The Graduation Dance

Congratulations to all the graduates at every level, college, high school, middle school and kindergarden. This is a necessary ceremonial marker to remember significant transitions and major accomplishments.

OK, maybe not for the kindergarden graduates. That one might be more for the parents.

But for those who put on robes and hats at this time of year, it is important that we all acknowledge the achievement of completing a course of study. It was my great pleasure to attend a graduation last Sunday and to honor my son, Gus, and his friends as they moved into a new phase of their remarkable lives. Here they are, giddy with relief and tossing out a leg to take the next big step.

While I am filled with a father’s pride in my graduate and overwhelmed with admiration for excellence of his friends and the education they were offered, I did find parts of the final rituals a little comical.

Saturday night featured a ceremony where the graduates gathered in the chapel, heard speeches from classmates, sang a few songs, and then went out onto the campus grounds to find a lantern with their name affixed. Over 700 lights were aglow in the falling dusk. To hasten the search, the lanterns were arranged alphabetically. It was a beautiful scene with lovely symbolism, and weirdly appropriate that the final test after 16 years of schooling required a public demonstration that one had mastered those confounding ABC’s.

The next day was even better – I loved the sight of all the scholars marching in orderly lines to their rows of assigned seats – something I had just seen on an old videotape of a preschool holiday pageant. Major difference – as pre-schoolers, they were allowed to bang drums on the way.

And then came the ordeal – sitting under a merciless sun in 90 + degree heat for two hours wearing black robes and caps – something no truly educated person would choose to do. I wondered if the administration would unveil a late stunner of a surprise and award diplomas only to those who had the sense to skip the ceremony.

But no, this was a final, necessary hurdle, and will be remembered forever by the graduates for their sense of educational accomplishment and the light headed feeling of stubborn pounds most certainly lost through perspiration. On a molecular level, this graduation was a race between the need for the learned speakers to say every word they had carefully written, and the assured disintegration of the student’s bio-degradable robes. Moisture always wins in the end!

Congratulations Graduates! Now you know how to be patient and obedient, and if you hadn’t learned it before, now you know how important it is to hydrate!

What is your favorite memory from a graduation ceremony?

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R.I.P. Doc Watson

The great Doc Watson has passed away at the age of 89. He played the guitar and sang, but mostly he took possession of songs and fixed them with a translation that others could only admire and hope to imitate.

Doc Watson became blind around the time he was one year old, the result of an eye infection. But Doc Watson did not allow blindness to restrict him. I gathered some notes about Doc Watson for Trial Balloon in May of 2010. They still apply.

He was an expert in flatpicking and fingerpicking guitar techniques. His influence among players of traditional and popular music is impossible to measure. Among his many honors, Doc received the National Medal of Arts from President Clinton in 1997.

But far greater gifts came from Doc’s father, who hand built a banjo for his 11 year old son. Watson told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that his dad …

“… showed me a few of the old time frailing or clawhamer style banjo tunes. And one day he brought it to me and put it in my hands and said “son I want you to learn to play this real well. Some of these days we’ll get you a better one. It might help get you through the world.”

General Dixon Watson’s dedication to helping his son ‘get through the world’ led to another important moment. When Doc was 14 his father assigned him to do some work with a crosscut saw – a risk many of today’s hyper-protective parents wouldn’t take with their sighted children. Doc told an interviewer for “Bluegrass Unlimited” …

“He made me know that just because I was blind, certainly didn’t mean I was helpless.”

And it helped develop a useful skill. Doc and his younger brother cut and sold scrap wood to a local tannery to make some money. Doc used his share to buy his first mail order guitar from Sears Roebuck.

Years later, a music store proprietor in Boone, North Carolina offered to help Doc get a better guitar, a Martin D-18, by cutting the payments to five dollars a month.

As Doc told Terry Gross

“At that time I was playing at the little fruit stand and a little bean market that they had at Boone and makin’ me a few shekels on Saturday. Havin’ a good time a pickin’. I paid for the guitar that summer. He got me that thing at his cost – and it cost ninety bucks. And I paid for it. Lord I was proud of that guitar. But in all truth, compared to my guitar now it was like frettin’ a fence. It was really hard to play.”

Doc Watson made the best of what he had to work with. If you didn’t already know the story you wouldn’t look at that early handmade banjo or the Sears mail order guitar and guess that a blind boy might pick them up and with time and talent, become a national treasure.

Watson also told Terry Gross in that interview that he considered leaving the road and the music business when his son Merle died in 1985, and would have if Merle hadn’t come to him in a dream and urged him to keep going. Good thing, or we’d have lost 27 years worth of music.

What talent or skill would you like to be able to practice all the way to the very end?

Volunteers

Today’s guest post comes from Jim in Clark’s Grove.

I see two kinds of volunteers in my world – plants and people.

Volunteer people give up their free time to do work they feel is important. Sometimes they’re thought of as being not as good or as serious as a paid worker. Plants are called volunteers if they show up someplace they aren’t expected. Often they’re yanked out and tossed away.

But what if we tried to change the way we view these volunteers?

Various plants are always popping up in my garden or yard without being invited. One that appears on its own in many places is Feverfew. It is usually found in places where I have applied some of my homemade compost, thanks to my old habit of putting Feverfew plants that went to seed in the bin. This year, before I did any tilling in my garden, I decided to transplant some of the young Feverfew plants into a flowerbed instead. By using these plants that came up on their own as bedding plants they have become an integral part of my gardening efforts. Now I’d miss them if they were gone, and I no longer think of them as just volunteers.

Doug is the first person I think of when I think of people who do volunteer work. In his last years my father lived with us and also in a nursing home. Doug was a volunteer in an organization that recruited people to make visits to shut ins, and he came by to see my dad almost weekly in both places. Dad began to look forward to Doug’s visits, in part because Doug understood how much some shut in people need to have company. And Doug approached this work like it was meaningful and not just an activity to fill his spare time. For my dad, it became something much more than a random visit – it was an essential service that improved his life.

Just as I have found ways to use Feverfew that make it more than a volunteer plant, people like Doug have found ways to be helpful that go beyond what is expected of a mere “volunteer.”

What have you volunteered to do?

Last of the Lefse

Today’s Memorial Day guest post comes from Barbara in Robbinsdale.

One or more Baboons have expressed interest in hearing more about our son Joel, who died in September 2007 from an alcohol related accident, at the age of 26. Telling stories about Joel is one of the most healing things I do, so here you are.

Well, I finally did it. I threw out the remaining lefse.

This wasn’t just any lefse, not even just any homemade lefse. My son and I made this in December 2006, his last Christmas in the physical. This is one of my favorite things about Joel – he loved family traditions, and making lefse is something his grandpa had taught him. He truly enjoyed getting together with Family, was the one that would take videos of the little kids at Christmas and Thanksgiving, and then make video gifts for their parents. He was the fun “uncle” who would be on the floor playing with the toddlers.

Christmas 2004

When Joel was little, his favorite color was orange; I dressed him in that so he’d be highly visible on the playground. He loved cats from day one – Sox was absolutely appalled when he turned 9 months old and started walking. By the time he was eight, he was more reliable.

Like many children of Babooners, Joel put up with our beloved Morning Show (TLGMS) while growing up, and thanked me for it later – and yes, he appreciated ALL kinds of music because of it, from Classical to Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, the Beatles.

Music is what made it possible for us to connect when he got to be 14 – Jerry Garcia had just died, and suddenly “my music” from the 70s was in the mainstream again. In music we had something that could start us talking.

Joel was smart, good looking, funny, and he shared my sense of humor. He liked helping people, and was a good listener – ended up being the Confidant in his group of friends. He was organized (!), practical, and resourceful. He became the medic on the hunting trips – had little vials of anything they would need: aspirin, antihistamine… tucked into the “slots” on his ammo belt.

Blues Festival in Mankato, 1997

An Aquarius, as an astrologer friend would tell me, he did “march to the beat of a different drummer”. When (at age 20) he and a buddy set off to look for an apartment, they ended up buying a little house a mile from ours, and rented out a room to at least one other friend to help make payments. We saw him almost weekly for dinner, followed by watching any DVD he would bring (i.e., the entire seven seasons of The West Wing). Or sometimes we’d do a special project like making lefse.

Last of the Lefse

And now, like many things, I have to let the lefse go. It smells stale and I see some (former) insects in the box. So I arranged and photographed it, then put some out for the critters and composted the rest. I still have my dad’s griddle – I might make lefse again some day, but I probably won’t do it alone.

What do you do to keep important memories alive?

Ask Dr. Babooner

Dear Dr. Babooner,

About ten months ago, I was asked to give the commencement speech at a local university and I said “yes,” not thinking that the time would come when I would actually have to do it. But now that time is here and I’ve done nothing to prepare. The speech is tomorrow and all I’ve got is a head full of nonsense and clichés.

When I think about the speech I’d like to give, it’s full of wisdom and fun and the students love it they’re glad they came and grateful they had the chance to sit in the 90 degree heat while wearing black robes under a full sun to listen to it.

But in reality I don’t relate to young people very well, and even if I did I don’t suppose there’s anything anyone could say that would make them grateful at this point. They’re tired, broke, in debt, and are being sent out into the economy to find work when job prospects are impossibly bleak. There’s a huge backlog of highly educated people just like them who have been sitting in their mother’s basements for the last decade, playing video games and picking up pocket change through intermittent babysitting and landscaping jobs.

I looked online and found lots of advice on giving commencement speeches – most of it in the form of pithy clips from talks given by celebrities and earnest instructions from well meaning haiku writers who will never, ever, be asked to do what I’m about to do.

I’m frightened. Right now, this is the text I’ve got.

“Congratulations, Graduates. You’ve already been though a lot, and that has prepared you as you head out into the world. Because whatever it was you went through, there’s a lot more of it out there, and some of it has your name written on the side.

So work hard, conduct yourself with integrity, and whatever you do, always, always know your audience. In particular, always try to be aware of the boundaries – those places where your audiences’s interest in what you have to say abruptly and permanently ends. And whatever you do, do not step across those lines.

Because, whoever you are, politician, priest, or professor, one thing remains true. Unless you are a magnificent singer or a brilliant genius, people are almost always grateful and appreciative when you finally sit down and shut up.

Thank you very much.”

Do you think I can get away with that?

Sincerely,

Fully Gown Man

I told Gown Man he should not, under any circumstances, give that speech. Condescension and self deprecation are never as enlightening or entertaining as you think they will be.

People expect an uplifting message at graduation. It should be about the graduates and not about you. And yes, it should be presented in as few words as possible. If you truly know your audience, you will give them what they want, but prioritize.

“Uplifting” is job number one.
“About them” is job number two.
And “few words” is job number three.

But that’s just one opinion. What do YOU think, Dr. Babooner?

The Blood of Reagan!

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Larry Kyle of Genway.

I know what you’re thinking, but I did not enter a bid on the Blood of Reagan!

Oh, I was tempted! As the founder and produce manager of a grocery store that specializes in genetically engineered foods, I am well aware of the value of even the smallest drop of celebrity DNA. And to have a sample from the man who arguably represents the first and most blatant intersection between show business and political power … I’m still amazed that I was able to resist.

Think about the possibilities inherent in introducing Reagan DNA into our produce section alone – like Corn on the Teflon Cob – grill it all day, it’s impossible to burn! Or Supply Side Grapes! Each bunch comes with a poor person whose job it is to feed them to you! The more you eat, the better they live! Or should I say, “the better you’ll feel about they way they live”. I know it doesn’t make sense but people will accept it anyway – that’s the Reagan DNA at work!

So why didn’t I bid on the Vial of Reagan’s Blood when I had a chance?

It was a business choice, pure and simple. In my line of work, it’s bad for the profit margin to do anything that pushes up the market value of raw DNA. That’s because DNA is the material that gives my style of unsupervised and under regulated experimentation its great potential.

Sure, a whole line of Reagan-infused produce would prove irresistible to my staunch Republican customers, but once shoppers got used to the idea of foods branded with their own peculiar political persuasions, I’d have to produce Palin Pomegranates and Santorum Celery. And you thought the sweater vests were ghastly!

Of course Democrats would do the same. I don’t know about you, but I’m just not ready for Obama Okra.

I can only hope that Reagan’s Blood will be safely kept from commercial misuse by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Although like the powerful One Ring in that Tolkien trilogy, Reagan’s Blood may have the power to corrupt whoever possesses it. Pay close attention – if the foundation begins to explore cloning … watch out!

It sounds like Dr. Kyle has mellowed with age – he’s actually saying “no” when in years past his answer to every harebrained idea was always “yes, yes, YES!”

Does age lead to wisdom, or something else?

Raised Eyebrows

A request and a couple of curiosities today:

First, I’m planning to take a week off June 4th through the 9th, so a selection of guests posts would be much appreciated to keep Trail Baboon fresh each day. Many thanks to Clyde, Steve, Jim, and Barbara in Robbinsdale, who have offered spontaneous guest blogs over the past few weeks and months. If you have an idea for the week of June 4th, please send me a note at connelly.dale@gmail.com.

Clyde sent this eclipse photo, relayed by his son in San Francisco.

It makes me think of raised eyebrows, a facial reaction it must be a tough to elicit in the world wise and libertine city by the bay.

But raised eyebrows is just one person’s reaction. Maybe this spray of crescent shapes makes you think of Paul Bunyan’s fingernail clippings, or eye-less smiley faces.

Perhaps they’re smiling about this: A man got picked up for drunk driving after leaving an Iowa bar when they refused to serve him alongside his two companions – a zebra and a parrot. The man, Jerald Reiter, thought he could bring his pals into the establishment because he recalled seeing animals in there before. The bar is called “The Dog House.”

Reiter told the Des Moines Register he’d had three mixed drinks at home with his dinner. He wanted to get away from his farm because he hadn’t left for several months. “I’ve been planting corn and everything else,’” he said. “So I opened the door, the zebra jumps in, the macaw loves to go for a ride, so we went for a ride.”

What could be more normal? In rural Iowa, I believe getting tipsy and piling into the car with your zebra and your parrot is known as putting on your “Poor Man’s Zubaz“.

What do you like to wear for a night on the town?

Don’t Look Up

Today is the anniversary of the dedication of the main branch of the New York Public Library, a landmark which was officially opened on May 23, 1911. This is the iconic library building on 5th Avenue, with an entrance guarded by two stone lions (Patience and Fortitude) and a grand reading room that is a wonder to behold.

“Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0″

The room is 77 feet wide and 295 feet long – longer than a Boeing 747 and able to take people more places. It is a shrine to knowledge, a temple of learning, and is lined with thousands of books – exactly the type of place where it would be impossible for me to read a book.

As a child, teenager and even as an adult, I am almost unengrossable. Oh, I love to read, but no matter what I’m doing,  my head keeps lifting up to gaze around the room.  It takes me twice as long as most people to read a book because of all the necessary daydreaming that has to happen at the end of chapters, after significant paragraphs, and often in between words.

The New York Public Library is magnificent.  But if you’re building a reading room, give me something with the grandeur removed –  a shabby closet, some pillows and a desk lamp.

Any place without a lot of stuff to look at.

Where do you go to read?

Hospitality and Houseguests

New York is the most exciting city in the world.

That’s not just my opinion.  A lot of people say that.  The city is also very welcoming and hospitable, which is not a commonly held view among humans, but I think millions of other creatures would agree.

And by “other creatures” I mean rodents, cockroaches, ants, flies, bees, bedbugs and pigeons.

By all accounts these are some of the primary non-human beasts that thrive in the urban jungle, and New Yorkers like to talk about what they can do to keep their uninvited house guests under control.

And yet there is also an air of acceptance.  If you live in New York City this assortment of two, four, six and eight legged strangers will share it with you, whether you want to share it with them or not.  Which may come as a surprise to the owner of the city’s highest priced (and still unbuilt) piece of residential real estate.

What do you do when you see the first cockroach skitter across the kitchen floor in your 90 million dollar sky palace? Even if the creature is dressed for dinner in top hat, white tie and tails, the sight of it gives one pause. And if the intruder happens to be a rodent, the sight of it gives one paws – “How much money would it take to be totally alone?”

More than you have, apparently. Only in New York.

What else lives in your house?

Pinhole Camera Pt. 2

I was looking forward to seeing last night’s partial eclipse of the sun, but lacking a welder’s mask I knew it would be melted eyeball time if I actually tried to watch. So when the day started with rain, and continued with rain, I was only mildly disappointed that clouds would hide our solar peek-a-boo.

But when the skies cleared in the late afternoon, I knew I had to find a west-facing wall with a nearby tree and a clear view of the horizon so I could see if the tree-leaves-as-pinhole-camera phenomenon worked.

Luckily, Columbia Heights High School had all the required components.

And there you see all the little curvy sun-cresecents, just as Aristotle predicted. Impressive! What better place to have a scientific principle demonstrated than the wall of the local high school.

And there happened to be a guy there with a welder’s mask, so I got a direct look too!

When have you been astonished to discover what you were told is true?