly, he survives. The other crew member does not. As a long-time fan of Trek, I was laughing at all the obvious references to actions done in a 1960s-era television show for dramatic purposes and what really might have happened were all this stuff real. Wil Wheaton, who played Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, provides the narration with just enough snark to truly bring out the best in Scalzi's prose. He reads the boisterous captain's lines with gusto, the science officer's lines with calm precision, and the rest of Dahl's friends with skepticism that borders on incredulity.

Now, the story turns on a plot device that I loved. In fact, as a seasoned crew member gathers Dahl and his friends to explain his theory as to why all these occur on Away Missions, I had a thought: what if Scalzi did This Thing? Well, cool as it is, he did. I will not give it away here because I want you to be surprised.

The full title of the book is Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas. In short, these are three epilogues that resolve some of the more human aspects of the story and, for me, these are what gave this book its emotional depth. In the final two codas, I was listening while doing something else which is one of the best reasons to listen to audiobooks. As the second coda wound down, I paused and felt the tears sting my eyes. You know, I thought, if that coda got me this way, I knew I was in for it as soon as I learned the subject of the final coda. I had to get up and walk away from everyone as I listened to the last coda. It got me, and it got me good. It got me so good, in fact, that, later that day, I could barely get through a retelling of the story to my wife without breaking down. Not sure she's ever seen me that way over a book.

You know what? I haven't seen myself that way, either. I loved this book, both for the laughter and the tears. It moved me, and isn't that what a great story is supposed to do?

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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book Review: Brionne by Louis L'amour

I finished my first Louis L'amour novel last week, Brionne. My grandfather and father both read lots and lots of westerns, my granddad especially. In fact, I think the only thing he read was westerns with the occasional Perry Mason or Ellery Queen mystery. Most of my granddad's L'amour books are at my dad's house, but I've got a few. I can't say for sure why I felt the urge to read one of these books, but I'm glad I did.

Brionne is the story of Major James Brionne, a man who works for President Ulysses Grant. He's away the night the Allard brothers show up at his house with his wife and son alone. Brionne brought Dave Allard to trial and the guilty man swore that his kin would take vengeance on the lawman. That vengeance comes with a terrible price. Mat, the son, is told to hide by his mother, Anne. This stoic woman  defends her home defiantly and, seeing as there's no escape for her, takes her own life. Cotton Allard, Dave's brother, seeing his vengeance taken from him is angry, but impressed. Nonetheless, Cotten sets fire the Brionne home. Mat escapes and evades capture and Brionne finds him the next day.

Seeking a new opportunity for his son and himself, Brionne turns down President Grant's offer of employment and set out west with his boy. Traveling by train, Brionne is always keeping his eye towards his back, always fearing that Cotton or some member of his gang is tracking him. Along the way, Brionne meets some folks on the train, and through the shared comradeship of fighting a grassfire, the group comes together, including Miranda, a young woman after a lost silver mine.

This 1968 novel is brisk at only 151 pages. As such, the narrative never lags, but neither does the tension. I found myself, over the course of a few nights, eager to return to this book. It's clear, early on, that Brionne and his boy are being followed. Not giving anything away here. What kind of western would you have without the big finale? And, naturally, all the characters end up in roughly the same place. Again, not rocket science here. But it is good, effective storytelling.

L'amour's style is clean, straightforward, and without flair. What comes across is his narrative voice. This book reads like an old cowboy is telling the story. For example:

    There was something about such emergencies that lasted, Brionne thought. No matter what happened to them afterwards, the men on this train would never be strangers to each other again. They had something in common and there was now a warmth between them, a knowledge of readiness to rise to an emergency, and each one of them felt better within himself for this victory they had won together.

L'amour filters much of his narrative with the questions that Brionne--and, by extent, the reader--must answer. It's helpful, of course, but it's also an effective way to keep the momentum of the story going along. There are few chapters that end with cliffhangers, but more than a few that end on a question.

The best thing about reading and enjoying my first Louis L'amour western is the happy knowledge that there are over a hundred more novels to read. I'm looking forward to the journey.