Kath and I caught Bela Fleck Friday night.
We sat in the balcony of Greensboro’s Carolina Theatre, the city’s old vaudeville room, and listened Bela and his wife, Abigail Washburn, play. Bela calls her Abby. Together, the two have recorded two CDs, won a Grammy and continued their musical adventure in reinventing the banjo.
See, Abby sings in Chinese – and you KNOW you don’t hear that on WPAQ.
Then there’s the other thing. Bela and Abby are … er … newish parents.
They have a young son, and they named him Juno. On this particular Friday, as his parents played, Juno slept on the bus parked beside the Carolina, with I believe Abby’s mom babysitting a few feet away.
Bela and Abby are taking Juno on their tour so he can stay with them. It’s a true family affair.
Bela and Abby talked about their traveling nuclear family during Land Jam, a fundraiser for the Piedmont Land Conservancy, a non-profit that protects public lands in our neck of North Carolina. And when they mentioned Juno, I leaned over and whispered to Kath about Will.
It all goes back to October 1998.
I was playing “Left of Cool” from Bela Fleck and the Flecktones a few miles away in one of those dimly lit birthing rooms at Women’s Hospital. I turned it on low and listened to Bela’s banjo melt into the room when the sun just started to set.
For me, I thought it was a beautiful moment – the wink of the setting sun, the lilt of the banjo, the expectant wait for Will, our first, to be born.
Kath would have none of it. It was WAY too screechy during those tense expectant moments as labor begins – and Kath loves the banjo.
On Friday night, in the balcony of the Carolina, she reminded me of that.
“And yeah, I told you to turn it off,” she said.
I did. Damn right, I did. I hate what I call the “Wrath of Kath.”
Back then, we were first-time parents, and I knew I needed some musical life raft, something familiar, that I could cling to as I faced the wide-eyed excitement – and white-knuckled fear – of being a first-time parent.
A month later, I ended up interviewing Bela. He and his group, The Flecktones, were opening for the Dave Matthews Band at the Greensboro Coliseum. I asked him about the impact his playing had on people and asked for stories he had heard.
Of course, that came after I mentioned to him about my son’s birthing moment.
“I know of some stories, but yours is right up there,” he told me. “That’s a pretty good one.”
Fast forward about 18 months.
I was trolling MerleFest, Will hanging in my backpack when I spotted Bela walking toward some stage. He was a few feet to my right. I introduced myself, we talked, he spotted Will and asked, “So, is this the guy?”
That’s how our conversation began. A minute or so later along came Sam Bush and Tony Rice on the way to … somewhere.
I had interviewed all three of them at some point in the past year, and there we were, a tight scrum of smiles, talking music, MerleFest and that tow-headed kid on my back.
Will remembers none of it.
Bela Fleck with Sam Bush at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
I never saw Bela again — until Friday night at the Carolina.
We’re both fathers, both with sons. Will is 18. Juno is 4. Bela is 59, a new father. Me, I’m nearly a half-dozen years younger, staring at life through a whole different lens.
Bela mentioned the whole “Wow, I’m a dad” thing during Land Jam. But I wondered how it really affected him. So, I went back and listened again to Bela and Abby on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast.
It aired nearly a year ago, right before Thanksgiving, and the only thing I remember was Abby singing in Chinese and Bela talking about getting a speeding ticket and telling the cop he got distracted by listening to a woman’s CD.
She had just given it to him, and her voice and her banjo just enthralled him.
That woman was Abby.
That’s all I remember. But I figured I missed … something. I did. It came near the end of the podcast. Krista asked Bela what the banjo had taught him about life. Bela said:
“It’s where I put my energy. I believe that everyone has a certain amount of energy in their life to devote to various things, and I’ve been putting my energy into my banjo most of my life. But I’m learning as much about life by having a child.
“Juno is a great teacher. I’m what you call a Type A psychotic musician, and I’ve lived my life up to now making music THE thing, the most important thing in the world, and in a way, I thought that was my job.
“But once you have a kid all of a sudden it’s clearly not the most important thing in the world, and I had a lot of growing up that comes with that. The challenge is now how to keep the commitment I made with this guy while keeping the commitment I had made to this girl – yeah, the mother of the Holy Banjo Emperor.
“That’s a challenge. But we’re figuring it out together, and I’m finding out that it’s OK not to wake up and work on hard music all day. I’d rather stop and watch this kid full of wonder.”
Bela Fleck with his son, Juno.
Bela discovered that early. I didn’t.
I’ve often told my friends in my Greensboro newsroom that I likened journalism to a jealous mistress. It’ll ask you to love her, but it’ll never love you back, I tell them. They laugh – or they may think “Damn, that’s stupid.” But I believe that tired cliché works to describe the hurly-burly, I-wanted-it-yesterday pace of any daily newsroom.
Journalism stole my time from Kath and my kids, and one of my professional regrets is that I allowed that to happen. I loved the adrenaline of journalism, the chase of the quote because I discovered good stories. But I lost precious time with my family.
I’ll never get that back.
With my new writing gig in higher education, I’ve slowed my professional life on purpose, and I now see how these small, seemingly pedestrian moments we all spend with family, friends and even strangers can make us so much richer, wiser and happier in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong. I still love the chase of a good story. But I also love a Friday night, in a darkened balcony, listening to the lilt of two banjos and having my wife remind me of something funny-dumb I did nearly 20 years before.
That brings me to a book. A friend of mine at the local Y recommended I read it.
He knew about Elizabeth — my fierce, funny, hard-working, petite, piano-playing 15 year old who loves whacking things with a stick. Yeah, Elizabeth plays field hockey. Anyway, because of Elizabeth, my friend turned me onto James Campbell’s new book, “Braving It – A Father, A Daughter, And An Unforgettable Journey Into The Alaskan Wild.”
I finished “Braving It” this week. I liked it. Sure, James Campell’s Aidan is a much more, shall we say, open to her family than my Elizabeth. But the book is chock full of memorable lines and poignant passages.
Like this one.
“Middle age is about coming to terms with what life is and not what you thought it would be.”
And a few hundred pages later, this one between Campbell and his daughter.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “All that walking and trudging, but now that we’re here it seems like it happened so fast.”
“A metaphor for life,” I said. “One day you’re your age and then you’re my age, and you wonder what the hell happened.”
Yeah, what the hell happened.
Where did the time go?
I ask myself that often. In time, Bela will, too.