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Terez Mertes

Artist's Debut at DWF

May 30, 2007 at 6:22 PM


“Folks, we’re having a bit of a delay.”

I hear the message through the crackle of a faulty public address system at San Francisco International Airport. I am slumped in my plastic chair, Starbucks in hand, waiting for my 10:20am flight to start boarding, now that it’s 10:25am. These are words no traveling passenger with a connecting flight wants to hear. The gate agent sings out the news and ensuing updates cheerily, as if announcing picnic plans.

My layover at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport was to have been fifty-five minutes long. Then American Airlines, unfathomably, pushed the connecting flight forward by fifteen minutes, days before my departure. I now had a forty-minute layover. With a thirty minute delay. You do the math.

Hope springs eternal. At DFW, I run, push, vault luggage and small children as I tear through the terminals at an Olympic clip. I arrive at the gate, panting, sweating, just in time to see my plane trundling down the tarmac toward the runway. Or perhaps it wasn’t mine, I tell myself, as the gate agent, having taken my boarding pass, peers at her computer screen, taps furiously, then prints out a new boarding pass. “Here you are,” she says with a bright smile. “Your flight will board in…” she consults her watch, “approximately four hours.”

I stare at her, jaw agape, my mind a chaos of angry confusion. This can’t be happening. I’ve flown on this specific day, forfeiting spending my 15 year anniversary with my spouse, in order to be with my sister—recovering from brain tumor surgery, single-handedly raising three teens, her husband just shipped to Afghanistan for six months. Today is her birthday, and thanks to American Airlines, I am going miss a much anticipated—and needed—dinner celebration.

I splutter. I rant. I slap my hands on the counter for emphasis. I stop only when tears sting my eyes and clog my throat. Throughout, the airline agent retains a serene smile, the likes of which would have impressed—or chilled—the Buddha. As I stomp off, the ticket agent calls out for me to have a good day.

Teary, impassioned phone calls to both sister and spouse fail to quell the rage in me. It does, however, consume thirty minutes. Now only three and a half more hours remain before boarding my next flight. Drinking copious quantities of alcohol in the soulless gloom of an airport bar is a likely option, inevitably followed by an overpriced, over-processed, high-fat dinner in an equally soulless venue.

And then I remember what I have by my side. My violin. My baby. What luck.

There is one catch. Well, two. I took my practice mute out of the case that morning because it is metallic, heavy and vaguely suspicious-looking. If I am to practice my violin, it will have to be in a decidedly public fashion. Secondly, I am still a beginner. As an adult beginner, I often see people’s eyes light up with expectation when they see the violin case slung over my shoulder. Adult violinist, in their minds, equals proficient violinist. I feel like posting a sign on my case that reads, “It’s not what you’re thinking.” Yes, I can play, but the sounds I make are more befitting a seven year old in a taffeta dress and patent leather shoes. Further, I am an introvert. It is both daunting and humbling, perhaps even ridiculous to consider a public debut under such circumstances.

And yet…

My heart begins to judder. The gauntlet had been thrown. I need to do this.

I find an area, an abandoned waiting room and gate in the corner of Terminal B. The chairs have been pulled out, so no passengers loiter here. Beneath my feet is tired blue carpet, overhead, despondent fluorescent lights. Just outside the window I can see airplanes drawing up to the gates to disgorge passengers and load up more. I take a deep breath, pull my fiddle from its case on the floor, tighten my bow and begin.

The violin works its magic. The mellow tones of the open strings, followed by slow scales, are like the call-to-worship sound of church bells. They put me into place, encircle me in a aura of focus. And like that, I’m safe.

After scales and arpeggios, I play tunes—anything memorized, since my music followed my mute into the checked bag. Short, simple pieces, snippets of Bach and Mozart, folk tunes, Celtic fiddle tunes. It becomes all about the pleasure of creating resonant tones, of hitting that note right on the sweet spot, of finding the music within the music.

Although I’m not facing the pedestrian traffic, I still have a peripheral view of people walking by, regarding me curiously. Many of them smile. Some slow down. One guy approaches and watching me play up close, resulting in instant butterfingers on my part. Afterwards he confesses his eternal fascination with the instrument and I tell him, with a wry, self-deprecating shrug, that anyone can do it, trust me. An older couple passes, stops, and begs for a chord. I comply with a rousing double-stop. They applaud and tell me I should have my open case up front for them to throw their tip into.

I laugh, wave the people on, and glance down at my watch. To my astonishment, an hour has passed. As I pack up my violin ten minutes later and plan for dinner, I realize I no longer have the slightest interest in stopping at the bar for a drink. I don’t even feel like indulging in some heavy dinner—normally a prime source of entertainment and comfort to me. I no longer need it. I’ve found deeper nourishment.

Thank goodness for our little wooden travel companions.

From Bernardo B
Posted on May 30, 2007 at 7:18 PM
Hahahaha! Get a rubber practice mute! They're lighter and also won't harm your bridge as much...You're brave to dare doing that. I could do it as a kid - used to lock myself in an empty compartment to practice in the train to/from my college town - but now I'd rather get bored for 2 hours in the airport than play violin in public.
From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 30, 2007 at 7:35 PM
Good for you! Hope your sister is doing o.k.
From Karin Lin
Posted on May 30, 2007 at 7:56 PM
What a great story, Terez, and so well-written. Congratulations on your courage.
From Barry Berman
Posted on May 30, 2007 at 9:22 PM
Nice inspiration, I think I'll follow in your footsteps my next trip...
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 30, 2007 at 11:08 PM
Oh, whew, no one is telling me "What?! That intimidated you? It's the easiest thing in the world!" Thanks for all your nice comments, and a reminder to self to buy a rubber mute. : )

PS - Tom, my sister's such a trooper, she was the one comforting ME when I called on the phone to say the dinner celebration plan was off. And fortunately, her tumor was benign, but she's still had recovery challenges that just go on and on. Her problems sure put my little ones in perspective!

From Tom Holzman
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 1:19 PM
Terez - at my age (56) I have a fair amount of perspective. When people ask me how things are going, I always say fine because compared to most people and especially some of my friends, one of whom I periodically call Job, my problems are quite trivial. I do not burden people less fortunate than me with my problems.
From Sarah Montoro
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 4:42 PM
wow..you've got guts...tx for the inspiration..
From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 31, 2007 at 5:38 PM
Sarah - thanks! And Tom, thanks for the wisdom - at 44, I'm starting to see more and more how fortunate I am. On the other hand, it hasn't stopped me from complaining now, has it? (As evidenced here!)
From David Russell
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 12:10 PM
A very sweet story. Pure love for the violin! Thanks for telling it.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on June 1, 2007 at 1:16 PM
Thanks for the nice comment, David. Yes, in the end, it was a very pure feeling, and one of the reasons I'll never see my humble progress as an adult beginner as something futile. It gives me great pleasure and comfort to simply be holding my violin, practicing the simplest scales, feeling the tones swirl around me and permeate my body. If I gain little more from my practice in the years to come, I'll still know that I have acquired something very precious indeed.

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