WHEN I GET THAT FEELING
I picked up my trombone again. It's been 10 years since I played, and even then, it was more of an accent in my then-band Gay Science. RIP Gay Science. We had a song called "OMG the Sun," which I still think is utter brilliance. We had a song called "Big Peach" with the chorus "Big peach, baby you're working so hard." We had a song called "There's So Many Types of People" where the first line of the lyrics went "I'll be the whale, and you be the whale watch." (Although I also, mea culpa, performed all of our gigs in a shitty handmade feathered headdress. I disavow that idiocy of mine. I think I've been blocking out all memories of that band because I'm so ashamed that I would pull such appropriative bullshit, but blocking the memory doesn't actually do anything useful. The best I can do now is own it and make it a lesson, be problematic and work through it. Here I am! At your service.)
Anyway, a few months ago, I went to PIttonkatonk, a brass band festival in honor of May Day and easily, clearly, 100%-ly the best thing that happens in Pittsburgh every year. I hadn't gone the previous two years because I'm talented at keeping myself away from things that light me up. But this year I went, and this year I found out that a friend plays tuba in Pittsburgh's May Day marching band. Listen, the love among low brass players is real and forever, so I started talking to him about it, and when I mentioned that I used to play trombone, he encouraged me to come play with them. It's taken a few encouragements. Even after I went home to extract my trombone from the teenage memory parade of my former bedroom, it's taken me weeks to open the case, pick it up, and try a note.
I'm not sure what I was afraid of. Maybe afraid that I wouldn't remember how to do it, that I wouldn't even produce a tone. I was afraid that I had possibly damaged the slide the last time I played it. I was still drinking then, and my blackouts were getting more unmanageable. I realize this might sound strange to someone who never drank alcoholically, i.e. what would a manageable blackout look like exactly? But I blacked out regularly, almost every time I drank, for about ten years. For some of those years, they almost felt like a tide that came in every night, impossibly pure and total, and I learned to live with them. And sometimes I would have these shitty shadow memories the next day, like seeing a friend's face bent up or remembering getting into a fight with a stranger at a picnic table by the river. The day after my last gig, I thought I remembered stoving the trombone slide on something after losing my balance--trombone slides are excessively delicate--and I was sure I had ruined it, basically. I've been sure all this time that I ruined it. I've been afraid to look, to see whether this is so.
This is what I said when I opened the case for the first time: "Oh, my babe! My babe!" (Since this is how I typically greet my cat, she came running downstairs, confused, because what other entity could deserve such a greeting?) The fit between the bell and the slide was stiff, and the register trigger was jammed, but the slide itself was just fine. A little dry, but damaged in no way. The first few notes sounded fuzzy, and I couldn't get my bearings in the air chambers at first, but then I played a few staggering scales. And then I took out my old fake book and played jazz standards, and I had not ruined it. It was all still there.
I realize now, of course, what this was: a surrender. Playing music was a huge part of my life. Sometimes, in college, I practiced for six hours a day. I had a permanent ghostly outline of a mouthpiece on my lips. But eventually, it became more important to put my thumb over any part of the picture that demonstrated what my drinking was really like, and I would jettison even these truly precious parts of my life to keep drinking. Even after I stopped, my shame was so powerful that I was willing to put aside this huge amount of joy in order to look away from damage I may have caused. It's been more than four years since I took a drink or a drug, but still, what if I discovered that I had really fucked up this beautiful instrument? Well, here's the beauty: finally, I wanted that joyous part of myself back badly enough to look at the damage.
No damage. Isn't that every spiritual teaching, all of the time? There is no damage. Nothing is broken, nobody needs fixed.
p.s. Apparently Gay Science has become a more popular band name since our day, because I found a Bandcamp page for a latter-day Gay Science from Kansas City, MO, whose song "Back Pain" starts "Jesus sucks/suck my dick." No trombones either.