In the past few weeks, my daughter graduated from college and my son graduated from high school. I say this with a great deal of pride, but also with a certain sadness at how quickly life goes by—quickly, that is, compared with the snail’s march of commencement speeches.
And I’m talking about a snail with a penchant for putting his feet up and pontificating on the hopes and dreams of snails in modern society.
It used to be there was only one speaker at these things—usually an aged alumnus who had donated a million dollars to creating the Irwin P. Shakespoon School for the Morbidly Verbose. Or some minor celebrity like David Gregory, where everyone squints for the entire speech trying to remember where they’ve seen him before.
But now everyone has to make a speech—the invited guest, the dean, the vice-president of the college, the assistant to the vice chancellor, and the 1,500 students, who were all raised to believe that everybody gets an MVP trophy.
As I nodded through the seemingly endless philosophizing and truly endless reciting of names (relieved only by the occasional Octavia Peed), I began to daydream about what I would say if I were ever asked to give the commencement address at, say, a bluegrass college.
Until a few years ago, that last sentence would have been a set-up for a banjo joke, but now there are actual bluegrass colleges.
So. . . .
Welcome parents, faculty, administration, staff, students, promoters and dj’s!
First, just to clear up some confusion about the dean’s introducing me as Rhonda Vincent . . . I see by the disappointed looks out there that you were looking forward to some real-world advice about life as a bluegrass star. Well, obviously, I’m not Rhonda Vincent, so you’ll get none of that. On the upside, I’ll keep this short because I’ve booked a noon open mic at Panda Express. [crickets. . .]
Is this thing on? Check. Check.
I remember when I graduated from the Ft. Lauderdale School of Bartending and Bluegrass. It was 1978 and I thought the world was my oyster. It turned out the only job I could get was shucking oysters at Big Daddy’s Crab Shack in Key Biscayne.
But you never know what form destiny will take. For me, it was the Rotagilla All-Stars Bluegrass & Disco Band. We sang traditional bluegrass songs backwards to a disco beat. Now, before you judge, let me say that I was 22 and they were offering $50 a show. Sure, I had to wear bell-bottoms and platform shoes with a string tie, but it was a start. I played banjo and saxophone, sometimes at the same time. My point is you take what you get and you make the most of it, although in that case I joined just three weeks before the bandleader ran off with the bass player’s girlfriend, the gig money, and all the instruments.
Adversity builds character, but in bluegrass those bumps in the road are literally bumps in the road. If you look to your right and to your left, sometime in the next 30 years all three of you will run into each other at Denny’s.
Of course, there is the part where you stand at the record table and people tell you how great you are. I’ve never experienced it, but I’ve stood next to Russell Moore and it does happen.
But even then, I wouldn’t give it too much importance. As a friend of mine once said, the people who think you suck never line up at the record table. Wise words. In the end, you are your toughest critic.
So, if your toughest criticism is reserved for the mandolin player’s lazy chop, then you’re not looking at yourself hard enough. If you find yourself thinking that maybe practicing might be more productive than watching the entire three seasons of Wipeout again, then you’re on the right track.
Of course, even with hard work you’re going to hit rough patches. That’s when you have to say to yourself, Just keep going. Of course, if you keep going you may miss the turn-off to Bugaloosa, so sometimes it’s best not to keep going. And that’s my message to you today:
Just keep going. Unless it’s better not to keep going.
Confusing, I know, but I don’t want to stand here and give advice only to have you sue me in a few years for raising your hopes and having them dashed. We live in a litigious society and my lawyer says I should put this in. So, I’m covering my ass. Another useful tool in life, covering your ass.
And cowardice. They say that life is not for sissies, but I say it’s the cowards who last the longest, who back out of the gig where the band is supposed to parachute into the wedding, who decide not to spend their life’s savings making a CD, who stay at home where their dreams can never be tarnished.
And as I rise to a crescendo of vapid banalities, let me say, “How y’all doin’ out there?!” and “We’re sure glad to be here!” and “We’d like to speed it up a bit now!” If you just remember those three things. And the part about just keep going, or not, and I forgot to mention about making lemonade out of lemons, which you can sell at the record table, by the way. And the first part about making the most out of what comes along, except if it involves platform shoes.
I see the first three rows have passed out from heat stroke, so it’s probably a good time to wrap up. If you look under your seats you should find a matchbook with the phone number of a good dental hygienist school.