Let it be

What’s your quarantine theme song? As all Facebook and Twitter devotees know, it’s the title of the single that was the No. 1 song on your twelfth birthday.

I am no stranger to social media silliness. I rarely pass up the chance to complete a Facebook survey—but only if it sets up my signature smartassery. And I always respond to copied-and-pasted posts that beseech friends to answer—with one word—“how we first met.” I invariably reply “prison.”

The process of determining your quarantine theme song, though, isn’t the type of Facebook game I usually play. That’s because it offers no room for creativity; you simply report the fact. I do like music, though, especially—and I make no apologies—Top 40 tunes, so I Googled April 16, 1970.

I was lucky. “Let It Be,” the beautiful Beatles song, checks all the boxes for this exercise. The phrase sets an appropriate attitude for these weird and daunting days. And the song has enduring appeal and popularity. Two years ago, Paul McCartney explained the originCarpool of the song to James Corden during an emotional episode of Carpool Karaoke. The former Beatle had written the song following a dream in which his deceased mother came to him and said everything was going to be OK. “Just let it be.”

Plus, like the millions of music-lovers who made it No. 1, I really like the song.

But to truly earn the role of my personal quarantine theme song, the tune has to do more. So on a day leading up to my sixty-second birthday (a frickin’ half-century after I turned 12), I looked to the lyrics to see how “Let It Be” measures up as a leitmotif for a time when we huddle at home to diminish the spread of Covid-19.

“For though they may be parted …”   This viral scourge has wrecked our world. People have had to say goodbye to loved ones, to their jobs, to the milestones of life, and so much more. And to make it worse, parting words can only be said through windows or on Zoom and other electronic connecting points. Some of what we’ve collectively lost can be regained, but so many lives and events are gone forever.

“Speaking words of wisdom …”   If we have learned nothing else during the pandemic, we should all take home the lesson that scientists offer solutions. Some politicians—and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear is a shining example—have heeded the words of epidemiologists and public health professionals and insisted that their constituents take safe and sane precautions, But other officials have delayed such measures or have taken political posturing to absurd lows.

“I wake up to the sound of music …”   I’m forever seeking solace and inspiration in music: I constantly listen to songs from the decades of my life; ideas and phrases frequently come to my mind in rhythm and rhyme; and I often do a deep dive on particular songs, artists, or musical experiences. Just this week, I have zeroed in on the early music of Chicago (watching a concert video) and on the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (viewing a modern-day version of the musical on YouTube). Notably, both the concert video and the original Superstar were created in 1970.

“And when the night is cloudy, there is still a light that shines on me.”   I’m afraid of catching Covid-19; my asthmatic lungs might not fare well against the virus. I fear the loss of my job and for the livelihoods of millions of Americans and scores of neighbors, as I also grieve for those who have already lost their jobs. I’m angry that our leaders won’t learn from this catastrophe and create a more affordable health care system—or that foolish citizens will again be fooled by con artists in power. There is much about this crisis that makes me think we won’t emerge from our dark days with any semblance of a functioning, decent society. And yet I believe we will. I’m not a religious man, but I believe in the light.

“Let it be.”   Perhaps the only phrase of this song that doesn’t ring totally true with me is the title itself. Paul McCartney interpreted his mother’s words in that dream to mean “don’t worry about it.” And it’s true that much of the damage done by the novel coronavirus is out of our control. But what happens next—in our lives, our communities, and in our nation—is up to us. We can show compassion, we can offer help, and we can vote. Believe what you will about a scripted future, but do what you can to make it better.

I want to listen to words of wisdom. I want to believe there will come an answer. And I want that light to shine on until tomorrow.

So yes … Let It Be.

The View from Pew Three

Oh, holy night indeed.

The Christmas Eve midnight service at Midway Community Church was the best possible night for a date. Lighted with candles set on the sill of each stained-glass window, the sanctuary was full of people, yet remarkably silent.

And those candles didn’t merely glow, for the towering windows didn’t seal completely, and each wisp of cold December air that snuck inside invited the flames of the candles to dance. And they accepted. The light, then, was alive. And its flickers made the night even more magical.

For thirty delicious minutes, a guy could sit with his girl in close quarters on a wooden pew smoothed by generations of worshippers. Decades of derrieres. Thighs comfortably conjoined. Hands perfectly positioned to be inched … over … and clasped.

This service on the holiest of Christian nights was not meant to be romantic, but Lord, a guy might pray every day not for salvation, but for these thirty … delicious … minutes. With her.

But he wasn’t with her. Glenn was seated in close quarters, but not with the prettiest girl in high school—the girl of his dreams … the girls of his prayers—but with the guys he’d grown up with.

The two pews down front were the domain of the church’s youth group. Required to attend Sunday services in order to take part in bowling or a movie or whatever the group did Sunday evenings, the teen-agers showed up, and they sat with each other in the second and third pews.

Throughout the year, the front pew was left empty for two reasons. One, it was where the deacons sat temporarily when they gathered at the altar to divvy up the offering plates. But also, anybody sitting on the front pew would be completely exposed, so that choir members—and Preacher Ted—would be able to see any note-passing or knee-poking.

But on Christmas Eve, even the very front pews were filled. Family members from out of town blended with backsliders, who came to church just once a year, to increase attendance tenfold. And for the most part, the out-of-town crowd was not given to knee-poking.

Yet for Glenn, surrounded by hundreds of worshippers, it was a crowd of two: himself and her. She was in the second pew, and he was in the third. And it was driving him mad.

It’s the curl of her hair, he decided.

Seated directly behind her, Glenn had a fantastic view of her hair. Brown and lush—lush hairclipwas a good word for it, he thought—it cascaded in front of him …  almost for him. She had pulled wide strands from near her face and gathered them in the back with a silver clip.

He tried to remember the word for the clip. He didn’t think it was a barrette, but a clip had more of a squeezy action, and he couldn’t tell if the silver thing was squeezed to open and gather up her hair. It wasn’t a pin; he was sure. Maybe it was a clip.

But the effect was marvelous. The two strands that Kasey pulled away from her face were a little bit lighter brown than the hair it joined in the back—the hair that cascaded in front of him. And those strands, as well as the rest of her lush brown hair, had soft, perfect curls.

Her hair completely hid the back of her neck, it was so thick. And it was long enough that it flowed past her shoulder blades and over the back of the pew in which she sat. Technically, Glenn decided, her hair was in his row, in his pew. He wasn’t sitting with her, but kind of, he was sitting with her hair.

Glenn had hoped for a different seating arrangement, especially tonight. For most of the fall, when both of them began their junior year at Midway High, Glenn had worked the angles.

  • He followed her into Algebra II on the first day so he could sit in the desk beside hers.
  • He always timed his departure from Chemistry third hour so their arrival at the lunch room might coincide. (He knew he wouldn’t sit at her table—that was for cheerleaders and boyfriends only—but he might be able to fall into the lunch line behind her.)
  • He never missed a Sunday night youth group meeting, knowing she’d probably be there and hoping he could possibly sit near her—even next to her—in the van, at the movie, or at the pizza place.

He played all the angles and, for the most part, was successful. He spent quality time near her. And several times that fall, they had talked. Sometimes just a greeting, but often—well, at least five times—they had exchanged full sentences: opinions about a TV show or agreements about homework being hard.

One time in early November, Glenn almost mustered the courage to ask her out, like, on a real date to a restaurant in Lexington … or to a movie—just the two of them.

But it wasn’t just the two of them. Kasey was with Abner, and he was with the gods. Ab was muscular and handsome, athletic and artistic, intelligent and authentic. Ab was friendly, popular, and talented. He was adored as much by teachers as he was by his classmates—even the stoners loved Ab. He was perfect.

And Glenn was not.

At least he could sing, though. And when the congregation stood and joined their voices—without the organ—to sing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” Glenn unleashed his brilliant bass, sweetly singing (as it were) o’er the plain voices of his buddies beside him. And when he belted the bass line of the chorus—the extended “Gloria” prior to “in excelsis Deo”—it flowed like a counter melody … a solo performance of sorts.

And she turned and smiled. And raised her eyebrows a bit. At him.

The look and the lift lasted only a second. Literally, one second. But it was glorious. It was frickin’ in excelsis.

And it was Christmas Eve and it was his church and his night. And it was his girlfriend … or … his friend who was a girl.

It was completely Christmas Eve.

Oh, holy night. Indeed.

Young Jim Parrish

Jim Parrish hed

James Ware Parrish III

“Everybody loved young Jim Parrish,” it said in the Blue Grass Clipper on August 11, 1932. Everybody might have loved an old Jim Parrish, too, but we’ll never know. James Ware Parrish III drowned while swimming in Elkhorn Creek near Midway, Kentucky. He was 27.

I dearly loved Jim Parrish’s sisters: my grandmother Honeywood and my great-aunt Katherine (Nat). Both of them lived their lives, from start to finish, in Midway. Honey and Nat were educated women, fascinating and fun, and they treasured their family. It killed a part of them when their brother died. And it killed the family line, too: Jim was the last Parrish male.

Jim’s drowning began as a Friday afternoon swim with Honeywood, her friend Clara MacLemore, Whitsitt Wallace, and Clara’s nephew John Stone. The party had driven the mile and a half from the Parrish home (now Holly Hill Inn) to Moore’s Mill, which sat beside Elkhorn Creek. Below a dam that powered the mill was a pool that was a popular spot for swimming. Although the Clipper article doesn’t mention them, two children—Ike Rouse (my dad) and Clara’s daughter, Lily May—were among the swimmers, but they were whisked away before details of the drowning were recorded.

It’s confounding that Jim would drown. He was not just a strong swimmer, but a heroic

MooresMill swimming

Elkhorn Creek at Moores Mill dam

one, too. In an editorial in the same issue of the Clipper that carried the page-one news of Jim’s death, J.W. Reigner described an episode from four years before, when Jim and a cousin were driving across the bridge at Moore’s Mill and heard the cries of a woman: “My God … save my children!” Reigner wrote that Jim and his cousin leapt from their car and sprinted to the creek—undressing as they ran—jumped in and rescued two young girls “who were drowning when they had come up for the last time.”

And describing yet another amazing coincidence, Reigner went on to say that on the day before Jim drowned, “near the very spot where he lost his life,” he rescued “little Benny Roach … from a watery grave.”

Jim was an accomplished athlete in the water, then, and also on land. He played baseball and football at Midway High School and, later, at Centre College. During warm months, Midway boys played ball in the Parrish’s side yard, which was a perpetual baseball diamond. The gang also gathered indoors.

“Daddy had a pool table set up in the downstairs front hall, and all of Jim’s friends were welcome at any time,” Honeywood wrote in her journal, years later.

By all accounts, Jim was as pleasant a guy as you’d ever want to know.

“He was nice and friendly—not loud—and popular with the girls,” Lily May recalled recently. “Fairly tall with auburn hair.”

A Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity brother wrote this about Jim in the 1927 Centre College yearbook, his senior year: “Jim will not soon be forgotten by those fortunate enough to have known him. Always cool, apparently taking his time about everything, he has made a success in the classroom, on the diamond and wherever else he happened to be.”

Jim was the manager of the Centre football team and accompanied the team on road trips, including one to New York City in 1925. The ’27 yearbook contains a line about his role. “Jim Parrish did himself proud. He watched the college’s money as he would guard his life, and not a stray dollar eluded his watchful eyes.”

What Jim did not see that day at Moore’s Mill was a chunk of wood—or perhaps a stone—that swept over the dam and struck him on the side of his head, opening a hole in his skull and knocking him unconscious.

When the other swimmers noticed that Jim was not among them, they assumed he was behind the waterfall, hidden from view on a ledge of the dam. Not finding her brother there, Honeywood and the others frantically looked along the creek banks and swam around in the creek, which was swollen from recent rains.

Whitsitt drove to town and ran inside the general store owned by his brother, Top. “Ropes!” he shouted. “We need ropes to drag the creek at Moore’s Mill.”

News spread quickly in the small town, and dozens of people sped to the scene. “Everybody in Midway who had an automobile rushed there,” said the Clipper.

Jim’s father, Ike, was there, along with James Ware Parrish II, who was Jim’s uncle (after whom he was named). No fewer than four Midway doctors were there, too: Anderson, Risque and Voigt, as well Dr. B.F. Parrish, also Ike’s brother, who had retired from practice.

A half-hour after the search had begun, John Stone, standing in shoulder-high water some 15 feet from the dam, felt a body bump against him underwater. With help from Whitsitt, the visitor from Ohio dragged Jim to the shore; Mr. Ike met them there.

A rescue unit from the Lexington Fire Department arrived on the scene eight minutes after being summoned, and for more than an hour the firemen used a Pulmoter to force air into Jim’s lungs. Despite their heroic efforts, and despite the assistance of the four hometown physicians, Jim Parrish never drew another breath.

Mr. Ike “was taken away from the scene,” according to the Clipper’s account. “The father went all to pieces to see his only son lying there, cold in death.”

Ike’s brother, the elder James Parrish, was also overcome with grief. “It was more than he could stand. He broke down and had to be led to his automobile by Dr. Voigt.”

Those men were not the only family members and friends who suffered.

“Giving up Jim by drowning in the summer of ’32 was such a blow to us; it looked as if Mama couldn’t accept it. And Nat really never did. Jim was only 27 years old,” Honeywood wrote in her journal. She went on to explain that the Parrish name ended with the early deaths of not only her brother

Parrish fam

The Parrish family: Jim (front) with Ike (father), Honeywood (sister) and Desdemona (mother)

but also a cousin, who had died at college more than a decade before Jim drowned.

“Uncle Ben lost his only son, Tom, at Princeton. He was 19 years old,” she wrote. “Two old brothers losing only sons.”

On the day of Jim’s funeral, the communal grief was profound. A brief funeral was conducted at the Parrish home, where Jim’s body laid in a gray casket, which was covered with flowers. The body was then taken to the Lexington Cemetery and followed by a long line of cars. Jim’s Midway friends and Centre College fraternity brothers served as pallbearers. His mother was so overcome with grief, she was unable to go to the cemetery. And according to the Clipper, even the funeral officiants struggled, including R.S. Wilson, the former minister of Midway Christian Church who had baptized Jim.

“Rev. Wilson was to commit the body to the grave, but he broke down and had to be led away,” the newspaper account said.

On that Monday morning, the people of Midway buried a young man with a bright future. At the time of his death, Jim was an agent for the American Tobacco Company. Prior to that, he had served for a time as principal of the Midway school.

“He was, in every way, a noble and splendid young man,” Reigner wrote in his editorial, titled “The Tragic Death of James Ware Parrish.”

“Of attractive personality, of marked ability, of affable disposition, of polished manners and of sturdy and stalwart manhood, it is so sad that he had to die before his work had hardly begun.”

With time, the people of Midway recovered, and the town went on to mourn the deaths and celebrate the lives of other friends and relatives.

But Jim’s family—his mom and dad and Honeywood and Nat—were never quite whole again. On that hot, heart-breaking day in August, their lives were robbed of a shining light, a kind soul.

Decades later, my sister Amy and I were helping our mom move furniture out of the old Parrish home, and Amy discovered a small box in the back of a drawer. It was packed with curly auburn hair. When Amy revealed the contents, Mom said, “Don’t let Honeywood see this.”

The sight of her brother’s hair, probably from his first haircut, would have been too painful—nearly 50 years after he drowned.

What would Jim have done with his life? What people would have been affected by his actions and words? What difference would he have made?

I live with my family on Moores Mill Road, and every day on my drive to work, I cross the same bridge Jim was crossing when he abandoned his car to save two drowning children. Beneath it runs the Elkhorn Creek, where the old mill dam used to stand … and where Midway kids used to swim.

Born a quarter of a century after Jim died, I never knew my great-uncle nor the children—my cousins—he never had. I would have spent time at his house; my family would have shared holiday meals with his. I would have learned things from him and, perhaps, followed his example.

On the face of it, I suffer the loss of Jim Parrish, too. It’s possible I would be a different, better person for having known Jim and benefitted from his strength of character.

But maybe I have. Maybe many of us have.

That boy Jim rescued, “little Benny,” grew up to be Dr. Ben Roach, described as a “medical legend in Kentucky” by a University of Kentucky president. Ben Roach co-founded the UK Markey Cancer Center, he established the Family Practice department at UK, and he founded the nursing program at what is now Midway University. Dr. Ben maintained a family practice in Midway for 55 years, and he treated and delivered countless residents, including me.

By all accounts, Jim was a kind and capable guy who made friends easily, and it’s fair to assume he was a significant influence on his companions in Midway and at Centre College. It’s certain that Jim made an immeasurable impact on his sisters, Honeywood and Nat, and they, in turn, encouraged, amused and inspired me. I never met the man, but I have to think he’s part of me … part of Midway.

“Everybody loved young Jim Parrish,” you know. And I would have loved an old one.

 

Life through lenses

Do not look at the sun! I think we might have heard that before—like a bajillion times when we were growing up, right? On Monday, much of America will be standing outside on a hot summer day looking up at the Great American Eclipse.

Not looking at the sun is good advice because, no shit, solar staring is worse than running with scissors. Fortunately, there are special glasses—with super-dark lenses—so that all of us gawkers can be protected from the sun’s blinding rays.EclipseGlasses

So super-dark lenses will save the day. But it’s just one day. And only one type of lens.

Looking through lenses is nothing new. I’m convinced that we look through lenses—our own customized set—every day, nearly all the time. Unlike eclipse glasses, though, there’s no frantic search to buy these lenses. I’m talking about looking at life through lenses of bias: our preconceived opinions and beliefs. And just like corrective lenses in eyeglasses alter our perception of objects, lenses of bias alter our perceptions of life.

The notion of these life lenses came to me, oddly enough, at a baseball game. A bunch of baseball games, really. I gradually understood that two honest people could witness the same event—say, a play at home plate—and perceive two different outcomes. A fan of the Yellow Jackets, whose player is barreling down the line and sliding into home, will believe with all his heart and mind that his guy slid under the tag—safe! At the same time, a Bearcats’ fan, whose catcher is protecting home plate, will genuinely believe he witnessed the tag being applied before the runner’s foot reached the plate—out!

How the two fans react to the call—silent disappointment or full-fledged rage—depends on other personality factors. But how they mentally processed their perception of the event is based on bias. And there’s nothing evil about it; each entered the ball park that day wanting his respective team to win.

I’ve seen a similar bias play out—again, oddly enough—on HGTV’s “House Hunter” shows. A couple is looking for a house, and one of them is, say, “budget conscious.” We know this because they mention the damn budget at least a dozen times during the episode. Now, I understand these shows are somewhat manufactured, but I have to believe they have at least some connection to the actual house-hunting situation. Why else would a dude shun the house with a home theater and the one close to work and instead pick the one with the shitty siding? Because it fit the budget, and he’s viewing every house through budget lenses.

(As HH fans know, the oft-stated bias can also be “close to the beach,” “my man cave,” “a white kitchen” or “all bedrooms on the same floor.”)

Another place I’m seeing life lenses affect perception is in the political arena. And while I think a series of lenses are in place, but there’s usually one overriding issue—or one demographic—that serves as the first filter. If a voter, for example, believes that women are unfit to be president, it will alter that voter’s perception of everything a female candidate says or does. Similarly, if a voter’s No. 1 issue is allowing same-sex marriage, that voter will view every candidate through that lens first and regard other stances as secondary factors.

This concept has helped me understand how voters I know to be good human beings can support a candidate who is widely recognized as ill-prepared or saddled with what I believe to be disqualifying flaws. But the issue of competency—or the bias against those flaws—is not as strong as that voter’s bias for something else that candidate possesses, whether it’s opposition to taxes or support for raising the minimum wage, or bias for a particular background or style.

In the controversy over Confederate statues, I have to think it’s another lens we look through when we evaluate the appropriateness of those monuments. This isn’t uncharted territory for any American citizen. What biases did each of us have long before the Charlottesville clash—or New Orleans’ removal of statues, or the debates that have cropped up across the country? In some cases, the lens is political: “I’m taking sides with the leaders of my party.” But in most cases, we either stand against the symbols of racial oppression—Rebel flags and Confederate monuments—or we’re OK with them.

And then when Charlottesville or New Orleans or Lexington, Kentucky, happen, different people—with different life lenses—view the same event but reach different conclusions.

There’s one more thing. An eclipse is the obscuration of light when the moon blocks the sun. A similar eclipse is common in today’s news-gathering process. Most of us have sources of news and information we prefer, and we block out the light and, often, the truth of other sources. If you find yourself shout “fake news” at reports that run counter to your political beliefs, you’re often not wearing lenses; you’re wearing blinders. And that’s a whole ’nother essay.

I’m not trying to tell you I’m right and you’re wrong—about Confederate statues or Donald Trump or the play at the plate. I’m just reminding you of the existence of bias, or preconceived beliefs. Being mindful of life lenses not only helps me understand the actions and words of others, it also helps me understand—and even to search to clarify—my own motives and beliefs.

The only thing I’m sure about is that you absolutely need eclipse special glasses—with super-dark lenses—to look at the sun on Monday. And that the Yellow Jackets’ runner was safe at the plate.

Beach run micro-trilogy

A family vacay to Crescent Beach, just south of St. Augustine, gave me the opportunity to resume my running regimen. My mileage had steadily decreased to zero over the past half-dozen years, but the road to fitness would start in northeast Florida. I ran every morning during our mid-July week at a beachside condo. (Good thing, as I enjoyed a dose of key lime pie most every night.) On those hot runs, when I wasn’t thinking about dying, I thought a lot about the beach.

TidePoolMmmmm … beach

What is it about the beach that makes it so longed-for? I think it starts with the image. We love looking at water, whether it’s a creek, lake, fountain or river. And the bigger the expanse of water, the better. The ocean, of course, stretches forever on your right, left and to the horizon in front of you.

Then add motion. A placid lake is gorgeous, but an ocean’s constant motion is mesmerizing. Crashing waves. Shimmering seas. Rolling—always rolling.

And when you involve the other senses: the surf’s methodical pounding, the aromatic salty air and the sea breeze on your face, the beach is flat-out intoxicating.

Steve Spurrier’s house

Do you think about buying a vacation home when you’re at the beach? Of course you do. Realistic or not, owning a place at the shore has to cross your mind as you lounge by the pool or stroll along the surf.

I have those vacation-home dreams while I run. As slow as I am, see, I get an extra-long look at each beachfront home. Some are cottagey and cozy, others are more modern. All windows and beams. I like the ones painted in pastels, with wide porches and a few Adirondack chairs. But if I were to ever buy a beachfront house, I’d want one with more bedrooms than my family needs because, as I’ve learned from watching House Hunters, your friends and relatives are going to visit you, like, constantly. So I’d need sort of a big house.

But not like Steve Spurrier’s.

The former college football coach is, according to my son’s friend who lives here, building the enormous house a couple of miles north of our condo. It sticks out like a sore castle. And I don’t like it. I don’t like Steve Spurrier, is the thing. While he was aw-shucks and easy-going during interviews, he was relentless and cruel as a coach, making his Florida Gators routinely run up the score on Kentucky. I mean, he was probably thinking more about his team’s progress than his opponent’s ineptitude. And maybe it was nothing personal, but still … he didn’t have to humiliate the boys in blue.

On the morning of my longest run of the week, I found myself approaching the Spurrier spread. The massive structure was visible from way off, but I had never reached it on earlier runs. As I was plodding along that day, though—and picking a spot for a turnaround point—Spurrier’s house was maybe only 10 minutes away. It would be easy to use it later, when I drove into town, to measure the length of my morning run with the car’s odometer.

But I decided against it. “Hell with him,” I thought. “I’m not going to use that damn guy’s house as my running goal.”  So I turned around a few houses south of Spurrier’s palace.

When I turned around I saw two guys sprinting toward me at full speed. One was 20 or so, and the other might have been his dad, and they were flat-out flying across the sand, huffing and puffing from the effort. They blew by me in an instant, and I could tell by the sound of their footsteps that they immediately eased off the gas; their sprint was over. Twenty yards later it hit me: They were using me as their finish line. “Race you to that fat guy!” was probably what started their sprint.

I was glad I had turned back home—toward the speedsters—and deprived them of a target. I know it was nothing against me personally. But still, who needs that humiliation?

Slogging another 20 yards up the beach, it hit me: Maybe just being inside Steve Spurrier’s territory brings out the butthole in everybody.

Beach boy

Each day’s run was rewarding, but for the absolute best beach run of the week, I was a spectator.

If you’re familiar with beaches, especially the wide, flat type I’ve seen in the Carolinas and—this week—in north Florida, you know that the tide has a dramatic influence on the amount of beach that’s either exposed or covered by the ocean. When the slope of a beach is extremely gradual, as it is here, a little bit of incoming tide travels a long way up the beach toward the dry sand. Similarly, a receding tide backs away quickly, leaving a tightly packed sand that can triple the amount of beach that’s available for sun tanning, bicycling and strolling.

Even a flat beach isn’t perfectly flat, and a slight beach bump will retain a bit of water as the tide ebbs. These tide pools typically run in narrow fingers parallel to the shore, as pictured above. They hold water for 10 or 20 minutes after the tide has abandoned the sand that surrounds them. Just “up beach” of a tide pool is the hard sand that makes the best running surface … unless you’re a little kid.

Trying to beat the heat, I ran early in the morning, but not crazy-early. Folks would have arrived at the beach to shell or stroll. And of course, families with little kids would have already been up for hours.

One morning I trotted slowly—always, slowly—toward a family that had set up chairs and an umbrella, and each of them was engaged in a different project. Mom was wading in the surf, no doubt trying to detect rip tides; Dad was working to drive the umbrella deeper into the sand, making their day camp hurricane-proof; sister was picking up shells: coquinas and chipped cockles; and baby brother was on the run.

Maybe one and a half years old, the boy was motoring close to Dad as I drew near the family, but then he veered off in my direction. Rather than face certain death by entering my path, he headed for a tide pool. When he hit the warm, shallow water, he found beach bliss. Kicking up big splashes with each step, the boy gave a long, “EEEEEEEEE!” as he ran. The look on his face was that of delighted surprise … sheer joy.

The tide pool would soon dry up, of course, and the kid’s vacation would soon end. Mine, too. But for that one moment, happiness took over the lives and strides of two runners on the beach.

So long, farewell

It was an odd farewell lunch. Odd but nice. And rare. You know how these goodbye things go when a co-worker is leaving the job. Awkward. Always awkward.

The farewell act comes in three main varieties. No. 1, the going-away guy or gal ismissyou somebody you didn’t know that well, and it’s awkward to say all the mandatory things about getting together soon and staying in touch—when you weren’t together or in touch the whole time you worked at the same place. Or, No. 2, you did know her … and you didn’t like her. Then you have to conceal your glee that she’s going. Worse, you have to say you’ll miss her. And you won’t, see.

The third possibility is that you really did like the person, and you’re honestly, deeply sorry that she’s leaving. She was your top go-to for office dirt and for commiserating about the boss. An actual work friend, right? And that lunch is awkward because you really will miss your friend, and you’re afraid you’ll get all weepy at a work event.

Of course, there is a fourth option: A co-worker is fired, and a manager stands beside the fired guy as he’s gathering his personal stuff from his desk. The manager is making sure the guy doesn’t steal paperclips or jam client lists down the front of his pants or delete master files using his computer. And all this is taking place right beside your desk. You fake like you’re getting a personal call on your cell just so you can get the hell away. Now that’s awkward.

Those are all work farewells, but non-work goodbyes are just as awkward.

Long before I was married, I used to travel with my buddies to the beach—spring break, of course, and even during a few springs after college. We’d inevitably connect with a group of girls and sort of run around together for the week, meeting at the beach by day and the bars at night. And we’d get to know each other in that intense way you do when you’re thrown together and every day is fun and crazy. And then it’s time to go home.

We’d always make the usual goodbye promises about staying in touch. This was long before email or smartphones, and everybody knew that staying in touch was a long shot. But that’s what we’d say. And then, after that—one hundred percent of the time—we’d come to the final farewell, and one person or another would say, “Well, good luck.”

I mean every time, there’d be that “good luck.” I’d always think, Good luck? Like, in life? Good luck for the rest of our lives? That’s one hell of a parting wish. I mean, that’s a long, broad expanse to cover with a two-word phrase. It got so that saying goodbye to beach friends was awkward, because I would start dreading the “good luck” thing days before it was time to go home.

All farewells are just damned awkward. Except for the lunch I started to tell you about earlier. My boss, who’s a very nice lady, offered to take our department to lunch at an excellent restaurant in honor of a departing colleague. She was one of those Variety 1 co-workers. I barely knew her, so saying we’d have to stay in touch would have been, well … you know. But I didn’t.

Because she wasn’t there.

At about 9:30 on the morning of her last day, the leaving lady had to pick up her child from daycare. A fever, probably, or perhaps a fistfight. At any rate, she sent a reply-all response to the email reminding us about her farewell lunch, and she told us all … farewell.

With no goodbyes hanging over our heads, no thinking about the lies we’d have to tell about getting together soon and staying in touch, lunch was delightful. In fact, I told some colleagues later that I’d like to go out that way, too. Everybody could just go to lunch on my last day, but I wouldn’t burden them with my presence. Of course, there’s a name for that situation: dead co-worker.

To put that plan in gear, I’m going to go ahead and encourage all my colleagues to come to my visitation—after they have lunch together—and they’ll need to say something good about me to my wife and kids. And then, when they get to my casket, each one can lean in a bit and say it softly: Well, good luck.

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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Worth Crying About

Yesterday was a full day for me: full of activity, full of special people and full of emotion. I cried, but only once.

The day began for Mary Beth and me with a trip to a state university with Steele, my oldest son. Steele is likely going to law school in the fall, and we attended an event for accepted students. The faculty and staff were impressive, and they gave Steele a lot to think about, wherever he ultimately attends.

Back home in Woodford County, we met my other son, Clay, with his prom date at a scenic site. Along with four other couples, the two posed in front of a scrum of parents snapping pics with smartphones. The kids were clad in impossibly elegant tuxedos and gowns; the parents wore jeans and athletic wear.

Then we were off to Lexington for a college reunion. My wife and I are both graduates of Transylvania University, and while 1980 is my year, I also affiliate with the Class of ’81. As a transfer student, I endured orientation with these people. Besides, they throw a tremendous party, and together, we conjure up and repurpose memories of our youth.

Did I cry? Almost at one event and undeniably at another.

The prom pic-fest has never done much for me, and while I am routinely overwhelmed to see Clay edging into manhood, the prom thing doesn’t move me.

The reunion thing does. There were a lot of hugs and back-slaps, but also, I had a moment with one person. I’ll keep the details private, but I must tell you that reaching out to reconnect can generate a powerful impact you might never have anticipated. I nearly cried.

Where I shed real tears was at a luncheon of strangers. At the law school’s last-ditch recruitment event, I was seated slightly behind Steele as we turned our chairs to face the speakers at the podium. When Steele reached up to swipe his bangs a bit, I focused on his hair and his head. Sounds weird, I know, but he was right in front of me.

I found myself staring at the whorl of hair on Steele’s head. It’s always been there, of course, even when it was the wisps of a newborn. And when it was baby blond, right beside my face as I carried him onto playgrounds or upstairs to bed. It was often covered up through the years by caps, either the baseball or graduation kind. And soon he’ll graduate again and move on. And move out.

Nobody saw me cry, I hope. With my napkin, I faked a mouth-wipe and edged up to the tear ducts. It’s not rare for me to get a bit choked up, but I don’t normally get overwhelmed by the progress of life and loved ones. I did yesterday, though.

And I might again today. Maybe when I think about that little blond-haired boy. Or that conversation at the reunion. Or maybe when I look at those prom pictures.

Yikes. Life is worth crying about.

Traffic Jams Are for Creeps

Traffic jams. You could say the phrase is positive, because when you’re stuck in traffic you have extra time to listen to your favorite jams.

TrafficBlogCarsBut don’t say that. Sitting in traffic jams is a losing proposition. You lose time at work. You lose family time. And sometimes, well, you lose your shit.

I can’t eliminate road rage and traffic jams, but I can put a dent in reduce the time we spend in snaky, snarly lines of traffic. Disclaimer: I need every driver in America to read and obey this essay.

That’s a lot to disclaim, I know. But I do have an answer, which, like most solutions to life’s problems, I learned in my years as a baseball dad. Cap-tip here to my friend David Couch, perhaps the most complete baseball coach either of my sons ever had. (David coached my second son, Clay, when he was 9. Clay, not David.)

Coach Couch told his Reds that when they’re in the field, playing defense, they should move forward with each pitch. Just a little. Not a lunge or a lurch, but a subtle move. Take small, almost unnoticeable steps. Creep toward the batter.

By making tiny shifts toward the plate, Coach Couch would say, you are ever-so-slightly building forward momentum, and if the ball is put in play, you’ll already be in motion. Your first step to the ball will be quicker because you started it before the ball was struck. If you have to stop or go the opposite way, you can, because you weren’t lurching or lunging. You were only creeping: employing subtle movement toward your target.

And your target as a driver, ladies and gentlemen, is the other side of the intersection before the damn light turns red.

In a perfect world of traffic, all of us would react immediately to the green light and go—fast. With each driver accelerating quickly as the light turned, the entire column of cars would, as a group, rocket forward to the desired cruising speed. Traffic lights would be perfectly timed so we would all achieve rapid (but safe) advancement.

But our traffic world is far from perfect. And one significant problem is that the drivers in front of you react slowly to the green light. They might have been texting or dozing or zoned out, and they don’t notice that it’s time to go until a few car lengths open up in front of them. And you know what would fit nicely into those empty car lengths? More cars! These drivers are dawdlers, and every dawdler that gets a late jump creates more unused space that delays the drivers behind them.

Also slowing you down are fainthearts. Overly cautious drivers, fainthearts intentionally allow space to build between themselves and the car in front. They remember well the drivers’ manual that prescribed ample stopping distance as a defense against certain death on the highway. Of course, you’re not on the highway with its high speeds. You’re in city traffic. Doing 4 mph.

According to my complex traffic models and scientific calculations, these unnecessary gaps between vehicles decrease traffic flow by 28 percent. Admittedly, my traffic models and calculations were created in my head while I was sitting in traffic.

It’s fair to say, though, that by eliminating the needless spaces that drivers create—either through inattention or fear—more cars could get through an intersection. Maybe yours, too. It’s that 28 percent inefficiency I seek to correct, which would make drivers more likely to get to work on time and get home sooner to their families (and Netflix), and less likely to become road ragers.

One common action is no help at all. Often I’ll see dawdlers snap to it and give it the gas, quickly eating up the 30 or so yards of slack they created with their negligence. But for the rest of us to catch up, we must similarly rocket forward, and as we discussed earlier in our perfect-world scenario, that ain’t happenin’.

So you must creep. Just like a second baseman on Coach Couch’s Reds, you’ve got to creep forward as the pitch is thrown—or, in this case, as the light loses its redness. If everyone is creeping, you’re all on the move sooner. You’re not rocketing, but you’re advancing. And as you advance to, say, 5 or 6 mph, then you can allow a little space between you and the guy in front of you. It’s more efficient to cede space on the move than from a dead stop.

It’s all part of my 28 percent plan for improvement. When everybody creeps in traffic, more of us can get through the light. We’ll get to work or home sooner. And your jams? Just play “Life Is a Highway,” “Shut Up and Drive” and maybe “Hot Rod Lincoln.”

Fight Fire with Pliers

“Did you break down?” my son asked as I entered the garage. Then he saw the fire extinguisher. “Oh! Did the DR mower catch on fire?”

“I don’t know,” I answered calmly. “Maybe.”

I mean, what is fire? If it’s shooting flames, then no. If it’s a lot of smoke and some smoldering bits of stuff, then yes, the DR caught on fire.

I love my DR mower. Officially, it’s a field and brush mower. You walk behind it and it chomps up big weeds, small trees, used cars and new bicycles. I think I read that DR stands for “Done Right” (painfully lame), but I think of it as “Destructo-Rotor.” It plows a damn path.

Only today it was on fire. Or nearly on fire, as we discussed. I had generated a good deal of smoke with the DR once before, when the weeds I was cutting got sort of tangled up in the engine and began to smolder. Today, though, it wasn’t weeds. It was a mouse house.

When the DR started smoking, I pulled from the engine area charred pieces of grass, shredded paper and what looked like insulation. A mouse’s nest. That part of the engine is marked “CAUTION HOT” and it was. After I fried the fingerprints off two fingers, I went to the garage and fetched my No. 1 tool of all time: needle-nose pliers. (Full disclosure: I am ignorant about tools and engines, even when fire is not a factor.)

And I grabbed a fire extinguisher as well. Better safe than seared-ey.

Extracting the smoldering bits of mouse house went much better with the pliers, but the smoke was still rising. I decided to gamble on blowing hard into the engine block. Best-case scenario was blowing out the fire, something I routinely did while trying to start a fire in the fireplace. Worst-case scenario was supplying air to a few sparks that needed only oxygen to become a full-blown blaze. And the gas tank was close by.

I checked to make sure I could reach the fire extinguisher. What’s the correct technique for using one? I tried to remember the directions. “Sweep the left” went through my mind several times, until I realized I was confusing fire-fighting advice with the order from the evil sensei in “The Karate Kid.”

“Sweep the leg.”

Did I have a problem with that? No, nor did I have a roaring fire. After a few rounds of blowing and plucking out scraps of the mouse’s nest, the smoke ceased. I then returned the fire extinguisher to the garage—briefly explaining its role to my son—and went back to mowing.

Maybe I should have let the DR cool off awhile longer or maybe waited to take it to a repair shop. I wasn’t worried, though. I had kept the needle-nose pliers in my pocket.