Graduation, rhythm and anxiety

I didn’t expect to experience anxiety over somebody else’s graduation. Granted, it’s my two sons who are graduating this year—one from college and one from high school. Same day, actually. Nine hours apart.

But why am I feeling anxious? My boys have made excellent plans. Both will stay in Kentucky: Steele at law school in Louisville and Clay at Centre College. And look, Kentucky isRouseBros2015Cropped familiar territory. My wife and I raised our sons in the town where I grew up, and both boys went to my high school.

Where we took different paths was athletics. They both played baseball; I played trombone. And I think it’s the damn baseball thing that’s eating at me.

I did play baseball, you know—Little League in fifth and sixth grade. How I spawned two varsity players, I don’t know. (And I’ve been asked—seriously.)

My boys never showed major-league potential, but both played high school ball each spring, plus summer ball and fall ball. Over the past 15 or 16 years, we just fell into the rhythm of the sport.

I took them to practice. I threw with them in the back yard. Mary Beth and I went to their games. We drove to towns and cities and dusty fields throughout Kentucky and surrounding states. And we did all this with other baseball families—players and parents—for hours and seasons and years.

I can write a book about baseball; I really can. I’ve actually outlined its chapters. It won’t be about the actual sport. It’ll focus on the lessons I’ve learned from being in the rhythm of baseball: the games and the players, the hopes and frustrations, the wins and the disappointments.

Staying flexible is the most important lesson I’ve learned. The game itself is traditional and often plodding, but living it day-to-day is a daggone crapshoot. Coaches seek greener fields, better results and more promising players. Schedules, rosters, lineups and locations change at the drop of a mitt. Each season brings a different cast of characters to the stage.

And rain threatens, as do cold April nights and easy-bake July days.

But I settled into an unsettled rhythm. Baseball was always predictably unpredictable. Reliably fickle.

During Steele’s high school days, we plugged along as a so-so team for years—until the week we won the state title. In baseball terms, that’s like bunt, walk, bloop … GRAND SLAM! I know about baseball terms, see. I told you about that book.

But baseball isn’t only about the bloops or the weather or even the games. It’s about the people. They provide harmony to the rhythm. Not always in tune, of course. They were often loud. But funny. Or obnoxious. Yet enjoyable. Mostly. But sometimes irrational. Occasionally ugly. But mostly caring.

It’s a full damn orchestra, for sure.

And with Clay leaving high school, there’s no more high school baseball. The orchestra is disbanding. The rhythm of baseball will halt.

Life will go on, of course. I just don’t know where I’ll pick up the beat. Thus my anxiety about somebody else’s graduation.

But hey, I’m flexible. Right?









I love the beach. I love the beach.

That’s from a song my sons “wrote” when they were little kids on vacation years ago. It’s more of a high-low chant, really. And while there’s certainly nothing profound about the phrase, it hits the spot for me.

I’ve been going to the beach regularly since I was two. And my time in Naples, Florida, was such big part of my life for the next 20 years, I will one day write a novel set there. Or a screenplay. Something bigger than a blog, you see.

I just returned from Tybee Island, outside of Savannah, Georgia, where we traveled for a week of baseball with my son’s U16 team. Because of thunderstorms and waterlogged fields, though, we played only nine innings the whole time we were there.

Baseball is, as I say far too often, reliably unpredictable. Unchangingly changeable. Steadfastly erratic.

Knowing that, we baseball parents were wise to stay at the beach, even though the games were all to be played some 30 minutes away in Savannah. Because unlike baseball, the beach is certain. Oh sure, it rains at the beach, too. But we wait out the rain delay and go back and play. Or swim. Or walk. Or sit. Or snooze. Or we watch others play, swim, walk, etc.

Tybee gets a solid 9 on the people-watching scale. The beach is wide and flat, providing ample space for hundreds to set up for the day. Some bring elaborate beach tents, while others simply show up with a towel. We saw one lady dragging chairs from her hotel’s dining room to the water’s edge.

The beach was crowded, but not overcrowded. It was humming with activity, and the tune was snappy. I read a book in five days, but I could have read it in two were I not so distracted by other beachgoers. Not interrupted. Distracted. Tantalized. Irresistibly drawn to the skintastic spectacle of people at the beach. Getting tan. Getting exercise. Getting drunk.

And having fun. I watched a little girl run from the lapping waves then turn and chase them back to sea. I saw couples produce paddleball sets and families setting up bocce ball games. Our baseball boys went from throwing a ball around in the surf to throwing each other around, and then they took turns driving a bicycle into the crashing waves.

God, I love the beach.

I ran at shore’s edge a couple of mornings, and it’s a whole other vibe when the sun is just starting its journey. As it crests, so does the crowd. More squeals from kids, more shouts from parents and more tunes from boomboxes. Or whatever blasts music these days. In my day, it was D-battery-powered players blaring out beach-town radio stations.

My beach experience has evolved through the years: I went from chasing waves and sea gulls to chasing Frisbees and girls. And now I chase memories and dreams.

I see sunburns and remember my painful shoulders. I see college guys and remember my idiotic youth. I see bikini girls and remember the eternal quest.

And the dreams are for real. I think about what role the beach might play in my future, when my wife and I take vacations with only each other. And maybe sometimes with my sons. And their wives. And families.

And don’t forget that novel I told you about—the one that might be a screenplay instead. I’ll title it something clever, but if you read between the lines, you’ll see “I love the beach.”

Still (not) Crazy

I am not crazy. And if anyone tells you different, it’s just semantics.

I’ve never been crazy, and yet I love “Still Crazy After All These Years.” It’s not a song I truly identify with—because I’m not crazy, remember—but it’s a song that latches on to me. And it hangs heavy. And sweet. Bittersweet, maybe.

The song was not a huge hit for Paul Simon. It peaked at No. 40 in late May 1976—right at the time I was finishing high school. “Still Crazy” didn’t grab me until later, though. Maybe it took a few years to sink in.

Along the way—after all these years, I guess—the song has become part of my soundtrack. One of my lifesongs.

I love the instrumentation. The mellow tones of the electric piano have a pulsing, almost haunting vibe. In the single, the flute and strings float around during the bridge to the point where you almost lose the sense of the song, and then the saxophone rides in, dynamic and soaring. In this version, the sax solo verges on spiritual.

There’s an old Saturday Night Live show with Paul performing “Still Crazy” (not in the turkey suit). I can’t find the video, but I can still see the SNL bass player in a final jam, walking the song home. I love it.

It was watching Paul sing “Still Crazy” on SNL40, the reunion show, that inspired me to examine my relationship with the song. Paul’s voice is weaker, naturally, but it doesn’t diminish the song’s nostalgic intensity. It’s a sort of performance art. With his hands, he tosses off a line here and there, he directs, he cajoles, and he ten-finger stabs an imaginary keyboard.

I don’t know enough about writing music to understand how chords and keys are chosen, but I know the progressions and changes in this song strike a chord within me. Inside me. Paul gives insight into the song’s composition in this session with Dick Cavett.

That’s the music. But what about the lyrics? They speak of several scenes: encountering an old girlfriend, a late-night soul-search, and a late-life listlessness—or restlessness. And there’s an introspective verse about being steadfast and solitary. But nothing about those thoughts or actions sound crazy.

I’ve done things that might fit some colloquial definitions of crazy without being clinically insane. I constantly play for laughs. I take “You’re crazy, Bob” as a compliment. And while I’ve been clever and bold, I’ve also been obnoxious and cutting. I’ve shown poor judgment. I’ve been lazy. I’ve been overserved and irresponsible. But I haven’t been insane.

And still this song speaks to me, and here’s why: I don’t hear Simon sing crazy and think insane. I hear crazy and think longing. (Heck, he says “longing.”) I hear still crazy and think still searching. And I am, too.

I’m still searching. Still learning. Still yearning. After all—that’s right—after all these years.

I don’t worry about doing “some damage one fine day.” But I want to do something in my life that counts. Something that helps. Something that matters … to a jury of my peers. I’m still yearning for that.

I’m sentimental. I’m nostalgic and wistful. I might even be restless. But I am not crazy. And it’s not crazy to be touched by a tune and moved by the music of an electric piano. It’s a lifesong, and it’s part of who I am.

Sing we NOW of Christmas?

It’s too early for Christmas music. I’ve been saying that since the day after Halloween, when one local radio station started its all-Christmas-all-the-time format.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Christmas. I like Christmas music. I like singing along with Christmas music. But for shepherds’ sakes! Eight weeks of chipmunks and two front teeth and hokey harmonies and simply haaAaaving a wonderful Christmastime is more that I can stand.

It’s the middle of November, and I’m already sick of half the songs in the list of The Top 20 Christmas Songs You Never Get Sick Of.

Starting Nov. 1, I eliminated “Mixmas” from my radio rotation during drive time. Mixmas is “Mix Radio,” which normally plays hits “from the ’80s, ’90s and today,” and now streams constant Christmas. If my other stations join the chorus while I’m still making my Pilgrim hat, I’ll steer clear of them, too. Eventually I’ll be ready for Christmas music—like, mid-December.

For years I’ve felt guilty about grumbling over the early onset of Christmas songs. The last thing I want to do is fuel the firebrands who shout about the War on Christmas. I’m not for war, but there’s no peace when the radio is blaring “scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago” on Election Day.

So why the Christmas animus? I’ve asked myself. Why the holiday hate?

Hey, it’s not the holiday. It’s the music: too much, too soon.

I listen to the radio when I drive, and like most radio listeners, I tune into certain genres. For me it’s top 40 and oldies. In terms of frequency, I can tolerate hearing a new song three or four times a day on a top 40 station—because it’s new. When a song saturates listeners’ ears, it gets less and less playtime and eventually becomes an oldie. Oldies don’t get played every day because the station has decades of past hits to choose from. Plus, we reached a sort of saturation point with those songs back when we heard them several times a day.

By listening to top 40 and oldies radio, I get a good balance of freshness, familiarity and variety, all within my general genre. But with Christmas music, it’s the worst of all worlds.

The freshness factor falters because radio playlists for Christmas songs are limited to well-established records, including the songs they say we don’t get sick of. Note: The newest of those is more than 30 years old. If you look at Billboard’s Top 100 tunes from last Christmas season, you’ll find that only 38 were performed by artists younger than me. And I’m an oldie.

Radio’s Christmas music also lacks variety, because there are a limited number of holiday songs that make the mix. And the same artists sing so many of them. On Billboard’s top 100 list, “O Holy Night” shows up four times. Three versions of “Last Christmas” makes the list. And out of the hundred hits, Michael Bublé has eight and Frank Sinatra has five.

Then there’s the collapse of genre. Mix Radio will play current(ish) pop artists most of the year, but “Mixmas” gives me the Vince Guaraldi Trio, Jimmy Durante, and The Harry Simeone Chorale. They all made the most recent Christmas Billboard chart, too, you know. These artists never show up on my regular radio stations. In fact, the reason I listen to those stations is because they are devoid of jazz, ’40s guys, and chorales.

And some of those songs—ugh. Would any of us tolerate a tune as ridiculous as “Dominick the Donkey” any other time of year? (It’s from the album, The Very Best of Lou Monte.) But we obviously tolerate it at Christmas: It’s No. 69 on the Top 100. “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” is No. 35. And we’re OK with that?

Look, I know it’s just me. I know people gush about Christmas music on the radio the day after they haul their jack-o-lantern to the brush pile. I understand that these songs conjure up misty mistletoe memories. They do for me, too, but I can’t sustain the yuletide mood for two months.

If I haven’t lost you already, I will now, because the Christmas song I get most sick of is No. 1 on the list of songs we don’t grow sick of: “White Christmas.” I can’t stand it. By the time those women take over with their 1942 harmonies, I have changed the channel. I know songs like “White Christmas” are standards, but they’re stale.

It’s probably not the arrangement that scrooges me; it’s the accumulated exposure. I’ve heard that song 5,000 times—literally: 50-plus years, 100 times each Christmas season. I’ve reached my saturation point.

My favorite (regular) song of all time is “Dancing in the Moonlight,” from 1974. I hear it maybe once a week, and that’s OK. I’ve heard it enough times in the past 40 years that I need only an occasional reminder of how excellent it is. Play it for me four times a day for two straight months, and it’s no longer a song I want to hear. I’ll be saturated.

You know, if we waited until mid-December to play Christmas music, we could trot the songs out, play them for a couple of weeks, and enjoy them. I really am a Christmas guy:
• I actually liked “White Christmas”—the first 3,000 times.
• I dig me some Vince Guaraldi jazz from Charlie Brown—when Christmas is in sight.
• And I don’t mind hearing “Do You Hear What I Hear?” from Whitney or Carrie—once a day.

But when the same Christmas songs get jammed into my ears over and over beginning two months before December 25, it makes me tired of Christmas before the big day arrives. I don’t want that. I want Christmas to be fresh.

So can we hold off? Can we wait? Can we start playing “Christmastime is Here” when Christmastime, is, you know, here? If we could, it’d be a regular “Holly, Jolly Christmas.” That’s by Burl Ives, you know; No. 10 on Billboard’s list. … Burl Ives—dude must’ve been like Pharrell … back in his day.

Which was, um, 1962.