Throwing Rocks

Just the other day, I was talking to an acquaintance about the lack of communication he was experiencing with his son who is in college.  It brought to mind a piece I wrote about four years back recounting an experience with my son when he was still an undergrad and on a visit home form school. Sometimes little stones are precious, as can be a little moment.

“Yes, sweetie…not a problem. Yes just change plans,” my wife tells my son over the phone.
“What?” I growl across the room. “Change plans again? This is bull….”
She sets the phone down,” He said he’s bringing his fishing pole.”

This was the second consecutive weekend he has expected us to drop all our plans just because he wanted to come home for a couple of days from college. He’s finishing his senior year three hours away at Sonoma State. After we rearranged the entire previous weekend to accommodate him, he canceled at the last second explaining that something came up. Now he expected us to drop everything again. Selfish kids. And his mother always does it. But the kid is smart; he knew the old man would be unhappy with his self-centric universe, so he short circuited a certain lecture form me indicating he wanted to go fishing. Even in my kid’s most rebellious years, a good camping and fishing trip generated enough loving energy to get us through four months of trouble. We fished often.

He arrived early Friday evening. We’re a good Catholic family, and it being the Lenten season, we fast and finish the day off with a nice fish dinner. Of course this Friday would be different. Whenever my boy comes home, his mother invariably buys his favorite pizza in town. To be honest, it’s an awesome pizza from a mom and pop joint, but this is FRIDAY and it IS Lent and I expected a nice fillet of sole dinner. I was looking forward to my wife’s seasoned, oven roasted potatoes with her buttery sole. Instead I sat at the table eating a cheese pizza while my son wiped pepperoni from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. Well, at least we’d be fishing tomorrow.

Alex and I were up early the next morning. We had set all the gear by the door the night before, as was our custom whether fishing, snow boarding, or loading up the Expedition for a days long baseball tournament. He and I have spent thousands of hours in that car together over the last fifteen years. It was a less a vehicle and more and extended member of our family; the lynch pin in the relationship with my son. Lately however, there had been long silences in our drives. He frequently seemed more engaged in his chat room than actually chatting with his pops sitting right next to him. As we loaded the car, I recited the usual litany of questions: Do you have your sunscreen? Do you have fishing license? Do you have this or that….

“Ya Dad. Have it all. You don’t need to ask anymore…I’m not a kid. I do this all the time on my own,” he finally snaps.
“Okay then,” I reply as I move on to the loading. I’ve long quit taking exception to his impatience. “But you’re sure you have everything?” He had long since quit taking the bait, as well.

On the way up to Merced River near Yosemite, we talked about how school was going; he discoursed on his post school plans; I admonished that he had better seriously think about work. There was the typical sports talk and a few questions about some of his friends I had met over time. He got caught up on the local news. As we drove, I pondered how our conversation might sound if I were one of his buddies. What would we be talking about? Probably a lot like the conversations I had with my friends when I was in my early twenties, but would never have with my dad—not that the topics were necessarily risqué.

Young people just see and react to the world differently than us older folk. I was reminded of that great divide by a movie just recently, Boyhood. One of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen, it was actually shot over twelve years and follows a boy’s odyssey through childhood into adulthood. A parallel plot follows his mother’s life and trials as she matures from a young, hip mom into cynical middle age. What stuck out to me was how as her son grew older, there developed a private world into which she was not a guest. Always having had a good relation with her son, she had no idea that as he entered his twenties, she was looking at is world far away through a telescope. By the film’s end, I suddenly realized why King Lear can really be understood when one’s children are grown and at that point when a man is looks back as much as he looks forward. Sitting in our Expedition, winding our way through the Merced river canyon, I realized that sitting next to me was an adult that I would have to get to know like I would another adult.

We parked the car, geared-up, and set off to walk a mile or so down the old Yosemite rail grade that follows the river to a spot we like to fish. We each found our spots about forty years apart. I was then it dawned on me that I had brought on of my spinning rods but brought a fly reel—a combination that is not workable. The heaving fly line stops dead in the small guides when casting. For thirty minutes I tried futilely to get the line out on enough on the water for a good drift but finally gave-up as bright yellow line heaped around me. As I was reeling the last few feet of tangled line, my son popped through trees and seeing my set-up, asked what the heck I was doing.

“Well, it seems somehow the wrong reel wound up in my bag,” mumbled dolefully. I braced for a scornful reproach. It was his “Gotcha” moment and I deserved it. And that was the worst part.

He paused and chewed on the situation for a moment. I was sure requital was tasting as good in his mouth as crow was tasting nasty in mine. “I’ll just reel in my rig then,” he finally replied. “It’s really no fun if we both don’t have a line in the water.

I wanted to tell him that when he was small, I almost never had a line in the water I was so busy helping him. Instead I told him it was alright, to keep on fishing, but he was insistent.

On the walk back, we stopped for bit to appreciate a particularly pretty piece of the river. The sun was just peeping over the rim of the canyon and the air began to warm. I glanced at Alex and noticed him searching the ground around him. He picked up a round stone from among the many sharp edged pieces of slate strewn about and matter-of-factly stated, “I’m gonna hit that large flat rock just near the other bank.

“Long throw, small target,” I said. And he let heave the stone, just barely missing left. “Almost,” I commented.

“I got it,” he responded with a slight competitive edge to his voice. My was is very competitive with everyone and everything, including himself. He let go and with a clack, his stone hit the mark. As he was picking his next target, I as setting down my pole and tackle and looking for a viable stone myself. After his next toss, I let out a breath and took aim for his original target and let my shot go. I was way short.

Alex advised with the same patient tone I used when coaching him when he was small, “You short armed the follow though. You’re gonna pull something that way.”

“Okay,” was my brief response as I took in the information, relaxed and set to throw again. Alex watched as this time the rock sailed toward its target just missing right and short by a foot.

“Good throw,” he said, “your arm had some life in that one.” And for the next forty minutes or so we scurried about looking for good stones and picking new targets. The only conversation was look at this rock! Or a “I can’t believe you passed up this beauty.” And of course, “Oh, did you see that one?”

After a while, my shoulder really began to heat up and we stopped, finishing the walk back to the car while laughing over goofy things all along the way. We stopped in Mariposa at a great little brewery and took a seat at a high table with stools. Our fishing clothes made us fit right in with the locals stuffed into the small tap-room. The blond waitress came over with her small pad in hand. She gave my tall, handsome son a quick look over and then turned to me for the order. I said, “I’m buying my boy a beer.”

The cute mountain gal, smiled, “That’s really neat. A father-son day out.”

“Yup,” I said. “Someday he’ll buy me beer.”

My son smiled broadly, “Yup,” repeating my phrasing, “Some day. But not today.”

The three of us laughed, and then I enjoyed a beer more than I have enjoyed one in a long time.

Bosses and Banjos

There was a muted busy, muffled buzz in the classroom.  The thirty-three eighth were engaged in a challenging project.  After the perfunctory walk around the classroom to monitor student activity (hardly necessary with this industrious bunch), I paused at at my desk where my banjo leaned in the corner. Compulsively, I sat for a moment and began to tune the instrument…a compulsion formed by repetitive necessity if one acquainted with that long necked, slinky stringed instrument for long. I merely wanted to tune it, but soon I was plunking away at Mississippi Sawyer. The kids, surprisingly, applauded and then busily resumed their toils. I dove into a rendition of Julianne Johnson, the perfect vehicle for practicing drop-thumbing.

Only a minute must have passed when I was roused from my state of fixed concentration.

“What are you doing?” It was the sonorous voice of our vice-principal. I had never even noticed tall, affable man walk in.  The response to his query, however, seemed obvious.

“Playing the banjo.”

“Oh.” His tone was not disapproving.  Just a little bewildered. “It’s not as loud as I would expect.”

I showed him the open back and explained that it lacked a resonator like in bluegrass.  He said he thought all banjos sounded like Dueling Banjos. Of course I thrust through that opening and gave him a very abridged explanation of the English/Irish  roots of old time and the African roots of the banjo in particular.

He scanned the room. The kids were still immersed in their work; a couple, sensing they were being watched, looked up. I took advantage of the pause to jump into Old Molly Hare and the V.P. took a leisurely through the room and chatted amicably with a few kids about what they were doing. Shortly, with a broad smile and wave as he left, he commented, “Nice class.”  I nodded back and began tuning back to G.

Over many years of teaching, I have always tried to pair music with my instruction. After playing scores of hours of music in the classroom, I’ve noticed certain trends.  While many have read or heard that Bach is good for studying, my observations tell me that the kids settle to work and really focus when I play artists like Debussy, Julie Fowlis, Ellington and Coltrane, Guy Clark, and yes old-time.  What is it that these disperse genres have in common? My suspicion is that much of this music penetrates the thick habituated rituals of our daily grind. It is easy to pass days—weeks — on emotional autopilot. Music at its best pierces and transcends our encapsulated lives. Poetry, music, art at its best changes one’s perception. But old-time…transformational?  Really?

Most have heard that stale trope: Old-time…it’s better than it sounds.  As disparaging as the remark is meant to be, there is a certain ironic truth to it: Old time…as good as it sounds, it’s even better.   The banjo and fiddle at their nascence are primitive instruments. The songs that emanate from these instruments in old-time, for the most part, were first sung and played by people who were as connected to the earth, moon and sun as any redwood tree or mountain peak.  Those ancient tones resonate throughout the music, whether it be a gleeful reel or a slow lament, and pull my students through time— my students born into a world where city life is as removed from the ancient as the Earth is from Pluto. 

It is also possible that my students, like the teenager that responded to Dick Clark in1960 when he asked, “What do you like about this song?” simply like the beat.

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